Puzzle Hunts: Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 8: the Re-Enactment

Fair warning: This is not a coherent narrative.

There is room in this world for more than one kind of Puzzle Hunt. The Microsoft puzzle hunt is a puzzle hunt, but it felt unlike other games I've played. Not that I've played the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt, not exactly. As I write this, Microsoft Puzzle Hunt IX is probably wrapping up in Redmond. I'm not writing about that. Instead I'm writing about Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 8. Sort of. I didn't really play in Microsoft Puzzle Hunt 8. But Wei-Hwa Huang did. And he had so much fun that he ran a re-enactment of it at the Googleplex March 19-20 so that Californians could get a taste of this Washington treat.

You might wonder: how could just one man run a puzzle hunt? Wouldn't he need to set up clues at dozens of locations around the bay area? Wouldn't he need to stay one step ahead of teams as they barreled around the bay in white rental vans? But the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt isn't like that. Teams don't drive around in vans. Instead, they sit in a conference room. When you solve a clue, the solution isn't something like "Go to Millbrae BART station, look for next clue parking lot roof." Instead, the solution is something like "coffeemug". You contact game control, say "coffeemug" and they say "Congratulations, you solved that puzzle." Eventually, they send you more puzzles.

Who Was There?

You're not in a van, so your team size isn't limited by "How many people can we cram into a van?" Instead, it's "How many people can we cram into a conference room?" I'm not exactly sure what the rules are about team size. Someone said that team size is at most 12 people. Someone said that at least half the members of each team must be Microsoft employees.

For this re-enactment, we had a strange assortment of folks. Some Microsoft people know about the Stanford puzzling community, and thus some bay area folks had traveled up to Redmond to play in MPH8. These folks did not show up for the re-enactment (except Wei-Hwa, of course). Why would they?--they'd already seen the puzzles. So we had those people who were serious enough about puzzling to spend 24+ hours in a conference room; but not famous and/or hardcore enough to get called up to Redmond.

I noted down who showed up at first--but more people showed up later, and I didn't get their names.

OK, that's more than a dozen. And I might have missed a person or two. And I don't know what the Microsoft rule is about calling up someone and inviting them over to solve a cryptic crossword. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Room

So it's a bunch of people in a conference room. In a road-rally-style game, you have some "down time" as you travel from spot to spot. But this puzzle hunt had no down time. It was solve, solve, solve. We received our first batch of puzzles. We started solving.

We didn't talk much, except about the puzzles. Ask me what I learned about Doug Zongker's personality. Nothing. I learned that he wrote a program that gives him a nice UI for solving cryptograms. I spent 24 hours in a room with some Game folks, yet I emerged knowing little more about them. Except that they were good at solving puzzles. But of course I already knew that.

The puzzles came in batches. There were many of us. Thus, we solved many puzzles in parallel. It didn't make sense to have the whole team focus on just one puzzle at a time. It wasn't so easy to figure out which people should work on which puzzle, though. If you're on a team that's played a few games together, you learn each others' strengths. We faced one puzzle in which we had to direct a few taxicabs between a few starts/destinations on the grid of Manhattan, without letting their paths cross. Someone (Corey?) said, "This is such a Wei-Hwa puzzle. Normally, we'd just give this puzzle to Wei-Hwa. But he's running the game." Wei-Hwa just smiled. We had a dog's breakfast of teams. If I was looking at "such an Ed Schmollinger" puzzle, I wouldn't know.

So people meandered from puzzle to puzzle; when someone found a puzzle they liked, they stayed put. It might not have been the most efficient way, but it worked.

Sometimes there were puzzles where it made sense to bring many brains to bear at once. Like, there was a puzzle which was an audio file. It was the song Danke Schoen, sung by impersonators. Someone imitating, say, Marie Curie would sing a verse of Danke Schoen that had been tweaked to mention radium. And you had to figure out that it was supposed to be Marie Curie singing. Anyhow, it took a while to listen to all of this, so maybe half of us went into a neighboring conference room for a while so that we could solve it all together.

