The annual DASH participation statistics post, after DASH 9

Bar chart showing improving performance over timeIf it’s a few days after DASH, it’s time for the annual participation statistics post! Please find below an updated version of a table which details the number of teams on the scoreboard for each city in each edition of the DASH puzzle hunt to date.

Location DASH 1 DASH 2 DASH 3 DASH 4 DASH 5 DASH 6 DASH 7 DASH 8 DASH 9
Albuquerque, NM 6 6+1 3+2+0 4+0+0
Atlanta, GA 5+7 8+5
Austin, TX 2 11 12 13+4 10+4+0 17+6+0 20+4 18+4
Bay Area, CA Y(SF)
Y(PA)
7(SR)
59(LA)
16(SR)
74(SM)
73(SF) 34+7(SF)
32+3(HMB)
53+17+0(SF)
39+5+0(C)
46+15+0(SF)
37+7+0(SJ)
48+10(SF)
43+12(PA)
42+14(SF)
39+9(F)
Boston, MA Y 18 26 29 27+2 30+7+1 30+6+0 38+13 33+10
Chicago, IL 17 14 10+1 15+9+0 16+24+0 16+16 20+19
Davis, CA 16 15 16 13+7 8+7+1 13+7+0 12+8 15+5
Denver, CO 3+12+0 6+7
Enschede, NL 9+2
Houston, TX Y
London, UK 6+2 8+13+0 14+9+0 14+8 18+6
Los Angeles, CA Y 7 22 21 15+4 15+2+0
(Pasadena)
12+7+0
(Sta Monica)
19+17 16+6
Minneapolis, MN 8+7 7+4+0
(recast)
9+7+0 7+9 6+17
New York, NY 12 24 25 30+7 26+15+2 29+15+0 24+15 37+13
Portland, OR Y 6 17 19 19+2 11+7+0 10+10+0 12+5
Provo, UT 1+1
San Diego, CA 7
Seattle, WA Y 32 47 49 49+2 58+4+2 60+9+2 63+6 46+3
South Bend, IN 1
St. Louis, MO 2 2+3 7+8+1 8+10 7+11
Washington, DC Y 14 22 33 31+1 27+5+0 26+9+0 28+12 27+13
Number of locations 8 10 12 13 15 14 16 16 16

Here are some initial interpretations:

1) Errors and omissions excepted, with apologies in advance. The Minneapolis DASH 6 recast figures came from the organisers by private e-mail.

2) The numbers are drawn from the scoreboards and may not reflect teams that participate but do not make the scoreboard for whatever reason, or other infelicities. (On the other hand, it does include teams which do make the scoreboard even despite being listed as “not started”.) DASH 1 does not have a public scoreboard on the web site and thus “Y” represents the hunt having happened there with an unknown number of participants. When there are pluses, the number before the first plus reflects the number of teams on the experienced track, the number after the first plus reflects the number of teams on the “new players”/”novice” track (DASH 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9), and the number after the second plus reflects the number of teams on the junior track (DASH 6 and 7 only).

3) Interpret “Bay Area, CA” using the following key: SF = San Francisco (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9), PA = Palo Alto (1 and 8), SR = Santa Rosa (2,3), LA = Los Altos (2), SM = San Mateo (3), HMB = Half Moon Bay (5), C = Cupertino (6), SJ = San Jose (7), F = Fremont (9).

4) I’ve been thinking for a while about knocking single-entry cities (Houston in DASH 1, San Diego in DASH 3 and South Bend in DASH 4) out of their own individual rows of the table and into a single combined row, a bit like the Bay Area, CA row. This might make the table easier to deal with. Fingers very firmly crossed that Provo, UT and Enschede don’t prove similar one-offs.

5) The line-up of 16 locations participating in DASH 9 was not too different from that for DASH 8; we lost Denver and previously ever-present Portland, each hopefully for only a year, and instead gained Enschede in the Netherlands and Provo in Utah. Fingers crossed for the return of Albuquerque at some point, too, so I can know where to turn left. (See also this comment from DASH about there having been some interest, that didn’t come to fruition, from Manchester, Mexico City and Vienna.)

