After the Hunt

Back in November, I did a very foolish thing. Ten months prior, I was on the winning team of the MIT Mystery Hunt, a weekend-long celebration of puzzles. Each year, a thousand people or more travel from all around the country for the pleasure of staying up all night, solving puzzles of mind-boggling originality and fiendish complexity. The first team to properly combine all the puzzle answers finds the location of a hidden coin. That winning team accepts the responsibility of putting on the following year’s Hunt.

I was excited to be on the winning team, and I looked forward to playing an active role in the 2008 Hunt. But planning one of these things is a tumultuous affair, and for me, things did not get off to a great start: Every Hunt centers around a particular theme, and an idea that I had developed was voted in as the theme for our event. That theme was then unceremoniously voted back out again, via a process I still don’t entirely understand and which—if this is to be an honest accounting—I must say left a fairly sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t find the new theme particularly inspiring, and when I also lost the vote for team leader, it seemed clear that the Hunt and I weren’t going to have much to do with each other. I wished my team well and withdrew.

Flash forward to November and my foolish act. An e-mail was sent to the whole team that the Hunt was in trouble. Serious trouble. “Might be cancelled for the first time in twenty years” trouble. The fellow who had won the vote for the captain’s role had completely dropped out of sight. No one had heard a peep from him since June. Nobody had the slightest idea if logistical matters were being taken care of. The modern Hunt takes place almost entirely online—indeed, the 2007 Hunt pushed out a full ninety gigabytes of data in three days. Did we have a server that could handle that load? Did we have a server at all? The Hunt also generates thousands of dollars in expenses. Did we have funding from the school? More than a quarter of the puzzles had not been handed in, and testsolving was at a standstill. Everybody seemed to be waiting for somebody else to take action. As I read through the e-mail, I was increasingly appalled at the state of things, and angry at the idea that my team, which I had joined over a dozen years ago, might be responsible for the first cancelled Hunt in a generation.

I volunteered to take over the reins. My wife informed me that I was out of my mind. The Hunt is difficult to plan when you have all year. I would have eight weeks to get everything back in shape. Yes, yes, I wasn’t starting from scratch, but there was an awful amount of work still to be done.

The 2008 Hunt is now over, and as you can tell by the fact that I have written this blog entry, I have survived… barely. Getting the Hunt back on track was a chore that ate up several hours every day for a couple of months. It was sometimes a grind and occasionally hair-raising, but on average it was no more or less arduous than my day job. Running the Hunt from noon on Friday until 8:30 p.m. Sunday night was brutally difficult, possibly the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

It was clear from the very beginning that our Hunt was going to be a difficult one. The original plan was that the first fifty or so puzzles—the ones in the Little Black Book, for those of you who were there—were going to be easy (!) by MIT standards. By the time I stepped back into the picture, that concept had been thrown neatly overboard. All the puzzles seemed pretty damn hard, and only a couple of hours into the weekend, I began to suspect that if we ran our Hunt in its current format, we would be there for a month or longer. The puzzles were not getting solved. No one was calling in answers.

We began to improvise, snipping away activities we had planned, making puzzles easier when we could. We discussed things, and then hashed them out again, poking into corners and trying to consider every possible consequence of these last-minute changes. We had to be sure we were improving the Hunt and not making it worse. At the same time, though, we had to work damned fast: Once any team reached a particular puzzle or activity, that puzzle or activity had to be considered locked in place, unchangeable even if it was flawed or far too hard. It was like laying down railroad track even as the locomotive is bearing down on you. And that constant improvisation, that non-stop problem solving, propelled us through the weekend. We would crash through one brick wall of a dilemma only to find another one waiting for us just behind it.

The major thing we did to keep the Hunt moving was to dramatically speed up how quickly we were releasing new puzzles. In a normal Hunt, most teams earn new puzzles by solving older ones, and puzzles are released only to slower teams who are having a hard time keeping up. Ultimately, we speeded up the release of new puzzles so aggressively that even the leading teams thought they were doing poorly. This kept the event moving, yes, but had the unfortunate side effect of screwing up our rather complicated Hunt structure. The plan was that teams would solve the first 54 puzzles, and combine their answers to open up seven “dossiers.” Well, we wound up simply giving everybody the dossiers in fairly short order, so why bother solving those first puzzles?

