A nice, expansive four-day weekend just came to a close, and I’m utterly exhausted. I spent the holiday weekend, and then some, doing something completely novel: competing in the MIT Mystery Hunt. Fellow blogger and ALN blogroll mainstay Eric Berlin was one of the veteran players on my team and has related his experience of the weekend in typically eloquent and entertaining fashion here. The MIT student paper covered the event here.
So how did I end up spending my weekend in an MIT classroom with 46 bigger brains, taking on approximately 150 elegantly constructed, thematically interwoven puzzles? It’s not exactly a situation one just sort of stumbles into, as you might guess. As frequent readers know, I’m a regular at the National Puzzlers League convention held each summer–in Indianapolis, Cambridge, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and, about six months from now, Ann Arbor. Every year I return from the Con exhilarated, happy, and with a few new friends. The NPL and the Mystery Hunt have significantly overlapping constituencies, and it was the wish to see some of these far-flung friends that landed me at the Mystery Hunt this year. For some reason, puzzlers, and especially the ones I’m closest to, tend to concentrate on either coast. Vanishingly few make their homes in the middle of the country, a fact regarding which I’ve been known to get a mite peevish on occasion and an excellent reason to travel to Cambridge last weekend and find out what the mystery is all about. And now I have some idea. As a thing, the MIT Mystery Hunt is a magnum opus of its kind, an elaborate, smoothly running machine whose enormity would seem to belie its elegance but astonishingly doesn’t, and vice versa. As an experience, it’s a more intense, more claustrophobic, grubbier NPL Con, from which I’ve returned…utterly exhausted.
That’s not to say I didn’t have a great time, because I did–thanks to the quality of the puzzles and especially the quality of the company. It surely wasn’t the scenery: most of the weekend was spent in an MIT classroom whose notable features were approximately 20 fully wired, furiously worked laptop computers and three walls of blackboard that progressively filled with chalk marks as we solved puzzles and recorded the answers there (in a puzzle hunt of this magnitude, almost no answer is sufficient unto itself; it nearly always has an afterlife as a clue in another, second-order puzzle). An adjacent classroom was reserved for less critical activities such as eating and sleeping, though some of the other than perfectly dedicated among us opted for alternative quarters (mine in nearby Somerville were friendly and comfortable).
And we won! On the backs of a couple of brilliant teammates who were the first in the entire Hunt to crack the diabolical meta-puzzle (involving the answer words from ten other puzzles, as well as additional clues gathered from a video we’d been given) that had had us and several other teams stumped and stalled near the finish line for hours, we triumphed around 2 o’clock Sunday morning (would it have occurred to you immediately to use the U.S. Senate seating chart as a grid for a double-crostic?). Not a moment too soon, mind you, since the gargantuan task of running next year’s Hunt now falls on us. Personally, I’ve never constructed a puzzle in my life, so my role is likely to be that of test-solver. Even from that humble perch, I’ll be fascinated to see from the inside how one of these marvels comes together.
UPDATE: Edited to fix broken links. Sorry!!