6) It’s not a competition to see whose DASH can be the largest; all DASH organiser teams are glorious, generous paragons of virtue, whether their event had one team or 70+, and the community at large thanks them all for the time and effort that they put in. The two-track solution proved its worth again, with each location seeing at least one team on each track.

7) Numbers do appear to be slightly down in several of the larger locations. It’s tempting to wonder to what extent this is a result of demand being down and to what extent this is a result of a lack of availability of supply. Could some of the locations, if they had wanted to, have held bigger events if they had had more GC available? Could some of the locations, if they had wanted to, have held bigger events if they had larger sites for their individual puzzles? Were there many teams who wanted to get the chance to play but didn’t get to play in practice? (As ever, there’s no reason why bigger necessarily has to be better and there’s no sense in deliberately trying to emphasise quantity over quality.)

8) I’m about to do something quite unfair, for the barriers to entry are so vastly different, but here’s a table comparing the growth of DASH with the growth of Puzzled Pint over the last few years, courtesy in part of data from Puzzled Pint’s Matt Cleinman:

Year DASH
locations
DASH
teams
Month Puzzled Pint
locations
Puzzled Pint
players/GCs
2012 13 300 April 2012 1 50
2013 15 295 + 53 April 2013 2 (N/A)
2014 14 307 + 101 April 2014 5 255
2015 16 333 + 151 April 2015 17 922
2016 16 363 + 159 April 2016 32 1461
2017 16 342 + 138 April 2017 39 1956

The DASH data, after DASH 9

D.A.S.H. logoThere’s no editorial here, and definitely no intent to suggest there is such a thing as an optimal set of values, but this might still be of interest to set some context for comparison purposes. The times refer to puzzles offered in the most popular (i.e. expert/experienced) track from DASH 5 onwards.

Edition Par time Fast* time Usual* time Teams Structure
2 5:00 1:51 4:32 173 8+M
3 6:00 2:57 6:42 298 8+M
4 6:00 1:53 4:48 300 8+M
5 4:30 2:14 5:32 295+N IB+7+M
6 5:50 2:33 5:10 307+N IB+8+M
7 5:45 3:38 6:55 333+N IB+8+M
8 6:40 2:33 4:35 363+N IB+7+M
9 6:05 1:55 3:54 341+N 9
* median,
top-11
* median,
middle-8/9
N = normal track M = metapuzzle,
IB = icebreaker

Data remains available for DASH 2, DASH 3, DASH 4, DASH 5, DASH 6, DASH 7, DASH 8 and DASH 9. Note that the usual time was calculated from the median time quoted for either the middle-scoring 8 or 9 teams, depending on whether the overall number of teams was even or odd, and may not represent every puzzle being solved without a hint or even every puzzle being solved at all. The times quoted do not include the par or solving times for the unscored co-operative icebreaker puzzle from DASH 5, 6, 7 and 8.

The 2017 MIT Mystery Hunt happened last weekend

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head penny1) Before addressing the main topic of the piece, a quick heads up to say that one of the lead organisers of DASH 8 in London has enquired whether anyone is willing to run DASH 9 in London this year. Interpret this as you see fit, but there must be reason why that question is being asked in that fashion.

2) If today’s current affairs have got you down, Dan Katz (see below) points to Puzzles for Progress; donate to your choice of ten US causes that might need your attention more today than they did yesterday and receive a bundle of puzzles by a collection of highly-regarded authors. It’s something concrete that anyone can do wherever in the world they are.

3) The annual MIT Mystery Hunt took place in at said Institute of Technology in the greater Boston area last weekend. A quick summary is that it’s, arguably, the world’s most extreme open-participation puzzle hunt; a couple of thousand or so players form several dozens of teams, each of perhaps as few as five players or as many as 150. These solvers spend up to two-and-a-bit days solving puzzles non-stop, taking as little sleep as they dare. There is no limit to the difficulty of puzzles; many of the world’s very best solvers take part, and some of the puzzles are written with this in mind. It’s a practical assumption that most teams will be able to directly or indirectly be able to contact the equivalent of a postdoctorate academic in virtually every subject under the sun, high-brow or low-brow, whether in person or online. For a longer description of the hunt, see my 2015 article on the topic, complete with links to write-ups of what it feels like to participate and to some of the most spectacular puzzles.

