2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 1: Whoosh Big Picture Pros and Cons Nyeeeow

(This is a recap/review of the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, which happened this month. Puzzles and solutions can currently be found here. This recap may contain spoilers.)

I’ve gotten some sleep now. Disclaimer: I want to get some Mystery Hunt posts on the record (and give people a forum to comment on the Hunt if this is where they want to do that), but after that, Puzzlvaria will likely be mostly dark for a while. Brown’s semester begins today, so I’m kicking off another period of online teaching, which is challenging in itself, but we’re also expecting a baby boy in March, which will make things exponentially harder.

How parenting will ultimately affect my puzzlehunt bandwidth is certainly not the biggest concern when it comes to raising a child… but for me, it’s not the smallest one either. I’m sure that balance will come up as a topic moving forward on this blog. But for the immediate future, my sporadic posting schedule will probably become even more sporadic. The upcoming puzzlehunt calendar is a lot leaner than in recent months anyway, so there may not be as much to cover.

This year’s Mystery Hunt was a monumental achievement on multiple levels. Even without the constraints of the pandemic, there were some excellent puzzles and metapuzzles, and the “projection device” MMO is the kind of big idea that I would have vetoed out of the gate for being completely unfeasible. Certainly, when we solved the opening meta and watched the video explaining the projection device, my instinctive reaction was, “This is going to crash constantly.” But to Galactic’s credit, apart from some hiccups when the device was time unlocked and thousands of people gained access at once, the thing worked pretty consistently, and certainly more reliably than Cyberpunk 2077. It was also not just a collection of bells and whistles spread on top of a “traditional” Hunt, with unlocks/events/runarounds happening within the virtual world in a variety of creative ways (although I didn’t become aware of a lot of these until wrap-up, which is an issue I’ll talk about). And even though Galactic’s MMO idea pre-dated the need to put the Hunt entirely online, ultimately it allowed for the best possible remote Hunt experience, especially with all the loving MIT-specific detail invested into the virtual campus.

Back in the day, there was a rule of thumb that teams should consider not totally reinventing the wheel in their first Mystery Hunt, since Hunts are hard to write without introducing unpredictable variables, and then experiment if/when they win again. In a certain sense, Old School Setec (2000/2002), New School Setec (2017/2019), Random/Metaphysical Plant (2006/2011), and Evil Midnight (2007/2009) all did this, with the level of second-hunt innovation relative to the era. Left Out made bold choices out of the gate last year (at least in terms of round structure), and Galactic made even bolder ones, and both were astonishingly successful.

I plan to talk about some puzzles and metapuzzles I participated in solving (and have opinions about) in a later post, but while I’m in big-picture mode, I want to take a deep dive on two concerns I had about this Hunt (and perhaps past and future Hunts), despite being so impressed by it; one, which Galactic had minimal control over, is isolation, and the other, which they did, is Hunt size.

Isolation

Setec usually has a handful of remote solvers, but not enough to warrant full audio/video chat capabilities; in recent years for both solving and writing, we’ve used Slack for most discussion, and an organizational platform wired into both Google Sheets and Slack channels. In a typical year, most of this is intended to make sure information doesn’t get lost between solving sessions, and to allow people to look at and edit spreadsheets on their own screens, although in a lot of cases those people are across the table from each other and can actually speak in meatspace.

For this year, we used Slack plus Zoom, with most of our co-solving interactions happening in breakout rooms. Shifting puzzle-solving from in-person to breakout rooms has a lot of the same drawbacks as shifting classroom math collaboration from in-person to breakout rooms. When you’re in your portion of a physical room, you hear a lot of ambient noise from other groups; that noise can be distracting, but it also makes you aware that other groups are doing things, and as an instructor, I rely on that general sound of the room to know whom I should probably check on. But in a breakout room, you have zero A/V from other groups until you leave the room, so it’s like erecting a ton of completely impenetrable walls in the middle of your HQ. There were a few times when Jackie and I jumped into a breakout room to work on a logic puzzle, and after an hour I’d realize that the entire team could have given up and gone home and we wouldn’t notice, because they were totally invisible to us from inside the breakout room. It was hard to feel part of a team at those times, and I’d sometimes park myself in our Zoom “lobby” just for the human contact.

There was also a self-inflicted element to this isolation; early in the period that the projection device was available, I puttered around the Green Building for a few minutes, unlocked a couple of puzzles, but then swooped on some puzzles and didn’t really look back much. Then throughout the rest of Hunt I heard people saying there were puzzles available to unlock or “field goals” that needed to be done, but I always figured these would be more easily carried about by people who had been paying attention to the projection world, and I should stick to what I’m good at, puzzles. Bu this means that just like I couldn’t hear what was going on in the other breakout rooms, I couldn’t hear what was happening inside the projection device. For me it was mostly a black box… other people went in, puzzles came out. And as someone who usually thrives on having a good mental picture of how the Hunt fits together, I frequently did not.

During the endgame, I actually did have a reason to walk around the projection device, and I found it a lot more user-friendly than I’d expected. I think it still would have been tough to be an “unlocker” without diverting a lot of “traditional” puzzle-solving time to navigating PerpIW. I’m still not sure if I would have been happier making that trade, but my experiences certainly left me feeling like I was missing big chunks of the Hunt. And I’m curious how things were for a small casual team that couldn’t devote some people to navigation and others to puzzle-solving. Though for such a team, I imagine there were bigger problems, with emphasis on “big”…

Hunt Size

Devoted Puzzlvarians will remember that I was shell-shocked by my experience of not finishing the 2020 Hunt, and while I thought said Hunt was very well-written, I also thought it was too long. Setec did finish the 2021 Hunt, although we cut it about as close as one could, finishing our last meta (Giga/Nano) at around 9:30am ET on Monday, before the cutoff time of 10am. So did finishing this year make me feel like the size was better calibrated? Nope. In 2020, on Sunday evening when Hunt wrapped up, we were stuck on one meta where we’d solved a big chunk of the round (Cascade Bay) and one where we’d only scratched the surface (Cactus Canyon). This year, we really only finished because none of us had to travel home, and we were able to solve (in shifts, of course) through Monday morning. As for Sunday evening, we were stuck on… one meta where we’d solved a big chunk of the round (Clusters) and one where we’d only scratched the surface. As it happened, we didn’t know about the surface-scratching part until Palindrome found the coin, since we didn’t understand the Giga structure and had no idea there were additional levels below it. We were apparently not the only team to have this issue.

So in a typical year, this Hunt would have run just as “long” as last year’s, and Galactic wouldn’t have come close to their goal of 10+ teams finishing, though that goal may have been based on a hunt-until-Monday assumption.

I’ve been spending a lot of time yammering in the Puzzlers Club Discord recently, and there was an interesting brief discussion of the “epochs” that the Mystery Hunt can be separated into. There’s innovation in every Hunt, but I argued that the key turning points for me are 1998 (rounds and unlocking rather than having all the puzzles at once), 2002 (structure heavily influenced by theme), 2009 (significant variation of structure between rounds), and 2018 (Hunt size and completion time go way up). The more I think about this, the more I think there were two big influences to the Hunt blowing up from 2018 on.

One was, of course, the 2017 Hunt and teams not wanting to repeat the surprise of having a team find the coin Saturday morning. (I know many teams were totally fine with the 2017 Hunt and the fact that it allowed way more teams to reach the endgame. I personally would have liked it to run a bit longer for the top teams, and whether you agree with that or not, having the coin found way before the construction team expects is not the best experience.) Another was the fact that Galactic Puzzle Hunt debuted in 2017; I believe this was a direct result of the 2017 Hunt, since Galactic found themselves with a free Sunday to start writing a kickass puzzle hunt.

The Mystery Hunt always had something of a reputation for puzzle types and interactivity and nefariousness that didn’t show up in any other puzzle hunts (there are immersive puzzle experiences that only show up in The Game, but those feel extreme on a different axis). I believe that GPH was the first online hunt to really start pushing that envelope. It showed you could have online puzzles with crazy procedurally generated elements (man, do I love Ministry of Word Searches) and teamwide interactivity and messing with expectations like team standings and answer submission. Teammate did a great job in their hunt this fall following in those footsteps, and even hunts like the My Little Pony hunt and Puzzle Potluck did ambitious things this year with metapuzzles and structure and plot twists. (Incidentally, have I told people to solve UMD Puzzlehunt from a few weeks ago? Run, don’t walk. It was excellent and came totally out of left field.)

Anyway, I love GPH and hope it will continue to push boundaries in its own lovely way. But as it pushes boundaries, the expectation of what can only happen in Mystery Hunt gets higher, both in terms of individual puzzle complexity and scope of the Hunt itself. And between that and teams erring on the side of not ending too quickly, recent Hunts have only been solvable in a weekend if your team is huge. And then your huge team feels like it needs to cater to other huge teams, and pretty soon there are only half a dozen teams that are really in contention not just to win, but even to see the whole Hunt.

