The Great Annual MIT Mystery Hunt
by Eric Albert
Games Magazine, July 1991
Reprinted with permission from GAMES Magazine. To order a subscription, phone 1-800-827-1256, or write GAMES, P.O. Box 605, Mt. Morris, IL 61054-0605. Other Games Magazine articles, puzzles, and registration are available on-line.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology seems to have been designed for treasure hunts. Its main buildings, constructed in the early part of this century, are interconnected in a bewildering maze of passages, skywalks, and tunnels. Halls suddenly slope, or change direction, or stop, hinting at some architectural compromise now long-forgotten. Harshly-lit basements lurk beneath, with dingy subbasements below them. Even the doors are peculiar. Some are half-size. Some lead nowhere. Some bear inscriptions such as "Department of Alchemy" or "Shelob's Lair."
Each January, during the students' "Independent Activities Period," an unusual coin is hidden somewhere on campus. Students form teams and spend countless hours solving a host of baffling puzzles in order to track the coin down. To succeed, they may have to determine the duty cycle of an electronic circuit, clamber through a humid steam tunnel, bone up on their crystallography, and break into an elevator control room. Their only prize: to run the hunt the following year.
Credit all this to one Brad Schaefer.
Brad was a graduate student at the Institute back in 1979. An avid puzzle person, he would become well-known for organizing a role-playing game called Spymaster and for recreating famous chess games in the lobby of MIT's main building using a life-size board and human pieces. His most long-lived contribution, however, has been the invention of the Mystery Hunt.
The idea of a university-wide puzzle activity came to Brad while he was driving cross-country with his girlfriend (and occasional White Queen in the living chess games) Martha. The first Mystery Hunt took place a few months later, in January of 1980. Brad stood in the main lobby of MIT and handed out a set of difficult puzzles whose solution disclosed the location of a hidden Indian head penny. it was the beginning of a new MIT tradition.
Brad's hunt was not for lightweights. For starters, teams had to translate
a Chinese ideogram, evaluate a complex integral, determine the result of a
FORTRAN program, and break a polyalphabetic cipher.
Nevertheless, several groups breezed through the hunt, and the coin was found
the same day. Brad was to find that the hunts were always solved more quickly
than he expected.
"My biggest problem was making the things hard enough. 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! One team had a person who was actually studying Linear B. Another just happened to have a book on the subject. It was incredible."
Jean-Joseph Cotè remembers Brad's killer puzzles with affection. Jean was an undergraduate at the time and leader of a team called the Holman Reactionary Army.
"We were trying to translate this passage in Bengali, and one of our guys was sitting in the library with a Bengali-English dictionary. Unfortunately, he didn't know the order of the Bengali alphabet, and the letters get joined in weird ways. He actually got a few words but then we realized there was going to be a meeting of the Indian students' organization. Three of us got there early and we stood at the door asking each new person, 'Excuse me, do you speak Bengali?' We finally found someone who did!"
A slipup by Brad lead Jean into one of the more infamous episodes in Mystery Huntdom. "He'd asked us for the star catalog number of the nearest globular cluster to Cor Caroli and the answer was M3. We were supposed to figure out to drop the M and use the 3 to make the library room number 132. But Brad didn't realize there's a mezzanine in that building, so there really is a room 1M32! We raced there and knocked on the door, and there's this shuffling inside and someone's holding the doorknob. We went around the back and through a window we could see another team ransacking the office! We found the librarian whose office it was, and she kicked them out. Then she let us search, but it was the wrong place after all."
Brad ran Mystery Hunts for four years until he got his PhD in 1983. The Holman Reactionary Army found the penny that year (it was taped to the bottom of a drawer full of fossilized worms) and thereby "won" the opportunity to put on the next hunt.
People who were expecting a letdown in intensity once Jean took over for Brad got a rude shock when they received the "Ofishal Mystery Hunt Clue Sheet" in January of 1984. its cheery subheading was "Good luck, folks," and teams would need every bit of encouragement they could get during the 57 hour and 25 minutes of what was to be the longest hunt on record.
What made this hunt so hard? Puzzles like the 192-letter cryptogram, for one thing. As Jean notes, "A cipher of that length should be a snap to break. And this one wouldn't have been bad at all if I'd thought to mention that the hidden message was in Spanish. But I didn't. I also neglected to note that the pairs 'll', 'rr,' and 'ch' stood for single letters, as they do in the Spanish alphabet." Chalk up some frustrated victims for this ruse, particularly the people on the Spanish House team, who were among the last to figure out the trick.
Other problems required research into bartending, rock music, topology, and Massachusetts town history. Despite all this a team did eventually find the coin on the third day. They were informed that they had to run the next hunt, and MIT's newest tradition was solidly on its way.
I entered my first Mystery Hunt in 1983, and the first puzzle that caught my eye was this: "One of the activities listed in this month's guide is a fake. Receive a vital clue at its ersatz meeting." That sounded pretty easy, so I began paging through the guide. I had forgotten I was at MIT. With real listings such as "How to Change the Color of Lightning" and "The Universe, With Three Examples," I was completely unable to deduce that the perfectly reasonable-sounding "Parrots Around the World" was a Brad Schaefer invention. It turned out I was not alone in failing to see through this subterfuge; several bird-lovers showed up only to receive the baffling advice "Switch the answers to subclues two and seven."
From that hunt on, most Januarys found me dragging a group of friends to MIT's main lobby once again to compete for the coin. We were often in the running, but some other team always turned out to be a puzzle ahead of us.
