Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Starting Small, the Puzzle Community, and Puzzle Events I've Never Been To

Or: Thoughts Occasioned by Reading a Blog Post
Every year, I predict that the MIT Mystery Hunt will finally collapse under its own weight.  (Every year so far, fortunately, I have been surprised.)  The Hunt started as a two-sheet page of a dozen puzzles for individuals (or maybe teams), as you can see at the Hunt history page.  Since then, it has grown a little bit every year, as people basically refuse to stop coming.  The most recent version had (so far as I can tell) 130+ puzzles, with teams of half-a-hundred or so (again, so far as I can tell; I've never actually gone myself) participating.  Each year, the puzzles get a little bit harder, and often a little bit more self-referential (you often need to know solutions of prior years' puzzles in order to do one of this year's puzzles), and there's always a little bit more people on the teams.

The other big puzzle event every year is the NPL convention.  I'm not a member of the National Puzzler's League, and so have never been to the con, but it sounds like an action-packed (relatively speaking) weekend: there's a puzzle "extravaganza" (a set of related puzzles leading to a pay-off, like a 1/32nd scale version of the Mystery Hunt), some puzzle contests (both solving and creating) and many many many "unofficial" events and just random puzzles people plunk down on a table.

These two, plus the West Coast-counterpart-to-MIT "Game", give you a pretty strong (IMO) community of puzzlers.  Now, I like to think that I like puzzles, and am reasonably good at them, and perhaps am starting to come around to creating them.  I know (at least virtually) quite a few people who are in this community. The question is then: why have I never joined NPL, and why have I never even considered doing Mystery Hunt?

The NPL answer is perhaps less defensible, so we'll start there.  My first contact with the wider puzzle world was showing up to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which would have had to have been 2001 (I knew of it when I was an undergrad, but spring break schedules didn't line up until I got to grad school).  There was always a plug for the NPL, but it definitely fell flat for me at the beginning--being berated for not wanting to do charades ("Why did you come to Stamford if you don't like charades?!?") was easily written off as just a weirdo, but the nom tradition seemed off-putting (I like spy stories as much as anyone else, and I did my playwriting under a stage name, and I have a "handle" for online stuff, but for some reason I couldn't really get behind noms) and the sample from the Enigma was ... dull.  (I'm a wordy-puzzle kind of guy, but I've never really got the hang of flats.)  I've been told that the Enigma has other things than flats in it, and obviously there's more to the NPL than the magazine, but ... registering has just never seemed to happen.  Every year I think I should, and every year I never quite get around to it.

The answer to why I've never gone to the Mystery Hunt is easier: fear and despair.  Even when I first looked at the hunt, the Hunt seemed so massive as to not be worth my time.  (The first I remember reading contemporaneously was the Matrix hunt (2003), which has about 110 puzzles.)  I could join an established team (of mostly strangers) and not assist much, and maybe only see one-fifth of the puzzles.  I could try to somehow form a team out of thin air, and then maybe only see one-twentieth of the puzzles (as we would probably solve approximately one puzzle in the weekend). Or I could just sit at home and wait for the puzzles and answers to be posted online and gaze in awe, which is what I do.  (I usually make a serious attempt at a few puzzles every year, but I have never yet solved a single one.)  I've known people who have just jumped in to a team even at this late date, but that's not me, psychologically.

This brings us back to the linked blog post above, about "Beginner's Events": where are the beginner's events, these days?  What events are out there that are the early MIT hunts?  There seem to be some candidates: the Post/Herald Hunts of Dave Barry are short six-puzzle affairs that fill an afternoon.  (The last puzzle is released at a fixed time, so that more-or-less removes any time pressure on the first five, which is good from a beginner's perspective.  However, that means that a thousand people are trying to solve the last puzzle at the same time, which can perhaps be overwhelming.)  NPLCon sounds (to me, a non-member) as a fine place to do this sort of thing, as a bit of community outreach, but so far as I know there are no "open" (let alone "beginner") events at the cons.  There are definitely some "regular-difficulty" events out there: I cut my teeth on P&A Magazine and the Puzzle Boat, basically spending a year not solving them until I got my skills up; I did some crossword-based extravaganzas from Eric Berlin and Patrick Blindauer as well as some extravaganzas at ACPT, which is fine for me (as a wordy-puzzle type) but not perhaps desired by the physical-event type.  BLG started out regular-difficulty, although the last set was perhaps a bit more than that.  (And there are definitely the "hard" puzzle sets: Mark Halpin's Labor Day puzzles seem to me to be an extra challenge, and I thought the last Intercoastal Altercations was on the hard side as well.)

