Jeff Ford (jeffford) wrote,
Jeff Ford

Microsoft Puzzle Hunt A: Atlantis

This weekend I participated in a Microsoft Puzzle Hunt for the first time. It was a blast to compete, and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Our team did quite well, finishing 6th out of 76th teams, 12 of which "completed" the hunt. To complete the hunt you didn't have to solve all of the puzzles, but enough of them to solve the final puzzle which depended on their answers. The event ran from 10am Saturday until 7pm or so Sunday, but we actually finished a bit before 6am Sunday. This was fortuitous for me since I had a wedding to attend, and I'm sure I was a much better guest with sleep than without.

I also had a good hunt personally. There were 42 regular puzzles which led to 5 meta-puzzles which led to 1 final puzzle. By my count I made major contributions to 11 regular puzzles and 1 meta puzzle as well as medium contributions to 2 puzzles and minor contributions to 4 more. I also spent a very long time almost solving one puzzle that I'm still a little bitter about. I'm not sure how to best organize my thoughts from the event, so I'll go with rambling chronological.

What follows is an attempt to capture what playing the event felt like as well as a description of several of the puzzles. During a puzzle hunt you're always in one of three states. Best is the euphoria from having that "aha!" moment where you realize how a puzzle works, and that you can solve it. Next best, and still fun is the steady progress on a puzzle that you know is falling but requires work. This can be quite interesting (solving crossword clues) or less so (looking up things on the internet), but either way it's much better than the last state: staring blankly at a puzzle with no idea what to do. I've mostly avoided talking about those moments, as they are neither memorable nor interesting. Suffice it to say that in addition to the events described below multiple hours were spent in this third state.

I may misremember some of the ordering. I'm also more likely to remember my contributions than others, so apologies if you were on my team and I haven't given you the credit you deserve. I didn't use names since I figured I'd be even more likely to botch credit if I tried.

The event began with a kind of silly opening meeting about the ancient civilization of Atlantis with hints that the inhabitants were still around. The theme was only weakly integrated throughout the event, which didn't really bother me since I was much more interested in the puzzles themselves. I'll not mention the other theme elements and just say now that the Atlanteans were mad that we were polluting their underwater home, and we saved the world from their vengeful plan to cover it entirely with water.

We started with a pack of 13 puzzles. One of them was a Rubik's cube with letters and lines on the faces, making it pretty obvious that it needed to be reordered. Nicely the organizers had added "screwdriver" to the required equipment list, so one member of our team popped it open and began reassembly. This puzzle didn't particularly interest me, so I was glad to see someone else take an interest. We also received a CD. I'm not a huge fan of music puzzles, but no one else was looking at it, so I put it in, realized that different songs were playing in my left and right headphones, and that I didn't actually know the songs, so I explained what was going on and handed the puzzle off. One of the things the best teams do well is to get the puzzles to the people who are fastest at solving them. Other puzzles from the set I noticed but didn't work on were a maze with red, blue, and purple walls that required solving the red maze and the blue maze separately, and a transparency with flags on it that had to be cut out and arranged.

I gravitated to the (mostly) standard crossword puzzle. With the help of a teammate we were quickly able to dispatch it. It contained several shaded cells whose letters gave a message asking us to "ORDER A SUNKEN GARDEN". The puzzle's theming made it clear that we should call the pizza sponsor of the hunt, and so we did. Sadly the pizza didn't actually arrive for a couple hours, so there was no immediate satisfaction from completing a puzzle.

From there we moved to the other crossword-like puzzle. This one had a lightly interlocking grid and several clues beneath, so it was pretty easy to tell that we needed to solve the clues and figure out how to interlock them. Someone else had already noticed that the clues were broken into groups which corresponded to the lengths of the blanks in the grid. In fact they were also ordered alphabetically by answer, but I never noticed that. Most of the clues were such that there were many possible answers even with the length restriction. For example a "Drink Adornment (5 letters)" could be "LEMON", "SLICE", "ROCKS", "TWIST", "STRAW", or "OLIVE". I decided that the answers must be themed in some way for the puzzle to be solvable. The flavor text referred to the ocean, so originally I tried for a water theme, but when we solved "Sad (4 letters)" to "BLUE" and "Mollusk (10 letters)" to "PERIWINKLE" it was clear that all answers were colors and the puzzle fell quickly from there. Marked squares in the grid gave the clue "PATRICIA QUINN ROLE" and so we submitted "MAGENTA".

