It’s the most puzzleful time of the year

"Bob Schaffer's puzzles"Don’t take that title literally; you could make claims for both the World Puzzle Championship week or the MIT Mystery Hunt weekend. Do they have songs, though?

The short version of this post is that Dr. Bob Schaffer has launched his fifth annual short online holiday-themed puzzle hunt, which you can start at any point of your own choice after 8pm GMT today. Everything that this site said on a post on the matter two years ago remains true; this year, the hunt is hosted via ClueKeeper and costs US$7.99 to play, plus completely optional charity donations with no impact on gameplay.

Here’s the longer version.

This site loves puzzle hunts: trails of interconnected puzzles, whether online or in person, commonly solved in teams. If the idea sounds enchanting, even if you have no prior experience, this site thoroughly recommends a free online play-wherever-whenever game called the Order of the Octothorpe as a genuinely accessible starting-point that makes no prior assumptions and starts from first principles.

Once you’ve got your teeth into that, an excellent option for a bite-sized second step is Dr. Bob’s Online Holiday Puzzle Hunt. Bob Schaffer is a senior research engineer who, as a sideline, runs Elevate Tutoring. This non-profit public benefit corporation trains small numbers of disadvantaged US college students to become excellent tutors, and requires these tutors to use their training to provide free tutoring to disadvantaged school students. He has run puzzle hunts, both online and in person, partly as a fundraiser for his tutoring organisation.

For the past four years, he has run small such puzzle hunts online from each December 24th. These, too, are deliberately accessible; the 2012 hunt sets expectations with the comment “The puzzles in this hunt are meant to be enjoyed by all. The experience is meant to take 1-2 hours. Those new to these types of puzzles may need to click on the free hints. Experienced puzzlers should get through hint-free in an hour or so.” The 2013 hunt is similar, with the fastest solutions being matters of tens of minutes.

The 2014 hunt was launched with the comment “This hunt has three main puzzles and a simple meta puzzle. The puzzles are geared toward beginner puzzlers, but were designed to entertain newbies and experts alike. I would say that this hunt is a bit more challenging than the 2012 and 2013 hunts. Beginners can take advantage of the hint system to overcome hurdles while experienced puzzlers can challenge themselves to solve the puzzles as quickly as possible.” There’s an online interface which can provide hints on demand; participation is timed, but scoring is optional. (The scoring system is essentially that of DASH.) The 2015 hunt follows the same pattern. All four hunts can be played on demand. There is no charge for playing, though you are gently invited to tip the Elevate Tutoring in return. The 2013 hunt was great fun and is recommended by this site and the other hunts are likely to be just as good.

2016’s hunt is marginally different. “This year, I am hosting the hunt through the ClueKeeper website. With this, you will experience smoother scoring, a better hint distribution system, and an improved answer submission process. ((…)) to play in the hunt this year, it will cost you $7.99. ((…)) This also supports ClueKeeper – and, for those in the puzzling community, I hope you can respect this as well – ClueKeeper is awesome! I also made the hunt a bit longer than usual to hopefully help further justify the cost. ((…)) if you really want the puzzles for free and you have no interest in receiving any hints or being scored in any way possible (or supporting ClueKeeper) – send me an email and I will send you the PDFs in February after all of the paying competitors have had a chance to participate.” This doesn’t sound unreasonable in the least.

From there, where next? There are many options, not least Dr. Bob’s other work. As well as these deliberately very accessible events, he has several longer and more advanced works to his credit, some of which can still be played online. Great work and a great cause!

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