Writing a Mystery Hunt


As has been obvious, I more or less gave up blogging in 2013.  This was closely related to the fact that in January of 2013, my team won the MIT Mystery Hunt and voted me as director of the 2014 Mystery Hunt.  As a result, all excess creative energy was spent on a project that I couldn’t talk about publicly… until now.  I have many many thoughts, but for now, I’ll start with a list of the individual puzzles that I wrote or co-wrote.  I plan on later writing a post about why we focused on the small teams and how I think that worked or didn’t work, with the hopes that the winners of our hunt, One Fish Two Fish Random Fish Blue Fish, take notes.  But for now here’s what I did…

  • The White Queen Meta (Solution) [with Harvey Jones]: I pulled off a backwards round about baseball and the Beatles.  I consider this a major coup of self-indulgence, and yet it was really well received.  I have but two regrets on this one: the White Sox are involved and the Twins are not and, if we really had had the writing prowess (which I don’t think we did) more of the puzzles would have been like Puzzle With the Answer WILLIAMS and presented as a solution where you actually had to deduce the title, instead of just including the “answer” as a red herring.
  • The Mock Turtle Meta (Solution) [with David Wilson, primary author]: This was dwilson’s idea initially — I just stepped in to help him flesh it out with the addition of GRAPHIN’->GRYPHON, FLEMINGS->FLAMINGO, and the much reviled FISH FOOD CAN->FISH FOOTMAN (which I stand by and still think is great).  There were many many e-mails sent back and forth between the two of us trying to get an answer phrase to fall out relating to fixing table schema (what a pun!).  Eventually, we settled on what we have… but somewhere in the post-production process, an old version of the meta was uploaded to the server and no one noticed.  That included the clue “How _____ keep their hair” instead of “How ‘these _____’ were preserv’d.”  The answer LOCKS fits in the latter, but doesn’t fit in the former — that was intended to be the answer word SIKHS long long ago in a meta puzzle far far away.  I really don’t know how this happened or why it was never fixed.  Mea culpa.
  • The Clubs (Caterpillar) Meta: I don’t have a lot to say about this one.  We needed a third MIT meta and this one came to me in about two hours.  The intent was to make a caterpillar out of the words.  During the running of the hunt, Anand pointed out that “HASH TAG” would have been a much punnier bait than TOBACCO.  Ah well — if I had done that, DON’T WORRY BABY wouldn’t have been an answer and Bumblebee Tune-A never would have happened.
  • The MIT Meta Meta (Card Deck) [with Dan Katz]: At some point early on, I decided that we needed a better capstone on the MIT round puzzles so that the puzzles associated with the highly backsolvable metas would serve another purpose and thus be more likely to be solved.  I came up with this idea of actually giving teams a deck of cards and adding the “Your Princess is in another castle” twist with the false beast.  (The beast was always meant to be Alice, but having the Jabberwock as the red herring wasn’t added until later.)  I roped Dan in to write the actual logic puzzle of the cards layout, came up with all the nonce words (MIMSIER… eh, whatever) and designed the cards once Teasha drew me a Jabberwock.
  • Bumblebee Tune-A (Solution) [with Laura Martini, et al]: I spent more hours writing this puzzle than any other by a very wide margin, and thus it is my favorite.  Mostly, I just wanted to sing a bunch of oldies a capella — the bee costume was a bonus.  I knew “Don’t Worry Baby” was sitting around as an answer word and started to brainstorm ways to use it.  When I learned that it was actually a B-side to “I Get Around” (despite being a much better song), I knew I had the angle.  The finance team gave me permission to spend $15 on a bee costume and we were off to the races.  The whole thing got more hilarious once I learned how to distort voices in GarageBand to make me sound more like a bee.  There was a period of about three weeks where I would come home from work and either arrange a song or record myself singing.  Major thanks to Martini for the many, many hours spent editing all the video together.  Amusingly, I heard a few reports of smaller, younger teams struggling with this puzzle because they had never heard of a B-side.
  • Technical Program Committee (Solution) [with Anand Sarwate, Jason Juang et al]: My official credit here is “a little help from” because I only wrote the one anagram/review about communism.  I did, however, talk through the initial idea with Anand.
  • Local Shorts (Solution): This puzzle was inspired by a Sporcle quiz written by Chris Morse.  The whole thing was set up and designed so that the Loons (i.e. one letter off from the Lions) would wind up on Minnesota because it’s the state bird.  Despite my easter egg, I heard no reports of this throwing anyone down a wrong trail.  Also, the Pi Kings are definitely my favorite.  (The Twine nearly made it in, but I was trying to avoid using the final S as a key letter.)
  • I Came Across a Japanese Rose Garden (Solution) [with Jason Juang]: This was actually originally conceived as a back-up puzzle when we made a final puzzle writing push.  When we had to move it to a different answer, Jason ran a bunch of scripts to determine the best Toyota makes that would use existing cartoons I had already drawn.  Yes, I know some of the colors aren’t particularly close.  I don’t have a good defense for that, other than… nail polish is strange.  Fun fact: I originally misread the name of “Here Today, Aragon Tomorrow” as “Here Today, Aragorn Tomorrow” before realizing that my crude sketch of Viggo Mortensen looked nothing like the region in Spain.
  • Now Let’s Create Melodies (Solution) [with Seth Bisen-Hersh, primary author]: Puppets singing parodies of songs done on The Muppet Show is actually all Seth Bisen-Hersh’s brainchild.  I just swooped in to make this an actual puzzle by constructing the unique crossing grids at the bottom of the puzzle to output the answer phrase.
