2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 2: Metas in the Time of Corona

(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.)

Here are some comments on some memorable puzzles I worked on in this year’s Hunt (memorable because I liked them, or found them frustrating, or have interesting stores about them, etc.). Naturally it doesn’t include everything I solved or tried to solve. Let’s start with metapuzzles, shall we?

Random Hall

This was a great example of a metapuzzle that was likely inspired by the theme (in this case the dorm name), rather than an independent idea wedged into a round. By the time I looked at it, Philip had already associated the four answers we had with distributions and worked out which columns corresponded to which distributions (with which parameters) but his indices were giving garbage because we were trying to use two letters every time there were two parameters. Eventually I noticed that if we only used the max for our second uniform distribution, we could make the answer end in SPONGES, which felt like a good fit for the meta prompt. But then we were trying to use just the max for all of the uniform spots; eventually it dawned on us that each of the two-parameter disributions happened to occur twice, and we did the right thing and solved with 4/6. Three cheers for a random data generator puzzle that didn’t give me significant Fifty Fifty PTSD.

A while later, Jackie and I returned to the puzzle to try to backsolve the remaining answers and came up with HABITUAL, but then we found that we had solved the puzzle with that answer about twenty minutes after solving the meta… I’m not sure if that was done forward or backward. (Our wild guess for Beta was PRODUCTION PHASE, which was not too far off.)

Student Center

I wasn’t very involved in the other dorm feeder metas… the Dorm Row metas were solved by a bunch of folks in a breakout room that tore through them in sequence like a chainsaw cutting through a sequence of metapuzzles, and I spent a lot of time brainstorming on East Campus without much success. I did get involved with the group working on the overall Student Center, and when someone suggested elements (I forget what got us there, because I’m not sure we noticed the earth/wind/air/fire motif), I immediately came up with what a bunch of the clubs might represent, and in particular, suggesting that the Honor Society might be noble gases was a good way to confirm both the name-length concept and the mechanics for some of the other clubs.

I thought the matching process was just the right difficulty (we made steady progress without feeling stuck, partially through good use of the column filter function on Google Sheets to view all of the students in a certain club), and the extraction worked the way we expected, once we remembered we had a bunch of sets of four students to work with. My only complaint is that, as a Senior Haus alum, I wanted some kind of Sport Death reference to show up in the overall meta answer and hijack the proceedings. (Thanks for putting us in the scavenger hunt, at least.)

Athletics (Basketball, Athletics)

This was probably my most significant contribution to meta solving and thus to our team’s progress. Jeff and I were around when the Basketball meta got opened (thanks to a solve of You Will Explode, I believe), and after brainstorming ideas, I made the prescient comment, “If I were a bunch of nerds who didn’t know anything about basketball, and I had to write a meta about basketball, it would be about Space Jam.” I thought I was joking, but fortunately I checked the Wikipedia article to see which players were in Space Jam, and the teams matching up (including a little Hornets jersey for Muggsy Bogues) confirmed that we were clearly on the right track. I assumed there was a way to match the answers to Nerdlucks, but we never found the hidden characters; we just looked for ways to place the answers so that the index numbers weren’t too high (we were missing the longest answer from Divided Is You that could have gone anywhere), and once we got an SQU at the beginning, we were off to the races.

Since that was our third sports meta solve (you know, in 2007 when we wrote a sports-themed round, people yelled at us), we then opened Athletics, and noticing the unusual letters at the beginnings of answers plus the 5×5 grid, we got to Playfair square pretty quickly. Once we noticed the prime/square/gaps element in the feeder metas, we were able to deduce that the Z must go somewhere in the keyword, somebody noticed that PUZLE would fit nicely (they said it would if PUZZLE only had one Z, but I remembered how you deal with repeated letters in a Playfair keyword), and we managed to get PUZZLE NAMES and then decode our way to the answer with about four missing answers.