This year’s seems to have been extremely well-received. It’s also distinctive in that the winning team found the coin in under fifteen and a half hours. This is definitely on the short side as MIT Mystery Hunts go, possibly even the shortest in recent memory. In recent years, the trend has been for the hunt organisers to accept answers between the start of the hunt, shortly after midday on Friday, until typically early Sunday evening. In this regard, more than one team can have the fun of seeing everything that there is to see and finding the coin. It’s on the record that this year’s hunt was designed to be relatively accessible in this regard; a record seventeen teams each got the fun of finding the coin, many of whom had their first ever complete solution. Congratulations to all the teams who found the coin, but most of all to Death and Mayhem who found the coin first!

One of the team of organisers, Dan Katz, who it’s fair to say is more well-known (or, at least, notorious) than most hunt participants has started an exciting hunt-themed blog with reflections on the hunt-writing process and what this year’s event felt like from the organisational side. Discussion of the hunt and related topics has become somewhat more disparate than in previous years (though, to some extent, a subreddit fulfils some of the role that dear old LiveJournal did five or more years ago) though Jennifer Berk has kindly been collating links relating to this year’s event. It’s also worth looking at four-time World Puzzle Champion Wei-Hwa Huang’s Facebook post on the subject of the duration of the hunt as well.

You can see the puzzles from this year’s hunt, along with their solutions, and they’re well worth reading as amazing pieces of craftsmanship, even if you don’t try to solve them yourself. You’ll see that there are some puzzles associated with fictional characters, introduced in the context of the hunt, and others with the quests in which they participate. The character puzzles are intended to be less challenging than the quest puzzles, and it’s a delightful development that there are deliberately more accessible puzzles in hunts these days – indeed, it’s on the record that the hunt organisers had deliberately intended to make this hunt more accessible than many in the past. On the other hand, these relatively accessible puzzles are still intended to take an entire team half an hour, or an hour, to solve – so still daunting challenges.

To get a further flavour for this year’s hunt, the kick-off pastiche and the wrap-up meeting have both been posted to YouTube. These make fascinating viewing. I particularly enjoyed learning the stats quantifying the success that the organisers had in their attempt to make the hunt relatively accessible. Not far off a hundred teams registered in the first place, but some of these registrations may have been less than serious, small teams might have merged before the event began, or some teams might have been registered more than once. Of the teams that took the event seriously:

  • 83 teams submitted at least one answer
  • 82 teams submitted at least one correct answer
  • 70 teams solved at least five puzzles
  • 58 teams solved at least one quest puzzle
  • 55 teams rescued the linguist in person
  • 49 teams solved at least one character meta-puzzle
  • 29 teams completed the character endgame
  • 28 teams solved at least one quest meta-puzzle
  • 17 teams completed the hunt and found the coin

Some past hunts are more forthcoming with their stats than others, and of course every hunt has a different structure, but these figures compare very favourably to what I remember from previous years and reflect the degree of success that the hunt team achieved in its aim of relative accessibility.

I would be inclined to believe that if the most famous attribute of the MIT Mystery Hunt is the very considerable difficulty of its puzzles, its second most famous attribute is the traditionally considerable size of its teams. Another part of the wrap-up video addresses this fact. It’s true that there are half a dozen teams around the 100-150 solver mark, many of which are surely not present in person at the venue. It’s also true that some of the other 17 teams to find the coin are just (“just”!) fifty strong, with a notable outlier around the 35 mark. It’s also true that some teams of 25 or so, or even down to around a dozen, can solve around a hundred or so of the just over 150 puzzles to be solved – but those must be power-packed teams indeed. Dan Katz touches on the topic, but it’s something that comes up every now and again in Mystery Hunt discussions. It is MIT’s event, after all, and some people like the “you bring your puzzle-solving army, we’ll bring ours, no quarter asked or given” arms race of it – or, if there’s any event in the world with that spirit, the MIT Mystery Hunt seems to be the one where people have settled on.

