MIT Mystery Hunt

Every year since about 1980, during MIT’s independent activity period (IAP), a mystery hunt takes place. This hunt is organised by the previous year’s winning team and generally consists of a number of puzzles which, when solved, usually unlock more puzzles. The object of this hunt is to locate a coin somewhere on the MIT campus (and with any luck, solving all the puzzles will help you do this). For more information about the hunt and its history, you should go here. Those of you who have been paying close attention to will realize that I don’t actually go to MIT, nor do I even live in Boston. No matter…

That’s what the $15 chinatown bus is for. (yes, for all the confused Australians out there, that white stuff on the ground is snow… it is cold here, in the other hemisphere)

The hunt begins at noon in lobby 7. This is lobby 7 at about 11:55am. No, this is not a coincidence… these people are all here for the same reason that I am.

Oh no! Dr. Awkward has been murdered! Who did it?

All we have to go on is his little black book… but oh no! some of the pages have been ripped out.

So it was straight into the puzzling. Our team room had somewhere between 30 and 40 people in it initially, although that number dwindled somewhat as the hunt wore on and people began to fatigue. The puzzle you see on the table before you is called “Special Ops” and was one of the few in which I was a large part of the solving effort (mostly because I was one of the few people who had photoshop on my computer).

…and to give you an idea of what these puzzles were like. The idea was to overlay pairs of images, one from each adjacent column of a 3×8 grid, and the background noise in the image would (if one of the images was rendered negative) cancel out the noise of the other except for… in some small area of the image… which would be in the shape of an operator ( +, -, /, x). Following the order of operations, you’d get a number which corresponded to a letter… we’d get 8 letters which, when plugged into an online anagram finder, gave us “cozening”, which turned out to be the correct answer.

We had a room which basically had blackboards on all sides (except where the windows were). The particular puzzle involved following a set of instructions which permuted and modified the starting text from state to state. The eventual answer “011808NYT16A61A30D” is actually an instruction to look up Jan 18th 2008 (today) New York Times crossword, 30 down. How in the world did the organisers know what the answer to today’s crossword was going to be? Well… one of the organisers is the guy who writes the NYT crossword… that’s how.

I was, at various times of the hunt, admin-master (because I hardly ever left the room, not even to sleep) and remote-master (because I knew most of the people who were remote-solving from other locations around the world. Keeping up with everything… the online wiki, the progress of remote solvers on various puzzles, and the ‘local’ happenings of the hunt, was a full-time job in itself.

Among the many toys we got to play with… a prototype for the $100 laptop. (update: I’ve been informed that this is not actually a prototype – it is the real deal. Although it is not yet quite at the $100 mark… )

Out in the corridor just prior to one of the ‘events’ which take place during the hunt. These events are usually tied to a puzzle, and are also a fun diversion (and one of the few ways that you will coerce me out of the team room).

Apparently someone is making a documentary about the hunt.

…and hanging around MIT could be hazardous for gadget-loving spendthrifts such as myself… (but what use could I possibly get out of a very small laptop?)

This event was quite entertaining, it was a mini-kareoke night. The numbers next to the songs are significant… can you solve this puzzle? Here’s a little hint: as soon as that last song went up on the board, almost everyone started to leave…

As the night wore on… our numbers went down.

The famous Denis Auroux, one of our team leaders… (yes, he really is famous – search for “auroux” on YouTube)

To facilitate efficient puzzling, we had food brought to us (and very good food too, I might add) so that we didn’t need to leave the room. Notice also, that the food was buffet-style, quite well-suited to a person with eating habits like mine.

You couldn’t drag your feet around our team room… in fact tripping over power chords were a constant hazard. The team I was solving with was called “varphi”, made up mostly of grad students and some lecturers (as far as I could tell) from the maths department. In fact, someday I should write a letter to the MIT mathematics department thanking them for all the free food that they have provided me (the current count is about 9 meals, I probably saved money by coming to Boston). We definitely had a decent amount of quality grey-matter at our disposal, but could have probably done with a few more people.

Here’s Chris working on his favourite puzzle “subservient chicken loves the 80s”. You had to guess famous 80s music groups… when you typed them into the little box, a person in a chicken suit would do a little dance resembling a distinctive part of a music video by the same artist. We then had to enter the name of the song into a grid which would spit out our answer. This puzzle involved watching LOADS of shamelessly 80s music videos on youtube… which was a lot more fun than I should probably admit. Chris and I were also the participants in a puzzle involving the learning of an obscure card game then the playing of this card game with some experienced players, the object being to win… hmm…

Speaking of card games… here’s a puzzle involving the card game “set”.

Among the many little aids which we used, this nifty little one was Kirans (he’s in the background, pondering)… I wondered sometimes if these little “cheat sheets” were ever used in anything other than an MIT mystery hunt.

The overnight shift on Saturday night… that’s right… there are only five of us. Luckily, we had some remote solvers in Australia to keep things ticking over. All in all… from 6am on Friday (had to get up early to catch the bus) until 3am on Sunday, I had a total of about 6 hours of sleep, with 2 hours being the longest continuous stretch. Sleep deprivation does funny things. For example… there was this one puzzle, which we didn’t end up doing because the hunt finished, which involved putting on a small-scale production and incorporating various elements off a list for points. At about 5am on Sunday, what a mystery is art

This year’s hunt was unusually long, finishing at about 8:30pm on Sunday (it is usually over before noon on Sunday). Many teams struggled with the puzzles… they were quite difficult, even by mystery hunt standards. We didn’t get to use this button often enough.

In addition to the large-scale meals which were periodically brought to us, we also had a snack table which was constantly filled with various snacks.

Why can’t all puzzles be like this? This puzzle involved plotting your way through a maze using a worms-eye-view web app (think, 1st-person shooter, but without the shooting). Can you see the answer? It is “PROTECTIVE TARIFF” (highlight to read).

The hunt concluded on Sunday night… and so we had to clean up. Lucky it didn’t conclude too late, otherwise there wouldn’t have been enough people around to make an effective cleanup.

The last of us get ready to leave the team room…

…for a bunch of kids who are generally used to getting very high marks, our report card for the hunt was a little underwhelming to say the least (the ticks indicate puzzles solved). Well, at least we all enjoyed ourselves… well… mostly.

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