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  • Writer's pictureJacob Cohen

[insert puzzle hunt party here] (Part 3)

“Got excited and had to solve this afternoon. The family ended up piling in with me and we had a great time going through it together. Thanks for the hunt!”

—Steve Mossberg, New York Times-published puzzle constructor and online hunt solver


“thank you so much for putting together the puzzle hunt!!!!! this was the most fun i’ve had all year (we’re only two months in but whatever) … i had so much fun and i loved all the chaos”

—Audrey, event guest


Welcome to the last in a series of blog posts covering a one-of-a-kind puzzle hunt party that I created! I recommend reading all of them in order. Even if you don't have time, I recommend reading the start of the first part.


In Part 1, I explain my attempt to thwart a devious strategy from one of the competitors, and give an overview of the concept of [insert puzzle hunt party here]. 


In Part 2, you enter through the time vortex and I walk you through the day itself, from the presentation to the puzzles to the final photo.


Here in Part 3, I cover my process as I created the event! To do so, we must embark on a journey back in time. C’mon in!

10/29/23, midday

It’s Sunday, and I should be working on my college applications. The UC ones are due in a few days, and I’m not yet satisfied with my responses. But my mind wants to escape from the world of zero-sum self-promotion and create something.


I’ve thought about forcing my friends to solve a puzzle hunt for my birthday before. But suddenly I want to pull out all the stops, roll all my event ideas into one, do something for the community around me that I’ve been so fortunate to exist in and that I’ve worked so hard to cultivate through my life so far. I’ve run nerdy parties before (most notably, two 7-person “presentation parties” where guests delivered slideshow presentations on topics they’re passionate about) but this one will be bigger: somewhere between birthday party, graduation party, and immersive puzzle-hunt experience.


So I write down some ideas, like having a social deduction game in the background, or creating a me-themed trivia game (“Jacob Jeopardy”?), or writing another chaotically-clued crossword like these. I imagine the location (probably my house?) and the potential guests. I imagine there being an event playlist — ooh, what if that also contained a puzzle? What if I made people estimate probabilities of things that will occur during the event? Or what if there was a puzzle inspired by The Mysterious Benedict Society?


Crap. Have I really wasted an hour like this? Well, that’s been very self-indulgent of me. Those college essays won’t write themselves.


And so, over the next two months, I get back to work advertising myself to universities. But when I have a spare moment, I think about the puzzle hunt party. I ask close friends about their availability. I ask on puzzle Discord servers for advice about running hunts (they link me lots of helpful content). 


Every night, I lie in bed, and so my brain finally gives myself permission to think about something other than the urgent: school and college apps and whatever else is right then. 


And my thoughts often find themselves inexorably drifting toward the puzzle hunt party. Aided by the whiteboard next to my bed, a great deal of the initial planning of iphph occurs in my mind as I nominally attempt slumber.


12/16/23, 3:11pm

It’s a month and a half later and I’m sending out an official email!


It’s stylized in lowercase and somewhat cryptic, including a confusing reference to BöpGil. However, the main significance of the email is to emphasize the date (March 2nd, 2024) and for respondents to complete two forms. 


One is the Interest Form (which requires people to estimate their probability of attending, but also to select their favorite vegetable from among “avocado,” “tomato,” and “pineapple” — I just do this to create controversy). It turns out that people tend to overestimate their attendance on the Interest Form — particularly bad is the 98% category, which included four people, one of whom won’t end up making it and one of whom almost won’t — so it very nearly ended up as a 50% actual rate. (Just for fun, here’s a calibration graph below. Congrats to the 90% category for being the only group not to overestimate!)

The other is the optional Chaos Form, whose questions (appearing in a random order) include:

  • What do you view as the ideal size when solving puzzle hunts? (Most people put around 3-4, which is helpful.)

  • What is a fact about me, Jacob, that you find interesting, funny, or notable? (I’m hoping to adapt these to create Jacob Facts, but ultimately it turns out that I’m better at coming up with interesting facts about myself than the form submitters.)

  • Rate your familiarity with the following topics. (The topics are things like “Word puzzles (e.g. crosswords, Spelling Bee)”, “Public transit,” and “Graph theory.”)

  • What is something you think would be entertaining if it happened at this event? (User-submitted answers include “flamingos” (Lucia), “Jacob gave me an acovado snack to mucnh on” (Sophia from sophialiao.com), “Ball pit” (Andrew), “orgy” (anonymous), and “A murder” (Zahara). None of these would ultimately happen, in part because Sophia would be lame and not attend the event in order to do the “important” “time-sensitive” “knowledge work” of finishing her PRIMES reading report, whose deadline would shortly afterward be extended by 11 days. This would be a victory for karma and a loss for the aforementioned Chaotic Evil capricious mathematician, who much like last time fully authorized the publication of this anecdote.)

