Puzzle Terminology

I’ve been doing a bunch of puzzles recently. By “puzzles” I mean, in the Mystery Hunt tradition; it’s a weird world that’s not as well defined as “doing jigsaw puzzles” or “doing sudokus”. In this post, I hope to:

the schema

Most puzzles involve something like this series of phases:

  1. The Setup
  2. The Break-in
  3. The Work
  4. Extraction

These are not always once each and linear; usually it’s something like Setup Work Break-in Work Extraction or Setup Break-in Work Extraction Work Extraction. But they tend to go in about this order.

the setup

“Getting stuff into a form you can work with it.” Usually you’ll get a puzzle as a PDF or website, which is usually not a great form: you can’t write on it or collaborate on it. If you’re doing these online, a Google sheet is usually the best form.

Sometimes this step is simple: copy/paste the puzzle into a Google sheet. But often the puzzle doesn’t copy/paste nicely. Or it has graphics or an interactive component, so you have to try to copy the relevant info in, while losing as little as possible. (Maybe this involves clicking around an interactive thing and extracting every bit of info you can.) Or sometimes the puzzle involves an origami 3d shape or something, and the Setup is printing it out, cutting, and taping it into place.

Things to know about the setup:

the break-in

“Figuring out what you need to do in this puzzle.” Like I said, these aren’t as simple as “put the jigsaw pieces together” or “solve the sudoku.” This takes a bit of magical thinking.

Things to know about the break-in:

the work

“The straightforward part.” After you’ve broken in, you know what to do, now just do it a bunch. “they’re crossword clues but the answers all rhyme with a Sesame Street character” or “it’s a logic puzzle but you have to negate all the odd numbered clues” or something.

Things to know about The Work:


“Finding the word or short phrase to put into the box.” Often after you break in and do the work, you’ll find yourself staring at a “completed” puzzle. But the answer is almost always a word or short phrase. So you have to figure out how to distill the solved puzzle into a word.

“How to extract” could be a full college course. But some tips, and other thoughts about extraction:

an example

This puzzle, Double Jeopardy, from this year’s Puzzle Boat (spoilers for this puzzle btw), works like so:

bold “double” clue"“double” answerJeopardy answer that contained the bold “double” clueother Jeopardy answer it matched withletter that was in “double” answer onlyletter that was in Jeopardy clue only

We filled this out for all the clues, fiddled with it for a bit, and found that if you sort by the “Jeopardy answer that contained the bold double clue”, and read off the letters that are in the “letter that was in double answer only”, it spells “IT’S MAXIMAL PBIRS.” “Maximal Pbirs” isn’t a thing, but “Maximal Pairs” sounds like a reasonable phrase, so we just figured that we got one clue wrong and submitted Maximal Pairs as the answer.

love the setup and the work

Were you ever in a D&D campaign where you all wanted to be a wizard? My last one was like that. We had a wizard, warlock, bard, druid, and rogue. Especially if you hang out with Smart People, everyone wants to be a wizard. Our DM had to roll us a cleric and a fighter out of kindness so we didn’t get demolished.

Puzzle hunting can be kind of like that. If you remember key parts of a puzzle hunt, you probably remember when you, or someone else, made some impressive logical leap. These are probably break-ins or extractions. These are fun. They’re also difficult. You feel like a wizard!

But you can’t be a wizard without the setup and the work. Sometimes these are even more valuable: the skill required in a puzzle can be just cranking through crossword clues quickly or doing some Google sheets magic to make the puzzle even doable. (there’s even a type of puzzle called a Duck Konundrum that is basically all setup; just really meticulous following-directions.)

So if you’re feeling like a fool because you can’t figure out the break-in, or your brain is fried after a long puzzle, or you’re new and you can’t figure out how you’ll be able to hang with the wizards, do some setup, do some work. Setup and Work are the fighters and clerics of your D&D party; no less valuable than the wizards.

And appreciate others who are doing setup and work. Thank them for it; notice when they do it super well. Others will notice when you do it and will always want you on the team.

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