I do this thing, every couple months. Sometimes it’s for an entire weekend, sometimes just an afternoon. I might be in a conference room, or in a van, or sitting in front of a computer. I’ve never really come up with a good phrase to describe it, other than “competitive puzzle events,” but that doesn’t quite convey the craziness and fun and addictiveness it entails. Take one part The Amazing Race, one part Games Magazine, and one part Not Killing Your Teammates, and you’ll be pretty close.
Puzzlehunt seems to be the term Wikipedia has settled on, although that’s only one part of this… hobby, I guess. But it’s where I came in, so that where I’ll begin. A puzzlehunt is, in brief, a competition in which teams of solvers compete to solve puzzles. Think word puzzles more than jigsaw puzzles, but it’s not just a collection of crosswords. Each puzzle resolves to a single word or short phrase. So even if you’ve correctly filled in that crossword puzzle grid or sifted out all the terms in that word search, you probably aren’t finished. Keep going, as Game Control likes to say. Some examples of this type of puzzle are online at the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 14 site, or last January’s MIT Mystery Hunt. Not all puzzlehunt puzzles are reproducible on paper. Teams have had to run around the MIT campus in the snow, recover clues from the bottom of a swimming pool, and play Ultimate Frisbee at midnight in the rain.
That there is another term that should be defined: Game Control. They’re the people behind the event, the ones who create the puzzles and manage the logistics. Odds are they’ve spent the past year planning it if it’s a weekend-long event, or at least several months for a shorter one. That’s coming out of their personal time, for the most part. Only a handful of puzzlers actually get paid for their efforts. Why, then, would anyone do it? Simple: someone’s got to, otherwise there wouldn’t be any events to play in.
The phrase “Game Control” comes from the other side of this… addiction, for lack of a better term. While puzzlehunts usually give you a lot of puzzles while you stay in one place, Games (with a capital G) feed them to you one at a time, in far-flung locations. How far-flung depends on the scope of the event. On-foot events exist and the locations are, obviously, within walking distance of each other. But the canonical form of a Game has teams driving a couple hundred miles, over the course of two days, with no rest breaks. Sometimes the route comes close to full circle, sometimes less so — the 250-mile route for The Mooncurser’s Handbook took us from Bellingham to Tacoma, WA. Puzzles are called Clues, and often take advantage of their location, either by requiring you to collect data from your surroundings, or just being thematically connected to the site. The most recent examples include Ghost Patrol and the World Henchmen Organization.
Not every event spans a full weekend, though. There are afternoon-length walking events (SNAP, DASH and BANG to name a few), there are one-day driving events (Shinteki is the most frequent of these) and there are at-your-own-pace online puzzlehunts (Intercoastal Altercations and The Puzzle Boat are two, although perhaps not the best starting point for rookies). The walking events seem to be the best place for new solvers to jump in; often the puzzles in these events, especially DASH, are targeted toward less-experienced teams. Upcoming events are listed at the Puzzle Hunt Calendar website.
And what prize awaits the winners of the battles of the brains? Bragging rights. Sometimes a themed trophy for the top couple of teams. Often, just the glee of seeing your team’s name among the top teams on the leaderboard, if there’s a leaderboard at all. It’s the chance to pit yourself against your cohorts and see who’s got the sharpest mental chops–at least for this time around.
For me, it’s not just my own love of puzzles that pulls me into this… lifestyle, let’s call it. I first met my husband while we were both working on the Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day. A few years later, he proposed during the opening clue of No More Secrets. Our wedding reception included a mini puzzlehunt for our guests: four puzzles and a final metapuzzle with individual prizes for everyone. Our son’s due date coincided with Microsoft Intern Puzzle Day 2009 (fortunately, he showed up a couple of days early). For us, it’s not just a fun time. It’s family time.