For many students, IAP brings coding challenges, externships, intense UROP-ing, and loafing around Boston. For puzzle-lovers and code-crackers, however, IAP means the return of the annual MIT Mystery Hunt, an epic weekend of puzzle-solving that draws hundreds of participants from around the world and begins this Friday at noon.
Every year since 1981, an intricate set of clues is hidden in a series of puzzles. The clues ultimately lead teams to the location of a final prize — traditionally a coin, although a Tony Award, companion cube, and a futuristic piece of space machinery have made appearances in previous years. The winning team’s prize is to design the next year’s hunt.
The 2013 Mystery Hunt is the brainchild of last year’s winners, the Manic Sages. The winning team’s responsibilities include choosing a theme for the Hunt, planning the individual puzzles and clues, and connecting the various puzzles together with meta-puzzles.
When planning the Hunt, “some teams try to outdo the previous teams,” says Jacob Hurwitz ’14, the Associate Logistics Director for the Sages.
2013 is the first year the Manic Sages have written the Hunt, and they are hoping to “come up with something awesome that’s never been done before and make the hunt even more spectacular,” according to Hurwitz, who witheld further details.
Planning the Mystery Hunt requires not only brainpower and creativity, but also extensive organization. “There are a lot of things that need to be done, from reserving rooms, to contacting MIT AV to rent equipment,” said Hurwitz. “We have to talk to the Environmental Health and Safety Office, to make sure that everything we’re doing is within fire code and safe and not going to cause any problems.”
Hurwitz also acts as the president of the MIT Mystery Hunt ASA student group. Each year, the winning team takes over the MIT student group to get “access to rooms and all the other benefits of the student groups,” including ASA student group funding, said Hurwitz.
This funding is important because there is no cost to participating in the hunt. Hurwitz said, “We do not have any corporate sponsors. … We didn’t want to have it be ‘The Google Hunt’ or something. So, this year, and in most years, it’s been part Fin-board and LEF [Large Events Fund] and donations from people on the winning team.”
According to ASA student group guidelines, the president and treasurer of the Mystery Hunt group must be MIT students, but the president or captain of the team itself does not. The Manic Sages’ co-captains are Dan Zaharopol ’04 and Catherine Havasi ’03.
Zaharopol founded the team in 2004 after previous hunting with the ESG team, Wizard Lizards, and the Mathcamp team. “Dan noticed a large overlap between ESG students and Mathcampers, so he brought the two teams together,” said Hurwitz. The current team is made up of MIT students and alumni, a few high school students from Mathcamp, and non-MIT affiliates who joined at the encouragement of their friends on the team.
Last year, approximately 150 people hunted with the Manic Sages, and about 80 of them have stayed on to help write the 2013 hunt. Hurwitz estimates that team members spend anywhere from few hours per week to up to twelve hours each day in the month leading up to the Hunt. “A lot of people who have full time jobs took time off during the holidays and put that into the hunt, or are even taking vacation time now,” he said.
Planning for this year’s Hunt began immediately after the Sages won in 2012. Hurwitz noted that the group began by thinking of puzzle ideas, then worked backward to connect them together, beginning with the final clue (the location of the coin). “Mystery Hunt tends to have a multi-level structure. You have a round with a bunch of puzzles in it, and then once you solve all the puzzles there’s a meta-puzzle, which depends on having solved everything in the round for you to unlock it and solve it. And then maybe once you’ve done all the meta-puzzles, there might be a meta-meta-puzzle. This isn’t true every year. It may or may not be true for the 2013 hunt, but it’s typically how it’s done.”
For the last few years, software which keeps track of the different puzzles and their connections has been passed down between winning teams. Hurwitz added that the Sages also wrote some of their own software for certain tasks. Throughout the entire process, the team also brainstormed ideas for a theme and how to incorporate it into the puzzles.
“The process of writing a puzzle is typically that you begin with an idea, then you are given the answer to the puzzle, and you work backwards from the answer and say, ‘Okay I want my puzzle to have this mechanism and the answer I’ve been assigned is MIT.’ And you have to construct a puzzle that fits your idea with the given answer,” explained Hurwitz.
The 2013 Mystery Hunt will begin this Friday, Jan. 18th, at noon in Rockwell Cage, with the kickoff revealing the year’s unique theme. Past years have been inspired by video games, history, science fiction, and more. The only clue currently available about this year’s theme is the invitation received by team members to join the “Enigma Valley Investment and Loan Bank.” Curious hunters will have to wait until Friday to find out more.
Hurwitz said writing the Mystery Hunt is a labor of love, and the Manic Sages are excited to see the results. “Writing the Mystery Hunt is sort of like solving Mystery Hunt, but it takes you 12 months instead of 2 days. The whole time you’re doing puzzles over and over again, you’re writing puzzles, testing out puzzles. It’s the experience of being in the Mystery Hunt, but you get to treasure it for a lot longer than most teams do.”