MITMH 2020: 2020 Jan

Careful: I'm pretty blasé about spoilers for this year-old hunt. If you haven't already solved the puzzles you wanted to solve, maybe don't keep reading.

Every so often, fearless leader Corey sent out a "State of the Hunt" email. Here are some excerpts from January's email to let you know what the writing team was doing. (And to remind me, as I write this, what we were doing.)

Now that we’re in January, counting down the days is easy: Hunt begins in just less than 16 days.

Hunt is overall coming together but we have a lot of fit, polish, and tasks to complete in the next two weeks. The bigger categories of activity are:

We can still use everyone’s help! In particular:

The next two weeks are going to be busy, and I appreciate how everyone is putting in the extra effort to get everything ready in time.

Most puzzles were done and solid. There were fewer changes coming in. The amount of work in puzzle-HTMLification stayed about the same, though. We were getting close to game day; I was starting to think "What if we don't get a fix for this problem in time?" In November, if someone spotted a problem, I didn't immediately spring into action; instead, I would wait for a fix. This close to game day, I did things right away. I HTMLified a version of the problematic puzzle with an erratum note, just in case we didn't get a fix in time. If a fix came along and I suspected neither fact-checking juggernaut (Stribs or Nina) was around, I did some early checking myself. If the fix was good, I re-HTMLified the puzzle. Then fact-checkers would quickly look over the HTML (perhaps spotting new things to fix).

Some of the not-yet-done puzzles were our maybe-too-tough puzzles. These puzzles had stymied testsolvers. They'd gone through a few cycles of revisions. Now they were running out of time and running out of unspoiled testsolvers. Those caused some anxiety.

I helped out some with some server testing around this time. I don't think I actually found any errors. But it was reassuring to know that someone could bump around on the web site without hitting errors.

Nina continued to find lots of fixable things. Thus, there was always something to fix. Fix, fix, fix, change, change, change.

Things were happening in Massachusetts. Folks were gathering physical objects. We needed many many empty Coke bottles for an activity at our carnival Midway event. Thus, folks in that area were encouraged to pick up full Coke bottles and hoard empties. Far-flung Left Out folks asked Cambridge locals to pick up things on semi-regular CostCo runs, which were now a thing.

There was always something to fix. It felt like each Slack message notification was harbinger of some real or imagined crisis to be dealt with or dismissed.

Then Alison Howard messaged me. She wasn't telling me about some crisis, just had a question about a possible change to her puzzle. When that was sorted she mentioned that she was excited because this was her first puzzle in a real puzzle event.


That had been one of the team's big overarching goals for this event: Present puzzles from some new designers.

With my nose to the grindstone, I'd lost sight of the big picture. Though I was (sensibly) focused on those pieces of the hunt that were stuck/troubled/on fire—overall, this Hunt was hitting its goals. I was hitting my personal goals.

That was a good conversation; it un-skewed my perspective.

For months, operations-folks had been planning how HQ folks would operate during the hunt. I'd mostly ignored this, but now it was time to start learning what they'd figured out.

I would be on the Hints team. That suited me fine: I had broad knowledge of our puzzles. If I saw that team had requested a puzzle about X puzzle, I could probably remember something about that puzzle, and thus have a head start on figuring out an appropriate hint to give.

(At the time, I mistakenly thought that "I'm on Hints team" meant that I wouldn't do other things during hunt.)

I would also pull a couple of early morning shifts as the HQ "dispatcher". Some aspects of the hunt involved sending actors to visit teams in rooms. The actors might deliver a puzzle, act out a plot point in our story, or just check on the team to make sure they were having fun. It would be up to me to notice when a team did something to "trigger" a visit, send out actors, and keep track of where they were.

We sent out messages to team captains and interested folks with teaser messages. I didn't follow this very closely, but I heard rumors of reddit-excitement which hopefully reflected some puzzler-excitement.

In recent years, each hunt had a fake-theme. When teams started the weekend, the game would seem to have some theme. And then in a shocking twist, that theme would turn out to be fake, and the real theme would be revealed. (Now that this had happened for a few years, it was no longer shocking, just ironically "shocking".)

