Wrap-Up

It’s Over!

Congrats to the 49 teams that saved Gotham from the Riddler, the 119 that disarmed the nefarious Nygmachine, and the 267 that solved at least one puzzle. (That’s slightly more than 70% of all teams that registered!)

📜📜📜 Codex Galacticus 📜📜📜 came out on top of the absolutely thrilling neck-and-neck duel for first to the finish line. ㎁ SQUARE THEMATIC EXTRACTION INDICATOR turned in a valiant second-place effort, and Qardinality finished third before Saturday became Sunday.

Rounding out the top ten were terrific times from these tubular teams!

The top two teams both reached the meta-meta in under 12 hours, trading the effective lead constantly without realizing. They both had the metameta open at the same time, and managed to unlock it (by solving all three of the outer metas) within a half hour of each other. At the same time, no other team had even unlocked the second meta. We were genuinely riveted, hooting and hollering all of Friday night.

Here’s some quick stats, with more juicy details later.

Guesses: 13,551

Solves: 4,627

Hints: 1,242

First solve: 9/10/2021, 12:08:28PM PDT (Guess #1)

         ㎁  SQUARE THEMATIC EXTRACTION INDICATOR  on Propellerheads 

Last solve: 9/19/2021, 11:59:17PM PDT (Guess #13,542)

        WIT  on Ultimate Flunky Championship

(If you had fun, absolutely keep your eye on the Puzzle Hunt Calendar for upcoming events!)

Plot Summary

Batman and Robin were missing for an extended period of time, and none of their other heroic Gotham associates could locate them. Eventually, Riddler stepped forward to claim that he was the one responsible, holding them hostage at an unknown location and further threatening the city at large with an undisclosed device. His demands: a match of wits between a civilian puzzle solving force and his prepared building of challenges.

Spoiler, one of the city’s caped crimefighters, came along with the team of solvers to keep them safe and provide updates on the situation from her communication links. Eventually, the team found their way down the booby-trapped building to the Nygmachine, a nefarious Rube Goldberg machine that will activate a computer to unknown ends…

Meanwhile, as the machine was being reached and disarmed, the Riddler was busy busting out dozens of Arkham inmates, in exchange for their help spreading chaos throughout Gotham and bearing yet more puzzles. In time, each of the lower-level threats was tied to one of three major villains that acted as unwitting lieutenants for the Riddler’s plans.

When the three major villains were dealt with, all that remained was to track down the Riddler, get him into custody, and solve his final challenge to free his captives. But, as always with the Riddler, things turned out to not be quite what they seemed…

Writing the Hunt

Hello! First things first, even before you find out in the credits, we need to be clear: the core writing team of this hunt was six people, and the tech/website team was a single person.

OK! With that out of the way, now we can start.

We began testing interest in making a hunt in January 2020, hot on the heels of the results of the MIT Mystery Hunt. With the Galactic Puzzle Hunt’s status uncertain and a lot of latent drafts itching for an outlet, it seemed like a good idea at the time!

A round of writing and collecting pitches was held through January, which we put to a vote by the team before Valentine’s Day; results were announced right away, and both ranked-choice and Borda count said Batman was the way to go.

Since that far-flung before-time, some of the runner-up themes have had their moment of relevance arguably come and go. Others proved to be (unintentionally) too close to “ripped from the headlines” to be done in good taste. There are a few, though, that could definitely make another appearance should pitches be collected again.

The hunt took our small team nearly eighteen months to prepare because, well, our team was small. More than that, though, we worked without a hard deadline for a long majority of that time, setting soft ones and blowing through them as the enormity of what we were actually planning revealed itself over and over. Slowly, though, we built up our store of puzzles and in March, we finally felt close enough to force ourselves into obligations. More on that later, though…

Theme & Metas

Even though Scott’s Batman pitch was settled on fairly quickly, there were still a few twists and turns before it became what you saw. Originally the scope of the story was much smaller, pitting the solving teams against much less powerful (and less famous) villains. The idea was that it would cut back on the “power fantasy” for civilians to take them on with just their wits, and that there was fun in a smaller-stakes story, as opposed to the demigod-like abilities of a Poison Ivy.

The first drafts made metas out of Calculator, Crazy Quilt and Penny Plunderer; while all three did become round puzzle villains, their mechanics changed drastically in the process. Crazy Quilt and Calculator got total overhauls, while Penny Plunderer’s main mechanic was partially subsumed by Killer Croc, albeit given a big makeover. Of those early drafts, only Man-Bat survived in a recognizable form, becoming “Dr. Langstrom’s Notes” in the inner round.

While the story in the meta-meta author notes truthfully states that it was one of the last (sets of) puzzles drafted, the wordplay itself was settled right at the very start, and there were plenty of rounds of meta-only testing. Slowly but surely, the feeder answers were settled on… some slower than others. Mr. Freeze gained an accomplice in Firefly, six puzzles became twelve, and then at last we had our answers.

The Nygmachine itself was cannibalized from Jonah’s pitch when it was realized that it worked just as well in a Riddler-based setting and was too good to pass up, resulting in a nice visual set piece for the inner round. Finding an artist capable of bringing to life such an intricate illustration was tough, but Adam found out that if there’s really only one person doing professional Rube Goldberg machines and he’s a great guy, the search doesn’t take too long! (Thanks again, Ed!)

Round Puzzles

We tried to avoid having too many research-heavy puzzles, but we didn’t always manage this. (As we’re sure you know.) In the end about half of our 48 puzzles required extensive use of some fairly specific datasets or other external resources for their solutions, and quite a few of the others used more general Wikipedia-type trivia. Once again, the limitations of construction team size made themselves felt; what could have been a tight Puzzle Potluck-sized hunt were passed by our ambitions just a li’l bit. Just a tiny little smidge.

