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betaveros’s Have You Tried?

Based on notes taken through several hunts. Also see the original, ACME’s Have You Tried? (PDF).

tl;dr version

  2. Reread everything (title, flavor, data; puzzle presentation for metas). Make sure you’ve tried to use all of it.
  3. Get fresh brains (but don’t anchor them to things you’ve tried).
  4. Try standard extractions: initials, indexing, diagonalizing, converting letters to/from numbers, overlapping and taking coinciding letters, 2D plotting…
  5. Alter your standard extractions by doing them in a different order.
  6. Count everything.
  7. Do it again.
  8. Google everything together.
  9. Wordplay.
  10. Interpret it literally.
  11. Go deeper.

In detail:


    1. Does every clue (e.g. cryptic clue) work the way you expect it to?
    2. Could you get a different answer by consulting a different source? Or transcribing differently (e.g. adding/omitting “The”)?
    3. Star the things you think are particularly tricky and ask somebody else to either check or independently solve them, depending on how confident you are.
  2. Make sure you’ve used everything.

    1. Reread the title and flavortext. Take note of everything you don’t understand. Sometimes the title or other parts of the presentation are meta-constrained and you just won’t understand them, but if you don’t understand any part of the flavor, you may be missing an aha!

      1. If the flavor is an obvious allusion, consider both that it may just point you to the generic theme and that it may point you to specific data from the thing being alluded to. Tell a rubber duck about the allusion, as precisely as you can. Then write it down.
      2. Also note that there may be more than one aha! clued in the flavor.
      3. Standard allusions include: blindness/touch for Braille, anything remotely like a telegraph for morse, flags for semaphore (but also for other kinds of flags), anything with phones or calling for phonespell…
      4. Also consider treating the title or flavor literally, even as literally as sequences of letters. Is there wordplay to be had with them? Do the words have some interesting orthographic property? Can you do analogous wordplay or find analogous properties in the rest of the puzzle?
    2. Check that you’ve used all the puzzle data.

      1. (Well-written puzzles will not reuse or discard orders, but not all puzzles are well-written.)
    3. Make sure you didn’t skip transcribing a clue, or miss an enumeration or sequence of blanks at the bottom.

    4. Check that you’ve used all the puzzle data to the degree that they were constrained. If there are long awkward cluephrases and you’ve only extracted their first letters, you likely need to extract more.

      1. Awkwardness could also be a symptom of forcing an alphabetical order.
    5. For metas: have you used the puzzle titles? Other info about how the puzzles are laid out or presented?

    6. Consider thematic or hunt-specific information outside the specific puzzle that you might be able to use. For example, the MIT Mystery Hunt may reference MIT courses, MIT buildings, or Boston T stops with no or very light hinting. Or maybe the puzzles in a meta have something in common.

      1. Is there anything about the hunt you might have written off as “extradiegetic”, so to speak, that might be relevant?
    7. Note: Sometimes you just don’t have the cultural knowledge to make a connection. Try a different puzzle.

  3. Get fresh brains.

    1. Talk to a puzzlehunt newbie or a puzzlehunt veteran.
    2. Talk to somebody who is intimately familiar with the subject material, or somebody who has never heard of it.
    3. You may explain anything you are 100% certain about how the puzzle works. However:

      1. Do not explain anything you are not certain of.

      2. Avoid actively explaining things you’ve tried that don’t work.

      3. Be very careful not to express more confidence than you have about something not working. (Strive to neither be overconfident that you’ve tried something and it doesn’t work, nor accidentally make your teammate think you’ve tried something and it doesn’t work.)

      Most of the benefit of getting fresh brains is so they can approach the puzzle from a fresh perspective, and not get trapped in any implicit assumptions about how the puzzle works that you may have made early on.

  4. Try standard extractions:

    1. Read the first letter

      1. Even in an ordering that isn’t otherwise compelling! This could be a clue for the first step.
    2. Index

      1. Consider indirect indexes — if something important appears in the Nth position of something else, take N as an index into a third important thing.
      2. Also consider indexing words from phrases.
      3. Wrapping around is a bad idea, but do it if you’re desperate.
      4. Consider indexing column A with the previous/next thing from column B.
    3. Diagonalize (take the first letter of the first word, second letter of the second word, etc.)

