Well, I did it. I survived MIT Mystery Hunt 2013, my first Mystery Hunt! It also happened to be the longest Hunt “in recent memory,” spanning over 72 hours. The following will be a description of my experience as a brand new player, so if you’re looking for a more detailed veteran account (and if you want to hear anything at all about the metas), check out Eric Berlin’s write-up, this write-up from a member of Immoral, Illegal & Fattening, and the webcast of the wrap-up (with spoilers) courtesy of Team Death From Above. This Storify post from The Tech is also a fun snapshot of the Hunt as told through tweets (including a few of mine).
This will be as much for my own records as it is for blogging purposes, so expect some mundane accounts of flights and sleeping and food and such. I had intended for this to be a one-post write-up, but I forgot how wordy I like to be. I’m not sure how many posts it will end up being, but definitely not just one!
What is the MIT Mystery Hunt?
Simply put, it’s one of the oldest, most complex, and most difficult puzzle hunts around. It takes place on MIT campus in Cambridge, MA, and has grown to draw about 1000 players across 40 teams each year. The Hunt always starts on the Friday of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, and runs until the first team wins (often by late Saturday night, early Sunday morning, but sometimes as late as Sunday night or Monday afternoon!). Teams spend the whole weekend solving over 100 ridiculously difficult and complicated puzzles and attending themed events and activities. Puzzles are released in waves, and each wave has a “meta” puzzle that requires answers from the rest of the puzzles in the wave to be completed. When a team has completed all of the meta puzzles, they proceed to the “runaround” — a goose chase around MIT campus that leads them to the object of victory, a special custom-designed coin hidden somewhere on campus. The first team to find the coin wins, ending the Hunt. The team that wins the Hunt is responsible for designing and running the Hunt the following year (a feat which takes an entire year to complete).
I was recruited to Team Left Out by Todd Etter, who I first met virtually via East Coast Puzzlers, then in person briefly at DASH. We’ve kept in touch since then, and I was super psyched when he asked if I wanted to join his team. I’ve only known about the Hunt for a little while, and didn’t know all that much about it, but I was pretty intimidated by its reputation for being big and crazy and super difficult. I had thought that maybe someday I might try to sign up individually and be attached to a random team and work remotely, maybe. Getting to play on-site with an awesome, established team was something I never dreamed would happen, so I jumped at the chance.
My first impressions of Team Left Out were through the team’s website, which introduced their methods, materials, and systems. There were roles and processes and custom-made online tools. There was a sleep schedule. Most importantly, there was a big general guide written for first-timers like me. I had also learned from Todd that our team was quite small compared to many of the others. Left Out keeps a roster of about 40 players, half in Boston and half in Los Altos, while other teams tend to have about 100 players! The small size of the team allows for a more intimate team experience, and hadn’t seemed to put us at a disadvantage yet — Team Left Out got 4th place in 2012!
I was equally impressed and overwhelmed by all there was to learn about the Hunt and the team, so I printed out the important stuff from the website and read it on my plane ride up to Boston on Thursday. My flights were mostly uneventful, except for a delay and subsequent missed connection (but I did get to meet a coach for the youth branch of the Women’s National Soccer team while in line at customer service). A friend of mine who lives in Boston explained how to take the Silver Line down to South Station. He met me there and we walked to his apartment where we chatted and played Wii until it was time for me to head to a small team dinner at Legal Sea Foods in Kendall.
My friend kindly accompanied me all the way to Kendall so I would know how to use the subway and get back on my own later (Thanks again, Kearby!). The dinner group included myself, Todd, Dan, Chris, David, and Ben, and I got my first glimpse of the crazy clever minds that made up my new team. Lots of stories were told about past Hunts and puzzles (which made the Hunt seem even crazier than I had envisioned), and Dan shared some West coast stories as well. Best of all, everyone was extremely nice and made me feel like a part of the team right away. After dinner, I headed back to my friend’s apartment to get my last good night of sleep before the Hunt (and ultimately, until Monday evening).
Friday, Part 1
I had intended to make it over to Kendall in time to start my day with a nice big breakfast, but it took longer to get ready and packed up than I anticipated. I made it to The Kendall hotel around 9:20am to meet Dan, who was kindly sharing his room with several other teammates for the duration of the Hunt. I met fellow teammates, Will (who I later discovered is part of Team USA, competing in the World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships) and Nina, who were also sharing the room. We left our overnight luggage in the room and helped carry things (office supplies and copious amounts of snacks) down to Dan’s car and over to our classroom/home base at MIT. (Also worth noting, at some point I spotted Tyler Hinman in the hotel lobby. I awkwardly introduced myself from across the room, to which he replied “I knew it!” and that was the last I saw of him. Nice to meet you, Tyler!)
At our room, I eventually met our team captain, Mike, one of at least two researchers from Harvard on our team. I think around this time I also met Matt, who I would later do a fun(?) event with. We organized the tables and chairs in our classroom (banishing the many useless tablet-arm chairs to our extra room) and arranged the snacks and supplies as best we could think to do. Some other teammates started to arrive, and we all got our laptops set up and connected to the big laser printer Mike had brought (though this was an easier process for some than others). We also made a quick trip to the student center to get some drinks and food.
Before we knew it, it was almost noon — time for the opening ceremony! We followed the crowd of other teams to the Rockwell Cage, a basketball gym and the new location of the kickoff, now that the Hunt has outgrown the traditional Lobby 7. Along the way, we picked up some flyers for the upcoming book The Maze of Games, which sounds lovely. We found a place to sit in the bleachers while Matt registered our team, receiving some papers with important emergency info (but not receiving the complimentary not-a-puzzle, just-a-regular first aid kit all the other teams were getting, which confused us for a bit until we realized we were supposed to have been given one).
The theme of the kickoff was already going pretty strong. A man in a suit was on the microphone, giving instructions and referring to us all as “account holders.” He clearly represented the company whose logo displayed on the projectors — Enigma Valley Investments and Loans (or EVIL). Meanwhile, a mass of Occupy-style protesters sat in front of the bleachers holding humorous signs and starting chants. (I think I heard that these were the members of Team Codex, winners of 2011 and creators of the 2012 hunt.)
The man in the suit began his presentation, welcoming us all to the Enigma Valley Investments and Loans family. Why were we suddenly account holders? Because last year’s Hunt winners mortgaged the coin and went to Aruba! So now EVIL had taken ownership of the Hunt itself, giving us a small share in the monetary value of the hunt. As expected by a company called EVIL, our account terms were less than ideal, with exorbitant fees and a 50-year minimum waiting period on withdrawals . As the man gave his presentation, it became clear that his slides had been vandalized with humorous notes from an unknown party. We correctly expected that this would be the mysterious APH, someone who had made themselves known through some sub-text in our invitation from EVIL and who promised to give us some information after the kickoff.
Sure enough, once the presentation was over, Alyssa P. Hacker snuck out from behind the curtains and explained her plan: to break into the EVIL vault and retrieve the coin so we could keep having Mystery Hunts! The vault had six different layers of protection (or, six waves of puzzles) that we would need to crack, and we’d be recruiting former EVIL security consultants to help us on our quest. While we originally thought the theme would be Occupy/big banks, it turned out to be a heist! She explained that the website for our first wave of puzzles would be online at 1:30pm, which was still about an hour away. I was told that the site usually launches about 20 minutes after the kick-off, and that the delayed time was probably a safety measure to eliminate the masses of people running out of the kickoff site and back to their rooms. As expected, we leisurely walked back to home base and discussed the opening.
That’s all for now! Check back Friday for Part 2!