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2008 Washington Post Hunt - Repost

Reposting this from my old Vox blog which has now shut down: 

I've followed the Tropic/Herald Hunt since I was a wee laddie, hoping someday that I would get to do it.  I remember reading about it in GAMES magazine as a kid and thinking, "Wow... this looks cool!"  However, it never seemed worth the cost to fly down for an event that was only three hours. Well, as luck would have it, Dave Barry and crew chose to host one in my backyard, so I was eager to finally participate.

I enlisted teammates Jack Reda, Chris Guthrie, and David Forrest to join the team and they were fired up about the whole deal.  Our team was Boneless Chicken Cabaret, the same name of the all-chicken improv group that Jack and I have performed in for quite some time in venues across the country.  Ironically, two years we performed at the Miami Improv Festival, so that had to be some sort of karmic goodness.  And we were voted third best all-chicken improv show in Northern Virginia, so we had that going for us.

Anyway, having spent quite some time reading all the recaps on the Miami Hunt site, I knew what preparation was needed beforehand. So, my teammates and I spent much of Saturday night reviewing the map and clues in the hunt edition of the Washington Post Magazine, because success in the hunt meant quick recall during the frantic endgame.  Not realizing right away that a drawing of a giant badger eating a kielbasa also appeared on the map could mean the difference in winning and missing out completely.  Well, it turns out it paid off greatly (more on that later). 

Finally, to round out our preparation, I whipped out copies of the puzzles from Shinteki Decathlon 4 (a wonderfully fun event which I had attended) and showed them to my teammates.  Shinteki is an all-day long puzzle hunt in San Francisco and the puzzles are much more intricate and complicated than the Hunt puzzles, with the possible exception of the end-game. Anyway, they loved the puzzles and I think it fired them up for the actual hunt.

Despite the rain, there appeared to be several thousand people in attendance, which was great considering it was the first time anything like this had been done in DC.  Turns out, in Dave Barry's intro, he found out that quite a few teams from Miami had flown up just for this event.  It became more and more clear as the intro went on that this event has a huge cult following in the South Florida area.  So much, we learned later, that the organizers had tried to create a clue that required some slight local knowledge in hopes that the Miami teams wouldn't sweep the prizes.

Now onto the puzzles. If you're familiar with the hunt, you know that each puzzle leads to a number, and each number then references a clue in the Post Magazine.  Three hours later, a final clue is revealed which leads to a mad race to the finish.  Traditionally the initial puzzles are pretty simple and meant to be solved at a casual pace, and the endgame is more complicated and requires rapid solving skills.


The official recap of the Post Hunt is here.  It's an excellent summary of the event.  To fully simulate the event, they even have a Flash Application that rains on you while you read the puzzles.

We solved the first five puzzles pretty easily.  It took us a little over an hour.  Here are my thoughts on the puzzles:

Fortune Cookie puzzle:  Clever to have a taste-dependent clue.  This was tied to a fake ad in the Post Magazine, which we had noticed the night before.  When we tasted the cookies, we couldn't really place the taste, but knew it was something familar.  One teammate was saying NUTMEG, NUTMEG!  Evidently his taste buds were burnt off during a childhood dare involving hot oil and a blowtorch. Finally, we remembered the movie ad for Coconuts, and we immediately placed the flavor.  Side note: coconut-flavored fortune cookies are really good. 

Presidents Race:  At every Nationals baseball game, the presidents race across the field in between innings, so it was great to incorporate this into the hunt.  They were joined by a male, antlered ruminant.  The order of finish was deer, Washington, Lincoln.  We got "buck" right away, but we initially thought it was a hint toward using paper currency. However, the announcer kept saying "Time For a Change" so we quickly reworked it into Buck, 25, 1 or $1.26.  I think this was the easiest puzzle. 

Library:  When we got to the Carnegie Library, we immediately recognized this as the building from the Second Glance puzzle from the Post Magazine.  We felt the goal was to find differences between the photos and the actual building.  Jack noticed that all the V's in the building were U's in the photos, which gave us VVV or 555.  This was confirmed when another V on the building remained a V on the photos. Ironically after the event we found out that there were large red signs in front helping people arrive at this. 
We never saw them because the crowd was so big.  It was lucky that the signs didn't say something like "Add 100" or "Ignore VVV, the real answer is Nutmeg" or something like that.

Chinatown:  Volunteers were handing out sheets with Chinese characters full of non-traditional translations.  There were three symbols on the side of the
giant archway entrance to Chinatown, which translated into "Too small, think vastly bigger"  We looked all around for bigger characters before realizing that the arch ITSELF was drawn as a Chinese character, whose translation was "Angry Men"  This lead us to 12 for our answer.   I thought it was very clever to have something so simple as the answer.  Turns out this clue was one of the hardest for people to solve.