Putting everything in the right place in the Playfair felt like a series of leaps of faith… We knew after solving Basketball that we had skipped a step, and I thought it was likely that we skipped one for Athletics too that might tell us in what order we should fill in the primes, squares, etc. But judging from the wrap-up, we were supposed to do the off-the-cuff grid filling that we did. Considering that, this meta feels quite hard to me. Even though it didn’t take us that long once we had it open, I’m curious how this played for other teams.


As noted in my previous post, we never made it past the Giga level before it was pity-unlocked for us once Palindrome found the coin. (A member of my team would like to correct me and say that some people did consider that the goal might be to backsolve, but I know that as recently as Sunday I was still saying I didn’t know where we’d submit the answer if we did solve the meta, and nobody corrected me and said the goal was to somehow “solve” Twins. We did understand roughly how the Rule of Three meta should work, and we’d even considered TWIX as a possible feeder answer, which for some reason we called in for two of our unsolved puzzles and yet not the one it actually went with.

When I woke up on Monday morning, we were down to a couple of puzzles (one of which, the Super Mario Maker puzzle, I solved after applying rested eyes to someone else’s partial data; by the way, we did have some team members with MM2, but on principle, throttling a team for hours because they don’t own a particular video game is not cool), and this meta, so in the end everybody was looking at it at the same time. Our big problem was that we essentially refused to move the arrows to positions that didn’t start in the circle’s center… we rotated and scaled all over the place, but didn’t translate them until we got a hint (which suggested “moving” them, which was general enough that it convinced us not to just rotate). I feel like we should have figured this out on our own for two reasons. First, one of the arrows is too long to point to anything from the center; we thought this meant we had to rescale it or point to somewhere else as a final answer, but we should have noticed it was small enough to point from one part of the seal to another. And second, I had already recorded my first multivariable calculus lecture for the semester, which explicitly talked about how the starting point of a vector could be relocated while still representing the same vector.

One of the possible rotations of the arrows sends the long arrow through the Y on the seal and lands on the Harvard Bridge. And of course, even though the bridge is outside the One.MIT circle, there is a name on it. So Galactic, if you’re wondering why you got a few guesses for answers starting with T and associated with Oliver Smoot, that’s what happened.


This was the second of the two metapuzzles we had left on Sunday night, and it got solved overnight with help from a hint. This hint mainly just shook us loose from two blind alleys we had hurtled ourselves down to varying degrees. One was noticing (correctly) that the first letters of the puzzle titles were A-G, and instead of viewing this as early entries in two alphabets, some of us decided we should somehow apply flats and sharps to them to form a chromatic scale. I was pretty skeptical of this, although some teammates made the point that “clusters” can refer to a bunch of notes that are close together.

The other was convincing ourselves that the grid-like map of the institute should be used as some sort of crossword grid for entering something (likely the translated answers, which started generating right away). I think I suggested this first and was willing to abandon it, but when someone pointed out that mousing over the puzzles on the round page lit up cluster locations on the grid, it seemed like there was no way we should ignore this setup. Until someone submitted a hint request, and we were basically told that two of the things we were staring at were irrelevant for solving.

There are two entertaining takeaways from this: (1) Our Clusters solve was impacted by tunnel vision, but as far as I’m aware, we had no cluster vision problem on our Tunnels solve. And (2) Setec got stuck on a late meta partially because we DID notice a mouse-over feature on the website. (Revel in that, 2005 Hunters.)

This is getting pretty long already, so I’ll upload what I have and save the non-metapuzzles for a third post.

13 thoughts on “2021 MIT Mystery Hunt, Part 2: Metas in the Time of Corona

  1. Our team got stuck at exactly the same point in the kilo/nano meta – realizing you need to move the arrows around from the center. But even knowing that wasn’t quite enough for us. Was it really as easy as the solution suggested to precisely place the last arrow and have the back of it point exactly to the final name? How do you know exactly where to place the arrowhead, and then correlate that point back to the interactive map? I wonder how many teams precisely found this location, looked through all the nearby names and found a notable one, or just guessed potential names given the round theme and used the name’s location as a confirmation. Unfortunately we just ran out of time in the end.

