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Puzzlehunt Strategies

edited 2013-01-21 22:30:22 in Puzzlers Chat

Since we can edit thread titles as well, maybe we can more than just open or solved. Maybe we can put puzzle status up there as well.

From what I've seen, there three kinds of steps that are in the Mystery Hunt puzzles. Not all of them are in every puzzle, and some of them are used more than once, but every step is usually one of these three, and the best way to deal with them is different for each one.

Intuitive Leap: Sometimes the next step is not obvious. Sometimes it's the farthest thing from being obvious. The best thing to do here would be having people randomly popping in, then trying a few things, and if they aren't successful, working on something else. Eventually, the spark should hit. Or it might not. At least then we don't waste too much time on it.

Collecting Data: Many puzzles have a step where you have to fill out a lot of information. This is where it's most advantageous to have a very large group of people working on it. Filling out crosswords, doing word searches, or just flexing your general knowledge goes here.

Decoding: A message needs to be extracted from what we have. This works best when there's a small group or one person working on the problem. The biggest problem here is figuring out the decoding process. After that, it's just grunt work.

If we put one of those messages up there after each puzzle, people can know what kind of effort is needed for each, and can organize themselves properly after that.


Some things that can help your intuition:


Hints in the title/flavor text: Often these things are hints.  Thinking about alternate meanings for interesting words in the flavortext often helps (like if it mentions being 'marooned on an island' and there's some maroon things in the puzzle.  Once there was a puzzle that had a bunch of words that started with 'afi', like 'afire' and 'aficianado', which was a hint that the puzzle had to do with the American Film Institute


Count things in the puzzle: If there are 26 things, they might correspond to a letter.  7 might be days of the week.  12 could be months (or chinese zodiac).  44, and the puzzle could be American presidents.

Common ways of coding messages:

Real world knowledge: DNA sequences, Morse Code, Flag semaphore, braille, etc. Sometimes knitting and coordinate notation is used to form a picture. By the way, who here owns Image Magickand knows how to use it?

Pictures of the letters: If you have a bunch of coordinates or a puzzle with a lot of weird shapes, this is a good bet.  Also shows up in unexpected places often (I remember it showing up in a word search, and the letters drawn out on the keyboard)

a 1 b 2: If we end up with a series of numbers, we should try this. This is a code where every letter is assigned a number based on where they are in the alphabet.

anagrams: The letters are in a random order and need to be reworked into words.

Vigenere cipher: A code word is used to have a different substitution cypher on each letter. Does anyone know how to recognize these and how to extract the code word from them?

Letter counting: If you get a word and a number, count the letters in the word. For example, if you have the word JOHN and a three, count three letters into the word "JOHN" to get H.

Crosswords: Often have the clue for a single word missing, which is the word you need to find.

Word searches: The letters that aren't used are often significant.  Or maybe it's the letters that are common to more than one word.

First Letters: Take the first letter from a series of words and you may get something that means something.


Difference in numbers: If you have pairs of numbers, subtract the smaller from the larger and you'll often get a number between 1 and 26.

Anything else? You can edit this post to add it. It might be helpful to predict what's coming.


  • I would thumbs up your post if I could.
  • I added a new section: Some things that can help your intuition as well as a few more ways of decoding a message
  • Changed title to be not Mystery Hunt specific, even if some comments here are derived from MH experience.

    I should add that the top-tier teams seem to refer to those two steps as "data gathering" and "answer extraction".

    I sometimes refer to the first step--that is, solving all the little clues--as "decoding".  And the second step as "reconstruction", since it basically involves putting these pieces back together in the right way to get the answer.

    But they're still the same basic steps: figure out what's going with the pieces, then put them together to get an answer.

  • Vigenere solvers:


    Both of these have options for when you know the key, when you don't know the exact key, but know how long it is, or when you don't know anything about the key but want to try statistical analysis. The second one also can work with a partial key, a brute force dictionary search, and when you know what one of the pliantext words is.
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