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Every January I spend a weekend in the Land of Mystery, tucked into a facet of MIT: that is, the MIT Mystery Hunt.
It is somewhere between a religious experience, performance art, and an exercise in observation, pattern matching, and problem solving. It is also wickedly tricky, a pinnacle of amateur puzzle contests: teams of 50+ people spend two full days solving a series of interlocked puzzles to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus.
This past weekend I took my annual pilgrimage across Cambridge to MIT for the Hunt, but for the first time my team was running the event, rather than competing. This was our tenth anniversary as Team Codex (we started out the year before as the aduni team, then adopted a proper codename), and producing the Hunt was a fitting way to celebrate. Many of us had a backlog of puzzle ideas that were converted into working puzzles over the course of the past year, with much iteration and satisfaction. Few of us had ever designed Mystery Hunt-caliber puzzles before, though we knew in principle how it was done.
We staged the first musical-themed Hunt on record, in an effort to encourage teams to share their own creativity while solving. Max and Leo from The Producers showed up at MIT, now out of jail and looking to make goo^B^B^B out like bandits, this time for good. They staged a short production of their own to get everyone in the mood, and then invited students to help them research and put on a series of guaranteed musical flops… While this didn’t work out exactly as planned, along the way were fancy cocktail parties with potential stars, swimming-pools full of Sets of ducks, research into the private peeves and longings of theater critics, campus spelunking, video game hacking, and a denouement in which, unbelievably… . . . well, it’s complicated. You’ll just have to explore the Hunt site itself to see how the saga ended.
We had roughly 70 active people on our organizing team, and everyone played multiple roles — writing, testing, and implementing puzzles, software, and skits. Our lead performers, in addition to being fine actors and musicians, happened to be professional puzzle writers and editors, and wrote many of the Hunt’s 107 puzzles as well as the book for our productions. Our lead editor also kept the production team together through stressful moments, providing black humor as needed, and preserving a fast editing pace all Fall without upending our minimal-heirarchy team. Hotshot solvers shifted gears to rewrite swaths of code. When puzzle-lover Neil Patrick Harris declined to MC the awards ceremony, we called on a home-grown rock star instead. Dozens of people joined the cast in the final weeks and picked up their parts without a hitch.
Having been involved with organizing perhaps a dozen events of similar size, I can say without hesitation that this was the most satisfying and life-affirming. We had varied and prolific organizers, an elaborate and dynamic schedule, a completely committed audience, and an extraordinary host-participant collaboration, with continual feedback. While the event ran for only 1500 people, its primary output was a broadly valuable story, told through puzzles: something that may be enjoyed for years or generations to come: a set of curious, colorful, maddening, marvelous puzzles, illustrated and interlinked, free to solve and repurpose. Just one more Act in the perennial romance between creative puzzlers and scientific endeavour.
Here is a sampling of this year’s puzzles, drawn from my favorites. Happy hunting! The average puzzle takes 2-10 person-hours to solve, depending on your experience and how quickly the right insights come to you.
Sounds Good To Me
(my all-hunt favorite)
(best casting and music, and the most expensive puzzle production)
(an elegant, satisfying black box)
Yo Dawg I Herd You Like Puzzle Hunts
(yo dawg, i herd you like herd you like)
Itinerant People Of America
(man, this one is a hodge-podge.)
Picture An Acorn
(the final aha! will make you chump for joy)
The Rainbow Connection
(Now that’s rainbow-bright…)
(“so, we’re working on a pro wrestling puzzle. what should we call it?”)
JFK SHAGS A SAD SLIM LASS
(the puzzle consists of nothing more than the title)
Coming To A Location Near You
(a wikipedia-based scavenger hunt)
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