Once a year hundreds of MIT students, alumni, and puzzle enthusiasts converge in Cambridge for a weekend of almost impossible puzzles, tied together under a light narrative theme. In the five years I’ve been participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt, teams have been asked to turn to puzzles to put on a Broadway musical, rob a bank, save Wonderland, and explore the ocean’s depths. Progress at the Mystery Hunt is driven by tackling meta-puzzles: puzzles that leverage solutions from a group of puzzles as elements of a larger puzzle. The 2016 Hunt prominently featured its elegantly crafted meta-puzzles, delivering a master-class in solid puzzle design.
This article will explore some of those puzzle design choices. In order to discuss those choices, it will be necessary to “spoil” the answers to quite a few puzzles in the Hunt, so read at your own risk. If you want to try your hand at the Hunt spoiler-free, stop reading now and explore the 2016 Hunt website, which conveniently features detailed solutions to every puzzle in the hunt alongside the puzzles themselves.
Theming and the Meta-Puzzle: The Red Herring
Every MIT Mystery Hunt starts with a kick-off event that introduces the year’s theme. This year, kickoff attendees were informed that the 64 participating teams were competing for the top spot in a Dog Show. Sure, there were a few glitches during kickoff. Slides showing scores to future football games…PowerPoint slides responding to questions from the presenter…all clearly red herrings. The 2016 Mystery Hunt was going to be all about cute, adorable puppies competing.
When the Mystery Hunt website went live at MuttsteryHunt.com, that was confirmed. Puzzles were designed to train each team’s puppy up on one of five Dog Show categories:
Puzzles in the “Ribbons” category, for instance, featured the names of Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winners. National Acclaim, Crown Prince, Country Sunrise…all award-winning dogs. Ordering the six dogs by year and indexing against their (previously omitted) kennel name spells out the solution to the puzzle, “JUSTIFIED CHAMPIONS”. A dog-themed meta-puzzle, for a dog-themed hunt.
Other categories had similar dog-themed solutions…but something went awry with the Dog Show puzzles themselves. Ten puzzles were solved before the teams even had a chance to begin the Muttstery Hunt. Matching up the titles of these ten already-solved puzzles with the words from each meta-puzzle solution spelled out an ominous message: “SLEEPING DOGS OFTEN LIE”.
The Dog Show round that started off the Mystery Hunt effectively served as a miniature Mystery Hunt with five meta-puzzles leading to a single meta-meta puzzle, kicking off a runaround through the MIT campus, leading to the big reveal. Doing this allowed many teams a chance to get the full Hunt experience, including one team of high schoolers that came in to try their luck.
Theming and the Meta-Puzzle: No More Puppies
The phrase “sleeping dogs often lie” was the final tip-off that not everything was as it seemed. After tackling a series of puzzles that guided teams around the MIT campus, a man going by the pseudonym “Lucky Dreamer” handed over a lead coin along with a link to a video explaining the weekend’s true narrative. The Dog Show? One big Inception attempt. By infiltrating our dog enthusiast target’s mind and guiding him through a Dog Show, we hoped to extract important information. But something went wrong, and our minds fragmented. To put ourselves back together, we’d need to Incept ourselves by waking up a series of ten famous fictional sleepers tied to fragments of our personality. Only after re-assembling the pieces of our shattered mind could we recover the information pulled from our original target.
From here on, the goal of every round centered around finding the thematically appropriate “kick” to punnily wake up the fictional sleeper. For instance, the “kick” to exit the Sleeping Beauty round was to “KISS AURORA WITH GUSTO”. But the meta-puzzle design went deeper than that. The method of extracting each solution required applying what teams knew about each famous sleeper.
Waking up famous Dallas sleeper Pam Ewing required noticing that each puzzle answer hinted at a word featuring a letter between J and R — LIZ LEMON GREEK FROZEN YOGURT, for instance, is a “Ben and J(e)rry’s” flavor. The Nazgul were creatures dreamed up by J(R)R Tolkien. Matching up each of these JR-centric characters spelled out the message “BE CRUDE.” A crude oil pun to kick Pam Ewing awake, paired with an extraction method referencing the show’s most infamous mystery, “who shot J.R.?”
Most meta-puzzles followed this rough framework, but two of the most artfully designed metas were created to wake Berkeley Breathed’s Opus and the legendary King Arthur.
On Flavor Text: Waking the Sleeping Penguin
In 2008, Berkeley Breathed ended his most recent run of Opus comics by taking a page from Goodnight Moon, featuring the penguin peacefully sleeping. Breathed told the LA Times that, under the then-current political climate, “Opus would inevitably [have] become a ranting mouthpiece in the coming wicked days, and I respect the other parts of him too much to see that happen.”
The Opus Round prominently featured that scene from Goodnight Moon (lovingly recreated by AHC.com) with the flavor text “It seemed like Opus had only just gotten up out of his seat after his last long nap”, under a “VOTE FOR OPUS” headline.
