Puzzle Box

Puzzle Box
Hunting for Mysteries

Jason Tocci | 14 Dec 2010 13:09
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A clever team doesn't need to solve every puzzle and metapuzzle to win; after a certain point, one can fill in the blanks between solved puzzles, deducing a full solution somewhat like the moment before Vanna turns the final letters on Wheel of Fortune. Over the course of a weekend, all these solutions finally allow a team to deduce the location of a "coin" hidden somewhere on campus. The team that finds the coin first wins, earning the dubious honor of preparing hundreds of puzzles and serving as organizers for the following year's Hunt.

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That's the way it works in theory, at least. Some Hunts run longer than a weekend; some shorter. The organizers sometimes have to interrupt everyone by email to toss some hints, and teams that are lagging often get puzzles unlocked for them before solving the earlier rounds. After all, some of these puzzles are pretty darn hard. At least the VICECHANCELLOR one had words, rather than expecting readers to piece together encrypted Braille, or recognize Xbox 360 Achievement icons by sight.

After the utterly unsatisfying experience of helping to solve a puzzle that only unlocked an even more cryptic puzzle, I thought I'd sworn off puzzle hunting. Eventually, though, I decided to give the Hunt another chance. Perhaps the experience is different in person, I reasoned. As it turns out, it is indeed different, but it sure isn't any easier.

My new team was an offshoot from a larger team. This isn't uncommon, as some teams get to be pretty big and unwieldy after the first 50 or 100 members or so. My new team was relatively small at 20 or 30 members, and our name said it all: The Grand Unified Theory of Love was formed for gaming, geekery, and good-natured fun. We really had no prayer of winning. We were just there to solve some puzzles.

We gathered in the classroom the Hunt's organizers had assigned to us as our headquarters. One table was dedicated to snacks and sodas, but the rest of the room was optimized for puzzle-solving versatility: a laptop at nearly every seat, scrap paper and pencils scattered about, chalkboards featuring progress on metapuzzles, and an overhead projector displaying messages from our remote puzzle-solvers. (We hoped that last bit of equipment would discourage our long-distance friends from skulking off in discouragement like I had a couple years before.) Before we got into the thick of things, our fearless leader reminded us to continually edit the team wiki with our progress to avoid redundant work on any puzzle. We hovered at the laptops, continually refreshing Web browsers as we waited for the puzzles to appear.

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