Mystery Hunt

I spent the weekend at Mystery Hunt 2009, with team Codex (they change the name a bit every year, it seems; this year it was Codex Magliabechiano). I’ve participated for a few years, but never like this.

Codex is a relatively typical top-tier Mystery Hunt team: over 50 people, most with a strong social connection to MIT but fewer with academic history here, many who’ve participated in Mystery Hunt for years, if not decades. I shouldn’t reveal too many details, but Codex also brings to bear a wide array of collaborative technologies, prepared in advance, to allow groups to work together on puzzles as efficiently as possible, even when, as was the case this year, many of the best solvers are physically in Mountain View, CA or Zurich.

The puzzles were hard, as always, but maybe harder than I had previously realized. The puzzles are typically multi-layered, requiring hours to solve with a typical subteam of about 5 people. Some are solved much faster than others, and the system generally allows a team to win without solving every puzzle.

Let me give you an example: Space Madness. This puzzle at first appeared to be a typical word-find, of the sort you might give to a third-grade class. The puzzle was a 13×13 grid of letters, with columns marked a-m and rows n-z. After staring at the page for a few seconds, one would quickly notice a major change from the standard word-find: the letters are changing in time, fading from one board to another in an endless cycle. The second change one might notice is that the words are not provided: instead, we have two sets of clues, also labeled a-m and n-z. Each clue has a number next to it, in a standard form to indicate the number of letters in the correct answer. Also, many of the letters in the grid seemed to be “X”.

Based on this information, we concluded that the problem was a word-find in three dimensions, with time supplying the third, and so a group of people downloaded the animation, split it into component frames (there were in fact 13, forming a 13x13x13 cube of letters), and started transcribing them. I wrote a word search program in python that could read in this text, form it into a cube, and then search for any word that can be formed by stepping between adjacent cells.

A second group, possibly in Zurich, started work deciphering the clues. They eventually discovered the following: the clues each contained one extra word that, when removed, resulted in a more sensible clue. For example, one clue was “Cruise ship feature 1988 (8)”, but the word “ship” was extraneous, leaving “Cruise feature 1988 (8)” as the correct clue, with the answer “COCKTAIL”, the only Tom Cruise movie from 1988 with 8 letters in its name. With this in mind, we determined the extraneous word and correct solution for each of the 26 clues. The first letters of the 26 extra words, spelled out in the order in which the clues were given, read “INEACHPHASEREADBETWEENTHEEXES” (“in each phase, read between the X’s”).

I punched the correct words into my search routine, and while most were present, a few were not. I tried many variations on the search method, including a method in which the letter “X” was ignored, and some words were still not present. We concluded that this was not simply a 3-D word search.

We noticed something odd about our answers. The first 13 were mostly adjectives, and the last 13 were mostly animal names. Someone punched the names into Google, and discovered that these words represent the episode titles of the short-lived 2004 TV show “Wonderfalls”, of which there are exactly 13 episodes, each with a two-word name. The second word is always an animal (the show has an animal theme.). This allowed us to match up one clue from a-m (the first word), one clue from n-z (the second word), and a number 1-13 (the number of the episode whose title they create). These three things form a three-dimensional coordinate, specifying a letter in the cube. We looked at these letters, but saw only gibberish when we combined them.

The next step was made overnight, by Codex hunters in some other timezone. They discovered that for each “phase” of the grid, a few letters would be “X” in both the preceding and following phases. Reading between the X’s in this way, they considered only these letters, and found that they spelled out a sentence in each phase. Each sentence comes from a single episode of Wonderfalls. They performed the same 3-dimensional indexing described previously, but this time reordered the letters according to the number of the episode corresponding to the quote in each phase. The result was “XHOCKEYPLAYER”.

We agonized over XHOCKEYPLAYER for hours. We called this in as the answer, but it was wrong. We called in EXCHEQUER, but that was wrong too. Eventually, after other puzzles in this round were solved, we began to suspect a pattern, that they were all types of saws (other elements were Band(saw) and Jig(saw)). Another puzzler found that the Buffalo Sabres had previously used a logo consisting of two crossed swords, forming an X. Wonderfalls is set in Buffalo. We called in SABRE, which was the correct answer.

There were about 108 puzzles in total, not including challenges involving cooking, costumes, robot-building, metapuzzles, or meta-meta-puzzles. Codex had upwards of 50 puzzlers, I suspect, and we worked for 63 hours. We didn’t win the race, though we were respectably close. That’s not a bad result in Mystery Hunt, especially since the winning team is duty-bound to write the next year’s Hunt.

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