17 January 2007

First off let me say congratulations and thank you to the Bombers for putting on a clean, professional, enjoyable hunt. I know from last year just how much effort goes into the little things, and the Bombers had very few errata, and although they had some puzzles I'd call broken, they didn't have any actual significant errors. That's really much harder to do than it sounds.

My initial response to the hunt was that I was a bit disappointed, but in retrospect I've realized that was mostly because I had unreasonably high expectations. It's been 2 years since I got to solve a Mystery Hunt, and during that time I've learned so much about puzzles and gotten so into them. Plus this team was full of puzzle writers whose work I greatly admire. Before hunt I went through all of Dan's puzzles from previous years and they'd gotten better each year. And Puzzle Boat was amazing for the work of one person. Somehow I came into things expecting the best hunt ever: clean, huge, totally innovative, etc. It wasn't really a fair expectation, and the more I look back on it the more I realize it was a very good hunt, despite my initial disappointment. Furthermore, I realized that some of my frustrations with the hunt were due to its not being the optimal hunt for me or my team, but it was better aimed at other teams (smaller, less student-ish, more interested in pop culture).

The best thing about this hunt to me is that it solved the Arms Race Problem. Over the past few years solvers keep getting better, and hunts keep getting longer. Writing a clean hunt that lasts until Sunday noon is increasingly impossible. Plus teams that don't get to see the whole hunt feel disappointed. The Bombers took a different approach. They front-loaded the coolness, and did their best to encourage teams to keep hunting until they saw the end. I think this will be a model for how future hunts will work, and I think it's a great model. Had they gone the other way and written a 140-puzzle hunt life would be miserable for the next few writing teams. They really kept the average team in mind, and deserve great credit for that. After last year's hunt's bottlenecks made life quite sad for the middle-tier teams, I'm thrilled that the Bombers made a great hunt for middle-tier teams.

There were also a lot of other highlights. The activities attached to the metas were a great idea and a lot of fun. From Berkeley we only did one of them (the Illuminati card) but we had a blast with that. The meta-meta was the best meta-meta ever. Really, it was that good. As I'll explain in a future post, there were a lot of individual puzzles that I liked a lot. Furthermore, they did a great job putting accessible stuff at the beginning for inexperienced teams. I hope that doing stuff like that will build excitement among new people for the Mystery Hunt and for puzzling in general.

And I really can't stress enough how professionally the Bombers handled everything. From the error-free nature of the hunt, to how they dealt patiently yet professionally with the Round VIII debacle, to their putting solutions up immediately after wrap-up. That last one is one you really can't understand just how impressive it is until you write a hunt yourself. I was very impressed with how on-the-ball they were. Kudos!

Now for some of the things which I didn't enjoy so much. My main complaint was that in general things felt inelegant. Just counting the number of sin puzzles you solved, instead of having metas for them; long long videos; flavor cluing in long paragraphs; answers that weren't very much like words; putting extra clues or instructions in for puzzles that could have stood alone; etc. Not every hunt can be as tightly and elegantly structured as Monopoly, but I hope that future hunts can try to come closer.

I spent a lot of time working on the metas. I'm definitely partial to the "pure meta" type (see MHs 02,05,06) over the "shell meta" as used here (see MHs 03,04, and Puzzle Boat). However, what I really don't like is the shell metas that don't use their answers in an interesting way. So, Round IV meta (magazines) was great. It had minimal excess information, it was easier as you got more answers, and the aha! felt rewarding. Something like the Round V or X meta, on the other hand, I think is pretty terrible. They used nothing interesting about the answers, it didn't get much easier as you got more answers, and wasn't satisfying to solve. Plus in Round X there was tons of extra information that you weren't sure if it was useful or not (the former jobs). I really didn't like the videos being attached to the metas. Cluing flavor text is sometimes a necessary evil (cf. Rite Awaits Myth), but 5 minutes of tons and tons of extraneous random information with the occasional hidden hint is excruciating. So basically, I know I can't expect to have "pure metas" every hunt, but I hope that in the future "shell metas" are more like the Round IV meta, and that they don't come attached to videos.

The rate of puzzle release was just too slow for our team. I hate to complain about this, because I know our hunt was much much worse in this way, but I hope that future teams can improve on both 2006 and 2007 in this respect. Although my team was half the size of any team I'd been on before, it was very hard to get dibs on puzzles when there were only 5 or 6 available at any given time. Had that number been 8 or 9 it would have made all the difference. The release mechanism worked perfectly in Puzzle Boat where teams had half a dozen people, but it needed to be speeded up for Mystery Hunt. We need to go back to stuff more like the Monopoly/Matrix/Normalville and less like Bandits/SPIES/Evil.

The mix of puzzles also didn't work well for us. Although the individual puzzles were good, the total mix meant I spent a lot of time working on not the sort of puzzle I'd prefer to work on. There was less interesting pattern recognition than usual. There was way too much pop culture. We knew that there were going to be fewer dorky puzzles and more pop-culture, but I wasn't also expecting so few word puzzles. Puzzle Boat had lots of great word puzzles. The word puzzles that were this hunt were very good, but our most 733T people always got to them too quickly. The ratio of IDing stuff to answering crossword-style clues was much too high for my liking. Also, for the MIT Mystery Hunt, starting out with a round of pop-culture and a round of sports was somewhat inappropriate.

Anyway, despite those complaints, I did enjoy myself a lot. And I think I'd have enjoyed myself a lot more if I were on a 25 person team, or if i liked pop culture, or if I had never gotten to see a whole hunt before. And I know there are a lot of teams that fit those profiles, and I salute Bombers for writing a hunt aimed at a different group. Hopefully in the future people will be able to please everyone, but that's notoriously hard.

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