But it couldn’t be helped. Teams were having a terribly hard time earning the puzzles on their own. Did I mention our puzzles were hard? Lord, were they. My own were no exception. I had one puzzle, a variety crossword called Sharp Turns, that in hindsight makes me want to pull out great clumps of my hair. It wasn’t enough that you had to figure out which answers went into which of the two grids. It wasn’t enough that every answer made a 90-degree turn at some point, and you had to figure this out, too. No, on top of all that, I had to make every clue just as hard as I possibly could. We were, after all, at MIT, so crank the difficulty up to 11… even if it makes the puzzle less than fun.

In retrospect: Duh. I knew back in January that not every puzzle had to be a killer-diller, but somewhere along the way, I forgot. Sorry.

And yet, everybody seemed to be having a great time. Sunday morning, 6:30 a.m., I was heading back to my team’s headquarters after getting a few hours of sleep, and my route through the campus took me past several competing teams. I dropped in to visit, which could have been a mistake: I had no idea what had happened with the Hunt in my absence, and I didn’t know the frustration level of the teams. I might have been greeted with a hail of flying objects.

I peeked into the first team’s headquarters and found myself among a bunch of college kids who had clearly stayed up all night. They were making loud, crazy jokes to each other, having a fine old time of it.

“You guys are so upbeat!” I said.

“That’s called crystal meth!” said their captain.

One team after another, the story was the same: Yes, they wished the puzzles were a little easier. Yes, there was a fair amount of frustration floating around. But the Hunt hadn’t become such a disaster that it overshadowed the sheer, geeky fun of solving puzzles into the sunrise hours with your friends. I headed back to my own HQ breathing a sigh of relief. We might actually get through this weekend after all.

Despite our best efforts, the Hunt went all day Sunday. My puzzle editors and I desperately sought to alter the endgame so that a team might solve it in anything like a reasonable amount of time. Originally the team captain was going to get arrested, and there was to be a trial, and then the revealing of the final puzzles, and then a second trial scene, and then the runaround. Madness. With Evil Midnight marching toward the finish line, we scrambled to rearrange the finale while still keeping our huge, sagging plotline more or less intact. Every time the door opened into our conference room, my heart jumped into my throat: I kept expecting someone to bring me news that a team had reached the endgame. If that happened before we were ready, we were in a heaping mound of trouble.

We nailed down the new endgame with about half an hour to spare. Evil Midnight called us up with the information they had to provide. The endgame was about to begin. There would be two more puzzles (which we had made a lot easier), and then some logical analysis of those answers, and then the winning team would have to do a runaround on campus to actually find the coin. I was sure I saw a light appearing at the end of the tunnel.

“Hey,” I said to my teammate, Kevin, who had worked on the final puzzles. “How long should the runaround take, anyway?”

“Two hours,” he said. “Maybe three.”

The light at the end of the tunnel snapped off. My jaw also snapped off when it dropped to the ground. “Three hours?

“It had been five hours,” said somebody else. “We shortened it.”

After I recovered from hearing this information, I sent Kevin down to follow the winning team with instructions to do anything short of cheating to make sure the runaround did not go on for three freaking hours. He left.

We paced around, and we continued to give hints to other teams, and continued to accept answers. Mostly we waited for the phone to ring, letting us know the runaround had begun and the Hunt was almost over. We did not want this to go into Monday morning.

The phone call finally came, and people began gathering up their stuff. It’s traditional for the Hunt organizers to join the winning team to celebrate the finding of the coin. That was likely another hour or two away, but at least we could prepare for that long-awaited moment.

“Do we even know where the coin is?” I said.

“I do,” said a teammate. “It’s in room 31-101.”

“No, it’s not,” I said calmly. I started to realize we had another problem. “We moved it on Thursday.”

The day before the Hunt began, we discovered that the hiding spot we had picked out for the coin was in one the teams’ headquarters. There was some frantic maneuvering on Friday as we sought to solve this problem. Kevin and another teammate, Jeremy, had led that charge. Kevin was now with the winning team, and Jeremy had long since gone home.

And nobody else on my team knew where the coin was. This was definitely the final insult. I didn’t know whether to laugh or buy a gun. The Hunt organizers had lost the coin. To find it again, we had to solve the same runaround we had given to the winning team. Thankfully, we didn’t have to start at the beginning of the runaround—we were able to pick it up in the middle—or we would have had the humiliation of losing our own Hunt to another team.

It indeed took the winners a full two hours to complete the runaround, as promised. By that time most of my team, having relocated the finish line, were camped out in a nearby classroom so they could jump out and congratulate the winners at the right moment. And to thank them for winning and bringing the event to its conclusion.

So the 2008 Hunt is over, and has been for a few days now. I have almost caught up on my sleep. Give it another few weeks and I’ll be fine.

