I stumbled upon Edric’s Treasure Hunt via a Google search a few weeks ago, and I was pleased to see I had time to participate in the 2021 hunt. But after spending 5+ hours on it, I have a little bit of buyer’s remorse for my time spent on this free contest.
First things first- I’m going to be more than a little bit critical about my experience here, but I still want to thank and applaud the author for putting on this contest. The world doesn’t have enough puzzle designers, and I want to make it clear that I appreciate the opportunity to participate in an event like this. My feedback is intended to be constructive, not to knock anyone down but to help shed light into what made the experience enjoyable or unenjoyable.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I can share a little background on my team’s experience. My team this time consisted of three members- Jon, John, and me. This particular group has completed Puzzle Boat 2 & 3 together and participated in the 2021 Cryptex Puzzle Hunt as part of a larger team.
I’m going to be including spoilers from Edric’s Treasure Hunt 2021, so please refrain from reading the below if you plan to attempt this challenge on your own.
I’ve never participated in Edric’s Hunt before, but the introduction described a few changes compared to previous iterations. In previous years, players were led from page to page on the puzzle hunt site, completing a series of puzzles in order. This year’s hunt contained every puzzle in a single PDF file. It was a tidy approach, and I liked the idea of one document that evolves throughout the hunt.
Puzzle #1 was to combine three pages into one. Each page looked something like the below.
We noticed quickly that some text was inverted based on position compared to the concentric circles visible in the magenta slices, and that by rotating those circles 180 degrees, we could reconstruct a cleanly-aligned page with orderly lines running through it. Doing this to each page yielded one complete puzzle sheet.
I took a crash course in photo manipulation to tackle the challenge digitally, but John printed/cut/taped the sheets and got to the finish line slightly faster.
The realigned page included three key elements- two sections of encrypted text, colorful rings containing miscellaneous letters, and a puzzle type John recognized as a “Kakuro.”
I transcribed the text to the best of my ability from the photos while Jon and John solved the Kakuro. After transcribing the text, I dumped it into an online substitution cipher solver, and it was easy to crack given the obvious recurring characters for “THE” giving us a clear starting point.
The cipher gave us our final instructions- solve the rings, and apply the Kakuro answer to the lines of text we already decrypted for a final code. We got the Kakuro part immediately- it required the commonly-used row/word/character method to locate a hidden keyword.
So far so good. I was quite surprised that the substitution cipher was just a vanilla substitution cipher with no other cues; my first instinct was that the colored rings were going to be used to translate the text.
And now we get to the crux of the matter- the part that makes me regret the time I spent on this puzzle hunt. The final obstacle, eight concentric rings, each with 56 characters of text. The decrypted message instructed us to apply the same decryption transformation on the rings, and we entered the characters into a Google Sheets document to track it.
Every time you solve a puzzle like this, you need to make a few assumptions. Am I supposed to read this clockwise, counterclockwise, or neither? Is the order of the rings from the center to the outside, or outside to center? Am I using the full circle, or just a part of it that I’m being cued toward?
From this point onward, our puzzle hunt consisted of wrong assumption after wrong assumption, testing hypotheses that each took 30+ minutes of work to shoot down.
First question- why would the text be oriented in a wheel pattern?
Our answer- to obscure the starting point of the message, and to indicate that we need to realign the wheels to reveal a message.
The real answer- no reason at all. Each wheel is an independent text string, and we need to make the assumption that the top middle is the starting point for a message to be discovered by reading clockwise carefully from there.
We even ran a character frequency analysis and found the full sample of text to align pretty closely with the average sample of English writing, further leading us to believe that the proper alignment of the wheels was key.
Over the course of the next few days, we explored a high number of possible options for how text could be hidden on concentric wheels. In-to-out, out-to-in, snaking… We tried looking for possible strings like .COM, or making sure every period had a space after it. Nothing worked.
In the end, the expectation was that we throw out all the positional data we collected, make an assumption about the top middle as starting point, treat each ring independently, and throw out alternating letters. Four assumptions that I would have considered leaps, and we were required to make them all.
Granted, I have seen the every other character method used before, usually as a quick one off, like:
But when you don’t have a clear string, nor a defined starting place, the puzzle starts to drift into a “know the designer’s mindset” space, which isn’t a good place for a puzzle to be. I committed the same sin in the Escape Room Maker game I posted on my site (somewhat intentionally), which is why I made sure to hide the game from the public.
I’ve played escape rooms before that had this same problem, and it’s usually pretty easy to learn from if you repeatedly take on puzzles from the same person. For example, a room where the designer hides all codes in text that vaguely evokes a number. “A dozen cops tried to catch me but I got away after a quarter mile chase” might mean I have to try 1225 (dozen + quarter) or 5280 (mile) – a very bad puzzle, but you can start to catch on. But that doesn’t make it any better of an experience for the first-time solver.
Sometimes the only difference between a good puzzle and a bad puzzle is the cueing. Puzzle Boat does a great job with this- any time it introduces some kind of cipher I’ve never heard of, or references a puzzle type I’ve never heard of, there’s some kind of clue about it. Someone who knows the puzzle types well or is familiar with the designer might not need or want the extra cue, but it’s there as an ever-so-subtle nudge.
I appreciate the challenge of not having a nudge like that, but in cases like this Rings puzzle, there were far too many unused puzzle elements that can lead participants down many different tedious paths. The circular shapes, the matching number of characters per ring, the colors in the rings, the characters used in the filler text, and the alignment of characters ring-to-ring are all red herrings that work together to paint a different story- the pieces of a nonexistent bigger, more elegant puzzle than the one we got.
Over the course of the next two days, I periodically revisited our scratchwork. I was debating whether I should print rings I could rotate and align (an effort that would probably take 2+ hours to do) when I saw the contest had ended, and I’m very glad I didn’t waste any more time on this.
Insult to injury- apparently the winning submission came in less than two hours after contest kickoff. For whatever reason, the contest host didn’t share that detail until two days later. This is also extremely frustrating and makes me lament the 3-4 hours I spent on the puzzle after the contest was already over.
So to recap- I did not enjoy my time on Edric’s Treasure Hunt. It’s always exhilarating to take on a new puzzle challenge, but even the parts that worked were a little bit tedious, and the rings puzzle has a problem with an ultra-tedious rabbit hole we unfortunately got stuck in. There was no such thing as an “aha!” moment here, but rather a few “well, I guess that worked” moments.
4/6/2021 Update: My team went back and looked at the puzzle again, and the circular shape and the character frequency were not red herrings. All the characters were used as the pattern looped around the circle multiple times. I wanted to call this out since in light of this, a few of my points of criticism were a little unfair.