At 2 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18. Mystery Hunt team Sleipnir’s Wranglers was prepared for the long haul. Their classroom in Building 12 was outfitted with snacks, caffeine, a chalkboard, and even a webcam so their remote solvers could join the atmosphere of the live hunt. As they excitedly opened the first puzzle, little did they know they would be a part of the longest hunt in history.
Mystery Hunt 2013, written by the winners of last year’s hunt, the Manic Sages, ended on Monday afternoon after 73 hours and 18 minutes of intense puzzle solving. The team that found the coin — hidden behind a safe constructed in 13-1143 (just off of Lobby 13) amid a pile of similar coins — was the team whose name was the entire text of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (there was no character limit for team names during registration).
Mystery Hunt is a large puzzle hunt held annually at MIT over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. The puzzles are generally solved in teams of varying size and origin. Some teams, such as those based in dorms and living groups, are comprised largely of current MIT undergrads and alumni.
Teams solve puzzles including simple word searches, complicated encodings in semaphore, run-arounds — where the answer to the puzzle is revealed after visiting several different spots on and off campus — and creative challenges, like one that required participants to create an article similar to those that appear on the popular website Cracked. The answers from those puzzles feed into larger metapuzzles, whose answers feed into even larger “super” metapuzzles, a metapuzzle of metapuzzles. Puzzles can be forward solved, backward solved (if finding the answer to a different puzzle lets you infer the answer to a given puzzle), or bought using “options” that were awarded over time and as prizes at the various events held over the weekend.
The hunt began on Friday after a short opening ceremony in Rockwell Cage. It seemed that the Manic Sages had mortgaged the coin for their own profit to Enigma Valley Investment Savings (Correction: 1/31/13, 10:30 p.m.) & Loan, and the coin could not be withdrawn for a period of “no less than 50 years.” Thankfully, Alyssa P. Hacker enlisted the help of consultants from the Institute for Heist Training, Facilitation, and Planning (IHTFP) to rescue the coin so the tradition of the hunt could continue.
This year, there were seven “rounds” of puzzles (rounds 0–6). When a team solved the super metapuzzle in a given round, the team would successfully recruit a consultant (characters such as Indiana Jones and Agent 86) to help them pull off the heist. Completing all seven rounds unlocked the chance to go on the final run-around consisting of three final challenges that yielded the key cards that unlocked the coin.
The 2013 Mystery Hunt is the brainchild of last year’s winners, the Manic Sages. The winning team’s responsibilities included choosing a theme for the Hunt, planning the individual puzzles and clues, and connecting the various puzzles together with meta-puzzles.
Writing the hunt is a lot of work in its own right. Manic Sage Adam “Pesto” Hesterberg G estimates that he put “somewhere in the range of 500–1000 hours” into creating the hunt. He also noted that other members of the team put in similar amounts of work.
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 associate logistics director Jacob Hurwitz '14.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.”
After a short delay, the hunt was on. Codex, the team that wrote last year’s hunt after winning in 2011, cheered as they solved their first puzzle in a mere 12 minutes, commemorating the occasion by pressing a Staples-brand Easy Button.
Benjamin M. Hill SM ’07 has been with Codex since he started hunting during his first IAP at MIT in 2006. Hill feels that he has a different perspective on the hunt after having been a part of the team that wrote the hunt last year.
“I think that going through the process of creating a puzzle forces you to think about what things will be obvious and improves your ability to solve puzzles,” Hill said. “Writing the hunt was a very positive experience.”
Hill also mentioned that the reason he continues to solves puzzles is for the “Aha!” moment you get when you finally solve a puzzle.
“In my day job, I work on a lot of problems that maybe don’t have answers,” Hill said. “It’s really awesome to work in a space where if you put in 1-5 hours of mental energy, you will have a solution. Someone has test-solved for it, you know that it’s solvable; you know that there is an answer and that there was designed to be an answer. There’s something really satisfying about being able to do that and do that on a certain scale.”
At the start of the hunt, some teams knew they were in it just for the fun of solving puzzles and had no intention to win.
“The 30–70 people range doesn’t really put us in contention [to win],” Gregory Reimann, a member of Sleipnir’s Wranglers said. “Our strategies will be around trying to get people involved and to have more fun.”
Other teams, such as Atlas Shrugged, were in it to win it. The team, comprised mostly of students and alumni from two floors in the East Campus dorm (2nd west and 3rd east), previously won in 2003 and was out to win again. They, like other teams, had members working remotely from around the world.