I’m very curious about the experience of small casual teams (especially student teams new to puzzling) in this Hunt. I had a great time, but I had 59 teammates handling the bits I couldn’t or didn’t have the time for. This Hunt had a very friendly opening round that I’d expect small teams to be able to handle, but by Friday evening everybody had been thrown into the deep end, and the organization of what was ahead did not become clear for quite a while. 112 teams solved a metapuzzle, which is fantastic, but did those teams feel like they really experienced this Hunt? Maybe they did, and I hope they did. But at the current trajectory of Hunt size, I’m not sure a team off the street can make a dent in the puzzle structure, and that’s not great for sustainability (both from a writing perspective, and from a perspective of serving the Hunt’s intended audience, and as much as the puzzling community would like to claim ownership, as long as MIT is hosting the event, that audience is the MIT community and especially MIT students).

Okay, I think I’ve said enough controversial stuff to get people sniping at each other in the comments. I’ll post at least once more talking about puzzles I liked (and at least one that I literally ripped into tiny pieces out of frustration). For now, tell us what you thought about Hunt and/or about my thoughts if you’d like to. And somebody generate the team progress vs. guessing graph, because I’m sure I’ll have opinions about that again! (Five minutes? You call that throttling?)

66 thoughts on “2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 1: Whoosh Big Picture Pros and Cons Nyeeeow

  1. I actually thought the length of the hunt this year was excellent, at least for my mid-strength team (Providence Plant Translations). By Sunday night we had all but 3 metas solved (Tunnels, Cluster, and Giga/nano), and we knocked out giga/nano by Monday morning. I believe we finished in 14th place, if I can read the wrap-up graph correctly, which is about the range we typically finish in. And I definitely felt like we got to see most of the hunt — we didn’t finish Tunnels or Cluster but we saw most (all?) of the puzzles in it and got a sense of what the rounds were about. The last hunt I can say all that for was the infamous 2017 when we actually finished (a feat we do not consider terribly likely to repeat). Having your 14th best team on the cusp of finishing the hunt seems like a great spot for length and difficulty, at least to me.

    I’d be interested to hear other teams’ experiences with the Giga/Kilo/Milli round. Despite unlocking very early in the hunt, most of my team fell away from it due to not really knowing how to proceed, and having a few puzzles that we either completely didn’t understand or really didn’t want to do (gymnastics). We certainly hammered away at *trying* to solve Twins for awhile, despite having very little information to go off of, before somebody suggested that we probably needed to shrink ourselves and look at the puzzle again from the overworld, which led to us spending some time trying to make that particular NPC interactable while tiny. Nobody was too interested in trying to crack a meta when it wasn’t even clear to us what to do with the resulting knowledge gained (since there was nowhere to submit an answer in Rule of Three), particularly when there were lots of interesting puzzles and metas available in other rounds. Unfortunately, this ended up meaning that once we cracked the trick (after the coin was found and some pointed hints) we had two levels of puzzles to work through after a lot of people had called it quits, whereas if we’d gotten there a day and a half earlier we’d have had a lot less trouble with that whole round. I really enjoyed the structure looking back on it, but it ended up not working out great for my team.

    I also really enjoyed a lot of the collaborative Athletics puzzles, but I really wish they came with a better warning that progress was shared between teammates. I happened to reset the Baba is You puzzle while my teammates were neck-deep in a solution, having no idea that my messing around would have any ill effects. We had similar problems with multiple groups of Cafe Five solvers forming and being unaware of each others’ existence.

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    • Over on Team Left Out, I didn’t look at Giga/Kilo/Milli/Nano until we had maybe 90% of the puzzles solved. Dan Egnor on our team mentioned that on the “All Puzzles” page, it was interesting how the puzzles were in this nested structure, and after futzing with Nano for while and convincing myself that this couldn’t be a pure meta, I looked at the overall display. A vague memory of remember someone pointed that it was weird how the giga answer seemed to have been instantly given to us … and then I immediately intuited the structure of the round.

      It’s definitely one of those “oh, teammates, if only you had known to force me to stare at this earlier, I would’ve saved you a lot of time” moments that I feel happens almost every Mystery Hunt.

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  2. Overall agree that this was a beautifully constructed masterpiece of a hunt… and that it was too long. Also, I’m notoriously on the record for not enjoying playing video games. (I know the overlap between gamers and puzzlers is large and I’m in the minority here.) So the combination of the isolation you mentioned + the projection feeling a bit too much like a video game for me to want to spend any time in it[1] left me feeling like… “This hunt is an incredible achievement that I am just not feeling personally but I can tell that most people will love it” until sometime Saturday night, at which point there were enough puzzles open for me to sink my teeth into them and forget about the overall structure. (I *loved* Fun With Sudoku and had a great time co-solving it with two people over discord chat and shared white board.) Plus I was getting used to My First Discord, which I think is better than a slack/zoom combo would have been, but still took me awhile to warm up to.

    Oh, and the one event I went to (Fencing) was excellent — I loved the way Galactic made events still happen even in this post-pandemic world.

    [1] – Until Seth, of all people, convinced me to do the events meta with him, which ended up with us playing a mini-game in the projection, which actually was really fun. I probably should have been less of a stick in the mud about the projection earlier.

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    • I’m also a non-gamer, but I felt like this worked well for me. I dipped my toes into the Device every so often but mostly relied on teammates who were more into that to solve the navigation puzzles etc. But then, every so often, we’d need a 7 people to pick up violet coins in space or something, and “show up and be told what to do and contribute to a Device thing for 10 minutes without actually having to be particularly good at it” was actually really fun for me!

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      • Yeah, that’s exactly how it was for me with the lobster thing at the end of the events meta. “I can do word transformations and drop them into a text field, so I will do that, but first y’all are going to have to wait 2 minutes for me to figure out how to correctly navigate over to the sailing pavilion, because apparently going from the Dot to over behind walker and jaywalking across Mem Drive isn’t working for me.”

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this hunt! The rounds with cool structures were awesome, and (by coincidence or by similar-demographics-with-writers) there were several puzzles that piqued niche interests of mine that I got really excited about

    We also didn’t get to the Giga reveal until after the coin was found, and we got close but didn’t quite finish at hunt-end, though I still got to appreciate it.

    I definitely prioritized puzzles over the projection device, despite appreciating how astoundingly-cool it was. But I know several friends of mine on my team who were more casual really liked it, and greatly preferred it to getting burnt out on hard puzzles. I don’t know what it was like for small teams, but I think it was pretty open for self-selecting what was interesting: the Athletics round had most of the things happening in the projection device, so a team could prioritize it or avoid it as they wanted. The other big part was the unlocks, but since they got progressively more puzzle a small team could probably stick with the first couple of rounds if they really didn’t like the projection device for some reason. I also suspect that the Students round in general was great for small teams, to have a round of many more accessible puzzles.

    But this is all my guess having been on small teams as recently as a couple years ago, but not in this hunt.

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  4. The team I hunted with placed in the mid 20s, with a good handful of the metas solved by monday morning, but barely any progress on Stata/Giga/Tunnels/Clusters (all puzzles unlocked but only a couple solved in each). I didn’t even figure out the way Giga was supposed to work until I saw it discussed at wrap-up, and it seemed like a really cool round but you really missed out on a whole 2 sets of puzzles if you didn’t get that specific break in.

    With regards to hunt size, I think the writing team needs to carefully balance what they want out of the hunt for most people: is it a massive puzzling event where only a handful of teams get to see the whole thing? Or do they want more people to experience a larger percentage of the event, which will likely end in the top teams being done by Saturday? As you mentioned, if the hunt ended when it normally did in other years, it’s likely only one team would have finished. By that point we only had one full round meta solved, and were able to drop 3 more overnight. If by next year (hopefully) we are back on campus, I do really think the current hunt size is unsustainable if you want more than 1-2 teams to finish.

    In my admittedly biased world, I would like a size in between the 2017 hunt and this hunt, where the best teams are done late-saturday/early sunday, which would give the top 5-10% of teams the chance to see the whole hunt by end of day Sunday. At least this year we were able to see the whole hunt, but as a team last year that didn’t get to touch a single outer round as a top 25 team it goes to show that the large majority of people just aren’t getting to see even a sliver of what the whole hunt has to offer.

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  5. From a big team, this year’s hunt certainly felt longer to me in terms of the difficulty and number of puzzles. There were mini-puzzles in the Projection Device, which also required a learning curve and created the MMOG vs puzzle-solving focus you mentioned. I would have preferred less rounds/puzzles with these innovations, but Hunt length is always hard to estimate. The Projection Device was certainly fun, memorable and fitting for this transition to a remote Hunt. Galactic had the experience of their 3 hunts (each with very unique elements) and the know-how to pull this off though. So I think it would still be prudent for first-timers to follow the wisdom of past teams to gain experience first, rather than try to emulate Galactic or other second-hunt innovations.

    The balance between Hunt length and enjoyment for small teams and large teams is always something talked about. Would small teams be satisfied with seeing mostly just a relatively small part of the Hunt (like Projection Device and Student round) and story? Would large teams feel short-changed again, if they are told beforehand they could expect to finish early Sunday? Could consolidation and/or normalizing of team sizes help? Small teams comprising less experienced solvers could potentially benefit from the experience of larger teams and their tech/infrastructure too.