Having run out of crosswords, we looked at a set of movie scenes each with a floating point number beneath. It wasn't too hard to identify the movies, but unclear what to do next. The directions were "While exploring a long-forgotten underground complex in Kuwait, I took photos of some of its denizens in their housing units." I don't know what Kuwait had to do with anything, but I keyed on the word "units", and realized each picture contained a character, actor, or movie that included a unit. From To Kill A Mockingbird and 1.021593 x 10^0 we converted from pecks to liters, getting a whole number. At this point I thought the puzzle was essentially solved, and went to the gym (described next). The person I left wasn't able to complete it, and when I returned I filled in all but one answer. Since the numbers were all in the range 1-26 we knew they were convertible to letters, but the message didn't make a lot of sense. After some wasted time rearranging the movies on various traits someone checked my calculations, and found some mistakes, giving the message "SI SUBSTANCE UNIT" and the answer "MOLE". I discovered over the course of the event that one of my weaknesses is that I'm not careful to generate the correct data once the gist of the puzzle is solved, generally working too quickly.

Normally I wouldn't skip out in the middle of a puzzle like that, but another puzzle had given us instructions "GO FOR A SWIM IN THE PRO CLUB GYM" and I was our designated swimmer. We'd made an appointment with puzzle HQ, so I expected this to be a fun break from the solving. Instead, when we arrived we were told it would be a 15-20 minute wait. After 25 minutes I was finally allowed in the pool to collect 5 diving rings, something that only took 2 dives and about 60 seconds. Meanwhile there'd been little to do but stand around. We hadn't brought any puzzles since we didn't know there would be a delay. This was definitely the low point of the hunt for me since there's little worse at a puzzle hunt than having no puzzles. The rings had an encoded message when stacked correctly that my teammate quickly deciphered. In addition, I missed meeting Jonobie for lunch as she arrived with lunch just as I was leaving. So in addition to having no puzzles I was also having no lunch.

On the way back we swung by Microsoft Research where an "archaeological site" was set up. There were two conference rooms covered in junk, and we each wrote down everything in one room, then looked in the other and found exactly 6 things that were in both. There were actually 7 things in both, but we'd each missed one, so it was good we were both there. The items were "ACE OF SPADES", "BLOCK", "CELL PHONE", "DART", "ENVELOPE", "FEATHER", and "GRAPE JUICE". Taking the second letter of each (much easier at the time as I'd written them in a vertical list) gave the answer "CLEANER".

When I returned there was a new set of ten more puzzles to solve. Additionally the pizza arrived, allowing completion of the crossword puzzle. The crossword had the words "POTATO", "PEPPER", "SPINACH", and "ONION", and there was one of each item on the pizza allowing us to orient it. THere were also 10 olives corresponding to 10 O's in the puzzle, and each olive had a slit cut out indicating a direction. So you had to read the indicated letters to get the message "ARCHER HOOD" for the answer "ROBIN". This would have been a very cool puzzle except that our pizza's olives had moved during delivery and didn't correspond to the correct O's. It took quite some time to realize there was a problem and guess how to move the olives.

At some point around here I spent some time identifying TV shows from their conjoined plots. Not knowing what to do with them, I put them aside and much later someone solved the rest of the puzzle. I didn't find it interesting at all, so I'm not going to describe it in detail, but it required matching up specific episodes of the shows. Puzzles that just cannot be solved without looking up information are my least favorite, and it's certainly the case that this was one of those.

Having returned from reheating my lunch someone mentioned that there was a cryptic and that it was hard. "Great!" was my response as cryptic crosswords are my favorite type of puzzle, requiring a fun mix of analysis and word knowledge. Teammates were already working on the puzzle, but I was able to answer about a third of the clues reasonably quickly. There was a trick that the puzzles had "hidden passages" where answers would enter and reappear somewhere else. After a short break I was able to finish the clues and find the trapdoors. The letters on the passages formed a loop TRANSI with the I reconnecting to the T for "TRANSIT". This was probably my favorite puzzle of the hunt.