    That said, we loved the concept of this round – and the hunt altogether – and piecing together what was happening was a real joy. Took a little while for us to realize that we didn’t have a team member that was secretly solving puzzles and not telling anyone about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff, I had to double-check that you aren’t on my team (Rage), because you described our exact experience with the kilo/nano meta. We got stuck, took a hint about moving the arrows, placed the arrowhead, and then despaired of ever finding a specific name. We actually took another hint, specifically asking whether we had to be “ridiculously precise” to solve the puzzle, and were basically told “yes”. While we were arguing about what to do with that information, l I just happened to be staring blankly at the sea of names, and spotted an extremely famous alum in it, who I figured had to be the answer. (And as soon as I gave the name, someone immediately knew what the reference had to be.) If that hadn’t happened, I’m not sure if we would have finished.


      • On Palindrome, Milli was one of the last metas to fall, so we had something like 25 people in the Discord channel when we Index came up with the idea about the arrows. At that point, he was sharing his screen, so we could see the general place that the arrow came from, and while some people were trying to get more precise as to how the arrows were pointing, we had enough other people who were like “Let’s just see if we spot anyone famous around the hand/book area” and we got lucky on finding Feynman.

        Liked by 1 person

    • “Find the correct name in a sea of tiny names” was a task that seemed impossible and then we did it. Which seems like Hunt in a nutshell.

      (It did give me a bit of a flashback to the final stop in 2019’s Running For Office, a not very pleasant step in an otherwise super fun puzzle.)


      • Heyyy … OK that’s completely fair. I didn’t love that part of RFO either (especially coming near the 3-mile mark) and we tried to make it easier in testing, but I couldn’t come up with a better approach that worked while avoiding short-circuiting. Random fun fact: There’s a version of that puzzle where the answer is spelled out, but it got adapted when the sign in Building 12 was put up a few months before Hunt. Thanks for enjoying RFO!


      • Like many slow puzzles (eg this year’s opening round SMS puzzle where it took several minutes to confirm each sub answer) the RFO name slog was still a fun time hanging out with teammates and chatting so no hard feelings 🙂


    • The arrowheads all point to the rough “center” of the letter. For the Y, that basically meant the place where the three branches of the glyph meet. We found during testsolving that once you worked up the confidence to actually zoom in and search the area, most teams would be able to spot Feynman.

      Of course, it’s entirely reasonable to just run through a list of famous alumni and find the one in the right spot, but for whatever reason none of our testsolvers nor any team that I’ve heard from yet actually did this.

      Our goal definitely was to make teams that solved the puzzle say “that was crazy; I can’t believe that actually worked.” These are always my favorite moments during Mystery Hunt, and the one that sticks out most in my memory was when our team solved the Sci-Fi supermeta in the 2018 hunt.


  2. Palindrome’s experience with Giga:

    me: This probably has something do with planets aligning.
    joon: You mean syzygies?
    me: Huh? What is that?
    joon: When three planets align.
    me: Yeah that.

    *the two of use search for a website to give good alignments, but we can’t find any*

    *hours later, the image is added to the bottom of the meta page*

    me: Okay, it really has to do with syzygies.
    me: *pieces together what half the syzygies have to be*
    joon: *finds the best site for this*
    me: Okay, I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here, but I guess I can backsolve Twins so those folks don’t have to work on it anymore. Is the answer just GLOBE? Groan.
    me: *backsolves, opens a whole new round of puzzles*
    me: Holy crap! I mean, I knew that was going to happen. Totally meant to do that. <__>

    But on a more serious note, I have a tendency to try to tackle metas/rounds that everyone’s given up on, and I felt like this was the best instance of that for me this year. (A lot of things that usually go wrong for me during Hunt when it comes to meta solving didn’t, which helped a lot with the whole winning thing.)

