2022 MIT Mystery Hunt

Three decades ago, my first job in publishing was as a proofreader at the (big, glossy, squarebound, massively profitable) PC Magazine. I shared a cubicle with Eric Berlin, a young playwright and theater critic, and we killed time when we were waiting for page proofs (exciting stuff like laboratory tests of hundreds of almost-identical printers) by trading stories and reading the slang dictionary.

We fell out of touch after I left the magazine, but reconnected via Facebook–these days, Eric is a professional puzzle constructor. Every year in late January, I would read his recap of the MIT Mystery Hunt, an event on the MIT campus where thousands of puzzle aficionados form hundreds of teams and then spend the MLK weekend tackling puzzles: some of them insanely difficult, some just insane.

After I said, “Hey, that sounds fun, I’d love to do it sometime,” Eric surprised me by inviting me to join his crew of solvers, Team Palindrome, and I surprised him by accepting.

That first Hunt was overwhelming for me: lots of puzzle-solving was happening, but it was all flying by incredibly quickly and Team Palindrome was filled with Jeopardy! champions and crossword-tournament champions and other incredibly smart people. But I contributed in unexpected ways–like making a connect-the-dots version of Guernica–and I loved the people of Palindrome and the crazy puzzles, like the one where a dozen doughnuts got delivered to our team and we had to correlate the flavors of the doughnuts with the information contained on a thumb drive embedded in each one.

So I kept coming back, I got my sea legs, and last year, after years of finishing in second place, Team Palindrome won! Which was a glorious moment (only slightly diminished by it taking place online, because pandemic), but which came with the huge responsibility of running the 2022 Mystery Hunt.

So for the past twelve months, the brilliant minds of Palindrome have been concocting hundreds of puzzles, not to mention all the hard work that goes into creating (to name two large tasks among many) a gorgeous website and a whole mess of entertaining videos that tell the story of puzzlers’ adventures in Bookspace.

(By the way, “Weird Al” Yankovic contributed a video to the Hunt this year. Really. Here it is.)

(Eric collaborated on a New York Times crossword puzzle with “Weird Al” back in 2018. It had lots of cheese references.)

Many brilliant people did lots of work, way more than I did, to make this Hunt a success, but I contributed four puzzles, and I’m really proud of them, so I’m going to share them here. (If clicking on any of them takes you to a login screen, just click on the big “public access” button and then try again.)

In case you’re not familiar with Hunt-style puzzles: as a general rule, they throw you into the deep end of the swimming pool. They don’t typically give you instructions: you have to figure out what’s going on and what the puzzle’s secret architecture is. Often, if you notice a pattern—maybe some consistently anomalous details—you can tease out an answer. But if you find this all wholly baffling, feel free to click through to the solution.

The first puzzle I smithed was The Mouse and the Motorcycle, inspired by a puzzle-related news story last year. It’s a short-and-sweet puzzle: I liked that it had two halves and that you could solve them in either order (and that whichever half you solved first should help you crack the other half). Kah Kien Ong was the editor (thanks!); the puzzle was part of our Star Rats prologue, released before the Hunt to whet everyone’s appetite. If you’re looking for an introduction to Hunt-style puzzles, it’s a great place to start.

I had planned to stop there, but then Eric asked me to collaborate on two puzzles with him: in each case, he had a cool idea for a puzzle but (mild spoiler alert) wanted to draw on my musical knowledge. If you are a music fan, I think you will find Swingin‘ to be worth your time: it’s great fun (and it features delightful art, most of it by Lea Berlin (Eric’s daughter). Thanks to editor Katie Hamill!

The other puzzle Eric and I did together was called Scream. We almost gave up on this puzzle several times, daunted by its technical requirements, but each time said “well, maybe we can make it work if we change this one thing.” As a result, I learned a lot more about audio editing software than I expected to! Thanks to Rob Sheffield, Tom Nawrocki, and Bill Tipper for helping me brainstorm on this puzzle, and to Ben Smith for editing it.

Dice. Not pictured: Turkey and Hash.

Late in the year, I discovered that Palindrome had only a few “swag puzzles” in the works (puzzles involving physical objects delivered to each team, like those doughnuts a few years back). Swag puzzles are one of my favorite things about Hunt, and when I learned we might have room for one more, I came up with an idea involving customized twenty-sided dice. It’s called Diced Turkey Hash (although in my heart I will always think of it as Large Icosahedron Collider). Ben Smith edited it with patience and skill (and did superhuman work making sure that 800 custom-printed d20s looked great and got out to 200 teams—thank you, Ben). Diced Turkey Hash has a whole bunch of different elements—I was definitely trying to squeeze ten pounds of puzzle into a five-pound bag—but if you’re up for a challenge, I think you’ll be glad you took the time. I learned a lot doing this puzzle, not least about how to make it a satisfying journey, so that solvers can confirm at various points that they are on the right track. (If you don’t want to go on that whole journey, you still might enjoy trying to figure out what’s going on with the first two dice (printed in black): can you suss out what each of those groups of 20 images have in common?)

Enjoy! Maybe I’ll see you at MIT next year, when the team called “teammate” (who won this year, congrats!) will be running the 2023 Mystery Hunt!

posted 18 January 2022 in Outside and tagged , , , , . no comments yet

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