So this weekend I played in Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 14, which is part of a series of Puzzle Hunts. It was a total blast! I was in the Bay Area simulcast (meaning I didn’t have to go anywhere to do it; I think Seattleites had an on-site puzzle they had to do). Eleven friends and I formed a team called Disobedient Children. We spent from 10 AM Saturday to 5 PM Sunday solving a series of complex puzzles, which led to other metapuzzles, and so on. The puzzles involved math, language, pop culture, music, free association, visual thinking, logical deduction, social networking, and a whole bunch of everything.
We had already declared to each other that we’d be relaxed and just have fun–not too organized or worrying about the deadline. Some team members were only there for an hour or two, so our team was more like 7-8 people for the whole session (but people switched in and out). Two or three people stayed up all night, but I didn’t. We placed 13th of 24 teams, which we thought was great given our casual attitude, and the fact that we were competing against the best of the best.
Now, some of you know I’m a pretty good puzzler. These were some incredibly complex puzzles. These weren’t things like “name three capital cities that start with S”; many of the puzzles involved figuring out what the puzzle actually _was_. Like, you’d get a sheet of 27 pictures, and that’s it. All you knew is that you had to determine some sort of word answer for the puzzle, and the word could be anything. And the word answers for a set of puzzles might combine to make some other puzzle, but you didn’t know which ones belonged together and so on. That’s part of the metapuzzle.
Here’s an example of a first-level puzzle. I think it was called Star Chart. This puzzle was a jpg image. You had to print it out in four pages and assemble it into a giant page. Then you had a giant page with pictures of about 50 people scattered all over it. It was easy to see that they were celebrities, but it took four different people looking at them to identify around 75% of them. (Some were pretty obscure.)
Once you had many of the celebs identified, you had to realize that the placement of the pictures mapped to constellations. And then you had to use a constellation chart to ID the constellations, which all happened to be astrological signs. (None of this is given to you; you have to figure it out!)
And then you have to wonder why the pictures are grouped into signs. And you need to see that each constellation contains many actors from the same movie. By doing this, we ID’d six movies. The exact movies weren’t important, but they gave the insight to how to solve the whole thing. We spent some time trying to find a connection between the six films, but there wasn’t really anything.
The next aha was to realize that each constellation (astrological sign) contained precisely one actor with that sign, i.e. Glenn Close was in the Pisces constellation, and she was the only Pisces. Remember we started with just pictures–thinking of birthdays was part of the puzzle. So after checking lots of birthdays, you end up with six different actors who are the “representatives” of their sign.
And then you have to find a movie that contains those six actors. Once we had Glenn Close and Martin Short and some football player whom I forget, we found Mars Attacks. And that was the word (phrase) to enter into the solution box and score our points.
So we went from 50ish celeb pics in a seemingly random pattern, to that phrase. All through teamwork. Of the 55ish puzzles in the competition, I only saw two puzzles that individuals solved on their own; the rest required multiple types of thinking and discussion among teammates. For example, I’m the one who mapped the constellations and noticed the astrological signs; I could never have ID’d those celebrities. I couldn’t even get a single one. Apparently I can’t tell Demi Moore and Kim Kardashian apart. 🙂
That’s the kind of puzzles they are. Generally I was very impressed with the puzzle quality. Here are things I learned about myself as a puzzler this weekend.
1. I am unbelievably good at any puzzle involving the format of “name a word of X letters meaning Y,” often getting immediate answers. Up to 11-13 letters. Doubly easy if I have a few letters as clues.
2. Any word pattern puzzle falls into my superpowers, such as anagramming long strings and seeing words within words and so on.
3. If it’s just a substitution cipher, I can solve it fast. If it it involves anything more than that, I get crabby and switch away from the puzzle. (Luckily I had teammates who loved ciphers and codes, and I was more than happy to pass the puzzles off if they were beyond me.)
4. I’m great at filling in answers once I have an idea of what I’m doing. I don’t like the part where no one even knows what the puzzle is. I respect that some puzzlers love that state, but I don’t. I hate staring at a puzzle and not being sure that the next step is within my powers. Just a personal thing.
5. I discovered entirely new swear words while trying to map an undersea railroad. If there was an aha, none of us ever saw it.
6. Astrological expertise is burned into my brain from my younger days, and will never leave. Much to my embarrassment.
7. I’m very good at math, but I had teammates who were such geniuses that I left those puzzles for them. Probably some of them felt the same way about my word puzzle skills. (It was very flattering to be called over to several puzzle-groups, and asked to fill in the words that they couldn’t get–and being able to do it! Hooray teamwork!)
8. I can’t _not_ be competitive about these things. It was very hard to relax and enjoy the process when a puzzle made me mad. And then when I solved something, it seemed easy and trivial–so I downplayed my successes and inflated my frustrations. A personal failing, but it’s the way it is. I’m pretty sure I pulled my weight as a team member, but it sure didn’t feel like it at the time.
9. On a related note, I am unclear how my teammates didn’t kill me by about 3 PM Sunday, but I appreciated it. I liked every single person I puzzled with, which is crucial for having fun. I noticed that two people in particular made good puzzle-partners for me; our thinking complemented each other.
10. Man, I had a great time.
If this sounds fun, follow the links at the top and you can join a Puzzle Hunt with your own team. I will totally do this again.