This is my write-up of my experiences at the 2015 MIT Mystery Hunt. First off, let me warn those of you wanting to solve some of the puzzles, “Here there be spoilers”. (Also, some of the links might not work right away, as it’s still set up for username/passwords from the hunt.) I’ll try to keep it light. I’ve written before about the Mystery Hunt. To loosely describe what happens, 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.
I should take this time to mention the team that I solve with, Palindrome. It’s mostly filled with people from the NPL, plus a handful of MIT alums. There are approximately 75 people on it, and the specialities of the team are quite broad. We have multiple PhDs in math, physics, biology, etc, plus people who have encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes, video games, etc. The puzzles at the hunt are so incredibly broad that it helps to have a huge team so that when that puzzle comes out that requires extensive knowledge of Laurel and Hardy, you’re set. Two people in particular I’d mention are our captain Eric Berlin (whose write-up covers some other stuff) and Foggy Brume (who runs Panda Magazine; totally worth the subscription if you like puzzles). These two were metapuzzle monsters! There was one round this year with 56 puzzles and Foggy helped us solve it with 34 answers (better than any other team)! We still needed to solve the rest of the puzzles in the round to unlock other puzzles, and it became a race to see whether we could forward-solve them or Foggy could backsolve them first.
The theme of this year’s Mystery Hunt was a Steampunkish version of Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. At the kickoff in Kresge Hall, we were told that we were basically going to be descending deeper and deeper into the ocean to eventually find “Nautilode stones” (there was a Dr. Nautilus theme, too). We got back to our room and started solving. I first worked on Erraticism, a straightforward crossword puzzle with 4 missing entries. Following that I worked on Nope!. This had a bunch of rebus pictures that resembled Linux error codes. The error code is different under different architectures and that played into the puzzle, too. There was also something I need to check out later, where they made a side-by-side Zork-like game with time travel. For instance, in the left window, you would find a dripping faucet and you put a bucket under it, then in the right window, you can pick up the full bucket.
I ended up going on my first MIT runaround puzzle. This isn’t the final runaround, but more of a “find these places around campus”. We were given a list of very specific instructions, leading to 8 locations. You basically had to keep track of things like how many calories were on a particular food item in a vending machine, or how many letters were on a plaque. We got two pieces into it and got totally stuck. The clue had us going to an Anthropology display of a bunch of ropes. We had to take the colors of the leftmost rope (red and white), then go up to the next floor that has that color scheme. Then we had to find a door that was labeled incorrectly. We never did figure out what they were talking about, but we were basically supposed to take the room number and use it to find our next location. We managed to guess where to go. It was also at this point that we ran into the team Luck, I Am Your Father, the team that would eventually win, and they were just as lost. Anyway, after eventually getting all 8 pieces, we were supposed to place them on a map and find the one that had all of its vertices on points where we picked up pieces, then find the centroid and go there for the final part. We worked on this part FOREVER. In the end, it turned out it was literally the room just below our team HQ!
After a few typical rounds, we got to the School of Fish round. I won’t say much about this, because I understand the team running the hunt (One Fish, Two Fish, Random Fish, Blue Fish) is releasing it as a book! The puzzles are about 1/3 the difficulty of a typical Mystery Hunt puzzle, so it was accessible to amateur solvers. I thought that was a pretty cool thing this year. One thing that was a little frustrating, though, was that the way it worked, we only had a few puzzles at any time and lots of bottlenecks. My first Mystery Hunt on-campus was the 2013 one that lasted longer than any previous Hunt. It was Sunday afternoon (long after the hunt ended this year) and we still had 50 puzzles open! Here, there would be maybe 15 puzzles, maximum, and it was really hard to find one most of the time.
We got to a round called Pod of Dolphins and a puzzle came out that I totally would’ve knocked out of the park…five years ago. It was called Representative Characters and while working on another puzzle, I hear a teammate say the flavortext: “We have encountered an alternate group of beings with 24 irreducible representative characters.” My ears perked up, because this is a group theory problem, and that’s what my PhD is in. I started looking at this, and immediately knew it meant character theory of A10. I also knew exactly how to solve the puzzle, but I couldn’t remember the intricate details of how to solve it in my program of choice (GAP). Fortunately, we got the answer by backsolving, but I do plan to look at this later (my advisor would be so ashamed). We ended up having six of the nine answers in this round and knew exactly how the meta worked, so we called in an answer for a puzzle that would’ve required us to go to the New England Aquarium (who donated free tickets). We would have to go during their normal business hours, but thanks to backsolving, we got the right answer at 10 PM on Friday, stunning the team running it.
The Coral Reef round had a few interesting puzzles in it, but the one I’d mention specifically was Ariel’s Scavenger Hunt. The Mystery Hunt usually has a puzzle that involves bringing various items for a scavenger hunt. This had a list of made-up words (thingamabobs, etc) with descriptions like “something to help me see better”. I was able to use a Canon light pollution filter for that one. We also brought a cowbell and managed to find a way to shoehorn it into every category. For instance, for “something I can wear to a dance”, we said she would be the “bell of the ball”. My favorite item we had was “so I can have a soul”, and someone had a Zip Card that you can get a Kia Soul with.
There was also a Graveyard round. Check out Eric Berlin’s blog post to hear what this was about. Ermagherd!
