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Pickering Station, Floral garden Big Jigsaw Puzzles, MIT Mystery Hunt

Pickering Station, Floral garden Big Jigsaw Puzzles, MIT Mystery Hunt Ravensburger

Biggest puzzle event of the year, MIT Mystery Hunt

Pickering Station, Floral garden Big Jigsaw Puzzles, MIT Mystery Hunt. Biggest puzzle event of the year, the Ironman Triathlon for Nerds. Well, that's what I think of it as. The official name is the MIT Mystery Hunt. And analogy is only semi accurate. The MIT Mystery Hunt is actually much longer than an Ironman Triathlon: seventy-two hours of excruciating mental anguish, punctuated by joyous aha moments. One of the participants describes his story.

Founded in 1981, the Mystery Hunt attracts about two thousand of the world's smartest people to the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to wrestle with some of the most difficult puzzles ever designed. I'm talking crosswords with no clues, fortune cookies containing baffling symbols, riddles that require algebraic topology.

If your team is the first to solve all of the 150 or so puzzles, the answers will lead you to the prize: a coin hidden somewhere on the MIT campus. The teams are huge. Some have more than fifty people. This is because it helps to have a variety of minds engineers, astronomers, experts on mid ྖs hip-hop. You never know what you'll need.

XXL Pieces, Bert's Bath Night

XXL Pieces, Bert's Bath Night, Gibsons

The puzzles themselves contain no instructions. You just have to figure out what the heck the puzzle creator is getting at. Most often, solving the puzzle requires an insight linking two wildly different realms. For instance, a series of numbers turns out to be longitude and latitude, which then turns out to be a list of towns on Justin Bieber's last tour.

The MIT Mystery Hunt is legendary. It has spawned a slew of offspring. Colleges and corporations host puzzle hunts. There's a monthly national puzzle hunt called Puzzled Pint held at local bars. There are escape rooms, which have been heavily influenced by the MIT Mystery Hunt. More on them later.

I'm going to MIT for two reasons. First, to test my skills. But I have another motive: I want to learn some secrets to puzzlemaking. As I mentioned in the introduction, my wife, Julie, is president of an event company called Watson Adventures. They put on games and scavenger hunts for the public and for companies. Julie figured if I'm writing a book on puzzles, she should at least get some free labor out of it. So I have been tasked with creating a puzzle hunt for Watson Adventures.
I'm on the lookout for lessons at MIT, and I learn my first one soon after arriving:

Lesson 1
The real goal is NOT to stump the solvers. The real goal is to bond the puzzlers together through a shared struggle. On Friday morning, I join hundreds of other hunters in the campus auditorium. The puzzlemakers stage a skit that serves as an introduction to the hunt. To everyone's surprise, this year's skit includes a wedding. A legally binding wedding. The bride and groom are two puzzlers who had met and fallen in love at a previous event.

The groom says: This weekend, as we celebrate this art form, which is about creating fun and joy to share with your friends and loved ones, I promise to be your partner. I promise to fill your life with puzzles and puns. I KEN-KEN promise you never to DOUBLE ACROSTIC you. Simply because you a-MAZE me.

Wildflower Garden

Wildflower Garden, Gibsons

The audience responds with a mix of groans, laughter. After the skit, the teams disperse and gather at their respective headquarters. Team's home base is a skylit MIT classroom filled with whiteboards, dozens of laptops, and a tangle of computer cords. I've been invited onto the team by my friend Alex Rosenthal, a puzzler who works at TED-Ed. The team is called Setec Astronomy, which is an anagram of the phrase Too Many Secrets. And when the teammates see each other, it's like a family reunion. They hug each other, catch up on kids and work and one teammate's lawsuit against a computer company for spamming his email.

So maybe we need to have the United Nations do an MIT puzzle hunt. I'm only half-joking.

Lesson 2
Choose a theme, and go all in.
The MIT Mystery Hunt isn't just a random collection of 150 crazy-hard puzzles. The puzzles are linked by a story, a theme. This year's theme: an amusement park. The real-life newlyweds will be spending their honeymoon at the fictional Penny Park. It turns out, Penny Park is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the teams need to find the magic coin that will restore the park to solvency.

The puzzlemakers have committed to this theme and committed hard. They've dressed up as characters in Penny Park a clown, a wizard, a wolf and spent the weekend walking from room to room in full costume. I was too oblivious to realize, but one of my teammates points out the character names in the opening skit were references to foreign coins other countries' versions of pennies.

Lesson 3
Stretch the very idea of what a puzzle can be.

The puzzles start relatively sanely. The first puzzle pops up at exactly 1 p.m. on Friday. It is a list of jobs, and we have to figure out the common link between pairs of jobs. Who performs Hail Marys ? Well, a priest and a quarterback.

The Setec Astronomers crack the puzzle in about half an hour. They submit the solution which, as usual, is a single word to the puzzlemakers' website. Correct. That unlocks the next set of puzzles. As the weekend goes on, though, the puzzles become weirder and more creative. One puzzle involves following complex knitting directions. In the end, you're supposed to get an elaborate object out of red yarn.

Another puzzle is reminiscent of Pictionary, but instead of drawing pictures, you must communicate with teammates via pancakes. You use multicolored batter to create identifiable images in the pancakes, which your teammates have to guess.

Pickering Station

Pickering Station, Gibsons

Interestingly, MIT Mystery Hunters are allowed to use Google in their attempts to solve the puzzles. But the puzzles are so out-of-the-box that Google will only get you so far. The puzzles are invariably brilliant and difficult, but also sometimes gross. A few years ago, one puzzle was in the form of a fudge-filled diaper. The clues were buried in the fudge.

This year's grossest puzzle is based on the board game Operation and carries the warning Not for the squeamish. Not being particularly squeamish, I think this could be my big break. So far, I have contributed barely anything. Well, that's not quite true. The first puzzle did involve cutting up pieces of paper, and decent with scissors, so I did that. But as for aha moments? Not much. Click the not-for-the-squeamish puzzle on laptop. The image is a cartoon drawing of a naked, paunchy, and genital-free man like the one in Operation.

Mermaid Street

Mermaid Street, Gibsons

If you click on the cartoon's various body parts, up pops a video of real-life surgery. Real blood-and-guts close-ups. Someone on the team not me figures out that we first need to identify the precise types of surgeries. We recruit one of the surgeons on the team. That's an umbilical hernia. That's a lung transplant. And a craniotomy. Someone again, not me figures out that each of these surgeries has an official code number in the insurance industry. Somehow, these yield a series of letters and we start filling in the blanks at the bottom of the page.