January 19th, 2012


MIT Mystery Hunt

Updated: added some more acting details.

This may be a slightly odd post, because half the people who read it probably participate in Mystery Hunt, and half my audience don't really know what it is. Mystery Hunt is a ridiculously difficult weekend-long puzzle solving competition at MIT, where each puzzle's answer is a word or phrase, and few or no puzzles have any sort of instructions. Competitive teams range in size from 50-200 people.

My team, Codex, won Mystery Hunt for the first time last year. That earned us the task of writing the hunt this year. It was both very difficult and very fun. By writing the hunt, I think I became much better at solving future hunts, both through the process of writing my own 1.5 puzzles, and through extensive fact checking and testsolving of other people's puzzles. When normally competing in the Mystery Hunt, I only get to work on a small number of puzzles. When writing it, the puzzle development was spread over a lot more time -- so I could work on a lot more of them. And, on top of that, the easy puzzles passed test solving quickly, and we were stuck solving the hard ones (including the ones that ultimately failed are were replaced before the hunt)!

I'm proud of the hunt we put together as a whole, but especially of the puzzles and other contributions I was able to make for the team. I am not going to be too spoilerish in my description, but if you would like to try the puzzles clean, don't read any further. In addition to the puzzles that I wrote, I also did a bunch of fun flavor stuff, which you can't really be spoiled on. I wrote:

Winning Conditions: a black box question and answer puzzle. I cowrote this with puzzle writer extraordinaire Kai Huang, where he came up with the core puzzle idea, and I wrote the web app that executed it. This was released early in the hunt, so many or most teams had the chance to wrestle with it, and seemed to enjoy it.

Highlights: a board game extravaganza. I love board games, and thought it was a lot of fun thinking of ways to embed information into board game states. In past hunts, I was always excited about board game puzzles, then was a little bit disappointed if the puzzle didn't ultimately have much to do with games. Well, that's not the case with Highlights! I did learn, perhaps, why other authors had shied away from using full board games. Board games are both noisy and complicated. It took far longer to write this puzzle than I ever would have expected, because it was so easy to introduce an inadvertent error into the game state. I learned things, like that my copy of Settlers is missing a white road segment. I also learned some arcane and surprising rules. I had a lot of help from editors and fact checkers on this puzzle, especially from Kai Huang, Alex Power, and Michael Colao. A few minor errors did manage to sneak through despite it all, but none of them disrupt the core aspects of this puzzle.

Letters from Max and Leo: The theme for this year's mystery hunt was 'The Producers', and as such, each team had to keep trying to make bad musicals that inevitably were huge successes. I loved this theme, and tried to inject as much of the characters into our hunt as I could. To this goal, I wrote 9 letters from Max and Leo that were delivered at the start of the hunt, after each successful production, and at the start of the endgame. These letters included puzzle content for the hunt endgame (not written by me), but the letter part was just for fun. This let me find new and different ways in each letter for Max and Leo to mention that nothing that they said was important!

Motivational Posters: along the same fun lines, I developed a series of motivational posters to be distributed to the teams, to inspire greatness from aspects of the Producers. If you listen to the Producers soundtrack for a week nonstop pre-hunt, you get certain aspects of it stuck in your head! My wife took these poster ideas, and made them a reality. The 'Good Luck' poster was special, put up only in the production room, to wish teams good luck before putting on a show (because, as Max says, it is bad luck to say good luck on opening night). These posters are on my site for now, but should be added to the hunt site eventually.

Critic scripts: the structure of the hunt had the teams first learning how to make a bad show idea worse, then finding out how to anger the critic who would review the show. I put together a briefing for all those playing the critics on who the critics were, and also talking points for how to respond to productions. Even though the team was trying to anger the critic, this would inevitably backfire, and the critic would appreciate the show regardless. These critic scripts aren't going to be posted anywhere, but if you performed during mystery hunt, you heard the critic talking points.

Charity Gala: I played Larry Lang in the Friday night charity gala event puzzle. Puzzle author Kartik asked me what sort of character I wanted to play, and I told him an obnoxious, egotistical actor. I hope if was as fun to interact with Larry as it was to play him!

Endgame: I also organized the critics for the endgame, and played William Bergman. In the endgame, the teams would have a parallel interaction with each of the six critics, as they tried to solve the critic letters. This was designed to allow more of the puzzling team to get involved productively in the runaround, and to use Codex's numbers to provide fun interactions. As time went by, the critics would give increasing numbers of hints to what their reviews meant. We ran 5 teams through the endgame by the end of hunt. Impressively, two of the teams walked in with the critic letters already solved, and needed no critic interaction.