By this time we actually had a second cryptic puzzle, as another set of puzzles had been released, so I worked on that one as well. The clues included numbers that were obviously not the answer lengths (e.g., 84) and a blank 15x15 grid. I actually guessed that these were Scrabble scores even before solving the clue with the answer "SCRABBLE". After solving most of the clues we tried to arrange the words on a Scrabble board to achieve the scores. I wasn't much good at this, and had made the situation worse by mis-solving two of the cryptic clues, but eventually a teammate found my mistakes and completed the Scrabble board. This left seven tiles which could be played crossing several board letters to spell "PHARMACIST", the final answer.

Meanwhile some teammates were solving riddles to band names, and I was able to help with a couple of these. Example: "What do you call it when a magician makes baby chick sounds come from his hat?" Answer: "Cheap [Cheep] Trick". This one looked fun and I was a little disappointed when I realized they were mostly done with it. The next step involved matching "answers" to questions in famous songs by the bands which did not look fun and I'm glad I did not have to help with it.

Also around that time I offered to take a second look at a puzzle a teammate was stuck on. It was of the genre of "I have a lot of data that I'm not exactly sure what order to put it in for processing". I don't think I actually helped any except that by talking through it again she figured out what to do, something she thought she'd tried already. Nevertheless I'm counting this as "minor" help. After all the puzzle wasn't solved until I started looking at it. :)

The last set of puzzles was released around now, and I grabbed a drop quote puzzle. If you haven't seen these, it's a block of text 3-6 lines long where above every column are the letters that go in that column. Word endings are marked with black boxes, so most columns have fewer letters than the number of lines. Generally these are pretty straightforward, but this one required you to make a cryptogram with the letter drops, not a quote. This would have been nearly impossible, but for three things. They gave the explicit hint that the cryptogram was symmetric, so if A stood for F then F also stood for A. They also had some one letter words, and the frequency of letters in the quote was fairly close to that of the normal English language. Eventually I extracted "THIS WORD IS A NAME I CALL MYSELF AND THEN THE KNIGHTS WHO DEMAND A SHRUBBERY AND THEN IT ENDS WITH A FLOWER". I knew "MI" and "NI" but couldn't get the last part. I knew someone would know it, though, and asked for help quickly getting the word "MUM" from someone. This was the closest I came to a solo solve, but in this environment that's just not important. I was a little disappointed to have the second solve on the puzzle though, as I thought we might be first. It was a hard puzzle and I finished it not too long after the puzzle was made available.

Somewhat amusingly about five seconds after finishing this another teammate said, "Since you're not doing anything can you look at this?" I suppose this was literally true since I hadn't grabbed another puzzle in that five seconds, but I didn't feel like I wasn't doing anything. The puzzle he brought was a triangular letter grid. He thought it was a word find (with crooked words) and wasn't sure what to do after circling all the words he could find. I happened to notice the words "THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE" could be made starting in one corner, and we eventually found a long, convoluted phrase running through the triangle leaving a few letters unsolved. Those letters spelled "MAELSTROM", the final answer.

Next we went after a puzzle I'd wanted to try, another drop quote variation. This time you were dropping pictures instead of letters and between them were , -, or a word end block. All of the rebuses solved to movie trivia questions whose answer was the last word of a best picture nomination. The first letters of these spelled "BLADE", which amusingly we tried to convert to "SLING BLADE" before submitting, being told we'd gone one step too far. I thought the steps of this puzzle were very well integrated; it was my second favorite. This puzzle also made clear to me the value of teamwork on these things. I was better at dropping the words into the right boxes to make the rebuses, but the teammate was better at identifying the pictures.

At this point I wandered the room and over someone's shoulder gave the final answer to their puzzle. I have no idea how close they were to finishing, although it can't have been too far. Hopefully this was okay. It's certainly correct in terms of finishing time, but I know that sometimes it's more fun to get the last steps yourself.

Another puzzle involved weights and balances. The first part had 13 weights hanging in balance, a somewhat standard kind of math puzzle which allowed you to determine the values of the differently colored weights. Thankfully someone else had already done this as while I generally like math puzzles this type is one of my least favorite. The next part had several scales that should have been in balance in sets of three. Each set had one weight that was not correct that could be deduced from the direction the scale tipped. The final leap was to realize that the weights mapped A-M if the defective weight was light but N-Z if it was heavy.