Our fake-theme was a wedding. (Well, we would have a real not-fake wedding in our opening skit; it just wasn't the main theme of our hunt.) Our teaser-announcement announced a wedding, said formal dress was optional and mentioned cake. Excited redditors took this to mean that cake, not called out as optional, was mandatory. So our hard-working operations folks made a note to set up a table at the starting ceremony for teams to give us cakes.

Some of our frenzy was getting-things-done-last-minute frenzy. Some of it was just folks panicking over nothing.

Goliath's Goof, a puzzle which used Unreal's 3D game engine on the web, was "swallowing" all user input so that teams couldn't enter answers. At first, we thought this was only a problem in Safari; but it happened in Chrome, too. So there were these little jolts of stress—finding new problems, failing to find fixes, updating warning-text on the puzzle, and on and on.

ICE, a government agency known for harassing immigrants and people of color, threatened to visit campus and harass international students. It didn't seem likely that they'd try anything during hunt weekend. But it wasn't fun to consider that someone might ask us for emergency-help finding some student—and that we'd have to be skeptical of the emergency and have to consider that the law enforcement officers might themselves be acting illegally.

Looking back, this level of panic and frenzy seems quaint.

One morning, fearless leader Corey got in touch with me. He was trying to get in touch with all of the team Czars for a sudden meeting. (We had a regular weekly meeting; this sudden-ness was irregular.)

Those of us who were reach-able gathered in a video meeting, and heard the news:

MIT administration didn't want teams on campus overnight. Teams headquartered in classrooms would have to pack up each night and clear out. They could keep solving online puzzles overnight, but couldn't visit campus—which was bad news for site-specific puzzles.

Corey was putting together a within-our-team announcement for the afternoon and a to-all-teams announcement for the evening. Did us Czars have any ideas he might not already have considered? My ideas at that moment: Buh. What? No no no bad wrong!

In my puzzle-HTML-ification efforts, I'd just started replacing "HQ" with our actual room number in the text of puzzles that told teams to visit our headquarters. Now my head was a-whirl: what should we tell teams to do for these "Go to HQ to pick up this physical puzzle" instructions? "Go to room 10-105 unless it's night-time, in which case wait until morning, sorry for the delay ♫ whoopsie ♫"?

Then the rest of Left Out found out. And there was much worrying.

Then the rest of the MIT Mystery Hunt community found out. And there was yet more worrying.

We weren't sure what we wanted to do about physical-on-campus puzzles. Over the next few days, whenever we thought we had something figured out, MIT administration relented on some aspect of their curfew…which was good news, but meant that we started anew figuring out what to do.

I wasn't doing much of this figuring; this was mostly our operational folks. Me, I was heads-down working on HTML-ifying puzzles. E.g., Wei-Hwa wrote up the 20+ page solution document for his massive Gangs of Six puzzle. So there was some light conversion-work to get that into a format for uploading to our test server; then fact-checkers looked it over and found things to change and… Anyhow, there were plenty of things to keep me occupied while other folks clutched their heads and figured out how to save the hunt.

I'd thought that when it came time for me to fly out to Boston, it would be an unplugged day. But as I sat at SFO airport, I found myself answering questions on Slack—questions about physical puzzles and what to do about the latest curfew news, questions about puzzle production. The MIT administration had changed their minds about hunt curfew; as I sat in the airport, I learned the latest news: teams could stay in classrooms overnight, if an MIT student was in the room. But teams couldn't wander the halls on runarounds. And they couldn't wander the halls in general; e.g., if we were running a boardgame-themed puzzle in a classroom, teams couldn't go to that classroom at night. Our operations folks were putting together an appointment system. Thus, a team that "unlocked" the boardgame puzzle would make an appointment to play; there wouldn't be any appointments available at night, so some teams would have to wait until morning to solve. It wasn't ideal, but it was a pretty darned impressive system for something put together so quickly.

Anyhow, I flew out to Boston and caught the train to Cambridge.

Cambridge [>]

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