Todd Etter (toddetter) wrote,
Todd Etter

The 2009 MIT Mystery Hunt

It's been over a month since I participated in my first MIT Mystery Hunt, and I've been wanting to post a recap for some time now, but just never seemed to have the free time.  

Well, no more. 

I played with Team Left Out, a two-headed team working out of San Francisco and Boston.  Most of this group was united by their passion for "The Game" and that was my connection to the team, as well.  I had flown up to Boston from Alexandria, VA to participate, and even though this was my first hunt, I was pretty familiar with the structure and puzzles as I had solved my way through most of 2007 and 2008.  Still doing recaps online is nothing like the real thing, so I was very excited. 

We had a core group of about 10 people in Boston, I believe, and the SF crew was around 12 members.  However, at any given time, we had in between 6 and 26 people, I'd guess.  The only person I knew ahead of time in Boston was Nina Hinrichs from the XX-Rated team out in the Bay Area, and it was great to see her again and solve many many puzzles together.  Also in attendance remotely were Corey and Melinda from the Burninators.  The regulars from Boston included Mike Springer, Ben de Bivort, and Gabriel Carroll, along with several others (Rishi, Jay, and several more, whose name I forget... sorry!).

We were hooked remotely via web-cam to the SF crew who included  members from Shinteki, Blood and Bones, Advil, and the Burninators, all teams in the Game community from SF.  As far as puzzling experience goes, I would think that our group was pretty high up on the list compared to other MIT teams.  Our two biggest problems, as far as I could tell, were team size and being split across the country.

I arrived Friday morning to building 1, where we set up shop.  Being from out of town, I was excited to the see the opening event and it didn't disappoint.  The lobby of building 7 was packed with people, which added to the excitement.  The event involved the crew of the ship Brass Rat being lost in Zyzzlvaria and the goal of the hunt was to try to rescue them and Escape from Zyzzlvaria.  Teams received copies of a custom made board game that was to somehow fit into the meta structure of all the puzzles.  Very cool.   I got most of the event on video.

And luckily for our positioning, we were the first team to receive a board game, so I can state with 100% certainty that for this small 5 to 10 seconds, Team Left Out was winning the MIT Mystery Hunt.  In fact, it was ours to lose.  In a similar manner, any person could be briefly winning at a world class marathon if they sprinted hard enough at the start. 

The structure of the event was as follows, each area of Zyzzlvaria was a series of puzzles.  Solving these earned you dollarbucks, which you used to buy upgrades at Crazy Larry's.  Upgrades would allow your ship to travel to new areas, thus unlocking new waves of puzzles.  As Friday progressed, it appeared that the first round consisted of five sets of puzzles.  Each set of puzzles solved to a meta puzzle, which would give us a "currency."  We would then have to make this currency and turn it in for additional components to the board game.  It was clear that we would have to solve all five metas in order to advance past the first round.

Here is the overview of the event and Here is the link to the hunt as we saw it.   And here is the board game.

Initially we were stumped in trying to use the board game to solve the various metas, but it turns out that each meta was self-contained and solvable on its own.   What also led us astray was that each puzzle had a series of items on it numbered uniquely (such as pawns, moons, squares).  Turns out that this order wasn't used for the initial metas either. 

That night Corey, myself, and another Bostonian went to a mixer where we played a variation of the game Set in that each person had a card and hand to find sets with other people.  The second challenge involved creating sets with various posters along the wall.  We rocked on this, and I think we were the second team to finish.  Unfortunately, there were no bonus points for speed.  Despite this, it was a fun event and a great change of pace from the freezing conference room. 

Team SF was starting to make progress on a couple of the metas, and so far we had solved at least two, I think.  We had to turn in "slingshots" and "meteors" as currency.   We fashioned a slingshot out of two pencils and a hair band, and I grabbed two blackened ice rocks from the street outside to use for meteors.  GC cut us some slack here and gave us some more game components.  

As Friday rolled on into early Saturday morning, team Boston had dwindled down to about 3 people, I believe.  We had been told that if we didn't solve all the metas that a new wave of puzzles would become unlocked later that day.  At this point, around 4AM, I should have just gone to bed because there were only about 3 or 4 puzzles that we hadn't solved and so there wasn't much more to do than look at metas, which was proving difficult.  Instead, I stayed up until 8:30, and finally went to bed 30 minutes before a huge wave of puzzles was released.  Oh, well.

Nina and I headed to the hotel room, where we got about 3 hours of sleep, I believe.  We woke back up at around 11:30, cleaned up and headed back to more solving.  My mind was a little fuzzy, but that quickly went away because of all the new puzzles that had become available.  

Turns out all the new puzzles came from Outer Zyzzlvaria, and included exterior regions of our game board, such as Astro Jail, Reverse Dimension, and so on.  Each area seemed to have its own theme, which was really cool, too.  For example, one set of puzzles had corresponding companion puzzles, which taken as a pair would yield an answer.  Other puzzles ended up had multiple variations with multiple answers. 

