How Puzzles Work


So, Mystery Hunt is over. I typically post a wrap-up about it somewhere - I used to do it on LiveJournal, where there was once an active Mystery Hunt community, but that's semi-dead, and I've not really found what you could call an obvious replacement. So I'll do it here, for a somewhat odder audience.

And anyway, I don't have a huge amount to complain about - this was a well-run Hunt that I have very few issues with. So instead I figure I'll point at a couple of puzzles I did a large amount of work on and enjoyed and try to give a sense for the general audience of what's fun or interesting about these sorts of puzzles. Links are to puzzles. If you for some reason want to solve, you should probably do so without reading my comments, but my comments do not explain the solutions (which are linked in the upper-right hand corner)

Some basic overview - there are basically three things you do in a puzzle: the a-ha, the legwork, and the extraction. The a-ha is the moment when you figure out what the hell is going on in the puzzle. The legwork is when you solve all the clues, fill in all the boxes, identify all the pictures, and otherwise use your understanding to fill stuff in. And the extraction is when you figure out how what you've filled in turns into a short phrase or word.

To use the last puzzle I solved this year - one I solved only because one of my readers who also Hunts made a comment about a Simpsons/Doctor Who puzzle, which let me know that the half of the puzzle that was making no sense was Simpsons references - here's how the basic steps work.

Here's the puzzle.

The two a-has are realizing that every clue both references a Doctor and a Simpsons couch gag. This is lovely, if you solve a lot of puzzles. The couch gags can be tied to episodes, and the Doctors provide a set of numbers. What we're probably going to do is what's called indexing into the answer. So for that first clue, "My dad made us all dress up to look like the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album. He even got the rest of the town to be there, though that one old man with a wooden cane looked a bit out of place," we have the couch gag from the episode "Bart after Dark," and the First Doctor. So we take the first letter of BART AFTER DARK and get B out of that clue. And we similarly get letters for every other clue - so the one that mashes up the 8th Doctor with "The Great Money Caper" takes the T, because T is the 8th letter.

All that's just legwork - identifying Doctor references and looking up couch gags.

Often a puzzle like this also requires sorting the answers somehow. (The usual name of this type of puzzle is an ISIS puzzle - Identify, Sort, Index, Solve. That is, identify the objects, figure out how to put them in order, get a letter out of each one, solve the puzzle.) So in this case you sort by the order of Simpsons episodes and, voila, you get a useful phrase that tells you the answer to the puzzle.

Not every puzzle works that way - ISIS is just one type. Others are devilish crosswords or other odd things. But for the most part, the three steps of figuring out the pattern, bashing away at the stuff, and extracting the answer are there for most puzzles.

So, four that I particularly loved this year.

Intersecting Personalities

One of the things that's important to realize about Mystery Hunt is that the puzzles look insane to everybody on first glance. But a lot of what appears to a normal human being to be a completely unreasonable and difficult challenge is, in practice, something that's perfectly reasonable once you've seen half a dozen similar puzzles over the years. There are a lot of tricks that show up a lot, and a fair amount of what constitutes skill at these sorts of puzzles is being good at recognizing those tricks when they show up. Often the hard part is figuring out what to do, with doing it being a matter of patience more than anything.

This was one of the first three puzzles released, and was one where I ended up contributing very little except for the two major insights. The first thing people do with something like this is try to identify the photos, which is the correct decision. I'm absolutely rubbish at that, however, and so I moved to the other bit of fun, which is trying to figure out what's up with the phrases. That broke fairly easy for me when I looked at WE DITCH WEB. With BEW running backwards at the end and ITCH right before it, I saw BEWITCHED with an extra letter, which is a common enough thing. (You're trying to get a word or phrase, and so things where every clue yields a single letter are really nice.)

