Puzzle Hunts: Microsoft Puzzlehunt 17 Playtest

The weekend of March 26, 2016, 11 puzzle enthusiasts gathered in Los Altos to playtest Microsoft Puzzlehunt 17. There was Rich and Rachel and Nina and Yuan and Dan and Jesse and Eric and Laura and Kekoa and Cynthia. Years before, I'd playtested an earlier MSPH so that I could help GC the Bay Area simulcast, thus giving me an excuse to dress up as the angel of death. For this hunt, there would be no such simulcast, but I helped playtest anyhow.

It was fun! I got to solve with some folks who would normally be on other teams. Some more folks got to see Rich's excellent "World's Best Puzzler" t-shirt. Here are some spoiler-free notes.

MSPH has run into an issue that other hunts have. The "prize" for winning a hunt was the privilege of running the next year's hunt. When it worked it was great. But what happened when a team won but didn't have puzzle-hunt-running skills/enthusiasm to match puzzle-hunt-winning skills/enthusiasm? What's the "Plan B"?

Lately, MSPH has been spreading out the puzzle-writing load. Some folks still need to figure out the overall organization. But they farm out a lot of the puzzle writing to puzzle designers who will play in the hunt. So some puzzle writer on Team A writes eight puzzles, some puzzle writer on Team B writes eight puzzles, and so on. During the hunt, a puzzle writer recuses themselves from working on puzzles that they wrote. Since a puzzle-solving team solves several puzzles at a time, there's always something for a puzzle writer to do.

This slightly tweaks the playtesting experience. You don't want to compile feedback for all the puzzles into one document and fling it over the fence to GC. You don't want that puzzle writer from Team A seeing the spoiler-drenched feedback for the puzzle written by the writer from Team B. Instead, we wrote up our feedback for each puzzle immediately after solving; we sent each puzzle's feedback directly to that puzzle's author[s] instead of to some GC mailing list.

This felt odd. I'm used to puzzlehunt GC teams with a mix of experience: some folks who've survived many GCs, some folks writing their first puzzle. Facing feedback when you're new is kind of scary. That puzzle you wrote is special, you're kind of attached to it, not like after you've written 100 puzzles and think "plenty more where that came from". You haven't built up a bag of tricks for incorporating feedback; you realize you have to change something, but struggling to put it together from first principles. In that situation, it's good for everyone to see everyone else's feedback. The beginner can get practical advice on how to handle their feedback (and, incidentally, see how a grown-up handles feedback).

Maybe the MSPH situation was different, though. I'd heard of some of these puzzle designers though I'm no Seattlite. This wasn't their first rodeo. Maybe all the puzzle writers were grizzled veterans who could handle feedback on their own?

We set aside 36 hours to finish; we used less than that. Maybe because we were puzzling badasses. (Some among us were; not me, though.) Mostly because this was an early playtest; some puzzles were of the form THIS PUZZLE HAS NOT BEEN WRITTEN YET, here are things you will need when staring at some meta…. I was over-provisioned. Learning from my experience with the MIT Mystery Hunt a few weeks before, I'd brought a spare change of clothes, toiletries, plentiful snacks. I did not need these things for the hunt. But they were still good. In the woozy day that followed as I struggled to whack my circadian rhythm back on track, I was pretty glad to have an outfit picked out and a bag of cookies requiring no prepration.


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