2012 Mystery Hunted.

Since 2005 (and excepting only 2006), I’ve been making the yearly journey out to freezing Cambridge, Mass., to participate in the MIT Mystery Hunt as part of the Simmons Hall team. The Simhunt team changes names from year to year, usually loosely based on themes like waffles or sponges, in tribute to the peculiar architecture of the host dorm; this year, we were Enigmatic Porifera, which is an anagram for something relevant, I’m told.

Yet again, I failed to take good pictures at the Hunt. In fact, this is the only one I took on my camera:

Amy and Bryan in "cocktail" attire.

Amy and Bryan, two of our team's fearless leaders, reppin' for Enigmatic Porifera in all-out prom style for one of the events.

There are lots of post-Hunt blog posts and reflections on the Internet (chiefly on Livejournal, for some reason), so I won’t rattle on it about it for too long. The Google+ page is a great resource for finding documentation and what others have been posting on the Hunt. For example, the G+ page helped me find this nice essay on puzzling and the scientific endeavor.

On Our Team (Compared to Other Teams)

This year, like last year, our team was quite small. I’d say we had a core team of about a dozen to 20 solvers, including one remote participant (who was a total rockstar solver). With this small group, we were still able to finish #14 out of 33 teams in terms of total number of puzzles solved [PDF]. In contrast, our performance on the metas [PDF] was quite poor: we only ended up solving 3 (out of 12). Of course, the crucial metric of how much fun we had again went unmeasured, but I think we were definitely at or near the top of the pack.

It seems like a good conclusion with regard to improving our team’s competitive performance overall would be that we need to focus on improving our meta-solving ability. Of course, the trick is that we have to get fast enough at solving the non-meta puzzles so that we have a few solutions to work with.

I suspect that much of what makes the perennially-competitive teams perennially competitive is that they have a larger, deeper pool of solvers at their disposal. Teams like Codex, Manic Sages, and Metaphysical Plant seem to field about 70-150 members each year, including large and effective remote contingents. In contrast, I think we might have had 50-70 puzzlers at our membership peak, maybe 2007ish, which was not to mean that we ever had 50 people working on solving puzzles at one time.

MIT puzzle hunt. Team Wafflehaus.

Our team, post-Hunt in 2010.

Our team might be a little atypical in that we are, in recent years, a bit light on actual MIT-ers. This year, almost half of our team were Dartmouth alumni, with our associated useless liberal arts backgrounds. We have fewer MIT alums who can immediately recognize MIT-related clues, and we have fewer (but a few! And awesome!)  current MIT students who can run around campus and know where things are. We also have a preponderance of cranky aging nerds who don’t want to get up from sitting at their laptops and therefore generally don’t want to leave the building ever. (I’m not sure if that’s different from how it is on any of the other teams, actually.)

Since our team works out of Simmons Hall, which is a bit remote from the rest of the puzzling action, my teammates and I  usually hadn’t had much interaction with the other teams. There was a bit of drama a couple of years ago when some of our stronger solvers left for a more competitive team, but otherwise, the other teams were a complete mystery to me.

This year, I had a friend from Dartmouth who wound up doing her first hunt with Metaphysical Plant – a giant team that put on 2011’s excellent hunt. We got to meet up with her and some of her teammates afterwards and talk to them about how their team works. We learned that they have a pretty solid web-based puzzle productivity/management interface for their team, at least some of which was coded on the fly by a team member at the start of the Hunt. Our team just uses a cascade of Google Docs (back in the day, we had a home brew MediaWiki installation which was probably more trouble than it was worth since many of our solvers weren’t super comfortable with wikis). As result, Jon resolved to work on some kind of web application that should at least theoretically boost our puzzling productivity next year – we’ll see what happens.

The Puzzles! (Spoilers, alert!)

  • Both “March Madness” and “Pacific Overtones” called on my hazy memory of things I sort-of learned as a child at Chinese school, which was fun.
  • The law nerd in me was super excited when I opened up “Tax… in… Space,” but sadly, it was about 3 in the morning at the time, and I didn’t have enough remaining cycles in my brain to tackle it. I am pleased, however, to learn that  the puzzle was authored by a real live lawyer/law professor! I haven’t looked at the solution yet because I’m still hoping to take a crack at it later.
  • We totally dominated “Potlines” and “Incredible Edibles,” which is a true testament to the cooking/food obsessiveness on our team. But I will confess that I am still disappointed that “Potlines” was not about stoner movies.
  • We spent a while working on “Itinerant People of America” but didn’t crack it, and I’m sorry we didn’t because it’s great. Even though we had a real live linguistics professor working on it, we didn’t figure out that it was a cryptogram of IPA notation! We were really frustratingly close: we did a frequency analysis, we noted the similarity to hobo signs, at least two of us have read and enjoyed John Hodgman’s taxonomy of hobos, we just didn’t put it together. I am really frustratingly bad at that final, key phase of puzzle solving that we call “answer extraction.”
  • Revisiting History” was interesting to me until we quickly figured out it was a Dr. Who puzzle, then I got up and walked away. There’s no accounting for taste. Someone else who knew/cared about Dr. Who solved it later. It’s funny how a theme – and not even a substantive theme – can drive or repel your interest in a puzzle.

Anyway, all in all a wonderful time, and, like last year, am already resolving to practice puzzling more in the interim and  already looking forward to next year!