Orion’s Belt and Sword from the Winter Star Party. Canon 60DA, 3m subs, 200mm f2.8.
Here’s my annual wrap-up of the 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt. I’ve written about this before (2014, 2015, 2016), but as always, I’ll start off with “Here, there be spoilers”. I’ll be talking about puzzles and solutions, so if you want to work on them on your own, stop here!
This was my sixth year competing with team Palindrome. As is our tradition, we pick an interesting palindrome for our specific team name. We picked “Too Long, No Loot”. This is a reference to the fact that even though most of the time, we don’t want to win (winner plans the next year’s hunt), it’s been a while and our team was itching to plan it. Joe Cabrera makes us great nametags every year, too.
(What follows is verbatim from a previous post).
Anyway, I’ve spoken about the basic format of the Mystery Hunt before, but for the sake of completeness, it’s a collection of about 150 puzzles that have no instructions. If there’s no instructions, then how do you solve them? Well, you typically look at the information you’re given. Sometimes it’s pictures of people or places, other times it’s crossword clues. There’s usually some “aha” moment (although from past experience with my time, I would call these “ooooohhhhhhh” moments) and you end up piecing things together and eventually get an answer, which is a word or phrase.
There are also rounds that have a handful of puzzles in them, and you put them all together for a metapuzzle. These are a huge deal to solve and we try our best to solve them with as few answers as possible. In a Mystery Hunt sized extravaganza, there are also meta-meta puzzles and typically the “meta-meta-meta-puzzle” is the runaround, where the goal is to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus.
To be honest, I didn’t follow much of the overall structure to the Hunt for reasons that will become clear. The kickoff on Friday was a great skit of a group of people playing something similar to D&D with some characters in costume. The basic premise was to level up your characters so you could find out how to defeat Mystereo Cantos. This is an anagram of Too Many Secrets which is also an anagram of Setec Astronomy, the team which ran the hunt. (This is a reference to the movie Sneakers).
Before I get to the puzzles I worked on, let me say, this was a very short hunt compared to previous years. Prior to 2017, I believe Saturday night was the earliest the coin had been found. A mixture of large team sizes, plus really clean, and maybe a touch too easy puzzles, made teams like ours blast through it. The puzzles were released at 1 PM, and I ended up going to my hotel for a quick nap around 5 PM. I came back in a few hours later and worked until about midnight. I looked at how many puzzles we had unlocked and/or solved and I saw we were nearing the 150 puzzles that we’ve seen in previous years. I thought that there was no way it would be done before I woke up. Turns out I was wrong. Another team, Death and Mayhem from Above, found the coin just past 4 AM and we were a few hours after that.
Because of the desire to win, we had many people planning to work the graveyard shift so they went home early to get some sleep. Part of me wonders what would’ve happened if our full team contingent had just stayed until it was solved. I think I would’ve not gone home at midnight if I had known that. There certainly were some people on our team upset about the length of the hunt. Those of us who came from out of town now had lots of free time. We did make the best of it, but I do feel like I missed out on a huge part of the weekend by not getting to puzzle all day Saturday. Now, that being said, in years past, I’ve gotten really burned out on the specific puzzles from the hunt that once I get home and look at the other puzzles, I don’t feel like working too hard on them. But now, I totally do!
One thing I’ve always found interesting about Mystery Hunt puzzles is the fact that just by staring at them, most of the time you can’t tell what sort of knowledge you need to solve them. If it’s crosswordy, I usually have a chance, or if it references some part of pop culture that I know well (Weird Al, The Simpsons, etc). And sometimes by using Google, you can figure it out. I kind of wish the archives of the Mystery Hunt would have some sort of hint system so that I don’t spend hours looking at a puzzle and not realize that it contains subtle references to some TV show from the 70s that I’ve never heard of.
Alright, on to some fun puzzles that I worked on. We started with three characters: The Cleric, The Wizard and The Fighter. At the beginning there was a mad rush to work on stuff, so I only supplied a few answers here and there. One great puzzle “Swifties” was full of a variant of Tom Swifties. An example of a Tom Swifty would be, “‘This pizza place is great!’ Tom exclaimed saucily.” Basically awful puns. The aha here was that these were TAYLOR Swifties, ie the answers were all the titles to Taylor Swift songs. It’s pretty accessible, so I won’t say anything more about it.
At some point, we had an interaction to unlock the Linguist. They showed a video of this at the wrap-up. There were two computer terminals that were on different sides of the room. One person had to read a series of “passwords” to the other person. These passwords were things like onetwoTHENtwoallcapitalized or CarrotCaratKarrittThenTheSymbol^. Very funny. They got a puzzle that was printed on a dot matrix printer called Dot Matrix. I had the aha here, which involved answering the clues in Morse code left to right and use the dots and dashes as braille in the highlighted squares. Adactyl was interesting. It had a bunch of trivia questions that were all missing a digit. For example, “What movie was ranked #3 on AFI’s 2007 list of 100 Greatest American Movies?” It’s missing a 6 and the answer is “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. We had enumerations below so we had somewhere to start.
There was also an Economist round that I totally missed, then a Chemist round. There was a puzzle called Out of the Mouths of Babes with clips of toddlers singing portions of a song that all had the word “Baby” in the title. It was surprisingly hard to make out what they were saying.