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    • I wonder if there’s some way to make the post-coin experience for large teams more fun. My best idea in this direction is a “second quest” where you say restart the teams with the old puzzles maybe rearranged into new metas (Seattle-style where you enter the “answer” and the checker tells you a different word to use for the meta) and you’re told to just keep solving puzzles that you didn’t see the first time because your team was so big. My less good idea was to run an “iron puzzler”-style write-and-solve competition for the teams that finished early.

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      • Or we could have the second-place team (or the highest placing team that hasn’t written recently?) write a 2000-era-sized MH that teams can do after they finish the main one. Teams that only finished the main hunt would then have a smaller hunt to do together some weekend some other time of the year.

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      • > Or we could have the second-place team (or the highest placing team that hasn’t written recently?) write a 2000-era-sized MH that teams can do after they finish the main one

        I mean, that’s actually what’s been happening, with the Galactic and Teammate hunts.

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      • The only truly short Hunt we had was Monsters, and my sense from the feedback was that people were complaining more because of the unexpected nature of the length (to be fair, even to Setec), so large teams (esp those who took time to fly in for the weekend) had this sudden unfilled mental and physical void. Personally I think it would be a great opportunity for people to relax and hang out (online?) together on Sunday, if the expectations on Hunt length could be managed beforehand, as some subsequent constructors tried to vis-a-vis team sizes.

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    • This is the first I’ve seen someone mention the team consolidation idea, which I’ve thought about a little. I am new to MH (this was just my 2nd one) and was from smaller team (maybe 25 or so “full time” solvers). Having a hunt that strikes the right balance for length with so much variation in team size seems impossible. In fact, this is one of the only types of competitions I can think of where there are no restrictions on team size. There would certainly be some downsides to consolidating, but having a smaller number of evenly sized teams would be an interesting concept to explore further.

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      • It was just a thought that came to mind, and hope to hear more discussion on this. There are certainly downsides for the smaller team, so consolidation is not in the “merge or die” sense. Just as teams are now told “you will not have as much fun if you have more than X team members”, perhaps it could be “X is the ideal team size. If you are larger, expect a potentially shorter experience; if you are smaller, expect to not finish or even experience most of the Hunt”. So it becomes a choice for teams if they wish to gear towards that number. But I use team size/experience somewhat interchangeably, thus it may be hard to estimate or quantify X in practice.

        And if we want more teams to experience more of the Hunt, it means more work for the constructing team in terms of hints/interactions/runaround. Having less teams overall would avoid duplication in serving hints and running interactions.

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  6. This was my first year doing the Hunt, or most any “official” hunt. (I’ve dabbled a bit in things like the Cryptex Hunt, and read up a lot on puzzle hunts in general because I find them fascinating and the kind of thing I would have 100% dived into wholeheartedly back in college.) I organized a small friend group; myself and five others, one of whom has done the past several Hunts on a different team. (Everyone else were also Hunt newbies with a decent to high amount of experience in puzzle-y stuff)

    We did what I’ve been told was fairly well for a small newbie groups (29 solves, including the first meta), and we were overall very happy with how well we did; we had gone in not expecting anything more then that. So in that sense, this hunt was a strong success! But….well, when we were watching the wrapup, one of my teammates put it very well: “I mean, I know it’s true, but it’s a little disheartening to be told outright that literally everything we worked on was designed to be easy.” The vast majority of our solves were in Yew Labs and Students, and Students was so large that we figured there was no chance of getting a meta out of it, although I did open a spreadsheet for it on Sunday labelled “Overly Optimistic Students Meta”. The wrapup described a hunt structure that sounded really cool and interesting and completely disjunct from our experience.

    And honestly, that’s probably fine? We all knew up front that we had no change to really “see” Hunt in any meaningful sense. But it certainly meant that, say, I ignored the Projection Device, and largely the theme, all weekend. (Although another teammate found it a nice way to take breaks, so YMMV.) For me, I figured “we have a couple dozen puzzles open already, who cares about more, and it’s not like we’re ever going to accomplish anything related to the theme.” We do plan to come back and do more hunts in the future, so in that sense, Hunt was a success this year.

    But….well, I design, or designed (thanks Covid) escape rooms for a living, and team size was always one of the big challenges to balance for. In the end, I always had to pick a general team size I was shooting for and go for it, and just accept that other team sizes would have different experiences. Hunt, for a series of very good reasons, has picked “high” as the team size they’re designing for, and that means that smaller team sizes are just not going to experience the Hunt in the manner it was designed. Is that a problem? I leave that to the people who’ve been doing this for years to determine!

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go be happy over the fact that we as a first-year team managed to make it onto the wrapup presentation with my teammate’s wonderful SUPERCOOKIE! Really, the truest of victories.

    (Reposting because my first post doesn’t seem to have loaded? If this turns out to be a dupe, please delete)

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    • I don’t know how many hours your team put in, but for a group with almost no Hunt or even puzzle hunt experience, you deserve a big pat on the back for achieving that number of solves (and congrats on the wrapup nod!). It’s really good to hear you had a fun Hunt. I’m always keen to hear about the Hunt experience of those new to Hunt, hoping they don’t get turned away by the perceived difficulty. Thanks for sharing and your perspectives on new solver/small team are valued. Puzzle hunt solving gets easier with experience, and there are a couple of online hunts annually for practice. Plus there’s all those Hunt puzzles that you didn’t get the chance to solve over the weekend!

      Wondering if given the opportunity to match up with a more experienced/larger team, would you have done so? You would get to experience more of the Hunt and story, and learn from experienced solvers. But the trade-off is that puzzles would get solved much faster and you might not get as much satisfaction from the solving part.

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      • We agreed that Hunt was going to be “the thing we are doing all weekend”, but also that there was little point in devoting literally every waking moment to it. (We got mostly-sane amounts of sleep, for example) We’re probably going to do some smaller hunts over the year, since we did enjoy the Big Giant Experience that is MIT Mystery Hunt.

        I considered joining with a larger team (as the person who organized my friends together in the first place), and in fact was offered an invite to our one experienced player’s team. Actually, our experienced player was going to play with her usual team, but her personal friends on the team apparently ended up not really showing up early on, and the rest of the team was solving so fast even in a remote setting that she decided to jump ship to us instead for a more relaxed experience.

        After a year of being a small team, I would….at least consider joining a somewhat larger team, but especially the early Hunt seems like it would just be not nearly so fun. When Hunt started, I and our other player who was actually available (I.E. not at work) jumped on Don’t Let Me Down, instantly understood what we were doing, tore through it and solved in a little over 40 minutes. That early success did a lot to carry us through the next several hours of staring at puzzles and ripping our hair out with no further solves. (Lest it sound like I’m tooting my own horn, we slowed down hard after the first solve) But on a big team, that puzzle would have been destroyed and solved before I really could have processed much of it at all.

        On the other hand, once the Projection Device got opened up and the puzzle tap started to flow in earnest, I would have been fine with being on a larger team at that point, since there were more then enough puzzles to go around. Not sure what side we’re going to come down on; it will probably be a topic of at least some conversation among the team.

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      • LordPaido’s second comment raises a key point. There’s a really weird phenomenon where Hunt is designed so that the optimal team size on Friday and the optimal team size on Sunday are wildly different. What I’d kinda like is to keep my team until sometime Saturday afternoon and *then* join forces with another team. I’m not quite sure how we’ve gotten to this place where there’s no team-size for which hunt is fun on both Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon.

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      • Limiting the number of open puzzles is often done to avoid overwhelming smaller teams, and to throttle the numerical advantage of large teams (so that they can get a long-ish Hunt without the need for a gazillion puzzles). That this feels more pronounced on Friday is probably because of the former reason, and as more rounds and metas get solved on Sat/Sun, the unlocks might be faster. Some have argued for a low unlock rate throughout as a possible solution for making Hunt short for small teams and (artificially) long for large teams. But it sacrifices the solving experience of members of large teams, and neglects the fundamental point that constructing teams tend to want to write a Hunt of a decent number of puzzles/size, rather than length. Small teams might also get roadblocked, and forced to rely on timed unlocks which is demoralising.

        I gathered from some comments here that some actually prefer having more open puzzles as choices, and also concentrated in a subset of rounds (rather than spread over many like perpIW) so that efforts could be more focused and there is a better chance of the satisfaction of solving meta milestones. Not sure how to square this with throttling the speed of large teams though.

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      • There is definitely a conflict between the goals of keeping the number of puzzles available at once (which Setec refers to internally as “girth,” and I’d like that to catch on) and giving all teams the opportunity to eventually see all puzzles. In 2019 we tried to find a happy medium between these by keeping girth low for any team ahead of the release curve, and no longer worrying about it once they fell behind, but apparently a lot of teams felt flooded (no pun intended) by this. I’m not sure if there’s a way to give every team all the puzzles without overwhelming them… unless “all the puzzles” is not as many puzzles as it has been lately.

