Puppies and Puzzles

I can summarize my last two weeks with two line items- MIT Mystery Hunt and Puppy.

I’ll start with Puppy. Christina and I adopted a little Chiweenie named Hans. We didn’t intend to name our dog Hans, but the shelter was calling him that and somehow it seemed right. I’m curious if Hans is stealthily a popular dog name right now- it works for both Die Hard and Frozen fans.

Hans started out very timid and quiet. It took us almost two days to hear him bark for the first time. But as he’s getting used to us, he’s getting more and more energetic and less wary. He’s still quiet, but he runs around a whole lot more. It makes sense because he’s still a puppy, and we’re still going through potty training. But he’s a fast learner!

The only downside is Christina and I have been a little bit exhausted. Hans is a night owl, staying mellow and sleepy until 5PM, when all of a sudden he gets an energy boost and wants to play for the next five hours.

We got Hans on Saturday, right after the MIT Mystery Hunt kicked off. As a result, I wasn’t able to dedicate much time. Out of the roughly 200 puzzles in the hunt this year, my team solved 86. I played a major role in two of the solves and a minor cherry-picking role in another two. My two solves came one evening between midnight and 2AM, really burning the midnight oil.

I also kept an eye on puzzle progress via mobile Discord, so even though I only worked on four puzzles, I have a good view into many of the others. My team used a utility called Cardboard this year, which automatically created Discord text and voice channels and Sheets documents for solving puzzles- it made managing progress and sharing work extremely easy.

Though I felt delinquent in only dedicating about 2.5 hours to the hunt, surprisingly, it seemed my contributions may have been about average. Every time I checked the Discord, I saw 30-some people working on puzzles, and I assumed I wasn’t helping much with my limited availability. Net-net I’d credit myself with about 1.2 puzzle solves contributed to the total results, without using any hints, which places me at just about the average for the result we got. I’m sure we had at least a few team members who never signed on, but still, it’s a better result than what I was expecting.

I have a theory behind why this was. I’m sure we had a few super users driving most of the team’s progress, but there was something even simpler behind it- something about how teams work together in general. I noticed that much of the time, many team members preferred to solve in large groups of 10+. From what I observed, there were strengths and weaknesses to this approach, and a mixed solving method seemed to work best.

Large groups seemed best for the initial part of the puzzle. Got a dump of 50 random photos? Someone in a big group is likely going to be able to spot that they’re all obscure references to elements of the computer game Among Us, or that they all refer to Star Trek episode titles. Have a giant crossword puzzle? A large group can knock it out in seconds.

Once you get through the initial stages of the puzzle, though, the dynamic changes. Of the countless imaginable paths forward, only one will work. All of a sudden, slowing down and having fewer voices talking through possibilities in depth becomes the shortest path to a solution. The final extraction of the answer rarely seems to benefit from having dozens of eyes on it.

If I were setting up a team to attempt to win a hunt like this, I might focus on adding structure to how the team moves through this progression- everyone looks at a puzzle to spot any connections or paths, then smaller teams stick around to close out the puzzle. It may not always hold true, but from the few examples I’ve seen recently, it definitely appears to help.

Overall, I really liked this year’s MIT Mystery Hunt. Its setup was more conventional than last year’s, which developed a fully functional MMO to solve puzzles on a virtual MIT campus. I felt the puzzles this year required less busy work which meant my time solving was more enjoyable. I preferred this year’s hunt to last year’s for mostly subjective reasons, but both were really neat experiences.

MIT Mystery Hunt is never going to be my favorite puzzle hunt due to the massive amount of time and dedication required from a large group to have even a shot of seeing most of the puzzles before the hunt ends, but I will still look forward to participating each year in a minor way and see how high we can drive our completion percentage before the hunt ends.

As I type this, I only have one hand- a dog is sleeping on the other. Makes it a lot harder to write, but it’s worth it!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.