Tag: mit mystery hunt

First Virtual Mystery Hunt Serves Up Puzzling MMO

“Easy” button notwithstanding, nothing about this was easy

The date: January 16th, 2021. A small group of crossword fans assembled for an online “fencing” tournament, a newly-minted format for PVP crossword showdowns. While traditional crossword tournaments involve players racing to complete crossword grids the fastest, “fencing” added a strategic twist to the format: both players competed on the same grid. One player starts in the bottom left of the crossword while their competitor starts in the top right, and additional clues are unlocked by filling in adjacent squares. Particularly speedy cruciverbalists can block off their opponent’s access to entire sections of the board by enclosing spaces in their color, making fencing an odd mix of crossword-solving and Go.

Ultimately, five-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament winner (and Wired DECODE collaborator) Tyler Hinman emerged victorious, wrapping up just one of hundreds of puzzles for the 2021 MIT Mystery Hunt. While off-campus puzzle solving has been fairly standard practice among larger teams at the Mystery Hunt, this was the first time in over 40 years of Hunt history that the competition was held exclusively online.

Competitive online crossword Fencing is so engrossing, I need more

The MIT Mystery Hunt: Where Physical Presence (Usually) Matters
In 1981, Brad Schaefer ran the first MIT Mystery Hunt in Cambridge, with clues leading to an Indian Head penny hidden on the MIT campus. After Schaefer graduated, the winners of each year’s hunt assumed responsibility for creating the experience for the following year’s competition. Over the next forty years the MIT Mystery Hunt gained official school support through the MIT Puzzle Club, and expanded into a massive undertaking that attracts over 2,000 students, staff, alumni, and puzzle fans every year.

Traditionally, teams running the MIT Mystery Hunt could take advantage of the Hunt’s live presence by constructing elaborate physical puzzles, events, and puzzle-driven “runarounds” to surprise and delight attendees. A laser-cut deck of cards might reveal a three-dimensional image when the cards are sorted in a particular order. A children’s book might hide puzzles in its font selection choices, while a choose your own adventure book encoded messages in its decision trees. Events might range from watching big-headed mascot facsimiles of MIT alumni race around a gym to holding a costumed robot parade down the campus’ hyperbolically named Infinite Corridor. Most commonly, though, puzzles are used as a chance to write a puzzle-laden love letter to the competition’s host institution.

As thanks for serving as host for the massive puzzle competition and to take advantage of the game’s live setting, Mystery Hunts have incorporated the MIT campus and history as an integral part of the live puzzle hunt experience. Some puzzles focused on building challenges around that history, like a puzzle that highlighted famous fictional MIT alums, or another that turned descriptions of some of the campus’ more whimsical clubs into limericks. One particularly beloved Hunt puzzle enlisted MIT alum Oliver Smoot to narrate a puzzle dedicated to obscure units of measurement, since a fraternity prank led to his height’s adoption as a unit of measurement on campus.

But Mystery Hunts typically use the campus itself as a canvas for puzzle creation with “runaround” style puzzles that require solvers to explore the hidden nooks and crannies of campus that often go unnoticed and unremarked. Some involve following instructions to reveal previously redacted words in a series of photographs, while some involved playing a knock-off game of Pokémon Go to find locations around campus with Poke-posters hiding secret messages when “caught” in the right light.

…and yes, that X marked the spot for the start of another puzzle

Creating a Virtual Hunt That Felt Like You Were at MIT
When ✈️✈️✈️Galactic Trendsetters ✈️✈️✈️ won the 2020 Mystery Hunt, they inherited responsibility for running the 2021 Mystery Hunt – or as they took to calling it, MYST2021. For the past three years, Galactic Trendsetters ran the online Galactic Puzzle Hunt, but this was their opportunity to take advantage of having hundreds of puzzle solvers assembled in the same place. Unfortunately, the team soon realized that the coronavirus would make it unlikely to safely gather on campus the next year. Their solution? Spend the next few months coding out a virtual campus to mirror the real one: the Perpendicular Institute of the World, or ⊥IW for short.