Those with more team-solving experience than I can jump in on how well mixed-level teams work; my limited experience suggested that having a "novice" on a team of "skilled" doesn't give the novice much chance to "do" so much as "watch".  This might be a way to get them some experience as to how the mind works, but probably not as good as actually struggling with it themselves.

The ultimate question then is: are beginners' events a good thing?  I think the answer is "yes", as I think we need to have a way for people to find their level and to see improvement over time (other than just failing at things for a while).  Expectations do have to be communicated: a super-team coming down for a puzzle event and finding it to be disappointingly easy will not be very happy (they will enjoy themselves, but only for twenty minutes).  (This is the part I didn't necessarily do very well with my Valentine's Day set of puzzles, but fortunately since it was an online thing people could then move on with their day.)  Can such a thing be done?  I don't know, but I think I will make it my next puzzle (writing) project.  I would like to avoid the "word puzzles on location"-type event, but since I am a wordy-puzzle person, it may end up being rather like that anyway.  Where?  When?  I have no idea.  I would definitely want to sit down and dream up a story-line and some puzzles first (just to make sure it's feasible) before doing any of that kind of planning.  But if you have ideas for where or when, then I'm open to hearing them.  (The obvious place would be something like ACPT, since the average crossword solver is not necessarily big on the creative-type puzzles, but we'll have to see.  I have an idea for wordy-type puzzles that I'd like to bring to ACPT, but I suppose I could try this first.)


tabstop said...

Note: the BLG thing may be "understatement".

Also, if this did somehow happen at ACPT, it would be better to be Saturday night to truly be an "open" event (although technically people can pay for Friday only and not do the regular tournament, I have no idea how often that actually happens).

Neville said...

"Are beginners' events a good thing?" I'd say yes. I first learned of the MIT Mystery Hunt back in maybe 2007 - my undergrad advisor mentioned it to me. I played along after the fact like you until this year, when I played remotely for the first time. I knew exactly two of my teammates (both crossworders) and had a blast. I surprised myself by being able to solve or contribute to the solution of more than a handful of puzzles. That's the bit I hadn't thought about - after years of looking on n awe by myself, I'd forgotten you get people to bounce ideas off of! (Tech these days like Skype & Google Docs makes it easier than ever.) I'd recommend giving it a try some year - if you do it remotely, then there's no travel cost :)

(I'm also surprised it hasn't gotten Too Big.)

No mention of DASH? I think it's pretty beginner friendly - but I bet it's also hard for beginners.

I also want to try my hand at an in person hunt thing locally here in Kentucky. Thinking about starting small with something for the other grad students here - it'd have to be pretty beginner friendly. If I manage something, I'll keep you updated! :)

tabstop said...

The "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" aspect is something I keep forgetting as well.

DASH was in there for most of the time; I appear to have started to move it somewhere and then didn't paste it back in. (That was the point of the blog post I was responding to!) The length is right, but the difficulty apparently needed some work, as I understand it.

And it didn't occur to me as I was writing, but I had just playtested a puzzle set for non-puzzly-people (I guess; it was a group of AP test graders) that Squonk (there's that NPL again) wrote. Maybe it was in my subconscious as I wrote this.

lahosken said...

I started to put together a sort of online puzzle extravaganza aimed at beginners. You might ask: Why an online thingy instead of a live event with welcoming, friendly people?

In an area that doesn't already have a puzzle community, it might not be so easy to muster up a lot of potential-puzzlehunters for a one-time event. You might only sign up a couple of teams. If they have a great time and tell their friends that this was fun, those friends don't have a great way to follow up. But if the hunt sits there on some website, then more teams can play later, as they hear about it.

Jon said...

Hey Neville,
My name is Jonathon and I'm currently overseas on a Peace Corps assignment but I call Kentucky home and went to U of L for undergrad and graduate school. I'd be extremely interested in any kind of puzzle event in Kentucky! I wont be home until Dec. of 2012 but after that, I'd be game for anything.