Puzzle Hunts: MIT Mystery Hunt 2019, East Coast Left Out

Other MH2019 pages:

I once again teamed up with the left-coast contingent of Team Left Out to solve many many MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles. (To clarify: we solved many many puzzles; of these, I helped solve only a few.) These puzzles are hard work; but it's nevertheless a great feeling to be part of such an amazing team, knocking those challenges down.

Team Left Out is a big team with some genuine puzzling superstars. If you're one of my norma non-puzzly friends or relatives, you think of me as a big-time puzzle nerd, but in the context of this team, I'm small potatoes. The hunt had 180+ puzzles; I got to see perhaps a dozen of these. The rest were solved by my excellent teammates before I got near 'em. Thus, if you're hoping to find out "the big picture" of this hunt, that ain't happening. Maybe read GrEdelston's recap instead. But if you want a puzzling grunt's point of view, keep going here.

Why, you might ask, did I travel to Boston in January to participate this year instead of staying in the Bay Area? I was pretty sure that Team Left Out would win the hunt sometime in the next few years. When that happened, we'd be responsible for running the next year's hunt. Puzzlehunt-design-wise, I have three go-to gimmicks: fun typographical symbols, Morse code, and location-specific puzzles. But I didn't know any MIT locations aside from hazy memories of my 20-year-past tourist wanderings. It was past time to rectify that situation. I'd meant to fly to Boston in 2018, but had chickened out at the thought of facing Boston's winter. But this year, I didn't chicken out: Early on, I paid for a non-refundable plane ticket and a non-refundable hotel reservation. I burned my metaphorical ships, forced myself to head East.

Tue One

I flew out. This went smoothly, even though corrupt president Trump had shut down the federal government so the air traffic controllers weren't being paid. (A worry nagged at the back of my mind: Would I also be able to fly back home?)

I checked in at Cambridge's Hyatt Regency. (This was a poor hotel choice for winter. It was right next to campus—specifically, next to some outbuildings and athletic fields of campus. When I go back to Cambridge in January, I should remember to stay in Kendall Square, which is close to those parts of MIT campus navigable inside where the temperature is above freezing.)

The cold wasn't bad on Tuesday! I walked from the train station to the hotel just fine. I walked to the Central Square neighborhood for a falafel dinner at Clover no problem. I could do this!


I headed out intending to explore interesting locations around Cambridge. From past Hunts, I knew Cambridge had plenty of public art and interesting places… but since I'd played remotely from the West coast, I only knew those places from puzzles. But as I made my way, I soured on my plan of exploration. It was cold. It wasn't too cold to bear, but I wasn't having fun. I didn't want to make a puzzle that told puzzlers "Slog through snow for 10 minutes so you can read one word off of a commemorative plaque and then slog back." New plan: Instead of exploring Cambridge, stick to MIT campus.

I did stray from campus for some shopping. It was Wednesday, the day of the week new comics came out. Also, I wanted to pick up the book Sunburst and Luminary, available only by mail… or in person at the MIT Press bookstore. So I got a burrito at Beantown, books at MITP, and some issues at New England Comics.

But mostly I wandered the halls and courtyards of MIT, snapping photos and taking notes. Sorry, I'm not going to say anything about that. What if I want to turn some of those places into puzzles someday? NO SPOILERS!!

I took a tour of the campus. I didn't learn much—it turns out I'd learned a fair amount from my previous visit and from struggling with past Mystery Hunt puzzles. But I did learn about MIT's Hallowe'en pumpkin drop at Green Building.


Thursday, several Team Left Out folks headed over to Boda Borg. This place has rooms containing team challenges; solve a challenge to head on to the next room. It was a game on the same evolutionary tree as escape rooms, a branch not taken by history.

Part of its rules was inspired by old-school video games: if you made a mistake in a room, you didn't get to re-try immediately. Instead, you'd head back to the first room in the series, re-do that, re-do the second room… until you got back to the troublesome room. Since making mistakes was common, this led to a pattern: re-doing the first room many many times, until it was tedious; just to reach a troublesome room, failing frustratingly.

I'd been hearing about Boda Borg for a while. I was glad to finally get a chance to try it. It wasn't my thing, but it was well-done. Many of the rooms were impressively decorated; there was catchy background music.

Mostly, it was a chance to hang out with some fun people. Mike Springer, the team's east-coast honcho, gave some of us a ride over. I mostly played with Wei-Hwa Huang, his sister Mae (furloughed from NASA during the stupid government shutdown), and Kevin Schraith. I didn't know the latter two, and Boda Borg was a casual way to get to know each other via the shared experience of walking into doors and trying not to fall over.

It wasn't just Team Left Out people at Boda Borg. Matt Cleinman was there, Rex Miller was there… and many other puzzly folks. I suspect it wasn't the usual crowd.

Afterwards, I got to meet more people at the team dinner. This was my first time participating in this Left Out East coast tradition. Every several minutes, everybody shifted left one seat. Thus, you sat next to the same folks through the meal, but across from different folks. Thus, I got to have an actual conversation with the Tammy McLeod; see Nick Parisi open up when Justin Graham talked to him about computer games… Ben de Bivort thought I was being too cautious about cold in location scouting. Maybe it was cold by my wimpy San Franciscan standards but folks who lived around Boston could take it. I nodded sagely and wondered how long it would take me to toughen up.

