“Puppy. Fried chicken. Puppy. Fried chicken. Aw, what a cute puppy!” A small group of people huddled together in a corner of an MIT classroom. As I rattled off proclamations of puppy-or-not-puppy, one fellow solver stared intently at the 20×20 grid of pictures to check my work while a third typed numbers into a grid to record our findings. The image were divided into four quadrants of images likely to fool deep learning algorithms: pictures that resemble fried chicken, pictures that resemble mint ice cream, pictures that resemble croissants, and pictures that resemble blueberry muffins.

The puzzle we were working on was one of the most adorable puzzles from the MIT Mystery Hunt. The puzzle hunt takes place in mid-January of every year…but opportunities to tackle challenging puzzles mean fans of the genre are rarely found wanting for puzzle experiences.

The MIT Mystery Hunt 2018: Head-Hunters
Every year, the Mystery Hunt embraces a new theme to provide the narrative structure for a weekend of puzzling in an experience designed by the winners of the previous year’s hunt. This year, Death & Mayhem turned to the Pixar film Inside Out for inspiration, asking puzzle hunt teams to get Miss Terry Hunter’s emotions under control so she could guide her team to victory, rediscovering many of the formative memories that led to her becoming a puzzle solver in the first place.

It’s relatively easy to experience the MIT Mystery Hunt remotely. Most challenges are delivered through an online website that progressively expands as teams unlock new puzzles, and the increasingly theatrical kickoff event that introduces players to the year’s theme is livestreamed.

But while the MIT Mystery Hunt creates an accessible experience for people solving off-campus, celebrating real world challenges and interactions is a core tenet of the Hunt. For instance, to complete the Pokémon round of puzzles, a small group from our team went to visit the “Safari Zone”, a classroom littered with dozens of Voltorb balls with five different sets of words written on them. After locating every ball, they noticed that one Voltorb in each group didn’t belong, giving them the combination lock password to obtain the bittersweet memory of Terry capturing her first Magikarp.

This year’s Hunt was strongest when it played with that line between digital and analog puzzles, exemplified by the paired puzzles Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt and Under Control. In Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt, teams were given a relatively simple video game to explore. The only catch: just like its namesake Twitch Plays Pokémon, each team was only given one avatar to control. After completing Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt teams unlocked Under Control, sending one member of their team to stand in front of a green screen for a livestreamed ninja dance battle. In order to defeat a series of ninja warriors the tribute had to be guided like a human puppet through a series of poses, with team communication managed by a synthesized voice reading out time delayed comments in the livestream.

The puzzle hunt finale returned to that same theme, with teams playing a modified version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes by taking over the Emotional Command Center and following printed instructions to guide an overtired Terry Hunter through the MIT campus to the final location, solving the Hunt.

Other puzzles that are worth checking out include Marked Deck (a deck of laser-cut cards that, when properly arranged, provides a hint to the next step of the puzzle), Do You Want A (a puzzle that will be very familiar to people who know what MBMBAM stands for), Space Sounds TV (a puzzle about the history of spaceflight), A Pub Crawl (a very social drinking puzzle), and Special Delivery (a puzzle about musical mixes).

Small Group Puzzling: You Don’t Have to Go Alone, But You Can
The MIT Mystery Hunt is a lot of fun, but it takes quite a few people working in tandem to tackle some of the Hunt’s more complex puzzles, and sifting through to find the more accessible puzzles can be intimidating. Luckily, there are a number of puzzle experiences designed for smaller teams that are crafted to teach people interested in puzzles the skills they need to thrive in larger hunt experiences.

Frequently, sponsored puzzle hunts are used for this purpose. To promote the puzzle-centric film Solver, for instance, Empire Builder Productions commissioned a series of 12 increasingly difficult puzzles from puzzle hunt and escape room designers that were embedded in a series of Instagram posts. The hunt was designed to be a solo experience, with many puzzles nudging players towards the tools they’d need to solve each puzzle, with the puzzling app Cluekeeper to validate correct answers. Waypoint Kangaroo author Curtis Chen’s puzzle serves as a particularly good example of this, with the fruit-themed puzzle’s “flavor” text pointing solvers to the appropriate method of extraction even if they were previously unfamiliar with the particular method of passing along messages. Chen also developed a self-contained, miniature ARG that provides a solid foundation in introductory puzzle solving to serve as a prequel to his books.