We were very much in the mindset of “slow and steady wins the race” with logging drafts we felt would hold up at least enough to make up the core of final puzzles, and by and large every idea we had made it in some form to the end. Sure, a few benched ideas resurfaced as the deadline bore down over June and July… but hey, a finished puzzle is a finished puzzle!

Testing was something we admittedly struggled with, in part again because of our size not being amenable to keeping testing internal, but also because many of us aren’t as connected into the wider community as we might want to be. Having a lot of ideas but limited feedback and even more limited resources to call on can be rough. Thankfully both people we knew and people we solicited blindly came through, and by the end every puzzle had at least one clean test. (The ones that didn’t get all the way to two tests aren’t the ones you might be thinking, either. Mostly.)

Those familiar with writing hunts (or reading wrap-ups) might be waiting for the word “Puzzlord” to appear at this point in the story, but that cursory mention is all you’re gonna get. See, with the “tech team” (one person) already stretched thin on getting the website running, things were instead monitored 100% manually via a very colorful Google sheet that doubled as a backup answer key with lots and lots of tabs. Everything relating to villain allocation, progress tracking, avoiding duplicate mechanics, and unlock flow was either handled or finalized in that workbook.

Somehow, through all of this, no puzzle in the final hunt ever utilized ternary encoding, pigpen, semaphore, Braille, or Morse code. We warned you ours was an unusual approach!

Framing & Rules

So, in our attempt to write both some story and framing for every puzzle, which would either be a room in the Riddler’s lair or a complete Batman villain in their own setting, we hit a wall. Where would it be fair to make the player read for clues? How much useful information was “fair” to put in the paragraphs and paragraphs of mood-setting? Where was the right place to draw that figurative line? And in a puzzle hunt as back-to-basics as ours, how could we convince people that there were no secrets hiding in our 404 page, or the various other corners of the website?

The answer was, of course, to remove ambiguity from the process altogether and make the dividing line explicit: thus, on August 1st, was the Puzzle Caution/Crime Scene Tape born. We know there are people that love to feel some kind of life breathed into their series of tasks, and we did our best to give them a smorgasbord of set dressing to enjoy at their leisure. For the other (probably much, much larger) group that pays little to no attention to that stuff? “Hey, start paying attention here!”

Since we didn’t have the manpower to code up any real showstoppers, we made do with what we could manage and did our best to focus instead on user experience. As certain blocks of text became baked into images, a classic concern raised its head: just how much fun is it to copy things over and make your own sheet? What began as an attempt to jury-rig a Copy to Clipboard feature instead became the much simpler process of providing premade template sheets for puzzles heavy on text and/or arrangement. While the initiative was spearheaded by Jonah, the sheets were mostly made by Adam, who’d like you to know that you’re welcome.

We also considered a variety of policies on “follow-up” messages when solvers entered messages that were on the solution path but not the right answer. Hunts like Galactic Puzzle Hunt and Mystery Hunt have no such messages. On the other end, hunts like DASH and the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt give confirmation messages for all intermediary messages and, in some cases, even individual clues. Jonah took the lead to organize and standardize a compromise: the system confirms mini-puzzle answers (in Qatalog and The Riddler), as well as clue phrases that a team could reasonably interpret as a final answer. A collection of all the intermediate answers that generated responses is included in the Stats section.

Hunt Operations

Testing

Because of our team size (we’ve been saying that a lot, haven’t we?) we didn’t particularly have the luxury of internal testing. We would do semi-blind run-throughs of one another’s drafts as we got them, but we were almost always spoiled on the answers ahead of time. It was useful, but we couldn’t reasonably count them as “real” playtests. A lot of our testing through 2020 were preliminary meta-only dry runs, with a little bit of getting other friends, Codex and otherwise, to jump test whatever drafts were handy.

By 2021, Manic had joined the writing team, but not before/without spending a good few months as the first person to dry-run the complete hunt. Things were much more solidified by March of this year, and we were very fortunate to pull people from Small Llama Malls, Rage, and Puzzle Potluck to give us vital data for our final passes through each puzzle. Their sacrifice of “not being to compete on the leaderboards” is deeply appreciated.

“Deciding” When to Hold It

The first (very naive) goal was set for the summer of 2020. As the number of round puzzles ballooned and mini-hunts were pitched, that date drifted to the fall, and eventually the raft of other (excellent) hunts pushed us back to summer. We were in contact with the Puzzle Hunt Calendar for a long while before announcing, but we ended up playing coy too long.

Catastrophe struck, and we ended up losing the dates we thought we had! We scrambled for a bit, thinking how far back we could push backward before the crowding on the calendar would just get worse and worse. We chatted with other teams who had tentative dates that might have cut too close to ours, either nearby or (Heaven forbid) overlapping on a weekend, and things were wrangled into place for September, thanks to some courteous negotiation with other hunts.

Incidentally, and totally unrelated to that, did you know about Silph Puzzle Hunt coming up this December? Boy it sure looks like a hoot, and it’s run by some really swell folks let me tell ya!

Answering Hints

First things, first, let’s have a look at the breakdown of who answered the hunt’s 1,242 hints.

🥇 Scott: 385

🥈 Adam: 365

🥉 Jonah: 287

Nick: 185

Manic: 14

[no name]: 4

Aaron: 1

Lee: 1

Again, when we said our team was seven people at the highest count, we meant it. Of course, this number doesn’t reflect the number of follow-up emails we did, which were probably in the neighborhood of 400.  Some staff members made it a point of personal preference to offer email follow-ups while softballing hints, to prevent ruining any aha moments. Like many choices made in this hunt, it resulted in more work for the small and already-harried staff, but it was offered freely and it proved to be worth it when all was said and done.

In addition, Adam embraced the spirit of the hunt and went “bat-shift” crazy to provide overnight hints and email support. Thanks to his conversion to an even-more-nocturnal-than-usual sleep schedule, QoDE achieved 24-hour support for the duration of the hunt, as anyone who submitted a hint request or email between the hours of 3AM to 10AM EDT can attest.

