Puzzlers contend for top spot at Huntception
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This article previously contained several errors. It said that Setec had won Mystery Hunt in 2002, 2005, and 2009; in fact, before this year, Setec had won in 1999, 2001, and 2004. Chris Morse, the leader of Setec, graduated from MIT with a PhD in 1998, not 1982 (this mistake was introduced during editing). He was a professor at Tufts in 2004, the last year Setec won Mystery Hunt, but is now a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. About 40 teams, not 18, participated in Mystery Hunt 2016.
Team Setec Astronomy won this year’s Mystery Hunt at 6:53 p.m. Sunday when they found the coin in The Alchemist statue.
Setec also won in 1999, 2001, and 2004. The team has been led since its genesis in the 90s by an MIT Course 5 graduate whose last name is, appropriately, Morse. Chris Morse PhD ’98, now a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, started the team with about 15 fellow graduates; over the years the team has grown to include about 50 people from various backgrounds. The dual reward and burden of winning a hunt is being in charge of writing and running the hunt the following year.
Team Luck, last year’s winners, wrote the hunt this year. Deeply layered and harder than previous hunts, it was dubbed Huntception by its creators, Nathan Fung, Mike Sylvia, and Craig Kasper. Fung, the founder and leader of the team, began his hunting journey as a member of Team Palindrome, but sought experience on a smaller team and subsequently formed Team Luck.
Huntception featured 163 puzzles divided between 12 “dream levels,” with the last one thematically called “Limbo.” The editors “underestimated how much harder the hunt was” than in previous years, they said — though “not impossibly hard.”
Teams raced each other to solve exhausting layers of puzzles, meta puzzles, and meta meta puzzles over the course of the weekend. Solving each puzzle requires substantial reserves of critical thinking, creativity, and focus; the hunt ends when teams successfully pass all the challenges and find a coin hidden somewhere on campus. It’s been an IAP tradition since 1981.
Previous years’ hunts have been infamous for concealing puzzles in unassuming locations — the first-aid kits handed out to all teams, the source code of a webpage. Puzzlers are so suspicious, in fact, that all materials and announcements issued by the hunt organizers were accompanied by the disclaimer: “This is not a puzzle.” This phrase even appeared on an innocuous flyer handed out at the opening ceremony and was reiterated during a hunt wrap-up presentation which was, indeed, after the hunt was already over.
Team Luck, which is short for “Luck, I Am Your Father,” began planning this year’s hunt “pretty much right after we won,” Fung said. Members of the team took “nearly the entire year” to finish writing all the puzzles: the hunt’s start was delayed two hours due to some last-minute debugging. The theme was originally to be another Christopher Nolan film, Memento, but it shifted to Inception.
“Mystery Hunt is puzzle hunting, upside down, backwards, and inside out,” Kasper mused when asked to compare it to other puzzle hunts. Kasper spent “close to every piece of available time” authoring or co-authoring about 20 of the hunt’s puzzles.
One of the best parts of puzzle-making, Kasper was eager to say, was that he could let his “sense of mischief” creep into his work. Sylvia voiced his appreciation for the Mystery Hunt community, which “has given me a lot of enjoyment over the years.” Kasper said that he has been a “puzzle geek since high school,” while Sylvia has been “incredibly into puzzles” since the age of five, and got into Mystery Hunt after the impressive feat of going through the entire Hunt archive.
A favorite puzzle among the teams, one Team Luck member found, was Meshed Together from the first dream level “Dog Show.” The first dream level, Muttstery Hunt, actually masqueraded as the hunt’s theme until the real Inception theme was revealed at the end of the round.
About 40 teams competed in the Mystery Hunt this year. Five teams finished by midnight Sunday evening.
A short survey of one team’s sleeping habits during the Hunt revealed that puzzlers received anywhere between a concerning three hours of sleep to a surprisingly healthy fifteen hours of sleep spread across the weekend. The most dedicated members responded to the query with a noncommittal “hmm.”
A team of high school students from a neighboring state took part in the competition; though the team had to leave before the end of the hunt on Sunday, many continued to work on the puzzles remotely from home. For Kasper, who helped encourage the team as they worked steadily through the maze of numbers, words, images, and everything in between, being able to “see the moment when someone solves a meta for the first time” was a highlight of his hunt experience.
Hunt teams that are predominantly undergrads are more and more “fielded by dorms,” the editors said. Student associations are also common grounds for forming teams — Super Team Awesome, for example, is composed of current and past members of the MIT Association of Taiwanese Students.
During the closing ceremonies, Team Luck dedicated this year’s hunt to the late team member Maso, who, a team member said, was an integral part of the Luck and Hunt communities.
Kasper believes that Team Luck will possibly win again in the next “five to ten years.”
“I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson from this time,” he said, laughing, referring to the immense difficulty and time commitment involved in writing and managing a hunt, suggesting that “perhaps we should start thinking about possible puzzle themes before going into a hunt.”
After the closing ceremony, Setec came to visit the hunt organizers in their headquarters, where they received congratulations and encouragement from Team Luck. The departing team also passed on the word that one of the hunt sponsors, Red Bull, was hoping for a future hunt puzzle to feature Red Bull products in some way. The request seemed rather far-fetched, but, as Kasper says, “people who make Mystery Hunts usually find a way to surprise you.”