Last weekend, I participated in the Washington Post Hunt in D.C. for the first time. I had been wanting to try it since I first heard about it last year. The Post Hunt is a puzzle hunt that takes place every year in Washington D.C., sponsored by the Washington Post. You can watch videos explaining all of the puzzles of this year’s hunt (and all the previous years) at the Post Hunt website.
Here’s the basic idea: There are five puzzles set up around the city, within walking distance of the starting area. The answer to each puzzle is always a number, and the correct answers (along with about 30 other buffer numbers) are given to you on a list, so if your answer is on the list, you’re probably right. You have three hours to solve all the puzzles, and use your answers to fill out a scantron-like grid (called “The Grid”), making a symbol. After three hours, the Endgame clue is given and it’s a race to the finish.
To play, you needed a copy of the Washington Post magazine, which contained special clues and a map of the area (with an X and Y axis to make coordinates), as well as a goody bag which contained The Grid (with the answer reference list on the back), a word puzzle, and some objects: a pen, a ping-pong ball, a paper clip, a pipe cleaner, and a toothpick.
The goody bags were handed out at 11:30, and at 12:00 the map coordinates for each puzzle were announced. My team decided to head for the puzzles farthest away from the starting area and work our way back.
The Puzzle: The first puzzle area we found just had volunteers handing out scratch-off cards. The cards had a grid of circles with letters. If you scratched off a circle, a number would be revealed. The instructions said to “Scratch ONLY where needed”.
Approach: We were one of the first teams to arrive at this puzzle, and we started out by searching the area for more clues. There were pieces of yellow tape on the ground in what seemed to be making significant lines and grids. Maybe they represented letters or numbers? There were memorials and nautical flags. There were basically a lot of (probably unintentional) red herrings! Finally, we took a closer look at the card. One team member tried scratching off the letters O N L and Y, referencing the instructions, but it made too large of a number. We finally realized that reading down the columns, the card spelled out several random words. One of the words was SWITCH. One member of our team quickly connected that you scratch an “itch”, part of the word “switch”. Scratching off those four letters gave the number 0816. 816 was one of the possible answers, so we moved on.
Thoughts: I thought this was a pretty clever and cute puzzle, and a nice way to start off the day. I found it interesting that it took us so long to really take a good look at the card. We were expecting the puzzle to be much more complex and felt like we needed more clues to solve it. We also really let the environment influence us — an open pavilion with seemingly significant markings. Later when we walked back by that area, the pavilion was filled with people, and the yellow tape on the ground was barely visible. It’s interesting that the environment had such an influence on us, and that as the environment changed, people’s perception of the puzzle likely changed with it.
The Puzzle: An acrobat stood on a platform doing a contortion routine. At one point, she stopped and announced that she would give us a password to text to 98999. She told us to put our thinking *caps* (with a heavy emphasis on “caps”) on. Then, she flipped upside down into a handstand and remained there while announcing that the password was “Lemons”, and that she would text us back where to go from there.
Approach: This puzzle was a bit frustrating for me, as there was a huge crowd of people around the acrobat. We had to send one team member on the shoulders of another just to see what everyone was staring at. Luckily, her announcement was very audible, and we could see her feet in the air as she flipped upside down. Our team quickly deduced that the password would need to be written in all capital letters (caps), and then viewed upside down. LEMONS upside down reads “SNOW37”, and texting this brought back a reply of “WE”. Continuing the trend and flipping that upside down, we got “3M”, a coordinate on the map where there was a question mark drawn. We stopped by there later on our way to another puzzle and found a large red sculpture of the number 61. 61 wasn’t a number on the list, but 61 upside down as 19 was on the list.
Thoughts: A nice puzzle. There were several steps but none were too difficult. Cute and clever, but not too challenging. The crowding issue was a bit irritating though. The crowd also made me approach the puzzle a bit differently, as many people were recording the contortion routine and taking notes. My first thought was that she was making letters or numbers with her body, and that we needed a better view. While I was pondering this possibility, my teammates solved the puzzle =)
The Puzzle: A wooden vanity was set up with a display of several objects set up on top: a pitcher of flowers, a book, a pedestal, a candle, and three picture frames.