Very occasionally, write-ups will mention that some team or other have remote cells of solvers working together on puzzles from afar, and some teams mention that they have remote cells in the UK. A couple of times, I’ve spent a weekend here in the UK with two or three other solvers working very hard on a small number of puzzles. It’s fun, though I suspect it can only be a fraction as much fun as solving on-site, and there’s so much that you have to miss from solving remotely – but it may be much more practical, as well as tens of degrees warmer some years. As the interest in puzzle hunt puzzles and puzzle hunts increases in the UK – see the last post as evidence! – it would be fascinating to know just which teams have remote cells in the UK, and whether any of those cells are actually open to potential new participants.

Thanks to the setters and congratulations to the winners. The rest of us can just follow the countdown until next year!

Some quick comparisons between editions of DASH

DASH logoThere’s no editorial here, and definitely no intent to suggest there is such a thing as an optimal set of values, but this might still be of interest to set some context for comparison purposes. The times refer to puzzles offered in the most popular (i.e. expert/experienced) track from DASH 5 onwards.

Edition Par time Fast* time Usual* time Teams Structure
2 5:00 1:51 4:32 173 8+M
3 6:00 2:57 6:42 298 8+M
4 6:00 1:53 4:48 300 8+M
5 4:30 2:14 5:32 295+N IB+7+M
6 5:50 2:33 5:10 307+N IB+8+M
7 5:45 3:38 6:55 333+N IB+8+M
8 6:40 2:33 4:35 363+N IB+7+M
* median,
top-11
* median,
middle-8/9
N = normal track M = metapuzzle,
IB = icebreaker

Data remains available for DASH 2, DASH 3, DASH 4, DASH 5, DASH 6, DASH 7 and ((edited:)) DASH 8. Note that the usual time was calculated from the median time quoted for either the middle-scoring 8 or 9 teams, depending on whether the overall number of teams was even or odd, and may not represent every puzzle being solved without a hint or even every puzzle being solved at all. The times quoted do not include the par or solving times for the unscored co-operative icebreaker puzzle from DASH 5 onwards.

The 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt is in progress

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head pennyThe 2016 edition of the annual MIT Mystery Hunt started at 2pm yesterday, based in and around that famous university, associated with Boston in the USA.

A quick summary is that it’s, arguably, the world’s most extreme open-participation puzzle hunt; a low-four-digit-number of players form a few dozen teams (of maybe as few as five players or as many as 125) and spend up to, perhaps, two-and-a-bit days solving puzzles non-stop, taking as little sleep as they dare. There is no limit to the difficulty of puzzles; many of the world’s very best solvers take part, and many of the puzzles are written with this in mind. It’s a practical assumption that most teams will be able to directly or indirectly be able to contact a postdoctorate academic in virtually every subject under the sun, high-brow or low-brow, whether in person or online. For a longer description of the hunt, see last year’s article on the topic, complete with links to write-ups of what it feels like to participate and to some of the most spectacular puzzles.

The hunt does aim to offer such a variety of not just puzzles but also other activities in order to give as many people as possible the chance to join in the fun and contribute whatever their special expertise is. It’s practically guaranteed that there will be several puzzles which will get people out and about (example), there’s very likely to be a twisted variant on a scavenger hunt (example), and it’s virtually traditional for there to be a “bring some food to the team running the hunt” puzzle – with the gimmick that the larger the team, the more elaborate the requirement for the meal to be supplied (example). There are also live events as part of the hunt, with this year’s “Escape from Mars” event sounding rather like it might be relevant to this site’s interests.

If you aspire to play all in the world’s most remarkable puzzle challenges, the MIT Mystery Hunt is one for your bucket list. Being there in person for it must surely be spectacular, though helping a team remotely is the next best thing. (This site is aware of suggestion of at least one remote cell of solvers in London, and believes there may be cells – or at least individual solvers – in at least Cambridge and Manchester.) For the rest of us – and this site knows, the hard way, that the event is out of its league! – then the puzzles and their answers are usually released fairly soon after the event finishes, so that everyone may enjoy and admire their incredible design and artifice.

On the other hand, if the MIT Mystery Hunt isn’t out of your league, why not consider attending the UK Open Puzzle tournament next month? UK solvers can qualify for the country’s team at the World Puzzle Championship!

Late October news round-up: the Foreign Office

Stylised globe encircled by a bolt of lightCloser each day… Home and Away. Following on from yesterday’s home news, here’s the remaining news from around the world.