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      • I don’t know if my team ever felt utterly overwhelmed, but there definitely were a lot of puzzles that _maybe_ one of us glanced at at some point before hunt closed. Anything that opened past….mid-Saturday, maybe, for us, was very very likely to get back-burnered in favor of puzzles that we had been working on and wanted to solve. (And if we didn’t have a player who spent any downtime running around exploring and then checking puzzles, we would have missed a lot of those as well.)

        (Turns out that when you have over 150 puzzles, it’s hard to not feel overwhelmed in _some_ sense. 🙂 )

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      • Left Out (or, at least, some of the folks who discussed the issue when we did the 2020 Hunt) calls it “beam” instead of “girth”. I think I prefer “girth” if it’s important to have a short term — although something like “unsolved puzzle count” is descriptive, doesn’t require further explanation, and only has the disadvantage that it’s not short 🙂

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      • I do not disagree that “timed unlocks are demoralising” for small teams, but I do wonder *why* they are demoralizing. I guess it’s because they send the message that “hey, sorry dude, you’re just not one of the fast teams.” Rationally, though, a small team should *already know* that they aren’t one of the fast teams. Certainly, when I’m playing a Hunt casually, as a 2-person team, only spending 4 hours per day on the Hunt, I get all sorts of hints and timed unlocks happening, and a nagging little bit of me is demoralized while the rational part of my mind says “duuuh! Ego much? You might be an above-average puzzle solver but you’re not THAT good.”

        In my ideal world, Hunts would have no end time and just be up in perpetuity. I guess the Puzzle Boats are sort of like that.

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      • My point is about something a little bit more specific, discussions of “girth” are usually about maximum girth, but what I’m talking about is friday-afternoon girth. I wish the hunt would start at close to maximum girth and stay there rather than ramping up. (There’s an important technical caveat, which is that I’m talking about “functional girth” i.e. puzzles open minus puzzles you have given up trying to solve, and the subtractand there is 0 at start of hunt.)

        eudaemon raises the two arguments that people give for an extremely narrow girth on Friday afternoon, but I really don’t think either of them hold up. If the point is to punish large teams then it’s utterly failing at that goal, and you would need to keep small girth the whole way through hunt which means you have to write a much shorter hunt. As for flooding smaller teams, I think that’s an important goal, but I don’t think dropping a full round is flooding. No one says “Oh P&A magazine is incredibly intimidating for a small team because all the puzzles open at once.” Back in the days before map-release was invented (one round in 2003, whole hunt in 2004) puzzles were always released in sizable batches and teams were much smaller and no one felt intimidated by getting 10 puzzles at once. I just don’t believe that having a dozen puzzles available is overwhelming for anyone.

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      • I’m trying to remember how the (unplanned) round-at-a-time drop in 2016 felt. (Not the other effects of having a fully static website like lack of progress tracking, but just the unlock structure.) I feel like the opening round felt a bit overwhelming (though the puzzles were easier) but otherwise it was mostly fine? Other unlock structures are fun (especially if you have a hint as to what’s coming — the 2015 experience of “OMG we’re almost at a GIANT TURTLE” was great) but I didn’t think round-drops in 2016 were too awful.

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      • Personally, but more so after reading some of the feedback from smaller teams here, I’m not sure how big an issue flooding/overwhelm really is either. As pointed out, some “degree of overwhelm” will eventually/inevitably result, being inversely proportional to the percentage of puzzles that could be solved by the team.

        For the same big girth, having many open puzzles in an initial round has a slightly different impact than having many open puzzles spread across 3-4 rounds later on. As large teams can work on many puzzles concurrently, the initial round meta will fall much faster in the former, so that could be a consideration. But I do think that if the Hunt has a lot of puzzles anyway, perhaps the girth could afford to be wider. The differentiated speed unlock for the 2019 Hunt sounds very helpful too (now I remember Dan wrote about it before). Teams behind the solving curve are likely gated by many stuck puzzles, so releasing more puzzles for them should generally be welcomed.

        I used the term “small” rather loosely, so a potentially demoralizing scenario with timed unlocks could be if say a 15-pax team who typically does quite okay, but hit a bad patch and got stuck (perhaps due to a small girth), and now has to rely on these handouts to progress.

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    • Oh, and the unlocked puzzle count would be kept at the same amount based on where you were in the Hunt, regardless if you were a fast team or a slow team, and you could increase the count at the same cost as some number of hints.

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  7. It was a really nice hunt, under difficult conditions! Thanks so much to the writing team!

    I certainly agree that hunts in this era are too long, and I have a lot of feelings about that. What makes it tricky for me to sort through those feelings is that this growth in hunt-length coincides with the decline in competitiveness of my team (Metaphysical Plant), so to some extent it says more about me than it does about the hunt. From 2002 to around 2017, I’ve been on a team that was usually in the running to win, won twice, and were always in the top 10. We had a really nice run where we finished the hunt just in time before HQ closed (2012, 2014, 2015) which is exactly the optimal way to enjoy hunt. This year it looks like we weren’t even in the top 20. One thing I’m curious about is whether teams I think of as peer teams (e.g. Codex) who have maintained top-10 finishes have grown post-2017 to be able to manage the increasing size of hunt, or whether this change is just that our team is declining significantly due to people having kids and whatever.

    My experience with hunt this year was that the first 24 hours of hunt was one of my favorite days of hunting ever, and that by Sunday it was bordering on un-fun in a way that the broken hunts felt un-fun by Sunday. I’ve been thinking a lot about why, and I think the basic reason is that some puzzle-solving is a pure delight and fun on its own (15×15 or Lime Sand Season don’t have to be part of a hunt for me to love them), while other solving is primarily rewarding for the feeling of accomplishment, and a huge hunt with the unlock structure that this one had basically eliminated the latter sort of pleasure for me. For example, I spent all of Sunday morning going back through my teammates work on Disorder to find our errors (one a mistake our end, one a badly ambiguous clue on the writer’s end) and to find the answer extraction. It was a solid puzzle and in the end I solved it, but I didn’t feel much accomplishment because there was simply no hope of us ever finishing that round. I would have enjoyed that experience of rising to the challenge if it meant we got to solve a meta, but without that feeling of accomplishment it just doesn’t feel as fun.

    I think for a team in our situation there are two things we might be trying to do on Sunday:
    1) Just find fun puzzles no matter where they are
    2) Finish certain rounds even though we’re not going to finish the hunt

    Basically both of these were impossible in this hunt because even by Sunday night *we hadn’t even opened all the puzzles*. Ricky and I solved the Football metapuzzle, and then our team never even opened the other athletic metapuzzles. For technique 1 you want all the puzzles unlocked so you can find the ones that are the most fun, for technique 2 you want the puzzles to be released in a way that unlocks full rounds rather than giving you bits and pieces of every round. I thought last year’s hunt did a much better job for technique 2.

    Now part of this issue is on us, I should be thinking about ways that as a team we can prioritize certain rounds more. We did do this with the Students round, and that was great. It’s harder for us to do this kind of prioritization in a remote hunt than if we were all nearby. But I do think these absolutely enormous hunts feel really spread thin if you’re opening stuff really widely across different rounds, rather than getting the rounds in a more ordered way.

    I also think that if we’re going to have hunts this enormous, then more puzzles should be opened faster. We have a lot of excess solving capacity and a lot of excitement on Friday that’s hard to maintain in an enormous hunt through Sunday. Just drop all the regular puzzles in the first round in one go at 12:30 (not 1pm!) on Friday. There’s no need to ramp up the number of puzzles over the first day if the hunt has 170 puzzles.

    Anyway, as I said it’s a great hunt, and I think my feelings are probably more about what it’s like to be in a team in decline than about the hunt itself.

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  8. Left Out had three explicit team goals: Have Fun, Don’t Win, See Everything. We implemented one main rule to try to achieve those goals, and that was simply Don’t Guess. Oversimplified translation: if you’ve solved a puzzle and think you have an answer, by all means submit it. But no half-solved predictive guesses, no Wheel of Fortune, and no haphazard backsolve submissions. We figured that would slow us down enough to take the pressure off, but still allow most of our teammates to hunt they way they normally would. (There were the expected caveats about relaxing the policy if/when the coin was found, and about revisiting specifics if players were finding the rule to be affecting their ability to Have Fun.)

    For the most part, the Don’t Guess rule worked as intended. By the time we had solved 100 puzzles, we had only about a dozen incorrect submissions – and around half of those were by players who mistook the submission box as being part of the puzzle itself, not realizing that they were submitting a guess. We also had zero incorrect backsolve attempts (or at least we did until the very end of the hunt when we threw caution to the wind to try to score a complete…which we missed by one puzzle). So the side goal of keeping our hit rate high was working well, and we were pretty sure that the policy was slowing us down enough to keep things comfortable.

