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I had a great time at the Mystery Hunt this year! It ran a little long—the coin wasn't found until 6pm Sunday, after the announced shutdown time. Most of the time when the Hunt runs long, though, my team tends to start burning out and losing enthusiasm around Sunday afternoon as we get frustrated with loads of puzzles we can't solve, but this time we were still excited and going strong when the Hunt ended. My only complaint really is that it seemed like our available puzzles were pretty sparse Saturday afternoon, and then a lot of puzzles dropped overnight, leaving us with a ton of puzzles on Sunday and not much time left to do them. If they'd unlocked some of them earlier, we would have had more to do on Saturday and more opportunity to get to the rest. I suspect that Setec was overreacting to how short their Hunt was in 2017—they wrote too little that year, so they tried to write a longer Hunt this year, and overcorrected. I'm not complaining, though; although it would have been nice to see the whole Hunt, I had a good time the whole weekend, and I personally think that late afternoon / early evening Sunday is the best time for the Hunt to end.

The holidays theme was a major success, in my opinion. It allowed for a variety of thematic territory as the different holidays have different associated concepts and motifs, while still maintaining an overall coherent feel for the Hunt. On average, the puzzle flavortext did a pretty good job tying in the puzzles to the theme of the holiday they were associated with. (Also, the flavortext did a good job of providing clues for the puzzles themselves, which is something I enjoy a lot, though perhaps I'm the only one on my team who feels that way.) And the plot—the molasses flood threatening the holiday towns—not only was Pretty Hilarious but also felt motivated by real life (the 100th anniversary of the Boston Molasses Flood) in a way that is pretty rare for Mystery Hunt themes. And it allowed them to recognize Martin Luther King Day within the theme of the Hunt, via a community-service event. I'm also fond of the structure where they start with major holidays like Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and then as you get deeper into the Hunt you get more oddball ones like Arbor Day and Bloomsday.

The main structural innovation this year was the organization of the metapuzzles: each meta was based on puzzles from two rounds, and you had to figure out which puzzles from each of the rounds fed the metas. I really like the gimmick where "figuring out which puzzles form the meta is part of the puzzle" (well, I like it from time to time, anyway); but in previous Mystery Hunts using that gimmick, to the best of my recollection, there were specific clues to meta assignment (e.g., the Little Black Book in 2009). Here there was nothing to go on except solving the metas and seeing which answers fit. The unlocking order helped a lot with that: the first meta used all the Christmas puzzles and some of the Halloween puzzles, and so solving that one made it possible to rule out some of the Halloween puzzles for the next metas, and so on. The structure of the Hunt thus complemented the structure of the metas themselves really well. Although we never got far enough to actually make use of it, the extra April Fool's metapuzzle was a neat way to use this meta structure to the advantage of the Hunt's plot/theme, as well, so it really made the Hunt feel like an overall well-connected unit.

My team never saw endgame, but I think the twist of having the manhole cover be hidden in the winning team's own solving space (April fool!) was brilliant and inspired.

My own experience of solving this Hunt involved a lot of answer extraction: there were a lot of puzzles that I didn't really work on in a substantive way but that I just dropped in on at the end and helped people figure out how to get a final answer out of the work they'd done so far. In several cases, they already knew how to extract the answer and just didn't have enough letters to read off the final phrase, and I came along and wheel-of-fortuned out the answer from the letters they had. Although that means there weren't a whole lot of puzzles that I worked on from beginning to end (other than, like, most of the crosswords, I guess), it means I got to see and make contributions to a lot of puzzles, and I like feeling useful in that way. And wheel-of-fortuning out answer phrases like that is something I like to think of myself as good at, so it was nice to see I've still got it.

Now, some comments on specific puzzles:

  • Tough Enough. A clean and simple puzzle of a classic Mystery Hunt genre—"here's a list of clues; what do the solutions have in common?"—that I only joined in after the gimmick was found. The pattern was that each word could swap its first two letters for a single letter to become a different word, like CASUAL becoming USUAL; and then the answer extraction was to treat that as a cipher where a pair of letters encodes a single letter (so CA represents U) and decode the strings at the bottom of the page like that. And it almost makes me wonder if this puzzle would be solvable without solving any of the clues. Like, I can certainly imagine a Mystery Hunt puzzle where you get a string of letters and have to figure out that it's a cryptogram where each letter is encoded as a bigram, and then you solve it like a cryptogram. I guess in this one it's probably the case that you don't have enough data to solve it as a cryptogram without word boundaries given, but it comes pretty close to being a puzzle where you could just skip straight to the answer extraction

