(This is a recap/review of the 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap will contain spoilers on many metapuzzles.)
Shortly after gaining access to Games Island, my wife arrived! Jackie was giving a talk Friday at the Joint Mathematical Meetings, which sometimes overlaps with Mystery Hunt (as it will again in 2019 and 2020) and sometimes doesn’t (as it won’t for a couple of years afterward), and then taking a red-eye to Boston. After last year’s short Hunt, and the warning this year that there would be fewer puzzles, we were both a little worried that we might finish before she got to Cambridge. This was not a problem.
I spent some time eating breakfast and solving regular puzzles before someone solved Wolf in the Fold; we had already confirmed that all the answers had outer words, and FITZSIMMONS GUILBERT made us reasonably confident that the inside letters were not going to matter. I forget who noticed the “nut”/”bolt” theme, but once we spotted that and corrected our botched enumeration count in the grids, it wasn’t too hard to read off the Build answer.
Over the rest of the afternoon, the folks who had been working on the Pokemon round figured out the intricate setup of how evolutions and battles worked; I mostly observed, though I managed to contribute the right interpretation of how BLACK MAGIC would work. Finishing the Pokemon super-meta was enough to open our fourth island, Sci-Fi, at 5:13pm. Sci-Fi was where I finally found my meta-solving stride, as Jackie and I teamed up to solve the Aliens Country Road submeta at 9:31pm (we filled in half the path with 3 out of 5 answers but needed a fourth to pin down which SE????TION/E????TIONS word we wanted) and the Transformers submeta less than an hour later (someone else had figured out the doubling/deleting/changing, but I got the “bit change” constraint quickly, and Jackie and I worked together to find five or six of the car models).
Meanwhile we’d amassed all of the Hacking Deploy answers, and Roger Barkan and Dave Savitt had already figured out the Akari mechanism, but they didn’t have an ordering. Jackie and I worked on this for a long time but couldn’t find an ordering of rows that yielded a unique answer and message. We concluded it couldn’t be done, and then, of course, somebody else on our team did it. I see now that there was a very subtle ordering clue in the puzzle titles, and I don’t believe we ever found it. Noticing key words in a puzzle title is one thing… First letters is a bit of an ask.
As we passed midnight, I had the big decision of whether to go to sleep… how long was this Hunt going? If I slept, might I miss the end? I didn’t actually care that much whether we wanted to come in first, but I didn’t want to doze through the endgame. Jackie was certainly going to go to sleep, but I decided I was going to “power through.” We had finished solving puzzles that fed into the Stargate submeta, and no one was working on that, so I spent the next few hours working on it (partially with Roger’s help, though he eventually ran out of ideas and moved on). It was a very tightly constructed logic puzzle, brutally hard but incredibly satisfying to solve once I/we cracked it (there’s no explanation of the logic in the solution, but the hardest step involved looking at all of the possible total counts of stargates on the board). I enjoyed it, but I’m not at all convinced that it should have been a metapuzzle. I can’t imagine it’s possible to solve with less than 100% of the four inputs (maybe if you code it?), and even with all four it took hours to solve, and I think I’m an unusually strong logic solver, as is Roger. Great puzzle, but I question its placement.
Throughout the solve, my energy was fading, and so at this point, as Philip Loh was breaking into the Firefly submeta and debating whether to call in REAL EVIL (so close!), I decided I would go back to the hotel and sleep for two or three hours. I did that, and when I woke up, I saw we still had at least three supermetas unsolved. Confident that we weren’t about to finish in my absence, I snuck in another hour and a half of sleep.
I walked back into HQ just as the seven team members still in HQ had called in the correct answer to the Hacking supermeta. Brace yourself for horn-tooting, because we’re approaching my best contribution of the weekend. While I was asleep, the team had assembled the Games Island soccer ball but hadn’t decided what to do with it. Looking at the folded paper version, I wondered if you might need to look at opposite faces; this was before reading the flavortext, so when I looked there and saw references to Australia, I was delighted that it was confirming what I already wanted to do. A lot of our cube faces were not uniquely placed, since we didn’t know all the terrains, but I did find three antipodal pairs of faces that had puzzles assigned to them.
I was expecting to read around the ball, but someone pointed out that the answers already had an ordering from the first meta. I wrote two columns on the board, one based on switching the index numbers, and one based on switching the words being indexed into. One of the columns said ????O??I??E??E??RT. Someone else noted that DESERT was thematic, and I said, in my finest moment of this year’s Hunt, “What about THE FORBIDDEN DESERT?” (I hadn’t played that game, but we’d given it as a prize after our Forbidden Island-themed BAPHL in Providence. That was wrong, but continuing to stare at the board, I suggested IN A FORBIDDEN DESERT. We were going to start looking at whether the options for the remaining faces would allow this, and I suggested that we might as well call it in and save ourselves the extra work if it happened to be right. And that’s how we solved a supermeta with 6 out of 16 letters placed. Though we’d solved more than 6 out of 16 puzzles, of course.
So now we found ourselves, at 8:39am, one meta-meta away from the final runaround (excuse me, walkaround) with all six Sci-Fi submetas already solved, and fourteen out of fifteen answers. And with most of the room focused on this last meta, we got hopelessly stuck. We were reasonably sure based on the flavortext that (a) we needed to use country flags, (b) we needed to view the cube as a circuit with resistors (likely reinterpreting three-stripe flags as color codes), and (c) we needed to generate the missing stardate to get one more Star Trek episode (that part wasn’t true). But we were fixated on extracting countries from the meta answers rather than the regular puzzle answers (did you know EMANATIONS contains all of the letters in ESTONIA?). Over time, some of us got tired of the meta-meta and worked on other puzzles to keep ourselves interested; then, sometime around noon, someone spotted the country codes in the puzzle answers. From here, we did exactly what we were supposed to, simulating the circuit in a computer program, but it wasn’t giving us anything useful. It turns out that one of the voltage drops was coded in backward; essentially, Philip had plugged in a virtual battery backward (forgive me if that’s not the right interpretation, I haven’t taken E&M in almost twenty years). We called in the answer (at 2:42pm), had the somewhat intense discussion alluded to in Part 1 of this post, and then we helped Miss Terry Hunt find the coin. And that’s what the metapuzzle structure was like for me.
One more post to come, with some comments on particular (non-meta) puzzles I solved.