Great Puzzles, Cool Solutions: The WWU Great Puzzle Hunt

To celebrate the Great Puzzle Hunt, we interviewed Millie Johnson, Puzzle Mistress of WWU! The Great Puzzle Hunt is on April 15, 2023. It's free and open to all! Costumes encouraged. You must register to participate. Register here for in-person by midnight 4/13 at:

To play virtually, you have until midnight on 4/15!

To support the GPH and keep it going, check out this link:

Q: How did it get started at WWU?
MJ: In the fall of 2014, there was a call from the Bellingham Tourism Bureau posted in the Bellingham Herald for a signature event in Bellingham, like the Ski to Sea. My immediate thought was, wouldn’t it be amazing to develop a team event that complimented the brawn of the ski to sea but focused on the versatility of the brain? The application required submitters to have experience in running the event. I didn’t. SO, I decided I would try to make my own event and see if it could be done. I met with one of my students at the time, Kyle Rader, who was (and still is) a tech wiz and we discussed how he could design a game platform and I would write the puzzles and we decided to give it a go. It took us a year of planning and we hoped to get maybe 30 to 50 participants to test out our system. We only opened it to WWU students on campus. We were shocked when 300 people showed up and we had contacts from people around the community and beyond asking if they could play too. SO, for the next year we opened the event to anyone who wanted to travel to Western’s campus. We made a student division, an open division, an alumni division, and so on. SO many details … we were overwhelmed with liability paperwork, adjusting sprinkler times, supplying recycling, and on and on. But even more people participated, and they were arriving from CA, OR, Canada, NY, GA, … 

And so it has continued to grow. 


Q: How did it change during COVID?
MJ: During COVID, the event was entirely VIRTUAL. It was very difficult, but we had record participation from all over the world with teams from India, China, The Netherlands, Korea, Australia, France, UK, Canada, and of course all over the US. Many wrote to us to continue the online option so that they could participate, so last year (2022), we offered a HYBRID event. Once again, we broke record registration and people liked the option, so we are continuing to run a hybrid event that people from all over the world may continue to participate. 

Last year was so successful with the in-person crowd in Red Square and streaming live around the world. It was awesome and so much fun to hear the cheers and excitement from the team of young men from India who won the OPEN division last year. They were 15, 16 years old.

 Our GPH slogan/motto is “mobilizing minds.” We like to think that the Puzzle Hunt acts as an impetus to stimulate motion in our minds i.e., creative or innovative thinking. 


Q: How do you create all the puzzles for it?
MJ: I think about what topics would be fun to explore and I start reading about them. I think about puzzles while I hike, and I keep a pen and paper by my bed. It consumes me for a good part of the year. I work on puzzles for about 7-8 months. It takes roughly 1-2 months to construct each puzzle. I have a former very sharp student, now colleague, Zac Pontrantolfi, who works with me on the puzzles and does complex graphics. We bounce ideas back and forth which is so helpful. Once we feel the puzzle holds together, I send it out to our team of puzzle testers. We have teams from Norway, California, Oregon, Canada, Washington, and New York testing the puzzles and the hints. I make edits based on feedback from the testers. From start to finish plus testing takes about 2 months per puzzle.

It's a labor of love!


Q: How many people are on a team and how many teams are there usually?
MJ: We have ip to six on a team.The number of teams changes every year! Our first year, 71 teams, the next year 90, and so on, until last year 174 teams. This year, people are still registering, but we are ahead of last year’s numbers and SO MANY are coming back to campus this year! Woo-Hoo!


Q: What is your favorite part of the Great Puzzle Hunt?
MJ: I love the day of the event. Red Square is packed with excited players! When Noah hits the start button, everyone looks at their phone and the pack races in all different directions, like multi-faceted parting of the Red (square) Sea!


Q: What makes it fun?
MJ: It’s a social event with groups collaborating. It’s fun to see different people's strengths. When you come out of it, whether you've solved the puzzle or not, you have satisfaction in standing up to a challenge! 


Q: Why should people who think they don't like puzzles or games join up in this? 
MJ: It’s all for recreation. No pressure. No one will know what you are doing or judge you. Everyone has strengths! If you don’t think you do, this might be a chance to discover them! There is a huge satisfaction in working together through a challenge. Exercising the body is important and so in exercising the mind. Clearing out the cobwebs while having fun? Nothing better! 


 About the WWU Great Puzzle Hunt: 

  • Your mission: HAVE FUN! Reach the outdoor location shown on your smartphone & scan your team code (which starts clock) to receive a puzzle. You’ll need your wizard bag (scissors, tape, hole punch, etc.), as well as knowledge, logic, and teamwork to MacGyver your way through. Once you solve the puzzle and enter the code word(s), the clock stops, and you are sent to the next destination. Connect all the code words to complete the game! 
  • The four main puzzles pertain to (1) Arts (Visual and Performing), (2) Sciences, (3) Humanities, and (4) the fourth puzzle is from a different academic discipline each year – 3 past puzzle #4’s were from Archaeology, Communications, and Art. Each person on the team is important and has special input to share. Choose a versatile team of up to 6 members!  
  • Registered teams gain access to the Puzzle Hunt game platform (owned and built by WWU students) via smartphone. 
  • Prizes are awarded in each division for best: times, costumes, and team names.  


The WWU Great Puzzle Hunt Mission: 
Our goal is to mobilize minds, highlight connections between different fields, and break down imagined barriers to STEM fields by building puzzles that require versatility, persistence, patience, and teamwork to solve. While it is at its core a competitive event, we aim to make it fun and accessible to everyone. We support critical thinking, teamwork, technology, and encourage inclusion.  


Broad Support has Led to Success: 
The WWU Great Puzzle Hunt is sponsored by the Mathematics Department, the College of Science and Engineering, the Associated Students, and various WWU Alumni and local businesses. This event has been successful in uniting faculty, students, staff, alumni, families, community members, and people from all over the world of all ages and walks of life, to playfully think. (on and off Western's campus.) 


The Team:
WWU alum, Wendy Aguilar, is our incredibly talented graphics designer.

WWU alums, Noah Strong, Richard Golding, and Raiden van Bronkhorst are our amazing Developers. WWU alum, Kyle Rader, who created the original web game concept.

WWU alum, Zac Pontrantolfi is my co-puzzle master.

WWU alum and professor, Kim Ragsdale is a major supporter and leads the volunteers.

I advise the Campus Associated Student Great Puzzle Hunt Club. The club helps to promote the event on campus and also sponsors interesting workshops. The WWU Associated Students have been great supporters of the event.

The WWU Dept of Mathematics, always there with helping hands and support.

CSE Dean’s office, super supportive at all times.

The entire Western Community, from Reservations (Wendy Johnson) to Transport Services (Daryl Larkin) to Becky Kellow (Treasury), Paul Mueller (Risk), University Communications (John Thompson), University Advancement, … it is impossible to list everyone, but all are important parts of the event!

We couldn’t run the event without our sponsors, listed on the event webpage.


Interesting factoid:
In the beginning, my son (who loves puzzles and games) created the scoring rules we continue to use today.

Finally, one of our goals is to keep the event FREE so that EVERYONE can participate. To do that, we depend on donations from those who can afford them. This is the most difficult piece, raising money to support our effort. ALL DONATIONS ARE GRATEFULLY ACCEPTED!