Images of the Reddit expedition to Hawaii 2 courtesy of Pewwer42
Shortly after Christmas, a group of Redditors met up, planning on making the trek to an uninhabited island near Lake Saint George Park in Maine. Previous expeditions to the island confirmed the presence of a wooden shed containing a massive safe at the southern tip of the island: but without the six digit passcode to unlock it, the safe’s contents remained a mystery. Finally, after almost a month of poring over websites, YouTube videos, and physical mailings, community members felt fairly confident they had the passcode that would unveil the safe’s contents.
All this, because of a bit of Holiday Bullshit.
A Little Bullshit Backstory
For this year’s Black Friday promotion, Cards Against Humanity made headlines by removing their popular card game from the market, and replacing it with Black Friday Bullshit – for $6, the company would mail its customers literal bullshit in a box. No more, and no less. At the same time, the company was promoting a separate dose of bullshit for the holidays. While the Black Friday Bullshit promotion was perfectly clear in what it was offering, Cards Against Humanity’s Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa promotion at HolidayBullshit.com provided almost no guidance about what it would deliver: only that, for $15, the company would send ten mailings containing…just about anything.
Fans of the company had some idea of what they might expect by using the previous year’s Holiday Bullshit mailings as guidance: a handful of exclusive and personalized Cards Against Humanity cards, a miniaturized prototype of a game, a few comics, maybe a charitable donation to a worthy cause. But for the most part, $15 purchased the ability to find a surprise waiting in the mailbox for a few days…alongside access to an expansive puzzle hunt that promised to be bigger than the last.
A Bunch of Bullshit Gifts
This year’s mailings were tied together by a loose theme: artwork adorning each envelope (and dutifully reproduced on the Holiday Bullshit website) told the tale of Santa Clause’s untimely demise and the subsequent Great Lizard Uprising of 2352 that laid waste to civilization. This was not presented as some dangerous threat to be overcome, or a mystery to be solved. Santa died, lizards will be ruling over the planet we now call home, and those are just realities we must come to accept.
Santa’s death, like the Kwanzaa-themed branding in this year’s Holiday Bullshit promotion, had almost no impact on the presents received, or the puzzles delivered, serving as flavor text for the experience. Many of the presents echoed gifts from the previous year: the 250,000 people signed up for this year’s Holiday Bullshit received holiday-themed Cards Against Humanity cards, expletive-laced stickers, Sunday funnies penned by popular web comic artists, and a booklet mocking the frequently comedic customer service complaints the company receives.
The mailings also featured a miniaturized version of the card game Slap 45, a slap-based card game that raised over $75k on Kickstarter in the Fall, a booklet with miracle berry tablets, and an accounting of every major contribution made for a US Senator in the recipient’s state. Cards Against Humanity donated $250k on behalf of Holiday Bullshit recipients to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to transparency in politics that provided the source data for the mailing.
As each day’s mailing came through, the Holiday Bullshit website was updated with original musical performances. Kirby Krackle penned the self-explanatory I’m Stuck in a Human Centipede for Christmas, Seth Boyer and Marian Call performed a bitter-sweet duet, Paul and Storm sang the word “Christmas” a lot, the Doubleclicks cheerily wished away sexist bullshit, and Molly Lewis cautioned against overusing the term “miracle”.
The most impressive present sent as part of Holiday Bullshit was sent on the tenth day of Holiday Bullshit. Cards Against Humanity ceded land rights to a square foot of Hawaii 2, an island just off the coast of Maine, to each of the 250k people to sign up for the mailings. Cards Against Humanity included a map of the island to accompany the license, abusing their newly minted naming rights to pinpoint the Michael Bay, Forest Whitaker, Ricki Lake, US Cellular Mountain, and the Screaming Gorge of Eternal Madness. Hidden between bad puns and crashed starships, the map depicts a half-buried safe, simply labeled “The Safe”…which brings us to the puzzle.
