The 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt is in progress

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head pennyThe 2016 edition of the annual MIT Mystery Hunt started at 2pm yesterday, based in and around that famous university, associated with Boston in the USA.

A quick summary is that it’s, arguably, the world’s most extreme open-participation puzzle hunt; a low-four-digit-number of players form a few dozen teams (of maybe as few as five players or as many as 125) and spend up to, perhaps, two-and-a-bit days solving puzzles non-stop, taking as little sleep as they dare. There is no limit to the difficulty of puzzles; many of the world’s very best solvers take part, and many of the puzzles are written with this in mind. It’s a practical assumption that most teams will be able to directly or indirectly be able to contact a postdoctorate academic in virtually every subject under the sun, high-brow or low-brow, whether in person or online. For a longer description of the hunt, see last year’s article on the topic, complete with links to write-ups of what it feels like to participate and to some of the most spectacular puzzles.

The hunt does aim to offer such a variety of not just puzzles but also other activities in order to give as many people as possible the chance to join in the fun and contribute whatever their special expertise is. It’s practically guaranteed that there will be several puzzles which will get people out and about (example), there’s very likely to be a twisted variant on a scavenger hunt (example), and it’s virtually traditional for there to be a “bring some food to the team running the hunt” puzzle – with the gimmick that the larger the team, the more elaborate the requirement for the meal to be supplied (example). There are also live events as part of the hunt, with this year’s “Escape from Mars” event sounding rather like it might be relevant to this site’s interests.

If you aspire to play all in the world’s most remarkable puzzle challenges, the MIT Mystery Hunt is one for your bucket list. Being there in person for it must surely be spectacular, though helping a team remotely is the next best thing. (This site is aware of suggestion of at least one remote cell of solvers in London, and believes there may be cells – or at least individual solvers – in at least Cambridge and Manchester.) For the rest of us – and this site knows, the hard way, that the event is out of its league! – then the puzzles and their answers are usually released fairly soon after the event finishes, so that everyone may enjoy and admire their incredible design and artifice.

On the other hand, if the MIT Mystery Hunt isn’t out of your league, why not consider attending the UK Open Puzzle tournament next month? UK solvers can qualify for the country’s team at the World Puzzle Championship!

Five exciting news stories make a post

"Top News" newspaperLittle or no connection between these, but they’re all good news. In no order:

  • Tick Tock Unlock have been rocking Leeds for most of 2014, and after the gentlest of wild goose chases, they have announced that they will be opening a second location, this time in Liverpool. Liverpool has long been one of the biggest gaps in the market waiting to be filled (though certainly partly served by a short train ride to Warrington for Clue HQ) and if Tick Tock Unlock can serve up something that gets as good reviews at the other end of the M62 as they have done in Leeds then Merseyside is in for a treat. More news as soon as it becomes available.
  • One of the “more likely than not” predictions for 2015 has come true already with the tremendous development that Asa and friends have started the Escape Game Addicts weblog, which has got off to an enticing start. One day and two posts old, this looks extremely promising. It’s clear that the team are having great fun and this site looks forward to them putting it into words. They’ll be doing something slightly more hands-on than this blog can do at the moment, by necessity, and are based in a really happening part of the country. See the above post! The site goes straight into the blogroll and further posts are awaited with bated breath.
  • Speaking of blogs, Toronto Room Escapes has been absolutely crushing it for a while. The Year In Review post is an excellent place to start and the Themed Thursday series of really in-depth (and well-thought-out, and showing the benefit of considerable experience, and just plain smart) theoretical game ideas (with, even better still, occasional feedback from others in the industry) is already a highlight of the week. Tomorrow is Thursday; excellent!
  • This weekend’s MIT Mystery Hunt was won in just under 40 hours by team Luck, I Am Your Father, the evolution of the Beginner’s Luck team who won in 2009. (57 teams took part, possibly with as many as 11 getting through the metapuzzles and having the fun of finding the hidden coin.) Initial reports suggest that this year’s event is likely to be remembered favourably even by the MIT Mystery Hunt’s off-the-charts standards. The theme was, loosely, “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”, and some wit noted that the promised 20,000 puzzles were exactly delivered… if you take 20,000 in base 3! Many thanks to the setters, team One Fish Two Fish Random Fish Blue Fish, principally associated with MIT’s small Random Hall dormitory. If you want more familiarity with the MIT Mystery Hunt and its conventions, this presentation is as good as it gets and is far too good to save for another 359 days.
  • Finally, coming up later in 2015, BBC Two will be launching Beat The Brain, where dear old Uncle John Craven will give teams of four contestants “logical problems, visual puzzles and memory challenges, rather than trivia questions“. Some puzzle TV shows in the past have been spectacular; others have relatively missed the mark. Fingers crossed that this one proves another critical and popular hit!

