MIT Mystery Hunt 2017 [Part 1/3]

The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt ended last Sunday. When I describe the hunt to other people, I often tell them that it’s my favorite weekend of the year, and it is. I get to reunite with old friends, meet new people, and spend 3 straight days solving puzzles. Well, sometimes not quite 3 days, but more on that later.

This was my 6th Mystery Hunt, and the 3rd time I hunted on-site with ✈✈✈ Galactic Trendsetters ✈✈✈. This year we came in 4th, our best performance yet.

The hunt, run by Setec Astronomy and called “Monsters et Manus,” was themed around Dungeons and Dragons. The opening skit involved some D&D players getting sucked into their own game. To get out, they needed to defeat the evil sorcerer Mystereo Cantos (anagram of Setec Astronomy / Too Many Secrets) and recover the two-sided die (the coin!). The hunt structure involved two types of metapuzzles: 6 “character metas,” which were always pure metas and based on the D&D players and their roles, and 8 “quest metas,” which were often shell metas and represented various forays into the fantasy world. There were also 4 events scheduled throughout the weekend that were based on the six canonical attributes of D&D (charisma, constitution, wisdom, etc.). Each of the 6 characters had “levels” that represented how experienced he or she was. Levels could be increased through various mechanisms and puzzles were unlocked based on these levels.

Notably, this hunt was solved much faster than those of previous years: the winning team, Death and Mayhem, took around 15 hours, locating the coin at 4:23 AM Saturday morning. Our team found the coin around 3:00 PM on Saturday, leaving us with almost two days of free time before wrap-up. Although I think most of us would have preferred to be still solving puzzles all of Sunday, this situation did have its advantages: we all got to get a good night of sleep on Sunday, and we filled the remaining time playing party, video, and board games in our hunt rooms.

Most hunt recaps eventually talk about the individual puzzles that the author enjoyed or played a hand in solving. However, with a hunt that went by this fast, I didn’t get to see as many puzzles or solve as many all the way from start to finish. Below I’ll talk about several puzzles I have thoughts on, although these are certainly not the ones that I contributed the most towards solving. (Spoilers Ahead!)

Basic Phrenology: This puzzle started out relatively normal, as puzzles go. We were given several TIL’s that corresponded to the contents TED-Ed videos with a transdeletion. The removed letters, read in order, told us to look at the end of another TED-Ed video about counting on your fingers using binary. We knew from the meta that this puzzle’s answer was 13 letters long, so we started submitting a bunch of 13 letter answers that seemed appropriate: HIGHER THAN TEN (the last words of the title), ONES AND ZEROES (the last words spoken in the video), INFINITE HOTEL (almost the last two words displayed in the video). None of these were correct, and in our frustration, our answers became more and more ridiculous: TEN TWENTY FOUR (one past the highest number you can count to), APPLE COMPUTER (there’s a computer chip shown at the end), DACTYLONOMY (not even 13 letters).

Eventually, someone figured out the right thing to do, which was an absolutely mind-blowing final step: surrounding that computer chip at the end are 13 hands each cycling through a sequence of binary finger positions. Translating these into numbers and then letters in the standard way (1 = A, 2 = B), produces the correct answer CRANIOGRAPHY. I’ll note that this (official TED-Ed) video was uploaded in December of 2016 and managed to acquire more than 400,000 views without anyone noticing this answer embedded in it. Setec revealed at wrap-up that they were able to do this because one of their writers worked as a producer for TED-Ed.

Marvels of the Ancient World: During wrap-up for the 2015 Mystery Hunt, one of the hunt writers mentioned that they had designed a puzzle around the (excellent) board game 7 Wonders. Solvers would be given the final scorecard and ending set of cards acquired by each player and would essentially have to solve the logic puzzle of which card was played during which turn in order to extract the answer. Unfortunately, it was never successfully test-solved so it didn’t make it to the final hunt. Well, Setec managed to do it! There are a few differences from the described puzzle: solvers were given the set of cards involved in each round, but not which cards were assigned to which player. Furthermore, extraction involved computing the final scorecard and adjusting it to produce a clue phrase.

A friend, me, and two other trendsetters spent something like 3 to 4 hours slowly working our way through the game (this year’s Duck Konundrum was started after we began, and was solved well before we finished). At several points we seemed to run out of further constraints and used the knowledge that the scorecard transformations needed to produce numbers from 1 through 26 in order to narrow things down. Eventually we managed to get the phrase COINS BETWEEN AGES (SPEL? ??? THE D????). Looking at the coins held by each player between the 3 ages, and converting numbers to letters produced the phrase GAME NAME, which led us to the absolutely ridiculous answer SEVEN WONDERS.


In retrospect, it was a little weird that the game’s name was never mentioned anywhere in the entire puzzle; had we noticed this and the fact that the meta involved answers with many N’s, E’s, W’s and S’s, we might have managed to call this in before sinking something like 14 total man-hours on it. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to solve.

Changing Rooms: This puzzle began with one of my favorite crossword-variants, a Some Assembly Required with cryptic clues. The wordplay half of each cryptic clue included an extra letter that was not present in the answer to the definition half. These extra letters of the rooms clues spelled STAR BATTLE, a common grid-based logic puzzle. (I love it when crossword-style puzzles turn into grid-based logic puzzles). After we solved the Star Battle puzzle, we now had two stars placed in every row of our grid. The extra letters of the rows clues spelled EVERY FIFTH IS NEXT TYPE. Reading the letter under every fifth star spelled LITS, another grid-based logic puzzle. Solving the LITS puzzle resulted in various shaded regions. Reading the letters under the stars that were in a shaded region produced the final answer BISTROS.

Schoolhouse Rock: This puzzle was essentially solved by the time I saw it, but I thought it was super clever. Solvers are presented with a diagrammed sentence missing all the words. Furthermore, the lines of the diagrammed sentence are actually music staffs with notes included. If you hum the song by singing the notes in the rough order that they would go in based on the diagrammed sentence structure, you can identify the song as the Star Spangled Banner. Then, it’s just a matter of assigning words to notes, and reading the first letters of the notes shown in red to give the answer ENTROPY. I wish more puzzles used sentence diagramming as a mechanism. Apparently it has only showed up in one previous hunt puzzle.

The Puzzle at the End of This Book: Again, I played no part in solving this puzzle, but I thought it was too cute to not mention. Each team was given a physical copy of a short children’s book based on The Monster at the End of This Book. The book described Grover’s attempts to stop us from reaching the end of the book and involved a bunch of very simple smaller puzzles leading to a fairly straightforward metapuzzle. You can watch a walkthrough of the puzzle solution here.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the metas, the endgame, and the hunt’s length.