Skip to content ↓
MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Good Will Mystery Hunting by Yan Z. '12

63 hours of puzzle solving: a classic part of the MIT experience

“It’ll be over before sunrise.” The first time I heard it, midnight was approaching like a derailed train headed toward Charleston, West Virginia, the most important city in the world that night for all I cared (Read on to find why, after this commercial break). The third floor kitchen of Random Hall had melted from a relatively-docile social hub into a hyperenergetic refueling station for the 2009 Mystery Hunt team members as we slowly deep-fried our brains over the relentless course of 63 hours. Before me sprawled a miniature metropolis of snack foods inspired by the great American spirit of elementary school sack lunches: crackers, bread, peanut butter and jam, sodas and juice, cheese, mustard, apples, oranges, cheerios, granola bars and a box of organic alfalfa sprouts that appeared in no explicable context. For two protein-deprived days, I had lived off the sustenance of a third-grader who ate nothing but lunch and slept off the sleep schedule of a 24-hour pharmacy worker in Alaska. No wonder: Random Hall’s population had seemingly doubled on the cusp of the weekend as tides of alumni, friends, honorary residents, and other puzzle-obsessed hunters flooded into our warm, welcoming walls, while travel time from the 2nd floor kitchen to the 3rd floor lounge tripled due to the stepping-over of crowds of people stretched on the carpet, laptop cables and flipped-open screens, empty plates, and scattered scraps of paper marked with indecipherable words. Couch space was at an unprecedented premium.

On a tired whiteboard, someone had written:


(If anyone finds the pattern, I will be suitably impressed.)

After a few hours and a few more false starts, I was staring at this with half-a-dozen others as we soaked in a collective haze of puzzlement:

After a few additional hours and around 29842942 wrong leads, I drew some more lines on the hexagonal mess above, saw something interesting, and yelled “SPACEBAR!!!” A beat of silence, and then half the room was crushing my ribs with hugs while the other half burst into the lounge to phone headquarters with our answer. Confirmed.

It was 1:00 AM on Monday, and after puzzling, crosswording, board-gaming, coding, algorithm-writing, Googling-and-Wikipedia-ing, picture-analyzing, wordplay-solving, index-calculating, and head-against-wall-banging non-stop(ing) since Friday(ing) at noon(ing), we had dragged ourselves into the final stretch of Mystery Hunt. Solve two more meta-puzzles, find the hidden location on campus, call headquarters to confirm, and we’d be done before sunrise.

There’s just one minor hitch: MIT Mystery Hunt is diabolically hard. Quoth Wikipedia, “One of the oldest and most complex puzzlehunts in the world . . . the puzzle solutions require knowledge of esoteric and eclectic topics.” Somebody should edit this understatement.

For those who are morally opposed to clicking on hyperlinks in my blog, here’s the summary: Puzzles are organized into rounds and are posted online at set times. Few if any come with instructions (half the challenge is figuring out the challenge!). Rules change depending on the year and may or may not actually exist. Each round concludes with a metapuzzle, which integrates answers from that round, and solving all meta-puzzles plus a meta-meta-puzzle allows you to run around wildly on campus in search of the hidden item. First team to find it wins. Winning team writes the puzzles for the following year.

This year’s theme was an Interstellar Board Game Convention set in 3009, an epic-scale, unspeakably convoluted mash-up of sci-fi plots and RPG-inspired tasks that is undoubtedly much cooler than it sounds. Except that my description comes nowhere close to describing the exuberant creativity and sheer brilliancy that the puzzle-writers mercilessly flaunted in our admiring, frustrated faces. Examples included (1) an Apples-to-Apples applet (“apple-t”) that gave you strange error codes when you tried to play certain cards, (2) a series of lolcats with suspiciously accurate spelling, (3) a word puzzle grid that came with video clips of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers instead of actual clues, (4) a PDF that appeared to be blank, (5) a board game given to all the teams . . . without instructions.

(1)All the error codes were from the Mac platform (“apple” computers). Somehow, finding this led you to the grocery produce number for a certain type of apple. The answer was GINGER GOLD.
(2)Each lolcat only had one correctly-spelled word. Taking the first letter of these spelled a message that led you to the Frontier Airlines website. It turns out that each of the animals in the lolcat pictures was taken from images on the airplane tails. Organizing these animals by name and the tracking codes of each plane gave you a message about “Korean Star Margaret.” The answer was CHO.
(3)The trick was to identify the characters played by Rogers and Astaire and write them in the grid. The second trick was to realize that Ginger’s character name had to be written backwards each time, since Ginger “did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels,” a nod to the classic quote. Reading the grid vertically provided the necessary clue.
(4)Zoom in to 6400%.
(5)After about 3948293 transformations, the game turned out to be checkers. Every piece of the board game (pawns, spinner, the board itself, etc.) turned out to be necessary in order to solve another puzzle.

