A mind-bending quest

Inside PEA Puzzle Hunt 2023.

Daisy Newbury '23
July 27, 2023
Students work together during a puzzle hunt

It’s 6:30 on a Friday night in May. Classes are finished for the week, the dining hall is open, and the night is young. I, however, am not at Elm. I’m guiding people through the Academy Building basement to Mayer Auditorium, where about 50 students and a few teachers are gathered in anticipation: PEA Puzzle Hunt 2023 is about to begin. For the rest of the weekend, the Academy Building will be ours.

PEA Puzzle Hunt is a student-run puzzle-solving competition founded in 2016 by Vinjai Vale ’18, Richard Chen ’17 and Matthew Hambacher ’17. Teams of three to 10 Academy students, alumni and faculty race to solve the puzzles before the weekend ends. The Hunt is divided into four or five Meta sections, each containing roughly five visual, word, or logic puzzles, or a combination, riddled with references from pop culture and Exonian culture. Within a Meta, puzzle answers are used to solve the section’s Meta Puzzle. Then the answers to the Meta Puzzles are used to solve the final, most difficult puzzle of the Hunt, the Meta Meta.

As Hunt co-director, I explain all of this to the assembled teams with the help of my co-director, Liam Brown ’23. Next, we go over the rules (please follow the E Book) and explain how to use our website to submit answers and request hints from Puzzle Hunt HQ. Finally, we introduce the plot of this year’s hunt by playing a video from our “favorite YouTuber” (Sav Bartkovich ’23), who is trapped inside a “magical TV.” It’s up to our teams to solve the puzzles within each channel and help him escape. There’s no time to waste!

As the teams rush to their assigned Academy Building classrooms, HQ members hurry to Room 103 to set up. I plug in my laptop and open our shared HQ drive folder. Other members of HQ quickly follow suit and soon we have three computers open to monitor our teams’ progress, answer submissions and hint requests.

Students work on a puzzle huntBy 8:30 p.m., HQ is spread thin. The other six members of HQ are giving hint requests in various classrooms, so I am monitoring answer submissions solo in HQ. For each submission, I call to inform the team whether the answer is correct. Confirming a correct answer often results in a delightfully deafening cheer from the team.

When we close HQ at 9:55 p.m., student teams lamfam and The Riddlers, and alumni team NAT1, have each solved more than half of Meta 1, while team Sticker Herd (a combination of last year’s Sticker Factory and NerdHerd) has started Meta 2. Their night may be over, but HQ always has puzzles to fine-tune. Back in my dorm, I spend the next two hours test-solving our remaining puzzles before calling it a night and heading to bed.

I wake up early on Saturday to unlock the Academy Building with Campus Safety at 8 a.m., but a few other members of HQ beat me to it. A couple of teams arrive minutes after we open, armed with breakfast bagels and new ideas. It might seem early for a weekend, but the Hunt scratches the creative problem-solving itch in every Exonian’s brain. Sure, finding a puzzle answer is fun, but the process of solving that puzzle is even more rewarding. At its core, the Hunt encourages us not only to think outside the box, but also to ask what would happen if we folded the box into an origami crane.

After setting up the HQ computers again, I dispatch myself to answer a hint request. I’m welcomed into the team’s classroom, stocked with Pringles and graph paper. While one member of the team has been deciphering Hitomezashi stitch patterns, the other two have been collaborating on one of the puzzles I wrote. I ask them to walk me through their progress, only to discover that they’re only a few steps from the answer! One of them asks me what the next step is. My clueless expression is clearly fake.

Providing puzzle hints is one of my favorite parts of the Hunt. It’s actually very similar to leading a Harkness discussion; my job isn’t to answer their questions but to guide them to their own realizations, or what we in HQ like to call a-ha! moments.”

“What parts of the puzzle are unused?” I ask. They groan, but I can practically see the gears in their brains turning. Providing puzzle hints is one of my favorite parts of the Hunt. It’s actually very similar to leading a Harkness discussion; my job isn’t to answer their questions but to guide them to their own realizations, or what we in HQ like to call a-ha! moments. I wish the team luck before jogging back to HQ. Upon my arrival, I’m instantly dispatched to another hint request. Answering nonstop hint requests fills my day.

Our teams are making great progress. After closing HQ at 11 p.m., two of our teams are almost done solving Meta 3, while teams lamfam and Sticker Herd are on Meta4. It looks as if multiple teams might solve the Meta Meta! This year, the information needed to solve the Meta Meta is scattered across campus, in the form of characters played by some of our HQ members. Each character is an archetype from a TV genre and, if you ask the right questions, they’ll tell you everything you need to know to solve the Meta Meta.
I’m vibrating with excitement on my Sunday morning walk to HQ. I open HQ but can’t stay for long. Unfortunately, both Liam and I have a required appointment that lasts all day, so we won’t be there when the teams solve the Meta Meta. Before I leave, I distribute scripts to the HQ cast and set up the final Meta Meta location. I check on the teams’ progress remotely throughout the day. By 3 p.m., Sticker Herd has started solving the Meta Meta, and NAT1 is almost done with Meta 5. I receive text updates from Cee McClave ’24, who is running HQ while Liam and I are gone. Finally, at 4:40p.m., Cee texts me a final update: “We have a winner!” Sticker Herd is the first team to complete the 2023 Hunt. Liam and I rush back to HQ.

The clock strikes 6 p.m. and the Hunt is officially over. We invite all the teams to the HQ classroom for a slideshow of our silliest Judge Puzzle skits, our funniest answer submissions and, finally, we announce our 2023 Hunt winners. We laugh, we applaud and everyone in the room thanks Ms. Lembo profusely. (Seriously, this couldn’t happen without her.)

Soon students disperse to start their homework and alumni begin the trek home. Although the Hunt is over, HQ is already crafting the beginnings of next year’s Hunt. (Note: This article is not a puzzle.)

ANSWER: Hitomezashi stitches encode binary based on the alternating lines in the grid. When translated using ASCII, you get the answer: KNITS

This profile was first published in the summer 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.