(This is a recap/review of the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)
[Before I start, if you’re seeing this shortly after I post it on Sunday, you may have time to drop by Left Out’s AMA on the Mystery Hunt subreddit. And even if you’re seeing this later, I’m sure the Q&A there will still be interesting to look at after the fact!]
It’s more standard for me to start by talking about structure, since that tends to be my favorite thing about a new Mystery Hunt, but I expect I’ll have more complex things to say about that, so I’m going to start with a rundown of some puzzles I remember solving (or not) and have something to say about. They don’t necessarily represent my favorite puzzles that I did, and certainly not my favorite in the Hunt as a whole since I still haven’t seen everything!
The Ferris of Them All
This was my first instance of following Setec’s planned “casual approach” to this year’s Hunt; this released very early, and while abstract logic puzzles often get devoured very quickly on our team, Jackie and I decided to print out our own copies regardless of what everybody else was doing. (The team explicitly mentioned solving puzzles in parallel as a way to make sure we didn’t finish first… in practice, when one group finished a puzzle, everyone else usually stopped, and if a group didn’t let other folks know what they were doing, feelings sometimes got hurt, so we’re still working out the kinks.)
Some steps of the puzzle were harder than others; I think on Step 2 we realized too late that looking ahead to Step 3 would have eliminated some options, and so on Step 3, I used some constraints from Step 4. Jackie and I mostly worked independently and then combined forces when we got stuck. If I’d known we were going to be struggling to finish the Hunt a couple of days later, I would have approached this (and probably some other early puzzles) very differently.
Star Maps was probably the puzzle I put the most time into solving, and it’s another case where if we were trying to win, I probably wouldn’t have focused it for so long; but it was very satisfying, so I’m glad I stuck with it. I joined the puzzle after the jigsaw had been assembled, at which point we needed to decide where to place the red dot pieces. We briefly pursued a red herring–surely a puzzle called “Star Maps” with fifty nodes would have something to do with connectivity of the 50 states–but Alaska and Hawaii eliminated that option, and as we got some dots placed that seemed to match up, we realized each edge seemed to pass through one graph. The more dots we placed, the easier remaining ones were to place, which led to a nice solve flow. We didn’t do ourselves any favors by setting the puzzle up in a room with poor lighting; between that and the small printing, we eventually had to use flashlights to finish solving.
For the graph identifications, we ID’d about 15 out of 50 properties (I’ve never taken a course in graph theory but I used to dabble for fun), and once it occurred to us to assume the 5’s at the ends were all “graph,” that gave us enough letters to wheel-of-fortune the first 40 out of 50 letters of the clue phrase. For the last ten, we got stuck with T???PL?????, and even once we guessed that the PL?? might be PLUS, we didn’t know what the T??? could be. With some more ID’s, we got to TW??PLUSO??, still perplexed by the four letters before PLUS; finally somebody suggested TWON (it was actually K, and I still don’t know what a snark is), and we were able to draw the answer. It was a loooong process, but it got more approachable a bit at a time, and it was very rewarding to make it to the end.
Looking at the solution, I can tell you we never wrote the properties on the intact sheet, and therefore I had no idea until now that the properties were alphabetized on the sheet. And don’t get me started about the easier-to-read erratum that came out after we solved the whole thing.
Peak Adventure (and Ox and Chairiot Races and Penny Park Guide, etc.)
I’m a fan of the sort of puzzle that is actually a little suite of variety puzzles; it provides a lot of ahas, and if any of them are unusually hard to approach, you can usually solve them from a large subset of solutions. (This should not be surprising… I like puzzlehunts enough to have a poorly updated blog about them, so of course I’m going to like puzzles that are little puzzlehunts.) I’d say the only real drawback to this kind of puzzle is that it’s time-consuming to write, so I have no idea how Left Out wedged a whole bunch of them into their Hunt.
The one I interacted with the most successfully was Peak Adventure. Clicking around the puzzles in Cascade Bay at a time that most of our power solvers were hammering away at the Safari metas, I found a nice little collection of a dozen mountain-themed puzzles. Checking our solving spreadsheet, I saw people had spreadsheetified a lot of data, but only about four of them had been solved, so I started bouncing around completing partial solves and getting a few ahas myself. In the last stage, Jackie and Josh Oratz and I figured out which three winter weather words could be combined with nonconsecutive substrings of our answers (well done by the author in making the set enumerations similar so that you needed most answers to start placing things confidently), and we worked out a final answer.
