(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.)
As usual, I expect to devote multiple blog posts to the premier puzzlehunt of the year. But for the second year in a row, the Brown schedule is such that there’s no buffer week between Hunt and my teaching responsibilities, so I’m about to become quite busy. As a result, Hunt posts may be spread out, though I’ll try to keep things a bit more together than I did with Miskatonic. I’ll open with a post about what I’m feeling right now a day after Hunt and address content/structure/length/policies/what-have-you later, and if there are particular topics you think should be discussed here, feel free to bring them up in the comments.
Regardless of how good the content of this Hunt was (and I think it was very very good), it will be hard not to remember this year as both the first Mystery Hunt where I explicitly didn’t want to win, and the first Mystery Hunt where my team didn’t solve all of the metas. I realize the latter might be surprising, since the vast majority of Hunt participants don’t see the end of the Hunt before HQ shuts down, and so expecting to finish is admittedly somewhat entitled. But here’s a brief summary of my Mystery Hunt experience:
- 1998: Hunted with Setec, reached the coin location at the same time as Iliaphay, who found it during their turn in alternating shifts in the elevator
- 1999/2000: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
- 2001/2002: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
- 2003: Hunted with ACRONYM, and we were informed during the first phase of endgame that the coin had been found
- 2004/2005: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
- 2006/2007: Won with Evil Midnight, wrote with Evil Midnight
- 2008/2009: Won with Evil Midnight, wrote with Evil Midnight
- 2010: Hunted with Attorney (A Team That Obstinately Replaces Names Every Year), solved the last meta while HQ was open, but they didn’t have resources to run endgame
- 2011: Hunted with Attorney, finished the Hunt
- 2012: Hunted with Attorney, finished the Hunt
- 2013/2014: Hunted with Attorney, wrote with Attorney [Alice Shrugged]
- 2015: Hunted with Setec, finished the Hunt (though I slept through the endgame)
- 2016/2017: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
- 2018/2019: Won with Setec, wrote with Setec
Which brings us to 2020. After writing in 2017 and 2019, the leaders of Setec Astronomy polled the team, and we pretty much established we didn’t have the time/energy/interest to run a third (well, sixth) Hunt in 2021. So we basically said we would approach the Hunt in a more casual way. We said it would be okay to solve puzzles in parallel, people should feel free to get as much sleep as they wanted to, and people brought board games, though I’m not sure any of them actually got played.
In practice, the extent to which people took their foot off the gas probably varied from solver to solver. Early on when the first logic puzzle came out, Jackie and I solved it independently even knowing another group was working on it, but other than that I thought I was going pretty much my normal speed, especially once I started to suspect how big the Hunt was, as I really didn’t want to miss out on completing the endgame. After talking to Jackie, there are still ways in which I gave less than 100%… I slept a few hours more than normal per night (especially from Saturday into Sunday), and there were a few occasions where I sunk a lot of time into one puzzle, and in a more competitive environment, I probably would have abandoned ship and looked for things that were closer to an answer. (I am glad I got to see Star Maps through to its conclusion, but man was it a time sink, and I didn’t even help people assemble the jigsaw.)
As time went on, I became more sure we weren’t likely to finish by 5pm, but I didn’t think we were doing much more slowly than usual, so I was worried we were going to enter an awkward stage; if Hunt passed 5, we couldn’t finish without winning, and I wanted to finish but we were not willing to win. This became a moot point when PNGTOPN (plane noise Galactic Trendsetters other plane noise] officially won, but now we had a race against time to try to finish our last two rounds.
We didn’t, and at the end of the Hunt, we still had 4-6 puzzles in each of those rounds we hadn’t even unlocked. I spent most of the last hour of Hunt desperately trying to contribute to Cascade Bay by backsolving one of two missing answers that would have to fit into both Lazy River and Coast Guard, apart from about 25 minutes where we had a teamwork time open and I had to learn to speak Beale. At the time, I didn’t think we had a chance at finishing on time, though I thought we definitely could wrap things up given another five hours or so. But having been to wrapup, I actually think we should have been able to get in under the wire, given three things I discovered today:
- Our theories on how to solve the two remaining metas were pretty much exactly correct, but we just needed more inputs (in particular, for the Cascade meta, most of our answers had different lengths and didn’t pair up, and we had almost all of the PH halves and very few of the answers that actually provided meta letters.
- My Cascade backsolving was handicapped by the fact that we hadn’t put HELICOPTER DROP into the grid yet, and so I had been trying to fill an answer in where two went.
- At breakfast I discovered that one of my teammates had guessed a pun answer for Cactus Canyon based purely on the flavortext, but never called it in. It was correct. (Given our goal of not winning, I wouldn’t have wanted to skip an entire round while the coin was still active, but once Galactic found the coin, I desperately wish I’d known we had a guess, because if we’d been able to focus on Cascade Bay for three hours, I think we could have wrapped things up.)
I shouldn’t be frustrated about missing endgame; I had a great weekend solving well-written puzzles with people I like. But I have a perhaps unhealthy habit of characterizing myself based on accomplishments over time, and it’s hard to cope with the fact that I’ll never again be able to say I have a perfect record of finishing Mystery Hunts. But all things must come to an end, and so maybe it’s good to rip off this band-aid and not have to worry so much about getting to endgame next year, though I certainly hope we will.
In any case, the end of the 2020 Hunt was very anticlimactic for me, and I’m still strangely uneasy, but I suspect I’ll get over it in a few days, and then I can evaluate the Hunt from a more rational perspective. So I’ll check in again when I’ve chilled out.
In the meantime… answer checking without phones! Loved it? Hated it? Did the world end? Setec had a lot of members expressing displeasure about it, but for me, it was actually fine. I did wonder (once others brought it up) whether it made Hunt less welcoming for newb teams.