At some point on Saturday morning while I was asleep, we won the robot competition.  Our robot successfully completed every task.  Good job, Ben, Jay, and team!   At another point later in the day, we got full credit for a Scavenger Hunt type event where the challenge was to find items with the catch of not getting credit for anything that was duplicated (e.g. find a board game with a set of double letters, such as Fluxx). 

Also on Saturday (when.. I can't remember), we finally solved the first wave of metas along with the Round 1 meta.  It was very cool in that you had to go through the board game turn by turn and use the Kibbitzers comments along with what was happening at that point in the game.  The comments directed to you the strategy guide, where you looked up an answer from one of the first five groups of puzzles.  For example, after the first set of moves in the Sample game, the Kibbitzer says "Ah, Claude, excellent implementation of the Paladin Deception. I'd score that a 7.9." 

The key was to take the first letters of each word, in this case P and D.  These referred to the Pawn and Dice sections of the strategy guide.  After determining Claude's dice roll and which pawn he moved, you looked those up in the strategy guide, which then corresponding to two separate puzzle answers.  If you index using the 7.9 into these two answers, you'd get two letters.  Doing that for the entire sample game gave the message "ALPHA'S ABOVE OMEGA". 

Located on the board were the words "Home Game", which contained "OMEGA."  So that was the location of Zyzzlvaria Alpha.   This was a great use of the answers along with the board game. 

Saturday stretched into Sunday night, and again... our crew at Boston thinned down to about 3 to 4 people throughout the night.   I think it was Melinda, Nina, and myself, but I'm not positive.  Side note, here... Nina wins the Iron Man/Woman award.  I think she only slept for 3 hours the entire weekend.  And she was pregnant!  Truly amazing.  At one point late in the night, she tried to get me to help her with a logic puzzle involving alien sex, and while I wasn't able to help at all given my fuzzzy mind, it was amusing to hear her saying out loud things like "I had sex with J, so I must be infected."  We had a Jay on our team.  :)

Mike Stringer woke up sometime around 6AM, I think... looked at 3 puzzles in a row and immediately figured out the last piece of each puzzle.  It was both a testament to his ability and what lots of sleep can do for you.  

Sunday morning, I went to bed about 10AM and woke back up at 12:30PM or so.  It took me another full hour to clear my head of all the cobwebs. 

A neat thing that had happened while I was asleep was certain puzzles now had companions and other puzzles had 3 more versions of themselves.   Sunday was kind of a blur... Nina and I did a couple of more fun puzzles, especially one involving Twitter and pets. 

Finally around 6PM, our Boston team started to break apart.  Corey, Melinda, and Nina all had to catch flights back.  I had a Monday morning flight, but once the team started leaving, I was basically done.  It was weird to have no idea if the hunt was going to end in a matter or minutes or be another 12 hours. 

I know the organizers don't want to reveal how teams are doing, but I would like to see a way for teams to be able to find out how close the hunt is to being over.   For example, if on Saturday night, if I knew that it wasn't close to being over, I would have slept more.   But not knowing, and not wanting it to be over while I was asleep, I probably extended myself too far.  

Anyway, I went to bed during the middle of the AFC Championship game, at around 9PM.  From my fuzzy memory, the Penguins were playing the Astros and Ontario had just hit a three-pointer to extend the game to a 10th frame.  At least that what I vaguely remembered, as I drifted off.  

I woke up Monday morning, and saw that the hunt wasn't completed until 3AM.  Wow... I'm glad I didn't try to stay up for all of that.  Congratulations to Beginner's Luck on winning! 

Overall, I had a fantastic time.  Having solved several hunts online in the past, I think this group of puzzles was definitely the best I've seen.  Most every puzzle I saw was really, really nice and fun.  There just weren't really that many of the "all these clues are Welsh nicknames for Rubgy players" and until you figure that out you have to stare at the puzzle for 10 hours.  Huge props to the whole crew for the overall quality of everything. 

Looking back on all this now and thinking about my performance, my biggest regret/weakness is wanting to tackle puzzle after puzzle as quickly as possible and not take extra time looking at the broad picture or trying to solve metas.  With an individual puzzle, you know that it's solvable without any extra information.  With a meta, you might be able to solve it now, or you might have no chance.  So, it's a much safer use of time to do nothing but tackle individual puzzles. 

As a result, this makes it really tough for me to solve metas or other grand scale type challenges.  I did the same thing in Ghost Patrol, not taking time to read through the book or watch several of the summary videos.  Turns out in both cases, this would have really helped.  I'm going out to Seattle to do the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt tomorrow, and my goal in that is to make sure I take some time to look at things from a larger view. 

And I'm now going back through the archives and trying to solve everything I didn't see, including the metas.  The downside is that I haven't read any other recaps yet of the event, which I plan to do once I'm finished.

And finally, here's a quick summary of the puzzles I worked on:

Inner Zyzzlvaria
Plutonic Solids - A Cryptogram involving locations around MIT.  It was the first puzzle I worked on in the hunt, and ironically, the one I was the most useless on because I had no familiarity with any of the locations.

The Plutonian Transport Agency  -  A neat look-up type of puzzle involving IDing cars and indexing into them using a parking towing schedule.  