Approach: Those of us who had read the magazine remembered this display from the style section, a feature on how to dress up a vanity to look rustic and chic. Each item was listed in the magazine with a price, and the display was pictured in the feature. We immediately noticed that the display in real life was slightly different: the mirror had been taken out of the vanity, and there were three picture frames instead of one. Other than that, we couldn’t find any significant differences. We tried adding up the item prices and all sorts of other equations, but couldn’t find an approach that made any more sense than another. We ended up leaving that puzzle with the intention of coming back later. After we had solved the other four puzzles and started filling out The Grid, it became pretty obvious that the answer would have to be 45, so we returned to the puzzle trying to work out how we could make it return 45. When we got to the puzzle, we saw that the display had been moved to a different location in the same area. (When we had left there earlier, some security guards seemed to be troubled by the crowding around the steps of the building it was in front of, so we’re guessing it had been moved for safety reasons). This time we noticed another difference: the book had been turned about 90 degrees. There were tons of other people crowded around the vanity, staring intently, circling differences they saw (the flowers were fake instead of real, with different leaves. They were arranged in the pitcher a little differently. The pitcher was turned ever so slightly. Etc.). We decided to take a break inside the nearby building and brainstorm, but never produced an answer. After the hunt, the creators explained how it was supposed to work: upon noticing that the mirror was missing in the real version of the display, we were supposed to make the printed version look the same. If we cut out the mirror in the magazine, we would see that section of the following page of the magazine showing through: a vinyl record with the number 45 printed on it, for 45 RPM.
Thoughts: A very frustrating puzzle. I loved the concept, it pushed the boundaries of what we expected to have to do to solve puzzles, and took it one more step into the “real”, which I always love in a puzzle, but the execution, I think, was poor. The fact that there were three frames in the real display, and only one in the print version seemed to be the biggest factor for everyone. Instead of looking at the display and saying “Oh, the mirror is missing, how can I work with that?” we all said “Oh, the mirror is missing. And there are two extra frames… and I guess the flowers look different… and the book seems to be turned… there are lots of differences here, what do they mean?” I’m fairly convinced that if the mirror had truly been the only difference, we would have had a good chance at solving this one. The vanity and mirror did not have any description or price listing in the magazine, so if we were focused on the mirror we would have ignored any number/equation lines of thought.
This puzzle really got me thinking about an interesting subject in puzzles and mysteries: mistakes vs. red herrings. Were the extra frames a mistake, or put there with the intention of being misleading? We know that the turned book was a mistake (one of our team members had taken a photo of the display before it was moved, and the book was turned at the same angle as the print version). It’s pretty easy to imagine that staff members were just given a box of the “stuff for the display”, which might have included the two alternate designs for the frame mentioned in the magazine. Looking at the print image, it appears at first that there might even be two frames, but one is very clearly a reflection in the mirror.
On the other hand, the creators could also easily say the frames were a red herring. Would this be fair? Was that element a legitimate example of a red herring? Could any out-of-place element or mistake simply be considered a red herring? That doesn’t seem right. Mistakes can make a puzzle unsolvable. Mistakes can make a puzzle lose its elegance and integrity. When a puzzle loses its integrity due to mistakes or poorly thought-out concepts, the player may start to feel that the puzzle isn’t worth solving. So where do we make the distinction between “clever, misleading red herring” and “sloppy mistake”?
In murder mysteries, a red herring might lead the reader to judge an innocent character as guilty, in order to draw attention away from the real guilty party. In this example, the method of solving the puzzle is clear to the reader: use clues to determine “who dunnit”. The problem with the Post Hunt puzzles is that they are all extremely vague, and have a known history of being very complicated and drawn out. There is no clear method. Perception and interpretation of the puzzle elements are the only things that lead to the method of solving. Post Hunt puzzle elements are all shouting “Look at me! I’m the way to solve the puzzle!” If the elements don’t shout in unison, the player is hopeless. If the scratch card puzzle had instructions that said “Scratch ONLY where needed”, and then more instructions that said “Put on your thinking CAPS”, and another instruction that said “Yellow marks the spot”, I can’t imagine many puzzlers passing the test. The inherent vagueness of these puzzles makes it very, very hard to justify any intentional red herrings, as every single extraneous element available is a possible red herring to the players as they try to determine the nature of the puzzle. The prices listed in the magazine, the names of the objects, the numbers listed by each object, the fact that there are “spot the differences” puzzles in the Washington Post, the pop culture references in the article’s copy–all of these things were red herrings. An element that specifically drew players’ attention away from the method of solving the puzzle, something that competed for the label of “the thing that is the most different”, was very unfair and took away from the fun of the puzzle.
