Microsoft Puzzle Challenge

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I was waiting for the puzzles to be posted before I wrote about this, but last weekend, I participated in the Microsoft Puzzle Competition and took second amongst the Michigan teams and sixth overall (out of 170), winning a $100 gift certificate to Best Buy as a result. (First prize was a non-iPod MP3 player and the grand prize (first amongst all schools) was an Xbox 360, which I probably would have ebayed.)
I was a little worried going into the competition, because the puzzles from 2004 weren’t that great — lots of leaps in logic, non-intuitiveness, and a meta puzzle that didn’t use the lower puzzles’ answers. Still, a guy I know in the physics department really wanted the Xbox and, having heard my stories about Mystery Hunt, asked me to do it, along with a guy we know in the math department. I asked around the CS grad students and found a guy in one of my classes who was interested, and we registered as Cryptic Orchids. (By the way, I’m really evil and didn’t tell them where the name came from until we had already registered.) I figured that even if the puzzles were terrible and unsatisfying, it would still be at least mildly good practice for the Hunt this January.
But it seems that the people at Microsoft have learned their lesson. With one glaring exception (which I’ll get to), this year’s puzzles were all pretty decent, and some of them were even good. A few of them I was able to backsolve — and was the only person at Michigan who seemed aware of this concept. One of the members of the “ground crew” (Microsoft employees who are physically on the campus and distribute the puzzles and make sure we’re having fun) was amazed that I had “thought of it.” I had to explain to him that it’s a tried and true method for long hunts.
There were 20 lower level puzzles, of which we solved 16, and one ridiculously long meta puzzle of which we finished about 40%. (The length of the meta puzzle was something that even the groundcrew complained about at the after meeting — only one team (from MIT) solved it.) My favorite were the following (puzzles are in pdf format — I’ll try to avoid spoiling the answers for those who want to try solving them):

  • Granera Parsley All Star Game (solution) — This was my fastest solve by far. When the puzzle came out, Sam was looking at it first and said, “Does anyone know how to read a baseball scorecard?” And I took the puzzle from him and solved it in about five minutes, earning us three bonus points for being the first to solve it amongst all teams.
  • Elementary, My Dear Watson (solution) — I didn’t solve this one quite as fast, but it was enjoyable from start to finish.
  • Mangled Works (solution) — Without giving away the twist, this was one of the few puzzles that our team actually solved as a group. Our “a-ha” moment came as a result of off-handed comments made by each one of us, at least one of which (mine) wasn’t intended to be a serious suggestion. That’s not to say that it was a great leap in logic — just that when I corrected Aubrey about a pop culture reference, I never thought it would lead to the solution until Sam combined it with something Tony said.
  • Don’t Drink and Derive (solution) — Just a simple, clean puzzle.
  • Sudoku (solution) — There are better Sudoku variations out there, but we did get a bonus point on this puzzle for solving it third fastest, so I should probably list it as one of my “favorites.”

And the glaring exception that I said I’d get back to? Avoid the Sharks (solution) — which really ought to be Avoid This Puzzle And Just Backsolve It, which is what we wound up doing. Because I disliked this puzzle so much, I’m just going to ruin it for you so you don’t waste any time on it. It’s a broken connect the dots puzzle, in which the connected whales supposedly spell “PODS” (which is questionable) and you have to recognize that the whales are orcas to get “ORCA PODS.” This was by far the poorest puzzle of the hunt, from start to finish, and the only one that I truly disliked from every point of view.

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