  • The Christmas/Halloween meta. Except for one thing (which I'll get to), this meta does a great job of filling the role of being the first meta that introduces you to the structure of the Hunt. It combines the Christmas and Halloween themes in an elegant way in its flavortext and answer. It uses all of the Christmas puzzles, so it eases you into the thing where you have to figure out which puzzles from a round feed which meta, since you can see the pattern in the Christmas answers and look for similar answers in the Halloween round; and it takes some trial and error to figure out where to put which Christmas answer in the grid, and so the same trial-and-error method works for figuring out which Halloween answers are part of the meta at all. It's not hard to backsolve answers once you know how the meta works, which I think is good for an early meta. My one quibble is this: the meta depends heavily on the OCT 31 = DEC 25 joke, which means that any teams that don't happen to have someone who's familiar with that joke are at a definite disadvantage. There are always a lot of Mystery Hunt puzzles that depend on things from geek culture, of course; but for the relatively-simple introductory meta that establishes the structure of the Hunt to rely on familiarity with such a specific meme seems like it makes the Hunt as a whole less accessible to people who don't happen to be familiar with it.

  • Send Yourself Swanlumps. A great physical-object puzzle that didn't have to be a physical-object puzzle—you can solve it just fine from the pdf—but having the physical book just makes it that much more awesome. This puzzle does a great job of embedding multiple puzzle datastreams in the text, and has a hilarious title to boot.

  • Tales from the Crypt. A quality variety cryptic (which required us to go back and forth cross-referencing between multiple copies of the grid to solve). I like how this one uses the flavortext and title to both effectively clue the puzzle's gimmick and link it to the round's Halloween theme. Also, in writing this up, I just now noticed the erratum on the clue for 4-across. That makes me feel better about not having understood how the clue worked when we were solving the puzzle—it's because there was a typo in it.

  • The Halloween / Valentine's Day meta. I barely worked on this puzzle, except for helping to wheel-of-fortune out the final answer. I just think I'M HIRSUTER might be the best pun in a puzzle answer I've ever seen.

  • Herbert West, Animator. This puzzle was pretty hilarious, and it does a great, understated job of making the puzzle answer thematic to the puzzle itself. STAY-PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN is an eldritch evil taking the form of a lovable cartoony mascot, and the puzzle itself does the same thing in the opposite direction.

  • The Thanksgiving / President's Day meta. The turkey-pardoning tradition was a great hook for a puzzle concept to link these two holidays. In researching the turkey names for this puzzle, my teammates also found the names of the backup turkeys selected in case the original turkey is... unsuitable? unavailable? too morally corrupt to pardon? Anyway, I assume one of the turkeys is sent to Azazel. My only contribution to solving this was to suggest using the presidents pictured as numbers to index into the puzzle answers, and then getting lucky in guessing which years we were missing and thus which puzzle answer went with which column of presidents. Actually I got very lucky, since I was wrong about which years we were missing (I guessed that the puzzle would use the turkeys from 2002 to 2006 and 2012 to 2016; I was wrong about that, but fortunately in a way that didn't affect which column the turkeys we already had went in.

  • Romance Languages. I loved the concept of this puzzle—the pun linking the Romance languages with the "five love languages" is too good to resist, and hats off to the puzzle author for coming up with it. Unfortunately I got so carried away with the pun that I jumped to the conclusion that the way the words were to be entered in the grid was as a Latin square (get it?)—i.e., a grid with each item appearing exactly once in every row and column. The data as given is incompatible with a Latin square, since charla de almohada and besar are both Spanish and both in the same row, but we got so attached to the Latin-square idea that we convinced ourselves (through misuse of Google Translate) that one of them must be Portuguese somehow; the fact that elogio actually can be either Spanish or Portuguese gave us just enough leeway for us to think that was possible. So Allen and Alya and I spent a while trying to solve the grid as a Latin square, and failing, and eventually we failed long enough that Ricky solved the puzzle in parallel with us before we could have the realization that it was the Latin-square assumption that was wrong.

  • Shah Raids. A fun and straightforward puzzle that uses a gimmick similar to that of a puzzle I wrote for a HRSFA puzzlehunt back in the day.

  • Peripathetic. Another cute puzzle, nicely thematic to its round, that I only joined at the answer-extraction phase. Looking at the solution now, I see there was an element to this puzzle that we never noticed—the years embedded in the mazes, intended to indicate a year in which the congressional district existed. We just assumed that all the districts in the puzzle were meant to represent the current districts. That works for all of them except two, and the boundaries of NM-03 in 2004 aren't that different from the current boundaries, so I didn't even notice that it didn't match. And of course Pennsylvania was different, since it was redistricted while the Hunt was being written, but I recognized the district's shape and figured maybe they had just not changed the puzzle when Pennsylvania redistricted. So there's a puzzle we actually did solve while missing an entire step.