Now That’s a Bullshit Puzzle
Last year, the nature of the Holiday Bullshit puzzle was vague, leading community members unraveling the tangled web to view practically anything and everything as a potential clue. Moving into 2014, Cards Against Humanity enlisted the help of Lone Shark Games. On the dedicated Holiday Bullshit puzzle page, a video introduced the team behind the project, as well as the structure of the puzzles to follow.
Fifteen times during the video, encrypted text spelled out enigmatic descriptions of the “base puzzles” hidden throughout the experience:
Apply Butt to Booklet
Endorse Us on Kickstarter
Fetch Me a Podcast
Find a Scaly Creature
Game, Set, Match
Hear Us Roar
It’s a Kwanzaa Miracule
Miscegenate By Color
Open Your Envelopes
Recreate Your Holiday
Slip Out the Window
State Your Admissions
Track Down a Tasty Beverage
Solving each of these initial puzzles was a fairly involved process. “Open Your Envelopes” was the first puzzle to be discovered, when recipients of the first mailing noticed a string of multi-colored numbers printed along the inside seam of their envelopes. To solve the puzzle, community members at Reddit noticed the numbers on each envelope added up to 10, and could be used to create a 10×10 paint-by-numbers image of “BLINKY”, the red ghost from Pac-Man.
For the “Endorse Us On Kickstarter” puzzle, recipients of the miniaturized version of Slap .45 noticed the product code “GS040908060310” could be used as an index against the six endorsements for the game’s Kickstarter page, giving the puzzle solution “NEWCAR”.
Some puzzles were uncovered in the song selection choices of the Cryptex podcast launched to complement the puzzle hunt, while others involved solving a Yiddush version of the Daily Jumble, “that fercockt word game”. Over the course of the hunt, the Reddit community leading the charge would be treated to everything from a Lord of the Rings-themed parody web comic to a secret message cleverly disguised within a catchy Christmas ballad, and even into the Tabletop archives for a celebration of Wil Wheaton’s losing streak at board games. Virtually every element of the Holiday Bullshit experience was re-purposed to serve as a vehicle for puzzles, and more than a few elements were created to extend beyond the traditional gifts – although it’s worth noting it was never necessary to physically sit on a booklet to reveal a puzzle.
Digging Deeper into the Bullshit
The true evil genius of the Holiday Bullshit puzzle was its method for submitting solutions to these fifteen “base” puzzles. The primary tool on the Holiday Bullshit puzzle site is an image generator. Input a word, and the image generator spits back one of 500 different images. Put in an incorrect answer? Doesn’t matter, an image is still generated. Large puzzle hunts often use a similar structure, with a initial batch of puzzles whose answers can be combined to solve a larger puzzle: but usually, there’s a direct method to confirm they solved each initial puzzle correctly. By running all solutions through an image generator hash, puzzle solutions could instantly be used to solve later puzzles, but players had to proceed at risk, unable to confirm whether their proposed solution was correct or not. A separate submission form page was just as unforgiving: players had to input a series of text fields, where [A]+[B]+[C]=[D]. Putting in an incorrect answer into this second form spits out the warning, “STOP GUESSING.”
The same video puzzle that provided hints on where to find the fifteen base puzzles served up guidance on what to do with the solutions. The different shift cipher values used to encrypt the original text spelled out “AN ORAL THREESOME”, telling players to treat the images generated by related puzzle solutions as a rebus to spell out a new phrase.
For instance, after noticing the puzzle solutions “LEELA”, “OLIVE”, and “BLINKY” all described Matt Groening characters, the images generated by those words (van, doll, and lies) could be combined to spell out “VANDAL EYES”, Anne Wheaton and Bonnie Burton’s personal quest to make the world a better place one set of googly eyes at a time. Plugging the “VAN + DOLL + LIES = VANDAL EYES” equation into the tool generated a new puzzle based on stamps covered in Googly eyes. Matching the stamps to their country of origin spells out the phrase, “STAMP OF APPROVAL”.