    Liked by 3 people

  3. With regards to Athletics, we (SuperTeamAwesome) actually felt like it was a pretty clean placement, due to the restrictions from prime/square/gap. We also noticed by playfair rules that it must include a Z in the clue phrase, and then worked under the assumption that PUZZLE was part of the key phrase. From there, the placement is constrained enough that we only had a couple of questionable spots stemming from having two missing sub-puzzle answers (and it seems quite likely that we got lucky with exactly which two were missing – if we were missing the Z or P, for example, figuring out the clue phrase would have been significantly more difficult). I think it took us around 45 minutes to solve the meta once we started seriously looking at it.

    As glasser said, I enjoy when hunt has some aspects where you say “that seems impossible” and then you do it – backfilling a Playfair cipher seemed exactly like that. That said, the best example I’ve ever seen for that was Adventure, from the 2018 GPH, so Trendsetters have delivered again.

    We also solved milli last, and we had about 30 people in discord figuring it out – someone spotted the famous alum about 30 seconds after we put the vector in place, and another 60 seconds later we’d google’d our way to the answer


  4. I feel compelled to mention that Yar Woo, on Team Left Out, had an amazingly good wrong answer guess for the nano puzzle. Michael W. Sonnenfeldt is an MIT alum, his name can be found (not toooo far from the actual correct location), and he’s famous for writing a book named “THINK BIGGER”. Fortunately our “no wild ass guesses” rule stopped him from guessing it just long enough before we solved it correctly.


  5. Students round was a work of art. I’m often left with the impression that when a team says “we want to make a more accessible round,” that translates to “we want to do something nice for the kids but focus most of our efforts elsewhere.” This was the opposite of that. The puzzles were solvable quickly not because they were watered down but because they used simple ideas, clean construction, and good editing (from what I saw — I didn’t do all of them). The layering of the various metas was a real treat, there were a-has around every corner and not many real sticking points, the thematic links to the dorms were solid (ex-Dormcon nostalgia was surely a factor for me — like Dan I missed seeing Senior Haus and Bexley in there, but now is now), and the other tie-in themes snapped into place really well. MacGregor meta was a pure delight. The overall conceit about dorms helping each other out of their particular dilemmas also touched by Dormcon soft spot, and didn’t feel forced. The interaction at the end was pretty fun, though a bit long — maybe could have edited down one or two of the steps. If Students were an entire stand-alone hunt it would feel satisfying to me. If this really was the “opportunity for the less-experienced solvers to write,” I hope those “less-experienced solvers” are able to write a lot more hunts in the future.

    Athletics was kind-of a mixed bag, in the ways Dan noted. I agree with others that it’s a weird feeling when you say “wow, that puzzle seemed to require too big of an intuitive leap” before being forced to admit, “I guess we did make that leap, so touche.”

    Even after wrap-up, I still don’t understand how Infinite Corridor worked, but it definitely looked cool. It didn’t seem that hard for others on Setec to solve. I guess I need to look harder.

    Clusters I looked at by myself at one point, and I might have been the first to convert the Greek-rooted words to corresponding Latin-rooted words and vice versa (or at least I was the first to put it in the spreadsheet). But the ordering was still messed up at that point and we didn’t have too many answers. It’s too bad that part was a slog, because as a former Latin nerd I thought it was a nifty puzzle mechanic.

    For Giga->Nano I only strolled in at the end Monday morning, but I definitely heard a lot about the mechanism and how it did/didn’t work for us. Based on the explanation, it seems perfectly reasonable in theory but something was maybe a little off in terms of implementation. Problem with the MMH is that you can never test everything perfectly.

    Those were the only metas I really engaged with.


      • If I recall, I looked at it for a while and said “‘carpet’ in the flavor text looks suspicious, is there something mathy involving a carpet?” And 10 minutes later, Kiran said, “Oh, it’s a Sierpinski’s carpet,” which I didn’t know but was clearly the thing after reading the description. When I realized the math was out of my depth, I moonwalked out. The rest of you did a phenomenal job.


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