Comics:  There were three standup comics, each riffing on a different subject: crocodiles, elementary school janitors, and penguins. 
Volunteers were also handing out the Sunday comics (here and here) for people to read.  Turns out each subject referred to a particular comic in the paper.  And then if you looked carefully in those comics, you found three separate numbers.  This clue didn't really require any insights but I thought it was neat that they had the artists create these comics months in advance in order for them to appear in the paper.  Very cool.  Plus, it was very funny to hear the exhausted comedians after three hours of repeating the same material over and over.  One comedian even told a cleaned-up version of the aristocrats joke.

After solving the puzzles, we had five cryptic sentences:

  • (All you need to do is remove eds from the middle, and the solution is right in front of you!)
  • The answer for you begins for me.
  • The first letter is the 14th letter and the third letter is the 13th letter!
  • Seek letters that end with a PS.
  • If second comes after first, what comes after third?

In past years, the clues didn't really mean anything.  They were only used as a way to conceal letters or words for the final puzzle.   But something felt different about these.  It seems as if we were going to actually be using the clues in their entirety.

So, then it was wait around, eat, and try to figure out anything in advance of the final clue.  During this time we made the following observations, which really helped us in the endgame:

"The answer for you begins for me."  This could mean FORMER or FORMED.

"If second comes after first, what comes after third?"  Chris figured out that this was HOME.  Great job!

"Seek letters that end with a PS."  LIPS?  CAPS?  NAPS?  GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS? 

We tried to find these words in the Chinese Characters and in the Comics pages.  I'm still kinda shocked that we never visited the Crossword puzzle, but I guess you can't look at everything.


At 3PM, the final clue was presented, a pair of crossed swords.  Immediately, I said "It's S-WORDS!"  (Those of you familiar with the SNL Jeopardy Sean Connery skits will understand why I quickly came to this realization.) After highlighting all the words with S's, we got nothing.  As well as the words beginning with S's.  Nada.  I also figured at this point, we had lost because we didn't have an insight right away.

But then we realized that they were CROSSED SWORDS, which we figured hinted at CROSSWORDS.  So we quickly thumbed to the Post Magazine, where we started looking at the solution for the previous week's puzzle.  (We knew they wouldn't expect us to solve the current puzzle… thank goodness).  Anyway, we quickly spotted FORMER, CAPS, and HOME, words which we had discussed during our lunchtime review.  We never got the other two words, and luckily we didn't need to. 

Immediately we made the connection to MCI CENTER, which was the former home of the Washington Capitals, and then MCI quickly gave us 1101.  (Once you're in that puzzle solving mode, something like MCI just leaps out at you.) We were flying at this point. Thank goodness we had studied the map the previous night because we immediately remembered that 1101 was a building on the map!  We ran to that spot, leaving thousands of people still working on the clue.  I have to say, this was quite the rush, realizing that we now stood a shot at winning the grand prize. 

We arrived at 1101 to find not another soul in sight, which was especially a relief when we saw a sign in front that said something to the effect of "For employment opportunities call TODAY!  202-xxx-xxxx.The fake company had the initials MCI.  This had to be right.  We dialed the 202 number, only to get a message like "Nice try… but we said, TODAY!"

TODAY on the phone pad is only 5 letters.  And today's date 5/18 is only three letters.  What could this be?  Then, Chris yelled out "2008!" "518-2008!"  Aha!  This had to be right, and sure enough when we dialed we got another message.  This time it instructed us to go the intersection of ELM and MAPLE and look for the man in the Red Sox cap.  We all knew that ELM and MAPLE weren't roads, so where to go?  Nothing on the map either. 

Finally, David noticed that ELM and MAPLE intersected on the crossword puzzle, sharing the letter L.  We remembered that L was another drawing in the lower left corner of the map (Saturday night pays off again), so we enlisted a teammate to sprint as fast as he could to that location.  We also did this in case we were wrong about the L thing, because that would left our entire team way in the far corner of the map.  I remembered hearing from Mike Ling (a hunt veteran and past winner) that in 2007 his team went to the wrong "sandwich" on the map, so I didn't want to risk doing something like that in case we had missed something.  So, while Chris was running, we reviewed everything... looking for other Ls and making sure it all made sense.

Anyway, minutes later Chris reported back that we were done.  He found the guy in the Sox cap.  But still, they wouldn't tell us that we had won.  Apparently, they want to verify that the teams arrived at the answer on their own and didn't just follow another team.  Another team showed up at the finish about two minutes later, Chris said, so we're really glad he was in shape. 

So, we waited patiently by the stage while Dave Barry explained all the puzzles and answers.  Then finally, he announced that a local team had won.  3rd place was called out, which was a DC team.  2nd place... a Miami Team of veterans.  Finally, our names were called as the champs.  What a thrill!  The grand prize?  Five days at the Westin Resort in Miami, complete with golf package.  Suh-weet.

