|How the Grinch Almost Stole Mystery Hunt, but I Stopped It, with a Little Help from My Friends
||[Jan. 18th, 2016|10:57 pm]
My long-time readers are used to these posts, multi-part wrapups of Mystery Hunt over the week or so following. In this week's posts, the links will go to our muttsteryhunt.com site which currently has the puzzles and most of the solutions. In this part, I will describe some of the activities I was involved with immediately before and during the first day of Mystery Hunt. Since some of this involves test-solving puzzles, there will be spoilers (but in this part, not much for the kind of puzzles people are likely to want to do after Hunt).
Like apparently happens almost every Mystery Hunt, there were puzzles not test-solved or not working right up to Hunt. I took Thursday off work and arrived at MIT late that morning to start testing mostly on-site runaround-type puzzles. Once we got reasonably set up in our headquarters at 10-105, i started doing runarounds.
Bowen and I had solved Follow the Pipes up to the part that became a runaround in MIT basements the night before, so that was first on my plate. Some of the locations were right below our headquarters so I went there and, due to the name of the puzzle, looked for some clue on the pipes which are visible above some MIT hallways but especially in basements. I found nothing at three sites. A bit later, I went out with the author briefly and we visited this site and one other and I found what I was looking for at the second site, but not at the first one, 10-063, which the author pointed out to me had three doors, even after checking all three. I postponed further work on this to attend a test-run of the Escape from Mars event, but afterward I came back to work on this puzzle.
The Escape from Mars testing went pretty well, but the event ran a little long. They decided to give teams a little more time, to simplify the coloring puzzle so its number could be identified more quickly, and to make a couple other changes to fix things that were unclear or just wrong in other puzzles.
I went back out, with Shrenik this time, looking for a thing I had now seen one of, a drawing of a sword on paper with a multi-colored blade. I let him find the one I had already seen without any help, and he did so. After finding a couple more, and not finding them at other sites, we decided that we only needed to look at the locations that had the red circles numbered 1-10 on the map. Shrenik correctly guessed that the colors corresponded to the lines on the map. By following a path on the map through these colors, a letter would be formed. (It is apparently also possible to follow the real pipes in this way, but that is the time-consuming way to do it!)
We found 7 of the 10 swords and guessed the answer from O??I?EPORN, keeping in mind that it was a puzzle about the Internet. The ones we did not find were at 10-063 (which turned out to be because it was six feet beyond one of the doors; we made them move it to directly in front of one of the doors), 1-029 (because we had mis-decoded the number and gotten a room that did not exist; it was easily found at 4-029), and 57-001 (because we did not know where to look. We could not enter 57, the Alumni Pool, without an MIT ID, and we looked in the basement of Stata which got us close, but an emergency exit map led us astray; if we had gone in a different direction from this map, we would have found it).
After this, I tested the Dog Show Runaround, the puzzle you got after completing the Dog Show meta. Completing this unlocked the next round and revealed to you that you were in a dream - a series of dreams, even - a la Inception. It was a standard set of directions for navigating campus, but "dog" had been substituted for many words, as "smurf" was used by those little blue guys. This was too long, and solvers got a shorter version with clearer text at the part where you re-enter Lobby 7 and cross it to take the stairs down on the other side.
I also spent some time looking for a thing that we couldn't find. dalryaug wanted to use a set of things that should exist at MIT for a runaround, but had never located one of them. My group this evening failed in this endeavor and a backup puzzle was subtituted.
I had earlier asked Megan, one of the MIT students on our team who was not spoiled on Field Scribe to look at my notes and add her contributions, and she did so. When I came back to HQ after the above activities, I found another two teammates (one a student) working on the puzzle. Both Megan and the other group had independently determined that the photos were all in the Infinite Corridor, and expected to draw something by connecting the dots in this vertical plane. But the other group did not have my and Megan's notes, so when we collaborated, we had almost all of them, and could limit the remaining ones to certain parts of the corridor (though on any floor). I went out and located the remaining ones, and we completed our picture. Adding this data to the drawing, after a few guesses I was able to figure it out (Alvah), but we thought the v was much too closed, and one photo was retaken, moving it from just past 10-250 to the women's restroom in building 4. (And yes, I know that the solution for this puzzle is missing everything but the final answer. I have added it to our to-do list.)
Also this evening, I designed the point totals for puzzles to open at. We tried to balance the rate at which fast teams could open up the whole hunt with the danger of stuck teams not being able to advance past a certain point.
Overnight, I solved a bunch more puzzles. I forget all of what these were. It was nearly dawn when I trudged to the hotel room and collapsed into sleep.
I only slept for 3 hours, hearing some bustle in the room. Overnight, our web team (who had put lots of hours into making sure the front end was solid) discovered bugs in the back end, a program called spoilr which has run the last few Mystery Hunts. (Note that most of the details about spoilr are second hand, so some details might be slightly wrong, but the essence of this is correct.) Because of the way their hunt worked, where all puzzles appeared on one big map, and metas appeared along with the regular puzzles, 2015's team had basically removed rounds from spoilr as a concept (rather than just making everything one big round, as they should have done), and removed the ability to make solving one puzzle in a round open up more puzzles in that round. The ONLY way to open puzzles was to accumulate score points. Our web team, led by Mike Booth, had attempted to restore this, working from an older copy of the code. They had done some simple test runs, but a large scale run simulating an entire hunt the night before had revealed previously undiscovered bugs. I don't know the details of the bugs, but they could have broken the hunt badly for users, and it wasn't possible to fix them before Hunt opened. Rather than try to continue hacking on the code while the site was live, possibly bringing down the entire hunt if they screwed something up, they went to Plan B. A plan they were hastily making up.
