Mid-January exit game news

Newspaper with spectacles and pencilCongratulations to The Escape Room Manchester, which opened yesterday and is rolling out the last three of its five rooms today and tomorrow. More news from them, surely, in the weeks to come!

This site greatly enjoyed the coolplaces guide to exit games in London, comparing and contrasting the approaches taken by London’s five oldest indoor sites and declaring superlatives without picking a single superlative. Fingers crossed that they keep exploring what else there is on offer and continue to share their opinions. Similarly, a welcoming tip of the hat to the attractively-designed Escape Rooms London; no clue who’s behind it, but they’re clearly off to a good start. This site’s blogroll needs attention shortly.

Further afield, Dr. Scott Nicholson, a Professor at Syracuse University in upstate New York, launched a large-scale academic survey of exit games last year; he has released a video about the intentions for his survey. One key question: do exit games have lessons for interactive learning experiences within libraries and museums? What an interesting question, and it would take someone with the breadth of knowledge of games in so many different media, and such an accomplished academic pedigree, to look into this. If you run a site, want to participate in the survey and haven’t been contacted yet, see Scott’s recent tweet and get in touch with him.

This site very much enjoyed this presentation and discussion of their design principles from the people behind the Spark of Resistance exit game in Portland, Oregon. Going further, it’s probably a must-watch (though not necessarily a must-agree!) for anyone interested in, or in the early stages of, putting their own location together. The team also discussed their facility on this podcast episode so it’s great to get to see some pictures and enjoy more of their thoughts.

From factual exit rooms to fictional ones: this site’s favourite librarian was enjoying a recent Publisher’s Weekly book deals report, which is surprisingly relevant. Scroll down two-thirds of the way to the report of deals signed by Denis Markell. He’s writing a young adult novel about a scenario that seems to have a lot in common with an exit game. Exciting!

Saving something very strong and close to home for last, Clue HQ made a very interesting announcement on Wednesday, with further developments in the last day. More on this story next!

Puzzles in pubs and public

Puzzled Pint London logoAfter last month’s play-by-e-mail involuntary experiment, the regular format meetings of Puzzled Pint in London (and in ten other cities, now not just in US but also in Canada!) resumed on the second Tuesday of this month, as every month. This month’s London event was the largest yet in the city, featuring a record 18 teams and 77 players, and was warmly received.

The London location has spawned its own Facebook page and Twitter account, to which the latest information will be posted (full disclosure: often by my wife, who is part of the Game Control team there). Getting 77 extra people to turn up for a few hours on a Tuesday night would be a real boon to some pubs; perhaps other pubs might find it in their interest to hold puzzle events yet. (Or, quite possibly, perhaps the success of Puzzled Pint is something that cannot be caught in a bottle and replicated, and its casual, non-commercial nature is part of its success.)

One interesting, slightly related, event that’s starting up from Sunday night is Quiz The Nation, which will be broadcast on an (admittedly slightly obscure) satellite TV channel weekly at 8pm on Sunday evenings. Get your team together, work out the answers to the questions in real time and submit them in the custom app. Over a hundred pubs have said that they will host gatherings for people who all want to play along, and will presumably have a TV set to the channel rather than Sunday night sport. After each round, the app will notify you of your score and position, both nationally and relative to inhabitants of wherever you’re playing. However, if you don’t have a local pub that’s playing, you can play along at home; if you’re at home and don’t have satellite TV, you may be able to stream the channel from the showcase TV site. (It might be a few seconds behind satellite TV, though, and if speed of response is scored, those seconds might be crucial.)

So far, so standard. Quizzes and their players are fun, but not really this site’s sort of fun. The reason why this site is reporting on this is that the quiz and app come from the team behind The Krypton Factor, and are importing some of that show’s signature mental agility tests into this new venture. This turns it from a straight quiz, with all its attendant downfalls, limitations, flaws and elements of brokenness into something much more puzzly, and thus much more interesting. Perhaps this might be a way to get puzzles – even if not by name – into scores of pubs at once and across the country? Perhaps this might be a way for puzzlers to plunder precious prizes! This site looks forward to finding out.