    Unfortunately, there were a couple of side effects to this approach. One was that a few people on the team were definitely having less fun, which worked against team goal #1. (We revised the confidence threshold guideline at some point on Saturday night or Sunday morning, but the restriction was still noticeable and negative for some of our team members.) The other was that we completely missed the Mega/Kilo/Milli trick. We suspected that other rounds existed thanks to noticing some URL inconsistencies, but we never submitted a guess for the “missing” puzzle that would have unlocked the next round…because of Don’t Guess. So the policy clearly bit us in the backside there. (We still got through everything, but if we had been hunting in our normal style I believe we would have unlocked those rounds much, much sooner.)

    In any case, I thought the hunt was terrific. I would have had fun playing for hours and hours even if there hadn’t been any website puzzles at all – the overworld and all of its interactions were that engaging all on their own. I can’t even count the number of times that I “saw” a friend on another team and shook a lobster at them (or whatever my current emote happened to be), or how many times the world that Galactic created made me smile. As for the puzzles themselves, there were perhaps a few more grinders and programming-required puzzles that aren’t my cup of tea than I would have preferred (though they’re certainly at home in a Mystery Hunt), and they probably could have used a bit more editing overall. But there was a nice variety and breadth to the puzzles, and the metas were really memorable. I spend a large portion of my time on metas anyway, so I have a lot of love for this hunt.

    As a quick aside, our tech setup was really successful for this hunt. We had dedicated Jitsi rooms that were automatically created for every puzzle, and hopping between puzzles/rooms was surprisingly smooth. We also had an all-team room that we kept on mute except for teamwide announcements, which meant that you could always see your teammates on screen if you wanted to. Then we had a party room that you could hop into between puzzles or just as a break to socialize. Our remote solver support was already strong (more than half of our team is remote), but the tech team definitely stepped it up for this year’s hunt. So isolation was far less of an issue for me than it might have been otherwise.

    Short version: huge thanks and kudos to Galactic for a hunt that exceeded my expectations and allowed me to feel connected to the community more than I would have thought possible. It really felt quite a lot like returning to MIT and seeing so many friends. That’s no small feat, and in that sense this hunt truly was a gift.

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  9. I can give a bit of an outsider perspective; I participated for the first time as part of a first time team (Stumped and Furious) full of mostly people who also had never done the MIT Mystery Hunt. We had about 15 folks and a few supporters and we managed to finish – at last count – 76 puzzles. I will say that to me, the hunt was amazing, and generally speaking felt just about right. We actually overperformed in terms of our expectation of number of puzzles we would solve, and while we knew there was no way we would come close to getting near the end, it was nice to see – when the curtain was pulled up – that the overall length was about what we expected. Perhaps it was just a hair too long, but they did a great job of starting it out easier so that teams like ours could have some fun. And as someone who has actually worked professionally on an MMO, I was blown away by the Projection Device, and also by some of the other puzzles that took some serious effort, like the Stop Talking And You’ll Explode puzzle, or even Alternate Controls. I expected mostly straight-up word puzzles and word play so to see these other fun mini-games was pretty cool. We are definitely jazzed to come back next year. Big thanks too go to Torgen and his team management software, because that plus Discord really helped us have a good time.

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  10. On Dan’s point about “warm-up” first hunts, I wonder to what extent what’s happening is that Left Out and Galactic have written so many non-MIT puzzle hunts and so were better prepared to jump directly to an extra-challenging hunt to write? That is, the role of the warm-up hunt was already played by writing the Galactic hunts?

    I am tremendously impressed that this hunt worked at all, like Dan I would have been scared to death of the MMO just failing spectacularly.

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    • That was certainly it for LeftOut. Most of the people on the team had been actively involved in writing non-MIT puzzle hunts for over a decade. People had been saving ideas for puzzles for quite some time.

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  11. I’m going to post only about a specific point and leave all the other points (either good or critical) off this particular post.

    Overall, I thought this Hunt was very imaginative and that whooshGTnyeow did a really great job. But I also believe that this Hunt was not only too long, but had too many things. 168 puzzles, PLUS events, PLUS navigation puzzles, PLUS metas (in a Hunt where there were multiple metas in each round). It’s one thing to think about Hunt length as a result of puzzle solve time, it’s another consideration to decide when to stop adding content. Were many puzzles that were gigantic time sinks? I don’t think so, but it’s very possible that I just didn’t work on them. Which makes me think that it was mostly just the sheer volume of content that resulted in this Hunt being very long and could be pointed to as the “problem,” if you want to call it that.

    That being said, I honestly couldn’t make suggestions on cutting any of the categories that added bulk. The navigation puzzles and projection device added a lot of really great elements to this Hunt and both structurally and thematically could not, nor should not, have been removed or slimmed down. Events are always an important part of Mystery Hunt. I personally very much enjoyed the nested metas in each round and wouldn’t suggested slimming down there. The Students round, which contributes a lot of bulk, was an important addition for small and mid-sized teams that I wouldn’t suggest changing. The interactive puzzles in Athletics were also a very nice addition. So I’m conflicted because I think there was too much in the Hunt overall, but also enjoy and value the choices that contributed to that bulk.

    As people continue to debate Hunt length (usually with respect to team size), I would like to add another consideration to discuss: *solver quality of life.* Yes, having more hands to solve certainly helps a team be able to finish a large Hunt before it times out. But how many hours should a solver be expected to devote in order for a team to finish on time? Some teams (particularly younger teams) may be ok disrupting their solve-life balance for 60 hours, but others simply cannot. Even competitive teams will have members that have to juggle their real world and couldn’t be all-consumed by solving even if they wanted to (this is particularly true for people who have been with Hunt for decades and now are at the age where they have kids, for example).

    Setec did squeak by this year and finish Hunt, but I would argue that we were only able to do so because some members were willing to take a substantial hit to their life balance and continue solving to a degree that should not be considered the standard and could be seen as borderline unhealthy and downright unsustainable (importantly, the team very much discourages this type of behavior). Speaking for myself, I was willing to get by on 3-4 hours of sleep a night if it meant that we finished this year, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that *some* solvers on competitive teams would make this same choice (but again, this was a personal choice, not a choice made or imposed by the overall team). So larger Hunts not only select for larger teams, but they also select for solvers devoting more and more time to solving, which can push individual solvers into unhealthy practices if they hope to stand a chance of finishing. This effect (along with team size, of course) may also explain by teams of long-standing Hunters may not place as high in recent years, and why teams with younger average ages can continue to complete these large Hunts.

    So for these discussions, and also discussions of future writing teams, considering solver quality of life is an important metric to reflect on. I think we can all agree that the goal shouldn’t be that solvers need an average of 10 solve-hours/day in a team of 60+ to finish a Hunt in 60+ hours.

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    • Errata: I think we can all agree that the goal shouldn’t be that solvers need an average of 18 solve-hours/day in a team of 60+ to finish a Hunt in 60+ hours.

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      • I think that’s of course a valid opinion, but far from something that everyone can agree on, as evidenced by the myriad perspectives on this post 🙂

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  12. One structural thing I appreciated was putting the most structurally innovative rounds (Infinite Corridor and PIW.nano) earlier in the Hunt. Last year I was on a small team that completed the “inner” rounds but didn’t even solve a single puzzle in the Safari or Picture rounds; it was disappointing to learn we had completely missed those experiences. Getting to tackle IC and PIW earlier and leaving more typically structured rounds like Clusters for later was a good choice for us. (That said, Hunches (like Setec) didn’t manage to open the inner PIW rounds until after the coin was found. We had guessed the basic “nested + backsolve” concept, but we just found the opening puzzles in that round to be very hard. We did solve IC late Friday night/early Saturday morning though!)

    This was I think the only time other than D+D I’ve been on a team that’s completed the Hunt, so from my perspective it felt like a great size for a Hunt. But maybe that has more to do with being on a team that was a good fit for the size than anything else.

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    • I did like that IC was accessible fairly early, but also wasn’t the only thing people had to work on at that point, so teams could ignore it if it was too complex to deal with. In general, I loved the varying structures in the rounds (it felt like another step in the evolution from Zyzzlvaria to Video Games to the outer rounds in Inside Out and Penny Park) but just though there were too many of them… Both Penny Park and PIW had at least one “standard” round at the end (Cactus Canyon, Clusters/Tunnels), and it didn’t feel like their presence did much other than make the Hunt longer… which is great if teams have time/energy to enjoy the longer-ness, but recent Hunts feel like they’re pushing that line.

      And for what it’s worth, we would have made 2019 shorter if we were arbitrarily choosing a number of rounds, but committing to the structure we’d chosen and making the map connectivity interesting required a minimum number of rounds and metapuzzles. (I guess we could have trimmed the April Fool content, but we really liked both that plot element, and the idea that somebody was lightly messing with the teams throughout the Hunt while they tried to deal with a new mechanic.)

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      • Yeah, I suspect that “exactly this hunt minus two of Stata/Clusters/Tunnels” would have been great and we wouldn’t have felt shortchanged. (Though there were plenty of great puzzles in those rounds.)

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      • The way you phrase it, it makes it sounds like we had a fine Hunt without Cactus Canyon, and decided to add on an extra round because we wanted the Hunt to be longer. This wasn’t true; the CC meta and round was designed first, before it was known whether the concepts behind Safari Adventure or Cascade Bay were even viable as rounds.

