My Spacelab in Space

Mystery Hunt 2018 Wrap Up

I know this is a few weeks late for me, but I wanted to wait for the public links to puzzles to be active.

Once again, the Mystery Hunt is in the books. I’ve written about this before (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017). As usual, I’ll start 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 seventh year competing with Team Palindrome. As is our tradition, we picked the team name Flower/Ewe/Werewolf this year. Joe Cabrera really outdid himself with our nametags:


(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.

Team Palindrome had a serious discussion about five months pre-Hunt about whether we wanted to split or not. In 2017, as our leader, Eric Berlin, put it, “We cut through the hunt like a hot knife through butter”. While this made us a very competitive team, it took away from the hunt experience because there was nothing left to do after about 18 hours. It was decided that we would split with a team that was hoping to win, and a second team that was just hoping to finish the hunt. That team was smaller and went by the name Funny Enough (a phonetic palindrome). They didn’t finish the hunt as hoped, but did really well all things considered. The metapuzzles proved to be quite brutal for all teams.

I kind of want to be on a winning team, even though the reward/punishment is planning the hunt next year, so I stayed with the larger team. Mostly, it was a fine experience.

Kickoff started at noon on Friday and there was an Inside Out theme. The production levels were gorgeous! (Video here). We were supposed to help Miss Terry Hunter retrieve her memory orbs.

The Hunt usually starts with a smaller round with more straightforward puzzles. This year, there were thirty or so puzzles that each had a colored orb on their page making them belong to one of the five emotions (Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger). Some of these orbs were multi-colored indicating that the answers belonged to both. There were five meta-puzzles and a meta-meta puzzle.

In this round, it was a little difficult to make major contributions on puzzles because our team buzzed through them, but I added things here and there where I could to In Memorium (a puzzle about people who died in 2016 together with their quotes in various alphabets/encodings), Let’s Get Ready to Jumble (a newspaper jumble type puzzle with a wrestling theme), A Learning Path (basically finding Hamiltonian paths through square grids and overlaying quotes on them), Good Fences Make Sad And Disgusted Neighbors (A slitherlink variant) and Jeopardy! (a puzzle about Secret Service codenames).

One particularly interesting one was Asteroids. There was a game that you played mostly identical to Asteroids except occasionally your score would jump by huge amounts. As you played the letters would appear on the bottom “Order by Semi-Major Axis”. It turns out that the amounts you jump by are numbers of Asteroids that were named after someone (who knew Morgan Freeman had one named after him?!). Indexing into these by the distance between the special asteroids gave the answer.

We had ins into the metapuzzles remarkably early! For anger, we had a grid to put our answer into. Each answer contained some subset of the letters R, A, G and E. Treating these as braille pips gave the answer. In an astonishing find, a teammate discovered how the Fear meta worked with just one answer! There was a “Health and Safety” page and it was discovered that our one answer appeared in there once. The flavortext made a hint at this and asked what came next, so we knew exactly what to do there.

As we solved these metas, the emotions came by and gave us some curios. We got:

  1. A string with certain sections painted green (disgust)
  2. A blueprint with a picture of Eeyore (sadness)
  3. A metal key (anger)
  4. A 7-foot piece of lumber (fear)
  5. A small flashlight with a laser pointer (joy)

After our last interaction, we got a small runaround that was choose-your-own-adventure style. You walked around campus and at certain points would be asked how you feel. This was done by looking at certain items and noticing their color. We got to the first room where we were supposed to recover the disgust memory fragment. It was a small study carrel. As soon as we got in, we realized that we needed the items above, so we sent some team members back to get them. It was very crowded in the room, so we decided to leave one team member there and go forward in the instructions. We pretty much knew exactly what to do and didn’t think it would be an issue. There was a green pegboard with nails and letters on it and a star. You needed to take the string and wrap it around the nails where the string was green. We ran into our teammates with the five items on the way to the next puzzle, so we figured out how to use the Eeyore blueprint and got the word “heartfelt”, a positive spin on “sadness”. We got to the third item and had to wait for our team to catch up. As it turns out, they were unable to solve the first puzzle, so we agreed to come back later. At the third puzzle, putting the key on a piece of paper lit up the word “passionate”, a positive spin on “anger”. We continued on a path that took us into the bowels of MIT (I continually find it fascinating how easy it is to get to places with circuit breakers and what-not) and we got to a place where we needed to hit a button above a door with our 7-foot board. The problem was, this was next to some machinery, so it was not very clear. Some team members went down directly under the button and heard the word “Fascist”. In fact, one person suggested having the other get on his shoulders and quickly realized that was not a good idea! After hitting that thing a dozen times, we made out “Cautious”, a positive spin on “Fear”. Finally we found a poster with sunglasses on it with a tiny hole. Shining the laser in there gave us “delightful”, a synonym of “joy”. We went back to the “disgust” answer and spent about 15 minutes trying to make something work with no luck. Figuring something must be wrong, we went back to HQ and called the running team. They went in with our string and discovered that it had been stretched. Giving us a new one, we got the answer “tasteful”, a positive spin on “disgust”. We were a little confused what we had to do then. It turns out we only had to submit those five words as answers, but we spent some time trying to solve a metapuzzle using them.