The next MIT Mystery Hunt starts on Friday 16th at a random 17 minutes after noon Boston time (so 5:17pm UK time, etc.), as counted down by this occasionally acid countdown timer, and plenty of puzzle fans are getting mighty excited about it already, as witnessed by the raging #mysteryhunt hashtag. Some people have made relatively short practice hunts for their teams, and at least one has been made available to the public.

However, with the MIT Mystery Hunt in mind, the craziest thing that this site has enjoyed recently is a couple of rounds of Spaghetti at Eric Berlin’s blog. The MIT Mystery Hunt is known for getting people to make remarkable leaps of logic to find patterns between collections of answers to solve meta-puzzles. Eric Berlin helps people practice this by creating collections of random words and phrases – and everybody’s in on the joke – and inviting people to solve them as if they were answers from which a metapuzzle answer must be extracted. The creativity to make something out of absolutely nothing is remarkable, and that of the second game is even more mind-blowing.

Thankfully this site gets to play with much more sensible puzzles!

Coming soon to Aberdeen: Breakout Games Aberdeen

Breakout Games Aberdeen logoThis site recently had the joy of adding a new location all the way down in Plymouth to the map; now this site can take joy in reporting a new location all the way up in Aberdeen. The two sites are something like 475 miles away from each other as the crow flies – but, in practice, that tricky Bristol Channel gets in the way, not to mention the Firth of Forth, and you can’t drive it in less than as few as 600. Maybe Great Britain’s not so small after all.

Yesterday, Breakout Games Aberdeen (which has no connection to Breakout Manchester, similar to the way in which none of the sites whose names evoke great escapes are connected) launched its exciting web site, bringing exit games further north in the UK than ever before. Breakout Games Aberdeen will be launching with two identical Lock & Key rooms, for head-to-head challenges are a very popular part of the exit game experience, and an additional V75 game as well. Both rooms have 60 minute time limits and are designed for teams of two to six.

For now, booking is by e-mail or phone; the first 25 to call and quote “Launch!” will get 25% off their first game – and most of these 25 discounted spaces have gone already! The first date still available is on Tuesday 17th February. Pricing is very attractive even without the 25% discount; couples play for £22 each, but the price for larger teams drops rapidly; trios are charged £18 each, with parties of four, five and six being charged £15 per player, £13 per player and £11 per player respectively.

Lock & Key invites you to “Step into the ordinary with an extraordinary twist; using your problem solving and code breaking skills your team will try and locate the combination to a safe containing the key to your freedom. With cleverly disguised clues, hidden objects and a massive variety of puzzles our “Lock & Key” game will challenge you all“. Alternatively, in V75, “Your team of budding scientists are locked in the laboratory of the mad professor T. The professor has created a new strain of a deadly virus “V75” and has wicked plans to spread the virus worldwide. There is one antivirus, locked in a safe in the laboratory. Can your team of scientists crack the codes and escape in time to administer the cure? Will the fate of mankind be sealed just like the locked door between you and freedom?

The people behind Breakout Games Aberdeen have a demonstrated history of providing excellent customer service, with their Battle Grounds site earning reviews to be envied. You can play paintball, airsoft, outdoor laser tag or archery at Battle Grounds; basically, if you can fire it, you can do so at their site. (Interesting industry, and quite probably one with lessons for the exit game industry.) Their success there propelled them to the final three in the “Spirit of Enterprise” category in the 2013 Grampian Awards for Business Excellence. Excellent news; while it can’t offer any judgement about the new rooms, it can give players confidence that these people clearly know what they’re doing!

A class act: Classified comes to Breakout Manchester

Breakout Manchester's "Classified"The exit game scene may be even more exciting in the north-west than it is in London right now, what with this week’s exciting launch at The Escape Room Manchester and expansion forthcoming at Clue HQ. Four weeks ago, Breakout Manchester announced that they would be opening their fifth room, which is coming into the closing stages of construction; that’s not all they’re up to!

