I spent basically the whole weekend doing the MIT Mystery Hunt. It’s a puzzle competition that’s pretty famous at this point. People fly in from around the country and the world to MIT to take part. My team, Project Electric Mayhem (or just Mayhem), has a west coast branch that operates out of the Bay Area. I hunted my four years at the Institute and now this was my second year out here.
The sort of puzzles that are in the Mystery Hunt are pretty intense. Usually it’s just a set of clues with little or no instructions or hints on what to do with them. One puzzle I got was something like this:
… [35 total clues]
… [36 total]
the list of numbers was obviously zip codes. You look them up and you have 37 cities and states. Then you had to anagram (mix up the letters to get a new word) the city and state pairs and the anagram forms the answer to a clue. For example, look up 19025 and you’ll get Dresher, PA. That anagrams to rephrased which is the answer to the clue expressed differently. Now do this 35 times. Order the produced words in order of the original clues (which was arbitrary, the zip codes were in numerical order) and read down the first letters and you get HERBTARLEKDARRINSTEPHENSORKIPWILSON. And you have one zip code left, 56510, which is Ada, MN. You anagram that and look at the clue and, what do you know, Herb Tarlek, Darrin Stephens and Kip Wilson were each an AD MAN. And that’s your answer for one puzzle.
And there were probably about 120 puzzles this year.
And you take the answer to the puzzles for each round and then use those as the clue to solve meta-puzzle. There was an additional layer of meta-meta puzzles (not strictly true; we ended up calling these “super puzzles”) for each round this year as well.
Here’s a great write up of the sort of stuff that goes on during Mystery Hunt. I remember one year people made Rhett call up Noam Chomsky at home to ask him about a linguistics puzzle.
Mayhem did well. We had all the super puzzles except one solved. We suspect if we’d solved that we would have done a meta-super puzzle with all the answer from the super puzzles (and maybe the meta puzzles), the gone on the runaround in which you try to find the coin, which is hidden on campus somewhere.
Yes, hundreds, if not over a thousand people, do this every year and all for a simple prize; if you win, you get to write the Hunt for the following year. There is no second prize. When the coin is found, you pack up and go home.
Alright. Time to sleep.
[Update: Wally’s got a nice write up of the Mystery Hunt, including a nice piece of writing he did for the Technique.