  • A Rose By Any Another (Solution): I conceived of and wrote this puzzle in a 24 hour period while home for Christmas when another puzzle was failing to get any reasonable testsolves.  (Although yes, the fact that GTA is the genetic code for V is a great observation; the puzzle just failed to come together, unfortunately.)  As soon as I finished it, I pinged Jason and asked him to testsolve it.  Once he pointed out two bugs, I fixed it and sent it to a half dozen other people and the puzzle that went from idea to fully fact checked in the fastest amount of time was complete.
  • Round Tripper (Solution) [with Jason Juang and Harvey Jones]: Yes, I wrote one backwards meta puzzle about the Red Sox with an “answer” WILLIAMS standing in for Ted Williams.  I wrote another meta and purposefully included TED WILLIAMS as an answer so that I could write a proper baseball puzzle with Jason and Harvey.  I do not apologize for this.  I tried very hard to get more Twins players in this, but Puckett and Hrbek only faced people in All-Star games that they also faced in the regular season or World Series.  Carew and Killebrew are better for the pie chart identification anyway.
  • Puzzle With the Answer LYNN (Solution) [with Anand Sarwate]: A few people commented on how similar this puzzle was to Stage Lines from 2012.  That’s because Stage Lines was one of my favorite puzzles from that hunt.  So, I flipped through the Guide to the Enigma, found a flat type (backswitches) that would work for this puzzle structure, pinged Anand about co-authoring it with me, and after much work with some python scripts, we had a puzzle.
  • Puzzle With the Answer LOVE ME DO (Solution) [with Elaina Present]: This was originally Elaina’s idea, but given the many instruments I own, I kind of took it over.  I even bought and taught myself how to play the toy accordion.
  • Puzzle With the Answer I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND (Solution): Inspired by ARML relays, this is the only puzzle I wrote that got a 1 for fun.  But it also got a 5 for fun from another team.  I think this is closely correlated to how much you know about MIT Course Numbers and your willingness to run up and down the Infinite Corridor a few times.  I don’t really apologize for an event on MIT’s campus being more fun and accessible to those who are of college age and/or actually attended MIT.  If you’re going to participate in the MIT Mystery Hunt, you’re going to have to accept that the event is primarily for MIT students and that you might be at a disadvantage if this doesn’t describe you.
  • Puzzle With the Answer A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Solution): I wrote a curling puzzle.  Are you surprised?  Thanks to Feldmeier for being the other skip’s voice.  I showed him some footage of the Brier to demonstrate what he should try and sound like and the response was: “yeah, i can do this, although watching the video, i really couldnt tell what the hell they are yelling.  should i just put my nuts in a vice and record the ensuing sounds?  with a canadian accent of course, eh.”
  • Puzzle With the Answer GARCIAPARRA (Solution) [with Chris “Scooby” Lyon and Laura Martini]: Martini wanted to do a State Fair based bring-us-food puzzle.  Editors were non-plussed and I came up with the GeoGuessr tie in.  And then somehow I was responsible for hacking the GeoGuessr interface to generate challenges that only drew from major US cities, exactly one per state with no repeats.  Omnigraffle is a godsend for generating that map — and Scooby, who came up with the list of foods, swears that green Jell-O is the state dish of Utah.  Setec (my money’s on Ann) won the best food award for the wild rice pudding.
  • Thank Heaven For Little Girls (Solution) [with Anand Sarwate]: When I was in Chicago filming the Yuki Nagato puzzle, Aaron Bader, Anand, and myself were lamenting that an answer word like BABY WIPE was never going to get assigned.  Somehow, walking through the Art Institute of Chicago, Anand and I came up with the idea of basing a puzzle around popular baby names.  At one point, it was going to involve diapers, but that fell through.
  • Hole Wizard (Solution) [with Harrison Bralower, primary author]: Using drill bit sizes and generating a Solidworks file that overlays on a crossword grid was all Harrison’s idea.  But a crossword grid was needed and with the addition of Kevin Der on our team, I hadn’t had a chance to flex those puzzle writing muscles yet, so I volunteered to write a hole themed grid for him.
  • Magic Mushrooms (Solution) [with Brandy Buckingham (primary author), Dan Katz, and Jason Juang]: My authorship on this one was pretty minimal — I wrote the slitherlink.  Oh, and I guess I generated all the pdfs and designed the mushrooms.
  • The White Queen’s Record/The Duchess portion of the final runaround [with Usman Akeju and onsite organization by Jonny Surick]: Usman had an idea for an audio puzzle that worked meshed very well with my idea that the White Queen round give you a record that you would have to figure out how to play on the final runaround, old school Mr. Wizard style. (In fact, I tested the idea of manually playing the record with my cousins’ kids over Thanksgiving and they were bowled over by the old school analog technology.) And so, working from Paris and San Francisco, Usman and I collaborated on creating an audio track of us simultaneously talking over each other in opposite directions. Meanwhile, Jonny Surick, king of the runarounds, gathered all the random objects, including a snow globe I bought at the Minneapolis airport on my way to hunt. You can see Lucky solving the record in the highlight video we link to.  A major shout out to Mike Dixon of LatheCuts.com for producing the records for us at a reasonable cost — they turned out great!
  • The Walker puzzle (solution) [poem by Anand Sarwate], Killian Court (solution) [poem by Anand Sarwate] and Building 37 (solution) [with Rob Rucinski, primary author] puzzles in the MIT runaround: I wrote these during our fall retreat. They are quite intentionally unsolvable unless you are on campus. (Mostly… I think the information to solve Killian is available on line.)