  • Today sees the sold-out Ontario Escape Room Unconference 2015 at Ryerson University in Toronto. It is being chaired by the irrepressible Dr. Scott Nicholson, the foremost academic in the field – but, being an unconference, all fifty ticketholders are expected to actively participate. While unconferences don’t stream well, there’s a Facebook group, the Twitter hashtag #oeru15 and hopefully documentation to follow. If the unconference model proves to work well, perhaps it might be the first of many.
  • Carrying on from yesterday’s discussion of bespoke amateur games (and that’s no insult at all; the word amateur essentially derives from the Latin verb amare and refers to someone who does something for the love of it), while MIT has been famous for its annual global-cutting-edge Mystery Hunt for decades, it was delightful to see that the Next House dorm at the university have their own two-storey pop-up exit game, within a basement, over Hallowe’en for a second year. It could well be fiendish!
  • Speaking of student puzzle hunts, hadn’t previously seen mention that registration is now open for the 2015 SUMS Puzzle Hunt for teams of up to five, run in the traditional five-daily-rounds-of-increasingly-difficult puzzles Australian style with the first round being released on 2nd November.
  • Sanford, FL is a part of the Greater Orlando area possibly best known for its airport. However, they also have an exit game on a cycle limousine. Say what, now? Up to fifteen people bring their own beer and wine (in plastic containers) or soft drinks onto the human-powered vehicle and must pedal with their feet, as if on a bicycle, to propel it along. (A pilot steers the contraption.) While they’re doing that, and drinking, they have two hours to solve the pirate-themed puzzles – and get the clues from the locations to which they will pedal along the way – which will lead them to save their kidnapped captain. Can’t say it’s not original…
  • Finally, many belated congratulations to Lisa Radding and David Spira of the excellent Room Escape Artist blog on their engagement! Mission Escape Games of New York City helped by hiding a custom box made for Lisa as they (and their team!) played the location’s brand new Nemesis game (see their review) – but the fun only started there. Happily, the second half of the story has been impeccably caught in a series of photos. The very best of joy and health to you both!

DASH7: the numbers game

Now that's a numbers game

Now that‘s a numbers game

Three points of number work from the recent DASH hunt. Where did London’s conspirators spend your money? Did any cities do better or worse than others. And if your team scored 311 on the Novice track, what’s that worth in Expert points? Continue reading

Looking forward to DASH 7 in London – and DASH 7 roll call!

DASH 7 logo
The seventh DASH puzzle hunt will happen in London from 10 a.m. on Saturday 30th May. DASH stands for “Different Areas, Same Hunt”; part of the attraction is that the same event will also be run in 14 cities across the United States on the same day, so competition is global. (Sadly Toronto won’t be happening this year… but surely is a shoo-in for next time.) Registration is open, but is limited to 25 slots – and ten of them have gone in the first 36 hours already. Last year, this site predicted all 25 slots would go; in truth, 21 went. This year, with the likes of Puzzled Pint spreading the word much more widely, this site reckons they’re all going to go within the next two weeks.

In DASH, teams of 3-5 players solve 8-10 puzzles as quickly as possible over the course of, probably, 5-8 hours. You walk from puzzle location to location, enjoying the journey and hopefully the weather. The travel is not timed, so you can take whatever comfort breaks, meals and other pauses you like between puzzles. The cost in London is, as for the last two years, £25 per team – but this year the booking system imposes an 8½% booking fee surcharge.

As last year is that each team is required to bring a smartphone running either iOS 7 or a recent version of Android; much of the administration will be performed by an app called ClueKeeper. Bring your own pencils, scissors, tape, Enigma machines and so on, too. (Tape is listed as essential this year.)

DASH has historically tended to concentrate on word and picture puzzles, rather than logic puzzles, with a focus on pattern recognition and some codebreaking here and there along the way. There’ll be a riot if there isn’t a metapuzzle to tie everything together at the end and the DASH style is to have an overarching story running through the event. Take a look at past years’ puzzles from DASHes 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 to get a feel for the form and difficulty level.