Today, they made a bigger announcement that they will be launching their sixth and seventh rooms, which are available for booking on Thursdays to Sundays from Saturday 31st January onwards. “For the first time ever at Breakout Manchester, you can race against friends in an identical game room. You can prove once and for all who is the best at breaking out! If you wish to do this please book two sessions on the website that start at the same time. You do not have to have a team to race against, this game can be played as a stand alone game.

Ever fancied yourself as James Bond, Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, Lara Croft, Virginia Hall or Mata Hari? This is your chance to see if you are good enough. The Classified room sees players sitting their final entrance exam to become a secret agent. You must escape from the room to pass the exam. This is Breakout’s most explosive and technologically advanced room yet!

The main Breakout Manchester site is full to the brim with five different games; both of the new games will take place a short distance away from the main venue in what might be considered to be, no pun intended, a breakout space. The rooms are referred to as Classified 1 and Classified 2 and differ only in being coded with (City?) blue and (United?) red graphics respectively on the web site.

All game expansions are exciting, but phrases like “most explosive and technologically advanced room yet” really whet the appetite. This site looks forward to seeing how the competitions work out in practice!

Coming up the weekend: the first round of the Puzzle Grand Prix

A chequered flagPerhaps a set of starting lights would be more appropriate for a preview of a first round than a chequered flag, but somehow they feel much less iconic…

The first round of the World Puzzle Federation‘s Puzzle Grand Prix competition takes place this weekend, starting at 11am UK time on Friday and running through to 11pm on Monday night. During that time, you can choose the 1½ hour window of your choice in which to attempt the 24 puzzles in the first round’s booklet. Register for the contest, log in, download the encrypted .pdf file containing the puzzles, use the web page to confirm you want to start your clock and then you will be provided with the password to decrypt the puzzle file. (You may want to print the puzzles out, but it’s not obligatory.) You can then submit answers to as many puzzles as you have solved as many times as you like before the 90 minutes expire.

The instruction booklet for the first round has been made available; the first round contains three examples of each of eight styles of puzzle. The puzzles attract different numbers of points according to their perceived difficulty. This year’s contest seems to be favouring relatively many, relatively light puzzles over last year’s assortment of relatively few, relatively hard ones, making the contest more accessible than ever before. There are three examples of each of:

  • Minesweeper, well-known as the puzzle in earlier versions of Windows (or online), except that many of the numbers of adjacent mines are given in advance without having to click around;
  • Nurikabe, a path-colouring puzzle where you deliberately aim to leave certain patterns of cells uncovered. The best way to get started is the Nikoli tutorial; Nikoli have sample puzzles to solve, as do other sites;
  • Tents, in which you are presented with a grid of trees, which must be filled with tents according to certain rules. Brainbashers has a tutorial and sample puzzles, as does Maths Is Fun;
  • non-specific word grid puzzles where letters must be placed into cells in order to spell out given words, in the style of an unfinished crossword without any black spaces. This sort of puzzle has appeared before on US Puzzle Championship tests;
  • Different Neighbors [sic] puzzles whose entire description is Put a digit from 1-4 into each cell so that adjacent cells never contain the same digit, not even diagonally. Some cells have already been filled for you, as exemplified here and briefly discussed at LMI;
  • Fillomino, a puzzle involving filling a part-filled grid with digits so that it can be split into regions of identical numbers, with size equal to the number in question. Brainbashers again has a tutorial and sample puzzles, as does Math In English;
  • Slitherlink Out-Liars is a variant on the well-known Slitherlink (Fences, Rundweg, Loopy, etc.) loop-forming puzzle in which all numbers outside the loop are liars, and all numbers inside the loop tell the truth and
  • Shikaku Liars is a variant on the well-known Shikaku (Rectangles, etc.) puzzle in which a grid must be split into rectangles with given areas.

At least one example in each of the eight types has been set with a deliberately low tariff, so you may well be able to get to grips with at least one puzzle of each type. If you ever want to try one of these middle-distance puzzle contests, and participate in a global puzzle contest with likely hundreds of competitors from dozens of countries, this will be a genuinely accessible example of the form, and one where you can get familiar with at least most of the puzzle styles in advance. Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection is a good way to practice, available at no cost on a wide variety of operating systems.

