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And now, the other side of the wall

Last week I talked about some of the puzzle events I play in. I also help run them, which includes creating the puzzles. And boy oh boy, you can pick up some really strange skills and knowledge when writing puzzles.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve had lots of exposure to some very commonly used ciphers: Morse code, Braille, semaphore, ASCII encodings,  binary representations of numbers that correspond to letters of the alphabet. These turn up frequently in puzzles, although these days there’s been a trend to at least disguise that it’s an encoding-based puzzle. But after a time, you get to recognizing at least some of the most common letters; perhaps even being able to read them off without needing to look them up on your pocket geek card.

I’ve also had cause to look up more obscure knowledge. Do you know which words in the English language don’t use any vowel other than Y? I did at one time (at least, all the ones in my electronic dictionary.) What do the number ranges in the Dewey Decimal cataloging system mean? I needed to know that too for a puzzle I was creating a couple of years ago. Convert numbers from base-3 to base-10 without using a calculator? Yeah, I’ve got that.

While I’ve never quite gotten the hang of anagramming words in my head or deciphering cryptic crossword clues, I have picked up the habit that many authors have of seeing something unusual and thinking, there’s a puzzle in there somewhere. My personal favorite that I created using environmental data is from couple of years ago. One night I noticed that every other pillar in one of the Microsoft garages had both a row/column designator, and an arrow pointing north. I turned that into a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure game with a secret message embedded in the only successful path.

Sometimes, what we authors think is elegance falls flat with the solvers. [Note: One near-universal technique in writing puzzles is indexing, where you’re given a phrase and a number, and you take the letter from the sentence that corresponds to the number.] One year I designed a puzzle with a set of clues and answers, where the first hidden message came from indexing by the length of the answer into the clue, and then a second message came from indexing by the length of the clue into the answer. I thought it was brilliant. Everyone else… not so much. I still believe the design itself was elegant, and that the failure was just in my implementation. Well, we all have our little delusions.

It’s simultaneously much easier and much harder now that most solvers have smartphones – literally the entire internet in their pockets, as long as they stay within their carrier’s coverage area. It only takes a moment to look up the track listing for a collection of CDs, or the intersection of two particular interstate highways. I suspect that the greater availability of wireless connectivity is fostering an increase of puzzle styles that depend less on knowing (or hunting) trivia, and more on insight. To me, those are the ones that require more work to develop, but give the solver more satisfaction when they finish it.

As an author, you walk a narrow line in creating these puzzles. You want the insight to be just hidden enough so that the solvers feel smart in finding it, but not so obscure that they lose interest in looking for it. One philosophy I’ve heard is that there should be an inverse correlation between the amount of time needed to catch the insight and the amount of time required to do the rest of the puzzle. If it takes a long time to figure out what you need to do, then actually doing that work should go more quickly, and vice versa.

There are probably as many theories about how to create puzzles as there are puzzle authors. Everyone’s got a different feel for what’s “too hard” or “too easy,” and that line is also influenced by the size of the event you’re creating. For a weekend-long event, a 45-minute puzzle is considered quick. For a five-hour walking event, that same puzzle is one of the long ones. In the end, though, the best thing to hear from someone who’s solved your puzzle isn’t “That was easy!” or “Wow, that was really hard,” but rather, “That was fun.” It’s a battle of wits between author and solver; one that in the end, the author intends to lose.


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I am a Puzzle Geek.

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.

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Bizarro Boy

We’ve got a new game Kiddo has been playing recently. For lack of a better name, we’ve been referring to it as the “How About” game. Rules are simple: parental unit says “How abouuuut _______?” and Kiddo responds with either an opposite or an associated word. For example, we’ll say “How about down?” and he’ll say “How about up?” Or, from last night: “How about rice?” and his response “How about beans?” If we happen to hit one of his preferred responses, he’ll either giggle or just say “YES!”

He’s got some cute ideas of how things pair up. Many of these are reversible.

(Us) How about… (Kiddo) How about…
Up Down
Inside Outside
The Outback (aka Dad’s car)      The Prius (aka Mom’s car)
Preschool Home
Mommy Daddy
Ernie Bert
Cookie Monster Elmo
Big Bird Elmo
[Any other Muppet] Elmo
Elmo YES!
Irwin Dawn
Kenny Dana
Red Orange
Green Orange
[Any other color] Orange
Orange YES! (or occasionally Red)
Grandma Grandpa
Uncle Nick Uncle Tim

…and many other pairs.

The puzzler in me is pretty sure there’s one in there somewhere just waiting to come out.