      1. Also consider diagonalizing words from phrases.
    4. Convert numbers to or from letters
    5. Overlap things (especially, but not only, if they are equal length) and look for letters that coincide (“eigenletters”)

      1. Consider overlapping column A with the previous/next thing from column B.
    6. Given positions or 2D data, plot them and see if they trace out letters or anything else.
    7. Look for orderings, most commonly things that begin with successive letters of the alphabet or things with lengths that are successive integers.
    8. Anagram. (Even if you trust the puzzle author to have included an ordering, you may be able to circumvent finding it.)
    9. Take the Kth letter for some other fixed K > 1.
    10. (There are dozens of other possible ciphers and codes you could try; however, they are usually either clued in flavortext or presented in a way that readily suggests you should be trying unusual ciphers and codes: e.g. the puzzle directly presents gibberish letter strings, only the letters ATCG are present. But for completeness, some ciphers: Morse, braille, semaphore, Caesar shift, Atbash, DNA code, chemical elements, phonespell, knock code, ASCII, numbers in different bases, general substitution ciphers, Playfair.)
  5. Alter your standard extractions:

    1. If you’ve categorized clues into some small-ish number of categories, try extracting from categories individually as well as together.
    2. If you have a table or a list of entries that could each extract more than one letter, try extracting in row-major or column-major order, or applying an extraction in one order and then reading off another.
    3. Try extracting more than individual letters or words, but also other aspects of the puzzle they’re involved with.
    4. Try looking for things to extract from that are “hard to spreadsheet”.
  6. Count everything.

    1. Count letters. Count words. Count clues. Count cells in a table. Count vertices and edges in a graph. Count enumerations, and then sum them. Write all these down somewhere so that you will notice coincidences.
    2. If any two numbers or sequences of numbers coincide, you may need to biject them. Also check for any numbers are surprising multiples of other numbers (two times, three times…). If something is K times something else, can you match up groups of K of the first thing with individuals of the second thing?
    3. Count frequencies.
    4. Also look for coincidences with external sets of objects. The number 26 is the most generally suspicious, but you may consider other numbers suspicious depending on the puzzle theme (e.g. are you solving a puzzle about rainbow colors and end up with 7 things? Zodiac puzzle, and end up with 12? Billiard balls, and end up with 15? c.f. phenomist’s Sets of Things.)
  7. Do it again.

    1. Recursion, doing what you’ve done to get here again to the output, is a common step in puzzles. It may be obvious to you in the abstract, but sometimes when the recursive component is presented obtusely, this option slips under the radar.
  8. Google everything you have together.

    1. Delete spaces if necessary. Or don’t. Consider if puzzle-writing constraints might have forced some compromises in the phrase.
    2. Also consider adding a word or two about an obvious but not explicitly stated theme to direct the search, be it of this puzzle, of the round of puzzles it’s in, or of the hunt in general. (See point 2.f.)
  9. Try wordplay.

    1. Add or delete a letter and anagram. Add or delete a thematic word and anagram. Take a substring of words.
    2. Generally, reinterpret some action alluded to in the puzzle as a wordplay action.
  10. Consider alternative/literal interpretations.

    1. Sometimes an intermediate message, which may or may not look like a phrase or part of a phrase, doesn’t mean anything semantically and is meant to be taken literally as a sequence of letters, or as a username on Facetwitgram and the like.

      1. Sometimes it actually is the answer. Seriously!
    2. Sometimes a code conveys data that’s not a sequence of English letters.
    3. If things seem too underconstrained, interpret puzzle elements as constraints (e.g. enumerations; additional restrictions on subpuzzle solutions) until you get something plausible.
    4. Consider if part of a puzzle you think is “local” is actually “global” or vice versa.
  11. Go deeper.

    1. Pursue an approach that doesn’t seem to work at first. Not much more to say about it.