By the time I showered, dressed, and got back to HQ around 10 AM Friday, the web team had decided that Plan B for the front end was going to be multiple static sites run on subdomains of muttsteryhunt.com, a domain name we had originally intended to use only for the dog show round. Each domain name used a set of random characters after the name of the round, which (in combination with the DNS server hiding the list of all registered subdomains) prevented teams from guessing the sites for future rounds. Each site also contained all earlier rounds, so once a team switched to a newer site they could use just that site - or at least, this was what they eventually realized they needed to do. The scoring Implementing this was actually the work that kept Hunt from starting on time, though at least we were only one hour late.
This meant each round would be released all at once, rather than the intended plan of releasing 3 or 4 puzzles at first and then two more puzzles with every 1-2 solves until the whole round was open, with a higher point total as a backup for teams that get stuck. The point thresholds for opening each round were retained, with minor tweaks.
This also meant there was no logging in of teams, and no answer tracking system. Other parts of our team were trying to come up with a solution. Around 10:30, I suggested "What if we use Google Docs forms for answer submission?" I explained further that the answers all go into a Google spreadsheet which can form a callback queue and guess log. A formula column can automatically check answers from an answer list on another sheet, and we can use a manually entered column for tracking the callback status. "The only thing," I continued, "is that I have never actually created one of these forms, only used the spreadsheets that resulted from, for example, the registration form for one of our BAPHLs."
My teammates had favorable reactions, some along the lines of "That just might work," and considered this a better idea than anything they had come up with in a short time of knowing they needed a solution. But now they looked at me as if they expected me to create it, so I got down to learning how to make this form. Fortunately, it was really easy, and in an hour, with a little help from Jasters, I had a prototype up with two test teams on a dropdown list of teams, and callback status field in the spreadsheet, as well as a URL format delivered to the front-end team, into which they could insert the name of the puzzle to pre-populate that field, and also a contact HQ form. The system seemed to work, and we agreed to use it. I added the full list of teams to both forms (painfully - it seemed there was no way put pasting each name in individually) and got the real answer database instead of my test one, while Jasters added answer checking. We also put in a formula to pull the team's phone number from the team list. This was ready to go, in a rudimentary form without score tracking, at the time Hunt should have started.
That score tracking was necessary for determining when to release rounds. Due to the way we were doing it, in the spreadsheet, it was only ever going to be seen internally. Sorry, teams. It was more important to be able to get you puzzles to solve, and this was a tradeoff we had to make for that. Derek Kisman worked on scoring in the early afternoon, even after the hunt actually opened, knowing that the Dog Show round was at least two hours long (Palindrome was the first to solve it at 4:09, so this was a near-perfect estimate), Rip van Winkle only opened on completion of the dog show runaround, and teams probably needed at least an hour to unlock the following round, so we had plenty of time to make this right. The last part of this was dealing with the fact that with sometimes as many as 10 of us doing callbacks and thus having the spreadsheet open, and a lot of activity in the spreadsheet, and lots of formula activity, the sheet bogged down. This was dealt with by moving scoring tracking into another Google doc which most people did not have to have open. Yet a third Google doc just had the scoring summary - score, status on each meta, and at the end, status on each Limbo puzzle - and this was what regular team members just wanting to see the current scores would look at. The forms were almost all me; the spreadsheet hacking, after my initial setup, was Jasters and Derek.
Once this was settled, it was possible for me to look at more puzzles. One of the ones I looked at was To Serve and Protect. This was originally called something different and appeared in the Endymion round. A puzzle in King Arthur that required constructing some physical contraption with wood and mirrors that had not gotten done needed to be replaced. To Serve and Protect was moved in to replace it, to give up more time to make the replacement puzzle. But it needed a new appropriately Arthurian quest, and so it needed the 11 letters that spelled out the answer to be replaced. I looked over this with Gabby and confirmed that these 11 letters could be changed to anything without affecting the rest of the puzzle. So now we had to think of what they should be. A couple of my ideas were shot down because we already had similar things in the round. We thought about SLAY A DRAGON but we didn't have a good way to do it that didn't also require constructing something, though I suggested jokingly that they could play TROGDOR! until they managed to get him killed. :-)
A little while later, though, I came up with LOCATE GRAIL which everybody loved. We were not sure, however, how we were going to have them do it. canadianpuzzler suggested playing a version of the 3 cup shuffle game which is often used as a street hustle. This could perhaps three identical opaque plastic cups, one of which is marked inside as the grail. They'd get three tries, and if they failed, we'd send them away to make another appointment later. In any case, I redid the image for this puzzle due to the author being too busy to do so, and we inserted the new image into the site and got the puzzle renamed and moved to its new location in the hunt. When teams opened King Arthur (soon!), they would not have a missing puzzle. That is where I left it when I went to the hotel around midnight, but when teams first reached this stage (Left Out appears to have been first, around 2:30 AM), neither of us was around and the details were lost to the people still awake, so they instead had people construct a grail themselves, based on the guidelines that it must have a stem and hold liquid. This was probably a lot better idea and certainly more fun. It resulted in a display of some of the grails at wrapup.