        Then when those metas ended up working, Cactus Canyon was mostly *moved* to the end so that more teams could see the non-standard rounds.

        I’m just a biiit salty about this because I *wrote* the Cactus Canyon meta, and it’s a bit disheartening to learn that “yep, your perfectly fine meta is going to be the one nobody sees because other writers are better at pushing the boundaries.” At least *some* people got to see it, as opposed to the round getting cut entirely (which was the fate of at least two other metapuzzles I worked on).

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      • Just to be clear: the size of this Hunt worked for me and for my team, and I enjoyed all the rounds, and I wouldn’t say any should have been cut! I merely mean that had two of those rounds been gone we wouldn’t have said “that was weirdly short” afterwards.

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      • The standard argument for a more standard round at the end is lowering the odds of teams being stuck on just the last meta with nothing else to do. Of course there’s a balance there.

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      • I looked at the stats and it actually looked like Infinite Corridor was the most-solved main round (39), which is pretty cool for such an innovative structure. (Maseeh (42) and Baker (40) had more solves but I don’t know that I’d call them “rounds”.)

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    • i will say that i thought the ⊥IW.giga feeders were all challenging, especially given the fact that the meta is one of the hardest in the hunt, and the fact that the arguably most important feeder (the one belonging to a routine matter) was so hard we had to unlock hints early. eh

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  13. I came in here to weigh in and argue against all the controversial statements Dan made … but to no avail, because I pretty much agree with him on everything, down to what my personal experience was like.

    I will mention that Team Left Out decided, with some investigation beforehand, to use Jitsi instead of Zoom or Discord, and the huuuuge advantage, only really visible in hindsight, is how Jitsi allows you to be in several rooms at once. This allowed us to have a “team-wide” room that everyone was in (and mostly quiet) at the same time that we were in puzzle-specific rooms, which helped to counter that psychological feeling of feeling like you’re solving alone or with a small group.

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  14. I think I speak for my whole team when I say we really loved this year’s Hunt despite coming nowhere close to finishing 🙂 We had quite a few 2020s whose on-campus experiences were sadly interrupted, so there was a lot of nostalgia. And as an MIT-lore nerd, I loved the strong MIT flavor.

    When it comes to a feeling of isolation, Discord helped a lot – as I saw someone in a different group explain, “you can’t see how many people are in a Zoom room until you join, but you can see how many people are in a Discord channel and decide where to go accordingly”. Being able to see who was online and working on what with whom by glancing at the Discord side bar really helped combat the uncertainty of not knowing who was around and working on what. We also weren’t very strict about “one puzzle per room” because some of us enjoy a little bit of puzzle cross-talk

    To respond to the discussion on team size:
    – My team isn’t tiny but it isn’t huge either – we registered with ~20, of which we probably had ~15 max online at once.
    – I have been invited to join larger/more competitive teams, but I doubt I ever will. Honestly, I don’t really care about not getting to see many of the later puzzles during Hunt. Frankly, they’re too hard, and beating my head against even-more-impossible cryptics does not sound like my idea of a good time. I’m usually satisfied with solving a couple of early metas and reading solutions for later rounds to marvel about “how on earth did anyone solve that?!”
    – The “joining-with-other-teams” idea is interesting but, because I like the easier puzzles, not something I’d be interested in.

    I personally think it is very possible for a great small-team experience to co-exist with a great large-team experience, but they are very different experiences. 2018’s Emotions round for teams like mine and the islands for other teams was probably the gold standard example from my POV. This year was also pretty great – we got to feel accomplished by finishing Yew Labs before it auto-unlocked, then scattered through Students/Green Building/Athletics based on what felt most fun to each individual in the moment, especially since those experiences opened up early enough that we could access them all.

    Things that I personally think are critical to a good small-team experience:
    – Scavenger hunt, and other fun-but-not-too-challenging components of Hunt (like events, the MMO, Teamwork Time) accessible relatively early by all teams
    – A robust hint system. I will forever be grateful to the Setec team member who trekked out through the cold to our dorm in 2019 after we (half-sarcastically) submitted “THIS ISNT FUNNY ANYMORE :(“ to “Joke-O-Lantern” to give us hints in 2019. That said, the hint systems in 2020 and 2021 are even nicer in terms of being able to request a hint on one puzzle when we’re really stuck without feeling like we have to batch all our hint requests or ask for a hint we don’t quite need yet while we have someone in the room with us or on the phone.
    – I was gratified to learn based on wrapup part 2 that even former writing teams use hints 🙂 A little nudge can go a long way at getting us unstuck and hints are a key mechanism for making sure everyone continues to have fun, especially for a small team which runs out of new people to look at the stuck puzzle fairly quickly
    – For young student teams with inexperienced puzzlers whose only puzzling experience is maybe Palantir Puzzle Hunt and a student-run hunt for Orientation/REX/CPW, a strong hint system becomes even more critical to help teach them about Hunt patterns. My first year, 2016, we were only able to solve 1 Dreamtime puzzle – we got close on a few others but couldn’t figure out extraction, and despite the FAQ telling us to reach out if we weren’t having fun, we didn’t even realize hint requests might be a possibility. I still remember reading the solution for “Feel the Music” and thinking “how did they expect us to realize we had to turn the solfege into Braille?!”
    – Achievable early goals that most teams will blast through by Friday evening but will take small teams all weekend, and give a real feeling of accomplishment. The highlight of my puzzle hunting experience to date was completing Emotions in 2018 just in time to participate in the “funaround” Sunday night. This year, we completed Yew Labs around 9:30pm on Friday night and Dorm Row at ~5:45am Monday morning. It would have been awesome to finish Students, and maybe we would have if we had consolidated our resources more, but that’s the tradeoff we decided to make when we decided to stick with a small team that prioritizes fun over strategy. No regrets there 🙂

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    • “you can’t see how many people are in a Zoom room until you join, but you can see how many people are in a Discord channel and decide where to go accordingly”

      This might depend on chosen settings… we were definitely able to bring up the list of Zoom breakout rooms and see which users where in which rooms before going in to one of them.

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      • Oh, now that you mention it I do remember that being a feature of Zoom, although when we tested it, not everyone had the most updated version of Zoom and therefore not everyone was able to use it. Such a feature definitely helps, but it felt like Zoom makes it challenging by default to simply glance over and see whether anyone else was still around (compared to Discord where the default is for membership of voice channels to be visible to everyone at all times in the sidebar). Perhaps an appropriate analogy is if Zoom breakout rooms established impenetrable walls (which you can peek through before entering), Discord channels had transparent walls so you could easily see the activity going on in other rooms (people changing channels or leaving entirely) in your peripheral vision, although you couldn’t hear them until you clicked into the appropriate channel. Of course, large teams with many more channels might have the channel membership collapsed, but I found keeping them open manageable and useful for seeing who was still online, and it’s the reason why I had a strong sense of how many people we had active at any given point.

        Either way I agree with you that in-person is the best way to Hunt, but the 2020 online hunts have made me a Discord convert and I think having Discord was a key element in combating the feeling of isolation 🙂

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  15. +1 for Discord. Central Services has always had in-person interaction as a primary focus & goal; we missed each other a LOT this year but Discord’s combination of video, chat channels, and visibility about who is where at any time worked really well for us. Miro for image manipulation as a team/group was also great.

    Nominal team size was registered as 60 but we never really got close to that, I believe; I would guess at most 30 solving at any given time. We skew old, so being at home there was definitely an increased amount of family-related distraction/demand for some of us, and I noticed a big increase in sleep/dropoff in solving overnight. On the flip side, some of us kept solving through Monday where that was never a thing previously. During my time on the team, we’ve found the coin once – 2017 – and generally been just outside the top 10; I don’t know where we ended up this year but it was not close to finishing and it was the first year where it felt impossible that we *would* ever finish, despite some great efforts & achievements across the team. So… yeah: add a vote to the ‘please, stop increasing the length/depth/difficulty of Hunt’ side.

    Which is not to say that we didn’t have fun: the projection device was, as everyone has said, amazing and seemed well-balanced in terms of not everyone on the team needing to use it. Finally overcoming the ‘don’t stop talking’ team puzzle was a joy (but as noted above, PLEASE format these things so that a random team member opening the puzzle doesn’t break the team working on a different instance of it!). Hints were very well pitched; it was weird that several puzzles, even after being open for *days*, did not have hints available, though – we did not understand the algorithm here.

    So: huge thanks and kudos to Galactic – the acting was great, the ‘swag’ props were great, the puzzles were all clean. [And hey, I got to feel as though we might not be that far behind when I ended up sharing a Zoom breakout room with Dan during the ‘For Your Eyes Only’ puzzle (which I thought was a neat gimmick) – although that did scare me/us that if we were truly *not* that far behind, Hunt was going to end on Tuesday…]. The small ‘but’ is what’s been noted: we never even got to see several bits of the Hunt, and finishing turns out to have not even been on the radar [we completed the Student Center meta just before 10 on Monday.].