Ox was the puzzle of this type I heard the most positive feedback about on social media; I didn’t look at this during the Hunt, but Jackie and I cosolved a bunch of the subpuzzles after Hunt (I’d already spoiled myself on the extraction) and they were fun and creative, though I was sad that the sound file link was broken. There were at least two more mini-suites that proved too hard for us overall; I was sitting next to the group working on Penny Park Guide, and there was a lot of cool stuff going on, but in particular there was a lot of it, and by the time they solved it (still forward, I believe!) I believe we had solved the metapuzzle for that round and had all the other answers. I did work on Chairiot Races, and after hours of solving and many people looking, I don’t think we solved half of the subpuzzles… which was a shame since reading the solution after the fact, the end step seemed really cool. I think the pieces of this last puzzle suite were probably miscalibrated in terms of difficulty, and I’d be curious to hear how many teams solved it as intended.
I almost included this in the mini-suite catchall section, but this one was inherently different, since the individual puzzles overlapped by four inputs, which means the main first goal was to solve for those inputs by comparing ALL of the minipuzzles, and then eventually completing each one independently. I’ve certainly played Spaghetti on Eric Berlin’s social media before (in fact, I was unexpectedly the author of the weirdest example “solution” when he presented it as an exercise at a recent NPL Con), so I appreciated the reference, and I thought the flow of solving was a lot of fun… just like in Star Maps, making progress in one area made everything else a little bit easier, so there was a gradual and satisfying acceleration toward the final answer.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Sing
I believe I was the first on our team to open this puzzle and see that I should submit the word KARAOKE and come do a thing, and if you know me at all, you know you don’t have to tell me to do this twice! We did, on the other hand, have a hard time finding a second person to go… eventually when leadership asked the room, “Seriously, we need someone to go to this thing with Dan,” Jenn Braun said, “Okay, I’ll do it. What is it?” When somebody volunteers for karaoke without realizing it’s karaoke, it’s useful if that person happens to be, like me, a former president of the MIT Musical Theater Guild.
We were happy to see some of our good friends from Attorney (I’m calling them that from now on, see Part 1), and since we’d been told HQ would be able to (and was strongly encouraged to) watch our karaoke game show, I Slacked the room that there would be Rhode/Anand content, and Tanis was very pleased. Erin unfortunately got stuck with a set of songs she didn’t recognize (Rich Bragg had to tell her to stop reading the entire list, as it made the puzzle potentially easier, at least if you hadn’t spotted the aha), and so from now on I will assume that Lady Gaga’s “Diamondheart” is an avant-garde spoken word number. For some reason, I tried to pick my song very quickly once the options came up, thinking that would help(?), and I ended up doing a mediocre down-one-octave rendition of “Feel It Still.” I only actually remember processing the middle two songs on my list of four, and choosing the one I did because I liked it much more than the other. In retrospect, based on the puzzle mechanic, I think “X’s and O’s” by Elle King was likely on my list, and I regret not choosing it because I think it suits my vocal range better. None of this was the point of the puzzle, of course.
This was the other game show I volunteered to go play, shortly after I woke up Saturday morning when few of our team members were awake. Apparently few teams in general were awake, as we (Todd McClary and I) ended up playing a game designed for eight people with only four. The organizers handled this by giving us four “ghost” players, which made things… anticlimactic? No, antibeginningic, since in the first four rounds, no matter what we answered right or wrong, a ghost was eliminated each time. I survived to the last round of two people, in which we tied on questions answered (I think zero each), and I got eliminated simply by virtue of order placement. Again, as above, not the point of the puzzle.
The point of the puzzle was to take the correct answers to the questions and link them into chains. Todd and I had fun trying to link the answers partially from memory and partially from the cards on our way back to HQ, so when we got there we already knew half of what we needed to do. We got stuck on extraction, but Scott Purdy walked by and noticed there was consistently one overlap that was shorter… I thought this was a bit of a stretch until I processed that the short overlap was literally “the weakest link,” and we read off the clue phrase and answer shortly afterward.
I didn’t get involved in the HQ step of solving this, but I was recruited when the invite to the follow-up interaction heavily implied there would be DDR. As it happens, I didn’t actually play any of the DDR, as Philip Loh came with me, jumped on the dance pad first, and never really needed to leave.
The last step of the multi-phase interaction involved placing a gibberish handout on a turntable in front of a strobe light, which highlighted the answer letters in a very cool effect. Our experience here was slightly awkward because one of the two turntable setups had broken down right before we arrived, and so our handlers were extremely paranoid about our doing anything to break the one version that remained. This led to a frustrating dynamic where they were clearly encouraging us to touch the turntable, but not do this, or this, or this… I voiced my annoyance at this and was probably unfairly impatient, since I can imagine how panicky I would be running this station with two instances suddenly becoming one. Eventually they reminded us they’d told us to bring our handouts but took all the no-longer-relevant ones away from us, which was a nice way to narrow the search space and get us to the near effect (and, of course, clear the room so other teams could play).