Looking ahead to 2015: what’s on the wish list?

Fairy tale princess presents her prince with an "I want..." wish listFor the seventh and final part of the “Looking ahead to 2015” series, this site will take some slight flights of fancy and produce a short list of things it would like to see in the coming year, but has no basis in reality to believe they might ever exist. (On the other hand, it knows no reason to be sure that they might not come to pass!) This site wouldn’t even want to guess at a probability for any of these happening, other than “low”.

1) The UK was tremendously fortunate to have so many day-long puzzle events last year, with both the “Top Secret” hunt in Essex in August and Girls and Boys, Come Out To Play in September. There’s no evidence to suggest that something similar might happen in 2015, but the puzzle community of the UK might still hope. If anybody is tempted, it could be really fun to celebrate the Back to the Future trilogy on 21st October 2015, particularly if anybody has a way of flying more than ½” off the ground on a real hoverboard

2) It’s always delightful to read about the TMOU series of games in the Czech Republic, though much of the information that this site has about them comes from Wikipedia. They seem to have a great deal in common with the sequential puzzle hunts of the US. Wikipedia suggests that the experiential education practitioners there may have inspired counterpart games in other countries; perhaps they might bring the genre to the UK as well. Definitely one for the wish list.

3) This site really enjoyed reading about Escape Run within the Enigmatic Escape blog. This event was a puzzle hunt featuring 30 teams, representing six of the branches of Escape Room within Malaysia. The six fastest finishers went to play a special 20-minute exit game – and as none of the six teams finished that, the fastest finishers of the hunt won prizes. It would be tremendous to see competition between exit game branches in the UK, whether it’s a special event or just branches sending representative teams to other events that might already exist.

4) This site also really enjoyed reading one of the Chasers on ITV’s The Chase challenging another one to Laser Quest. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see famous TV brains (could be your Chasers, could be your Eggheads, could be whoever wins University Challenge this year…) tested to see whether they’re as smart and resourceful as they are knowledgable? Are they genuine quick thinkers or just fast at factual recall? This site gets the impression that that event arose organically, without the need to get agents or the like involved. Surely it’s a good match, though…

5) Would there be any interest in an industry meeting at some point – perhaps towards the end of the year? It’s not immediately clear if there are any leisure conferences at which a meeting might more naturally take place, so perhaps there might have to be one created more deliberately. If you’re a player, rather than someone in the industry, and think this suggestion comes across as a little snooty, fair enough. As well as industry members, it would be thoroughly delightful to meet site readers, and probably this is most naturally done at other puzzle events along the way; the next couple of Puzzled Pints sadly clash with my schedule and I’m not sure about the UKPA‘s UK Open tournaments, but you never know…!

#basicallyeveryoneshouldcometoDASHthisyear

What’s on your puzzling wish list for the year?

Now open in Plymouth: Escape Rooms Plymouth

Escape Rooms Plymouth logoEvery now and again, this site finds details of a new location and it’s not quite clear whether the location is open for business or not. All the signs are in place, and maybe the site even appears to be open for business, but it’s not clear whether people are actually playing the game. When this happens, enquiries are made and this site – possibly burned by experience – errs on the side of caution and waiting for evidence before announcing it to the readership.

Accordingly, because of the previous absence of social media updates or reviews, this site has held off talking about Escape Rooms Plymouth until it recently started posting photos of its players as evidence. With this in mind, Escape Rooms Plymouth might just be the first new UK exit game of 2015, ahead of all the ones previously listed as coming soon!