So the assumption to make at this point is that the photos represent actors and actresses from the shows annagrammed at the bottom. Fair enough, and as people better at identifying shit did so, I noticed the second big breakthrough, which was that the actors had all appeared in two of the shows listed. (I believe it was Tina Majorino's double appearance on Big Love and Veronica Mars tat clued me in)

It's not a particularly flashy puzzle, but it's a good first rounder. If you're trained to look for the sort of weird stuff Mystery Hunt requires, the bits jump out fairly fast, and, even better, when you have the right idea it quickly confirms itself by yielding further results. Once you find one anagram or one actor with a pair of shows it's not hard to find more - so you know you're on the right track. One of the most infuriating and not-fun things that can happen in a puzzle is when you get the right idea but get discouraged because your attempts to use the right idea don't yield enough fruit. So it's a prime first-round puzzle. It falls quickly, and unlocks more puzzles in doing so.

Stage Select

This Hunt had puzzles land in my wheelhouse at an alarming rate. This one was a Mega Man puzzle, and worth comparing with the Mega Man puzzle from the previous year's hunt, which was a gruesome slog that required scads of copying information onto another sheet of paper because they hadn't even bothered to format the puzzle so that you could print it and work on the sheet you printed.

This, on the other hand, was a marvelous trivia-based puzzle with, again, lots of nice confirmation along the way - first as you notice the words that refer to Mega Man robots, and then when you notice the robot names filling the colored spaces on the grid. Another one that fell quickly (this can't have taken us more than twenty minutes) and gratifyingly - the first round had a bunch of very satisfying puzzles like this. It's a fantastic example of how to do an easyish pop culture puzzle with a solid extraction that's nevertheless more interesting than a straight ISIS.

Safer Sephiroth

In many ways the most bizarre tapping of my wheelhouse I've ever seen in a puzzle - a video game/occultism puzzle. Someone else - Anna, actually - pulled off the important step of identifying which cartoons went with which Final Fantasy games and thus what the ordering mechanism was, and then I proceeded to notice the preponderance of Kabbalistic words in the dialogue. This produced the second time in my Mystery Hunt career in which the rest of the team has simply stared bizarrely at me as I proceeded to straightforwardly bang out leaps of logic that they simply had no sense of. My favorite bit of dialogue of the hunt.

Teammate: Is "Light" one of the words we should be counting?
Me: Tough to tell. There are, above Kether, the Veils of Negative Existence, Ein, Ein Sof, and Ein Sof Aur, the last of which translates to "Light Without Limit."
Teammate: Yeah... I'll assume no negative existence.
Me: Suit yourself.

I do wonder how this one did for people for whom the Western Occult Tradition does not qualify as "in their wheelhouse. There's some cluing that points to the Kabbalah, but it's surely a rougher route than my approach of just going "wait, the word crown appears way too often here. And there's the word Foundation. And a lot of Victories and Beauties and... ah. Of course." The biggest hiccup was the fact that the standard translation I know uses Splendor for Hod and Mercy for Chesed, whereas the puzzle prefers Majesty and Kindness.

For others this was apparently one of the harder ones in the Hunt - it took an average of six and a half hours between people getting the puzzle and solving it. We actually contributed to this, but largely because we unlocked it late on Friday night and shortly before I quit to go to bed. I first made any serious effort to look at the puzzle the next morning, and it fell very quickly after that - had Anna and I been equipped to look at it when it came out, we'd have pushed the average solve time down significantly.

For me there's a real joy in a puzzle that juxtaposes very different concepts (video games and occultism), and uses things in weird and unusual ways. I find something wonderfully surreal about just casually drawing on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life to solve puzzles - like every letter of the clue phrase is idly poking at the divine energies of the universe. You soar straight from Malkuth to Kether, and all you get for your instant ascension from the mundane world to the holy unity of all in the form of God is the letter I. It's the perfect metaphor for puzzling.

Diplomatic Victory

This was a pure solo solve for me, taken out in about an hour on Sunday. I only have two genuinely pure solo solves in my Mystery Hunt career - there are a couple where I've done a large majority of the work, but only twice have I sat down on my own with a puzzle and just knocked it out. This one was particularly satisfying - I've been playing a lot of online Diplomacy over the last month and a half, and so it was once again a case of "hello wheelhouse."

