Looking ahead to 2015: the MIT Mystery Hunt

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head pennyThe MIT Mystery Hunt is an annual event, taking place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been running for approaching thirty-five years. Simply, very large teams get together and solve exceptionally difficult puzzles for a weekend. The puzzles test remarkably many facets of ability as opposed to always just logic; many of them require obscure parts of pop culture, others might involve feats of arts and craft, others might involve unusually challenging scavenger hunts around the MIT campus or the wider Boston, MA area. The hunt starts at noon on Friday and normally finishes (with some team finding a carefully-secreted coin) between 36 and 48 hours later – rarely shorter, occasionally longer, with 60+ hour hunts not unknown – usually with teams working shifts through the nights.

The hunt is designed not just to cater for hardcore pencil-and-paper puzzle enthusiasts; it seeks to test a whole gamut of skills that couldn’t all be held by a single solver, no matter how resourceful, but by a broad and talented team. By and large, the puzzles are incredibly good; often they include really off-the-wall concepts, almost always really well executed. Originally the event was at least nominally for MIT students alone, but as its fame spread, all sorts of people took part in it. There are no real limits on the quantity or types of research you can perform, so this works out as, effectively, infinite “phone-a-friend” lifelines, with search engines being among your friends.

The hunt is storied – nay, legendary – and well archived; Joseph DeVincentis maintains an archive categorising almost 2,000 puzzles from 20 years of the event, mostly with links to solutions. If you are strong of mental health, go and admire the puzzles’ ingenuity, or just read a non-technical general-interest article on the phenomenon with examples. Local student newspaper The Tech normally offers strong coverage; they had the definitive write-up of the 2013 Hunt, and also a version of their story with incidental videos. The 2013 hunt lasted a record 73 hours and 18 minutes, about five hours longer than the previous record. Generally this was felt to be too long for most people’s taste. The 2014 hunt was completed by the fastest team within 39 hours, and eight teams finished the hunt within the 54-hour deadline.

Looking at people’s write-ups of their Hunt weekends is possibly a good way to get a better feel of the MIT Mystery Hunt experience – and looking at the 2013 Hunt will show you how things might feel when the event is at its most frustrating. This site really enjoyed Eric Berlin’s write-up that captured the emotions of a player on a competitive team really well, and features the single best story to arise from the year; Andrew Greene’s writeup is shorter, but conveys the sense of fun, and the always-lovely Clavis Cryptica wrote joyfully and comprehensively from a first-time player’s perspective in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 parts.

For even more of the really enjoyable detail, LiveJournal user rhysara wrote hers in two parts. Three-time World Sudoku Champion Dr. Thomas Snyder followed up his own impassioned, honest and brilliantly penetrating write-up in WIRED with subsequent, more personal discussion, which seemed to be the one that attracted comments from many players on several of the most competitive teams. The WIRED piece reflects how the strongest competitors may have felt straight away after going all-out for the duration (and, remember, many on some of the most competitive teams go without sleep – and this time for longer than the single missed night that they might have expected) and there is definitely some of this in Eric Berlin’s write-up as well. Judging by comments left later, this piece definitely caught the mood of many of the solvers.

Some solvers criticised several of the puzzles in the hunt for being the wrong sort of hard. This site is not sure if there is a meaningful sense in which a puzzle can be too hard for the MIT Mystery Hunt, though clearly puzzles can be so hard that even the might and immense combined resources of the most fearsome puzzle teams on the planet do not enjoy solving them. (Cases in point for 2013: discussion of the fractal word search with an answer on the 86th level of iteration, and discussion of the Engima machine meta-puzzle.)

Yet the strength of the teams sets the barrier for “too hard to be fun” really high. One of the most famous anecdotes about one of the earliest Hunts runs Once I wrote a clue in Minoan Linear B, a totally obscure language that was used on clay tablets in ancient Crete. To make things tougher, I didn’t tell them it was Linear B and I checked out the two library books on the subject. All the teams solved it anyway! Villainy indeed in the days when information on the Internet was so much more scarce than is the case now.

