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Secret Puzzler

I have a confession to make: I spent all weekend at the office.

Well, technically AN office, not MY office. It’s a ritual that happens several times a year, run by different groups but always a familiar rhythm: groups of geeky folks organize themselves into teams and spend the entire day/weekend inside solving brainteasers and puzzles competitively. There are many names: Puzzle Hunt, Puzzle Safari, DASH… But all mean a weekend of hard thinking amongst friends.

I’ve been puzzling for a few years now, having first been invited along by some Microsoft Theater Troupe friends and apparently accomplishing enough to be a regular. We call ourselves “Team SMRT” in all of our forms – the extended team SMRT is probably 20 or 30 people, though the core seems to consist of about 6 of us.

Conveniently, most of the major puzzling events in Seattle use Microsoft as their epicenter (though usually open to some percentage of nonemployees), as the company boasts a high concentration of intellectually masochistic folks like us, and of course plenty of free soda. Occasionally, events will take place elsewhere – in particular, DASH (Different Areas Same Hunt) is a public event that operates as a location-based puzzle hunt and occurs in multiple cities at the same time. We did that one back in April this year – unfortunately, stymied by one specific puzzle so we didn’t hit our old highs.

Now, when we say “puzzle” we don’t mean a basic word search. Usually there are several layers of steps or translations you have to perform to get the puzzle answer, and usually some cognitive leaps along the way. Some are very math-oriented, some are pattern-oriented; some verbal and some visual; puzzles can take many forms. And inevitably, there will be one or more “meta-puzzles” — puzzles whose answer is based on all of the other answers in the hunt.

Often, these puzzles increase in difficulty along the way. Frequently we’ll hit a wall around 2 or 3, sometimes cursing puzzles and swearing them off forever. Of course, we always bring PLENTY of food and snacks, so usually a little bit of a blood sugar spike will provide a second wind. And sometimes it just takes a fresh brain – if you can’t get any further, tack the puzzle up on the wall and let someone else take a crack at it. Usually, teams will reserve conference rooms when it’s a Microsoft hunt, so we have a private space to fill with scrawled thoughts, crumpled graph paper, and various and sundry laptops.

And then there’s Puzzle Safari, which actually requires solving puzzles to unlock physical locations to which you must race for even more puzzles. A bizarre mix of races for mind and body. Usually each team ends up with a “runner” who focuses on the physical movement while everyone else stays in puzzle HQ working through new locations. Unlike many of the other puzzle events, this one’s capped at 4, so it gets intense if you aren’t resonating with a puzzle.

Today’s event, Microsoft’s Puzzle Hunt, was back for the first time in years. All of the puzzles are created by volunteers, usually winners or veterans of past hunts. Hundreds of participants, Microsofties and external folks, nearly 70 teams. It was a motion-picture themed hunt, with plenty of geeky references (examples: a series with an LOTR theme, a Star Trek theme, and of course an inexplicably math themed group).

But for me in this particular hunt, it was predestined that I would essentially work on a single set of puzzles – there was a Muppets themed puzzle module. That’s not a thing that usually happens. Even more ridiculous, the first puzzle involved a Muppet children’s book and BUNNIES. (I can’t reveal more details, as some of these puzzles will be reused at future intern events.) And yet, despite the friendly subject matter, the Muppet puzzles were some of the hardest. I can at least take pride in the fact that the winning team, who only failed to solve one puzzle, didn’t solve one of the Muppet puzzles I solved. Unfortunately, my productivity was low since these were all so time consuming.

It’s a bit of a strange thing from the outside, especially when we’re in the midafternoon or midevening doldrums. But each time one makes a breakthrough, it’s a great burst of energy, and since almost all the puzzles require collaborating it’s a great group activity.

In the end, SMRT is duly pleased if we make the top half of the puzzlers in most of the events we participate in. We’ve had some great finishes in the past few years (top 20, top 15 etc.) but top half always feels respectable, especially when you consider that most of these competitors are the crème of the intellectual crop. And most of us have to bow to work life balance – some teams work through the night on these multiday events, but for example I had to leave at 6 last night to get to my improv show.

So, congrats to my fellow SMRTmates for finishing 26th out of 68 teams. And here’s to more strangely intellectually masochistic weekends in the future. 🙂

Want to see what sample puzzles are like? Try this recap of the puzzles we tackled in DASH3, one of my favorites so far.

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