Happy June everyone. Back in January, I had the privilege of being on the winning team of the 2013 MIT IAP Mystery Hunt (pretty sure I already mentioned that a couple of posts ago). For those unaware, we were a huge team (~100+ people), and the name of our team was the full text of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Whenever we’d communicate with hunt HQ, we’d continue reading the text until they made us stop (or let us stop). Among others thought this would be a neat, clever idea — maybe even “cute.” In reality, however, it turned out to just add to the pain and misery of what turned out to be an already painful and misery-drenched (but also somewhat fun) hunt. Tired-sounding reading of the rambling Randian prose quickly became the leitmotif for the weekend.
Other people have already shared their opinions and experiences about the hunt (google “2013: the year the mystery hunt broke” for an example). The organizers (Manic Sages) have, in my opinion, already gotten more than enough criticism dumped on them for putting together the longest weekend in hunt history that almost ended in hunt ending by decree or draw — which would have been disastrous for the 2013 hunt, as well as the concept and tradition of the mystery hunt moving forward (in my opinion).
The word “grueling” was the one word I used most when people asked me what the hunt was like this year. I’ve participated in the hunts with this team consistently for the past 5 years and on and off going back to 2004 (the last year our team won) and earlier. I spent four years at MIT, with all of the all-nighters, failing grades, and frustration that that entails. But I’ll be damned if the 2013 mystery hunt wasn’t one of the most intellectually demoralizing experiences of my life. Is that such a bad thing? In retrospect, I’m not so sure. Challenging experiences and “rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work” (sometimes by doing insane statistical analysis on endless streams of random numbers) are ways in which we attain personal growth — right? Maybe if it was just as difficult, but shorter. Maybe if it had some more fun and games mixed in. Maybe if we didn’t decide to do that stupid Atlas Shrugged thing. Maybe then the hunt would have been FUN as well as just grueling — and wouldn’t have left me with hunt PTSD. Seriously, I’m not alone on my team in having had nightmares up to a week after hunt about still doing the hunt, or still needing to solve a meta.
I’m not going to bore everyone with detailed stories of extremely difficult puzzles with perhaps one-too-many “a-ha!” moments necessary to solve, or the detailed methods our team uses to keep fresh shifts of solvers moving in and out of the room, taking naps, and ultimately winning the battle of attrition that the last 24 hours of the weekend became. But I will recount my tale of how the hunt ended (from my perspective).
The beginning of the end was 8pm Sunday night (already over 16 hours after the point the 2012 mystery hunt had ended in its weekend). We already knew by that point that this was going to be a hunt for the ages. My team had that glazed-over deer-in-the-headlights look that comes from being up for 20-30+ hours in some cases doing extreme mental gymnastics. An email came in from HQ reading: “Our honest estimate of hunt’s end is Monday at 9AM given what we’ve seen of solving rates on our puzzles so far.” At this time, I was on my way out to a room to sleep for a quick 4 hours (or until hunt ended). It turns out that not only was hunt nowhere near ending, but with an end-time of 9AM, they were predicting it to surpass the 2004 hunt for the all-time duration record. And who had written the 2004 hunt? Our team — then known as “French Armada” (because the team wanted to wear funny hats — from what I hear). When I woke up to my alarm 4 hours later, my disillusionment with the mystery hunt had turned into a sort of prideful anger. How dare they assume that their hunt will be even more un-defeatable than the one we’d written (somewhat poorly) a decade earlier? At around 2am, the late-night shift of fresh puzzlers dug in and I, for one, was hoping to prove the Manic Sages’ assumption wrong and to keep our dubious record of “longest hunt ever.”
But it was not to be. At 6AM, or so, I went back in for another brief nap. 9AM came and went, and another shift of freshly-napped hunters came in. The 2004 French Armada’s hunt length record had fallen. Free answers to puzzles were getting handed out every 20 minutes now to help draw things to a close. The requirements for finishing hunt were changed so that one full meta-puzzle (out of 5 total) could be skipped entirely. For those unfamiliar with the standard mechanics of a mystery hunt, there are generally puzzles in “rounds”, and then for each round (or group of rounds), the answers of the puzzles plug into a “meta” puzzle. Once all meta-puzzles are complete, the team is eligible to go on a final “runaround” (involving, literally, running around and solving more puzzles) and ultimately win the hunt. So, eliminating an entire meta-puzzle requirement was a big deal — and up until this year, unheard of (at least by me).