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  16. My ideal Hunt would have fun & satisfying milestones (with a runaround or some other non-trivial interaction) at roughly one-third and two-thirds of the way through the hunt. It’s become a tradition to have an opening round, but that’s gotten to be much shorter than one-third of the hunt (Central Services blew through Yew Labs in a little over two hours). And there really haven’t been any Hunts structures with a big milestone near the two-thirds mark. This year, a dozen or so teams finished, but I’d guess there were another couple dozen or so teams that got to the 2/3 mark. In retrospect, the Student Center meta might have served that purpose (with multiple levels of sub-metas) but with so many other rounds open by Saturday evening it was hard to stay focused on it.

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  17. Ah, the perennial debate on hunt length. While everyone has their own opinion about what the perfect length is, the fact is simply that the writing team gets to decide what their goals are. Galactic had a goal of 10 teams finishing, and they achieved that, so I’d consider that to be a success. Also, if you consider that Teammate and TSBI’s rate of solving dipped, let’s say, sometime Saturday night, it’s reasonable to think that the hunt could have been solved by Sunday morning which would make it an average length if not shorter.

    The most common reason in the comments that call for a shorter hunt length is that they want their own team to be able to finish or have a chance at winning. That’s perfectly reasonable. However, quite obviously repeatedly doing so for the next-smallest team yields in an ever shorter and shorter hunt. The end result is a 2017 situation where many of the same people unhappy now also wanted the hunt to be longer then, not to mention it results in all the top teams having nothing to do after mid-day Saturday. At some point, a balance needs to exist. Biasing towards a longer hunt where the big teams can keep solving into Sunday optimizes more for the time-spent-hunting metric which, after all, isn’t that what people primarily are there for?

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    • “While everyone has their own opinion about what the perfect length is, the fact is simply that the writing team gets to decide what their goals are.”

      Absolutely. And solvers have very right to give their opinion on what they would like their goals to be. I’m not ordering the next team to do anything specific, but I am expressing my perspective on practices that I think would benefit a community I’ve been part of (and have contributed to) for decades.

      “However, quite obviously repeatedly doing so for the next-smallest team yields in an ever shorter and shorter hunt. The end result is a 2017 situation…”

      This doesn’t make sense to me on two levels. One, the length of the first Hunt solve did not gradually shrink leading up to 2017, and our design goal in 2017 wasn’t to make the Hunt significantly shorter (it happened because our metas were too easy, and our structure was not built to slow down a team that solved metas more quickly than I thought). So I don’t see how 2017 is “quite obviously” the end result of a process no one actually applied. Also, you seem to pivot pretty quickly from “Every construction team should do what they think is best,” to “We sure want to avoid another 2017 Hunt!”

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I’m a member of a long running very casual midsize team who never gets more than halfway through a Hunt, even the D&D one. We’re happily mediocre. Here is my experience of this year’s Hunt: It was fun for me because individual puzzles seemed noticeably easier than usual, and it felt we got more solved per capita than usual. Puzzles this year seemed to lack the final FINAL twist that sometimes feels overly frustrating when you’ve already sunk hours into it. The solves were satisfying, and looking afterward at answers for puzzles we did not solve did not fill me with rage as sometimes happens. As a result, it felt as if we progressed further and accomplished more than usual (though I don’t know if we actually did) As this was the case for us, I was surprised that the Hunt lasted as long as it did.

    The architecture of the endgame of the Hunt as a whole never matters that much to us as we never approach the final rounds anyway. We’re thrilled if we can solve 2 or 3 metas before the Hunt ends. Our experience is based on our interactions with the parts that we do see, and this year I have very few complaints.

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  19. I think that Galactic Trendsetters did SOOOO much right this year. I think that the focus on length in terms of the number of puzzles is flawed. Because the number of puzzles is actually not a great measure. GT, deliberately decided that they really like the “school of fish” idea and so you get a Students round where the puzzles are deliberately not designed to be anywhere as tough as those in Clusters or giga/milli/nano, and the tradeoff for that is that you get a lot of them. I know how hard it is to judge length when you are on a writing team, I have written on a team where the hunt was considered to have finished too quickly (2012 – we needed one more round) and I have had friends both on the 2017 hunt and the never-ending 2013 hunt. It is really, really hard. But I do not think that this hunt was too long. By Sunday evening 8pm as I read the chart 4 teams had finished, and then over night (say from 8pm to 4am) 3 more finished, and then Sunday morning 5 more finished. And it was close. There were some 10 minutes between first and second, and between 5th and 6th.

    My team, Codex, usually finishes, and we didn’t last year (never finished Cascade Bay or Cactus Canyon). But this year, we never thought that finishing was going to be a problem, and we were enjoying ourselves throughout, and we have a lot of members with kids, and adult responsibilities, a desire for sleep, and we aren’t really going full-out to win. And then when I caught up with friends who were on teams that never expected to finish, they also had a good time, mostly because of the students puzzles. Students is an astonishing round, with no less than a dozen metas, and it is something that a bunch of teams can solve who have no expectation of victory in the overall hunt. I think that GT found a great middle ground giving smaller teams real opportunities for accomplishment, to a larger degree than has been done in many hunts, while still offering a full-fat option. I thought that the metas were appropriately hard. Which is a tricky phrasing. Metas win hunts. If they are too easy (2017) the hunt runs short. If too hard (2013) the hunt runs long. I found this years’s metas were just right. And that is really hard to do.

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  20. Ugh, I try to resist weighing in on this, but as another (relatively) old-timer here are some more opinions no one asked for:

    1. Is hunt too long? Yes. When it started, Mystery Hunt took several hours and was done by the end of Friday. When I started hunting [mumble] years ago, hunt ended when a team found the coin usually late on Saturday, maybe early Sunday. 30+(ish) hours of continuous puzzling means that a team of students can power through together with maybe a nap somewhere in there, and it’s not a big deal because you have the rest of the weekend to catch up. 69 hours of CONTINUOUS (but nice) puzzling is a totally different thing, and requires teams to be big enough to run shifts — effectively, becoming 1.5-2.0 full teams — in order to fully get through, or else you’re trying to do a 69-hour hunt in ~50 hours max, assuming your whole team is dedicated to spending all their waking hours puzzling and a significant portion of their non-waking hours, too, which is often not the case. I’ve done 20 years of hunts (OK, no more mumbling), on three different teams, and the size/difficulty has varied a lot, but one common factor has been a noticeable shift in team vibe from “I hope this never ends!” on Saturday to “When will this madness end?” on Sunday. Agreed that some of the 2017 chatter about teams who fly in from all over being disappointed because they “expect to make a weekend of it” is a factor, even people who thought it was gauche to say that out loud surely felt it a little. Future constructing teams (hopefully with guidance from Puzzle Club) will have to choose whether the priority is having something that a team who can’t afford to work in shifts can reasonably take on or having something that takes large teams the whole weekend. If it’s a priority to last all weekend, maybe thought should be given to segmenting it a bit more with quasi-structured breaks to even things out, but I suspect that won’t happen until MIT forces the issue due to logistical and/or health concerns. Or, you just build in more stuff for teams to do after they finish, or let them figure it out on their own, which many people seemed to be perfectly happy with in 2017.

    2. Is hunt too big? Maybe, but not necessarily. 2017 proved that you can have a lot of puzzles but still allow teams to get through all of it in a not-too-long time. If your team is pre-organized for a 50+ hour effort, it can be disappointing when you eat through it in one shot, but that doesn’t affect anything for the vast majority of teams. Hunt length seems to have more to do with things other than hunt size — unlock rate, bottleneck puzzles/metas, sometimes editing/testing snafus — than number of puzzles, and as the comments showed, teams that aren’t “geared to win” tend to be perfectly happy having lots of puzzles to solve and not necessarily solving all of them. Another interesting point raised in the comments: If most of the solving action seems to happen on Friday evening / Saturday (this has, again, been my experience for almost every hunt), why does it feel like fewer puzzles are available then for most teams compared to Sunday? The obvious answer is to time-limit the bigger/faster teams, but should that be the priority?

    3. It may seem counterintuitive if you read 1. and 2., but this hunt was my favorite of recent years and possibly ever, if you recalibrate for the stuck-at-home circumstances. Despite being very long, and pretty big, and yes somewhat isolating (not really the constructors’ fault), I never felt lost in it, which often happens to me with a large and complicated hunt. I tend to be less concerned than Dan about “seeing everything,” my FOMO is that if i miss one key thing about how the hunt works, I won’t ever be able to fully catch up. There was a lot going on in this hunt, but putting it in a familiar setting meant that I could always go back to exploring and figure out generally what’s going on. That’s impressive and says a lot about the constructors’ ability to focus on how hunt works as an immersive experience and not just an intellectual exercise. Sure, it went too long (I probably would have liked a more liberal unlocking rate, see above) and maybe was a bit too big (the point during wrap-up that “we added Athletics round because the hunt was getting too big” didn’t make a lot of sense, and yet I appreciate the thinking behind that round). But the thought that went into the experience mitigated a lot of that and made me feel OK about the idea that there was a lot of stuff I missed, because what I did see made a lot of sense. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to muck around more in the PD and find all of the 90% of things I surely didn’t see.