“Sure, we could have just suspended service like normal people, but doing everything the hard way was basically the hallmark of the entire process of putting this hunt on. Why start respecting my body’s physiological needs now, y’know?” - Local Tired Man

Our median time to answer hint requests was 3 minutes 35 seconds, and we answered 91.5% of them in under 10 minutes. Only twelve took longer than 30 minutes to respond, and none took more than an hour. Our last hint request came in at 11:59:05 on September 19, with just 55 seconds remaining before the hunt closed… and was answered in 30 seconds.

Kite Man (Hell Yeah)

Many minor and less-utilized Batman villains exist in a kind of characterization limbo, but Kite Man even still sits somewhat apart. In the comics, while his mere appearance is meant as a joke in and of itself, he was given a fair bit of pathos in a number of stories. This stood totally at odds with his newest and most prominent appearances on the animated Harley Quinn show as an essentially alright guy, but a bit of an oblivious jerk.

Many different teams got different versions of the man. Some got the enthusiastic aviation lover with the occasional peering out of some flecks of his haunted past. Some got the bro’d out animated version with his rudeness cranked maybe a bit past eleven. Some got a very forthright, business-like, matter-of-fact version when both Adam and Scott were away.

What all the versions of Kite Man this hunt brought out had in common was that they correctly spelled the answer they were supposed to provide in a healthy majority of their replies. Like, easily over 85% of the time! That’s a solid B+ right there!

Errata

In what might be our hunt’s greatest coup of all, we… sort of didn’t have any?

If you look at the updates pages, pretty much every mistake that was found could be chalked up to one of two things. One, there may have been some slight confusion between draft versions, which required cleaning up as far as subtle wording choice or making sure the provided template sheet and the web page agreed. Two, the constructor of the offending puzzle (usually Adam in these cases) temporarily forgot how the alphabet worked, and improperly listed some clues that were meant to be reordered later in the solving process anyway.

Mechanically, every single puzzle we had was accurate. We are absolutely grateful to all the internal testing, external testing, and Nick’s keen eye as a proofreader and fact checker for this.

Tech Operations (Lee’s Corner)

Overall, gph-site, the open-source project we built on top of, was a pleasure to use. I had no previous Django experience, so it was a bit of a learning curve to start, but fairly smooth sailing afterward. It was also great that it had Discord integration out of the box, which was really helpful for our hunt operations. Huge thanks to the folks who have worked on that project.

One thing I wish I’d had more time to work on was the overall messaging infrastructure. We didn’t have a great way to send mass emails or notifications via the site itself.

One thing I did spend some time doing was ‘modernizing’ the application. Out of the box, the project assumes a single machine installation where the database is running alongside the web server. This makes it hard to scale easily, build debugging environments, etc. I containerized the application and had it running in AWS on ECS Fargate (which is a serverless solution). This allowed me to use Aurora Severless for the database and have a fairly scalable solution. We could easily scale up/down the task CPU/memory reservations as well as add more tasks to handle increases in load (such as for the initial onslaught of traffic when the hunt opened). It also meant that during development, we could have the full site up and running, but at fairly low cost by having the system scale down to 0 (Aurora Serverless has a ‘pause’ mode and while we didn’t do this, we could have also scaled the container tasks to 0 as well when not in use).

I plan to open-source the various changes made and upstream them if there’s interest upstream. Over the next few months, I’ll write a series of blog posts on pulumi.com (my employer) for those interested, as I also utilized that technology to make it really easy to deploy the system itself.

As a result of the above changes, it only cost us about $30-40/month to run the service during development (roughly what it would cost to host a small web server), scaling up to $100 for the week of the hunt to add capacity. If you’re inclined, we’d appreciate any donations to the tip jar to help us defray our hosting costs.

To help save on on-going costs going forward, I plan to convert the site to a static website that uses client-side checking for the answers. I think this could be another interesting piece of code, so when this eventually happens, I’ll be sure to try to upstream that change as well as write about it for those interested in the technical aspects of how our hunt technology worked.

Lessons Learned

So, to turn down the joviality just a notch or two: as proud as we are of what we accomplished here, and we’re glad so many people enjoyed the final results, we did about as much “wrong” as possible. We aimed for too much as a first-time construction team. We didn’t adjust those aims as our team turned out to be much smaller than anticipated. We quietly ate delay after delay on our unannounced project while still managing to introduce feature and scope creep into the mix.

We made an outer round with mixed answers/hidden meta feeding that demanded avoiding answer feature overlap as much as possible, while theming every puzzle in the round to a pre-existing Batman villain and writing a story blurb for every last one. We did all this without any automation of management, bouncing between a Google Sheets answer key, a “master” Word document, web page versions, and template copies for solvers.

Only through sheer force of will did we push ourselves to the point where it made more sense to finish the project than quietly abandon it. To borrow a very apt term from software development, there’s a lot of “Known Shippable” stuff in this hunt. We love our baby very much, and we know you can see how beautiful it is, but nobody can ignore it has lots of rough edges, us least of all.

This was our first time writing a hunt as a unit, and for a majority of us was our first time ever writing puzzles in a hunt. What you saw was largely the product of experienced solvers trying their hand at mimicking/recreating the elements of a good puzzle, and getting passably close through ruthless iteration. In a lot of cases, a clever conceit or an elegant underlying design was undermined by hands less practiced at properly guiding solvers and fencing off red herrings.

We made puzzles that were at least demonstrably sound, since we had teams that completed everything without hints, but it’s safe to say there were puzzles that didn’t make it to showtime as the best possible versions of themselves. At least the difference between “flavortext that actually helps” and “flavortext that just ‘confirms the answer’ while causing unintended grief” will hopefully never escape us again.