“We have 15-20 people hunting together in San Francisco right now,” said Laura Royden ’13, member of Atlas Shrugged. “We have people in Chicago, France, and all over the place.”
Friday proved to be a slow day for most teams. However, enthusiasm was high at the first event on Friday night, a Casino night in Lobdell. Following that event, at midnight, was a “dinner party.” Teams were asked to bring a drink to share; many gathered outside the Mezzanine Lounge on the 3rd floor of the student center (W20) with various forms of caffeine. This was expected; it is not unheard of for hunters to sacrifice sleep while their team is actively hunting.
Matt Lahut, member of the team Up-Late A Plate (Correction: 1/31/13, 2 p.m.) said, “For these weekends, I tend to expect to get 2 hours of sleep, so I take the next day off from work when I get back so I can catch up.”
In return, attendees were given plates with an encrypted message.
Despite the fact that a number of the hunters worked on puzzles through the night, Saturday morning started with a packed Mezzanine Lounge full of hunters playing a version of telephone for more options. Later that afternoon, one member of each team was invited to play a geography game in the style of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. After the game — which consisted of a 21 question trivia game, a lightning round, and a matching game — concluded, participants used the pieces from the matching game, cutouts of the United States — presented to them upon entry — and a blacklight to reveal another hint. The evening event was a tad quieter; members from each team were invited to play “Bananagrams” in groups of four. Satisfying certain conditions would complete the event and reward the team with another hint.
It was apparent by Saturday night that the hunt was moving slower than expected. Hesterberg said that the Sages aimed for the hunt to end around Sunday evening, but they underestimated the amount of time it would take for the teams to solve each puzzle.
In addition, the email outage that happened late Friday night into Saturday morning hurt communication between teams and HQ. However, Jacob Hurwitz ’14, Associate Logistics Director for the Sages, added that most teams who had trouble getting in touch with HQ via email then tried other means.
By Sunday, the hunt was taking its toll on many of its participants. The Manic Sages did their best to alleviate the frustration; HQ dispatched some of their members to help the teams that were far behind, made it extremely easy to accumulate more options , and even substituted in easier puzzles as the hunt dragged on.
“We had a puzzle that we removed for time,” Dan Zaharopol ’04 said during the closing ceremonies as he was met with laughter from the audience. The puzzle removed was a “bureaucracy” puzzle in which you submitted answers to a form, but each question had two possible answers. When solved, the form would return the phrase, “Enigma Valley gives you the run-around,” which would prompt the team to proceed to the final stage.
The teams felt the pressure as well. According to statistics from HQ, the team Death from Above (which ended the hunt as Death and Mayhem after merging with Electric Mayhem), was in second place until the end of Sunday. Death and Mayhem’s rate of puzzle solving dropped overnight, allowing Palindrome to overtake them for second place.
For hints on Sunday, teams could visit Lobby 7 in the morning for an event similar to the moneybag scene in the movie The Thomas Crowne Affair or the Bush Room (10-105) in the afternoon to solve a human Rubicks cube of sorts.
By Monday morning, the hunt had already been declared the longest hunt in history, surpassing the previous record, the 68 hour hunt created by the French Armada in 2004. On Sunday, HQ sent out an announcement that teams only needed to solve five of the six super metapuzzles to win. While many people had to leave starting Sunday night, there were still 25 teams that submitted answers sometime on Monday. The Manic Sages in HQ cheered when team ChemE, a five person team that registered at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, correctly called in their answer to a Round 0 puzzle at about 8 a.m. Monday morning.
The mood in tweets about Mystery Hunt changed from excitement to good-natured frustration that the hunt was still going.
Jeff Schwartz remarked via Twitter that “this #mysteryhunt is so long that it spanned 2 presidential terms,” referring to the presidential inauguration on Sunday morning.
The Manic Sages declared Atlas Shrugged the winners at 11:56 a.m. on Monday. Atlas Shrugged then went on the final run-around and found the coin three hours later. HQ was still receiving call-ins for answers up to 25 minutes before the hunt officially ended. Normally the winner is not declared until after the coin is found, but because hunt ran so long with no other close competitors, the Sages preemptively declared Atlas Shrugged the winners.
After 73 hours and 18 minutes and a humorous closing ceremony featuring a run through of the hunt’s structure and the unveiling of some especially creative and tricky answers, the hunt concluded with a party in the Mezzanine Lounge.
News Editors: Stan Gill, Janelle Mansfield
Videographer: Emilio Pace
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