At this point, we got to four towers that led us down to Atlantis. Two of my favorite puzzles from the Hunt were in the “Spiky Tower” round. The first was “A Case of the Monday Crosswords“. There were a bunch of crossword clues that were mostly “stupid puns”. We got all of the answers (my favorite was the answer to: Barry, Robin, and Maurice’s accomplishment, at least until 2003?). A few years ago I started doing the New York Times Crossword. The Monday puzzles are usually really easy, and the long answers all fit some sort of theme. It turns out these were all three extra answers in that same theme. I had the initial “aha” on this one, a very satisfying feeling. Immediately after that, the same group worked on Lead Right. There was a video of people square dancing with somewhat cryptic clues over them. It turns out the square dance move was missing from each clue. Fortunately, there was someone on the team who knew what the terms were.
Our last round to solve was the Spotted Tower. I should mention the metapuzzle here. It had a list of words and that was it. We were trying to solve it without all of the answers, and we already had three of the five needed: BLINDNESS, DISLOCATED TAILBONE and TRIPLE DECAPITATION. If you looked at the words, these were all wordplay references (remove the i’s, move the last letter earlier, remove the first three letters). We found a handful of words in our grid that you could apply those to and get words out. We were trying to just look at the words left and guess what the wordplay thing was, but we still had no clue how to solve it. One group of solvers had just finished most of the legwork on a puzzle called Benny Lava. This is a reference to this video:
where the foreign words are subtitled poorly, but roughly phonetically. The final instruction was to make a video of Gangnam Style in this manner. Since we had only a handful of puzzles left before we finished, we needed to do this, and in a hurry. Turns out someone on our team is a documentary filmmaker and her friend does techy video editing, so she had everything we needed! (Aside: yes, she is hoping to do a documentary about the Mystery Hunt!) About six of us disappeared into a room for about 2 hours to make this video. I actually never got into the Gangnam Style craze (matter of fact, I didn’t even watch the whole thing until after it overflowed the YouTube counter). Now, I can’t get it out of my head, except all the words are from our version. We submitted the video and got a phone cal about a minute later from HQ. They gave us the answer to the puzzle, which, I kid you not, was ANAL BLEEDING (alternate blog post title: That Awkward Moment When you Have to Tell Your Team the Answer is ANAL BLEEDING). The wordplay thing that went along with this was to add A, B, O or AB to the tail of the word (har har).
That left one regular puzzle to solve in that round, and we still didn’t know how the meta worked. We split into two rooms with one team working on the puzzle left, which was a nonogram with bad entries. In the other room, we worked on the metapuzzle.
We suspected the word PANACEA was part of the answer, and someone finally noticed that the words we didn’t use mostly had PANACEA as part of them, so we pretty quickly found ENCHANTED in the top half and called that in.
This left just one meta-meta puzzle before we could go on the runaround. I contemplated going back to my hotel for a few hours of sleep (I woke up around 7 AM and it was almost 1 AM), but about 10 minutes later, we finished that puzzle. We had to do one activity before going on the runaround, but we actually didn’t realize that. We were supposed to just send five people to the Green building and do a puzzle that involved a ton of stair-climbing. Instead we sent everyone and many of us sat in a cramped stairwell, hoping to hear something.
Then the runaround started. We met “The Kraken” and were told we’d have to accomplish 5 tasks. The first involved a Family Feud style puzzle where we would have to, for instance, name a fish that started with ‘H’. (And yes, someone from our team said humahumanukanukaapuaa…and it was on the list). Then we went to a room where we had to identify snippets from previous puzzles in the hunt. This was really cool cause they would show some absurdly small piece of a puzzle and someone, from our huge team, would say, “OH! That was _____”. The third challenge was to find a bunch of fish hidden all over a building, and take “selfies” with them. This was super-fun as we were able to split up into teams. Some were in plain sight, but others were in pretty absurd spots (inside a box, behind a poster). The fourth challenge was a huge word search:
We started looking at it trying to find words and we found a ton, but it turned out that all of our answer words between 6 and 10 letters, save one, were in there. If you highlight the answers, you get semaphore letters, which ask for the answer that’s left. The awesome thing is, we managed to discover the answer to one of the two puzzles we hadn’t solved yet right here.
After solving this, we were told we would have to wait. As it turned out, five teams were on the run-around at the same time. We also discovered that Luck, I Am Your Father had just found the coin (around 5 AM). That’s always a little disappointing, but it does mean we get to solve next year! It was actually while waiting that one of our teammates collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration (he’s ok, but spent the night in the hospital). We were told to go back to our room and wait for a call when they were ready for us. The final task we had to complete was a game of Human Pictionary. A handful of people would go up to the second floor and the rest would make a picture on the floor out of our bodies. The first few weren’t too bad. This is “Shipwreck” for instance:
We did one that took a really long time (Dr. Nautilus), and a really tricky one (Sea Lab). After finishing 10 puzzles, we were led to 26-100, where the Kraken was. Since we weren’t the first team to solve, we ended up not getting the coin, but we got a cool piece of magnetite.
After heading back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep, I went back to our team HQ and found two groups working on the one puzzle we had left (the nonagram). After about 5 hours of solving, they got the answer about 30 minutes before HQ closed. It was an amazing accomplishment. After dinner, a few of us actually went back to HQ and worked on some of the School of Fish puzzles that we never saw (thanks to backsolving).
The day after the Mystery Hunt is kind of like the day after Christmas for a kid. So much excitement builds up, then it’s over. I’ve made many friends solving with my team and am constantly impressed with the breadth of knowledge and the sheer amount of fun that we have. One thing I can always hold onto is the fact that even today, Luck is designing the 2016 Mystery Hunt. Until then!