If you follow the MIT Mystery Hunt at all, then you already know that this year’s event, which ended Monday afternoon, was the longest of the modern era, taking an exorbitant 73 hours from the release of the first round of puzzles to the moment when a team finally claimed victory by finding a coin hidden on campus. Somewhere around the 48th hour of the Hunt, one of my teammates, a smart and good-natured fellow named Arun, called the Hunt organizers to ask for a hint about a puzzle.
Arun had basically dedicated his life to a particular puzzle called “In The Details,” and the description of this puzzle should give you an idea about the kind of thing we see at the Mystery Hunt. “In the Details” was a “fractal word seek.” After solving what you could on the first level of the word seek, you were expected (through some cryptographic and/or mathematical operation that I never did fully comprehend) to expand the word seek out to the next level of the fractal, and continue searching for words there. And then again, and then again. The people working on this puzzle ultimately expanded the word seek to the 85th or 86th level before locating all of the words they were expected to find. But even after all that, Arun and the others still didn’t have an answer to the puzzle itself. Solvers generally come away from a hunt puzzle with a word or phrase, which they will then need to use later on. Despite all the work that had been put into it, “In The Details” steadfastly refused to give up that answer.
So Arun called and asked for a hint. It was clear at that point that the Hunt was running long. Previous Hunts had sometimes ended by now, but this time, no end was in sight. The puzzles were extremely hard, and the meta puzzles even more so. A hint at this point seemed like a perfectly reasonable request. But Arun was dismissed with a firmness that I found rather surprising.
When my team, Palindrome, ran the 2008 Hunt, we too discovered we had overshot on the difficulty. Our response was to begin hinting as rapidly as possible, answering questions about the puzzles in great detail if need be. Why on earth couldn’t we get even a small nudge on this impossible word search? The only teams Palindrome refused to give hints to, years ago, were those teams in contention for the victory.
…Oh. And that is how I figured out that we were the lead team in the Hunt, or close to it.
Perhaps you suppose I might have guessed this, but really, I had no idea. The Hunt this year consisted of six distinct rounds — and at that point, we had only completed two of them. I thought we might be doing reasonably well compared to other teams, but winning? Or close to winning? That was hard to imagine.
On the other hand, we had a very large team this year. Palindrome is an open team: Anybody can join it. This year it felt like everybody did. Not too long ago we struggled to reach 50 teammates. This year we came mighty close to 100. Established team members brought in colleagues and friends. The Hunt organizers post a list of “unattached hunters” — people who want to play but who don’t have a team — and each year I pick up a few new people from this list. This year’s bunch of unattached hunters was a bonanza. I lured in a fellow named Eric. (We are required, it seems, to recruit a new Eric each year — we now have a great many of them.) This particular Eric, it turned out, was connected to a whole gang of Microsoft and Google engineers, all of them looking for a team. This turned out to be quite a bumper crop of excellent puzzling brains.
Also grabbed from the unattached hunters list was a total puzzle hunt newbie, a lawyer (I think) from Denver named Jonathan. Except he didn’t join Palindrome for himself. He came to the Mystery Hunt with his son, Brandon, who is 11 years old. His father told me that Brandon was a puzzle nut who couldn’t wait to one day participate in the Mystery Hunt. The trip to Cambridge was Brandon’s Christmas present.
I was a little nervous for both Brandon and his father — the Mystery Hunt can be overwhelming and difficult even for people who believe they enjoy puzzles, and if the Hunt did not match Brandon’s expectations, it could have been a disappointing trip home for them. I needn’t have worried. Jonathan told me that his son had been through the Hunt archive and knew what to expect. It would have been fairer to say that Brandon had memorized the Hunt archive. He could speak of themes and specific puzzles with an astonishing fluency, and he fit in with the team like a veteran. He was always busy with a puzzle, attended a bunch of events, and was still bopping along with the rest of us in the wee hours of the morning.
So Palindrome became a large team just in time to take on a Hunt seemingly designed for large teams. Still, it was hard to believe we were doing more than, say, keeping pace with the top third of Hunt teams. The vibe in headquarters was not “We are clearly killing this!” but rather “Help! We are drowning in puzzles! Very hard puzzles!”
Because the puzzles were indeed very hard. I think I understand how this happens. Unconsciously or overtly, puzzlemakers get it into their heads that they are creating puzzles that will be presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!!!, one of the three or four greatest collections of smarts on the planet. It’s intimidating to consider the audience for these puzzles, and it takes great discipline to keep oneself from reaching for the difficulty knob, giving it a little twist, and then another little twist, until before you know it, you’ve cranked the difficulty all the way up to 11. All the while saying, “I hope these people don’t knock this off too easily…”
The metapuzzles at this year’s Hunt were particularly deadly. One of the great joys for advanced puzzlers is the joy of solving a metapuzzle even though you have not yet acquired all the answers that feed into it. When a metapuzzle has nine separate parts, and you discover the solution with only five of those parts, you feel like a puzzling giant. (Or so I imagine, as I have personally never accomplished this. But it’s fun even to be standing next to somebody who has just done it.) For the most part, the metapuzzles at this year’s Hunt did not allow for this sort of solving. Some of them were excellent, but others were assembled not from five or nine or fifteen separate answers but from dozens of individual puzzles — and those metapuzzles were structured in such a way as to force you solve nearly everything before you could really make headway on the solution. (Anyway, we certainly didn’t get anywhere with them. If you broke through on, say, the Feynman meta with only half the answers for it, I would sure like to know how you did it.)