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    • I guess to clarify on the Athletics round, we certainly took some steps to downsize hunt once we thought the hunt might be too long, but we didn’t want to cut out Athletics entirely because we thought it was a neat idea that the meta authors had worked on for quite a while. (We did have to cut another round entirely that was earlier in the process but already in the writing/testsolving stage.)

      We didn’t want to make Athletics another round of 25 standard puzzles though, so what we did was to integrate our “field goals” (which were originally called “achievements” and designed to be fairly easy tasks to be done entirely in the projection device) into the Football round, and then come up with two other types of puzzle for the other two sports. (namely “teamwork time” cooperative puzzles and runarounds)

      We also enforced a rule where new puzzles written for the other remaining puzzle answers outstanding at that point (maybe 5-10) needed to be approximately the same difficulty as the puzzles in our Students round. So we were taking steps to try to rein in the hunt length a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. I disagree a bit with Jeff*, who I think is the same class as me and therefore started Hunting about the same time I did. My first Hunt, 1999, went until late (11 PM) Sunday, and to me that set the standard for all years to follow: a full weekend of puzzles. The next three were much shorter, which was a huge disappointment because we loved staying up all night puzzling and running around campus. As much as 2003 and 2004 were slogs (and we did get that “When will this madness end?” feeling), it was also sort of a return to what felt *right* about the Hunt. The times have oscillated since then (Has anyone updated this? https://www.reddit.com/r/mysteryhunt/comments/encuj3/mystery_hunt_finishing_times/), but it has mattered much less since HQ has been kept open until a fixed time. In fact, the one time I’ve been unhappy with Hunt length in the last decade or so was not 2013 (we could just quit if we wanted to), but 2017. Even though we finished that year for only the second time to date, I preferred the nail-biting, exhausted Sunday night finish of 2015 to the “That’s it? I guess we’ll play board games” finish of 2017. (That’s not to say the 2017 was a bad experience. I liked it a lot…this is just a comment on the length issue.) In any case, I think the outcry and subsequent Hunt lengths show that people weren’t “perfectly happy” in 2017.

    I think a full weekend of puzzling was always the promise, not slightly over a day and the rest of the weekend to recover. (Do students, the theoretical audience, really need a weekend to recover?) If the Hunt is calibrated to end for the winners sometime Sunday, I don’t see what the problem is. If teams don’t want to plan their shifts or find enough manpower to finish by that time, they’re not going to win. Oh well; there isn’t a shortage of teams trying to win, it seems. Everyone else is free to choose how much time they put into it. A fixed wrap-up noon Monday is a good “end of weekend” target and lets everyone make flight arrangements accordingly, and if the constructors don’t mind, it only makes sense to accept answers right up until that time. I’m not a student anymore, and yet I still like staying up all night and getting little sleep—just because it’s fun. I don’t need the constructors or Puzzle Club or MIT telling me when I can and can’t do puzzles or just stay up and bullshit with my friends because of health and safety.

    In summary, I think we’ve found the perfect solution already (wrap-up Monday, run Hunt until then, shoot for a Sunday winner) with the caveat that it seems impossible to actually plan that Sunday finish perfectly.

    I do agree that I wish there were a good way to open more puzzles early, since we usually have too many cooks Friday (to the point where I could just leave for a few hours and accomplish about the same) and are overwhelmed most Sundays. But I don’t know how to do that. Also agreed that this Hunt was amazing and made me feel like I was home at MIT, even though I wasn’t for the first time in over two decades. Kudos to Galactic.

    *Sorry to target you specifically, Jeff, but there are a lot of comments I read yesterday and can’t possibly go through again. Yours was just new. 🙂

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  22. This was our first hunt. 25 people took part. One person had done one Mystery Hunt a few years ago. The rest of us were used to Puzzled Pint and little more… We had a fantastic time. We finished ~70 puzzles (ignoring the duplicates on the infinite corridor) and learned a lot about puzzle hunts along the way.

    – we enjoyed and did well at (well, we thought so…) the Intro, Students, Infinite Corridor, Tunnels, Events.
    – we were disappointed we didn’t get near any meta other than the Intro (and Tunnels actually but that was at the end and I wasn’t involved).
    – we were overwhelmed by puzzles from about halfway through. I don’t really understand why everything gets unlocked. If you haven’t solved a good proportion of puzzles in Students, it feels like you haven’t got a hope in Giga etc. We were naive in not realising how hard they’d be so we bashed our heads against them a lot rather than focusing on puzzles where we had a chance.
    – we really enjoyed the puzzles that required teamwork – Fast Cafe, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Boggle. Also appreciated the ones that involved exploring the virtual world – they were very accessible to beginners.

    We really appreciated it being accessible if you weren’t local. We’re UK-based and have no MIT connections. We will definitely be back next year if it’s a similar setup in terms of remote attendance. If not then most of us won’t but a few might join as remote solvers for another team.

    It was an amazing experience and I’m very grateful we got the chance to take part.

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  23. One more time to see if I can get this posted, hah.

    Hey, Dan! I’m a new puzzlehunter (first hunt was actually UMD, which truly hooked me) on a small and casual team (the newly-released statistics put our team size at 20, but I’d say we had about 10 dedicated solvers? I don’t know if we had 20 active contributors in the server). I’ve enjoyed reading your previous posts to learn more about puzzle hunts in the past, by the way.

    For context, our team (Puzzledome) completed several metas. No metametas etc.

    I was a huge fan of the projection device, but it’s complicated. I did experience the projection device division you mention. Our team concluded that the projection device probably resulted in doing better than it has in the past, due to increased participation – and there were people whose main participation was just the projection device, so we did have a good division of labour there. It made me feel like the best thing for me to do was grind away at puzzles, though, and it was a compounding problem where I never got the hang of the projection device – where things were and so on. Then someone told me I could warp and I was okay. I ended up contributing to a couple of projection device puzzles after that, and I learned a fair bit via discord chatter about what was going in on there. I don’t think it was a huge problem for us overall, but there was a bit of ‘oh… I don’t really do the projection device…’ from a couple of us. I was always fairly aware of our progress there as well, and people solicited help on the field goals in a way that ended up getting us involved. Like, I’d learn where things were in part because we were all doing the escape room or whatever.

    As far as hunt size… none of us went in with any expectations that we would see the majority of puzzles, let alone the end. Some of us were new, some of us have puzzled for a while casually. It’s novel for me to attempt a task that I have no expectation of finishing, but it meant redefining ‘success’ in a positive way for me personally. I think pretty much anyone who was around the whole weekend would agree they saw most of the hunt, even if top teams who saw everything disagreed. Most puzzles unlocked, we all looked at them for a bit to at least see if we could get stuck into them, and quite a few were attempted. We spent a long time playing with the infinites, we learned about the giga structure after the coin was found (we didn’t find it ourselves, sure), we solved some metas. We’ve talked about some of the solutions since, too, and marvelled over stuff we didn’t see. We got to do a ton of field goals, we got to do some of the interactive online puzzles (the ones where you need multiple people), we got to do the little challenges like Stay Hydrated, we made progress on a bunch of the metas we didn’t solve. We are satisfied.

    I don’t really know how other hunts compare in accessibility for teams like ours. I’d actually be really interested to try out one of those super-early solved hunts, just for comparison’s sake – but Mystery Hunt is what it is, and I appreciate that smaller-scoped puzzle hunts exist. We’re aware of a few coming up that we plan to do.

    I’m looking forward to my next Hunt, too. 🙂 Seconding the sentiment of: it was amazing and I’m thankful to have had the chance to take part in something so special, especially in an all-virtual one (I’m Australian, and quite physically disabled, so virtual puzzle hunts have been a silver lining for me).

    The hardest things for us wrt. accessibility, I think, were actually finding people who were available for the Zoom conferences. Also, sometimes, on a team like that, you don’t start a puzzle you’re interested in because you know it’s going to be too time-consuming to do alone (the genomics puzzle) or it’s otherwise disproportionately intimidating (Voltage Controlled).

    Good luck with your semester and the upcoming birth of your son!

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  24. One thing that makes me less stressed about hunt size’s impact on smaller teams is that the number of smaller teams has expanded a lot over the years! If I’m interpreting the stats correctly, 115 teams solved the opening meta this year, and a solid 26 teams solved Student Center (which, while the easiest round, required solved a very large number of puzzles to get to). Choosing 2005 kinda randomly, it looks like only 29 teams entered the hunt at all, including 5 that solved a single-digit number of puzzles. So while the percentage of teams that see “most of Hunt” might be going down, the sheer number of teams that are able to make some level of achievement in the Hunt is going up? (Now, I don’t know how much of this is accessible to students specifically, vs the rise of online-only teams unrelated to MIT, this year especially.)

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  25. Pingback: 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt – Josh Alman

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