At some point on Monday morning, one of our freshmen (Lauren Herring) had been sitting in the same spot working on one of the metas (“The Enigma”) for what seemed like 12 hours. She’d be sitting there when I left for a nap, and she’d be in the same spot, wild-eyed and turning those same infernal rolls of paper when I got back to the room hours later. And so eventually, that meta got solved. And that left us needing exactly one more meta to get to the runaround. One of them (“Rubik”) seemed totally impossible and we had made little progress on it at all from what I could see. The other one (“Indiana Jones”) was getting churned on slowly at a table by puzzlers including our “old guard” — the bleary-eyed Mark Feldmeier and Zoz Brooks — with the whole team cheering them on. Actually it was more nervous pacing, drinking coffee, and watching vs. audible “cheering.” We were getting close by 10-11am, and calling HQ regularly for hints and clues. We had even called in to verify a partial answer for it — “hey are the first 8 letters of the answer this?” (this is also unheard of in a mystery hunt) — only to get rebuked.
And then something weird happened. Our team phone rang, and Manic Sages’ HQ was on the other end. The inimitable Laura Royden was “manning” the phone at the time and dealing with team-wide organization (we call it “puzzle bitch”ing). It turns out that an offer of settlement/surrender had been made and was being brokered by the Manic Sages in the interest of ending hunt. The terms were to stop hunting now and whatever team was deemed the “furthest ahead” by the Sages would be declared the winner. After being at it for over 70 hours at that point, it was a tempting prospect. The team huddled together, and Laura told HQ that we’d call them back in “a few minutes”. How far could any other team possibly be if they were willing to make this offer? We heard rumors of other competitive teams giving up and packing in to go home by this point, leaving us as one of the few teams insane and stubborn enough to still be trying to win. We knew we only needed one more meta but were, for the moment, scratching our heads on what we were doing wrong with “Indiana Jones.” A couple of the more senior puzzlers on our team (Dan Katz and Erin Rhode at least from what I remember) immediately leaned towards rejecting the offer. Then we got another call from HQ, and they told us that they’d made a terrible mistake and our partial answer check from earlier was actually on the right track. At that point the choice was clear. Not only did we know that we were the farthest ahead, but we also knew we were potentially only minutes away from winning. To accept the other team’s surrender at that point would have perhaps been merciful, but wouldn’t have been a good thing for the 2013 hunt, or hunt as a tradition and concept (in my opinion at least). Laura shouted clearly into the phone: “no we will not accept your offer!” And, sure enough, about 10 minutes later, she called back with the complete correct answer to our final required meta-puzzle and accepted congratulations that we had, for all intents and purposes (with the exception of the runaround), won the hunt. Below is a picture commemorating that very moment.
Once that was done, Manic Sages actually asked if we wanted to do the full runaround, or just be handed the coin and declared the winners at that point. Staying true to tradition, even though it was almost noon on Monday at that point, we elected to make them put on the entire runaround for us. At 3:30pm on Monday, a full 75 hours after the hunt began, the coin was found by the small subgroup of our team that was still awake (this did not include me, as I collapsed shortly after the final answer was called in and I knew we had won).
So now what? Now our team is writing and running the 2014 IAP MIT Mystery Hunt, that’s what. The experience of last year (and echoes of our 2004 hunt) sort of lend a feeling of “there but for the grace of god, go I” to the whole thing. Each and every one of us knows (or should know) that it is very much possible, with the best of intentions and the smartest and most experienced people, to write a hunt that turns out to be “bad” or even maybe “a disaster.” That’s kind of a lot of responsibility, isn’t it? But alas, we will do our best. Without further ado, I’ll wrap up here and introduce the board of directors of the 2014 IAP MIT Mystery Hunt. For continued missives from our team, and guest writers talking about hunt, please visit our blog at http://mysteryhunt.wordpress.com/. And oh yeah, good luck in 2014 everyone!