Anyhow, dinner was good company.


It was the first day of Hunt.

I wolfed down a buffet breakfast at the hotel, spent some minutes wriggling into layers of warm clothing, and headed over to campus.

Helped lug supplies from cars parked on Memorial Drive to our rooms in Building 2. Wiped down desks. Re-arranged some furniture from lecture-layout to collaborating-in-little-groups layout. All around, teammates were getting the room in gear. Setting up the big shared printer. Setting out snacks, supplies, outlet strips… It was pretty amazing to occasionally look up and see the rooms transformed.

Headed over to Kresge Auditorium for the Noon opening skit. Thus, got to see folks from other teams. E.g., I ended up sitting near Matt Cleinman.

And then it was time to settle in and let the excellent team SETEC start the hunt they'd been writing for the past year. They presented their opening skit, introducing this year's Hunt story: We would be fixing molasses-related problems in the holiday-themed world of The Nightmare Before Christmas. And we found out the address of the web site where puzzles would be released, starting at 1pm.

Photo by Bruce Lin, I think?

We headed back to the team rooms. It was the first day of hunt, and thus we were looking at the front-loaded relatively-approachable puzzles, and thus the puzzles made sense and I could make some reasonable contributions: figured out some cryptic crossword clues, filled in one of seven unusually-clued dropquotes, identified some pictures, etc etc. I even helped gather data for a puzzle that involved knowing some campus locations. The team's few MIT experts were all busy, so a few of us out-of-towners muddled through. This one was nice because it got me to some campus places I hadn't seen before, e.g., a chemistry area with pretty orange windows.

I walked back to the hotel. Some folks try to power through a Hunt without sleeping. I'm not that hardcore. I wanted to be rested and productive on Saturday. (Well, at least I was rested…)


Our printer broke. Good to know: In the greater Boston area, Amazon.com can get you a new printer early on a Saturday morning.

I was not-super-effective on Saturday. I looked at just one puzzle; It was snippets of songs, sort of. It was snippets of music, with the lyrics of some songs sung over the music of some other songs. Gathering the data was tricky. Figuring out what to do with the data was trickier. I tried many approaches, none of which solved it.

It didn't help that I'm bad at identifying music. I happily jotted "Popeye the Sailor Man" into our working spreadsheet; one of my long-suffering teammates had to correct that: that snippet of music was from "Can't Buy me Love". (Yeah, in hindsight, I don't know how I could confuse those two.)

Fortunately, teammate Chen Chen was good at music: he listened to the singing and talked about things like chords and intervals and stuff. Unfortunately, his sensitive musical ear meant it was painful for him to listen to these snippets of singing.

Matt Wolak had other troubles with this puzzle: His landlord called up to say that his water heater had broken and was leaking water all over the place. So that was kind of distracting.


I tried more approaches. Teammates tried many more approaches; none were right; there were plenty more things to try left over. Discouraged, I headed back to the hotel as a light snow fell. Later, I chatted with Peter Tang (of the Lester-Tang Conjecture) about our days. He put things in perspective:

Chat transcript. Peter: I caught a cold from my niece. I sound like a frog now. but it's still mild. Me: I stared at a puzzle for 12 hours today without solving it. But 11 hours in, I figured out the pun in the title. Peter: You burned more calories than I did today. (photo of sleeping kitten)

Fortunately, the rest of Team Left Out continued to solve things.


Hours before dawn, I looked out my hotel window. Snow had continued while I slept. Cars were driving the roads, which were still arguably drivable. Nobody had been walking the sidewalks, though. They were buried under snow. My shoes, though waterproof, weren't high enough to keep snow from spilling in. I asked the hotel's night clerk to call me a taxi.

Back at our team rooms, I got caught up. We still hadn't solved that puzzle I'd stared at all Saturday. But the excellent Eric Prestemon, playing on the West coast, had made a pretty big leap, getting some nice four-letter words from the data. We needed to figure out the next step. I had a brainstorm: If I'd been writing this puzzle, the obvious next step was to order these songs by tempo and… anyhow, I sank another hour+ into that puzzle chasing another wrong idea.

After that, I decided it time for me to work on a different puzzle. I looked around. Tammy was assembling a sort of set of jigsaw puzzles depicting some foreign-language translations of passages from Harry Potter novels. Tammy's an ace at jigsaw puzzles. I do OK at cutting puzzle pieces out of printouts. So I did that to speed up Tammy's progress.

I was Google-translating Harry Potter snippets when Brent Holman (of Shinteki) visited folks at the next table over. Brent, along with being one of the team's fearless leaders, is one of our Meta specialists. He thanked the folks at that table for working on that puzzle, because it was an important "feeder" puzzle for an important meta. Which puzzle were they working on, you ask? They were working on the puzzle I'd walked away from after having stared at it for 13+ hours. I'd been so happy to stop working on that puzzle. So happy to walk away. But it was important, argh. So… I went over to that table and asked Nat Parisi, who had her act together on that puzzle, if I could help.