According to the puzzle hunt’s narrative, experimental cosmology group researcher Dr. Barbara Yew discovered the existence of an alternate universe, and opened up a portal to that world. But once she entered that other world, strange anomalies started occurring. By using a “Projection Device” to virtually enter the alternate universe, and assist Yew and her ⊥IW counterpart Nick Hemlock to save both universes by closing the portal…by solving puzzles. The bulk of the puzzle hunt took place in that virtual world: massively multi-player online puzzle game that teams inhabited together over the course of the long weekend.

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Falling Down the Puzzle Hunt Rabbit Hole

“Puppy. Fried chicken. Puppy. Fried chicken. Aw, what a cute puppy!” A small group of people huddled together in a corner of an MIT classroom. As I rattled off proclamations of puppy-or-not-puppy, one fellow solver stared intently at the 20×20 grid of pictures to check my work while a third typed numbers into a grid to record our findings. The image were divided into four quadrants of images likely to fool deep learning algorithms: pictures that resemble fried chicken, pictures that resemble mint ice cream, pictures that resemble croissants, and pictures that resemble blueberry muffins.

The puzzle we were working on was one of the most adorable puzzles from the MIT Mystery Hunt. The puzzle hunt takes place in mid-January of every year…but opportunities to tackle challenging puzzles mean fans of the genre are rarely found wanting for puzzle experiences.

The MIT Mystery Hunt 2018: Head-Hunters
Every year, the Mystery Hunt embraces a new theme to provide the narrative structure for a weekend of puzzling in an experience designed by the winners of the previous year’s hunt. This year, Death & Mayhem turned to the Pixar film Inside Out for inspiration, asking puzzle hunt teams to get Miss Terry Hunter’s emotions under control so she could guide her team to victory, rediscovering many of the formative memories that led to her becoming a puzzle solver in the first place.

It’s relatively easy to experience the MIT Mystery Hunt remotely. Most challenges are delivered through an online website that progressively expands as teams unlock new puzzles, and the increasingly theatrical kickoff event that introduces players to the year’s theme is livestreamed.

But while the MIT Mystery Hunt creates an accessible experience for people solving off-campus, celebrating real world challenges and interactions is a core tenet of the Hunt. For instance, to complete the Pokémon round of puzzles, a small group from our team went to visit the “Safari Zone”, a classroom littered with dozens of Voltorb balls with five different sets of words written on them. After locating every ball, they noticed that one Voltorb in each group didn’t belong, giving them the combination lock password to obtain the bittersweet memory of Terry capturing her first Magikarp.

This year’s Hunt was strongest when it played with that line between digital and analog puzzles, exemplified by the paired puzzles Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt and Under Control. In Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt, teams were given a relatively simple video game to explore. The only catch: just like its namesake Twitch Plays Pokémon, each team was only given one avatar to control. After completing Twitch Plays Mystery Hunt teams unlocked Under Control, sending one member of their team to stand in front of a green screen for a livestreamed ninja dance battle. In order to defeat a series of ninja warriors the tribute had to be guided like a human puppet through a series of poses, with team communication managed by a synthesized voice reading out time delayed comments in the livestream.

The puzzle hunt finale returned to that same theme, with teams playing a modified version of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes by taking over the Emotional Command Center and following printed instructions to guide an overtired Terry Hunter through the MIT campus to the final location, solving the Hunt.

Other puzzles that are worth checking out include Marked Deck (a deck of laser-cut cards that, when properly arranged, provides a hint to the next step of the puzzle), Do You Want A (a puzzle that will be very familiar to people who know what MBMBAM stands for), Space Sounds TV (a puzzle about the history of spaceflight), A Pub Crawl (a very social drinking puzzle), and Special Delivery (a puzzle about musical mixes).

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Huntception and the Art of the Meta


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.

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A Backstage Pass to the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt

Image of the MIT Mystery Hunt Closing Ceremonies with permission from photographer Chris Ball

“A dim witted love god.”