Two identical rooms are already open with the title Germ, with a third room entitled The Hazard coming soon. The rooms have a 60-minute time limit and are recommended for 3-6 players. The story behind Germ suggests “You have been captured by insurgents whilst investigating allegations of chemical weapon stocks within the eastern territories during the cold war. A double agent has left you clues that could lead to your escape…

An advantage of having two identical rooms is that, as the site invites you, “Imagine two teams of 6 players from each department of your company racing against the clock to escape.” As is often the case, the price per player goes down if you have more players; three players pay £18 each, four players pay £16 each, five players pay £14 each and six players pay just £12 each – so adding a sixth player adds just £2 to the cost of the team. On top of that, if you bring two full teams of six, you will get a partial refund to make the price just £10 per player. (Full admission: the second room of the two doesn’t seem to be available to be booked until Tuesday 20th January.)

In previous searches, this site had found an exciting-looking interactive theatrical game called Resurgam taking place in Plymouth, but it’s exciting to see exit games as such spread around the country; this site wishes Escape Rooms Plymouth well and looks forward to following for news of The Hazard and, maybe, more. It seems unlikely that there will ever be a game further south-west… unless Cornwall might host one some day?

Looking ahead to 2015: new exit games and new rooms

Red "Coming Soon!" ink stampThis site has already looked forward to puzzle events and puzzle competitions that it knows about for 2015, though even since then there have already been two additions to the calendar. So what developments are planned for 2015 on the exit room side of things?

NEW SITES

The Escape Room Manchester opens on 15th January, and bookings are still available for day one if you want to play Prison Break or The Secret Lab there; if you want to play Slaughter House, The Mummy or Room 13 then you’ll have to wait a day or two longer. As well as having five exciting-looking games to choose from, as previously discussed, the prospect of what the site might stage at its exclusive bar is an enticing one. The discount code ESCAPE20 will earn you 20% off your booking!

A little later, a holding page announces that a new business called Clue Finders is set to open on 22nd January, though no location has yet been made public. This site looks forward to further announcements and learning more when information becomes available. Additionally, a recent announcement that the official launch of the Breakout Games Aberdeen web site is imminent also tantalises; the location in Aberdeen has been posted as a teaser and this site eagerly anticipates finding out the specifics. As the announcement says, “There will be a launch offer to celebrate the new opening so keep a keen eye on the Facebook page for more information coming very soon“.

Slightly later still, this site has already looked forward to the launch of The Mystery Cube in Wimbledon. Bookings are not yet available but the statement on the site that “Cube Missions between 24th January – 7th February are half-price! Simply use the coupon code: MYSTERY CUBE” goes a long way towards setting people’s expectations. No connection with Phillip Schofield, but this site looks forward to giving the game a trial run.

NEW ROOMS

As previously announced, Breakout Manchester suggested about three weeks ago that they will be opening their fifth room, Infiltrate, in mid-January. As it stands, it’s already been quite heavily booked and the earliest that you can still book to play it is a single slot available on January 20th. The site also posted a job advertisement on Gumtree which hints at further developments to follow. It’s going to be an exciting year for them.

Clue HQ have recently leaked a series of teaser images leading up to a big announcement of their plans to launch a third room; it’s worth browsing around the in-character National Bank of Money site to get more of a feel for the world in which this game’s story is set, and this site’s interview with Clue HQ proprietor Stuart Rowlands reveals a little more. It’s clear that many people are eagerly awaiting this!

Tick Tock Unlock posted an exciting start-of-the-year message reflecting on the progress they have made in their first seven months or so of business. (It’s great to hear that they have attracted players from 6 to 91 years of age, for instance!) They would have a strong claim, by a number of metrics, to be the most successful single-room site in the country. The message concludes “(…)keep your eyes peeled as we will have some very exciting news to share shortly“; always great to read!

This site will be keeping an eye out for new games and new rooms and will take delight in bringing the news to you when it can. It’s always fun to be surprised when new games take off and turn out to have been running for a while already before the word got this way; who knows when that will happen next?

Looking ahead to 2015: predictions for the year

Crystal ballThis site ran a predictions feature over the second half of 2014 then assessed the accuracy of its predictions. More strictly, the piece was a series of probability estimates, which is not quite the same thing. This year, to make things more explicit, this site will split its estimates into challenges, which represent interesting predictions that have an outside chance of happening but this site considers to be less likely than not to happen in 2015, and actual predictions, which this site considers to be more likely than not to happen in 2015.

