At about 8:00 P.M. on the evening of October 1, 31 intrepid Princetonians ventured into McCosh 2, each taking a five-page handout from a student distributing welcome packets at the door as they filed into the room. Clad mostly in windbreakers and res-coll sweatshirts, they eagerly flipped through their handouts as they waited for a girl with the sports car-red hair at the front of the room, Willa Chen ’13, to address them. 8:00 passed, and then 8:05. As the room filled up, it began to buzz with the bandying about of phrases like “MIT Mystery Hunt” and the sound of students turning to their neighbors to ask for hints with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-inspired brain teasers they’d found in the handout. And then, at about 8:10, Chen called the room to attention for the first-ever meeting of Princeton University’s Zealously Zany Logical Enigma Solvers.
PUZZLES, as it’s known, is the creation of Chen and fellow senior Kai Sheng Tai, both of whom interned at Microsoft this summer and became immersed in the puzzle-crazed atmosphere of the company. As she spoke to potential PUZZLES members, Chen recalled a 36-hour puzzle hunt that involved her and her colleagues “in a van driving around Washington State.” The puzzle hunt—a massive, multi-stage (it includes something called a “meta-puzzle”) themed event—is already popular at Microsoft and other schools across the country (see above mention of MIT Mystery Hunt); the goal, for Chen and Tai, is to bring it to Princeton.
The rest of the meeting was devoted to discussion of PUZZLES’ plans for the inaugural Princeton puzzle hunt, to be held around March 30, 2013. Chen and Tai have planned for a slightly less intense experience than the Washington drive-a-thon, as registered teams will be based in Frist and presumably not have to leave campus (or at least town) to complete the hunt. But still, the four-to-six person teams will be in for a full-day event—up to six hours—with a TV show theme. The theme part of all this seems to be taken quite seriously—there’ll be a scripted Opening Ceremony flush with TV references and jokes, and Chen brainstormed that cardboard cutouts of popular characters may make an appearance at some stage of the event.
The question, then, becomes the following: assuming PUZZLES can put together a good event, who will attend? Comparable events aimed at attracting large swaths of campus—think Fristfest, or USG trips and sponsored movies—are expressly non-academic, even seeming to exist for the purpose of being non-academic. Will the Princeton students who turn out in droves for Lawnparties and Reunions express interest in games like a UChicago-style Scavenger Hunt or an MIT-inspired Mystery Hunt?
The answer seems to lie in who’ll be steering the PUZZLES ship. As she spoke and answered questions from potential members, Chen emphasized publicity over and over, implying that fun stuff like “live puzzles” and the TV theme will aid any PR effort. But she was continually interrupted by questions about hackers and test-solvers, non-sequiturs about airport codes, and at one point the meeting devolved into a mini-argument about whether to let local high school students participate. If Chen gets her way, the first puzzle hunt might be technically imperfect, but at least people will come out.