I’m only a week late in reporting on the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. Unlike last year, this year’s hunt was a fairly stress-free affair for me. After spending my entire 2013 awash in all aspects of directing a hunt (except for finances, I suppose), I had no interest in winning this year, lest my 2015 be similarly swallowed up. And thus, when I woke up at 7 am on Saturday morning and looked at the clock, instead of forcing myself up and getting back into the puzzles right away, I rolled over and slept another hour or two — after all, I’d only gone to bed at about 3 am. That extra bit of relaxing more or less set the tone for the weekend for me, save for a brief panic Saturday night when our team had a bit of drama resulting from the fact that not everyone had accepted the “we don’t want to win” memo.
Hunt began Thursday night for me this year, when I, along with a few other members of Alice Shrugged — notably David Wilson and Seth Bisen-Hersh, gave a pre-hunt talk on how to solve puzzles. We attempted to stream it online, but it turns out Pranjal is a terrible A/V guy and there is no video. However, the slides are up here.
The actual hunt started on Friday at 12:17 pm instead of the typical noon because Random Hall loves the number 17. Lanthe Chronis, who I’d been in touch with a few times throughout the year to give advice, came out to introduce the theme: 20000 Puzzles Under the Sea. One bit of advice I had given her was to milk the moment in which she introduces the hunt and the crowd cheers — which she took with aplomb, stepping in front of the podium and throwing her arms in the air to announce the start of the 2015 MIT Mystery Hunt. Everyone cheered and we were off to the races.
As we grabbed our now traditional first-aid kit — without a puzzle in it — and new-this-year T-shirt, I quickly noticed that the T-shirt had a puzzle and that I more or less knew what to do with it. I grabbed it and started running back to our HQ with Harvey shouting at me to remember my promise not to win this year. I fully intended to keep my promise… it’s just that I also fully intended to get back to HQ and start cutting up the shirt!
The puzzles came out at 1:17 pm (again with the 17) after we had pieced together the shirt puzzle, without knowing what to do next [it turned out to be the final step of a different puzzle]. We’ve been asked not to blog spoilers, so I’ll try to keep my specific comments on the puzzles brief, but in general, they were all very clean, with a lot of really great grid puzzles and cryptics, including the first puzzle I co-solved, Erraticism. Unfortunately, after being very helpful and productive on a few puzzles, I then spent about seven hours with Feldmeier staring at — and getting nowhere with — the Machine Room meta. We just never thought to use… right, no spoilers.
At some point, Jason insisted that I stop staring at the meta I was clearly not going to solve and told me to turn around and introduced me to fish puzzles. Holy cow, fish puzzles. Taking a cue from our MIT round of puzzles last year, Random had included a 56 puzzle round of very easy and straightforward puzzles. In about 45 minutes, I had helped solve 3 of them — 3 more puzzles than I had solved in the previous 7 hours. It was a fantastic confidence booster.
And somewhere in there, without even the aid of alcohol, we started getting silly with our answer call-ins.
You see, someone on our team was, legitimately or not, trying to solve a certain puzzle by calling in an answer every 10 minutes or so. Laura, who was manning our phones, asked in an exasperated tone who it was, to no avail. Sensing the opportunity to yank her chain a bit, I submitted “LAURA DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM YET” as the answer to the aforementioned puzzle… and of course, this drove her nuts. Someone else (and I honestly don’t know who) started helping with a few other Laura specific answers. And then I started looking up Laura related songs — “Tell Laura I Love Her,” Billy Joel’s “Laura,” some Frank Sinatra song I’ve never actually heard — and started submitting lyrics. Someone else made a Serial reference. I heard later that this caused Random’s HQ to panic a little bit as they thought their puzzle had an unintended Laura-related red herring. No, no red herrings… just a lot of silliness. Hunt is a different kind of fun when you’re not trying to win.
Eventually, after solving at least one non-fish puzzle, backsolving a few more in order to crack a meta, and going to meet “Spongebob Squarepants” for thematic reasons I cannot remember, I slept — and “slept in” — and woke up to solve the tail end of a cryptic with Anand and Laura. The puzzles continued to be smooth and clean throughout the hunt, for which I give Random [and especially Lanthe] a lot of credit, but I started to notice a disappointing theme: I had yet to run across a puzzle other than the Athena printer runaround that actually required MIT knowledge. There may have been a few that got solved quickly, but in general, this was a hunt that could have been held anywhere. And thus, it is unsurprising to me that the two teams that finished the meta-meta first, within 11 seconds of each other, had very little to no MIT people on them.
