In Annual Hunt, Murder Mystery Challenges Institute Puzzle Buffs
Hordes of people gathered in Lobby 7 at noon on Friday for the start of the 29th annual Mystery Hunt, when teams were handed a piece of paper entitled “Puzzle Zero.” It became quite clear over the next arduous 56 hours that this puzzle had absolutely nothing to do with the Hunt, as teams of students, alumni, and others toiled through what even the organizers — collectively named “Palindrome” — admit was a very difficult edition of MIT’s annual Hunt.
This year’s Hunt involved the murder of the fictional Dr. Otto Awkward, who was killed while he was hiding the coin that participants spent the greater part of the weekend seeking. Since Dr. Awkward was the only person who knew the whereabouts of the coin, the only way to discern its location was, naturally, to solve a series of puzzles linked to various suspects, contacts, and witnesses.
Arriving back at the headquarters of my team, named Too Much Clue (from Baker House), we surveyed the materials given to us at the kickoff. Among the items were Dr. Awkward’s little black book (with most of the pages torn out) and a business card for a Samantha Oriflamme. Not long after, each team would receive the first of many e-mails from an Abigail Freebie, and the Hunt would be underway.
This year’s Hunt was especially testing for my team; hours went by without a single solution, despite our valiant efforts huddled around laptop computers and a whiteboard on the top floor of Baker House. At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, four members of my team, including myself, had the opportunity to take a break from the hustle and bustle at team headquarters to attend a karaoke “memorial event” dedicated to Dr. Awkward in Room 2-190. In typical Mystery Hunt fashion, while members of other teams entertained us with such classics as “Baby Got Back,” we had to focus on solving yet another puzzle hidden among the song artists. By 8 p.m. that day, three teammates and I returned to Baker curious about whether the puzzle we solved at the party was our team’s first solution. Perhaps unfortunately, it was.
It wasn’t all bad news back at base camp, though, as my determined team refused to give up so easily. Around 10 p.m., five team members and I ventured away from Baker House to begin what turned out to be my favorite task of the weekend. This puzzle, entitled “Race Around the Block,” required us to split up into two groups and follow a set of instructions that would take us around campus. The catch was that the instructions were not given in order. Instead, each group had to determine which command to follow based on various clues, such as the building number of the other group at a checkpoint.
Our first two instructions were to find the starting point of each group. One group had to begin at the location of the room with its number in neon lights; immediately, our team determined this was on the fourth floor of Building 10. However, the other starting point — the location where one could find one city three times on a red line — was not as easy to find. After deciding it was not a reference to the MBTA train or to a fire hose and after eventually calling the remainder of our team back at Baker, we were able to pinpoint the location in Building 9.
The complex set of directions would eventually lead each group to the starting point of the other group, creating a loop. By then, it was past 2 a.m. early Saturday morning. After meeting in Lobby 7, our two groups returned to headquarters, where we eventually solved the puzzle.
Several of my other teammates appeared willing to remain awake until past sunrise, but I had to get some sleep. The Mystery Hunt was far from over.
The late night meant a late reunification with my team. Checking my e-mail, I had received a slew of e-mails, not only from my teammates, but also from the mysterious Ms. Abigail Freebie, who frequently updated us on the status of the investigation into Dr. Awkward’s murder. Ms. Freebie also periodically sent out hints to all of the teams, aware, as the organizers would tell us during the finale on Monday, that the Hunt was not progressing as quickly as they planned.
One especially complex puzzle — particularly for my team — was entitled “Mystery Rallye” and included a map and a set of confusing directions for a vehicle. I, suffice it to say, would not touch that one with a 10-foot pole, especially after a few of my teammates informed me they had spent two hours just reading the rules and still failed to come up with an approach to solve it.
One of the newer puzzles, entitled “That’ll Tichu to Mess With Us,” required two of our team members to learn to play the Chinese card game of Tichu and then challenge two of the organizers to a match. Beginning around 6 p.m. that night, three of my teammates — Joseph S. Gionta ’06, Garrett C. Robinson ’09, and Diana J. Wallin ’07 — and I spent the greater part of two hours perfecting the game. At 10 p.m., Diana and Garrett went off to play, and ultimately defeat, the Tichu masters at Hunt Headquarters.
Saturday night was an even later night for my comrades and me. However, Diana seemed to raise the spirits of my team with a 4 a.m. e-mail congratulating us on completing 20 puzzles and including a picture of a certain team member sleeping in the lounge with his hands together, as if praying.
Sunlight had appeared above the horizon by the time I went to sleep, so I woke up on Sunday even later than I had the previous day. Sunday was also marked by the Patriots game, so (among other reasons) the team presence at headquarters was less impressive than earlier in the weekend. Still, as I discovered when I arrived that evening, we still solved a few tough puzzles over the course of the afternoon.
Furthermore, although the number of people physically present at Too Much Clue’s headquarters was low, we had remote solvers from around the world (and just around campus) donating their time and knowledge to the Too Much Clue effort through the team wiki and countless Google spreadsheets and documents.
By 8 p.m. Sunday, my team’s sights were focused on a different hunt: one for food. In order to solve this puzzle, seven of my team members, including myself, ventured to Copley Place for a (large) bite to eat. Ironically, it was during this time of food and relaxation, and not during our many hours of painstaking work, that the team received the e-mail that the coin — and Dr. Awkward’s killer — had been found. And thus, at 8:26 p.m., the Hunt ended. Originally prepared to return to Baker for more hours of puzzle-solving, my team instead returned to shut down and clean up our headquarters, which had become flooded with papers, sunflower seeds, soda, and pizza boxes.
At noon the following day, Monday, Jan. 21, a long 72 hours after the Hunt began, the teams all congregated in 26-100 for the wrap-up event. Team Death From Above provided an online simulcast so remote hunters could enjoy hearing from the organizers as well.
During the two-hour wrap-up, the organizers, Team Palindrome, shared some of the lighter moments from behind the scenes of the Hunt and explained the solutions to a few of the more challenging puzzles. The explanations drew a variety of emotions from the crowd — laughs, moans, and even hissing could all be heard. One puzzle, “Knots and Crosswords,” was so difficult, the hosts joked that they considered making that puzzle alone the entire Mystery Hunt.
The hosts were particularly amused by the number of teams that were able to complete the puzzle entitled “Nationwide Hunt,” which required teams to find six words on monuments and buildings scattered across the country (a challenge with which even Google couldn’t help). A few teams reported calling strangers across the country, including people at San Francisco City Hall and a hotel in Miami, on their quest to find the answer.
Near the conclusion of the ceremony, the organizers acknowledged and congratulated this year’s winner, the peculiarly-named Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight. As winners of this year’s Hunt, the Midnight Bombers have the privilege of creating next year’s Hunt, just as they did after they won the 2006 Mystery Hunt. Perhaps next year’s Hunt won’t be such a killer …