  • What’s your second-favorite ice-cream flavor? (The first six submissions included two rocky road and two matcha, which surprised me. Mint chip ultimately overtakes them in popularity, with three submissions.)

  • What’s your favorite color of the alphabet? (I’m pretty happy with the answers, among them “yes” (Yapa), “🅾️” (Emerson), “q cuz it’s a mix of purple and red” (Lucia), and “E (color in hex by implicitly converting to 0x00000E)” (Peter).)

  • What was the secret message in the email? (It was “good practice,” which is spelled out by the randomly bolded letters. A certain person replies all to the email and writes “why are letters randomly bolded,” which I find hilarious.)

  • Finally, my favorite question: iphph values community and diversity, and encourages guests to engage in respectful conversations that can expand their perspectives and challenge their ideas and beliefs. As a prospective member of this event, reflect on how your lived experiences will impact the conversations you have while solving puzzles, between puzzles, and while eating dinner. What lessons have you learned in life so far? What will other guests learn from you? In short, how will your lived experiences help you contribute positively to the diversity of iphph? (500 characters maximum) (I quite like Caden’s response, which is “In life, I've learned to always seek challenges, especially ones like finishing this form. From me, the other guests will learn that the square root of 2 (approximately 1.4142) is a positive real number that, when multiplied by itself, equals the number 2. My lived experiences will contribute to the diversity by demonstrating just how much I hate puzzles, which will be unlike anyone else who goes there.” Kaden, on the other hand, writes “AHHHHHHHHHHH IM GETTING FLASHBACKS PLEASE LORD JACOB HAVE MERCY.” However, probably my favorite answer comes from my long-term co-conspirator and inspiration, Andrew: “In my lived experiences, I've been to loads of events. Many of them have totally sucked or been very lame. However due to my analytical and penetrating mind I have deduced the cause of errors that lead to the failure of previous events and if I noticed potential disaster at yours I'd let it happen and then loudly mock you for it and be generally unhelpful. In that way I would positively increase diversity.”)


Overall, reading everyone’s responses to the Chaos Form is a big highlight for me, and I highly recommend making your friends fill out silly forms.


1/24/24, 2:35am

Sending out invitations far in advance, as I did, is also recommended. But one side effect is that people sometimes don’t hear about the event for a while and start asking you things like “Jacob, is your ‘puzzle hunt party’ really happening?” So it feels like high time now to send out another email, with more logistics. As it goes out, it’s the exact midpoint time between the first email and the planned event. 


Instead of my house, I announce that the event will actually be at a rented room in a nearby park! This is a great location because there’s also a train station, library, pool, etc. very close by, and it feels well worth the complications involved in acquiring it. 


More people fill out my forms, and more hype is made. I place an order on Amazon for a cloak with a bunch of question marks on it, and an order from The Pencil Guy Shop for 150 purple custom promotional Puzzles for Progress pencils to give out as party favors (and for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament coming up in April, and for giving out to everyone who will take one because I ordered 150). And I continue on with daily life.


2/19/24, 10:52am

At some point it hits me that I told people I was running this puzzle hunt party thing in only a few weeks and I have not written nearly enough puzzles yet. (Yes, even for the things dearest to my heart, my procrastination manifests.)


I mean, I have ideas. They just don’t currently cohere into a puzzle hunt. And how can I write the puzzles when I don’t know the structure of the hunt?


First, the most important thing: I get a test run on the calendar. So now I just have three days — until Thursday the 22nd — to write a bunch of puzzles; that’s the deadline in my mind, so my procrastinator brain activates.


Alright, here’s what I’ve been thinking so far: the event should have some scavenger-hunt-iness, where teams walk around the area, and one puzzle physically leads to the next. 


However, one classic problem with scavenger hunts is that whenever the first team figures out the actual puzzle, the rest of the teams can just follow that team, and suddenly they have a very strong sense of where to go. 


My innovation is that the puzzles could take the form of a cycle, where different teams (this could support up to twelve) start at different points so they can’t as easily follow the other teams. 


