Introducing a great UK university puzzle hunt: the CUCaTS hunt

CUCaTS logoAfter discussion of puzzle hunts around the world, it’s long been tempting to wonder whether there might be one in the UK that somehow has gone under the radar. Many different countries have their own puzzling traditions, and perhaps the UK is most relatively strong in the armchair treasure hunt tradition. One of the most interesting US puzzling traditions is that of the in-person puzzle hunt, more specifically epic 24-48-hour non-stop team hunts sometimes referred to as The Game. (It’s very inconvenient that a useful generic title can get overloaded with so many different, incompatible meanings… and you may have just lost The Game.)

That particular puzzle hunt tradition began at some of the most prestigious universities in the US; over time, many of the participants went to work for, or found, technology companies. Well-placed rumours suggest that such puzzle hunts were also played by members of technology companies in the UK, though activity came to a halt in 2005, possibly to some extent as a result of the 7th July bombings. This site seeks to research this claim.

It was a total delight to recently discover that a group within the UK has been running an in-person treasure hunt, very much in the style of those in the US, for at least three years. True to the backgrounds of technologically focused prestigious academia, the group responsible is CUCaTS, the Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society. Their hunts have been 24-30 hours long, featuring heavily technical puzzles, befitting the playing constituency’s background, played between teams of just three.

The 2012 problems are an excellent starting-point, showing not just the structure of the event but the sort of background required to enjoy the puzzles. They tended to be very sparse on flavourtext, and light on clueing, though it’s impossible to know what sort of help the teams received in practice. The results show that in practice they each tended to take many person-hours to solve – and that the hunt may have had depths that no team actually managed to reach. While the event would be considered “conference room style”, several puzzles involved visiting locations around the city.

The 2013 event’s problems follow the form and take it further still, though it may well be that the clues and solution techniques are not yet written up in sufficient detail to judge properly. Certainly these are proper double-black-diamond difficulty puzzles, certainly comparably hard to those in the SUMS hunt in progress this and perhaps bearing comparison to those in the MIT Mystery Hunt.

There was another such event in 2014; the preview makes it clear that there would be an increased degree of focus on relatively accessible puzzles towards the start, working up towards the most difficult ones later. While the puzzles are not available (from context, they may well have been hosted on a private server that is no longer online) the review makes the flavour clear. “The full range of Cambridge inventiveness and ingenuity was exhibited by all the teams, with puzzle topics ranging from dial tones & guitar chords to binary trees & window managers; from discrete cosine transforms & famous engineers to prime numbers & run-length encoding; and from magic bytes & corrupted FAT partitions to postboxes & the Greek alphabet.”

What is known for sure:

  • The hunt has been run for each of the last three years.
  • The review of the 2014 hunt says “Stay tuned for next year!”, despite only four teams participating.
  • One would expect a 2015 event to happen in mid-June and to be announced on the CUCaTS Facebook site, among other locations.
  • The 2014 event suggested that at least one team member required an active cam e-mail address, implying that other team members did not.
  • There is a tradition of feeding the players throughout, which is excellent, sociable practice.

What is not known for sure:

  • It is not clear whether the hunt would welcome players from outside the society, or outside the community.
  • It is not clear whether the participants are interested in a closer tie-up with the puzzle community at large and the other hunts and contests that exist, noting other rumours of puzzle cells at Cambridge.
  • It is not clear whether a hunt requiring such effort can be sustained for the long-term.
  • The extremely technical nature of the puzzles mean that even some avowed puzzle hunt fans may consider this not to be the puzzle hunt for them.

Nevertheless, learning of the existence of this hunt is one of the most exciting developments since this site started way back towards the start of the year. Onwards and upwards, and who knows what other surprises there might be waiting to be discovered?

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