Wolf and Rat
Both of these were fairly straightforward, and I co-solved each of them during a period where HQ was a bit slow and we needed more answers to plug into the Safari Adventure metas. Rat was one of the first puzzles I tackled Sunday morning, and a crostic was a good thing to wake up my tired brain without requiring too much creative thinking. Wolf appeared to be a food pyramid puzzle (somehow my eye picked out the relevant lines for that amidst the others) and turned out to be a food-and-two-other-pyramids-I’d-never-seen puzzle. We didn’t get the ordering mechanism at first, particularly since the first batch of letters we extracted was anagrammable without a mechanism, but the last step was cute once we grokked it.
I did nothing to help with this task-then-puzzle until the end. When I arrived in HQ on Sunday morning, the emoji meta had been solved in my absence (and worked much more satisfyingly than I’d expected when I went to sleep, since I’d been finding single-digit changes in the hex codes for the emojis) and there were a handful of backsolved emoji listed on the board next to our unsolved puzzles, one of which was an envelope. There was also an envelope marked FILM CLIPS taped to the board, which we’d received after making a movie trailer and which apparently no one particularly wanted to solve. I suggested that we try the envelope emoji for Film Clips, just in case the puzzle resolved to something like “What this puzzle came in.” We did, and it did.
Or as we called it, the Harry Potter Konundrum. I have a fairly established rule not to solve konundrums (or generally immersive direction-following puzzles) for my Hunt teams, because I usually get annoyed by them. So it’s a testament to the quality of this one that after glancing at a bunch of the cause-and-effect instructions, I thought it actually looked fun, and I would happily participate as long as I could be Professor Ophidian. After all, my crossword grid nameplate on my office door does contain the hidden micro-bio, “Math Snape.” Anyway, I did enjoy the interplay between characters, but I was kind of disappointed when after two actions aboard the train, I got off the train, and I never got back on. I know from experience that writing these can be exhausting, but I would have been happy for this to go about twice as long… I felt like our group had finally found a good rhythm in interpreting the instructions, and then all of a sudden we were extracting stuff. But it’s rare for me to want there to be MORE stuff in someone else’s konundrum, so compliments to the chefs.
This was a chutes and ladders wordplay grid variant we solved in a group of four that was very straightforward to solve, given its placement. I want to bring it up to say three things about it: (1) Given that the constructors didn’t get to pick the locations of the chutes and ladders (they were taken from the original game board), the grid fill was very impressive to me. (2) While my teammates saw immediately that the player banter referenced the clued words, I initially thought they’d reference the pictures of kids doing things on the originaly published game board. This means I spent way too much time finding a hi-res version of that image, and also that I can attest that those kids are doing weird stuff. (3) In reference to this being a pretty easy puzzle near the end of the Hunt, after Hunt someone on Left Out mentioned that they’d put some easy puzzles right near the end in order to give people a smooth landing. If this was intentional, oy, please don’t do this, constructing teams. I get this principle in the design of, say, mixtapes or calculus exams, but in a Mystery Hunt where you have to unlock earlier puzzles to open later ones, the end of the Hunt is the last place you want to bottleneck teams. If Cascade Bay and Cactus Canyon had opened their puzzles in a different order, we might have had a fighting chance to reach the endgame.
TEAMWORK TIME: Various Subtitles
I was asleep for the first few of these, so I think my first participation was Tug of War, when only five or six of us were awake, and therefore at least three of our players had to be Philip running separate instances on his computer. Anyway, I think these were fun, and whenever they occurred at a time I was awake, somebody yelled out, “Teamwork Time!” and most of the team participated. I’m told these were similar in nature to the Whistle Stops from a recent Microsoft Puzzle Hunt, and whomever you want to credit for the innovation, I think it was a cool social element for Hunt. Based on some of the interactive features in recent GPH’s, I hope/suspect Six Planes Two Words will do something similarly inspired. Though if it could not require me to work out a set of English words that adds up alphanumerically to 851, that’d be swell.
First You Visit…
This parody/loving tribute to First You Visit Burkina Faso unlocked while I was asleep, and I woke up to see everybody poking Ben Monreal (the author of the original, who was remote this year) on Slack. Sadly, I’m not sure we ever solved this, and I don’t actually know if we even cracked the pop culture reference that I now see the puzzle revolved around. Given how significant the original was in the battle between the top two teams in 2019, I think sending it up this year was great, and the particular mechanic used was ingenious. I apologize to Mark and Gaby that you didn’t get to see our team solve this, as I’m sure it would have been the highlight of your entire weekend. (Nothing else significant happened to the two of you during Hunt, did it? Well, other than the release of the Radiohead Public Library, which I’m sure caused Mark’s head to explode.)
Next time: Structure and Big-Picture Design! What was different about this Hunt compared to other Hunts? What worked? What didn’t? You decide! (Well, it’s my blog, so I quasi-decide first, then I let y’all weigh in in the comments. Speaking of comments, what puzzles did you particularly like from this year? Opine below…)