The last thing which may have distracted us from writing a better hunt, on some level, was the theme itself. Trying to weld together the villains and settings and puzzle ahas and answers is where bad tendencies like the misleading answer confirmations crept in. The Rogue’s Gallery of Gotham also chafed a little here and there just as a result of the size of the set. Sure, it’s large, but it’s not as large and forgiving as, say, all DC villains. (We did allow for one dip into this wider field in the form of Professor Zoom, just because it was too thematic to pass up.) Foggy Brume, the man behind the yearly Puzzle Boat (#8 coming up soon!) has made this work in a hunt with twice as many puzzles, written all by himself, thanks to using more forgivingly big sets like “every tabletop game ever” or “every book ever” for his thematic foundations. Smart guy!

(Those with an eye for marketing can also take note here: having your own original story and setting not only gives you exponentially more freedom in writing story and puzzles, it also means less time quietly wondering if you’re going to annoy any IP lawyers!)

We’re honored (and also a bit shocked) that we were actually asked for advice from people who have done some puzzle-writing practice, but aren’t sure about writing a hunt. If we had to sum up our takeaways, we could probably boil it down to four big things.

QoDE II?

We genuinely have no idea right now if we will ever do this again; we’re definitely happy to just go back to being participants and solvers for the time being. (Getting this up and written before Teammate Hunt 2021 starts has been a priority, for our sakes as well as yours!)

If we do return, it will be done very differently, and not just in the sense of being wiser from experience gained. It could be something more fun-sized in one year, it might be something comparable in scale that takes two or more years. We’ll see how people feel after MITMH 2022.

In any case, we’d certainly like to have more people aboard… like, say, anyone that can draw (Before you jump in, Scott: this is about Wacom tablets, not your very good ketchup bottle skills.) Someone with some web design panache would certainly have helped our “zhuzh” factor, too. We also openly acknowledge that our team’s size also hindered our diversity in just about every conceivable department (nationality, gender, ethnicity, take your pick) and we’d love nothing more than to remedy that in the future.

Who knows what the future holds? Guess you’ll just have to keep your eyes on that Puzzle Hunt Calendar and maybe, someday, we’ll have a new tortured backronym waiting for you.

Until then… stay on your toes.

Fun Stuff!

(SPOILER WARNING!) (CONTENT SPOILERS, NOT THE MASKED HEROINE)
(also a content warning from here on out with regards to salty language/cussin’)

Kites are Fun

Kites Are Fun! (QoDE 2021)

Starring, in order of appearance: StriketeamC; WIT; Frumious Bandersnatch; bATMEn; 🌮🌮taquito; ✹ FIGHT SOUND EFFECT CONTAINER; Qardinality; Mobius Strippers; Time Vultures; ☃; ClueCurio; 📜📜📜 Codex Galacticus 📜📜📜; Tardynality; Scenic Travelers; The C@r@line Syzygy; Plugh in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel; Cheatahs; The Mystery Machine; 🌊 Blanket Fort 🌊; and Intimidated by Megameters.

Bonus Content

Early registrants for the hunt received an email regarding a small shift in the start time, as well as an opportunity to guess the theme early if the site’s color scheme wasn’t quite enough:

Dear Esteemed Puzzlers,

Thank you for signing up for the 2021 QoDE Hunt. We are ETERNALLY grateful. 2020 delivered us all a NASTY BLOW, so we hope that you will seek a bit of distraction by solving some devious puzzles alone or with some of your friends. We truly believe in the MEDICINAL properties of a good puzzle. Sorry if that sounds a bit POLLYANNA of us, but we’re optimists!

While we are still going live on Friday, September 10, you may have noticed that we have pushed the start time back from 9:00 AM PDT (12:00 EDT) to 12:00 PM PDT (3:00 EDT). Our RATIONALE is simply that we wanted to make sure that the site was fully staffed at the start lest something go awry. With puzzle hunts, you never know!

We hope that you will have a fantastic time. We are UNASHAMED to say that we think you’ll enjoy what we have to offer, and we’re willing to do whatever we can to make your puzzling as pleasant as possible without feeling like PENALTIES. Anything at all that will improve your solving experience... YOU NAME IT. Also, feel free to spread the word about the competition! The more the merrier.

As for the theme reveal... all in due time.

Regards,

Team QoDE

There were also some plans to include a cliffhanger/stinger epilogue to the story, but it was too far down the priority list to get working as intended in time. It would have involved meeting with The Joker (who was the source of the hint cards teams had been redeeming) and getting one of three questionably-true responses out of him. Two were very story-heavy, relating to whether his role in the proceedings was by design or not, and directly contradicted one another. The third is short enough to relay here in full:

Oh, I could drone on about details, and maybe you’d be dumb enough to believe what I’d tell you, but instead let’s get to the real question that’s bugging you: after all that, why fall back on Oedipus Rex and the Sphinx, the oldest riddle in the book?

It’s simple! Deep down Eddie thinks you’re all a bunch of annoying motherfuckers.

Best and/or Notable Wrong Guesses

Because of The Dark Knight’s Patrol’s susceptibility to shortcutting, many solvers just solved the first 5 grids (or less) and tried CHECKER and CHECKED and CHECKUP before guessing the right answer. Other attempts like CHESTER and CHEATER and CHICKEN made appearances, as well. Strangest of all goes to ENCIRCLE for being both 8 letters and guessed by two different teams.

In Qatalog, the vast majority of teams were unable to resist the siren song of calling in the capital letters of the Qatharsis query, with 150 submissions of ANSWER and only 133 of the actual answer. We considered adding a partial response for this, but refrained for a few reasons: we didn’t want to encourage solvers to start calling in non-answers this early in the hunt, and (perhaps selfishly) we wanted to be able to collect stats on who submitted it. Congratulations to bat-plugh for being the first team to solve the puzzle with no incorrect guesses.