Here I found the logic puzzle aspect terribly satisfying - both in terms of figuring out which sets of messages went with which round and in figuring out who was and wasn't telling the truth in a given round. If you play Diplomacy, there are a lot of cheerily ludicrous outcomes (I love when Turkey and England collaborate to convoy a Turkish army from Smyrna to Belgium), and the British press always ostentatiously lying ("We want no part in the war...") is similarly fun. Diplomacy ends up having enough interesting subtleties to produce neat logic puzzles about exactly who did what. And the extraction - binary encoding of letters - was standard and didn't unduly add crap to the puzzle.

What's really nice here, though, is that the puzzle uses Diplomacy well and fairly. It's a game about clever lies and betrayals. Figuring out who's lying and who's telling the truth is a fundamental part of the game. Nothing tells you to start keeping track of that, but when you're looking for something to do with the puzzle it's an obvious thing to try. And the puzzle unfolds nicely - as you go, you quickly realize there are no obvious alliances or plans for victory - everyone is kind of entertainingly spinning their wheels, and changing between honesty and falsehood regularly and without reason. So in the absence of a sane game logic, the particulars of who's doing what every turn stand out, and once you realize England always lies the puzzle solves itself. (This is another bit of puzzling standard operating procedure - you see a representation of five bits, you assume it's binary encoding numbers.)

All in all, a wonderful hunt full of clever bits like this, and a refreshing lack of puzzles with too many steps (what blighted last year's hunt) or with particularly bizarre leaps of logic (there were a few that I looked at and went "wait, really?" but not many). Easily in the top three I've ever participated in, and a real pleasure to spend a weekend on.

Now back to writing.


Unknown 6 years, 5 months ago

I spotted the first trick to Intersecting Personalities too, when I knew the first actress was from Bewitched (normally I am rubbish at picture IDs) and the anagram just leapt out at me. But it took longer to spot the second stage.
It took us either twelve hours or twelve minutes to solve Safer Sephiroth. (Someone did the chapter IDs in no time, but couldn't see any further. I came along the next morning, saw the hidden message, did some reading and got the answer almost straight away.)
Didn't even see either of the other two, so I must go and look at them now...

In passing, I will note that there are three "small" puzzle hunts run by Australians (SUMS, MUMS and Cisra) which are held over a week rather than a weekend and which are slightly more accessible/less intimidating than the MIT Hunt.

And if I can be cheeky, I'll sneak in a plug for my own puzzlesite/magazine ( We're in a bit of a transition state at the moment, so it's not clear, but if you try the button for "Issue 24" you should be able to find some puzzles that don't ask you for a password first!

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Daibhid C 6 years, 5 months ago

Your analysis of how puzzle-solving works strikes a chord; when Mum and I are listening to Round Britain Quiz on Radio 4, it quite often happens that I'll say "Okay, I know what this is about, but I don't know the answer", and once I've explained that, she'll get it. I've got the sort of mind that can do the "a-ha!", but she's better at the legwork because she knows more stuff. (Unless the puzzle is about Doctor Who or something.)

One of the things that's important to realize about Mystery Hunt is that the puzzles look insane to everybody on first glance. But a lot of what appears to a normal human being to be a completely unreasonable and difficult challenge is, in practice, something that's perfectly reasonable once you've seen half a dozen similar puzzles over the years.

That's another thing that strikes a chord with an RBQ fan. I remember there used to be a Radio 4 sketch show with a recurring bit where Stephen Frost played an RBQ contestant whose answers were stream-of-consiousness nonsense. And until then it honestly hadn't occurred to me that this was what "Okay, Little Ted was in Play School, which had a round window, and a bullseye is another word for a round window, so..." sounded like to the uninitiated.