I do have to figure out how to label the twelve points in the cycle. When I asked on a puzzle Discord if there were sets of twelve things which (like the zodiac, which I didn’t feel like using) have a canonical order but no first element, there were two excellent suggestions: colors and notes of the chromatic scale. Ooh, perhaps I could name my event the Chromatic Conflux Hunt!

(Making this graphic in my iphph planning spreadsheet (what, you didn’t think I had a spreadsheet? Of course I have a spreadsheet) made me realize why symmetrically spaced colors on the RGB scale aren’t more widely used: they don’t look symmetrical to the human eye at all. This is probably related to the weird responsivity spectra of cones in the eye.)


Except…twelve feels like a lot. I’m worried that teams will lose steam. Also, what if it rains? Additionally, as I think about my puzzle ideas, there are many where I’m not sure how it will lead to the next puzzle. I go to the location and make a new plan (a few things are redacted because they spoil parts of the PfP adaptation):

Although this doesn’t enable me to name the hunt Chromatic Conflux Hunt, and although it makes the musical notes a bit of an awkward relic, it will remain as the structure of the two phases that would make it into the hunt, although they would be renamed. After solving each puzzle, each team would earn a Jacob Fact, and the Jacob Facts would form a jigsaw puzzle which reveals the instructions for how to win. My dream is actually to make it so when you put the Jacob Facts jigsaw all together, the words get rebracketed or reinterpreted to reveal a rhyming poem explaining how to win. 


But look at that spreadsheet! That’s a worryingly small amount of green in the Puzzle Status column. This Jacob Facts revamp does not seem like the priority. After a brief interlude the next day publishing my Manifold Politics post and going to an evening event, I channel all my free time into going to the park where the event would be and making these puzzles the best that they can be for Thursday.


2/22/24, around 2:22pm

My frantic days writing puzzles culminate in a frantic morning writing the large blocks of text that make up Trivial Trivia, printing, cutting, and envelope-ing, which led to a frantic early afternoon arranging things around the park and asking the librarians for a favor.


I haven’t finished the Capsules that was intended to be an Evergreen Event (it’s fine, I say to myself; it’s self-contained), nor have I fleshed out the secret roles I want or the way the game show’s gonna work, and suddenly it’s time for the test run! 


It’s a sunny day, and three fearless live test-solvers have gathered to partake in my nonsense!


So I have them fill out predictions, give them roles (which I write on the fly), and start them off by giving them the Chaos Crossword, the first of the self-contained Evergreen Events. 


Good news: the team gives the crossword positive reviews when they’re done! Bad news: it takes them around an hour… and I worry that, in the real thing, teams who can’t crack the crossword will lose morale for the cyclic puzzles.


Instead of giving the testers the next Evergreen Event, I decide to proceed into the Cyclic Conundrums. Hmm, what’s a good one to start with? 


Oh wait, I realize. I forgot to keep extra copies of the Cyclic Conundrums in my backpack. Well, another lesson to write down for the real thing.


I walk with the team to their first puzzle (Number Puzzle, in this case). They have the perfect arc with it: confused at first, falling for the decoy answers, then realizing the trick!


They move to the next puzzle, which is currently titled “A Novel Puzzle.”

One side effect of me, personally, having written a lot of puzzles quickly is the descent into madness, and the growing sense in my mind that if you lampshade a bad concept enough, then maybe it’s okay. (Narrator: it’s still lazy.)


So, the concept relates to the phrase DIVERGENT SERIES, which can refer to two things: first, in math, an infinite summation of numbers (for example, the harmonic series, 1 + ½ + ⅓ + …) which doesn’t have a limit; i.e. it doesn’t “approach” any value. Second, the Divergent series of books, by Veronica Roth, which is what you need to find in the library.


I knew it was obscure, so I gave the puzzle’s text a lot of random hints that point in this direction. Four and Prior are character names in the book, the underlined text indicates DIVER + GENT + SERIES, the author’s name veronica roth does appear in gray in the passage (admittedly, a very dark gray). Also, a lot of the text is true as applied to one of the types of DIVERGENT SERIES. 


However, for people to whom the idea of divergent series do not instantly jump out, the puzzle remains rather confusing. It feels like it was thrown together by me without much regard for the solver experience. Overall, I know I have to replace this puzzle — it has an interesting concept, but no concept is worth a bad solver experience. 