I had worked on "Logophobia" early in the event and had moved on, not seeing any way to make progress. There was a list of assorted words and a list of blanks beneath (with the number of letters marked). Clearly it was required to in some order solve the words in the list and put the answer in one of the boxes. I'm not sure that I would have ever made the leap required for this one as each word in the list was part of a phrase "{n} {answer} {original word}" where {n} ranged from one to five. For example "STOP" was a word in the list and you had to come up with "4 WAY STOP". Teammates had solved most of these, and I was able to place the answers in the boxes, one column per choice of {n}. This generated 5 new puzzles and the numbers in these were 1, 18, 21, 2, 1 leading to ARUBA. (At the time we actually guessed the answer from "A?UBA".)

Around this time a puzzle titled "Frontier Expedition" was also solved. It featured a crayon drawing of several groups of animals. The key leap was to realize that they were all models of car (beetle, viper, etc.). The answer letters came from indexing into the manufacturer with the number of animals of that type in the picture. I didn't actually figure any of that out, but was able to help mildly here by noticing that each group of animals was looking at another group. This gave the ordering of the letters.

I've left out one puzzle solved along the way. I remember solving it but not when. It involved matching crossword-type clues to horses that were second in the Kentucky Derby. I realized all but one answer was an election year, and sure enough that one we had wrong. At this point filling in initials of the presidential election losers from those years into a set of boxes, some shaded gave a clue about the famous Dewey / Truman headline. Amusingly there was a knights tour puzzle between these that led to a quote from Nixon about losing elections, but I had made the leap before looking up the quote which a teammate had already solved.

I should also mention the most humorous thing that happened, although I don't remember exactly when. At some point during the day people were trying to figure out what "GO BLINKING FROM LABRYNITH" meant, always aloud. At some point I asked somewhat jokingly how they knew it wasn't "GOB LINKING". Almost immediately everyone working on the puzzle smacked their foreheads and said "GOBLIN KING". Yes, "BOWIE" was the answer.

Two of the other metas also bear mentioning. One of them involved several square pieces of styrofoam with various holes and instructions (encoded) for stacking and orienting them according to the answers to previous puzzles. After building this quinoa (another item on the "required tools" list) was poured in from the top, and shaking caused only some of the holes to fill at the bottom giving a room number. Another meta used a very detailed map of the Microsoft campus (actually created by two of the people who ran the hunt flying over in a small plane) with letters marking very small squares. Again earlier answers were used, and corresponding locations on campus had to be searched.

At this point we had one meta puzzle and the final puzzle left to solve. Unfortunately two of the puzzles we needed to solve in order to solve the meta remained unsolved. It was however possible to guess where to put the answer we had into the meta puzzle in order to extract letters. The guess a teammate had made was leading to a nonsense phrase so I suggested a rearrangement which gave something like "WONAT?TOFOR?EI?AT?". Reading aloud I said "Won at", someone else said "Won ate", and I realized "182498". This is a building and room at Microsoft, and after wandering there the meta was quickly done.

Finally we had all the pieces to the final puzzle. At this point teammates started working on it, and there wasn't room as they were arranged to join in. I thought originally that there was only trivial computation to do once we had all the pieces, so I just waited for a while. At some point it became clear that I should have been helping solve as there was actually work to be done, but by the time I realized this it was too late to be useful. Essentially you were given instructions to build a grid of letters, and then had to find a message by moving letter to letter. The problem was to solve it you needed an alphabetized list of puzzle answers and we hadn't solved them all. We should have just had a program spit out all consistent grids and passed them around, but no one thought of it at the time. Eventually we decoded a message telling us to go to the basement where we found our final medallion.

We found out later that the team that won finished five hours ahead of us. No one on the team (so far as I know) had previously finished a hunt, so most everyone was excited about that. I was glad to finish too, but a little disappointed to be so far back. At the time, though, I was most disappointed that there were no more puzzles to solve. As a rule they had been fair, but hard and very interesting to do. I had thought I'd get to spend all day Sunday doing the same. Theoretically there will be another hunt this fall. I can't wait!
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