My favorite puzzles from the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt

[Content warning: spoilers for the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt. With one exception, the spoilers are in footnotes (unless you have a broad conception of what constitutes a spoiler).]

There are many things in this world. In order for something to be one of my favorite things, I need to like it quite a lot. It’s pretty high praise, then, to say that the MIT Mystery Hunt is one of my favorite things.

The MIT Mystery Hunt is a puzzle hunt. A puzzle hunt is a somewhat competitive, but mostly just-for-fun, event in which teams work together to solve a bunch of puzzles. A typical puzzle hunt probably has 30 or so puzzles and teams of size 15 or so.

The MIT Mystery Hunt is not a typical puzzle hunt. This year’s hunt had 183 puzzles. Team sizes vary a lot, but the most competitive teams have 100 or so participants.

Now, 1.83 puzzles per team member might not sound like a lot, so you may be surprised to learn that the hunt, which starts on Friday at noon, is typically won around mid-day on Sunday. That means that the fastest teams — the ones where some of the best puzzle solvers in the world work around the clock — finish in about 50 hours. This means that on average, a puzzle takes 20 person-hours to solve (and these are hours spent by people on the best team). So these are not your typical puzzles.

These are also not your typical puzzles in another respect: they come without instructions. (This is true of most puzzle hunts — not just the Mystery Hunt — and is the main reason why I find puzzle hunts so fun.) Instead, you’re given some cryptic text, maybe some images, or audio files, or, well, anything, and are supposed to figure out what to do. Here’s what a typical puzzle looks like.

In a puzzle hunt, you typically don’t work on a puzzle alone. Partly that’s because it’s much more fun to work together, but also, since you often don’t know what to do next, it’s really helpful to have as many people as possible with as many different skillsets as possible staring at a puzzle. This year, for example, one puzzle consisted of a bunch of songs. My team was stuck until someone realized that the songs all appeared in episodes of the TV show “The Masked Singer”, which they happened to be a big fan of.

I only got to work on a small fraction of the puzzles over the course of the hunt. But a small fraction of 183 is still a lot of puzzles! Here were some of the most memorable puzzles for me, with a footnote after each one for spoiler-containing commentary.

  • Player Piano was a wonderful little puzzle — one of the easier puzzles of the hunt, but (and?) one of the most enjoyable for me. If you’re curious about the Mystery Hunt but haven’t had any experience with these sorts of puzzles, this is a good one to look at (this one’s better done on a computer rather than a phone).1
  • FOCUS!! was my favorite puzzle of the hunt, not so much because it was an objectively good puzzle (though I think it was), but because it was perfectly suited to my interests and strengths. It felt like the puzzle was made for me, so solving it was a great feeling.2
  • Fortune Cookies is one of those puzzles that people will be reminiscing about years from now.3
  • Harvard Ballooniversity was my favorite meta puzzle. In a meta puzzle, you combine answers to other puzzles into one answer.4
  • Sand Witches was one of my favorite puzzles, though it’s probably a lot more fun when lots of people are throwing things against the answer checker.5
  • Stress Test is a fun puzzle, probably toward the easier end (for Mystery Hunt, that is; it isn’t easy in an absolute sense).6
  • The Scrambler is another fun puzzle that’s probably toward the easier end.7
  • The Trebuchet was a fun but difficult puzzle.
  • Tug of War was an initially tedious puzzle with a pretty cool mechanic.9

Do you think you’d enjoy puzzle hunts? There are lots of small puzzle hunts, including a couple that are coming up. In early February, for instance, there will be a hunt with the delightful name My Little Pony: Puzzles Are Magic. If this sort of thing sounds interesting to you — particularly if you live in New York — let me know; maybe we can do a puzzle hunt together!

[Commentary on specific puzzles with spoilers below.]

1. This is a crossword puzzle, but with songs! A pretty clever idea, I thought (though I’m sure it’s been done before).

2. After identifying the locations, I plotted them on a map and found that all the locations lay on a circle (or some round shape)… except one out-of-place point on the circle’s interior. As it happened, the out-of-place point corresponded to the only location that was in focus — every other picture was out of focus. The flavor text says “They say the cinematographer had an eye for detail. Too bad he didn’t have two.” This all clues that the shape is in fact an ellipse, the in-focus location is a focus of the ellipse, and we’re supposed to find the other focus. I wrote a program that helped me identify the other focus. It turned out to be on a highway near Evansville, Indiana. I looked along the highway in Google Street View and noticed a giant statue of Santa Claus. The answer was the Santa Claus emoji. (I knew I was looking for an emoji because the answers to all the puzzles in that round were emojis.)