Still, we kept coming back. Perhaps it was because the mind-breaking difficulty of each puzzle led to such an enormous rush when we solved it. Or maybe it was the camaraderie that developed as the team worked together for countless hours at a time. I know that one of the most magical parts for me was the surreal feeling that came at four in the morning as I was drifting through some eerie subbasement half out-of-it from lack of sleep, kept focused only by a combination of adrenaline and carbonated sugar-water.
Given our prior lack of success, it was a wonderfully satisfying moment when in 1987 we finally reached the snow-covered roof and realized we were in the lead. There was not time for relaxing, though. We had been given a set of nine line drawings, each portraying a campus view, and one of the drawings had clearly been done from some place on that roof. it took a few moments to find the exact location and then we were off again, racing to find the nearest wall phone because we had been told to copy down its extension for some purpose that we would only later figure out.
We had already gained some notoriety in the hunt because we'd deciphered a message written in "extended Braille" by calling up a local school for the blind, finding an expert, and reading the dot patterns to her over the phone. This willingness to abuse our AT&T calling cards was to become a group trademark over the years, and we've since chatted with directory assistance in San Antonio, the editor of Sky and Telescope, the director of corporate ventures at the California biotech firm Genentech, and the head of the International Astronomical Union at the Smithsonian.
Now it was two in the morning, though, and there was no one we dared call. We fell back on the basic resources, heads and feet. I commandeered an empty office and struggled with the remaining puzzle while the rest of the team tracked down the views that were left. It was noon of the next day before we fit everything together and retrieved the coin from a wallet that had been checked at the desk of the athletic center. We then raced off to meet the hunt's originators in the main lobby for our official congratulations. That enjoyable task settled, we headed home to sleep off a day and night of puzzling and to dream of what to put in next year's Mystery Hunt.
For various reasons, I ended up running the hunt alone the following January. After weeks of preparation, I stood in the main lobby, puzzle hunt handouts in hand, fighting my fear that no one would show up. When the time came and I called out "MIT Mystery Hunt!" some 60 people descended on me. Lack of interest was not going to be a problem.
The teams handed back their sign-up sheets and took off. I scanned the names they'd entered: Coffee Achievers, Bunky's Bandits, Clueless Freshmen, Thunder Chickens, Bexley Hash Cats, and others. They sounded like my kind of teams.
I went home to "Puzzle Central." As I waited for the calls to start coming in, I pondered how people would attack my hunt. How would they figure out that the ZIP code I'd given them, 20252, belonged to Smokey the Bear? It wasn't in the official ZIP code directory. Would they be tripped up by the fact that the basketball game described in the book Forty-Eight Minutes was actually 53 minutes long? how long would it take them to identify 12 places on campus from a set of blueprint fragments that I had chopped up and doctored with white-out?
That last question was answered far sooner than I had expected. Two hours into the hunt, Team Spamit called. "We've got all the campus locations." I couldn't believe it. Some of the places were really obscure and I'd estimated that 12 hours was the minimum it would take to find everything.
"Oh, it wasn't that hard. We sent someone to the MIT architecture department and had him look up the original of the blueprint you gave us!"
I congratulated them on their fine display of puzzling ingenuity but was relieved when no other team came up with the same clever workaround. Throughout the rest of the day teams reported in regularly, most making progress but none close to success. At one in the morning I left some clarifications and hints on my answering machine and went to bed.
The next day tension began to build. All of the teams had made it to the end of the subway line to find the poem carved in the station floor. One team had rented the X-rated movie to find out what biblical phrase was quoted out of context in it; several others had correctly guessed the line ("Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."). The U.S. Forestry Department was reportedly bemused at the sudden rash of ZIP code questions. By dark, three teams had enough information to find the coin. Who would realize it first?
It was the Black Seven. Jonathan Zissu called at 11:00. "We believe the coin is in locker 4059 in room 7-434. Care to come?"
I was out the door in a flash, but wasn't worried that they would find the coin before I got there. They didn't yet know about the final challenge.
Using brute force to substitute for brains is a fairly common Mystery Hunt technique. More than one team has lost a night searching every corridor in an entire building because they couldn't solve a puzzle. I once spent several hours trying to find "the room whose phone number is the same as its office number" by standing in front of door after door while a teammate dialed the door number and I listened for a ring. I might still be doing it today if a custodian had not put a stop to my extremely suspicious behavior. He didn't buy my explanation that it was a fraternity initiation rite.
Still, my hunt was the first actually to require a brute force solution. The final puzzle was simplicity itself: I had purchased a case-hardened steel lock, put it on the coin locker, and ripped up the combination. I was eager to see how the Black Seven would cope with a lock that was unpickable and unhacksawable.
Once again, I had forgotten I was at MIT. Minutes after I arrived I had the rare pleasure of watching two of their team members melt my lock off the locker with a nitroacetylene torch. This was the high point of my Mystery Hunt career, and it produced a blackened souvenir, which I still treasure.
A decade has passed since Brad Shaefer first stood in the main lobby of MIT with a handful of clues. Today he is an astrophysicist for NASA, working at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Martha, former White Queen, is now his wife, and each year the couple hosts a picnic at their house, where games and puzzles abound. At one such gathering, Brad tormented the CIA and NSA members of his local chess club by giving them a cryptogram whose hidden message was in Pig Latin. it was just like old times.
Brad, exuberant and outgoing, is proud that his brainchild still lives on. "I've kept up a bit and grabbed copies of puzzle handouts when I've been in town during January. I'm always happy, if a little surprised, to see the hunts still listed every year in the course guide."
In fact, the tradition is stronger than ever. Stephen Rinehart, the gung-ho freshman who worked for 28 hours straight to lead his team to victory in last year's hunt, is now, even as I write, hard at work on the next one. The hunt is clearly in good hands. I know I'll be back.