As we solved puzzles, we started opening “islands”. There were four of them and you could choose which one you opened. The four were Games, Hacking, Sci-Fi and Pokemon. As it turns out, the organizers thought people would click on Pokemon first, but we chose it last. This had slightly easier puzzles.

I’d also mention that the first night we got a call from control that said people were progressing through the hunt faster than they had expected and wanted to know if it was ok if they increased the amount of “brain power” (ie puzzles solved) needed to unlock islands. This seemed like a good compromise so we acceded. I’m not sure if this worked out in our favor or not. The islands proved to be brutal for almost everyone involved.

I’ll also take this time to mention that I tried to portion out my sleep to be as useful as possible to my team. We knew that the overnight is usually where we struggle the most, so several people made a point to come in to work then. I would work until I felt tired, then get a few hours nap, then come back, so I got to see the overnight shift Friday and Saturday nights at least partly.

Looking at the list of puzzles, I don’t think I did any serious work in the Sci-Fi Island. The meta-meta puzzle here was apparently a bit of a sticking point, but eventually they solved it. It basically gave a circuit diagram on a cube, and they needed to look at the voltage across the batteries.

The Pokemon round was the last one we opened, and as soon as we did, loud cheers of excitement could be heard. Each puzzle had a regular version, then an evolved version. The regular puzzles were hard, and the evolved puzzles were even worse! To give an example, Shoal Patrol was a mixture of Battleship, Minesweeper and a Loop Puzzle. When you solved it, you got a 3-d version of it (Submarine Patrol)!

Probably my best experience from this year happened with the puzzle Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt. At first it looks like a simple “navigate a ninja through a maze” web game, but it turned out that once you enter a command you are locked out for four seconds, so you have to play as a team. Our team spreadsheet for this puzzle explicitly told people to not do anything if they weren’t in the room with us. In fact, at first, we thought we had an AI troll that was trying to screw with us. In the first room, you see a bunch of guards that you have to avoid. We had, I think 8 people playing this, so, expertly coordinated by Andy Kravitz, we made our way to the first major obstacle: a bridge that became a lava pit after just a few seconds. We all loaded up an “east” command, but it wasn’t enough. After realizing that we could use multiple browsers, we got past that and made our way to a bridge that moved across a lava pit and turned. This took SO much coordination. In fact, we spent 20 minutes planning it out because we didn’t realize there were checkpoints. Of course, we died on our first attempt…and our second attempt, etc. It took probably 30 tries to get past it. Anyway, we finished the first level, then the next two fell fairly quickly. I left before the extraction was figured out, but it turns out that you have to combine aspects of each level: the guards spell out a letter in semaphore, the shape of the level looks like a letter, and the items you collect at the end started with a letter. This opened an evolved puzzle called Under Control where the team had to give instructions to someone in a room with a green screen, but there was a delay.

When I came in on Sunday, I joined with a group that was trying to find some fliers hidden around campus for the puzzle Go!, a reference to Pokemon Go and the board game Go.

This round also had the infamous Scavenger Hunt. A woman on our team named April has taken this on the last few years and helped us round up tons of weird items. This year, it was in the form of a maze. Because our team is large, we have to find more stuff. We had to find sets of things to get “keys” to unlock doors in the maze. For instance, for a green key we could have a team member be “The Doctor” which required:

  1. Classic Who memorabilia from before 1997
  2. Team member who can list all the actors who have played the Doctor in order
  3. Sonic screwdriver
  4. Jelly babies OR fish sticks and custard

One team member had brought a sonic screwdriver without knowing it would be needed and was wearing Tardis earrings. When asked by the judges to list the actors, she said, “Which list do you want?” and they said “Whatever makes you have to give more names”. Another had a “Theoretical Physicist” which required a team member to explain quantum mechanics.

We desperately needed to get this done on Saturday night, so we worked hard to get the necessary ingredients. Afterward this “evolved” into a weirder scavenger hunt. Let’s just say our team went to great theatrics to convince them of all the items here. In fact, the funniest one was that we noticed that even though the first scavenger hunt had a “Theoretical Physicist”, then second one did not, but there was a “Professor” to whom you had to give “Tenure”…whatever that means. So we had someone LaTeX up a paper complaining about the lack of a theoretical physicist. It was even “peer-reviewed” (someone on the team wrote “This is great!” on it) and after presenting it, there was a “faculty meeting” where our “theoretical physicist” was given tenure.