The puzzle trail created for the Xbox release of Sea of Thieves followed a similar model with The Quest for the Golden Bananas, with 15 pirate-themed videos leading to a variety of puzzles housed on sites ranging from Flickr to eBay. The hunt’s panoramic Flickr puzzle was a particularly interesting example of puzzles that merely ask solvers to play close attention to the details.  The hunt was designed to be experienced in teams of 1-4 solvers, although some of the game’s more cooperative players took to Reddit to tackle the challenge as a larger group, sharing answers hidden under spoiler tags. Since all of the YouTube videos have been de-listed, this archive of collective solving is the best way to experience the puzzles after the fact.

Team-based puzzle hunts can have high levels of difficulty, as well. The Cryptex Hunt was designed as an advanced-level puzzle hunt that primarily takes place within a multi-user dungeon (MUD) text adventure game, where the initial puzzle is finding out how to find the MUD in the first place. Once players find the game, solutions are entered by unlocking a series of virtual cryptex boxes for a chance at winning a real one.

Many puzzles take advantage of the game running on a MUD, with one of the game’s introductory puzzles playing around with ASCII art in a satisfying manner. However, puzzles quickly branch out to go beyond the text platform, transitioning into the real world for a Pokémon Go inspired puzzle, for those capable of making it that far.

Because the game’s difficulty ramps up considerably after entering the MUD, the game includes a hint shop to help weary digital travelers through some of the rougher patches. And while the Cryptex Hunt’s grand prize has been claimed, a second prize reward is available for a randomly selected player that completes the hunt before the end of March. While the creators of the Cryptex Hunt remain coy about the specifics of the hunt, a recent Room Escape Divas podcast features an interview with many of the game’s creators that goes into detail about some of the surprises that happened along the way, including a hilarious anecdote about a surprise plague that swept through the virtual player base.

Drunk Puzzling and You
If you live near one of 57 cities worldwide, there might be a monthly puzzle meetup at a local bar not too far from you thanks to Puzzled Pint…as long as you can solve the introductory puzzle to learn where. For this month’s Harry Potter-themed puzzle night, prospective drunk puzzlers needed to finish a Hashi puzzle themed around the Room of Requirements to get the keyword to unlock the location. Never done a Hashi puzzle before? Not to worry, everything you need to know is explained on the sheet.

Puzzled Pint puzzles are fairly accessible, so participants can treat their alcohol consumption for the night as their skill-based handicap. Plus, the Puzzled Pint website keeps an archive of all prior puzzles and their solutions, providing a wonderful library of puzzles to practice against.

While Puzzled Pint has the largest global presence, additional puzzle experiences are popping up on the local level. In the Philadelphia area, Clues & Booze aims to deliver more of an escape room in a bar experience, with Puzzles & Corks focusing on an making players solve puzzles to earn the drinks in their wine tasting in New Jersey.

Puzzle Designer Versus Everyone: The ARG Model
With alternate reality games puzzles are often designed to be a free-for-all scrimmage, pitting puzzle designer against the collective wisdom of the crowd. Some puzzle hunts, like the recently concluded AWS Quest, adopt a similar model.

The Amazon Web Services puzzle trail was announced three weeks ago, with a deceptively simple request: AWS Chief Evangelist and LEGO enthusiast Jeff Barr’s prized LEGO robot Ozz flew to pieces, and he needed the community’s help to reassemble it by solving a series of 20 daily puzzles hidden across the considerable volume of content AWS produces, both past and present. With puzzles ranging from tracking contestants in a robocar rally to translating foreign technical terms scattered across the blog’s comments section, the community tackled the challenges as a collective while still celebrating individual successes. The AWS Quest culminated in a livestream of the AWS and Lone Shark Games teams reassembling Ozz 2.0 with LEGO pieces, following the schematics unlocked by solving puzzles, with the occasional shark costume dance attack to liven things up.

While ARGs typically embrace more open policies towards spoilers, there are a few exceptions. For the puzzle-heavy Steam-based alternate reality game The Black Watchmen, the community favors helping players with hints over sharing the solutions outright, due to the nature of the game. When approaching new puzzle communities, it’s important to look out for community norms since finding the right balance between forming a community and tackling puzzles individually is a highly personal choice.

The Puzzle Hunts Keep Coming
Every puzzle hunt in this article happened within the last three months, and it’s not even remotely an inclusive list. For a list of what’s coming in the puzzle hunt community, check out the Puzzle Hunt Calendar and remember to follow ARGNet on Twitter for updates.