DASH tries very hard to be accessible and family-friendly:

  • It’s possible to register for Easier Puzzles at the very start of the hunt, though clear guidance is given as to which level of difficulty will suit you best;
  • This year, it’s possible (in practice, as well as in theory, in London) to register for “DASH Junior” puzzles, intended to be solved by a team of (probably 10-17-year-old) kids accompanied around the course by a non-solving chaperone;
  • It’s made clear that it’s always possible to take hints on each puzzle if they’re required (indeed, the software keeps rolling hints along on a timed schedule even if you don’t ask for them) and there’s never a worse punishment than a missed scoring opportunity for not solving a puzzle;
  • The puzzles are often designed so that everybody in the team should be able to contribute to each puzzle, because feeling “we solved this together between us” is fun;
  • In practice, there really is an ethos of offering as many hints as are required in order to get people through as many puzzles as possible and making sure people are having fun at all times.

Both of the two previous London events were outstanding; I wrote about DASH 5 at length at the time. One of my teammates, Iain, also wrote an account of that event, with gorgeous pictures, in two parts; he also produced a fantastic 80-minute podcast (from 1:54 onwards) about the DASH 6 event. Iain has always been very measured in his praise and thoughtful about the event’s marginal shortcomings, so it’s to the event’s strength that he will be leading the event this year.

More information will be posted at the London Twitter feed, or send questions to the London organisers. (If you’re less interested in playing and more interested in helping out, or if all the teams’ places have been filled, you can also volunteer to help, and maybe even playtest the puzzles if you’re really quick – so if the 30th May date doesn’t work for you, this might be your chance.) The DASH 7 logo hints at a possible theme, if you recognise the logotype, and if this supposition proves correct then the opportunity to play this hunt in London might be especially thematic.

If you’re looking to find teammates, there’s a post on Facebook to which you are invited to reply – or, perhaps, you might enjoy turning up at Puzzled Pint on Tuesday 14th and looking for teammates in person. If you have teammates, then consider this thread a roll call. Looking forward to seeing lots of you there!

Around the World: a US hunt playable around the world?

South Carolina state map(South Carolina image courtesy of mapsof.net, published under a Creative Commons licence.)

Life gets in the way for a few days and all of a sudden there’s a little backlog of exciting news to post…

The happiest news of the day is good reason to turn two more dots on the map from red to yellow as Breakout Games Aberdeen have announced that they’re taking their first customers today and Crack the Code Sheffield previously suggested that today would be the day on which they will be taking their first customers. (There are TripAdvisor reports for the site already, so perhaps they have had a soft launch already?)

Last year, this site briefly covered the University of South Carolina puzzle hunt, which has been an annual fixture since 2012. Registration is now open; the hunt’s informational page suggests that “Remote teams and members are still welcomed in this Hunt. On the registration form, please indicate that you are playing remotely, and more information will be provided to you“, and an article on last year’s event reported that “Twenty of this year’s teams were composed of USC students, but the remaining teams were remote, and came from as far as China and the United Kingdom.” Fair game, in that case! On each of the five days of the first week of the hunt, a set of puzzles will be released, along with a metapuzzle derived from those puzzles’ answers, with the overall hunt solution derived in turn. You can get a better idea of the hunt’s form from the 2014 puzzles and the 2013 puzzles as well. (Ooh, they had an Only Connect event as part of the 2013 hunt as well! Excellent.)

Lastly, Iain points out that 25 cities across the United States will be having one-day revivals of the old Lobby Lud gimmick this week! To celebrate the start of the second series of NBC’s The Blacklist, lookalikes of the show’s lead character will be deploying themselves across the US between Monday 2nd February and Thursday 5th February then posting clues to their whereabouts to social media. The first three to find each lookalike and whisper the phrase that pays stand to win hundreds of dollars. Sadly South Carolinians will have to travel north and cross the state border to either Charlotte or Raleigh in order to play!

If you’re not in the US but still feel like making some money, don’t forget Quiz The Nation on Sunday evening; download the free app and get tokens letting you play your first few quizzes at no charge. The competition was bigger in week two than week one, but not wildly so, though the standard of top competitors is getting higher. First place pays £1,000, second to tenth and spot prize winners all claim £50 or more, and eleventh to fiftieth win tokens to play further games for free.

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.