In the Games round, I worked some on A Tribute: 2010-2017, the annual puzzle that reference previous years of Mystery Hunt puzzles. I love these!

I spent probably an hour working on Cartography. This one was very fun. Each journal page hides the names of a bunch of locations inside US national parks. For instance, in one of them, the first letters of all words spell out Gaylor, Lyell, Foerster, Long, Hoffmann,Watkins,Starr King, Buena Vista, all locations in Yosemite. Tracing them on a map spells out the letter N. Doing this for all pages then ordering the letters based on where they lie on the US map gave us the answer.

Before I get to the meta-meta for that round, I’ll mention the Hacking round, which had a lot of puzzles that involved doing stuff on-campus or various arts and crafts that we had to pick up. I ended up working on one of the regular puzzles, The 10,000 Puzzle Tesseract. This gave us a zip file with a word list and some examples of what various functions are applied to sample words. Then a folder with 10,000 puzzles in it. The functions were things like “elements” where you took all substrings that are chemical elements, then added up the atomic numbers. There were seven total functions. Our team figured them out, and someone was going to create a csv file with values, but it turned out that one of the functions required some real thought to code up. “index” referred to the index of the word in the lexicographic ordering of all unique permutations of the word. Doing this is not as easy as just listing all permutations, especially for the longer words, so I worked on a much more efficient version that worked recursively. I tried using the csv file to now solve all the puzzles, but kept running into puzzles with no solutions or puzzles with multiple solutions. As it turned out, the values in the csv were bad for three or four of the functions, so I tried to remedy that and mostly got a list of the 10,000 solution words. That’s when I ended up going home, and later, I believe this one was backsolved. According to the wrap-up, basically every team backsolved it, and looking at the solution…yeah…I can see why.

Anyway, when I went to my hotel in the wee hours on Sunday, I kind of expected the coin to be found while I slept. That was not the case and I came in just as a America’s Best Friends opened up. This was a fun cryptic about presidential dogs, but we solved it really quickly as our team usually does with cryptics.

That left us with, more-or-less, two puzzles to go until we unlocked the runaround. We figured that was probably the case with several other teams. Unfortunately, both of the meta-metas we had left had been pored over all night and it was hard to make contributions at this point. I remember occasionally trying to get a nap, then having a “brilliant” idea after overhearing the team working on a particular puzzle. The Games page had a Settlers of Catan style board with hexagons, and the meta meta page had pentagons. Roughly, we had to create a soccer ball out of the two of them. Our major red herring here was that we thought that there was something monopoly related here because a silhouette was the shape of Uncle Pennybags. The flavortext also said something about “Australian rules”, so we started searching for Australian versions of Monopoly to relate this. As it turns out, this was mainly just cluing that we had to take letters from antipodal points on the soccer ball. That was something we thought we had actually tried earlier, but it turns out that if you’re supposed to build a soccer ball, you should build a soccer ball and not just leave it in the folded out version. Figuring out antipodes on the folded out version is way tricky! Anyway, we called in that answer and were told we had to wait about an hour for the interaction. Apparently lots of teams were having the breakthroughs we were at the same time.

The final stumbling block was the Hacking meta, Flee. This was a maze through the Great Dome, where you get one floor’s worth of adjacencies per meta round. One of the floor’s adjacencies was given by going to rooms on campus and finding some walkie-talkies and figuring out which ones could hear which other ones. This jammed us for quite a while because it turns out we did the test early on Sunday and got one set of adjacencies, but later we went back to double-check and things were different. It turns out something went wrong with the radios sometime in between our two tests. At this point, I was quite exhausted and got a little rest, only to wake up and find that two other teams had already started on the runaround. I went to grab some dinner and came back to find that our team had solved the Hack meta after realizing that there were exactly as many adjacencies per floor as there were letters in the metapuzzle answers! The answer spelled out by the path through the dome was ON A CALTECH CANNONBALL RUN. This references a prank where some MIT students stole the Caltech Cannon in 2006.

About an hour later, we embarked on the endgame. There was a really cool setup with mechanical buttons that basically did a live version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes complete with a webcam elsewhere on campus. We roughly had to guide the person across campus to the room we were in.

All told, we finished the hunt around 5:30 PM and came in third. While waiting for the runaround, we used our “Buzzy Bucks” to buy the answer to the one remaining puzzle, giving us 100% completion. We’ve solved every puzzle four of the six years that I’ve been doing this! It’s a great accomplishment.

I had a ton of fun this year and look forward to what the winning team, Setec Astronomy, has to bring next year.

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