  • The Your Birthday Town interaction. This was a hilarious excuse for some lightweight in-person puzzle solving, and the plot twist that the gift box was empty that the April Fool was behind everything was the just the right amount of plot for the Mystery Hunt to have. And Dan Katz's performance as the Mayor/Fool involved an excellent use of Ed Wynn voice.

  • Far Out. This puzzle is ridiculous nonsense and I love it. There are all these conventions and standards associated with crossword puzzles, and it's refreshing to realize that a crossword where the grid entries are nonsense like ISN'T A D.A. and IRRITATED TATTOO and AREAETTE is still solvable in the same way.

  • Touring the Nation. I love cryptic crosswords where the clues have a theme—in this case, all the clues contain the names of states. I figured out the gimmick (that the clues have the wrong states in them) pretty quickly—the hook was the clue that mentioned Utah! instead of Oklahoma!. I appreciate the care that must go into constructing clues like this: it's not enough to just write clues that work for each state and then swap the states around; it also has to be the case that there can be only one state that you can swap back in to make the clue work. Anyway, this was also a well-executed stunt puzzle, where the solution depends on material that the Hunt writers have gotten published somewhere outside the Hunt itself.

  • Things. Another puzzle where my only contribution was wheel-of-fortuning the answer, but I'm very proud of this one. Allen told me the puzzle was about song lyrics and gave me the string W__REIB___STH__AIN_, and I stared at that for a little while and saw WHERE I BLESS THE RAINS, and told Allen to call in AFRICA, and I was right! Not bad for 3am.

  • Clued Connections. I went into this Mystery Hunt hoping for an Only Connect puzzle, and I got my wish! The mini-puzzles were mostly fun and cute; I was highly impressed that Setec apparently actually got Victoria Coren Mitchell herself to read some of their clues! I was also pleased by the inclusion of a missing-vowels answer extraction in one of the mini-puzzles. But the real winning thing about this puzzle was the connecting wall, of course—a solidly constructed wall with some appropriate red herrings, just like a proper wall on the show. Overall I think this puzzle has too many steps—the Vigenere cipher seems kind of tacked on, since really what the answer to this puzzle wants to be is just the final connection—but presumably that wouldn't do as an actual puzzle answer for meta reasons, and I'm glad it exists, so I'll happily take it as is.

  • Marching Band. A very challenging variant on the Marching Bands crossword type; it had us stumped for a while and I'm very proud that Malia and Noah and I eventually pushed through it. Overall I really liked this Hunt's flavortext cluing, but I don't think "clap on the ones and threes" effectively clued the answer extraction for this puzzle. That said, the correct extraction was a pretty natural one, and I don't think the flavortext led us astray for long. I am a little embarrassed at not getting the answer extraction myself, though: I wrote down the letters where the marching band crossed itself, and wrote down the letters of the squares the band didn't enter, and neither of those spelled anything, so I asked Reid if he could figure out the answer extraction, and he noticed that the letters I had already written down spelled ANIMANIACS from top to bottom.

  • Sage Advice. The last puzzle I worked on this year. Andrew, Cat, and I (and some other people) worked on the first grid, the Some-Assembly-Required variant, while Seth mostly solved the others. I'm grateful that the clues for the first grid were mostly really easy, since fitting the pieces into the grid was the main challenge on that one—both from a puzzle-solving standpoint and just in terms of operationalization, since we had a ton of tiny paper cutouts that we were trying to stack on top of each other to keep track of where the words went in the grid. I did more X-Acto Knife cutting on this puzzle than I have on all previous Mystery Hunt puzzles combined, I think. Once we'd finished the grids and read off the answer extraction instructions, I set about cutting out the rings and rotating them to find the final answer, and eventually read it off just a minute or so after Setec announced the coin had been found.

Other puzzles I worked on and liked, but don't have specific comments about: Nobel Laureate, Spinning Tops, Theater Pieces, A Vexing Puzzle, Bitter Kittens Cross the Pond, the Valentine's Day / Presidents' Day meta, Insider Trading, No Shirt, Middle School of Mines, Climate Change, Chain of Commands.

Thanks to Setec for an excellent Hunt—I wish I'd been able to do more of it!

(And now, it's time for another holiday: back-to-school day!)

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