Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013 MIT Mystery Hunt: "A Set of Words"

Amidst trying and failing to piece together internet memes, Steph and I turned our attention to our next adventure in the Hunt, "A Set of Words". This one played out like a Boggle game from hell, each grid full of Q's, X's, Z's, and--of all things--question marks. We had a series of eight such grids with sets of three words accompanying each.

What we did

Of course, our first instinct was to try to find the listed words in each grid. That proved impossible: good luck finding the word "bend" in a grid with no B. We went on to try various horrible permutations of altering the grid: maybe we needed to set the ? to a specific letter, or maybe we were allowed to use it as a wild card, or (since there were obviously no Q's, Z's, or X's in any of the listed words) maybe we were supposed to change those into letters that made the listed words appear in the grid.

The problem with that approach was that it left each grid with too many degrees of freedom. With no grid actually "solved" and no clear approach to a solution, we gave up.

What we should have done

Apparently, the listed words were not the exact words hidden in each grid, but clues to the words hidden in the grids. And the ? tiles were indeed supposed to be set to a single letter for each grid; at the end, the ? tiles formed a hidden ninth grid from which the solution could be extracted. I didn't read much beyond that, simply because we were so far from cracking this one that reading the full solution wouldn't have been terribly instructive.

Would we ever have figured it out?

Doubtfully. Steph actually suggested that maybe we needed to find synonyms in the grid, but we agreed that the number of possible synonyms for each word was too great to actually look for them, and then there was the matter of not knowing exactly what the function of the ? was.

Even if we knew the correct approach, some of the synonyms are so obscure that we never would have figured them out. Take the first grid as an example. "Flex" is near enough to "bend" that it's plausible. "Minx" for "flirt" is a bigger stretch. But in what notion of reality is "next" a synonym for "dorm"? Is this an egregious typo, some MIT inside joke, or an obvious connection that I'm simply missing?

Update: apparently the Next House is in fact the name of a dorm at MIT. Thanks to Ben for pointing this out. Probably anybody from MIT would have known that, and it's clues like these that make us remember it's the MIT Mystery Hunt, not the "world championships of puzzlehunting that occur on completely neutral ground".

What can this puzzle teach about good design?

The point at which the puzzle produces (or requires) its "aha" moment is one of the trickiest and most subtle elements of puzzle design. Ideally, a puzzle starts with a nominally easy task (if one that might require some specialized knowledge), takes a logical next step that might involve lateral thinking to relate separate elements of the puzzle, and finally require a breakthrough of thought to extract the answer from the easier first steps.

"A Set of Words" shifted the "flow" of its solution to require the "aha" moment disproportionately early in the solution. Once you realized that you needed to find not the listed words but synonyms of the listed words in the Boggle grids, the rest of the puzzle would have come together relatively easily. But that's far from obvious by simply looking at the puzzle as it's posed.

Requiring a big leap in logic or intuition relatively late in a puzzle motivates a solver to both start the puzzle--because it begins with digestible tasks--and to push toward a solution--because by that point, you've come so far that you know the final answer can't be too far away. Pushing that big leap to the beginning of the puzzle is a lot more disheartening, since you're left with a lot of puzzle to solve and not much clue as to how to do it.

Taking a big stack of information you've already uncovered from earlier in the puzzle and piecing it together to extract a solution is fun and rewarding. Looking at a mess of Q's, X's, and Z's without any idea what to do with them is just overwhelming.