Hours of more-wrong-approaches later, we still didn't solve it. Fortunately, the meta-puzzle folks backsolved it using information they learned about the meta-puzzle it "fed". Thank you, meta-puzzle folks!

At this point, we only had a handful of puzzles left to solve. I pitched in by watching some short TV clips and noting in a spreadsheet which clips mentioned basic tastes. This was a teeny-tiny contribution to a huge team effort on this puzzle… because by now our team of dozens of folks only had about four puzzles to look at; you had to hustle to find a place to contribute before someone else pounced on it.

In other browser tabs, I pulled up a couple of Twitter searches, looking for recent #mysteryhunt chatter and/or mentions of "coin" in feeds I followed. No other team had won yet. We were almost done solving all of the puzzles. Were we about to win?

Photo by Linda Holman I think?

Mike Springer wasn't sure we were about to win. He was pretty sure we were about to go on a runaround, whether or not there might be a coin at the end. He encouraged us to keep that in mind. E.g., figure out what things we wanted to bring with us and whether those things were already packed or were scattered around the room. (A few years back, Team Left Out "unlocked" the final runaround and then, as near as we can tell, got passed by another team while we packed up to go on that runaround. Mike didn't want that to happen again.)

Our meta-puzzling geniuses figured some more stuff out. They solved our remaining meta-puzzles, backsolved our remaining puzzles (in the case of a gnarly geography puzzle, backsolving it when the forward-puzzle-solvers were about a minute from finishing it legit).

And then we got a call from the team running the Hunt: we were to show up outside their HQ in fifteen minutes. OMG. This was it, the final runaround.

We packed up, headed over to Building 13. There, we watched a skit mostly-tying up the world's holiday problems which we could finish solving by following some complex instructions to wander the halls of MIT, noting down some interesting letters along the way.

The runaround was somewhat charlie foxtrot: 40+ people scrambling to follow one Left Outer carrying our instructions. Perhaps a half-dozen of those people were being useful, but I wasn't one of them. I tagged along, keeping an eye on Twitter. No other team had found the coin yet.

Photo by Linda Holman I think?

Our instructions brought us back to one of our team rooms‽ Some of the SETEC folks running the hunt had snuck in during our absence to hide something. Thus, our instructions told us to search the room. Soon we had found: A COIN-SHAPED MANHOLE COVER!!! We were done! We had won the hunt! We cheered. We hoisted the manhole cover. We chanted.

One of the SETEC folks pointed out: That ain't a coin.

We weren't actually done yet. We hadn't actually won yet. We'd been enthusiastically shouting over our teammate who had our instruction sheet: We still had more to do.

And so we wandered off to the Stata Center for the finale.

There's a video of the finale floating around out there somewhere. All I have is a picture I snapped of folks watching the finale, sorry.

Yay, we found the coin! We won! So yeah: Boston is really cold and you'd have to be very foolish to visit there/then. But I knew I was going back because we'd won the hunt and now it was up to us to run MIT Mystery Hunt 2020.

There was much cheering and whooping it up. Then we headed back to our team rooms, where there was much clearing and cleaning it up. Most of the team's east contingent went out for pizza. I was sagging with exhaustion and the sidewalks had been plowed: I walked back to my hotel room to sleep.


Remember how I said that after we won "we'd be responsible for running the next year's hunt"? Before, I'd been exploring campus languidly, thinking maybe someday I'll want to turn this place into a puzzle. This day, I was a bit more driven: Holy moly, we need all the puzzle ideas NOW.

Then a break in the campus-exploration: there was a Hunt wrap-up presentation. I learned that the hunt was growing, in terms of number of teams.

I also learned that since most teams are smaller than Left Out, most teams experience the hunt very differently: they receive new puzzles on a timer, instead of by solving. This was startling. I'm used to a puzzle hunt's story progressing as a team solves puzzles. But we'd need to come up with a story that allowed smaller teams to unlock new puzzles even if they hadn't solved anything in a while.

The nice SETEC folks had made many many commemorative coins. I got one.

Then it was back to campus exploration, plus some worries while watching the team Slack: Due to continuing bad weather, flights out of Boston were canceled. I'd been worried about unpaid ATC folks canceling flights; I should have been worried about the weather. I distracted myself by thinking about MIT location puzzles.

Remembering how Ben de Bivort had encouraged me to try going outside, I exited a building, crossed a street, and went to visit the lobby of the MIT Media Lab. It was 4℉ outside. Metric system users who don't know "F", "4℉" means it was well below F&#*ing Freezing. I hung out in the lobby a while to recover, then forced myself back outside so I could return to the inside-navigable parts of campus.

OK, so I'd let folks who lived in places with real weather think about puzzles at the outskirts of campus. I, on the other hand, was staying inside.

You'd think that after nearly two days of wandering the inside-navigable parts of MIT, I'd run out of interesting locations. But I suspect I only scratched the surface.

Tue Two

When I arrived at the airport, flights were being cancelled left and right, but things were thawing out. And my flight was not cancelled. That evening, I was back in San Francisco, dreaming of puzzles.


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