I was gazing at the dense, tall pine trees around us, a refreshing change from the dry brown and yellow landscape we had already driven past. My wife and I, both Boston natives, were driving south from San Francisco for a wedding, and entertaining ourselves with one of our regular puzzle games. The first person provides a simple description, and the other must answer in the form of a rhyming adjective and noun pairing.

“Stupid Cupid,” I stated rather than asking, confident in my answer. It’s not a tough game, especially when you’ve played it together before as much as we have. That was in September of last year, and that drive inspired us to evolve our casual game into a much more challenging form: a puzzle for the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt.

Last year our team Codex won the 2011 Hunt, which is held in January over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. It’s a team-based puzzle solving competition that draws over a thousand diverse fans every year. The victors’ prizes are well-earned respect, and the responsibility of writing and organizing the following year’s Hunt. Each Hunt has a theme, ostensibly to provide a reason for solving all the puzzles. 2011’s Hunt led by the team Metaphysical Plant, had a theme centered around video games. For 2012, Codex chose to focus on musical theater, specifically The Producers.

For the past eight years I competed in the Hunt and even wrote a handful of puzzles for friends, but none had the level of complexity and polish usually found during the Hunt. Every long-time Hunter has a list of puzzle ideas they would like to write someday if they given the opportunity. Translating those ideas into over a hundred working, solvable puzzles takes many thousands of man hours. As our team quickly recognized, years of solving puzzles doesn’t immediately translate to creating puzzles and organizing a live event for hundreds of people. Thankfully, Codex’s team of leaders and editors provided a framework for both novice and experienced writers to participate in the process.

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Your Princess is in Another Game: The 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt

Editor’s Note: Alex Calhoun shares his experience participating in the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt in this guest post. Calhoun’s team, Codex Alimentarius, was the first to finish this year’s Hunt, earning the privilege to design the 2012 Hunt.

The time is 12:17pm on Friday, January 14th, 2011. A string quartet is playing in Lobby 7 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. Hundreds of guests are present for the wedding of Mario and Peach, now in motion. But as any video gamer might expect, just as the couple begins to recite their vows, Bowser sweeps in and kidnaps Peach: I’m sorry Mario, but your wedding is in another Chapel!

Attendees to the opening ceremonies for the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt were greeted with this disrupted ceremony, kicking off an annual competition that pits teams ranging in size from five people to over a hundred as they attempt to solve more than a hundred puzzles in a race around the clock to find “The Coin,” the amorphous victory trophy that signals the end of the year’s Mystery Hunt. Every competition is guided by an overarching theme. For the 2011 hunt, teams were tasked with assisting Mario rescue his bride-to-be. “Mario is great at jumping on mutant mushrooms but lousy at solving puzzles,” we were told by the representative from team Metaphysical Plant, the 2010 Hunt winners.

Puzzles in Mystery Hunt are structured in rounds. As teams solve puzzles, they unlock additional puzzles and additional rounds. Each round has one or more meta puzzles, formed from the answers from each regular puzzle. Mario World had three rounds and the first was “World 1-1”, with seven regular puzzles. The answers to those puzzles were all types of mushrooms or other fungus (Oyster, Orange peel, Charcoal Burner, Panther, Cannonball, Jack O’ Lantern, Fried Chicken). By looking up the genus names of each of these species and reading the first letters down vertically, the following word appears:

OYSTER: Pleurotus ostreatus
ORANGE PEEL: Aleuria aurantia
CHARCOAL BURNER: Russula cyanoxantha
PANTHER: Amanita pantherina
CANNONBALL: Sphaerobolus stellatus
JACK O’ LANTERN: Omphalotus illudens
FRIED CHICKEN: Lyophyllum decastes

“PARASOL” is another species of mushroom, and the first meta-puzzle solution. My team, Codex Alimentarius, eagerly attacked the twenty or so puzzles in “Mario World,” unlocking the World One castle in a few hours. In doing so, we learned the Hunt ranged far beyond the domain of the Mushroom Kingdom.

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