And finally, here are some puzzles I didn’t actually write, but played a role in producing:

  • The Humpty Dumpty Meta (Solution): I lent Hanna a pile of random objects to use in the photo, including my curling broom, the skull from 2004, and an ostrich eggshell that was decorated to be Humpty, which later broke.  I foolishly attempted to super glue the egg back together and let me tell you — nursery rhymes don’t lie.
  • A Mad Cocktail Party (Solution): The brainchild of Usman and Anand, I played the Butterfly with a think Sarah Palin-esque accent.  When a California group testsolved it, krobinso didn’t recognize that it was me.
  • Stalk Us Maybe (Solution): Primarily Jenelle’s baby, I am someone to be stalked in this puzzle.  You can actually find my fact in an old post on this blog.
  • The Revenge of Yuki Nagato Episode 00 (Solution): This puzzle is almost all Chieu.  I was in the movie and I still don’t understand the references to the source material.  But I am far too amused by the scene of Anand and Karen sitting on the bench swing.  Once you see what I’m referring to, you won’t be able to unsee it.
  • Cruciform Heraldry (Solution): I came up with the rather punny clue phrase for this one.  That’s all I did.
  • The Circle of Life (Solution): This was originally my idea on the day we got together to write quick back-up puzzles, but I outsourced the construction to Chris Lyon.  It was supposed to be a back up to A Mad Cocktail Party, where it had a much more fitting answer word.  However, once Anand and Usman finished their puzzle, this one sat on the back burner, despite being adored by testsolvers, until it was revived when another puzzle went down.  I found Queenie Leonard for Chris so that it would be doable with the new answer word and painstakingly watched the scene in 101 Dalmatians with the cows multiple times until I was certain I had screenshot Princess correctly.

2 responses »

  1. You might be amused to hear about the false direction Plant went down on Hole Wizard. We never quite got that it was “just” a diagramless crossword (and solved the final meta soon enough that we didn’t spend a huge amount of time on it). Our theory was that each of the clued words appeared on the appropriate row/column as indicated by the number drills, *in the “random” letter grid*. But wait, you can’t actually find those words there! But our theory is, well, these are drill holes, right? So two words can cross with different letters, and the latest letter in the alphabet (largest hole) is the letter that ends up in the grid.

    We then ran into some words that violated this hypothesis, and made it even more complex by figuring that the same was the case for the number drills: ie, that a word whose clue is a narrow number bit could be on any wider row/column too.

    The actual puzzle is quite elegant too, but we just were convinced that that physical property of holes had to be relevant…

  2. Your comment about SIKHS makes me happy — Codex called in SIKHS as a backsolve towards the end of Sunday, and the person who called me back was interested in how we came to the answer SIKHS:).

    Great hunt, and I’ll look forward to hearing more of your thoughts from the inside!

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