Cute Mage's Tower

Just @ Me Next Time 17th Shard

This puzzle hunt retrospective is going to be a little bit different. I’m not going to pull this hunt apart, analyze the inner workings and tell you how awesome it is. I’m not going to go through and tell you all my favorite puzzles and some to skip. I’m not going to tell you about how my team did and what our status was throughout the weekend. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to tell you some stories. This hunt seemed perfectly constructed to be a nostalgia fest for me - and I spent the first weekend awash in my memory. Come join me on another trip through those stories.

It seems like an appropriate way to recap a puzzle hunt that is all about traversing an infinite library.

Oh, Hey! It’s the Library of Babel Again!

Early in the process of writing the 2022 MIT Mystery Hunt, someone floated the idea of a Library of Babel puzzle. It made sense to have in a hunt all about traversing a giant library dimension, and I was excited to see it. A couple months later, that idea never went through, and I had a puzzle that just wasn’t working out1. When I found out that the Library of Babel puzzle wasn’t happening, I built a puzzle around using the Library for the Nancy Drew answer I had already claimed2. It was a very fun puzzle to write because it involved many large Google Spreadsheets and fun formulas.

I spent some time reading the feedback surveys that folks sent in at the end of the Hunt. It was a tough read, but there was some really good stuff in there. Puzzle feedback is always tricky because for many events you won’t be running the same event twice, but you can still learn things even from the small mistakes that you’ve made on individual puzzles. There was a really good piece of feedback towards Word Search of Babel. The puzzle references LIBRARY OF BABEL as a hint towards the solve path, but that’s not actually specific enough. The “Library of Babel” is a story about an infinite library, but there are different implementations of it which might have different details, and the puzzle actually used as the specific implementation needed. The feedback pointed out that the clue in the puzzle should have been LIBRARY OF BABEL DOT INFO instead to point to the specific implementation used. I totally agree with this. I didn’t think about implementations and this would not have been hard to change in the puzzle.

So of course a puzzle hunt built around a different implementation of the Library of Babel fooled me at first.3

I loved the Prologue being 10 minutes long forced you to interact with their Library implementation. Turns out that you can lead a Cute Mage to water but you can’t make her drink4. I recognized immediately that it was a Library of Babel reference, told my team, and put all the info into, and… wondered what the next step of the puzzle was. It is a stereotype that veteran puzzlers don’t read, but in this case it was definitely true. It was after I explained how the Library worked that someone else in my team’s chat pointed out5 that there was something in the header that said “The Library” and we found 17th’s6 implementation. This was like the most targeted thing. “Hey Cute Mage. Remember when people pointed out that there were multiple implementations of the Library of Babel? Remember? Remember?”

While this situation probably doesn’t compare to the heart attack that 17th Shard got when they opened the Word Search of Babel, I still find it funny to consider it their revenge on me.

It’s Your Turn

There’s just something about puzzle hunts that allows me to put my hair down and be as ridiculous as possible. I mean, I’m not afraid of looking silly overall - it’s part of what makes me a good math teacher7 - but there’s still a level of hesitancy that goes away whenever puzzles are put in front of me.8 This means that anything that involves creative tasks is in my wheelhouse - nevermind the subject.

Here are two of the videos I produced for the tasks in this puzzle. For the slashing weapon, I basically just turned on the camera and kept talking9. For the difficult terrain, I did plan… poorly.

I’ll admit though, when I opened the puzzle, my heart sank a bit. Every puzzle hunter has a list of ideas of puzzles they’d like to write, whether they keep that list in a document on their computer or in an ever-changing document in their head. I now had to cross one of mine off, or at least not write it for a little while in order to let It’s Your Turn have its space. This one, however, was more frustrating than most.

It used to be that every year, I would reread the entire MIT Mystery Hunt archives. When I was first getting familiarized with the hunt, it was a way that I could improve my own solving ability. Sometimes I would try to solve a puzzle, but more often it was taking a mental index of what was possible. There were some puzzles from these dives that really left a mark on me, and one of these puzzles was Campaign Speeches.

When I first started looking through the archives, I was D&D-curious. This puzzle was another small lens into that world I had no experience in. A couple years after I started actually participating in the Hunt, I learned how to play Pathfinder and D&D, and suddenly I understood a lot more of this puzzle than I had before. I tried to do a bit of solving on it, but the edition it used was very different from anything I played, so I couldn’t really tackle it. As I got older and more and more hunt puzzle ideas popped into my mind, I really wanted to write the Pathfinder version of it. First edition of Pathfinder came and went, and I never got to do it. And then, I got the chance to write the Mystery Hunt, and so this was my chance to write this puzzle, right?