I worked some on Star Search in another round, mainly identifying a few songs. They all had the word “star” in them. Reading the solution, I should’ve been all over this, but let’s chalk it up to sleep deprivation. Turns out, you map the 88 piano keys to the 88 constellations! Wow, I feel dumb.
I looked at another one called Star Tours. It had a picture of the North America Nebula (something I’ve taken multiple pictures of). I was interested right away. It had coordinates and mentioned two cities, Vegas and Orlando. Those coordinates roughly show where those cities appear in the nebula. Now, the hook to this was something I’m NOT very familiar with, namely Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez tour dates. I was quite tired and not in the mood to look those up, so I went back for my nap. I realized the puzzle shouldn’t be that hard on my way back, but by the time I woke back up, it was solved.
There were two math puzzles that were downright amazing. The first has the sounds-dirty-but-really-isn’t title “Great Tits“. (I will try my best to be mature and not giggle while writing this). I definitely got a strange look from our team leader when I told him we called in an answer to it (apparently he had not seen the puzzle title yet). So there were two pictures of the “Great Tit” bird and 1600 characters below. If you touched the either of the tits (teehee) the 1600 characters shuffled around. The real clue was that the word Tits was capitalized in the flavortext, so it was actually referring to the Tits group, discovered by the most unfortunately named mathematician ever. It’s a group with about 18 million elements and has a permutation representation with two generators that corresponded to the two tits. The idea was to push them in some order (restraining myself from a motorboat joke here) to unscramble. I ended up just loading the generators and the message into GAP and randomly shifting the message around by elements until I hit the right one. The message said:
ORDER GROUPS BY ORDER
FIRST NUMBER EIGHT HUNDRED EIGHT SEXDECILLION SEVENTEEN QUINDECILLION FOUR HUNDRED TWENTY FOUR QUATTUORDECILLION SEVEN HUNDRED NINETY FOUR TREDECILLION FIVE HUNDRED TWELVE DUODECILLION EIGHT HUNDRED SEVENTY FIVE UNDECILLION EIGHT HUNDRED EIGHTY SIX DECILLION FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY NINE NONILLION NINE HUNDRED FOUR OCTILLION NINE HUNDRED SIXTY ONE SEPTILLION SEVEN HUNDRED TEN SEXTILLION SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY SEVEN QUINTILLION FIVE QUADRILLION SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY FOUR TRILLION THREE HUNDRED SIXTY EIGHT BILLION
SECOND NUMBER SEVEN THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED TWENTY
Now, I was quite amused that they included a number that big, but we quickly figured out that we had to take the 26 sporadic groups and assign them a letter A to Z. Maybe next year there can be a puzzle about boobies.
Just after this one was solved, I looked at Digital Display which just consisted of a large fraction. Using alphanumerics on the digits, we got the message to look at the 1000th digit. Going there, we got the message to look at the googolth digit. Oy. Anyway, it’s possible to shortcut it and get the answer.
There was a really cool book we got called The Puzzle at the End of the Book based on The Monster at the End of the Book. I didn’t work on it, but it looks awesome!
One of the highlights of my hunt was getting to solve a variety cryptic crossword, Fleshed Out, with three of my favorite people (Kevin Wald, Katie Hamil and Mark Halpin). Kevin and Mark are experts at constructing these types of puzzles, so it was a bit of a race to answer anything, but I was able to keep up.
Just after that, I worked on a diagramless crossword, Long Time No See, where the letter ‘c’ needed to be removed when it showed up. The grid ended up looking like Killian Court and there was a single x in it. We went there and found the list of Faculty for the Math Department. Removing the ‘c’ gave us the answer.
Just before leaving, I worked on Dammit Jim, obviously a reference to Bones from Star Trek. It ended up being rebuses (rebi?) of the names of bones.
That’s when I went home to sleep and woke up around 7 to find that the coin had been found. Now, there were still three events left to do (Setec had run them special for us during the night), so I checked them all out. The first was a President’s Race type event with giant heads of MIT alums. I got a picture with crossword celebrity I.M. Pei!
The second was a strange mix of Hungry Hungry Hippos (full size with humans) and bananagrams. The third was a trivia contest where each of the answers had to be altered.
Since we always want to solve as many puzzles as puzzles, we only had six puzzles left when I got to HQ. These were, naturally, quite hard, so it took a lot of effort, but we split the work. One that I did was Tricks With Bricks. As it turns out, each of the lego pieces shown only appeared in that color in one Lego set. Indexing into the set by the number of pieces shown gives the answer.
Late Saturday night, we had three puzzles left. One that was a mixture of cricket and darts, one that had a bunch of song clips that had been pitch-altered and one that I worked on, House Arrest. This one had sound clips of someone tracking a “suspect” through certain MIT dorms. We got the MIT undergrad on the team to get us the floor plans and were working toward the solution when someone called it in as a backsolve. We got the answer as a forward solve a few minutes later. Within a few minutes the other two puzzles fell as well. So for the third years since I’ve been coming, we were completionists!
Here’s hoping for a great hunt next year by Death and Mayhem!
The Flaming Star Nebula, H-alpha and Light Pollution Filter composite.