I want to think more on the subject of what makes a good or bad red herring, and I’m glad this puzzle brought the concept to my attention.
The Puzzle: At the main stage, three speakers wearing large numbers were having a town-hall style debate on various topics. The stage was labeled “Government Agencies Providing Solutions”
Approach: I don’t have much personal insight on this puzzle, as by the time I had noticed a banner on the stage, one of our team members had already essentially solved the puzzle. “Government Agencies Providing Solutions” makes the acronym GAPS. The goody bags we received came with a fill-in-the-blank word puzzle that was titled GAPS, something my husband found strange from the very beginning and pointed out to the rest of the team. Remembering that, our teammate connected the two, and made the next leap to realize that the blanks would be filled in with government agency acronyms. (We were supposed to have listened to the debate for a while and realized the speakers kept fitting in a specific subject into each of their answers. For example, one speaker kept talking about taxes, which would lead us to realize she was representing the IRS.) When the puzzle was filled out, it read “First Female Plus Date”. The first female in the group of speakers wore the number 27. It took us a few tries to figure out what number would be considered correct for the “date”, but eventually found that adding 65 (June 5th) gave us a number on the answer list: 92.
Thoughts: Like I mentioned, this puzzle was practically solved before I understood anything about it. Noticing the out of place word, GAPS, on the word puzzle early on turned out to be really helpful. It was something I had personally glanced right over. And a familiarity with government agencies proved helpful as our teammate listed two of the correct ones as her first guesses. Overall, this seems like it was a clever puzzle, and I bet a lot of teams had a few fun “A-ha” moments with it.
The Puzzle: A series of large, black, rectangle monoliths were set up in a field in a grid-like shape. Some of the monoliths had white numbers on them. Some had two numbers, with a comma in between. The numbers went 1 through 7.
Approach: We wandered through the maze of monoliths a bit, and Nick made a diagram of the monoliths and where the numbers were. We sat down with the diagram and pondered what it could represent. A crossword puzzle? No. Something else. Nick re-drew the diagram more accurately, with full squares for each monolith. One teammate guessed maybe piano keys, or a keyboard from above. The light bulb went off, and we got out my smartphone to look at its keyboard. Sure enough, the monoliths were aligned just like a typing keyboard (including 5 close together at the bottom for a spacebar). The numbers showed which keys to press and in what order. They spelled out “FIFTEEN”, the answer to the puzzle.
Thoughts: I was a little bit MIA on this puzzle. Jen and I decided to start filling out The Grid while the rest of the team worked on the puzzle, and they ended up solving it pretty quickly. I really like the concept of representing something familiar in an unfamiliar way. There’s a similar concept in the game Riven that I really liked. I wonder if the puzzle would have been clear instantly if we had viewed it from above? On a side-note, this puzzle apparently got very, very crowded and impossible to navigate at certain parts of the day. It was the closest puzzle to the plaza, so it turned out to be very advantageous that we visited it last.
At this point, we gathered back at the main plaza with all five answers and The Grid filled out. The Grid had made the very clear image of an outhouse (crescent moon window included). The FAQ said we wouldn’t know what to do with the Grid shape until the Endgame clues were announced, and we really didn’t put much thought into the shape. I thought maybe they would show us a poster with lots of different symbols, and corresponding coordinates, and we would only know which one was correct if we had filled out the grid, something like that. We were all pretty nervous about the Endgame because we knew how impossibly difficult, complicated, and convoluted it had been in past years.
At 3:00, they announced the final puzzle. A Beatles cover band, British Mania, was brought on stage, and each member of the band played a short excerpt of a song. We were told that only one of them would matter. Here’s how it went down:
Paul sang “When I’m 64”: “Will you still need me, Will you still feed me, When I’m 64?”