3. The fortune cookies all clue movies, e.g. “You will pet your favorite horse’s head” clues The Godfather. But the clues don’t entirely make sense… until you realize you’re supposed to put “in bed” after them, after which all the clues make a lot of sense. (Am I really the only one who hadn’t heard of the whole “in bed” thing?)

4. The mechanic was… grade inflation! Take all the B’s, C’s, D’s, and E’s in the answers to the puzzles in this round and replace them with A’s. E.g. “TORCH” became “TORAH”, “CORTES” became “AORTAS”, and — my favorite — “WEDDED” became “WAAAAA” (i.e. the sound that babies make when they cry).

5. It was a lot of fun sitting in a room where everyone was trying all sorts of weird combinations against the answer checker. We tried hundreds of things for “Amount you have to put up to get on a horse” (“money to ride”, “mount up fare”, “price of mare”, you get the gist). (The actual answer was “stake to ride.”) I have no idea how many different combinations we tried before someone guessed that “Got a steal on better plot of real estate using Korean currency” was “Won deal: nicer land.” As you can probably tell, the answers here are extremely constrained. And indeed, here’s the mechanic: Won deal: nicer land — “alice” in “wonderland”! Each clue was a canonical thing literally inside another thing (the horse one was “take” in “stride”), with one extra letter. If you take the extra letters, they spell out “HORNY IN TISSUE.” Reversing the mechanic (producing a phrase that contained the word “horny” inside the word “tissue”), we got the answer: THORNY ISSUE. My only complaint is that we didn’t need to add an extraneous letter to get the answer.

6. English has an interesting feature where nouns are derived from verbs by shifting stress to the initial syllable. For instance, the noun PER-mit is derived from the word per-MIT. This puzzle consisted of fourteen such pairs (e.g. “line part” is SEG-ment and “divide” is seg-MENT). When you connect matching words, the connecting lines each pass through a number. My team was stuck for a while thinking that the numbers indicated which syllable of the corresponding words to take, but actually they corresponded to which letter to take from the emphasized syllable.

7. This puzzle had a fun mechanic where the permutation applied to the words in the clue can also be applied to the letters of the answer to the clue.

8. Each of the walls of letters contained things of the same category. For instance, the bottom-most block contained “Hannibal”, “Sun Tzu”, “Rommel”, and “Saladin.” The letters on the trebuchets could be decomposed into a weapon and a unit of weight. The weapons corresponded, as puns, to the blocks, theme-wise. For instance, you needed the trebuchet whose weapon was “warhead” to destroy the wall of generals (war heads). You needed the “pieces of glass” trebuchet to destroy the wall consisting of “Mad Rush”, “Echorus”, “Undertow”, and “Pink Noise” (all compositions of Philip Glass — also “pieces of Glass”). There were extraneous letters in each block; ordering these by the unit of weight of the corresponding trebuchet leads you to the answer.

9. The puzzle essentially consisted of 38 pairs of words, one of which was labeled “happy” and the other “unhappy” (but finding out which ones were happy and unhappy was kind of tedious). Then you had to figure out what made a word in each pair happy and the other word unhappy. For a long time we thought that there was some total ordering on words we were supposed to figure out, and the “happy” word was the one higher-up in the ordering. The actual mechanic, though, was that in each pair, one word contained some “good” word and the other contained some “bad” word (e.g. “GLANCE” contained “ANGEL” and its pair, “MODERN”, contained “DEMON”), plus an extra letter. From there, extracting the answer was easy. (Now that I’ve written all these footnotes, it occurs to me that the “extra letter” mechanic seems really common. That’ll be good to keep in mind for future hunts.)


3 thoughts on “My favorite puzzles from the 2020 MIT Mystery Hunt

  1. I came across this blog by chance while researching the MIT Mystery Hunt, and I find myself rather glad that I took the time to read more into the things that you published here. I’m finding your articles to be very interesting reading, and I hope that you continue sharing your thoughts, puzzles and findings here for a long time to come so that I can continue reading them.

    Alternatively, if you do not anticipate sharing more things here, please let me know where they are published so that I can continue reading and learning.


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