Cheat Codes - Melinda did all the hard work on this puzzle where Playstation moves turned into a cryptogram yielding famous "Bosses" in lore/fiction, such as Voldemort.  She showed it to me and I had the key insight on what was going on. 

Space Invader - Nina and I picked this up from SF who had abandoned it, and we were able to finish it off.  Very clever to add an additional row in the middle of puzzle to yield the answer. 

The Comedy Planet, Featuring Sid! - I tackled this mostly solo and got some help near the end.  Pretty funny puzzle involving Caesar shifting key words from jokes and then prouncing the Caesar shifted word. 

Good Will, Mystery Hunting - I was able to step at the end on this one and help finish it off.   I like movie puzzles.

Timecop - Nina and I did the first of many puzzles together.  This was a fun one involving Amazing Race couples, finding where they were eliminated and shifting MIT buiding numbers based on Time Zone differential.  

Pimp Your Starcrafts - Melinda did most of the work here, and I helped her finish it off.  I liked this puzzle and wished I had done it from the start.  

Outer Zyzzlvaria
Growth Involves Reconstructing Legos - One of my favorite puzzles.   Mike and Melinda worked on one set, while Corey and I worked on another.  When we were doing it, we said, "I bet Thomas Snyder built this one"  Turns out we were right.  This was a really neat variant of skycraper puzzles but using legos and including pictures from various angles to help you along.  We finished reconstructing all the images, but the final message was a little tricky to extract.  SF took us a little further, and stalled again.  Finally I finished it off and was so glad this didn't become one of those where you spend hours solving and get 95% of the way there, but never get an answer.

Aliotherapy - I got most of the images and even figured out the Dukes of Hazzard part, but I got stalled and gave up.   Someone else picked it up and got us through it.

The Sexaholics of Truthteller Planet - Nina tried to have me help with this at 4AM on Sunday.  It was like trying to teach calculus to mountain goat.  I pulled it out last night and worked my way through it.  This is not the puzzle you want to be doing when tired.  Wow... very involved and challenging.  Of course, I may be lying... 

Employee Assortment Assessment - I was eager to tackle this because it looked really cool.  It was a Rube Goldberg type puzzle where you had to figure out how balls made their way through a grid of objects.  I knew exactly how the message was going to work, but Ben and I couldn't get it to work, and we eventually abandoned it.   Unfortunately, this was the only disappointing puzzle of the hunt for me because after reading the answer, it basically came down to reading the puzzle creator's mind as to how the various objects would redirect the balls.  And there were some inconsistencies it seemed.  Catapults were affected by gravity, but cannons weren't.   What happens when a cannon shoots the ball into a barrier that's facing upward?  A ball leaves a teleporter with no momentum.  Walls drop things straight down instead of banking off, and so forth.  It's totally solvable if you make the right decisions, but we just didn't come up with the right possibilites. 

The Fifth Element and 35 more - I really enjoyed this one, which boiled down to making two letter "Elements" out of crossword clues and then combining them into compounds to form longer words.  Unfortunately, we got most of the clues and then got really bogged down on getting an answer.  We were trying to use both letters of each word instead of overlapping each two letter word, and as a result of not much sleep, couldn't see what we were doing wrong.  Ben became obsessed with trying to program a solution, but with the wrong assumptions, it sadly ended up being a lot of wasted effort.  Mike woke up and immediately suggested to overlap the words.  I went to bed, and went I woke up, I was able to get the rest of the words.  A great example of what sleep can do for you.

Reflections on a Milky Steed Who's Quite Amphibious, Indeed - Melinda and I clicked on this one and we solved it pretty quickly.  It was a great puzzle, in fact both of us thought it was our favorite of the event because of its cleverness and elegence.  Great job, Ian Tullis.

Nesting Instinct - Another enjoyable Ian puzzle, which I'm sure to forever to build.  Nina and I banged through this one and had lots of fun figuring it all out.

Track Meet - Melinda did most of the work on this one but got stuck and I helped her finish it off.  However, we were missing one key insight at the end, which was suggested by Mike, fresh from his rest.   I also enjoyed this one quite a bit.

Cover Girls - Nina and I cranked through this one really quickly.  I felt in touch with my sensitive side after this and I'm better because of it.

Initial Reactions - Amazing clue where each clue had two possible answers, which were both people with a single initial in their names.  The only downside of this one was that the answer was a pretty obscure piece of MIT trivia, and the final answer of MIT CHAIR ENDOWER E THIS ALLEN is a pretty garbled sentence and very tough to piece together with one or two missing letters.

I'm Feeling a Little TwitterPetted - This was the last puzzle I solved and it was fitting that Nina and I did it together.  Another really fun puzzle that involved figuring out what famous animals in fiction might Twitter about. And there were many other puzzles that I glanced out, flailed on, fizzled out with, and generally stared at bleary eyed for longer than I should have.  

I can't wait for next year's event, and I hope that the upcoming Microsoft puzzle hunt is just as fun.   I know it's smaller in scale, but I'm sure I'll have a blast.  And stay tuned for the writeup, which will come out in June.  :)


Tags: mit mystery hunt, puzzles

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