Having competed in more complicated hunts and solved more elaborate clues, I was a little skeptical about how much I would enjoy this experience.  But it was all made up for by the grand scale of things and the fast-paced thrill of the endgame.  Seeing hundreds of people at a clue site, and being the first to break out from the crowd of over a thousand was a huge rush. 

Overall, this was a top notch event, and about as good as I think something could get on this large of a scale.  And here's hoping this becomes an annual tradition in DC.  We'll definitely be back to defend our title!  

Happy Hunting,

Todd Etter



2009 MUMS Puzzle Hunt

I competed for the first time ever in the MUMS Puzzle Hunt, which is a mostly online event run annually at the University of Melbourne.   I was part of a team of six:  Brent Holman, John Owens, Ian Tullis, Rich Bragg, Kenny Young, and myself.   Everyone except Kenny was from the Bay Area. Kenny works at Microsoft.   Our team name was Killer Chicken Bones, a combination of the various teams that we are parts of.  

It was a great time, and we rocked the house, placing in first in total points.  Three teams actually shared the best overall score, but we were the first to solve all the puzzles, which was the tie-breaker.  

Overall, I found the puzzles pretty good, with some really nice ones, and only a few clunkers.  Having tried some puzzles from previous years, it definitely appears that the puzzle-writing ability of this group continues to get better and better.   Our favorites included Stargazing, Pogonology, and Pairs Repaired.   The story was fun, too, and the tech side of the event worked to perfection.  Kudos again. 

There were some puzzles which made us go "Huh?", however.  Chainmail and Emotions were nice until the very end, but unfortunately, figuring out the final answer required pretty large leaps to get the final answer, which wasn't very fun.  In Emotions,  the final step involved realizing that the answer DAYTHUNDER was supposed to be entered as THURSDAY (because Thursday is named after Thor).   To me, that's just too much of a leap to have to make at the end.  A puzzle that has several logical steps which lead you to a reasonable message shouldn't require you at the end to guess over and over at the final answer. 

Similarly, in Chainmail, you ended up with three clues: BILBO HEIR, KEVLAR, and CATION ATOM.   These were supposed to direct to FRODO, ARMOR, and METAL(!?!).   Frodo makes perfect sense, but Kevlar clueing Armor kind of breaks crossword conventions, and Cation Atom clueing metal is very bizarre because it's so vague and open-ended.   We never got the cation atom part, but we felt like the answer was hinting at MITHRIL.  But it didn't work.  We also tried mithril mail, mithril coat, mithril armor, even mithril thursday.  Finally, after researching mithril, I came upon the name Truesilver.  Turns out, that was the answer.   (Looking back in the puzzle, this is hinted at by the phrase "In a language I can understand")   To see the problem with this puzzle, search the guess log for MITHRIL and you'll see all the things that teams tried. 

The frustrating thing with all of this is that the puzzle was incredibly unconstrained. The author could have done anything he wanted to clue the answer.  The clue was based on the game Schnapps where you give a sentence and then snap a number of times.  You take the first letter of the sentence to get consonants and for the vowels look at the number of snaps  (1 snap = A, 2 = E, 3 = I, etc.).   This gives you incredible flexibility in what you can write.  So choose something very obvious or make the puzzle multi-layered.  

A suggestion I would have for future years is to confirm partial or close answers.  If we knew we were on the right track with MITRHIL or DAYTHUNDER, we would have gotten it quicker, I'd think.  

The funniest moment came on the puzzle Slurs, where after 5 minutes, Rich looked at it and said, "You know, you can anagram the first letters of the bottom set to get GODZILLA."  So we guessed Godzilla and it turns out he was right!!   Lesson for puzzle constructor:  don't ever let your puzzle be guessable like this.  Turns out the puzzle was pretty clever, but it could all be skipped over, which I know is sad for the constructor.  

As far as points, we were neck an neck with several groups throughout the event, including Team Plugh, who won the MIT Mystery Hunt.   The turning point was that we were the only team to solve Lord of the Boxes without any hints and that ended up being the difference in the standings.   When it came to solve the Meta, we didn't really spend much time because we were ineligible to win, but it turns out it was pretty nicely constructed.  Team Plugh, did in fact, solve the meta and were the overall winners.  Congrats!

I would like to thank the organizers of the event for a fun-filled week of puzzling and I'm already looking forward to next year.  Also, thanks to my great teammates.   I can't imagine a better and more fun group of people to solve with.  We used Skype every night to conference call, and this made the event much more enjoyable than if we had just chatted.  

Next up is CISRA.  Hope it's just as fun, if not more.

The 2009 MIT Mystery Hunt

It's been over a month since I participated in my first MIT Mystery Hunt, and I've been wanting to post a recap for some time now, but just never seemed to have the free time.  

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