I no longer think it was foolish to take over the captainship: Yes, there was a fantastic amount of stress involved, but there was also a great deal of satisfaction, problem solving with my clear-headed, fantastically intelligent friends, saving the event from what could have been true disaster. Our Hunt won’t go down in the annals as one of the best ever—how could it, when most of the final coordination didn’t even begin until November? Nonetheless, the reviews I’ve read so far have been more good than bad. Critical, yes, and deservedly so. But the Hunters still had fun, and while that’s due in part to their own marvelously upbeat attitudes, we could have easily made poor decisions and screwed things up even further. I came away from the whole thing feeling pretty good.

When my wife saw me limping into my house, and heard my ruined voice, she said to me, Thank goodness you never have to do that again. But now that I’ve run a Hunt for eight weeks, I can’t help but wonder what I might accomplish if I actually had the full year. Maybe at some point I’ll find out.

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23 Comments

  1. rikchik
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    There were problems. There are always problems. But, overall, this was a great hunt. And given the problems you mentioned above, it was fantastic.

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  2. Posted January 24, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    The fact that you pulled off this Hunt, in that short of a time period, is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my almost 25 years in puzzles.

    And I’m sort of with you … although right now (and, I imagine, for the foreseeable future) I can’t begin to imagine constructing a Hunt again, there’s a part of me that wonders what it would be like to do it with a good leader for the whole time.

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  3. Andy
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    /agrees with rikchik. While solving, I noticed some rough spots, but I never for a moment thought, “This seems like it was thrown together at the last minute.” I’m amazed at how well the hunt turned out, given the challenges you faced.

    And for the record, yes, Sharp Turns was hard, but Arielle and I were able to solve it, and we are by no means top-tier crossword solvers. And it was never so hard that we got fed up with it, just hard enough to have a nice sense of accomplishment when it was done.

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  4. Rubrick
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Now that I know the story… wow. I wasn’t there, but given the situation, a general consensus of “good but not great” is a spectacular accomplishment.

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  5. Tinhorn
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Nicely written, and thanks for taking over when you did. If and when you want to lead another Hunt, and if you want me on board in whatever capacity, I’ll be privileged to be there.

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  6. Posted January 25, 2008 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for saving the hunt. Our team (Codex) had a great time and I now have an even more charitable view about the few parts that were less than great after hearing your crezy story.

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  7. etc.
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    Wow. You Saved the Mystery Hunt. Kudos.

    By the way, Acme is very familiar with the groupthink problem of too many too difficult puzzles… somehow this seems to be a trap of hunt construction, so don’t feel too bad.

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  8. Posted January 25, 2008 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    You did a great job Eric of wrangling a runaway plane…not a pretty landing but at least everyone survived. I don’t envy what you ran into as part of your leadership duties, and I can’t imagine it’s easy seeing a lot of the negative comments.

    Sharp Turns was hard (Francis, myself, and a few others worked on this forever until we got enough of the answer phrase), but I think not egregiously so. I do hope that at some point, we get see a hunt that you were captain of the entire year, instead of just eight weeks.

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  9. Posted January 25, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Congratulations. That the Hunt was as good as it was under those circumstances is little short of miraculous, and clearly you deserve a lot of the credit for wrangling it.

    I want to go back and solve Sharp Turns — I saw it, but was either on my way out the door or was in the middle of something else at the time.

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  10. Posted January 25, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. We’ve been getting hints and intimations about what was going on behind the scenes, and the more I’ve learned the more impressed I’ve been.

    How much of the HQ scramble was caught on film by the documentary? And how much of the “director’s cut” Hunt will be made available?

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  11. Posted January 25, 2008 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    It sure seemed like that documentarian was there every time a new problem came up. (And he always seemed to be gone again when we’d hit on a solution.) I tried to pretend the camera wasn’t there, but this wasn’t always easy. God knows how I’ll come out in the final product. And I have no idea when the result will be shown.

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  12. DavidS
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for saving hunt.

    Yeah, it was tiring, but we on Metaphys were still having fun until the end and, almost every time that we solved a puzzle, we were impressed with how elegant it was. In a month or two, I hope to go back and try some of the puzzles that we never got to.

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  13. Emily
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    This was my first Hunt, so it took me quite a while to realize that the puzzles were “No, seriously, really, really hard” as opposed to “This is sooo much more fun than my other weekends have been recently, hard”. And amid comments at the beginning from teammates that it looked like this year’s event wouldn’t run short, it also took me a while to realize that no one was *expecting* it to run until Sunday night.

