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How to Solve Puzzlehunts

by Roy Leban

What is a Puzzlehunt?

In simple terms, a puzzlehunt is a set of puzzles that combine to make a larger puzzle. Put another way, it’s one of the most satisfying and puzzling experiences you can have. Puzzlehunts are rewarding because they’re immersive experiences, but they’re also great because they generally have a wide variety of puzzles, including some types you may never have seen before.

Although the basic idea of puzzlehunts is centuries old, the word puzzlehunt was only coined recently and most modern puzzlehunts owe some lineage to the MIT Mystery Hunt which was founded in 1981.

Themes

Most puzzlehunts have a theme, which purports to give you a reason to be solving puzzles.

  • You’re saving someone who has been kidnapped.
  • You’re saving the world.
  • You’re saving all of time and space.
  • Or maybe you just help John and Paul and George and Ringo with their record collection.

Each of the puzzles will fit into the theme in some way. If you’re saving all of time and space, maybe each puzzle will give you a little piece of a time machine. At the end of the hunt, all those pieces help you to fix the time machine just in the nick of time. While some entire puzzles will fit perfectly with the theme, many puzzles will be themed through what’s called flavor text. Read the flavor text (or any introduction) carefully as this is one of the prime places a puzzle constructor will give you hints to solving the puzzle. Sometimes, titles of puzzles are hints, sometimes they serve to help confirm your final answer when you find it, and sometimes a title is just a title.

When a theme is immersive, you need to be thinking about it while solving puzzles. If your theme is 1984, then the clue Superpower in a crossword is for EASTASIA, EURASIA, or OCEANIA, not a country. If your theme is comic books, then the clue Superpower is something along the lines of FLYING, TELEKINESIS or X-RAY VISION.

Puzzles

Many a puzzlehunt puzzle will appear to be something it isn’t, or pretend not to be a puzzle at all. It’s up to you to suss out how to solve the puzzle. This is one of the cases where you might be given a hint. For example, if the flavor text talks about raised bumps or hand signals, you might look at Braille or American Sign Language as a key to solving the puzzle.

Some puzzlehunt feature something called fair text, usually highlighted in some very obvious way such as a double-bordered box. Fair text is just that — a completely fair instruction as to how to solve the puzzle.

Many puzzles make use of coding systems such as Morse Code or Braille to conceal answers. You’ll also find puzzles that use less common systems such as Zodiac Symbols or units of measure. If the puzzle you’re solving uses codes, you’ll find our How to Solve Codes page extremely useful.

Coincidences

One of the rules of solving puzzles, particularly those in a puzzlehunt, is that there are no coincidences. If you pull a series of letters out of a puzzle and it makes a word, it’s probably not a coincidence. There’s a good chance you’re doing the right thing.

Of course, this isn’t completely true. You might discover an unintended coincidence — a red herring. The more of a stretch or the more obscure the coincidence, the less likely it is intentional.

Final Answers

Every puzzle in a puzzlehunt has what we call a final answer. For example, if you solve a puzzle and get a riddle the final answer is going to be the answer to the riddle. Some puzzlehunts provide a mechanism for verifying final answers and sometimes you’ll even get some extra, useful information when you verify answers.

The Metapuzzle

At the end of a puzzlehunt, each puzzle’s final answer contributes to what we call a metapuzzle, the master puzzle that will give you the final answer to the entire hunt. In many puzzlehunts, you’ll use the actual answers to the individual answers in the metapuzzle. For example, you may need to insert the answers into the clues of another puzzle in order to solve it.

 
 

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