Nearing an End of the Bullshit
By combining the solutions to the five meta-puzzles, the Reddit community was directed to the eleventh and final mailing from the Holiday Bullshit team, a list of email exchanges with irate Cards Against Humanity customers. Since one of the emails jokingly referred to how “every card [the company has] ever written is created from an algorithm that takes and recombines every 13th word of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick”, the thirteenth word of every email reply was checked against every thirteenth word of Moby Dick, leading to a perfect match…except for three types of sloths. Plugging the names of the sloths into the image generator led to one final rebus, “WII + LAW + 4CHAN = WHEEL OF FORTUNE”.
Each player to input this final rebus received a separate clue to a crossword puzzle. However, some clues were missing words from prior puzzles: without knowing to plug in “WHEEL OF FORTUNE” into the clue “Z guy”, for instance, it was impossible to know the puzzle was asking for the guy from Wheel of Fortune. Once completed, the crossword puzzle provided instructions on how to obtain the six-digit code to the safe, as well as a hint at what it contained: “ACEDIA IS WHAT’S IN”.
Unlocking the Bullshit
And so, we find ourselves back at the beginning: a little less than a month after the monstrous puzzle was unleashed upon the world, members of the Reddit community set sail for Hawaii 2, the uninhabited island Cards Against Humanity purchased as a gift to their most ardent fans. At this point, it was unclear whether the passcode to the safe unlocked another step in the hunt, or marked the final leg of the journey. The trek was made without even being sure the passcode would work.
Inside the safe? A letter confirming this was the end of the line, a bottle of Loki Scotch (a distillery right around the corner from where Cards Against Humanity’s creators went to high school), a set of 12 Cards Against Humanity cards saying “Being the crazy person to open the safe”…and 250k Cards Against Humanity cards prominently featuring the face of a sloth for anyone with the combination interested in checking out their own personal square foot of land, paying off the multiple “sloth” references along the way.
So, Was It All Just a Load of Bullshit?
The Reddit community worked together to solve both 2013 and 2014 hunts. Theoretically, it would have been possible for an individual to have cracked the 2013 hunt alone with the right amount of insight and a healthy dose of luck. This year, the hunt was designed to actively encourage tackling the problem with a community of people working together. To encourage collaboration throughout the process, key points in the puzzle-solving journey required information sharing. For the “State Your Admissions” puzzle, players received a string of two letters on the bottom of their Sunlight Foundation report. However, each state received unique letters. Without comparing answers with others, the puzzle couldn’t be solved.
To further encourage collaboration, the final “Wheel of Fortune” crossword puzzle only generated one clue per IP address. Even the most well-intentioned puzzle solving community will often fracture into smaller groups as a puzzle’s endgame approaches, particularly when there’s the temptation of a prize at stake. By subtly encouraging collaboration at the final stage, the Holiday Bullshit puzzle cemented its purpose, as a thank you letter to the community willing to pay $15 for a mystery because they’ve come to trust the company over the years. And by making the final prize large enough so that everyone could have a share? All the better.
Cards Against Humanity bought an island for their fans, and I’m already beginning to see groups planning trips out to visit “their” uninhabited island right next to Lake Saint George Park, in Maine. One of the reasons that can work is because they forged a community that will respect the responsibility of that newfound ownership. Spending a month actively collaborating on an insanely difficult puzzle can go a long way towards forging those bonds. Cards Against Humanity may be a game for horrible people, but they still try and bring the best out of them, at the same time.
For a full accounting of the Holiday Bullshit puzzles and their solutions, check out joshshadowfax and jdllama’s comprehensive puzzle summary, or visit the /r/holidaybullshit subreddit and wiki. A full summary of the gifts can be found at holidaybullshit.com, and additional discussion about the hunt can be found at The Cryptex podcast.
Note: this article originally stated Hawaii 2 was located off the coast of Maine. Its actual location is on Saint George Lake in Maine.