The Puzzles

The first batch of puzzles was especially interesting. It was a faked-up brochure for Las Vegas. Hidden in its text and pictures were a few puzzles. The puzzles gave you instructions on how to cut the brochure apart, fold it up, reassemble it, and shine a light on it--so that the cast shadow formed a phone extension to call. It was wonderful. Unfortunately, I'd already read Peter Sarrett rave about it and seen his photos. So I had to keep my mouth shut about that part. I restrained myself from my usual backsolving habits; I couldn't be sure I was figuring out partial solutions because of my usual luck & intuition, or if I was cheating.

I don't remember much about the puzzles now. It's several months later. Wei-Hwa made us promise not to tell folks about the puzzles. I figured the easiest way to do that would be to not-memorize the URL he used to distribute the puzzles to us. Now, when I tried a few guesses, I guessed wrong. Those puzzles are gone forever. I remember that there was one which involved putting M&Ms; on a scrabble board. There was one that involved recognizingt punned versions of famous book names. There was one that involved a dance routine--and now I see that the designers recycled that idea in a batch of games in the November 2005 Games magazine.

The Room, Out of the Room

I got tired of the conference room. Fortunately, we'd picked a conference room in an area of the Googleplex that saw a fair amount of foot traffic on weekends.

Zach Brown was around, maybe making sure that Anna was having a fun time. Zach was playing some pool, getting some work done. I think I hung out with Zach for a while.

Jon Novitz swung by to see how we were doing. He'd thought about joining up, but wasn't sure if he really wanted to spend so much time on puzzles. This was a reasonable doubt. I needed breaks. At one point, deep in Saturday night, I just wandered the halls of Google, stretching my legs, letting my eyes focus on far-away things, things further away than the walls of a conference room.

I talked with Suresh, a Googler who'd started on the same day that I had. He was wandering around with a friend, and was startled to see people working so hard in a conference room on a Saturday. Were we on some special project? No, I explained that we were doing this for fun.

The conference room was not fun. I came to hate the room. In the months since then, I've attended some meetings in that room. The first couple of times, I had to brace myself to go back in. I loved the puzzles, hated the room.

I Didn't Finish

The last few puzzles gave us an excuse to wander outside. Doug Zongker and I solved a paint-by-number puzzle. (I called it a "paint-by-number", Doug called it a "nonogram"; fortunately someone told us that we were talking about the same thing.) To be precise, Doug solved it in the time it took me to mis-solve it a couple of times. The solution was an image--and we'd been told that this wsa the view of a security camera we had to find. And thus we escaped from the room, wandering the halls in search of this camera. Doug thought he'd found the right camera--but when he looked at it, he saw nothing special. As we headed back to the office, I looked back. Around the corner, there was a ladder leaning against a wall. Why was there a ladder there? I grabbed the ladder, brought it over to the security camera, climbed the ladder--and found a clue hidden on a little ledge. There was a feeling of triumph, but it was tinged with regret--now that we had the next clue, we had to bring it back to the team in the room.

We went to another conference room, where a puzzle had been set up involving soda cans and some directions which we needed to follow very precisely and accurately. By this point, our brains were pretty fried. It took us a few tries to follow these directions.

That puzzle sent us off to an elevator, which sent us to the parking garage, and that was a nice stroll. But then we had the information we needed, and it was time to bring it back to the conference room. In the room, we found out that we were going to need to set up a poker hand. As in the God of Gamblers, we could choose any hand we wanted. But so could our opponents... oh, I forget the details. But we were going to be stuck in that room for a while.

I gave up. I only lasted 24 hours, and then I gave in to exhaustion and stir-craziness. I packed up my stuff and walked out to the train station, caught a train back to San Francisco. While I drowsed and nodded, the last remaining solvers figured out the proper poker hand.


So now I can say that I've hung out and solved puzzles with a wider bunch of gamists than I would if I were just hanging out with Team Mystic Fish all of the time. And I know that if I ever do something like this again, I should take more breaks, take more strolls around the halls. Go outside in the fresh air more often towards the beginning. It might make me less effective during those early hours--but it might keep me in the game through to the end.


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