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Anton B 6 years, 5 months ago

Oh yes Round Britain Quiz is great. I love it when (and it's usually pop culture references that do this) the teams are completely stuck on something like, for example,'names of all the actors who played the Doctor' and I'm laughing and shouting at the radio. Only then to be followed by some impressive erudition on opera or geography clues where I'm humbled into silence.

Of course if we're talking stream of consciousness nonsense (and Doctor Who references if we invoke Web of Fear) you can't do better than 'Mornington Crescent' the popular round on BBC radio 4's comedy quiz 'I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue'. For those not in the know this can be an impenetrable source of bewilderment as to why the studio audience are applauding, sharply intaking breath and laughing their socks off simultaneously.
I'll attempt to describe it.
The contestants take turns and each turn usually involves saying the name of a London Underground or Tube station. (The title - Mornington Crescent is itself the name of a notoriously abandoned station) The rules are never explained but sometimes arcane sub rulings such as 'Bank Holiday Service' or 'Oxford Circus is wild' are invoked. This goes on with each station name eliciting a response from the other panellists and the audience. Sometimes 'moves' are disputed, e.g. "Can he do that from Piccadilly?" or "No, no the District line westbound is closed on Sundays" and the chairman must make a ruling.
The game continues in this manner until a contestant successfully reaches 'Mornington Crescent', everyone agrees this is fair, he or she is congratulated on their cleverness and the chairman rules the game over.
The joke of course is that there are absolutely no rules for playing Mornington Crescent. Each turn is just a totally random station name and any reaction it gets is either for it's comedy value (names containing innuendos such as 'Cockfosters' are a sure source of cheap laughs) or the spirit with which the contestant enters into the conceit.
I think you probably have to listen to a few to get the most out of the gag as it relies on the humour of repetition and the 'in-joke' but I hope I've done it justice here.

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Ross 6 years, 5 months ago

I was under the impresison that the one rule to Mornington Crescent was that you were only supposed to name "Mornington Crescent" on the turn immediately before your opponent was going to do it.

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Anton B 6 years, 5 months ago

That's only when playing Gentleman's Agreement rules.

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BerserkRL 6 years, 5 months ago

The first thing people do with something like this is try to identify the photos, which is the correct decision. I'm absolutely rubbish at that, however

Google's new image search function makes that a lot easier.

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Abigail Brady 6 years, 5 months ago

It's so notoriously abandoned that I used it the other week.

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Daibhid C 6 years, 5 months ago

Oh yes Round Britain Quiz is great. I love it when (and it's usually pop culture references that do this) the teams are completely stuck on something like, for example,'names of all the actors who played the Doctor' and I'm laughing and shouting at the radio. Only then to be followed by some impressive erudition on opera or geography clues where I'm humbled into silence.

They seem to be getting better at the pop-culture ones. I remember in the last season one team (Northern Ireland, I think) got a Doctor Who related question almost as fast as I did.

(Except the Scotland team, who infuriate us by not seeming to know anything. If it's pop-culture they're doomed, but they don't do very well with the highbrow stuff either.)

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Triturus 6 years, 5 months ago

I had a friend at University who was sure he'd worked out the rules to Mornington Crescent. He used to take out a tube map to work out his 'go'. God only knows what rules he came up with. I don't think he found out that it wasn't a real game until years later.

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Anton B 6 years, 5 months ago

Yeah I had an acquaintance who attempted to get a bunch of people to play it at a party one evening. He didn't tell them the 'secret' and those of us in the know derived some pleasure, in a kind of 'Emperor's New Clothes' way,from watching people pretend they understood the rules. However I remember feeling this rather missed the point of the game as played on the radio show. It is never done as an exercise in being one up on people not knowing the rules. It is rather a more inclusive comedy that celebrates everyone being in on the gag.
There's a parallel to be drawn here with Doctor Who's obsessive/possessive fandom versus its inclusive pop culture afficionados. But I'm too tired to develop it.

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Triturus 6 years, 5 months ago

It is a bit mean to deliberately exclude people from the joke, I agree. Reminds me of the Go Johnny Go Go Go Go LoG sketch.