Well, no. The problem came with the theming of the puzzle and how it interacted with the rounds. If there was going to be a Pathfinder Campaign Speeches puzzle, it basically had to be in The Quest Coast. While I could write a version that could superficially be in another round10, IMO it would feel weird.11 Unfortunately, Something Command was also in The Quest Coast, and it would’ve been a lot to have both of them in the same round. Instead, I wrote a puzzle about a different thing in Pathfinder, had that rejected, and finally got Pathfinder into The Let’s Play That Went Wrong.12

The fact that Pathfinder Campaign Speeches wasn’t a good fit for the Mystery Hunt that I was writing is not a bad thing. When writing a Hunt, each puzzle has to serve as part of a greater whole, and that means that not every idea that you have on your list is going to fit in. For me, it just meant that I would hold onto it for later. Unfortunately, I haven’t really had a chance to put it in a puzzle hunt since. So when I saw that a hunt did it with an objectively worse13 system, it was a bit of a damper.

That’d be said, I’d be much more upset if the puzzle wasn’t good. This puzzle was great and I’m glad I got to solve it. Hopefully I’ll get the chance for my version later.

Through the Looking Glass

“Oh hey. Has this dark mode been here for all the puzzles? Huh.”

I have some history with Alice Chess. Oh boy do we have some history. Eric Berlin described it on his old blog. Here is the relevant quote with deadname and gender changed.

This year we had Jen and the world’s nastiest chess puzzle. She spent hours on this thing before realizing it wasn’t even straightforward chess, but a variant called “Alice Chess,” invented by Lewis Carroll. Alice Chess requires two chessboards, with pieces hopping back and forth between them. The particular puzzle she was solving took Alice Chess and married it to a Scrabble game where all the words had to come from the poem “Jabberwocky.” Poor Jen must have spent fifteen hours at this, and never did find her way to the answer. And yet her enthusiasm never flagged for a moment (at least not outwardly) and I know she will absolutely be back next year to solve some more. She probably wishes it was next year already.

This is referring to the Charles L. Dodgson meta from the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt. I spent 15 hours on this puzzle and never solved it.14 In the end, I never got that all the words in the scrabble game came from the book Through the Looking Glass.15 The penultimate sentence was absolutely true, but there still was a bit of disappointment that I wasn’t able to tackle that puzzle.

Then came the 2014 Hunt. Just two years after the Alice Chess Disaster, we have a whole hunt based on Alice in Wonderland. While I was excited for the theme, I was wondering when the chess puzzle would come. Turns out there were two - The Red and White Knights meta, and the Nurikabe-Jigsaw-Faerie Chess Puzzle. I helped conquer the Red and White Knights meta and the Faerie chess part of the endgame, and I declared that I had gotten my revenge.

Except in my heart, I knew I hadn’t. I had gotten revenge on chess puzzles with an Alice in Wonderland theme, but I hadn’t gotten revenge on Alice Chess.

The problem is, if you learn something from one puzzle, sometimes that makes it less likely that it will come up in later puzzles. After all, people want to give that puzzle space to be the “cool thing”, and we only really want to reuse mechanics if there seems to be sufficient design space to do something different. It’s hard to make a copy of a puzzle seem fresh. So for years, I had Alice Chess in the back of my mind, waiting for the opportunity to strike, but expected that it would never come. My hopes were raised for a slight moment when Particle Physics came out, but it quickly became clear that it was something else.

So of course, when this puzzle unlocked. My eyes narrowed. It was time for revenge.

The puzzle itself was a fun solve. The deductions to figure out the pieces in the cipher were surprisingly strong, and the puzzles were well constructed to show off the quirks of Alice Chess. I am very proud of our 1:23 solve, good enough for 7th place on this puzzle. Honestly we probably would’ve done it faster, but we had trouble figuring out how we would represent the boards on Google sheets, and ended up going to get the unicode symbols for chess pieces so we didn’t have to worry about the color of the piece changing when we moved it from one cell to another.

Did I get revenge on that puzzle? Maybe. Probably. I mean, it’s not a combination chess/scrabble meta, but it’s the closest I’m going to get. Take that Alice Chess!

Now, what do you do when a 11-year quest for revenge is done?


First of all, this is my pick for my favorite puzzle of the hunt. This puzzle is so cool and the reveal when we actually went to search for something on Floor 3 was mind-blowing16.

Now, those of you who know me see where this is going. Obviously I loved the puzzle that referenced Magic. You would be right - part of what really engaged me in this puzzle was the fact that I could use all the Scryfall knowledge I gained from writing Something Command and a year’s worth of Only MTG Connect to quickly find all of the relevant cards. But also, I got to be the bard.

One topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately has been different roles in a puzzle hunt. Puzzle hunting is a team sport, and as such, different members of a team will often be better or worse at different parts of solving. One person may be really good at research, one person may be a whiz at gridded logic puzzles, and a third person may be a fast knitter17. These roles don’t rigidly define you, but they change how you solve. If a person is known for figuring out extractions, then they are probably who you want to call on if you have a table full of data and don’t know what to do with it, but their existence doesn’t stop anyone else from possibly extracting as well. When thinking about my own roles on a hunt, I am a meta-solver, I am an extractor, but most importantly I am a bard.

