Hunting for Solutions

The third Post Hunt was unleashed on the unsuspecting (and in some cases, very suspect) masses Sunday. It was the biggest crowd for any Hunt ever — we guess around 12,000.  Gene Weingarten, Dave Barry and I have done some uncountable number of these, originally in Miami, and now both in Washington and Miami. You can go here to get the full explainer and here for our recent chat about it, but basically we invent a series of absurdo-comic puzzles and interweave them with the landscape of downtown (in this case) DC. Each time we meet to begin planning, months in advance of the eventual event (eventual event!), we initially are overwhelmed by the feeling that we’ve already come up with every possible puzzle scheme and can’t possibly think of anything new. It is a sad true fact that once Dave and I spent at least an hour coming up with a puzzle idea in great detail before we suddenly had an uncomfortable feeling. We googled our own idea and yikes!, we had come up with the exact thing years earlier.

But eventually, after blank hours in which the height of our creativity involves finding new ways to make fun of each other, we begin to hit on some concepts — ” ‘cepts” as they’re known in the trade. These are far from completed puzzle ideas; rather they are pieces of mechanism, a spring or trigger or lever around which an eventual puzzle can be created. The trigger idea could be anything. For instance, it could begin with this from one of us: “We should think of a puzzle where the key to the solution was the way something tasted.”

So that would be the beginning — just a thread we could pull on until the fabric of the universe would begin to unravel a bit. The beauty of it is once we have some very simple core idea, however undeveloped, each bit of progression toward a complete puzzle is a straightforward exercise in problem solving. The issues are largely practical and technical, as opposed to anything requiring creative genius.

The taste example is a real puzzle from the 2008 Hunt in DC’s Penn Quarter, which included Chinatown. Looking at its formulation  demonstrates how what in the aggregate might appear to be a great leap of imagination is in fact something which grows step by pragmatic step. In this, it has been a powerful lesson to me that applies to all sorts of creative thinking, and in particular, to plotting in fiction or screenplays.

Going back to the beginning: Because of where we were standing when we came up with the idea of a “taste” puzzle, in plain view of the Chinatown arch, we naturally went to . . . fortune cookies. Right away, we knew they’d be perfect because of the usual nondescript taste. Any distinct flavor would stand out clearly.

Just as quickly, the technical problems emerged: could we actually find someone who could affordably mass-produce, say, blueberry-flavored fortune cookies? And if they could, could it be done so the cookie itself would look identical to the usual? Blue fortune cookies wouldn’t do.

And then, a strategic rather than tactical issue: Once we had odd-tasting cookies that looked like normal ones, we had to determine how we could cleverly relate that to a number — necessary because all solutions to Hunt puzzles are numbers.

The obvious solution: Fortune cookies have fortunes. We could insert fortunes that had a list of words, each with an associated number. One of the words could be blueberry.

But that would be too easy, too obvious. It would destroy what we liked about the taste element: people would not be looking for a normal appearing fortune cookie to have a novel taste. They’d have to get that, contrary to their expectation. Anything ham-handedly drew attention to the idea of flavor — ie: blueberry on a list of words — would destroy the stealth aspect of the puzzle that initially appealed to us.

So how could we use the idea of flavor for a puzzle without ever drawing attention to it in any direct way?

Well, we still had the mechanism of a fortune inside the cookie. But we had to use the fortune to focus the Hunters’ attention AWAY from the cookie, and away from the issue of flavor.

So, the next step in our pragmatic chain: The fortune could refer to some element completely unrelated to the fortune cookie, something in the Hunt magazine.

One of us came up with the idea of: Movie Titles. There were movies that subtly incorporated flavor words. Clockwork Orange, for instance. Woody Allen’s Bananas. The Marx Brothers in Coconuts.

But how does that get a number?

The movie times listed in movie listings are, very conveniently, numbers.

Somehow the fortune could direct you to a listing of movie times in the magazine, and the flavor of the cookie would tell you WHICH movie time was the answer.

Still, we needed it to be subtle. The fortune couldn’t just be: See page 23.  That would be lame and again, destroy the appeal of the puzzle.  So we thought about fortunes, and the way so many of them had a fortune on the front, and something else on the back of the little slip of paper.

“Learn Chinese!” many of them say, then present a Chinese character with a translation.  What if the Chinese character was simply the Mandarin word for “cinema”? Hunters studying the fortune slip minutely, who had been warned to look at everything in the magazine as a potential clue, would eventually make the connection between the Learn Chinese! vocab word, and an ad for a fictional downtown art cinema with a list of flavor-word related movies.

Our puzzle was nearly complete, but then we got a sample box of our altered cookies. Coconut was colorless and available, but the taste was fairly subtle. Which was good, and bad. Good because people would have to really pay attention to recognize it, and then the force of revelation would be all that much more satisfying. Bad because maybe it wouldn’t be fair to expect people to notice the taste out of the blue.

We still had the fortune itself — we hadn’t used the actual little homily familiar to all. If it could sound like a typical fortune, but somehow reference flavor, we’d be in business .

Then it just appeared, as if by magic: “He who has discerning taste will know success.”

Easy as coconut pie.

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