April 6th, 2009

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.