The night hunt ended, Anand started making slides for wrap-up. He was going over them with me and I noted a blank slide towards the beginning with just the title “Design Philosophy” and nothing else.
“What is that slide?” I asked him.
“That’s where you’re going to talk about your design philosophy in running this hunt,” he said, as if that explained everything.
“My what? I don’t have a design philosophy. I just ran the hunt by the seat of my pants.”
“Yes you do,” he insisted, “and it led you to run the hunt the way you ran it.” Which led to us having an extended conversation about what this supposed design philosophy might be and what I was supposed to talk about. And it turns out, he was right — I did have a design philosophy, even if I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time. It also isn’t solely mine — it’s mostly a shared vision that most members of Alice Shrugged believe in. I just was granted the ability to make the final decision on things that did or did not facilitate said philosophy. (And to incorporate more baseball than usual into the hunt, which was a vision mostly shared only by Jason and Harvey.) Given how well-received our hunt was, I’m writing this down with the hope that One Fish Two Fish Random Fish Blue Fish reads it and considers many of these issues when designing the 2015 hunt.
As a preamble, a lot of this stems from my personal belief that the ballooning team sizes of recent years is a problem. We did intentionally bottleneck the end of the hunt so that large teams wouldn’t have an advantage solely based on manpower. Our release rate was designed such that a team should have ~15-20 puzzles open at a given time and no more (and maybe less), but that they should simultaneously advance through the story of the hunt at a faster rate. (And so puzzle release was done on a round-by-round basis — solving puzzles in the Mock Turtle round would not help you open puzzles in the Tea Party and vice versa. But once you advanced past the MIT round, you probably had three Wonderland rounds open at any given time… or you were approaching the end of the hunt.) There were some large teams that complained about this. To this, Alice shrugs.
Make the hunt fun for small teams – Too often, and we did it in 2004, the team that wins the hunt writes the next hunt only thinking about how their team works and how they would approach things. The problem is, the team that wins is usually a huge mega-team of 100+ people or a “super” team composed of cracker jack solvers. A small team of >10 undergrads who have never hunted before is, realistically, never going to win the hunt. But that doesn’t mean that you should discount their experiences. We had a handful of people on Alice Shrugged that had previously hunted on small teams, and listening to their thoughts was invaluable.
Small teams of undergrads are, in my mind, the heart of the hunt. The big teams that have been around for years are going to continue to be around, almost no matter what you do. By contrast, small teams of inexperienced solvers — teams that are mostly undergrads, who by the ASA charter ought to be the target audience of hunt — are only going to come back year after year if they’re having fun. These teams are also full of new solvers that will actually remember most of what they saw, as opposed to new solvers on large teams who tend to not really contribute much their first year or two because more experienced solvers just get to things first and faster.
Nothing was more satisfying than running into Nu Tau Epsilon in Lobby 7 at 4 am on Saturday morning, who saw me camped out as the Cheshire Cat where I was waiting to meet another team. They had, at this point, apparently only solved three puzzles (and eventually solved 12, calling in their last answer Sunday at 2 pm). But they were having a great time, they were quick to tell me, and were still actively working and solving puzzles. I suspect that this is directly correlated to our opening “MIT round” where I held the 24 puzzles in that group to some pretty strict testsolving benchmarks (2 hours maximum from our testsolvers, preferably under an hour). While it’s true that the larger, more experienced teams blew through these by early Friday afternoon, it didn’t hinder their enjoyment to have this opening round of puzzles (and Bumblebee Tune-A is pretty hilarious, even if it only takes you a half hour to solve), but it made all the difference in the world to the Nu Tau Epsilons and Duck Soup (the last team to reach the Jabberwock, I think).
We had 54 teams call in a correct answer this year. I think this might be a record. I want it to be broken soon and often.
As many teams as possible should reach a satisfying completion point – I think the Hell hunt of 2007 was the first hunt to stay open after the coin was found. This has been a refreshing change, both for teams that ultimately finish the entire hunt, but also for teams that just enjoy solving as many puzzles as possible before the weekend ends. We had eight teams finish this year — possibly another record? (Data is spotty.) The mantra “The hunt doesn’t end when someone finds the coin; it ends when HQ closes,” was repeated a lot amongst Alice Shrugged. I hope it gets repeated amongst Random as well.
In addition, this year we had the “hunt the Jabberwock” interaction which came after the MIT runaround, in which teams were given a deck of cards as a sort of substitute coin. 31 teams (out of 54 that solved a puzzle) reached this point, including two that got there just after 6 pm Sunday when we were nominally closed. In addition, we grabbed one team off the MIT runaround and let them have a Jabberwock hunting experience along with the last team to officially reach that point, just because we wanted to make sure they had that chance before we collapsed in a pile of our own exhaustion. We received a lot of great feedback on this — teams that knew they were never going to win the hunt were actually able to reach a satisfying capstone to their experience and go on a runaround that tied a lot of things together (i.e. the locations of the puzzles on the map). This was an intentional design choice and it worked as planned. Plus everybody likes getting stuff.