CHALLENGES

There is a 5% chance that an exit game business sufficiently motivates and enthuses its staff to vote it into the top twenty of the next Sunday Times “Best Small Company to Work For” list.

There is a 10% chance that the newspapers will find a new style of puzzle that attracts half as much public attention as sudoku. There is a 80% chance that the newspapers will claim they have done, but only a 10% chance that it will actually stick in close to the way that sudoku has.

There is a 15% chance that the world will gain a second global monthly puzzle event. There’s a definite reason for one to exist: the wonderful Puzzled Pint is for the benefit of the community, which (generally) goes to visit a different venue each month in each city. Suppose there were a second event run for the benefit of the venues; individual bars (etc.) could adopt the event, pledging to host a puzzle night in their location each month. There are places that would find that a compelling attraction!

There is a 20% chance that some company brings larger-scale live escape events to the UK, with relatively many teams playing the same game at once. (For those who get the distinction, think Real Escape Game as opposed to Real Escape Room.)

There is a 25% chance that the 25th anniversary of The Crystal Maze, which will happen on 15th February this year, will see a reawakening of interest and the show will catch the public mood once more.

There is a 30% chance that one of the big players in the leisure industry starts a chain of exit games within its own facilities, or teams up with an existing exit game business which wants to expand rapidly by opening in a number of facilities. For instance, if you’re going to go to either of the branches of the real-snow indoor ski slope Xscape, you know you’re prepared to spend money, and the chance to play “Escape at Xscape” would surely be irresistible…

There is a 35% chance that the UK team produces its best performance in the next World Puzzle Championship, beating its previous best of sixth from the twenty national “A” teams in Beijing in 2013.

There is a 40% chance that another UK city develops a puzzle community like that of London, with at least one regular monthly event and at least one larger annual event – maybe as simply as hosting its own Puzzled Pint and DASH events, maybe something of its own. All it takes is someone willing to be the first onto the dancefloor.

There is a 45% chance that the UK mass media will catch on to just how cool exit games are. Maybe the “The One Show” team will go and play, or someone will take the idea to Dragon’s Den, or The Apprentice might consider them to be sufficiently zeitgeist-y to take an interest. At the top end, this site might dream of a revival of The Adventure Game, which effectively featured (among other things) room escape games a good thirty years ahead of the time.

PREDICTIONS

There is a 55% chance that at least one exit game will earn the Living Wage Employer mark. Perhaps there is at least one out there which pays the stipulated wage already. This site doesn’t believe that every exit game can afford to pay the stipulated level; indeed, many owners, especially of very new games, will be some way from covering costs, and consistent wage rises might force them out of business outright. However, perhaps there’s a business out there who would take pride from going down this route.

There is a 60% chance that the next World Puzzle Championship will be won by Ulrich Voigt of Germany, which would be his eleventh overall and the first time anyone has ever won four in a row.

There is a 65% chance that the exit game industry continues to grow sufficiently quickly that this site’s estimate for the number of unique players in the UK or Ireland by the end of December 2015 reaches or exceeds half a million… and this site will not attempt to fix the figures just for the sake of proving this relatively weakly-held prediction correct.

There is a 70% chance that at least one exit game will start to advertise itself using a formal endorsement from a reasonably well-known, mainstream national or international celebrity.

There is a 75% chance that the Puzzled Pint community of London will continue to grow, flourish, with teams getting to know each other ever more closely and look forward to meeting each other at the other puzzle events that exist through the course of the year.

There is a 80% chance that eleven or twelve of the calendar months of the year will see at least one new site open for business in the UK or Ireland.

There is a 85% chance that there will be a UK-based exit game review blog set up this year, to which this site will very happily link. There are many different sites out there who want the publicity from the reviews that they might get; be any good (goodness knows, this site doesn’t set the bar high) and proprietors will be climbing over themselves to invite you to play!

