College Puzzle Challenge 2008

Yesterday some of my friends and I took part in Microsoft’s College Puzzle Challenge for our first time, because we thought it was going to be fun and stimulating. We were not disappointed; on the contrary, the event was one of the most fun and well-organized events I have seen, despite the large number of participants (50 teams from UofT, which makes almost 200 people, and another 300 teams all across North America). The 50 teams occupied all the corners and tutorial rooms at Bahen.

This year’s theme was to solve the mystery behind the stolen Rosetta Stone through a series of 30 puzzles which kept us busy for 12 straight hours –thank God food was provided– We managed to solve the easy puzzles, half of the moderately hard, and a couple of hard ones. We got really excited in the first three hours because we solved every puzzle we attempted, but we had a stream of dead-ends from 3:00pm to 7:00pm. What we learned from yesterday’s contest that will definitely be valuable the next time we try out was that:

  • We should have written a program that accepts a grid of characters as an input and finds all the words that are hidden in the grid horizontally, vertically and diagonally by using Word’s or Excel’s spell checker.
  • We should have known how to use Live Maps, I’m not kidding 🙂 This helps very much for solving some of the puzzles that give locations of airports or cities and paths between them. We needed to plot the components of the graph on the map to see a word formed. In particular, make sure you know how to create a collection of locations (you gotta have a hotmail account and login before you do this) and how to draw straight lines between them. Sounds trivial, but when was the last time you needed to do this on something like Live Maps or Google Maps?
  • We should have read Harry Potter. At least three puzzles contained direct references to the seven books of the series.
  • We should have treated Wikipedia as our bible; you can get many ideas and avoid many dead-ends as long as you find the proper Wikipedia article.
  • And last, but certainly not least, we should have asked more questions. As newbies in the contest, we thought that asking for hints from the organizers was something that few people would do and only after they had tried everything they could to solve the puzzle. That turned out to be strategically wrong on our part because we had at least 5 puzzles whose solutions we had figured out by 80% and all we needed was a connecting thread. We shyly asked our first question around 7:00pm and by midnight we had asked 5 more questions. It turns out that the remaining 349 teams all across North America had asked 6000 questions in total, i.e. 15 questions per team! Lesson learned 🙂

We had a great deal of fun, and we enjoyed the event very much, so if you haven’t taken part in the College Puzzle Challenge, do so and you won’t regret it.


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