And then there was the runaround.
Fast forward past most of Saturday, including the part where I met baby Henry, and suddenly we were set to go on the runaround much faster than expected. As had happened with us, Random was short staffed and had too many teams on the runaround at once, putting us into a holding pattern. Anand and Harvey and a few others opted to skip the runaround and just go to bed, figuring that the main puzzles were done.
It turns out, that was the right call.
The runaround was long, to say the least — it took our teams between 5 and 6 hours to complete, and this was not only standard, but the intent of Random. And unfortunately, I wasn’t having a lot of fun. Plotwise, the runaround seemed disjoint from first portion of the hunt: we weren’t using any of the meta answers or objects we had been given, and it wasn’t at all clear why the Kraken had decided to put us through the equivalent of five corporate team building exercises. Some of the individual stages had potential to be fun, but all of them suffered from taking an interesting idea and dredging it into something tedious.
Fishy Feud a la Family Feud? Okay, there’s something there… except that the answers don’t build to any sort of puzzle and you just have to earn 75 points as a team while going in a neat orderly fashion? That one just turned into busy work, as we waited our individual turns to guess fish that started with a certain letter without any real payoff. Human pictionary on the floor of lobby 7? Seems fun, but again, it would have been a lot more interesting if the answers had formed a puzzle of some kind and if we didn’t have to do it ten times, swapping people in and out of the viewing area upstairs, which only took more time. I actually opted to collapse in a corner of Lobby 7 and sleep for the final six of the Pictionary games, as it didn’t seem like I’d be missing out on anything. When stage 3 started and I learned that we were supposed to run around building 37 looking for 200 fish stickers plastered on the wall and upload selfies of us with the fish, I decided to take my tired body and go back to the hotel and sleep. Matt Cain, one of the organizers, was kind enough to fill me in on the remainder of the runaround, and I decided that I really wasn’t going to be missing much of anything other than more grueling slog.
Again, I think each stage of the runaround had the kernel of an interesting and fun idea in it, but with none of them — save for the word search I was asleep for — being actual puzzles in the hunt style [i.e. with an answer] and all of them far outlasting their initial fun, the whole thing felt like busy work. In my opinion, runarounds should be at least one of two things, if not both: a mercilessly short victory lap or some actual puzzles that tie together everything that’s happened in the hunt so far, so that you feel like you’re getting actual closure on the hunt. I know the Alice runaround failed at being short (although we meant it to be — our testsolvers just had better luck with the bed for some reason), but at least you were using objects and answers from the puzzle rounds such that nothing felt tacked on artificially. The Heist hunt also followed this model, and even though we were the only team to go on it, I can honestly say that it was the best part of that hunt. For Random, their runaround felt like a completely separate event from everything we had done thus far and it took a very pleasant hunt and ended it on a rather down note.
Only not really, because I inadvertently saved my favorite puzzle for after the hunt: Foamy. When Foamy came out, I immediately asked for a print out because paint-by-numbers are one of my favorite puzzle types. (See A Rose By Any Other, which I wrote last year.) I was given a print out, but was also told that a large group of people were working on it in the other room and I should join them. I find working on logic puzzles in groups to slow me down and, well, they claimed to be making progress. Plus, Karen had opened a nice bottle of scotch and there were a few other puzzles to be solved in the other room, including Mashup, Cryptic Golf, Benny Lava [“and there were seven sudoku…”] and the Graveyard meta, all of which were great. Not to mention that Elias was hanging around, and how can you turn down the opportunity to play with a three year old that can sing the Greek alphabet song?! So I let the other group work on Foamy and figured that even though I might solve it faster, they’d probably get it eventually.
Only they didn’t. Foamy remained the only puzzle our team never solved during the hunt. I saved my printout and tackled it on the plane on the way back and solved it solo in just under five hours, far less time than the group had spent on it. It was really great and my favorite puzzle of the hunt… and we don’t get credit for my solve. So it goes.