    It seems like I have a tradition of being spoiled by my first of something being the longest and most interesting (the first musical I was in was Into the Woods), and that that might be manifesting itself again here!

    I just wanted to congratulate you and your team on all the effort that went in to this year’s Hunt, both before and during. I had an absolutely amazing time and look forward eagerly to coming back next year. Thank you!

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  14. Posted January 25, 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I think it’s also worth mentioning that even though it was a crazy weekend, you were still able to fit in the annual dinner with me AND saw the end of the Giants game.

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  15. Posted January 25, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Eric – as I’d said before, you did an amazing job and should go down in Mystery Hunt lore as a hero. Though I had similar issues as everyone else with some content of the hunt itself, the event was run well from beginning to end relatively cleanly, so kudos for that.

    This report should be read by every person who ever wins a mystery hunt and considers being part of the team that writes the next one.

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  16. Mikalye
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely,
    Bravo. My compliments on saving the hunt. Now clearly this wasn’t in the running for “GREATEST HUNT EVER”, but it was also a long, long way from the worst. Everyone had fun, everyone got to moan a bit about how stupid hard some of the puzzles were. There also were puzzles like PIE IN THE SKY, which we only encountered late in the hunt and solved in about 4 minutes that would have been better served near the beginning of the hunt.

    Indeed, I recall thinking on Saturday afternoon, “Wow, Palindrome really have the pacing of this hunt down perfectly, just whenever things start to flag even a little bit, we get a new page of six puzzles.” At that point we had identified the six cabals and were just waiting to get enough answers to get the dossiers. 24 hours later I was no longer thinking that the pacing was perfect, but it took a very, very long while for us as solvers to realise just how much trouble you guys were in.

    And I echo Tahnan’s comment (http://tahnan.livejournal.com/145054.html) that the metas this year were really really good. There was a real buzz around the team when the warrant was unlocked. That is the kind of genuine puzzling goodness that makes a good hunt. You cannot fake that buzz, and it has to be earned.

    I genuinely hope you are feeling some of that buzz, because Holy Cow you earned it.

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  17. econwell
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I want to add to the chorus of thanks. Writing and running a Mystery Hunt under the best of circumstances is an epic endeavor. To do it in a matter of weeks is another thing altogether. I am in awe.

    Metaphysical Plant had our fair share of frustrations, but we also had the kind of fun that only comes from Hunt: a whole weekend doing puzzles with friends we don’t see often enough. Thank you and everyone else on Palindrome for making that possible.

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  18. Dustin
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Well done! A cancelled hunt would’ve been a crushing blow to many of the students (including me), alumni, and other puzzlers–NPL or otherwise–and we owe you our thanks. I believe our team had a number of people that had their plane tickets booked for months in advance.

    I’m glad you took the reins, and it’s a shame you didn’t start out with them. Thinking back to the 2004 hunt I spent with you guys, I can only imagine what all that leadership stuff must have been like…

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  19. Roger
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Wow, congrats. I definitely did not get the sense during hunt that this was a hunt thrown together at the last minute — one that was too hard, yes, but very clean and usually elegant.

    “It’s traditional for the Hunt organizers to join the winning team to celebrate the finding of the coin.” It is? Didn’t happen in 2005 or 2006….

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  20. zebraboy/Mark Halpin
    Posted January 26, 2008 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    A personal, public “thank you” to Eric. I have never been in any kind of leadership/organizational role of this sort before, and wouldn’t begin to know how to manage it. Eric stepping in was both a huge source of personal relief and a stunning demonstration of what effective leadership is all about. Echoing Tinhorn’s remark, it’d be an honor to work with Eric again. An incredible class act.

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  21. Ryan
    Posted January 28, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with all of the comments above. We were certainly frustrated throughout the weekend (mainly that the difficulty made us feel like we had gotten much, much worse after two very good years for us), but in the end, it was a fantastically good time as usual. I don’t know how you (and all the others you thanked) managed to pull it off, but thanks.

    A question if anyone is still reading this: Would the Hunt have been considered to be too long if it ended at the same time, but with all the structure intact? I started with Carmen Sandiego way back when, which went until 11 PM or so Sunday, so I always think an early Sunday morning ending is way too soon. Obviously, once it becomes Monday, things have gone too far, but Sunday afternoon to early evening seems like the best to me…

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  22. Posted February 7, 2008 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Did the former captain ever turn up again?

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  23. Posted February 7, 2008 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Indeed he did — he attended the event. Which was, I must say, mighty courageous of him.

       0 likes

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