There is a 90% chance that the London leg of DASH 7 will expand from 8 teams in 2013 and 21 teams in 2014 to at least 25 teams for 2015. The London capacity for 2013 and 2014 was 25 teams, so it’s quite possible that London DASH might well sell out.

There is a 95% chance that at least two existing exit games covered by this site will officially call it a day. These don’t have to be unhappy endings; for instance, Oxford Castle are listing their Jailbreak event as happening until the end of January only, then presumably they will put the game cleanly back in its box. Fingers crossed that they choose to get it back out again at some point.

Looking ahead to 2015: the MIT Mystery Hunt

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head pennyThe MIT Mystery Hunt is an annual event, taking place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been running for approaching thirty-five years. Simply, very large teams get together and solve exceptionally difficult puzzles for a weekend. The puzzles test remarkably many facets of ability as opposed to always just logic; many of them require obscure parts of pop culture, others might involve feats of arts and craft, others might involve unusually challenging scavenger hunts around the MIT campus or the wider Boston, MA area. The hunt starts at noon on Friday and normally finishes (with some team finding a carefully-secreted coin) between 36 and 48 hours later – rarely shorter, occasionally longer, with 60+ hour hunts not unknown – usually with teams working shifts through the nights.

The hunt is designed not just to cater for hardcore pencil-and-paper puzzle enthusiasts; it seeks to test a whole gamut of skills that couldn’t all be held by a single solver, no matter how resourceful, but by a broad and talented team. By and large, the puzzles are incredibly good; often they include really off-the-wall concepts, almost always really well executed. Originally the event was at least nominally for MIT students alone, but as its fame spread, all sorts of people took part in it. There are no real limits on the quantity or types of research you can perform, so this works out as, effectively, infinite “phone-a-friend” lifelines, with search engines being among your friends.

The hunt is storied – nay, legendary – and well archived; Joseph DeVincentis maintains an archive categorising almost 2,000 puzzles from 20 years of the event, mostly with links to solutions. If you are strong of mental health, go and admire the puzzles’ ingenuity, or just read a non-technical general-interest article on the phenomenon with examples. Local student newspaper The Tech normally offers strong coverage; they had the definitive write-up of the 2013 Hunt, and also a version of their story with incidental videos. The 2013 hunt lasted a record 73 hours and 18 minutes, about five hours longer than the previous record. Generally this was felt to be too long for most people’s taste. The 2014 hunt was completed by the fastest team within 39 hours, and eight teams finished the hunt within the 54-hour deadline.

Looking at people’s write-ups of their Hunt weekends is possibly a good way to get a better feel of the MIT Mystery Hunt experience – and looking at the 2013 Hunt will show you how things might feel when the event is at its most frustrating. This site really enjoyed Eric Berlin’s write-up that captured the emotions of a player on a competitive team really well, and features the single best story to arise from the year; Andrew Greene’s writeup is shorter, but conveys the sense of fun, and the always-lovely Clavis Cryptica wrote joyfully and comprehensively from a first-time player’s perspective in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 parts.

For even more of the really enjoyable detail, LiveJournal user rhysara wrote hers in two parts. Three-time World Sudoku Champion Dr. Thomas Snyder followed up his own impassioned, honest and brilliantly penetrating write-up in WIRED with subsequent, more personal discussion, which seemed to be the one that attracted comments from many players on several of the most competitive teams. The WIRED piece reflects how the strongest competitors may have felt straight away after going all-out for the duration (and, remember, many on some of the most competitive teams go without sleep – and this time for longer than the single missed night that they might have expected) and there is definitely some of this in Eric Berlin’s write-up as well. Judging by comments left later, this piece definitely caught the mood of many of the solvers.

Some solvers criticised several of the puzzles in the hunt for being the wrong sort of hard. This site is not sure if there is a meaningful sense in which a puzzle can be too hard for the MIT Mystery Hunt, though clearly puzzles can be so hard that even the might and immense combined resources of the most fearsome puzzle teams on the planet do not enjoy solving them. (Cases in point for 2013: discussion of the fractal word search with an answer on the 86th level of iteration, and discussion of the Engima machine meta-puzzle.)

