Friday, January 12, 2007


De-lurk, de-lurk, de-lurk!

I'm in Cambridge, MA (MIT's campus, to be more specific) this weekend for the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. When it's over, I'm going to want to be able to give a straightforward ohmygodthatwasamazing or awhellthatsucked kind of post, so I figure I should explain now just what Mystery Hunt is and why it's cool enough to be worth taking a 6 day weekend off for.

Mystery Hunt is a weekend long puzzle competition. It kicks off Friday at noon and goes until it's over. Sometimes (like last year) this means roughly midnight Saturday night, whereas other year's it's meant more like 8a.m. Monday morning. The puzzles aren't like "conventional" puzzles: they aren't jigsaw puzzles or crossword puzzles or sudoku puzzles—unless they've been severely ... improved. These are self-contained puzzles. It is rare for a puzzle to come with a set of instructions; I'm sure there will be one exception to this rule this year, and I'm sure it will be a diabolical puzzle. A puzzle might be a set of pictures, a list of words, a list of numbers, an odd looking diagram, a set of mp3 files, or some combination of these. And the puzzle solvers are expected to just come up with the answer.

The other fun thing about Hunt is that it comes with a storyline, some sort of funny plot. If there's any place where regular expressions can save the day, then this is it. The reason it is called a hunt is because all of the teams are nominally hunting for a coin hidden somewhere on campus. Find the coin, win the Hunt. Win the hunt, get to write the Hunt for the next year! Two years ago the team I was on (finally) won, so last year we ran Mystery Hunt. You can see our puzzles, etc. here. Our basic storyline was that there was this evil guy, Professor Moriarty, who had this plot to take over the world (and make a lot of money) by creating a weather-controlling device. He would turn the entire planet into a snowball, except for certain locations of his choosing, such as tropical islands he owned, which he could then charge exorbitant prices for visitors. We (the team running everything) were the good guys, S.P.I.E.S., and we needed to enlist the help of the participating teams in contacting our agents all over the world. Now, each agent had left clues scattered in various cities as to where they were hiding—also known as puzzles. Solving these puzzles would give a list of words, which in turn were some kind of puzzle (known as a "meta" puzzle). The meta answers were passwords which would allow the team to go talk to the agent. (I was Guildenstern. It was fun. I got to toss coins to Rosencrantz and say funny confusing things.) Hidden in the "header" information for each puzzle was another puzzle, which we called antes. Solving the ante would tell the team both which city they needed to "travel" to next, and which agent they should expect to find there. The final meta answer was "Prof Moriarty," signalling that the team was ready for endgame: literally a run around campus following different clues and getting past different obstacles using information learned from past agents. After defeating Moriarty, the team still had to find the "key" (i.e., the coin) to the weather machine—a snowglobe hidden in an airduct in a sub-basement on the far side of campus. Other hunts have had other fun themes: there was the Monopoly hunt, the "Hunt of Horror", the Matrix/Time Bandits hunt, the Smallville hunt, etc. etc. etc. One big thing people always speculate about pre-hunt is what the theme will be. The "Lord of the Rings" theme and the "Figure Out What The Mystery Hunt Theme Is" theme are always too obvious; Pinky and the Brain trying to take over the world would be too annoying (and, besides, Pinky was one of our agents last year). What will it be, what will it be?

Another question I often get about Mystery Hunt is just who does it and just how large it is. Last year, approximately 2000 people on foo number of teams participated. A good hunt is challenging for the teams with really good puzzle solvers, but still fun for that group of four friends who has never tried solving a puzzle before. A good hunt has plenty to do for a team with dozens of members, but is not overwhelming for a team with only ten. The organizers almost always make sure that it is impossible for a team to win—but still possible to have fun!—if the team does not have members with an intimate knowledge of MIT's campus, computer system, classes, etc. It is, after all, technically a student group and completely run from MIT's campus. The team I hunted on my four years at MIT was based in my dorm; we took over the place, with approximately 100 people on our team (though in later years, a good chunk of those were hunting remotely from Berkeley, as they are again this year). Other teams are just a group of friends who like solving puzzles together and are have headquarters in some classroom or lab on campus. The team I am on this year is more like this second kind of team: not all of us wanted to go back to a dorm where we know few people, and would rather have a more exclusive team than brushing elbows with annoying freshmen. And, trust me, after two nights of not-sleeping-really-all-that-much, one develops a much more inclusive sense of just who qualifies as "annoying."

If you want some warm-up fun, you can try solving the puzzle I had in the Hunt last year. Only 3 teams got to it because it was towards the end of the Hunt, but I still really like it—but then, I might be biased. It's called "Numeracy." Here it is, but you'll probably want to look at it in simple plain text. I'll even give you two hints: the answer is a nine letter word, and one of the following numbers has several special qualities you will want to take note of:



Catherine said...

I think your numbers as regards participation are a bit low. I always quoted 2000 Hunt participants to Finboard, and I think, if you count casual solvers, that's pretty accurate.

I'm also pretty sure that if you count each individual person on the former Random team, you'd get well over 100 people, though 70 at a time seems about right.

And Hunt keeps growing!


mollishka said...

Thanks—I meant to ask around for better numbers (I wrote this post Wednesday night), but I forgot to ask!

Hunt Hunt Hunt!

Jacinta said...

The Matrix and Time Bandit hunts are two different years, btw.

Happy hunting!