MIT Mystery Hunt Wrap-Up Part 1
(SPOILER ALERT: THESE POSTS CONTAIN DETAILS OF PUZZLES FROM THE HUNT INCLUDING HOOKS AND ANSWERS).
This is quite different from the normal fare of this blog, but I wanted to write-up some thoughts on the 2014 MIT Mystery Hunt. You can read a lot about the history here. In short, it’s a bunch of really, really, really hard puzzles of all types: math, logic, word, trivia, etc. All of them have an answer that you’re supposed to get out of them, which is usually a word or a short phrase. And there’s some twist to the puzzle that leads you to this answer. I’ll provide some examples in these posts, but a really basic idea would be a bunch of crossword clues and you’re supposed to read off the first letters of the answers to get a phrase like, “THE ANSWER IS RED HERRING”. There are rounds that give you many of these answers and you have to piece them together in a metapuzzle. For smaller puzzle hunts, that might be the end, but MIT takes this to epic proportions. This year there were 119 puzzles in seven rounds, plus a final run-around where you use everything in the search of a coin, hidden somewhere on campus. Besides the coin, the real prize for winning is getting to design the next year’s hunt, so a lot of teams are actually kind of happy to come in second.
To set things up, the previous year’s hunt was the longest ever. The hunt takes place over MLK weekend, so you’d ideally want the hunt to finish sometime on Sunday. This one didn’t finish until about 3:30 PM on Monday. The puzzles were excessively challenging and by the end, the organizing team was giving away pretty explicit hints to try to get a winner. Our team was the runner-up that year. The winning team, by only a few hours, was [ENTIRE TEXT OF ATLAS SHRUGGED]. You see, that team noticed that the submission form for a team name did not cut off after a certain number of characters. Anyway, that team found the coin first, so had the privilege of designing the hunt this year. They did an amazing job.
Speaking of team names, ours is Palindrome, though we technically have a different name every year, a palindrome. This year we went by “Engage Le Jeu Que Je Le Gagne” (“Start the game so that I may win”). I was hoping for [ENTIRE TEXT OF ATLAS SHRUGGED] + [ENTIRE TEXT OF ATLAS SHRUGGED REVERSED]. We have something like 75 people on it, including remote solvers. Some names puzzlers might recognize are Eric Berlin, Foggy Brume and Kevin Wald (if you like Variety Cryptic Crosswords, this guy’s site is awesome). We have a nice webpage that interfaces through Google Docs that we use to solve puzzles, which is great when you have a new puzzle and 50 obscure clues to look up. We reserve rooms at MIT and once the puzzles come out, there are people solving in them 24/7 until the end.
Prior to the hunt, we received a few materials in the mail inviting us to the 33rd Annual Conference on Maturing Young Scientific Theories: Emerging Resolutions for Yielding Heuristic Unphysics using Noncomputation Techniques and inviting us to submit an abstract. Kevin Wald created this masterpiece:
Creation of Centrally-Reflective Wordplay Through Computationally-Assisted Models.
Abstract: Constructs that process any subordinate symbols assembled symmetrically into segmented strings, when analyzed properly, are those that demonstrate parameters characterizing these “palindromes.” These characterizing parameters demonstrate that those are properly analyzed when strings, segmented into symmetrically assembled symbols, subordinate any process that constructs abstract models, assisted computationally through wordplay reflective, centrally, of creation.
On Friday people descended on MIT and into Kresge auditorium for the kickoff, with no clue what to expect. While people were still talking loudly, someone came out and starting reading from Atlas Shrugged at the lectern with the mike turned off. As she got to the last paragraph, the sound came up. She then invited Dr. John Galt to the stage. While he spoke, a disembodied voice kept interrupting him. A spotlight came up and the true theme of the hunt was revealed. The voice was of the Cheshire Cat and our goal was to fix a leakage between MIT and Wonderland. Also, the organizing team was now known as Alice Shrugged. We got back to our room and the puzzles were already available.
Before I get to that, one thing I had asked our team if we could do ahead of time was let everyone know what type of puzzles we were most looking for. There are over 100 puzzles in these Mystery Hunts and it’s easy to get so stuck on a puzzle for hours that you miss a puzzle that you would find extremely fun. So our leader had us all introduce ourselves and say just that. People had some very specific things they wanted to see, ranging from math puzzles, to puzzles about designing other puzzles (that was Foggy), to biology. The team was so broad that we had experts in just about every subject imaginable. I was really hoping for another Rubik’s Cube puzzle, and I got my wish, but more on that later.
Then, came the puzzles.