Look, I just like helping other people. It’s a part of me that I can’t shut off. It comes across in tabletop RPGs where I often play support characters. It comes across in the various games I play where I am more likely to be judging than actually playing. It comes across in my day job where I am a middle school teacher. How it manifests here is that I want to help other people solve as best as I can. I’ll gather the data from its current format into an easier-to-solve spreadsheet format. I’ll organize the spreadsheet so that data isn’t scattered everywhere. I’ll recreate that annoying cryptic grid in the sheet. You get the idea. A team is only as good as its ability to collaborate, and in the age of solving on spreadsheets, that is not a trivial thing18. I noticed while testsolving MH2022 that I was defaulting to making sure every sheet was organized19, and it’s something I’ve been consciously trying to improve at ever since.

This puzzle was a perfect use of my puzzle bard skills. While I didn’t copy over every puzzle, while teammates were focused on two of the puzzles, I spent a significant amount of time trying to copy over the rest of the puzzles and formatting them to be solvable as best as I can. I spent a bunch of time on that and was rewarded by the MtG puzzle at the end. Did I do a ton of the actual solving on that puzzle? No. Did I contribute a lot? Hell yeah.

Wrapping It Up

Puzzle writers put a lot of time into their puzzles. They want to make sure that the puzzles are clean, the steps are all reasonable, and that it is as fun as they can possibly make it. However, when they create a puzzle, they’re creating a piece of art, and art hits different people in different ways. I’m sure that 17th Shard didn’t know anything about these feelings I would feel when they were writing the puzzles, but they all affected me in different ways, and I’m super happy that they did.

The best puzzles are the ones that generate the best stories. Thank you 17th Shard for helping me remember a few of them.

– Cute Mage

  1. It turns out that even in the age of the internet, there are still data sets that aren’t well documented online. In this case, it was the Nancy Drew series of video games. 

  2. And by claimed, I mean I wrote it in the meta specifically for me to use and then immediately claimed it upon answers opening up. There were a couple answers in New You City that were designed for specific people, and some that I just wanted for me. 

  3. Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t remember who submitted the feedback, but now that I’m thinking about it, it probably was a 17th Shard member. 

  4. Okay, that’s not quite true. I drink soooooooo much water. 

  5. If you’re new to puzzle hunts, it is often a good idea to follow what veteran hunters are doing so that you can learn how to approach puzzles. Once you have a couple puzzle hunts under your belt, it can be helpful to ignore what veteran solvers are doing, because we won’t read the whole puzzle and miss something crucial.20 

  6. Mx. Shard if you’re nasty. 

  7. No really. Looking a little silly in front of students has a bunch of benefits. A little bit of humor used well can help students pay attention and remember things. In addition, it’s important as a math teacher to show that you can make mistakes, and that it’s okay to make mistakes. A little bit of well-placed humor when that happens can help students associate making a mistake with uplifting humor and ease the stress that they’re causing themselves. 

  8. Wait, is this why people like getting drunk? 

  9. No one exploded. 

  10. Probably Reference Point, honestly. 

  11. Honestly, there are a couple other puzzles that are like this in the 2022 Hunt. They stick out to me, but also not everyone has the same editorial senses as me, and that’s okay.21 

  12. Actually, TLPTWR was my 4th attempt to make a Pathfinder puzzle for that Hunt. It ended up being in the event because I had way more control over that than anything else. 

  13. You heard me correctly. Fifth edition D&D is objectively worse than Pathfinder. I said it.22 

  14. Y’know, maybe I should actually step through it nowadays now that I understand what I was doing wrong. Just for old time’s sake. 

  15. It’s Through the Looking Glass Chess and Through the Looking Glass Scrabble! That was very cute. 

  16. We 100% thought that every team member would get the same exact results in the same places for the same string, and that caused some fun KTaNE confusion for a little bit at the beginning of the puzzle. 

  17. This is a very crucial teammate to have at the MIT Mystery Hunt. I don’t know why there’s a culture of a knitting puzzle coming every few years, but I like it. 

  18. I mean, to be fair, it wasn’t trivial in the days of paper puzzles either. One might say that it is probably easier today than it was before. But just opening up a Google Sheet does not automatically give perfect collaboration. 

  19. There was a joke that I would warp testsolves. I think part of the reason why I would speed up testsolving was my work on organizing sheets. Also my ability to visualize the structure of a puzzle and use that to find the extraction, but that’s not relevant to this story. 

  20. There was one BAPHL 22 puzzle that ran into this problem so much during testsolving. There were so many times where the veteran solvers would do a step of the puzzle, then wonder how to extract from it, complain that they’re stuck, I would tell them to read the puzzle, and they would find what they were looking for in THE VERY NEXT SENTENCE. 

  21. This refrain keeps me sane in group projects. 

  22. Okay, I’m being deliberately provocative here, but I do honestly believe that 5E is worse, mostly because it tried to be everyone’s game and therefore doesn’t provide lots of guidance as a GM. Also, making a Pathfinder character from either edition is way more fun than making a 5E character.