Stuff about, you know, puzzles

Expressing disappointment in a puzzle hunt?

At the finish line of BANG 22, both Jonathan and I wandered the crowd of finished solvers and asked for some honest feedback.  Mostly, we got expressions of appreciation and "Awesome job!".  But I know it wasn't a perfect hunt, none ever is.  I'd asked teams what their least favorite part was, but got no real answers.  How can one expect to improve without knowing what could be improved?

I've heard puzzle hunts compared to pizza and that a not-so-great hunt is akin to cold pizza.  Sure, it may be cold, but heck, it's still pizza, right?  The analogy is even more apt if you only get pizza once or twice a year.  To say, "Hey this is cold!" may discourage the pizza maker from making more.  And then there'd be no pizza.  Nobody wants that.

But I know the criticism is out there.  Every team I've played on talks about the good and the bad of a hunt.  And on teams that contain "puzzle snobs" – i.e. experienced players who know what and what doesn't work – the bad can sometimes lead to anger.  In a hunt a while ago, the puzzle required ordering (as many do). Instead of using a natural ordering, however, it went with an arbitrary ordering.  This really pissed off one of my teammates and I think pretty much ruined the hunt for them. 

I've felt that anger, too.  After one of those times, I mentioned all the missteps that had been made in the puzzle hunt to some friends.  One person replied, "Yeah, but… instead of critisizing GC, we should be encouraging so they might run another one.  We've had years and years of experience to hone this art and our expectations.  Pointing out everything that went wrong is no way to say thanks."

It's true, constructive criticism should really only be given when asked for.  But when you are GC and you do want constructive criticism, how do you get it?  And if there were major flaws in a hunt, how can you express that without being discouraging and hurting feelings.  People pour tons of works into their hunts and the players often have no idea what's going on being the scenes.  Sometimes, the "right" idea just doesn't occur to GC.  On several occasions after a hunt I've run, I've thought "This clue could have been so much better if only I'd thought to…"   I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

To say, "You really screwed up" is indeed no way to say thank you.

I've seen some writeup of hunts that generally have a positive tone about their experience, but mention the difficulties in passing, sometimes as if it was the solver's fault, not GC's responsibility.  Maybe that's a good way.  It's sort of passive-agressive in it's methodology, but gets the point across without coming across as negative and/or intentionally trying to hurt feelings.

I think the best way, though, is to run your own hunt.  Make it fun, smooth, and satisfying.  Listen to playtesters, iron out kinks, and don't take shortcuts.  That way potential GCs have a model to look to so that when they decide to run something, they can say, "Let's make it good like that awesome hunt we played in."

  • “I’d asked teams what their least favorite part was, but got no real answers.”

    Yeah, I have to know someone really well before I know whether they want that criticism as much as they say they want it.

    “I think the best way, though, is to run your own hunt.”

    Yes, that is a good piece of advice for readers of this blog, indeed. And if you’re going to run that hunt in the wastelands of Nevada, please let me playtest in the SF bay area first: That’s one things those folks did really well; that and the [SPOILER REDACTED].

    • egnor


  • egnor

    “All any author wants from a review is six thousand words of closely reasoned adulation.”

    Good feedback is really hard!

    First, you have to disentangle your experience from what the author provided. Then you have to understand which parts of what the author provided led to which parts of your experience — an experience that may be mostly a blur by the time you’re giving feedback! And then you have to navigate the tricky emotional passage of delivering criticism about something that was someone’s hard-won labor of love gifted to you.

    But as a constructor, in many ways no feedback is the worst feedback. You sweat for months to put on an event, you test and refine and obsess, and then the big day comes and it’s a frenzy of adrenaline, and then it’s over, and people say “hey, thanks, that was pretty fun!”. And then the next day you wake up, and it’s just another day, nothing has changed, maybe there’s a blog post if you’re lucky. A week later and nobody’s talking about it at all! It can be really depressing, especially the first time when you aren’t expecting it. Nobody gives a ticker tape parade for GC. You aren’t suddenly invited to swanky dinners at the Puzzle Authors Club.

    But that’s not _actually_ the worst feedback. When people really didn’t like what you did, that’s beyond crushing.

    I do find that talking in some detail about what you did, and why, and what went into it, can bring forward interesting discussions, and knock loose some thoughts and reactions.

  • Wei-Hwa Huang

    The main problem is that authors are different. I thrive on negative feedback; when I hear from people about things they don’t like, it fascinates me — even if I don’t agree with the audience member, I enjoy hearing a different perspective. However, I have a co-author who is almost the opposite with negative feedback — he finds it demoralizing to hear what players didn’t enjoy. So when I talk to him I try carefully to emphasize the parts I liked, which is hard for me because that’s not the feedback I personally would like to hear.