While there are more details in the author’s note of the solution, Ain’t By Numbers was the undisputed champion of earning wrong guesses, with a whopping 843. Second place (Qatalog) didn’t even garner 600 and third (Ultimate Flunky Championship) barely cleared the 500 mark. In brief, the puzzle involved assembling a picture of Che Guevara, but had a last step that a good number of solvers didn’t realize was there at first glance. (Or maybe not at all?) That said, here’s a sample of some of the wilder curveballs that we got from you: BASQUIAT, BATMAN DRACULA, BOB MARLEY (three), CHAIRMAN MAO, ELECTRIC CHAIRS (???), FIDEL CASTRO (two), JIM MORRISON (two), JIMI HENDRIX, JIMMY HENDRIX, LENNY KRAVITZ, MARVIN GAYE, and a resounding cry from RatoLibre1 🐘🐘🐘 of THAT’S FUCKING CHE GUEVARA.

A different team out there (which we won’t name) has serial issues with cursing in the answer field, sending  things like DAMN, FUCK, SHIT and ANIME SONIC. Hey: keep that filth to yourself.

As clock ticked down for the end of the hunt, :praytrick: took the opportunity to share their thoughts on Mash-Ups ( I GIVE UP / THANKS FOR PUTTING PUMP IT UP / IN A PUZZLE I LOVE THAT SONG / I CAN SEE FOR MILES TOO) and Run the Numbers ( SORRY HINT PERSON / I GIVE UP I COULDN'T FIGURE IT OUT / WHAT DOES THE A MEAN / LOVE YOU THO HOMIE) before the timer ran out. (Love you too, dawg.)

Our longest incorrect guess* (not arbitrarily being thrown out for being a complete joke and/or means of communicating displeasure) goes to There’s Somany Bats Inhere! for their 86-letter attempt at Run the Numbers: FOUR BILLION TWO HUNDRED NINETY-FOUR MILLION NINE HUNDRED SIXTY-SEVEN THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED NINETY-SIX. The shortest is a 14-way tie shared by N five times, A three times, C twice, R twice, an X and a Z.

Meta: The Nygmachine

Many teams got the “X the Y” aha and guessed “ SOUND THE ALARM” which is 13 letters, but doesn’t use all the information provided. Keep Puzzling 💣💥 answered the question that the puzzle posed (“What is this device’s purpose?”) with the technically correct TO GIVE US MORE PUZZLES TO SOLVE while Mystery Fun House looked more to Edward Nygma’s soul with their guess of ANNOY THE FIRE DEPARTMENT.

Meta: Poison Ivy

If you looked at the guess log you would think this one passed mostly without incident; the best shot-in-the-dark guess on the puzzle itself goes to Please Clap 17 Times for ROSE AMBUSH. No no no, the horrors this one wreaked were in the attempts to get the tree answers without solving the puzzles. And so, without further ado, we now bring you a highlight reel of sorts:

Backsolving the Forest for the Trees (A Collection Accentuating Completely Incorrect Attempts)

AP🍐ANCES  AP🍐STOBE  BUTTON🍐L FRANK🍐CE  ANK🍋ITOR  ALKA🟢TAL

🎍ZLEMENT  🌳ERSTOWE  🌲CUTTERS  BLUEH🌳ET  FE🌳EFLOW  H🌳UTKOHL  BALLOF🌲E  DESIGN🌲M  DRAGON🌲E  FOREST🌲E  B🌳SEMBLE  HOBGOB🌳S  BHO🌴ETRO  FACE🌴ING FILLETS🌳  FLANKS🌳S

BOBB🌳ING  B🌳HISTLE  E🌳ITNESS  FARE🌳ELL  HARR🌳ING  HENR🌳ING

AL🌲SKIER  BRENTS🌲R  BROKENS🌲  CURVEDS🌲  DORSALS🌲  E🌲PHRINE  FIELDLU🌲  FILI🌲TTI  HAP🌲SSES  HOLLOWS🌲  HOMATRO🌲  HYBRIDS🌲  

D🌳BOARDS  DAT🌳EETS  DISHW🌳ER  F🌳IONING  FL🌳BACKS  FL🌳BANGS  FL🌳CARDS  FL🌳DANCE  FL🌳DRIVE  FL🌳FLOOD  FL🌳GAMES  FL🌳INESS FL🌳LIGHT  FL🌳PAPER  FL🌳POINT  FL🌳TUBES  FL🌳VIDEO  H🌳BROWNS

BAR🟤HTER  BOSS🟤 HTS  BULL🟤HTS  CON🟤URED  DIS🟤URED  DOG🟤HTER  

FAIR🟤HTS  🟤HTCLUBS  🟤HTCRIME  🟤HTDIRTY  🟤HTERACE  🟤HTERJET  

🟤HTFORIT  🟤HTITOUT  🟤HTMONEY  🟤HTMOVES  🟤HTMUSIC  🟤HTNIGHT  

🟤HTSBACK  🟤HTSCENE  🟤HTSOVER  🟤HTSTICK  🟤HTSTYLE  🟤HTTOWIN  

🟤URATIVE  🟤UREDOUT  🟤UREFOUR  🟤UREHEAD  FINAL🟤HT  FIST🟤HTS  

FIXED🟤HT  FOOD🟤HTS  FOO🟤HTER  GUN🟤HTER  HERO🟤URE  SUPER🟤HT

AIR🌳CREW  AIR🌳MODE  AIR🌳SEAT  AIR🌳WING  ALIEN🌳TS

ANIMAL🌳T  DESERT🌳T  DWARF🌳TS  FOURTH🌳T  FROZEN🌳T

🟤HT🌳ES  🌳E🟤HTER  🌳EH🌳ET

B🌳D🌳

Meta: Firefly & Mr. Freeze

We saw many attempts to backsolve the outer round puzzles by guessing incorrect members of the sets utilized by this meta:

“The Price Is Right” Games: BALANCE GAME(13); CARD GAME(5); COMING OR GOING(5); COVER UP(5); DO THE MATH(1); DOUBLE CROSS(2); GRIDLOCK(1); GROCERY GAME(1); PUNCH A BUNCH(1); SHOPPING SPREE(4)

Pink Floyd “The Wall” Songs: EMPTY SPACES(19); GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD(1); IN THE FLESH(7); MOTHER(11); NOBODY HOME(11); ONE OF MY TURNS(1); RUN LIKE HELL(2); STOP(5); THE TRIAL(5); VERA(5); YOUNG LUST(6)

Shakespeare Plays: CYMBELINE(2); THE MERCHANT OF VENICE(11); TITUS ANDRONICUS(2)

Tilda Swinton Films: LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD(1); SNOWPIERCER(1); THE BEACH(3); THE DEAD DON'T DIE(1); THE GARDEN(4); THE MAN FROM LONDON(1); THE PROTAGONISTS(3); THE SOUVENIR(1); THE STATEMENT(1); THE WAR ZONE(2); THE ZERO THEOREM(2); UNCUT GEMS(5)

The Gashlycrumb Tinies: OLIVE(7); TITUS(1); UNA(4); VICTOR(8); XERXES(2); YORICK(9)

NHL Teams: BOSTON BRUINS(15); NASHVILLE PREDATORS(2);NEW YORK ISLANDERS(1); NEW YORK RANGERS(3); PITTSBURGH PENGUINS(2); TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING(29); TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS(5); VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS(2)

Other wild category-inspired guesses that we saw submitted on multiple round 2 puzzles included the following:

Biblical characters (inspired by ZILLAH): ADAH, CAIN, MARTHA, NAAMAH

Marvel characters (inspired by DOCTOR STRANGE): DORMAMMU, HAWKEYE, HULK, SCARLET WITCH, THANOS, THOR, THOR RAGNAROK

Confidence games (inspired by SHELL GAME): CUPS AND BALLS, TWO-CARD MONTE

Wimpy Kid books (inspired by THE DEEP END): CABIN FEVER, WRECKING BALL

Other Pink Floyd songs: CALLING, COUNTRY SONG, CRUMBLING LAND, CRYING SONG, CYMBALINE, HAVE A CIGAR, SHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND

Child’s Play song (inspired by RAT RACE): RUFF HOUSE

Shakespeare character (inspired by OTHELLO): DESDEMONA

Cathy Cassidy books (inspired by... ???): LUCKY STAR, SCARLETT

Plus a few other guesses that we have no idea where they came from: BILLY GOT A WATERMELON / BILLY GOAT WATERMELON, WASHINGTON LOBBYIST, MENTAL NOODLE

Metameta: The Riddler

A lot of guesses centered around LEGS but there were also some violent variations that (we hope) were based on one of the Riddler’s audio logs in the Arkham Asylum game: BROKE SOME LEGS, CUT THEIR LEGS OFF, CHOPPED THEIR LEGS OFF, LEGS LEGS LEGS LEGS LEGS LEGS LEGS LEGS LEGS etc. The staff that didn’t know that were… unsettled.

In frustration, team ㎁ SQUARE THEMATIC EXTRACTION INDICATOR submitted the fiendish theory that HE GAVE THEM A METAMETA WITH NO ANSWER SO THAT THEY WOULD BE STUCK IN EXTRACTION FOREVER MUAHAHAHAHA. Later, we were treated to a riddle of our own: WHY DON’T YOU EVER SEE ELEPHANTS HIDING IN TREES? (The answer which they also provided shortly after, is, of course, BECAUSE THEY’RE REALLY GOOD AT IT .)

Please Clap 17 Times used this puzzle to submit the second-longest guess of the hunt, and the longest coherent guess:
THERE IS A BUGGY TROLLY DEPARTING THE TRAIN STATION. IF BATMAN DOES NOTHING IT WILL RUN OVER A CREATURE THAT WALKS ON FOUR LEGS. IF BATMAN PULLS THE LEVER THE TROLLY WILL DIVERT AND INSTEAD HIT A CREATURE THAT WALKS ON THREE LEGS. THERE IS A TWO-LEGGED CREATURE AT THE STATION THAT BATMAN COULD PUSH ONTO THE TRACKS STOPPING THE TROLLY WITH ITS DEAD BODY. WHICH OPTION WILL THE CAPED CRUSADER CHOOSE? Extracting CoDE of /r/PictureGame chose to be more succinct and went with NYGMA BALLS.

Our Stories

For General Malpractice, we had several teams request hints using the meter and rhyme of the flavortext, so of course we had to respond in the same vein.

One team sent in a hint request complaining that they didn’t know of any “pubic lookup” that would allow a reverse identification of a ZIP+4 code; we warned them that such an action would probably be illegal.

Some solvers of Reconditioned were so cautious about potentially bothering random strangers that they emailed Puzzle HQ to ask if they were really supposed to contact the prompted “Uncle Unconscious” email address. Their conscientiousness was impressive, but we assured them they were correct to do so.

At a couple of major story development points, our system sent solvers an email saying simply “You've uncovered an important update to the story!” to prompt them to check the story tab for the updated information. This confused some solvers who were expecting to see the update included in the email. Too much work; sorry!

Your Stories

The Conclave

I hadn’t contributed a lot to my team’s solves and was personally feeling desperate for a solve that had my fingerprints on it. I chose Role Call and got through about half the puzzle before asking for a hint. The hint opened the floodgates, and as another teammate joined me we furiously began filling out the crosswords with about 2 hours left in the hunt. We had one role wrong, but the solution became obvious so I went to the website to submit. As I got the correct answer confirmation, my neighborhood lost power and my WiFi went out. As if Fate was confirming I was “done”.

Eggplant Parms

One of our team members cold-called like ten different numbers on Speed Dial because the team was so stuck on it. (Thankfully, none of them picked up.)

FrogLamps

One of our team members kept putting "Draco Ralfoy" in the wiz clue for Reconditioned... even when we took it out, it would just appear again.