But once I give enough hints to give away the puzzle, the testers find the Divergent series in the library, and are presented with an austere sheet of paper with this title:


Get An Airplane at the Library


However, it just so happens that I had already revealed this planned gambit to one of the testers. “Is this the puzzle where you’re supposed to interact with a customer service person?” he says. Indeed, one of my longstanding ideas (it’s represented as “Buy an onion” in the planning spreadsheet, if you scroll up) is that teams would have to realize they had to ask something ridiculous to an employee or customer service worker at some sort of establishment, and I’d selected the library. It’s another ConstructedAdventures Chris Waters premise: interacting with people from the outside world, who are assumed not to be involved, feels like magic.


So he asks the librarian for an airplane


—and it was a different librarian than the one I’d spoken to beforehand, so I was worried—


but she provides the next puzzle, folded into a paper airplane, enclosing a Jacob Fact, just as I’d hoped. Great, I thought. This library gambit really works.


Then Building Blocks, and then How Well Do You Know Me?, which both will wind up unchanged in the final hunt (other than their positions).


Next is a puzzle titled This Is Sort of Familiar. This is the one that relied on the Chaos Form, but instead of just a single fill-in-the-blank, it’s now a much more ambitious premise. Testers have to do a “sort of familiar” — sorting and ordering squares for terms like “College applications” and “The Idiot (novel),” which had been cut out, based on their average level of familiarity for the form. Then, the bolded letters spell “Go to the public transit stop behind the fan.”


Get it? The testers don’t. It’s also weird because even if you understand the premise, how are you supposed to know exactly what order the things ended up in? Another puzzle that will have to be substituted. 


Then the Plaque Extraction (which is easier than it will be in the real hunt, because I had supplied a description of the cipher in an attached paper to the testers at the start), and the solvers are able to assemble the Jacob Facts jigsaw, and they find it satisfying. 


Overall, the testers have enjoyed it, but there are definitely things to be done.


I take a break and head to Southern California for two days for the second time that month (this is a total coincidence), and then I get back to work.


3/1/24, evening

It’s the night before. The last few days before a big event always require doing more things than you think — like sending more emails with logistics, and getting the final determination of who is and isn’t planning to come — and I’ve been busy. I’ve gotten my nails painted, purple shirt borrowed, cloak ready. I’ve replaced the two puzzles that clearly needed fixing: swapping A Novel Puzzle for a simpler one that involved finding a different book in the library (How To Bake Pi), and changing the Chaos Form puzzle to be more straightforward. 


I’m tired. I know I should get some rest. But there are still a few things that need to be done before tomorrow. Important things, too.


  1. The secret roles. I’ve thought of a few — like Jigsaw Skeptic and Word Feeder — but I haven’t filled out enough for everyone, and I haven’t assigned who would get what. 

  2. The game show. I like the idea of having a game show with the top teams after the puzzles are solved, but I haven’t written any questions for it.

  3. The Capsules puzzle. This is one of the Evergreen Events, and I know it’s not strictly necessary to have, but I think it would round out the set really well — something for the people who prefer logic puzzles to word puzzles, and I have a good layout.


This seems like quite a situation. So how do I get out of it?


Using my one skill I haven’t yet used: delegating!


  1. I realize that my co-conspirator and inspiration Andrew knows the guests well and would do a great job at coming up with secret roles, and he accepts the undertaking. 

  2. I realize that the game show would be a fun thing to have written by the guests themselves! So I incorporate question-writing into an Evergreen Event: specifically the puzzle called Entertainment.

  3. And with the free time afforded to me by the lifting of those responsibilities, I tinker with the Capsules until it works with the symmetry I want, which it mercifully does.


Then, in a shocking plot twist, I sleep well!


3/2/24, morning

The party’s in three hours, and I have to print so much paper. Five Evergreen Events, seven Cyclic Conundrums, one sheet of Jacob Facts, and a park map — all multiplied by the eight teams that I’m trying to support, plus a few for insurance. The printer in my home is not in color, so I’m at the house of a neighbor who has graciously volunteered their printer. However, there are some technical difficulties (I have to reformat all my files), so it takes a while, but I ultimately print all the paper that I want, and get it into the proper envelopes. (I receive some help for the cutting and sorting of the Jacob Facts.)


I wolf down lunch and head to the park. 


1:50pm

It’s raining and I’m still running around trying to place the last few clues, and trying to set up the room. I meant to be ready before now, but I’m not, because of course I’m not. I enter the library. All I have to do is talk to the library people again, and I see one of the same people who was here the previous week…


—I should have seen it coming that the librarian would say no; it’s not their job, so they can’t do the puzzle hunt thing at a higher scale. It’s a very respectable and reasonable choice, Chris Waters said it worked surprisingly well but his specialty is experiences for one person, I was just complacent since it went so well during the test run—


Somehow I’m not worried, though. I just place the paper-airplane Puzzle Gs very close to the Puzzle Fs. Later on the Puzzle Fs would (I think) get removed. 


