Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tales from the 2013 MIT Mystery Hunt

"Yes," the skinny, bespectacled kid next to me proclaimed, less excited than convinced. I say "kid," but he was probably old enough to drink. "Yes," he repeated, "it is hunt." He knew because he looked it up, though the gymnasium full of puzzle-hunters probably could have given him a pretty good idea too. And full of hunters it was: just a row behind me was a guy who'd brought his cardboard axe, perhaps so he could defend himself if the guy with the crocodile-head hat decided to eat him.

Protesters wielding cardboard signs sat on the floor of the gym, decrying the change in venue for the hunt's kickoff, ostensibly tongue-in-cheek but probably a real sticking point for at least a few of them. At last, the woman with the six-sided die hat walked in, and that was apparently the cue that the master of ceremonies needed. He launched into his presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides, filled with pop culture references that everyone but I laughed at. It was impossible to say if they were Mystery Hunt in-jokes, or MIT in-jokes, or simply the sorts of thing you would know if you went to MIT.

It was the single most idiosyncratic thing I have ever been to.

And it proved to be the start of a weekend of intensely difficult puzzling, one that was lauded (?) as the longest Mystery Hunt in recent memory, that was proclaimed both "grueling" and "impossible" by two different people in completely separate conversations overheard on the way to the airport as I left Boston, and that took a team of over 150 people to win. So much for our ragtag band of a dozen.

I was in Boston over MLK weekend to visit Steph anyway, and since I had some friends back in Berkeley working on this puzzle, I volunteered to be their "guy on the ground," getting the introduction to the hunt, trying to make it to the "event puzzles". After the surprising intensity of the kickoff, I was sorry to have missed the events, but a combination of other plans, MIT being a little out of the way, and something called "below 20 degrees" proved too much of a hindrance.

In our free time over the weekend, Steph and I did manage to work on a few puzzles. We didn't solve any. We didn't come close to solving any. But, since one of the themes of this blog is that a good design lies at the heart of a good gaming experience, I thought it would be interesting to dissect the design behind some of the puzzles I attempted--after reading through the answers, of course.

This week, I'll be writing a series of posts, each dedicated to one puzzle from the Mystery Hunt. Some of the questions I hope to discuss: What makes a good puzzle? Where's the line between clever and obscure, between challenging and arbitrary? And how does the presentation, aesthetics, flavor text, etc. contribute to a puzzle's quality?

Each post will contain spoilers for the 2013 MIT Mystery Hunt. That should be obvious, and since the Hunt was a month ago, it doesn't seem like much of an issue. But if there's one thing I learned from the cardboard-sign-wavers, it's that you never know what will turn out to be an issue for the Mystery Hunt faithful.