John sang “Tea for Two”: “Tea for two and two for tea”
George sang “Tax Man”: “Let me tell you how it will be, one for you nineteen for me”
Ringo sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”: “99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer”
At this point, people started running. Nobody on our team had any idea what to do, and we started to panic as the masses all seemed to be heading in one direction. We decided to follow them, and ran north. We finally stopped at a corner to gather our thoughts and make a plan. We decided everyone was heading for coordinate T2, based on the song Tea for Two. It seemed plausible, but no more plausible than any of the other lyrics. We sent two members to follow the crowd, while the rest of us tried to think of another strategy. Going off the idea that the band members’ first names might be the letter halves of map coordinates, we ruled out Ringo and Paul’s songs, as R and P were too far down the alphabet to appear on the map. The Tax Man lyrics seemed promising, with lots of potential letters and numbers: 1 4 U 19 4 Me, etc. Eventually we decided to look at the map and saw a drawing of a boy wearing a shirt that had a capital T printed on the front, and we decided to head in that direction, based on Tea for Two. We got a call from our two teammates at T2, who said there was nothing there of any significance, and that they were headed back to the plaza.
We didn’t find anything at the T-shirt kid’s location either. I tried making a phone number out of the Tax Man lyrics, but no luck. We debated whether our outhouse meant anything, or if we wouldn’t use it until we found the location. For a brief moment of hope, Nick thought he could translate the Tax Man lyrics to spell OUTHOUSE, but it didn’t work. We wondered where the port-a-potties were supposed to be, and if there was something there. We felt totally hopeless and helpless.
It was almost 3:30. At 3:30, back at the plaza, they would either explain the puzzles and announce the winner, or give a hint if it hadn’t been solved yet. We all met back up at 3:30 to find that it had indeed been solved.
Here was how it was supposed to go: An outhouse is also called a “John”, meaning that John’s song was the correct clue. Tea for Two meant coordinate T 4.2, not T 2. At that coordinate, players were handed a phone number. Upon dialing that number, they got recorded message “This number won’t get you there. Remember what he sang.” Remembering “T for 2 and 2 for T”, players replaced all the 2s in the phone numbers with 8s (the number on a phone which gives you the letter T), and all the 8s with 2s, making the correct phone number. That number gave them a message: “Write your cell phone number on the white ball and drop it in the hole at the bottom of the sea/C”. A small white ping-pong ball was one of the items in the goody bag. But where was the sea/C? There were a few C-shaped places on the map, but the correct location was the monolith which represented the letter C at the monolith/keyboard puzzle. This puzzle was at the opposite end of the map from T 4.2! The first three players to drop the ball in the hole got first, second, and third place.
My team spent pretty much the rest of the day discussing the Endgame and our feelings about it. What we should have done. What we never would have thought to do. The nature of the Endgame as a puzzle. We came up with a lot of conclusions.
First, the things we wish we had done. We wish we had put more thought into the outhouse image. We literally got the image and then stopped talking about it, worried about other teams overhearing. We also thought we wouldn’t know what to do with it until the time came. The time came and went, and we didn’t make the connection. I imagine the winning team was standing at the edge of the plaza, and when they heard the word “John”, they knew it was the clue they needed.
We wish we had committed more to the Tea for Two clue. None of us thought any further than T 2. We could have even thought T 4+2 and gone to T6, and we probably would have seen the staff member along the way. It just didn’t click. In order to win the Endgame, you really have to commit to one line of thought and not deviate from that.
Beyond those two things, I’m not sure what more we could have done. Here are some conclusions we gathered afterwards.
The Endgame is not so much a puzzle, it’s a lottery plus a race. After the outhouse-john connection, every step after is mostly up to chance. Some groups went to T2. Some groups went to T 4.2. Some groups went to T6. Some groups went to the kid with the T shirt on the map. The groups that went to T 4.2 won that round, but their answer was no more logically correct than any of the other guesses.
Next round, some groups replaced the 2s with 8s and the 8s with 2s. Some groups replaced the 2s with 4s and the 4s with 2s. The ones who made the right connection on the first try won that round.
Next round, where is the bottom of the sea/C? Some groups went to C-shaped places on the map. Maybe some groups went to a fountain. At least three groups went to the C monolith at the keyboard puzzle. They won all the rounds.
I’m not saying that the Endgame clues and puzzles aren’t good puzzles, just that they cannot be confidently solved by any kind of logic. The same logic used to solve them could be used to get a similar but different, and incorrect, answer. Which brings us to our next conclusion:
Because of the huge number of players, the nature of the Endgame must be that the chance of solving it correctly is very small. There must be several ways to get derailed. There must be many paths of logic leading to dead ends. There must be something to keep all of the thousands of players from running to the exact same place, pushing and shoving to be first, and to keep the game from turning into nothing more than a footrace. It’s an interesting dilemma that comes with the scope of the game.