But yeah, one of the major conceits of the puzzle hunt party got removed and it doesn’t even feel like it matters.


2:08pm

I get to the room late, but the party is going well even before it starts. I’ve invited people who didn’t know each other beforehand, and they’re enjoying meeting each other. I change into my ridiculous purple shirt, and suddenly I’m giving the kickoff presentation, and the rest is history… 

7:30pm

The room rental has expired. As I lead a walking delegation to my home for the afterparty, I finally get to hear everyone’s reactions. Between drinking soda, hanging out, and playing Taboo, we reflect on how the event went, and it becomes clear to me that I’d truly created an awesome, enjoyable, unforgettable experience. Suddenly it feels like, after the trials and tribulations of senior year, I have nothing left to prove.


4/5/24, around 11pm

Some weeks have passed. I’m at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, at the wine-and-cheese reception. I really meant to get these posts out before now, but they didn’t have a real deadline, and I wanted to do a good job. 

I’m chatting with cruciverbalists, giving out my Puzzles for Progress pencils. Multiple people ask what the “progress” refers to, and I say something about how I’m fundraising for malaria nets, because it’s a cause area where we know the solution and even a bit of money helps, but I haven’t emphasized it in awhile. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that that’s one of the reasons I started this puzzling journey. 


The truth is that I don’t know, anymore, what you should do with your money. I think malaria nets are efficient and effective — United To Beat Malaria saves lives! — but amid everything going on in the world, from war to AI to other existential risks, I really don’t know what organization can have the greatest positive impact with a few hundred dollars. Even within malaria nets, I learned that GiveWell rates the Against Malaria Foundation higher. Uncertainty isn’t a reason to give up, but I don’t want to post something on the internet if I’m not certain, so I’ve stopped talking about the charity aspect much, even though I care about charity. 


But I think my puzzles have been making progress, in their own way. As I explore the tournament — from the crossword fashion to the dramatic whiteboard finals — I realize that puzzles (and games) are where nerds go to experience real-world magic: for the real-world difficulties of the world to go away and be replaced by order and beauty. 


The progress that I feel most moved to make with my life these days is to create real-world magic, whatever form it takes. And as the saying goes, any sufficiently well-planned puzzle hunt is indistinguishable from magic. 


There’s a quote I like which I’m pretty sure I first saw on Tumblr: “There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.” Apparently it’s from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the iconic productivity book, where I’m sure the emphasis was on the first part. But I like the second part. There’s no reason I should keep thinking about how iphph went, except that I really like having that thought. I want to keep living within the idea of March 2nd, and I wanted to bring you inside that concept. I wanted to insert the puzzle hunt party here, and I—well, I did, didn’t I?!


Now

Again, you can begin the PfP adaptation of this puzzle hunt either via PDF or in an online interface, and access the answer key here.


I’m not sure where puzzles will take me next, but I’m excited to tell you about it. 


Thanks to my parents, Peter, Matthew, Andrew, Amelia, Kodek, Autumn, bolgat, Gliperal, ConManAU, qwefty, and chrisj50 for testing parts or all of iphph. Thanks to my excellent wardrobe consultants Lucia, Kaden, and Maridel. Thanks to my parents (a ton), Andrew, Zane, Kathy, Jen, and the city for help with logistics. Thanks to Andrew, Audrey, Allison, Lucia, Hunter, Emerson, Sierra, Zahara, Zane, Emmett, Yapa, Spencer, Caden, Nathaniel, Allie, Maria, Kaden, Ender, Jonny, and Josh for coming and making the event even more than what I could’ve imagined. Thanks to all the people I’m forgetting. Thanks to you, for reading to the end and maybe solving my puzzles.


Thank you to everyone, for helping my dreams come true. Without you, it might not have occurred to me to dream this at all.


Best,

Jacob Meyer Cohen

(middle name reveal. it’s three five-letter names alternating consonants and vowels. I should’ve made this my brand much earlier)


PS: If you’re not a subscriber to puzzlesforprogress.net, please subscribe! Since I don’t post regularly, it’s actually the best time — you won’t be spammed at all, and when I do email you next, it’ll probably be for something good. And while you’re here, check out the archive! I recommend Issue #115 — it’s just a set of mini crosswords, so very approachable, but you’ll enjoy them on another level if you like puzzle hunt-style logic!

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