Puzzles in pubs and public

Puzzled Pint London logoAfter last month’s play-by-e-mail involuntary experiment, the regular format meetings of Puzzled Pint in London (and in ten other cities, now not just in US but also in Canada!) resumed on the second Tuesday of this month, as every month. This month’s London event was the largest yet in the city, featuring a record 18 teams and 77 players, and was warmly received.

The London location has spawned its own Facebook page and Twitter account, to which the latest information will be posted (full disclosure: often by my wife, who is part of the Game Control team there). Getting 77 extra people to turn up for a few hours on a Tuesday night would be a real boon to some pubs; perhaps other pubs might find it in their interest to hold puzzle events yet. (Or, quite possibly, perhaps the success of Puzzled Pint is something that cannot be caught in a bottle and replicated, and its casual, non-commercial nature is part of its success.)

One interesting, slightly related, event that’s starting up from Sunday night is Quiz The Nation, which will be broadcast on an (admittedly slightly obscure) satellite TV channel weekly at 8pm on Sunday evenings. Get your team together, work out the answers to the questions in real time and submit them in the custom app. Over a hundred pubs have said that they will host gatherings for people who all want to play along, and will presumably have a TV set to the channel rather than Sunday night sport. After each round, the app will notify you of your score and position, both nationally and relative to inhabitants of wherever you’re playing. However, if you don’t have a local pub that’s playing, you can play along at home; if you’re at home and don’t have satellite TV, you may be able to stream the channel from the showcase TV site. (It might be a few seconds behind satellite TV, though, and if speed of response is scored, those seconds might be crucial.)

So far, so standard. Quizzes and their players are fun, but not really this site’s sort of fun. The reason why this site is reporting on this is that the quiz and app come from the team behind The Krypton Factor, and are importing some of that show’s signature mental agility tests into this new venture. This turns it from a straight quiz, with all its attendant downfalls, limitations, flaws and elements of brokenness into something much more puzzly, and thus much more interesting. Perhaps this might be a way to get puzzles – even if not by name – into scores of pubs at once and across the country? Perhaps this might be a way for puzzlers to plunder precious prizes! This site looks forward to finding out.

The next MIT Mystery Hunt starts on Friday 16th at a random 17 minutes after noon Boston time (so 5:17pm UK time, etc.), as counted down by this occasionally acid countdown timer, and plenty of puzzle fans are getting mighty excited about it already, as witnessed by the raging #mysteryhunt hashtag. Some people have made relatively short practice hunts for their teams, and at least one has been made available to the public.

However, with the MIT Mystery Hunt in mind, the craziest thing that this site has enjoyed recently is a couple of rounds of Spaghetti at Eric Berlin’s blog. The MIT Mystery Hunt is known for getting people to make remarkable leaps of logic to find patterns between collections of answers to solve meta-puzzles. Eric Berlin helps people practice this by creating collections of random words and phrases – and everybody’s in on the joke – and inviting people to solve them as if they were answers from which a metapuzzle answer must be extracted. The creativity to make something out of absolutely nothing is remarkable, and that of the second game is even more mind-blowing.

Thankfully this site gets to play with much more sensible puzzles!

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.

Looking ahead to 2015: get ready to go Hunting

"Puzzle Hunt" app from KrayZ Logic
(Graphic from the Puzzle Hunt app by KrayZ Logic. Hi!)

This site continues its look through the items which it has recently added to its 2015 calendar by concentrating on the puzzle hunts that are expected to follow over the course of the year. Best start with what’s in progress and available for you to play in at this moment in time: the Victoria and Albert Museum is the start location for Time Out London and HiddenCity’s The Enchanted Mirror, in progress until 11th January, and the current Pablo’s Armchair Treasure Hunt has a real treasure to find and a deadline for your solutions of 12th January.

Looking further ahead, we can split upcoming hunts into two categories: in-person events and online events.

IN-PERSON EVENTS

The highlight of the puzzle hunt year is DASH, an event held in many cities in parallel at about the same time. This year will see the seventh hunt; London has been announced as one of the cities where it will be played, for the third time. This site wrote all about how much fun last year’s event was, and hopes for this year’s event are very high. The global date has been announced as May 30th, but as this clashes with both the FA Cup final, the Premiership rugby final and a world-class triathlon, hosting it in London that day might be… tricky. Watch this space.

The Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society have held an extremely ambitious puzzle hunt in June for each of the past three years; this site will be following, with high hopes, to see if another one follows now that this site knows to look for it. This site wrote about the hunt previously and hopes that the initiative grows and flourishes further over time.

The Armchair Treasure Hunt Club have been holding their annual club meetings, featuring hunts in their habitual style, for years, generally in September. There will be a great many people looking forward to the continuation of that particular tradition. Other than that, 2014 was a particularly fortunate year for featuring both the “Top Secret” hunt in Essex in August and Girls and Boys, Come Out To Play in September. While this site knows of no such counterpart events for 2015, yet, be sure that this site will let you know if there is good news to report. Puzzled Pint and, hopefully, further events from a door in a wall will keep the community ticking over until then.

ONLINE HUNTS

The biggest online puzzle hunt of the year will be the MIT Mystery Hunt, notorious for featuring teams with scores of players, maybe hundreds, and sufficiently many, sufficiently difficult puzzles to keep them busy for a weekend – some years, a long, long weekend. More about this closer to the time, though as the time is 11 days away, more very soon.

Other universities with an open-access online puzzle hunt tradition are the Australian universities: Melbourne’s event may happen in May and Sydney’s event is a little more movable, taking place in the northern-hemisphere autumn. CiSRA is a business rather than a university, but their event is very similar in form. It wasn’t held in 2014 but fingers crossed for a return in 2015. Other universities around the world also hold hunts and this site is looking forward to see if the University of South Carolina holds another one, possibly as soon as March.

P&A Magazine have hinted that Puzzle Boat 3 will take place this summer, though the date is not fixed; it will be one of the few puzzle hunts to approach the MIT Mystery Hunt in magnitude, with the two previous episodes having each featured around a hundred puzzles to share between your team.

Dr. Bob Schaffer has hosted many events over the years, some online in California and others online. Not only is it reasonably likely that there might be a fourth online holiday puzzle hunt towards the end of the year, most of the puzzles from his third Elevate Tutoring charity hunt should be playable online from February onwards.

So a great deal to look forward to – and this site very much hopes to being pleasantly surprised by more good news over the course of the year!

Hunting for Hunts

Open pink treasure chestThere are a number of very intriguing-looking puzzle hunt competitions of various scales either in progress or coming up soon. Will you break any of the metaphorical treasure chests to be found?

The @MrHydeAndSeek account on Twitter has a series of picture-driven treasure hunt competitions, just for fun. You can get a sense of the game’s conventions by looking over past hunts; in an example of excellent practice, each previous hunt is explained, with full descriptions of the precise subtleties in each of the clues. The clue-writing seems very precise and as imaginative as you would hope.

This site has written about this year’s Pablo’s Armchair Treasure Hunt previously, but more information has very recently been made available; specifically, the poster has been released, with further pointers towards a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy theme. Plenty to start work on already: what looks like some braille, some binary, a DNA strand, several pictures and quite possibly some other encrypted information as well. The actual full body of the hunt is released on December 19th and you’ll have three and a half weeks to put your answer together.

If you’d like a hunt with a prize, and if you live in London, then perhaps Gold Hunt London might be for you. A specially-engraved gold bar currently valued at over £5,000 has been (or, perhaps, is about to be) hidden somewhere in London. Buy an e-book for £3.99 and maybe you will be the one to decode its clues and find the gold bar’s whereabouts. The book suggests that it may provide suggestions for interesting and little-known places to visit in London even if the competition doesn’t catch your eye. You can pre-order the e-book now; the game goes afoot on December 17th.

Arguably bigger still is the one event where the world’s puzzle hunters focus on the enigma of all enigmas for a single weekend. Teams of handfuls-to-hundreds (well, the biggest teams number more than a hundred) attack the 100-150-ish double-black-diamond-difficulty no-holds-barred puzzles of what will be the 35th annual MIT Mystery Hunt, and this year’s event is set to take place, as tradition dictates, on the weekend starting with the Friday before Martin Luther King day, so the 2015 hunt starts on January 16th. More about this to follow.

Further ahead, for your diary, one of this site’s 2014 highlights was playing in the London leg of the DASH puzzle hunt and writing alllll about it, both before and afterwards. The DASH Facebook page has confirmed that 2015’s date will be May 30th, so there are precisely 26 weeks to go. No cities have yet been announced, but rest assured if a city anywhere in the UK is running a leg then this site will announce it at such great volume that you won’t need to visit the site in order to hear the DASH alarm.

Finally, there will be some fiddling with this site’s servers reasonably imminently. It’s possible that this might cause ghosts of articles half-written in May and June to make a reappearance. Fingers crossed for no poltergeists…