And unfortunately, it’s a really frustrating dilemma for the other hundreds of teams who didn’t follow the golden path to victory. Our team felt such distinct feelings of panic and overwhelm. Seeing teams running in any direction, we felt we had already lost. Start running, or you’ve already lost. Stop to think this through, and you’ve already lost. Commit to one idea, or you’ve already lost. It wasn’t a good feeling, and it kind of left a bad taste in our mouths. It’s good to feel like “I had a chance”. It’s frustrating to feel “If only I had just done X, Y, or Z..”, but you at least feel like you were within reach. It’s very unpleasant to feel “I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost. I felt panicked. I didn’t have time to think. I never even stood a chance.”
I can imagine many players taking those feelings, combined with the apparent absurdity of the final clues and steps, and coming to the conclusion “That was stupid. How could anyone have guessed that? I don’t want to do this again next year.”
Again, the Post Hunt has got me thinking about puzzle theory in a new way. What makes a good puzzle? Complexity? Aesthetics? The feeling you get when you solve it?
What does a good puzzle make you feel when you were unable to solve it, and you hear what the solution was? Frustration and regret? (It was right in front of me the whole time! If only I had made the connection…) Anger and cynicism? (That was dumb, nobody in their right mind would have thought of that…) Awe and regret? (What a clever puzzle, I wish I had just made the connection, it would have been fun to solve…) A complex puzzle builds high expectations for the quality of its solution.
And what do you do when the nature of your game requires very few people to solve a puzzle? I feel like there could be other solutions besides making the puzzle so twisted that each step cannot be solved logically and with confidence except by trial and error. If thinning out the crowd is the main issue, what about a choice of 5 different Endgame paths, each starting at the different main puzzles? Each subsequent clue from the paths would get increasingly complex, but still logical and with a clear answer, further weeding out the crowd. Add in some puzzles that take a little bit of time to solve, a cipher or code. The same puzzles that take some people 30 minutes to solve can be solved instantly by other people. But make them feel like puzzles that could have been worked out, not guesses that could have happened to have been plucked out of the aether. Leave your players thinking “I could have solved that eventually,” not “I never would have guessed that”. It’s better for players to feel that their own intelligence (something they can theoretically control) was the only thing blocking them from solving the puzzle, and not the quality of the puzzle itself.
It seems like the Post Hunt’s previous Endgame strategy was more suitable for thinning out the crowds. In previous years, there was no Grid, so players couldn’t simply “connect the dots” to figure out which answers they were missing. The answers also had corresponding clues that were required for solving the Endgame. It seems pretty simple: make the main five puzzle answers required for the Endgame (and don’t make them so easy to guess), and you’ve weeded out a good number of people for the end. I’m curious if they had a reason for trying out the Grid idea, or if it just seemed like something fun and new to try for the sake of variety.
Overall, my thoughts on the Post Hunt are very mixed. I think I can say that my personal experience was not what I was expecting. I think part of that was due to the fact that my team seemed to solve the beginning puzzles very quickly, so most of the day was spent just hanging out and not actually playing this grand game together. My impression is that the puzzles seemed less complex and easier than the ones in previous years, but this could just be due to my experience with my teammates. It’s very hard to say, but since many players commented that they thought this year’s puzzles were particularly harder than previous years, I’m going to say that was just my experience. I think I would be interested in doing the Post Hunt again just based on the initial five puzzles. There were some neat themes and concepts, and maybe next year I could play a bigger role on my team and have my mind be a bit sharper.
As for the Endgame… I almost left with the feeling that the Endgame wasn’t even worth trying. And I don’t mean that in an “Oh I didn’t have a chance, why even bother” kind of way. The feelings it gave me were so unpleasant–overwhelm, panic, hopelessness, helplessness, disorientation, exhaustion. The thought of starting the Endgame next year, knowing that I’m probably going to experience those things again and gain nothing for having experienced them, doesn’t sound very appealing. I can see myself just staying at the plaza if I’m not sure where to go next. Or maybe jogging or walking to follow the crowd if the location seems semi-obvious. But I don’t know that I want to run in a blind panic from hunch to hunch with no time to stop or think. The thought that you might be the one to find the right place, that you might find the next clue, is a really tempting thought. But knowing my odds, and knowing what’s required of me to get there, I’m not sure if it’s tempting enough.
In the end, I had a fun day with friends, but I think the Post Hunt as a puzzle event has a lot of potential for improvement.