Yet the strength of the teams sets the barrier for “too hard to be fun” really high. One of the most famous anecdotes about one of the earliest Hunts runs Once I wrote a clue in Minoan Linear B, a totally obscure language that was used on clay tablets in ancient Crete. To make things tougher, I didn’t tell them it was Linear B and I checked out the two library books on the subject. All the teams solved it anyway! Villainy indeed in the days when information on the Internet was so much more scarce than is the case now.

The 2013 hunt contained some glorious steps forward, some evolutionary, others revolutionary, in terms of infrastructure. The whole Hunt was themed around a heist to retrieve the coin of legend, with the end-of-game runaround requiring teams to physically pull the heist off by resolving six physical obstacles, which were frankly incredibly cool; you may have seen laser mazes before, but the picture half-way down the art director’s report looks a different class. A standard complaint is that only the winning team or teams get to play in these incredibly intricately designed end-of-game runarounds; here, people got to practice on slightly simpler versions of one of the six obstacles, and thus have the fun of interacting with them, as rewards for completing each round. These were justifiably hugely popular and made the reward-to-effort ratio much more favourable.

The hunt also deliberately started with a relatively easy “round zero” made up of just six puzzles and an associated metapuzzle, so that even less experienced teams might get a flavour of the hunt. This was apparently greatly successful as a way to help everyone find their own depth. Apparently a team of five first-time solvers, who had only signed up on the day of the hunt, were still calling in answers to these Round 0 puzzles on Monday. They were clearly having a great time, and the running team were really heartened to hear it.

Commonwealth readers may well be considerably taken by this cricket-themed puzzle. It’s one of the type of puzzles where a big part of the challenge is to work out how to solve it; working out how to go about solving at least the first two-thirds of it was very satisfying. (Doing it would surely have been much harder than just knowing how to do it!)

Picking out one other highlight, the artifice behind A Walk Around Town is incredible. The concept is that you have a series of instructions about a fictional journey around Cambridge – Cambridge, MA, the home of MIT, which generates a message. However, this message reads “Start At Old Schools”. The Old Schools are part of the University of Cambridge – the one in the United Kingdom – and it so turns out that the same instructions can be followed to describe a different fictional journey based on the geography of the UK version of Cambridge and generate a message to answer the puzzle. That’s beautiful, a work of art.

The largest teams have well over a hundred solvers, in the day and age when the largest Hunts have well over a hundred puzzles. Many of these solvers dip in and out as alertness permits. Teams will have large contingents on-site at MIT, but many of the large teams have remote solvers, often around the world, and may use Internet communication to keep in touch, keep track of which puzzles have been solved and to enjoy solving together. Accordingly, it genuinely is possible for brave readers of this site to find a team and participate, even if travelling to Boston is impractical, at a time when the weather is likely to be inclement at best. This site has seen it suggested by members of three of the bigger teams (Palindrome, Manic Sages and Codex) that they have open membership. There has long been an “unattached hunters” list, but the barrier to entry of needing to know existing participants is less influential than ever before. This site has many friends on at least one smaller team as well.

Solving MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles on your own is a very remote activity, testing your persistence even more than solving with a physical, permanent reminder of the rest of your team. Much better, though it’s hard to imagine it being nearly as much fun as being in Boston, is getting a few local friends together to create a remote cell, so that you can co-operate on puzzles that take your fancy and stand a chance of being able to make a difference to your team with the progress that you make together. This site got three solvers together in person last year and enjoyed it considerably, after being part of something similar in 2004. Is something similar happening this year? Don’t know, but conceivably so. If you know better, please speak up in the comments below.

Many puzzle events deliberately go out of their way to be accessible and expand the puzzle hobby to share the fun with as many different people as possible. That’s a wonderful service. That, however, is not what the MIT Mystery Hunt tries to do. The teams get bigger and stronger over time in an arms race with the hunt setters who try to keep up. It’s wonderful that there can also be an event where large teams full of the world’s strongest solvers can go at full speed against each other. It’s way out of this site’s league, but this site is glad to have something to aspire to.