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Happy Birthday, Mystery Hunt!

The annual running of the insomniacs turns 30
December 21, 2009

Looking to spice up Independent Activities Period 30 years ago, avid puzzler Brad Schaefer ‘78, PhD ‘83, stood in Lobby 7 and handed out a sheet of paper containing directions and puzzles. Unraveling them would lead solvers to an Indian-head penny hidden on campus. Winners received their choice of a keg of beer, a $20 Coop gift certificate, or a $50 donation to their chosen charity. And so began one of the most time-honored traditions at MIT–the January running of the insomniacs known as the Mystery Hunt.

ON THE HUNT Members of the Mystery Hunt team Manic Sages, affiliated with MIT’s Experimental Studies Group and with Mathcamp, concentrate on solving individual puzzles.

The hunt has evolved considerably since 1980. Puzzle designers still face the challenge of making the puzzles difficult enough, but now they must also be Google-proof. Schaefer’s initial hunt listed 12 subclues whose answers hinted at the coin’s location. Though they weren’t easy, the coin was found the first day. Now, to Schaefer’s wonder, hunts are elaborate spectacles fashioned around intricate back stories and often include more than 100 brainteasers leading to larger metapuzzles. In 2004, solvers worked for a record 68 hours to find the coin.

Not surprisingly, team sizes have swelled to accommodate the ritual’s scope. Scores of people often join forces. Schaefer admires the community building but regrets that teams have had to become elaborate operations–with their own rooms and computer banks–just to have a chance at winning. “A lot of the charm is lost,” he laments.

In 1982, Schaefer tried the experiment of creating two hunts: one for larger groups and one for two-person teams. “I think that is still a gap that should and could be filled–a scaled-back version that is appropriate for two friends,” he says. Of course, the future of the event itself is a mystery. Each year’s winners invent the next hunt, and as Mystery Hunt regulations state, they have the option of redefining almost any rules of the game.

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