:praytrick:

Finding out that the answer for Speed Dial was DEEP THROAT was traumatizing. We were so stuck on that puzzle and finding out a week later when we went back to backsolve that it was DEEP THROAT was the funniest moment in VC, especially combined with the "blow the whistle" connection. It was surreal ‘cause we were tired from the puzzle hunts and just trying to tie up loose ends, and finally it clicked after staring at that puzzle for ours, only for extraction to give us DEEP THROAT… man.

Also, we kept making Q jokes by adding it to our nicknames in our server, and consistently trying to incorporate them into messages. I felt our qolleqtive sanity going down the drain.

There’s Somany Bats Inhere!

(Since it has its own self-contained narrative, we present the team’s submission to Kite Man,  “Barry, the Bee that Thought He Was a Kite” here in full.)

Things were going well for Barry on his journey. My teammates were less interested.

Just when things were looking up for Barry, though, it all took a turn for the worse:

Thankfully, nothing bad happened after this, and Barry is still alive to this day!

Wait. Uh.... Sorry, my bad.

Your Questions for Us

Adam: “It’s because we know each other from Codex and we set up a joke that won’t pay off until nine hunts from now, because we really like to dream big. I think the broad plan was/is probably to call every hunt a “Quest” and then finish the backronym to fit the theme. Certainly helps getting the Q out of the way.”

Nick: “The “Quest” theme came about because when we went to choose a web address, the .quest top-level domain had just opened up for pre-orders, and we were lucky to grab ona.quest at a real bargain price. (We also got thegreatpuzzle.quest as a backup in case our order got gazumped; we are open to offers for it.)”

Adam: “Uhhhhh, Paul Erdős?”

Manic: “John Madden.”

Adam: “Watching the race for first place.”

Scott: “Honestly? Those first few minutes when the website magically didn’t fail were up there. On the other side of the hunt, in the waning hours, I hopped onto a team’s spreadsheet and provided more personalized help than I normally would. It’s fun communicating through spreadsheet cell messages.”

Here's a slightly-abridged version of a reply Nick sent out to those who asked us via email.

“Back in 2015 I devised an earlier version of this puzzle for a Team Codex puzzle-writing exercise: I downloaded the asteroid list (some 19,000 names) from the Minor Planet Center and wrote a computer program to find pairs that were a single-letter transdeletion apart. Running it again on the results for a second level didn’t really work, until I had the idea of using two-letter transdeletions for the second level, three letters for the third level, and so on. This got me to the fourth level, but with only 10 names in my results list I could go no further. I chose a solution to give a set of 16 plausible starting names, but the puzzle never saw the light of day as Team Codex has wisely refrained from winning the MIT Mystery Hunt since then.

Fast forward to 2020 when we started work on the QoDE hunt; I dusted off my program and found that, thanks to advances in astronomy and the search for possible Earth impactors, there were now some 3,000 additional names available, which let me expand my shortlist of 10 fourth-level names to 52. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t reach a good fifth level answer by subtraction, but using multiplication I was able to reach a name (KATHYCLEMMER) that allowed extraction of one of the answers we needed to write a puzzle for. The only drawback was that I couldn’t find a set of 32 distinct starting names; the best I found was 24, using ISA three times at the third level. To cover this I wrote flavortext mentioning “three Independent Spin Axes,” but our playtesters thought the hint wasn’t necessary.

Not very amazing once it’s explained, is it?”

Yeah, alright Nick. Not amazing at all. Whatever you say.

Adam: "Izzy from Atlanta 1996, I guess, because I distinctly remember owning a stuffed... version of... whatever he was supposed to be."

Adam: “Either HOLY UNREFILLABLE PRESCRIPTIONS or HOLY NON-SEQUITUR. Trying to limit myself to ones not from the puzzle.”

Scott: “Either HOLY CONTRIBUTING TO THE DELINQUENCY OF MINORS or HOLY PRICELESS COLLECTION OF ETRUSCAN SNOODS. Both of them were fun to photoshop.”

Manic: “HOLY HYPODERMICS just has a nice ring to it, you know?”

Adam: “I like a good Hashiwokakero every now and then.”

Scott: “Ooh… I’m probably best at Masyu, but I’ve been enjoying Nanro as of late.”

Adam: “Puzzles where you have to “reverse-engineer” something back to an original state.”

Manic: “I love music-based puzzles, but am always disappointed when I don’t recognize any of the songs offhand. Someone make a house music puzzle just for me, please.”

More Stats

Finishers

Bigboard

Here are all the puzzles, ordered by percentage of incorrect guesses, from lowest to highest:

Puzzle guessesWrongRightTotal% wrong
Fear of Heights2910213122.14
Relaying Instructions5818324124.07
Role Call339813125.19
Motel 64211415626.92
Propellerheads8421630028
Transcosia399913828.26
No Man's Land5811217034.12
META: Firefly & Mr. Freeze38529042.22
Batman Smells!13116930043.67
Secret Sauce9712021744.7
Syndicate Strife20424344745.64
META: The Nygmachine10211822046.36
Who?879418148.07
Do the Batusi15315831149.2
Pearls of Wisdom636512849.22
Dr. Langstrom's Notes14814729550.17
Power Couples907616654.22
Minor Differences1098819755.33
The Unusual Suspects897015955.97
META: Poison Ivy705512556
A-Sides17412630058
<31118019158.12
Run the Numbers1359322859.21
Day-jà Vu1097318259.89
Contagion23315038360.84
Tailored Rectangles1438322663.27
META META: The Riddler894913864.49
Pool Cues1226718964.55
The Dark Knight's Patrol29315745065.11
50-501467522166.06
Zip It1557523067.39
Reconditioned1256018567.57
Mash-Ups1436721068.1
Swiss Cheese1536321670.83
Mass Transit1605921973.06
Before and After2047227673.91
Gotham's Next Top Henchman2067227874.1
Method to the Madness2617934076.76
All That Zsasz43212255477.98
Speed Dial49013562578.4
Pleading the Fifth2114525682.42
Qatalog62813376182.52
META: Killer Croc2525330582.62
General Malpractice2364027685.51
Ain't By Numbers84311996287.63
The Gotham Underground2934033387.99
Ultimate Flunky Championship5183855693.17
Multiple Imputation3352335893.58
Total Guesses892446271355165.85

