Hello from the other side of the 2023 MIT Mystery Hunt, which finally ended on Monday after 66 hours and 23 minutes, making it one of the longest hunts in history. Mystery Hunt weekend is an annual highlight for me, mainly because I get to hang out with my puzzle-solving family on Team Palindrome. We wrote last year's hunt, after winning the 2021 hunt while entirely remote, so this was the first time in three years that I got to see and solve with these folks in person. And because we went into the hunt with the clear intention not to win, we could focus on the puzzles we were really enjoying and get reasonable amounts of sleep. There's a high that comes from furiously co-solving puzzles together with my friends that just doesn't happen when solving alone. It's the reason I show up — and I'm eternally grateful to this team for inviting me on board.
This year's hunt was written by teammate, and featured some truly mind-bending puzzles and ideas (there’s a wrap up here, which goes through the story and has some clips to give you a sense of what the weekend was like). The storyline of the hunt involved a friendly AI named MATE, constructed by teammate to write all of this year's puzzles. After a few normal-seeming rounds, things break down — to no one's surprise — and teams are sent on a quest into the Puzzle Factory, where they meet four other AIs who help them restore order and get the Mystery Hunt up and running. Along the way, there are 150+ puzzles to solve.
Mystery Hunt is known for having some fiendishly difficult puzzles, but for me and a lot of other solvers I’ve talked to, the overall response to this year’s Hunt was that it was just… Too Much. The Hunt was filled with lots of superb ideas for round structures, clever puzzle mechanics, incredible tech, and beautiful art — but way too often there were too many unclued leaps of logic, or too many layers of a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. The calibration was just off.
When Palindrome wrote Hunt last year, we spent a lot of time smoothing the edges of the trickiest puzzles, so that we felt that every single step of the way was fairly clued. We tested and re-tested and re-tested. Calibrating puzzles is extremely hard, and calibrating a whole hunt is monumentally harder. We made our best guess about how long the hunt would take for the best teams, but we also made sure that the experience would be friendly to smaller teams, by designing the puzzles in the first act of the Hunt to be more accessible. This year's Hunt deviated from this practice, and as a consequence, the whole thing felt grueling. (And even more so for smaller teams, I've heard.)
I still give teammate lots of credit for what they accomplished here. While there's currently some grumbling, there are also some truly beautiful creations that will be talked about for years. I hope we see more hunts from them in the future. Meanwhile, congratulations / condolences are in order for Team To Be Named Later, who found the coin and won this year's hunt, which means they're on the hook for writing the 2024 hunt. I'm sure they're already at work churning out theme ideas. Can't wait to see what they come up with.
Every month I offer a new bite-sized puzzle. Here's the newest one:
Think of a hyphenated word for a kind of book that contains salacious details. Remove four of the same letter from that word, and what remains will be a word for the kind of content you’d find in such a book. What are the words?Submit your answer here 🗳
Mystery #8: Stocking Stuffers
Back in December, I published Mystery #8, Stocking Stuffers, a co-creation with my brother Bob. (Sign up for Puzzle Alerts to be notified when new puzzles are released.)
This puzzle is an attempt at one of my favorite puzzle types — a scattered meta (to coin a phrase) — wherein you're given a bunch of phrases, and you have to figure out how to sort them into different mini-puzzle structures. A recent puzzle hunt (ECPH) had a version of this called Puzzle Boxes, which I loved, and which is a direct influence for this puzzle. Puzzle Boat famously uses this structure for its entire hunt, i.e. you solve puzzles but you're not told which meta the answer feeds into.
As always, these puzzles are available for anyone to solve, but hints are only available for Signals Boosters. You can become one for $3 / month.
Only Connect game for movie nerds
Cine2Nerdle is a web-based game that presents you with a grid of 16 tiles, which you then have to swap around to form 5 straight lines of movie-based connections. It's very much like the Connecting Wall on Only Connect*, except the connections are all movies, and they can go along both axes. I've done a handful of these and they're all 😙👌. Here's today's:
*Never heard of the British quiz show Only Connect? You are in for a treat. Here's a YouTube channel that has back episodes for 16 seasons. If you want to try your hand at some homemade Connecting Walls, puzzgrid.com has over 70,000 available.
Highlights from the weekly Dispatches
Is HORSE not a long enough game for you? Adam Aaronson did some dictionary diving to find the longest possible alternative:
Frisco 17 rounds up his favorite crossword clues of the year. Lots of gems in here:
Stefan Fatsis on the latest words added to Scrabble, and the changing models of the Dictionary business:
Solution to the December Puzzler
DONKEY + OAT + HAY = DON QUIXOTE