The solutions within the round were an odd collection…everything from “WAFFLE KING” and “AMOS BARTON” to “ABBOT HALL ART GALLERY”. The flavor text served as the key to point teams along the right path…pairing a call to vote for Opus with the language “gotten out of his seat” both pointed to something vaguely political. After additional digging, teams would discover that each puzzle solution contained the name of a county in the United States in one word, and the state’s abbreviation in another. “WAFFLE KING” pointed to King County, Washington. AMOS BARTON” pointed to Barton County, Missouri. Order the answers by where the state abbreviation appeared, look up each corresponding County Seat, and the answer was clear – “SLAM RIGHT WING.”
This wasn’t just a well-designed puzzle because “slam right wing” is the perfect pun to explain Opus’ recent return to publication. Politics was what made Opus go to sleep, so a politically themed puzzle would be what woke him up. The puzzle’s flavor text pointed teams in the right direction by stressing “out of his seat”, and hiding both county and state in each puzzle solution provided an extra level of verification that teams were on the right track. With over 3,000 counties in the United States, a few overlapping terms might be written off as coincidence. But add in the state abbreviation, and coincidence is harder to write off.
The puzzle design also made it possible to solve without figuring out every single puzzle in the round, if teams caught on to the rules fast enough. Once teams figured out they were supposed to extract the names of county seat and order by where state abbreviations fell, they could make educated guesses at an appropriately cringe-worthy pun.
The Puzzle Fits the Man: King Arthur’s Slumber
King Arthur’s round was less reliant on flavor text, but provided one of the most thematically satisfying extraction methods of the Hunt. The meta-puzzle page featured a grid for solutions, with specific blanks for letters replaced with grails and swords. Filling in the puzzle solutions into the corresponding spaces led to a number of interesting patterns.
Every time a letter falls on a set of swords or grails, it spelled out abbreviations for elements on the periodic table. For “ONLINE PORN”, the swords pointed to Nitrogen and Neon, while the grails pointed out Polonium and Radon.
The final clue came from the acrostic the puzzle solutions made on the grid – “PAWLOWSKI” pointed teams to Helen Pawlowski, the creator of a “round table” for the elements. Map the elements against Pawlowski’s table, translate the resulting shapes into text using the semaphore flag signaling system, and the answer emerges: “DO COCONUT HOOFBEATS”. A round table puzzle, pointing towards a Monty Pythonesque to King Arthur’s extended nap at Avalon.
Again, theming was essential to the King Arthur puzzle. But rather than relying on flavor text to clue in the solution, the meta-puzzle’s construction provided the hints. Every puzzle solution had a unique length, so the provided ordering mattered, making it easier to spot the Helen Pawlowski reference. And by using distinct iconography to draw attention to the elemental references, teams were given the freedom to focus on a single “element” of the words in the hunt for commonalities. And again, by having a concrete set of rules determining the ordering, teams that figured out the underlying rules early enough could still reasonably solve the puzzle while struggling with a few of the more difficult puzzles within the round.
The Runaround: Making the Metas Matter
Sometimes, Hunts end with meta-puzzle solutions combining to form a “meta-meta puzzle” – the 2015 Hunt ended with a particularly vexing meta-meta that asked teams to defeat the Four Seahorsemen of the Apocalypse using their only their wits and hard won meta-puzzle solutions. Huntception sent teams to Limbo to go through a refresher of past puzzles, applying old extraction methods in new contexts. Once teams passed this “final exam”, Team Luck made the meta-puzzles matter.
Remember, the Hunt’s theme centered around collecting the “kicks” that would wake our fictional sleepers, and reassemble our fractured psyche. So the final challenge was to split the team into ten separate groups and provide photographic evidence of waking the sleepers, simultaneously. Want to wake Pam Ewing? Find a way to BE CRUDE. Need to wake up Opus? Volunteer a teammate to SLAM (their) RIGHT WING. Time to awaken King Arthur? DO COCONUT HOOFBEATS. Then, follow a series of puzzles designed to reunite the team at a single location, solve one final puzzle, and claim the prize teams Incepted at the beginning of the Hunt – the secret to turning lead into gold, and a gold coin to match the lead coin provided after the Dog Show.
As usual, there were a number of brilliant puzzles peppered throughout the Hunt – See Spot Run, The Case of the Dangerous Game, Behind the Music, Student Simulator, Haddock Walk, The TV Puzzle, Puzzle Extravaganza, and Gaming the System stood out as being both fun and accessible to more entry-level solvers. Google even donated over a thousand Google Cardboards to allow a “VR” puzzle into the mix for the year. But for Huntception, the metas resonated the most for just feeling right after the solve. Every now and then while working on a puzzle, I’ll stumble across a potential solution that just feels right, because so many little things fit. Sometimes, it’s the right answer. All too often, it’s not – Eric Berlin even created a game called Spaghetti to prepare for Mystery Hunt meta-puzzles, where the object is to find commonalities in randomly selected words. The test of a solidly designed puzzle is figuring out the solution and realizing it was the only thing that explained all of those little hints along the way. This year’s Hunt provided that satisfaction, and then some.
Even if it did take over 52 hours to solve.
Congratulations to Team Luck for a solid Hunt, and to Setec Astronomy for winning the coin and the responsibility of designing next year’s great adventure.