Here are the top 20 wrong answers, with the puzzles they were submitted for:

Wrong answerGuessesPuzzle(s)
ANSWER151Qatalog (and 1 other puzzle)
CHEGUEVARA120Ain't By Numbers
MNEMONIC118All That Zsasz
CHECKER93The Dark Knight's Patrol
FIGHTNIGHT74Ultimate Flunky Championship and 14 others
CHE73Ain't By Numbers
FIGHTERJET73Ultimate Flunky Championship and 18 others
GERARDMALANGA60Ain't By Numbers
ANDYWARHOL58Ain't By Numbers
SERIALBUS5817 puzzles
GUEVARA54Ain't By Numbers
BBQCHAMP5318 puzzles
FIGUREHEAD4821 puzzles
MALANGA45Ain't By Numbers
SNITCH44Speed Dial and 6 others
WARHOL43Ain't By Numbers
FISTFIGHTS41Ultimate Flunky Championship and 15 others
GUERRILLEROHEROICO41Ain't By Numbers
CHECKED40The Dark Knight's Patrol
IGETWET40Do the Batusi and 1 other

Other incorrect puzzle answers that were submitted at least 20% as often as the correct one:

Puzzle: Incorrect answerSubmissions% ofsolves
Speed Dial: NICE3727%135
Speed Dial: NICESENDIN3627%135
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTSCENE3284%38
Speed Dial: ICESENDINN3022%135
META: Killer Croc: SWIMTRUNKS3057%53
Ultimate Flunky Championship: INNERTRUTH2771%38
Method to the Madness: SHINGLED2633%79
Method to the Madness: LANGUISHED2127%79
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTCLUBS2053%38
Method to the Madness: HINDLEGS2025%79
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTCRIME1847%38
META: Killer Croc: SWIMTRANKS1834%53
Zip It: KILLER1621%75
Method to the Madness: HEADLINES1620%79
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FINALFIGHT1539%38
Reconditioned: NOWWRITEUNCLEUNCONSCIOUSATGMAIL1525%60
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTSBACK1437%38
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTITOUT1437%38
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTERACE1334%38
META: Killer Croc: SWIMTRANCE1223%53
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTSTICK1129%38
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTDIRTY1129%38
META META: The Riddler: MAN1122%49
General Malpractice: COMFORTABLYNUMB1025%40
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIREFIGHTS821%38
Ultimate Flunky Championship: FIGHTINGON821%38
General Malpractice: NOWUSEATOMNOSINGANDSVERSION820%40
Multiple Imputation: HAWKEYE522%23
Multiple Imputation: FREQUENCYCAP522%23

Note: these do not include the sub-puzzle answers for Qatalog and the final meta, which received a confirmation message, or the following intermediate answers, which also generated a message:

Finally, a list of puzzle answers that were submitted more than 10 times to the wrong puzzle:

Team Awards

Bruce Wayne Award: True Detectives
(Finishing teams with more solves than incorrect guesses by the end of the hunt’s timer.)

Dick Grayson Award: Trophy Collectors
(Finishing teams that logged correct answers for 48 out of 48 puzzles by the hunt’s end.)

Tim Drake Award: Super Sleuths
(Finishing teams with a sum of less than fifty wrong guesses plus hints.)

Barbara Gordon Award: Code Crackers
(Finishing teams with less than forty answers by the end of the hunt’s timer.)

Jason Todd Award: Spray & Pray
(Finishing teams with more than 180 incorrect guesses by the end of the hunt’s timer.)

Harvey Bullock Award: Backsolve Blasters
(Teams submitting more than 10 correct answers... to the wrong puzzle.)

Alfred Pennyworth Award: Neat Freaks
(Teams that avoided guessing ANSWER on Qatalog, any names on Ain’t By Numbers, or MNEMONIC on All That Zsasz while successfully answering 2 of these 3 puzzles.)

(Note: no teams managed to solve all 3 puzzles without at least one of these incorrect guesses.)

Credits

META PUZZLES

Scott Handelman
Adam Maresca
Nick Mitchell
Jonah Ostroff
Manic Volcanic

ROUND PUZZLES

Aaron Kaufman
Scott Handelman
Adam Maresca
Nick Mitchell
Jonah Ostroff
Ryan Thorngren
Manic Volcanic

PROOFREADING & FACT-CHECKING

Nick Mitchell

WEB & BACKEND

Lee Zen

SPECIAL GUEST ART CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Steckley
(Instagram)

ART & DESIGN

Adam Maresca
Jonah Ostroff

STORY & WRITING

Adam Maresca

TEMPLATE SPREADSHEETS

Adam Maresca

PLAYTESTERS

Asilata B.Kirby B.Emma C.Kevin C.Michael C.Matt G.
Paul J.Robert K.Andrew L.Nolan L.Alison M.Emily M.
Aaron P.Sean P.Aaron R.Dee R.

Sally, Lelle, RC & Jeff

HermioneReynaChaseManicVolcanicMaria12
MollieMM9SoniWhenInRome

SPECIAL THANKS

Codex
Puzzle Potluck
Rage
Silph Puzzle Hunt
Small Llama Malls
✈✈✈ Galactic Trendsetters ✈✈✈

Foggy B. Matthew C. Kris H. Francis H. Paula J.
Eddy K. Corey L. Lisa L. Eben O. Destra
Level 51 Skuld Talkingtree

...and you!