Palindrome’s motto, as it says right on out nametags, is “We Play For Fun.” We’re not particularly filled with competitve spirit, and we’re not a good team for bloodthirsty Vince Lombardi types. I wouldn’t mind winning one day, but it’s more important that everybody enjoy themselves. Nonetheless, when I announced that we were one of the top teams in the Hunt, a subtle shift in tone could be detected. We didn’t go crazy with it — we didn’t tear up our nametags in order to get rid of our core motto — but you could tell that people were itching to grab the victory that we now understood to be within reach.
But there was a long way to go. We still only had two of the six rounds completed. There were so many puzzles floating around that it was impossible to keep track of them all, much less solve them. The hour grew late. We had already been through two graveyard shifts, and many of us had slept hardly at all through the weekend. Were we now going to stay up all night Sunday night — a good twelve hours after the Hunt would have ended in a more conventional year — to try to win this thing?
Teammates who had gone home came back in. Anya — a newcomer I had grabbed from the unattached hunter list but who had leapt into the weekend like she’d been on the team for a decade — brought homemade chocolate-chip cookies. (This was the Year of Cookies. I had rewarded graveyard shift solvers on Friday and Saturday with warm cookies from Insomnia Cookies. And another teammate, Ben, started us off with three giant containers of cookies, including something called Oreo Cheesecake Cookies. I don’t know if the Nobel Prize has a category for cookies, but if they did, Oreo Cheesecake Cookies would win.) Another teammate, Amy, brought the makings for waffles. A previously quiet young lady, Ange, transformed before our eyes: She whipped us into shape but good. She made extensive notes on what people were working on and what needed our attention, and she directed people like the world’s most efficient traffic cop. The Hunt organizers began allowing teams to buy puzzle answers at the rate of one per hour, and Ange kept time with the sternness of an SAT proctor. Rather brilliantly, she convinced the Hunt organizers that if we performed an act of amusing ritual humiliation, we would get an additional answer. To that end, we wrote and performed a pastiche of “Call Me, Maybe” (called “Solve Me, Maybe”).
And we solved puzzles. Lord, did we solve puzzles. I have been on Palindrome for close to two decades and I have never seen a burst of overnight productivity like what we accomplished this year, on Monday from midnight to five a.m. One by one, the puzzles fell, and then the metapuzzles. As the sun came up, we had only three puzzles left — the final puzzle for each of three remaining rounds.
We got stuck on all three of them.
The hours passed, and still there was no winner. The Hunt organizers announced that you no longer had to solve all six rounds — five would do. So now we only had to solve two of the three final puzzles. And we couldn’t do it.
- We had to transform a list of dates into an answer via a puzzle based in part on hieroglyphics. Some of the people working on this are professional puzzle creators; one of them had been the key figure in solving practically every metapuzzle all weekend long. We couldn’t do it. A thousand different approaches got us nowhere.
- We had to solve a puzzle involving a Rubik’s Cube — a puzzle so complicated I’m not even sure how to explain it to you. The people working on this included a physics professor from Harvard and a guy who, earlier that evening, had solved the Rubik’s Cube in about a minute, while simultaneously singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.” We couldn’t do it. This team never really got stuck, per se, but their advancement through the puzzle was inch by painful inch.
- We had to assemble an Enigma machine from a cardboard tube and some pre-printed strips of paper. Some of the people we had working on this are employed by the National Security Agency. We couldn’t do it. Maybe we were overlooking something fundamental, after a hundred hours of brain-fry. I don’t know. But we couldn’t do it.
Soon the sun was in the sky again. People had planned for the Hunt to be over long before now — they needed to check out of their hotels, and get to the airport or to the train station. We had to clean our headquarters and convert the rooms back into classrooms. A large fraction of the team was sitting around waiting, hoping for a breakthrough that might get us back on track… a breakthrough that was looking less and less likely. Continuing the Hunt started to seem nuts — Captain Ahab territory. Finally, and painfully, I waved the white flag. If people wanted to continue solving, that was fine, but officially, we were done.
We spent an hour cleaning up. Somewhere along the way, the Rubik’s Cube solvers reached a solution. As I left to make my train, a small group of teammates decided to take on the one last puzzle we needed to solve before reaching the Hunt’s endgame. Amtrak was just pulling out of the station when I recieved the message: “We’re on the runaround!” Palindrome had reached the final stage of the Hunt after all. A few hours later, by the time I got home, I learned that we had completed the Hunt — a little over sixty minutes after the first-place team.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to ache at how close we came to victory. Our fingertips had brushed the brass ring, but we ran out of time before we could grasp it. On the other hand, at an event like this, a second-place showing is pretty darn impressive, especially in a difficult year like this one. I’m very proud of my teammates, who even when the Hunt was at its most frustrating, displayed nothing but encouragement and good humor (and waffles and chocolate-chip cookies). Plus, their puzzle-solving ability is nothing short of awesome, and I say that as someone who believes the word “awesome” is suffering from serious overuse.
Congrats to my friend Dan Katz, who was on the winning team. Dan has headed up many great Mystery Hunts, and I know that any hunt that involves his participation is a hunt worth looking forward to. As I write this, I am still very tired, despite having slept last night for thirteen hours. My feet and legs still hurt, though not as bad as they did yesterday. Full recovery is going to take a while. And yet somehow, I am already itching for next year.