# Anatomy of a Puzzle

Puzzle hunts have a long history. With that history comes a price. Many traditions, standards, and tropes have come about. It can be very confusing for first time players, even for the most experienced and knowledgeable puzzle solvers.


You want to know who started this crazy idea? Steven Sondheim and Anthony Perkins did, back in 1968. They held the first puzzle hunt as a Halloween party. Since then, the idea has been passed down through movies such as:

  • The Last of Sheila (1973)
  • Midnight Madness (1980)
  • Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
  • The Game (1997)

People such as Don Luskin, Joe Belfiore, Dave Barry, and many more were inspired by these films to create puzzle events.

More recently, puzzlehunt communities have cropped up in several places. Puzzlers in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, NYC, Hot Springs, and Boston holds games occasionally. A game called DASH takes place in several more cities each year.

Think like a Puzzle Designer

Someone writing a puzzlehunt puzzle assumes that one of following is correct:

  • You are familiar with the rules of crosswords, word searches, logic, common board games, newspaper puzzles, sports, etc.;
  • You can figure out what you need to do even if you aren't
  • You are willing to ask for a hint.

In any case, the author is probably not going to include specific instructions on how to solve the clue. Half the fun is in figuring out what to do.

Sometimes a puzzle author includes a blurb with the puzzle to add a sense of atmosphere and/or provide subtle hunts. This is called flavortext. Flavortext does not generally contain blatant instructions, but may contain latent information that comes in handy.

Each puzzlehunt puzzle contains a secret message, usually in the form of a single word or short phrase. The puzzle is not considered solved until you figure out what that word is. The word is colloquially referred to as the solution word.

Illustrative Example

Consider the following puzzle:


You start off cross, words come to you,
and in the end, you're happy.


Prickly part of a cactus _ _ _ _ _ 
It's at the end of a book _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 
Hi-def Apple display _ _ _ _ _ _ 
The law has a long one _ _ _ 
Fashionably current _ _ _ 
Small room in prison _ _ _ _
Powerful car or sleeveless shirt ......

For a first-time solver, this may seem a bit confusing. Maybe you've begun to fill in all the boxes, but haven't realized there's a pattern. Or you may have all the boxes filled in and but don't know what the secret message—the solution word—is…

Advanced players would be expected to solve this puzzle without the blanks.

Solve Any Clue in Three Easy Steps

Three easy steps may be an over-simplification, but each of these steps will be used in nearly every puzzle. Here are the three Fs to solving a puzzle.

F1: Fill in and organize the information!

Every puzzlehunt puzzle needs information. It might be answers to crossword clues, graphical symbols, or names of sculptures at a specific location. This step is sometimes referred to as the data collection step, especially regarding information that is external to the puzzle.

Once the information has been collected—or even while it's still being gathered—it may need to be put in a specific order.

Some common ways to order information:

  • Alphabetically
  • Numerically
  • Rainbow color (ROYGBIV)
  • Days of the week, months, zodiac symbols, etc.

Data Collection in “Anatomy”

For “Anatomy”, the boxes clearly need to be filled in. The crossword-style clues across from them indicate what information goes in the boxes. Some of the clues are fairly obvious (“The law has a long one” = ARM), but others may not be. Figuring those out is the next step.

(There's nothing indicating that reordering is necessary, so we won't!)

F2: Figure out the trick! (Aha Moment)

Each puzzlehunt puzzle has at least one trick to it. Realizing what that trick is is known as the aha moment, or just the aha. Just like Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” it's a thrilling moment when the inner workings of a puzzle become clear to you.

Figuring out the aha to a puzzle takes ingenuity, experience, and even a little luck. Many ahas require a certain amount of lateral thinking, a willingness to think outside the box.

Pattern Ahas

Puzzle writers love to throw patterns in their puzzles; it brings order to chaos and makes the puzzle feel tidy. Figuring out what, if any, the pattern of the puzzle's data is is an important step in deciphering its purpose.

Mechanism Ahas

Nearly all puzzles take information and transform it into new data. The transformation&emdash;often called the puzzle's mechanism—can take on a variety of forms. Morse code, anagramming (rearranging letters), or stranger things.

An Aha in “Anatomy"

In “Anatomy of a DASH Puzzle”, let's say you have filled in ARM and maybe HIP. Hey, wait a minute… aren't those parts of anatomy, just like the title mentioned? Aha! Maybe all the "crossword" answers reference anatomy! Let's use that idea to try and fill in the remaining clues.

F3: Find the secret message! (Extraction)

Okay, so you've got most of, if not all of data filled in and figured out one or more of the ahas. Now what? Extraction, that's what! Extraction is taking all the information from a puzzle and pulling out the secret message—either the solution word or a clue that give the solution word. How the heck do you do that? There are tons of different ways, but most operate on a few key concepts.

Data Selection

Maybe you need to select the first letter from each piece of data; put those letters together and they might spell something. Or maybe you filled your answer into blanks and some of those are circled. These are common data-selection mechanisms: take one letter from each word, or one word from each phrase.

Data Transformation

There might be one last transformation step on the data you've selected. You might need to rearrange letters, use them as a cipher key, or something stranger.

Extraction in "Anatomy"

By now, you should have filled in most of the blank, based on the crossword clues and the fact that all of them are related to anatomy. Suppose you've figured out


The first letters reveals SA_AH_M, which doesn't look like an answer. Two things might guide us. First, notice that all the blanks are aligned on the right margin. Second, note the “at the end” phrase in the flavortext. Spark any ideas?

(Hint: Instead of taking the first letter from each word, try the opposite approach.)


The final solution to “Anatomy of a DASH Puzzle” is... EXAMPLE! This was revealed by extracting the last letter from each answer filled in. At this point in a puzzlehunt, you would tell whoever is staffing the location you received the puzzle from this word. You would then be able to figure out where the next puzzle is hidden!

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