The 2013 hunt contained some glorious steps forward, some evolutionary, others revolutionary, in terms of infrastructure. The whole Hunt was themed around a heist to retrieve the coin of legend, with the end-of-game runaround requiring teams to physically pull the heist off by resolving six physical obstacles, which were frankly incredibly cool; you may have seen laser mazes before, but the picture half-way down the art director’s report looks a different class. A standard complaint is that only the winning team or teams get to play in these incredibly intricately designed end-of-game runarounds; here, people got to practice on slightly simpler versions of one of the six obstacles, and thus have the fun of interacting with them, as rewards for completing each round. These were justifiably hugely popular and made the reward-to-effort ratio much more favourable.

The hunt also deliberately started with a relatively easy “round zero” made up of just six puzzles and an associated metapuzzle, so that even less experienced teams might get a flavour of the hunt. This was apparently greatly successful as a way to help everyone find their own depth. Apparently a team of five first-time solvers, who had only signed up on the day of the hunt, were still calling in answers to these Round 0 puzzles on Monday. They were clearly having a great time, and the running team were really heartened to hear it.

Commonwealth readers may well be considerably taken by this cricket-themed puzzle. It’s one of the type of puzzles where a big part of the challenge is to work out how to solve it; working out how to go about solving at least the first two-thirds of it was very satisfying. (Doing it would surely have been much harder than just knowing how to do it!)

Picking out one other highlight, the artifice behind A Walk Around Town is incredible. The concept is that you have a series of instructions about a fictional journey around Cambridge – Cambridge, MA, the home of MIT, which generates a message. However, this message reads “Start At Old Schools”. The Old Schools are part of the University of Cambridge – the one in the United Kingdom – and it so turns out that the same instructions can be followed to describe a different fictional journey based on the geography of the UK version of Cambridge and generate a message to answer the puzzle. That’s beautiful, a work of art.

The largest teams have well over a hundred solvers, in the day and age when the largest Hunts have well over a hundred puzzles. Many of these solvers dip in and out as alertness permits. Teams will have large contingents on-site at MIT, but many of the large teams have remote solvers, often around the world, and may use Internet communication to keep in touch, keep track of which puzzles have been solved and to enjoy solving together. Accordingly, it genuinely is possible for brave readers of this site to find a team and participate, even if travelling to Boston is impractical, at a time when the weather is likely to be inclement at best. This site has seen it suggested by members of three of the bigger teams (Palindrome, Manic Sages and Codex) that they have open membership. There has long been an “unattached hunters” list, but the barrier to entry of needing to know existing participants is less influential than ever before. This site has many friends on at least one smaller team as well.

Solving MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles on your own is a very remote activity, testing your persistence even more than solving with a physical, permanent reminder of the rest of your team. Much better, though it’s hard to imagine it being nearly as much fun as being in Boston, is getting a few local friends together to create a remote cell, so that you can co-operate on puzzles that take your fancy and stand a chance of being able to make a difference to your team with the progress that you make together. This site got three solvers together in person last year and enjoyed it considerably, after being part of something similar in 2004. Is something similar happening this year? Don’t know, but conceivably so. If you know better, please speak up in the comments below.

Many puzzle events deliberately go out of their way to be accessible and expand the puzzle hobby to share the fun with as many different people as possible. That’s a wonderful service. That, however, is not what the MIT Mystery Hunt tries to do. The teams get bigger and stronger over time in an arms race with the hunt setters who try to keep up. It’s wonderful that there can also be an event where large teams full of the world’s strongest solvers can go at full speed against each other. It’s way out of this site’s league, but this site is glad to have something to aspire to.

3 Comments

  1. I got addicted to reading reports on MIT’s hunt since I found out about it from your site. It is a really interesting concept to me, as I never come across anything like this in my country. The closest thing I am aware of are treasure hunts. I shared this with my partners-in-crime and we are equally excited about this kind of hunt. Hopefully, one day we’ll have the chance of flying over to Boston and catch the real action.

    In the meantime, we’ve been trying to talk to escape game operators here to move their games out of their business locations, like having hunts that require players to run around various locations and solving puzzles using clues from the locations (like Dash?).

    Thanks for sharing all these great things happening around the world!

    Reply

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