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peeeeeeet 6 years, 5 months ago

Fang and Vanille! OTP!!1!

Ahem, yes. As you were

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Daibhid C 6 years, 5 months ago

But the only way you get in on the gag in the radio show is if you figure it out for yourself. It never explains. (And according to the Clue Bible it may have been originally invented in the pub after a recording for precisely that "one-up" purpose - although the Clue Bible goes to some effort to not actually come out and admit the game is made up either, so that section's a bit vague.)

Apparently when people write in asking for the rules of Mornington Crescent, they get a reply saying the full rules are too complex to send through the post but just remember it's the same game we all played as children. This usually prompts another letter saying "I don't remember ever playing this as a child" which gets a similar reply, but maybe with a bit more of a nudge in the right direction.

And then the third letter from the same person is usually something like "Last week Tim went to Goodge Street when Barry was still below the parallel. Surely he should have been in Nid?"

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aaron 6 years, 5 months ago

I can offer some background on some of these puzzles (since I was the primary author on three of them)

The Simpsons - Dr. Who puzzle was actually an emergency puzzle. The puzzle for that slot failed the writing deadline, and then the backup puzzle failed too. I got the idea of using couch gags from the answer word, and googling around for people named Sullivan led me to Dr. Who. I know nothing about Dr. Who, so we brought Dave on to do that part. This is a puzzle that I wish we had more time to make spiffy. We probably could have really improved the presentation with more time.

Safer Sephiroth actually had to go through a lot of revisions. It turns out without some explicit cluing (first letters of the Final Fantasy phrases spell Sephiroth's Book) it was not getting testsolved. I actually was at my wit's end and almost abandoned this puzzle entirely, but Chieu stepped in to salvage it, and I'm glad she did, because I'm happy it made it in.

(most people should probably skip this paragraph, unless you really like Kabbalah)
As for the choice of English words, this is something I agonized a lot over. I chose majesty over splendor because, the translations I'm familiar with often use splendor for Tiferet. Majesty seemed more explicitly "not Tiferet", although to be honest, there really isn't a good English word for Hod. I never really thought about how to translate this word into English before this puzzle. Chesed could just as well been mercy. The word I usually hear for it is "loving-kindness" but that's really awkward. I hoped that if people picked up the more obvious ones like "Crown" and "Wisdom/Wise" they'd be able to figure out the rest of them without too much difficulty. None of our testsolvers had any knowledge of Kabbalah. I was probably the only one on our team who did.

Diplomatic Victory is one of the puzzles I was super pleased about how it turned out. The idea for the puzzle came after Erin and I were talking about how it was impossible to give away some answer words. ARCHDUKE OTTO was constantly getting rejected. Later that day I came up with the idea of Diplomacy, and formulated the basic idea of how it would work. I was extremely excited about it for several reasons. The first was it fit the answer word perfectly. The second was even better. I had really wanted to write a puzzle with Joel, a former roommate of mine, and I knew he liked Diplomacy. So this fit right in his wheelhouse. It was a blast to write it with him and laugh about how ridiculous the game played out. (Turns out it's really hard to make everyone sane given the constraints... and keep everyone alive through 6 years.) We designed the puzzle to be fairly easy for someone who knows Diplomacy, but getable in about 3-4 hours for someone unfamiliar with the game.

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AJD 6 years, 5 months ago

I don't think the Mystery Hunt LJ community is that dead.

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Anton B 6 years, 5 months ago

@Abigail Brady It's so notoriously abandoned that I used it the other week.
Whoops! My mistake. I was born and raised in London but haven't lived there for a while. It was always closed in my experience.

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peeeeeeet 6 years, 5 months ago

One of the things I like about Safer Sephiroth is that puzzle aside, the comics are amusing in their own right. The FF universe is often earnest to a fault, so I love it whenever they're jerks to one another.

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davidglasser 6 years, 5 months ago

There in fact was a Tube-wandering puzzle in the Hunt, too! None of the routes went through Mornington Crescent, though :)

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