Mystery Hunt 2023

This is a retro-post for the Mystery Hunt 2023, for which I played a somewhat minor role on the organizing team (teammate). You can play at interestingthings.museum.

There is an ongoing list of write-ups about the hunt being kept at puzzles.wiki, and you may also be interested in the reddit AMA from teammate.

Puzzle shoutout list

Favorite puzzles

The obligatory list.

Puzzles I am an author on

Also a cog in the machine

One of the editors-in-chief from 2021 was also teammate this year, and in his recap on Fort&Forge he wrote:

I recall telling Brian (one of our directors) that weekly newsletters were a great way to keep less active members of the team en gaged with hunt, only to find myself getting all of my information about hunt from these newsletters. As much as I tried to pay attention to what was going on, it was only when I arrived in Boston this past week to help out in person that I fully understood the structure of what we’d built.

… which is basically what happened to me as well, to a lesser scale. I went from being a fairly enthusiastic writer in 2021 to a here-are-a-few-token-puzzles minion in 2023. I just didn’t have new ideas, in part because I used up a lot of ideas in 2021, and in part because my life in 2022 was a hot mess for personal reasons.

Better luck next time, I guess, if there is a next time.

On the bright side, I got to learn how to use grilops, and had way too much fun setting the logic-puzzle step of Flooded Caves. Here’s the first version of the 6/9 caves puzzle (that got nerfed like heck because it turns out to be way too hard to do by hand):

69

The puzzle-writing cycle

During the AMA I realized I didn’t explain last year what the cycle of writing a Mystery Hunt puzzle looked like, so I’m reproducing my answer from reddit as I figured it’d be of interest:

We used Puzzup to manage the puzzle-writing process. The list of statuses that a puzzle can be in is enumerated in (note: the set of statuses for teammate was slightly different, this is the 2022 list) https://github.com/Palindrome-Puzzles/puzzup/blob/main/puzzle_editing/status.py; here is an overview:

  • Initial idea: Authors submit an idea through the website.
  • Idea in development: Editors get assigned to the puzzle, and talk through with the author until there’s enough of a coherent plan/prototype to start really writing.
  • Awaiting answer: Editors assign an answer from the answer pool.
  • Writing: Author works on the draft of the puzzle until it’s in a ready state.
  • Testsolving/Revising: Puzzle goes through testsolve-revise cycle. In general, we require every puzzle to have two clean testsolves, so that’s the minimum number of testsolve sessions each puzzle will normally go through, but if the puzzle changes a lot (e.g. the initial draft was too hard or broken in some way) then there may be more. Each testsolver also rates each puzzle on a scale of 1-6 for fun and difficulty and provides feedback.
  • Needs solution: Author types up the solution completely, including things like break-ins or author notes or whatever.
  • Postproduction: Puzzle and solution are reformatted into beautiful typescript/HTML/etc. to work with the website. (This is often done by someone other than the author.)
  • Factchecking: Someone goes through the puzzle with a fine-tooth combo looking for things like typos, mistakes, inconsistent formatting, a11y issues like alt text, etc.

The amount of time this takes varies a ton from puzzle to puzzle (I imagine in a stddev > mean kind of way), mostly depending on how hard/complex the puzzle is.

Back to MIT

Hunt was in person again after three years! And it was so different from 2021 as a result.

The hardest part of this was a lot more work, and hence a lot more stress. At some point, I started bringing a heart plushie to campus with me for emotional support throughout the weekend.

It turns out teammate only has a handful of members who were still current MIT students, which meant I generally had to float around HQ a lot in case of some unexpected situation that needed an MIT ID card, like locked doors, or Athena printing, or needing to talk to MIT CAC, etc. I took the morning shift, so I ended up sleeping from 8pm-5am most days of the hunt, then coming to campus to unlock the Bush room at 6am. And then, since I wasn’t deeply involved with hunt or tech, while on call at HQ I was mostly confined to answering hint requests and the like for most of the day while more critical work was being done by the tech leads, editors-in-chief, and so on. So I ended up doing the field-puzzles-check (make sure all the location-specific puzzles are intact) multiple times as an excuse to get out of the HQ, which was a lot of fun (I found myself jealous I didn’t get to do Subterranean Secrets as a solver).

I also got designated as the delivery point in Boston for packages, so there was a week when my entire home was just overflowing with packages. Which I actually didn’t mind, because it was so cool watching all the props and physical puzzles and coins and so on trickle in. But it meant I had a lot of carrying stuff to do once the weekend came. Like three of the five monitors in the final runaround. :)

mh-ig

Of course, the hunt itself felt amazing in person. It’s been too long since I got to see the opening skit, or the crowd of solvers at wrap-up, or to barge in on teams chastising them for ruining Mystery Hunt.

But the best part of being in person was definitely getting to finally see all my teammate’s beautiful faces, some after many years, and many for the first time. I think this alone made all the extra work worth it, many times over.

(Also, the inflatable pickaxe from opening was really fun to swing around.)

Yes, the hunt was too hard, we know

Keeping this short because I don’t want to keep beating the extremely dead horse. The one thing I want to add is: I’m not convinced the issue was solely at the level of individual puzzles. Indeed, our testsolve process looked (to me) basically the same as in 2021.

Because there is no one person that testsolves every puzzle in the hunt, or even close. In an ideal world, you could do full-hunt testsolves, but we are simply too far from that ideal world in terms of the number of person-hours from unspoiled participants to pull this off. In other words, most individual puzzles I saw felt defensible (with the disclaimer I also have only seen a small fraction of the puzzles), and the problem was that the puzzles were on average too hard.

I think in hindsight, what would have helped was to be more vigilant at the scope of entire rounds about intended difficulty, rather than blaming individual feeder puzzles. Repeating from one of the threads on Reddit about the design of the Museum (the opening act):

We internally had labels for the round an answer was in, but the Museum was made of 5 rounds and the ordering of those rounds in the Museum hadn’t been determined yet. My sense is that each of the 5 rounds ended up with similar difficulty, which didn’t leave great options for which one to present first once it was time to decide unlock order. … In retrospect it would have been better to lock in the Museum round order earlier, or designate one round as specifically “this is the round teams will see first, make sure it is especially easy for Act 1”.

And that’s how Much Ado About Nothing ended up on the intro round, much to my horror when I found out on Friday morning.

There’s a quote from Chris Petey I really like that goes: the most competent people, with weak processes, will screw up. It’s not enough to say “teammate’s editors should’ve known better”: the Atrium round was in trouble long before the feeders were ever written.

Ending thoughts

tamemeat

Many hugs. Much love. Thank you teammate.

1 thought on “Mystery Hunt 2023”

  1. I finished up 4D Geo for my team and really enjoyed it! The first and third geo*’s both had a nice Evan Chen feel to them. :) I remember considering your Olympiad ranking system as one of the options for extraction before we got the fourth geo*.

    Like

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