Remember that it’s the MIT Mystery Hunt – Emphasis on MIT. There are a lot of people who take part in hunt who never went to MIT. Many of these folks complained about Cards Against Wonderland having too many inside jokes or getting totally stuck on the relay puzzle because they don’t know the MIT courses. Well… too bad. If I were to participate in the Game at Stanford or the Scavenger Hunt at U Chicago, I expect that Stanford/U Chicago students and alums would be at an advantage. And that’s how it should be. So write puzzles that utilize art around campus, The Tech, Technique, or knowledge of MIT dorms. Make people get up and runaround and explore the various courtyards and other strange areas of campus. Utilize the fact that you’re at MIT when designing your story. Plenty of other puzzlehunts (DASH, BAPHL, etc) are designed for a universal audience. This is the only one at MIT.
Being on campus should be an advantage – A more general point that encompasses the above point, but with a slightly different angle about it. Out in California, there are a lot of “West Coast style” puzzle hunts that involve getting in a car and going from location to location to find all the puzzles. People who do these hunts refer to the Mystery Hunt as a “conference room style hunt” — and I’ve seen it remarked that “conference room” hunts are less fun because you could just as easily be at home in your underwear solving the puzzles.
Make that last statement not true. Give teams objects that they actually have to use to solve parts of the hunt. Hide puzzles in the first aid kit. (Incidentally, the safety office did not require us to hand out first aid kits this year, but since we had already written that puzzle, we actually had to go to MIT Medical and request them anyway.) Write runarounds that involve using things on campus. Utilize interactions. This isn’t MUMS — give people a reason to not just stay at home solving puzzles in their underwear. (And while you’re at it, do so while using the fact that you have the bulk of MIT’s campus as your staging ground with all of its hidden nooks and crannies.)
Events should be fun and encourage inter-team collaboration – Back in the day, there weren’t “events” but a mid-hunt party, where HQ would shut down and stop taking calls and all hunters would get together and just take a break and have fun. Eventually, this morphed into the party containing a puzzle… which in some hunts became a puzzle that wasn’t solvable at the event and kept teams competing against each other at all times, which tended to cut down the fun of the event. We had a rule: if a team came to an event, they were getting an answer when they left. We had another rule: if a person came to an event, they were going to have to work with people from other teams to complete whatever task we gave them. (I don’t want to even call them puzzles, because Cards Against Wonderland was literally just “Come play this fun variant on a popular game for awhile and then we will give you an answer.”) Focus on making the events fun, and leave the clever, brain busting puzzles for the rest of the hunt. We had a small amount of feedback complaining about the lack of real puzzles, but the overwhelming majority of people praised us for planning fun activities that encouraged socialization with people not on their team.
Give yourselves ample opportunities to have fun while running the hunt – If the team running the hunt is having fun, this will trickle down to solvers. We received a lot of feedback about how great it was to interact with us during hunt and how positive and supportive we were. And that’s because we were having fun ourselves. We enjoyed dressing up in silly costumes and so we scheduled a lot of that. (Maybe a little too much too early as Friday evening started to get crazy, but overall, I think it was good.) We were having fun with it and so were solvers. If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong. [This is probably good advice throughout the writing year too.]
Focus on what’s fun for the solvers not what makes the constructors look smart – During testsolving, we added a feedback slot for “fun” on our puzzles. This proved to be an incredibly useful tool in determining how to tweak a puzzle, or maybe even outright cut it. Novice puzzle writers especially often try to prove how smart and clever they are by trying to write puzzles that are too difficult and too sloggy for the solvers. “Oh, testsolvers got that right away, so I should make that more obtuse,” is a common gut reaction from new writers, but it’s the wrong reaction. If you’re writing the Mystery Hunt, that means that your team was good enough to win the Mystery Hunt, which means that you’re the cream of the crop of solvers. So don’t be afraid to take the metaphorical red pen to a puzzle that your testsolvers aren’t enjoying or can’t solve. A puzzle author’s victory is not when a puzzle is so clever and tough to crack that it’s only solvable via brute force and unchecked a-has; it’s when it’s satisfying and fun to solve. As I said to Boston magazine: writing a hunt is like designing a game that you want to lose. Let the solvers be the winners and then you’ll win too.
It all comes down to the puzzles – In 2004, we designed a hunt structure that was a departure from the traditional hunt and included many novel elements that hadn’t been seen before. We had objects and maps and a kickass runaround (finally online after 10 years). But all of these things were overshadowed by the fact that the puzzles were often terrible and underclued and broken and had answer words that weren’t words. You can have the most fascinating theme, the zaniest final runaround, the most well-designed costumes and props, the highest production kickoff, the most professional looking website, but if your puzzles are terrible, very quickly no one is going to care about the rest of this stuff. So do whatever you can to write good puzzles. It’s a bit of a science; it’s a bit of an art. It’s definitely a learned skill. If you’re a new writer, your first puzzle is going to suck — mine did. Listen to feedback and figure out how to make it not suck (which might involve throwing it all out and starting from scratch). Seek out the advice of more experienced writers. But don’t throw out the ideas of the novice writers, because they are full of new and outside the box ideas that keep the hunt fresh.
Mostly, just have fun. Writing a hunt is hard. Being in charge of a hunt is especially hard and often stressful, but if you have the right mindset, it’s also incredibly satisfying when it all comes together.