Monday, May 16, 2011

Local puzzle hunts, part 1: Puzzle whats?

I've played through two puzzle hunts in the past two weeks: DASH and BAPHL. I want to talk about these events, and in fact I've been asked to compare them (hi Julia!). But I also want to talk about puzzle hunts in general, for the benefit of people who have never tried them. This leaves me writing a post which is more than usually disorganized.

(Some people would ask "More than usual?")

Okay. Audience breakdown. Who of you out there have never done a puzzle hunt, and have no idea what I'm talking about? Hands up. This is your post.

(The rest of you, don't go away. I will come around to you next post.)

A puzzle hunt, or puzzle extravaganza, is -- a bunch of puzzles, usually with some narrative frame, whose answers all tie together at the end into one big puzzle. Typically it's a "live" event; the game designers act as game-masters, verify your answers, and hand out more puzzles as you progress through the hunt. (Although you can usually re-play old hunts online; they get archived.)

These things are generally tuned for groups of people. You can tackle a hunt on your own, but the kind of lateral thinking and brainstorming involved in these puzzles works much better with many eyes. A hunt may involve running around a city looking for clues, or sitting in a room staring at puzzles, or (most commonly) a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

The great grand-daddy of puzzle hunts (within the eastern US!) is the MIT Mystery Hunt, about which I have written before. The Mystery Hunt is a marathon-scale event -- it consumes an whole weekend, and a serious team might have forty or sixty solvers coordinating for that entire time. (I am not so serious about it: I sleep. Not all of my teammates do.) This post isn't about the Mystery Hunt. This post is about events that four people can finish in an afternoon.

My message to you, o person who has never done a puzzle hunt, is that you should try a puzzle hunt. They're fun! Find a few friends and sign up. The next DASH isn't for a while, but there are many events like this in various cities...

...Here's where it gets complicated.

Puzzle solving (like interactive fiction, and this is exactly not a coincidence at all) is a very enculturated pastime. By which I mean, puzzles are built on a shared set of conventions: how clues are conveyed, what can be left unspoken, what kind of puzzles players are familiar with, what kind of puzzles players are good at. The whole point, after all, is to induce players to think of the right thing without either telling them too much (giving the secret away) or too little (making the game unsolvable). If the players aren't all on the same page, they will fail.

And this is a multidimensional page, not a simple "how good a puzzle solver are you, a scale of 1 to 10". Being good at crossword puzzles doesn't mean you're good at cryptic crosswords. Being familiar with cryptics doesn't mean you're good at that crazy one where the words all bounce off angled mirrors in the grid, and by the way, we're not telling you where the mirrors are.

(But my teammate said "Oh, it's a mirror one" and started sketching in the lines. He'd seen 'em before. I hadn't.)

Just as in interactive fiction, players are dropped into a deliberately fuzzy range of possibility. You know certain tools (mechanics, approaches) are likely to be useful. Others are a stretch but might turn up. In other places, you will have to invent a new solving idea, but it will be similar to something you already know. Then a few things will be the craziest ideas the inventors could come up with. And you don't know which is where! Pick up a puzzle and start experimenting. No path is guaranteed, but if you're not familiar with the terrain, you're lost.

I don't want to sell a scare story. Newcomers do enter these events, and some of them do fine. But it's much smoother if you enter with more-experienced friends, and learn by watching. (Believe me, if you like any kind of puzzles, you will not be dead weight. I was crap at working out the mirror positions, but I helped with the crossword clues.) Or look at some archived hunts -- links in a minute -- and see how the common puzzles work.

...Did I mention complications?

Just as with any enculturated activity, there are many cultures. NPL puzzles are not Mystery Hunt puzzles, for example. There's plenty of overlap (due to the many people who take part in both) but they still have distinct ranges of what's-common-and-expected.

Better example: I heard about the Boston Hub Crawl, which turned out to be the same day as BAPHL. The web site describes it as an afternoon of "digital photography, puzzlesolving, teamwork and finding out how well you know your way around Boston". Same sort of thing as I've been talking about? Yes and no. The Hub Crawl's focus is on locating things and taking photos. The puzzles are light teasers that point at the target locations. This year's BAPHL happened to also have a photo scavenger event, but that was a lightweight intermission -- a rest break from the puzzles. You see the difference.

I do the Mystery-Hunt-style hunts, because I enjoy the scary evil puzzles -- and because that's what my friends enjoy, obviously. (Causality runs all ways.) Teaching you the common baseline knowledge of these hunts would be another complete blog post in itself. (Not currently planned, but ask if you're interested!) The very short form is: Figure out what you're looking for, then figure out what order it should be in. The answers to all the puzzles will fit together into the final puzzle (what we call the "meta"). There. You're set.

So what do you sign up for? As I said earlier, old hunts are often available online (because nerds love collecting). You can view the puzzles, and peek at solutions, for:

These, of course, are just a tiny fraction of the puzzle-related events that go on. Take a look at the Puzzle Hunt Calendar and see what's up in your area.

If you're not up for running around a city, you should check out Puzzles and Answers Magazine (affectionately or frustratedly known as "Panda", for reasons I hope you see). Foggy, the editor, sends his subscribers a complete puzzle-hunt -- of the "sit in a room and work it all out" variety -- every other month. (See the free samples PDF.)

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Brett Boessen (May 17, 2011 at 8:48 AM):

What, nothing going on in the DFW area?

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