One of my personal favorites was the time-variant word search. Stare at it for a few minutes, and you begin to comprehend why MIT students lose uncountable hours of sleep during Mystery Hunt.

Rewind to Friday, noon. Thanks to Mystery Hunt Kickoff (a.k.a. “Zyzzylcon 3009”), Lobby 7 approximated the milder sibling of a bad sci-fi convention.

Soon after, the teams dispersed from Lobby 7 to commence the first phase of hunting. As a sad and unfortunate person, I broke away from Random’s team of 70+ members and spent 7 grueling hours working in my research lab instead of 7 grueling hours cracking through puzzles with maniacal fervor. By the time I returned to Random at 8:30 PM, puzzling was in full, glorious swing and my maniacal fervor was still screamingly repressed. Catherine ’12 handed me a fistful of gift certificates to the best ice cream parlor in America and I sprinted away into the snowy night, channeling my maniacal fervor into purchasing ice cream for Off by Two Pi. (It’s a tradition to pick horrifyingly terrible team names that put the worst of homemade garage bands to shame. Other gems: S.C. Johnson: A Family Company, The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight, Colon-Inflating Rhinoceri, Eigenpirates, Grand Unified Theory of Love, Team Unwanted Pregnancy, Jews for Cheeses, Hella Minerals, and Super Team Awesome.)

Rounding the end of the block, I dashed into Toscanini’s, nearly knocked over a few customers/chairs/tables, slapped down the gift certificates on the counter, and casually ordered $92 worth of burnt caramel, Belgian chocolate, coffee cookie sandwich, regular coffee, cookie dough, raspberry, chocolate banana, hydrox cookie, tiramisu, chocolate banana, and banana gingersnap molasses ice cream.

It took around 20 minutes for Tosci’s to process my order, so I lounged around, enjoying the cozy ambiance and savoring the last few drops of peace that I would taste all weekend.

With the help of Umaimah and Katelyn, Random Hall was thoroughly dairy-fied for the night.

After which I chucked my camera into the snow and finally plunged head-first into the madness of Mystery Hunt. Fortunately for this blog, part of that was a lie.

Parenthetical note, sans the parentheses: Somewhere in the haze of fluid time trickling around Saturday night, I caved in and took a break from puzzling and peanut-butter-sandwich-eating in order to join Fifth East on their weekly pilgrimage to Pour House (half-priced burgers on Saturday nights!). The treacherous hike across the Moat of Charles into the Kingdom of Boston gave me frostbite about 29 times in the course of 20 minutes, but luckily I ordered a Hawaiian burger and all was forgiven.

(American cowmeat topped with a luminous slice of pineapple glazed in Terriyaki sauce)

Anyway, since this post has thus far defied all chronological reason, let’s go back (or forward) to the wee hours of Monday morning, when Random Hall was as abuzz as the inside of a mosquito light. Desperately we scrutinized each luxuriant and perfect drop of a hint, stretching the exhausted limbs of our minds toward the gleaming secrets of Zyzzl 3009, striving mightily to beat the loathed genius of S.C. Johnson: A Family Company. Time crawled like a frantic beetle. 3 AM. Like the coming of daylight savings time, it caught us unprepared. At 3:02 AM, team Beginner’s Luck found the coveted location and won the hunt. Off by Two Pi finished in 4th place.

I missed the sunrise but was awake by sunset.

Epilogue: Win or lose or end-in-a-perfectly-respectable-fourth-place, Mystery Hunt was unforgettable, not least in the sense that my Google search history won’t let me forget it. For your viewing pleasure, here’s a selection of some deeply profound queries that I implored:

aliens in disguise
burden of eternity
charles xavier dickens
charles dickens basil
cykosis max
ex-hockey player niagara falls
greatest hockey players
high school aliens
hexagon dance
hockey players list
hockey series
randy jackson calls you
x men hockey
xho key
xhoc key
xtreme hockey player
quantum pool
know your sid
join military without dying
stunt double survival
airport tracking numbers
grizzly bear in front of mt. mckinley
boston cable channel ist
cast of x-men
clam chowder
clip art woodsaw
court terminogy
cream of mushroom soup
cubic zirconia
famous titanic survivors
good will hunting script
hexadecimal clock
humpty dumpty
herbie hancock song list
let me google that for you
list of superhero movies
movies in 2000
people named rose
polaroid picture mirror
six degrees calculator
words ending in oilet

Real life resumed shortly thereafter.

51 responses to “Good Will Mystery Hunting”

  1. Yan says:

    Thanks for the congrats for Random’s Team, y’all.

    @ Eric:

    Not only were we not given any lines on the hexagon, we weren’t even given any of the words. Two words out of each line were solutions to puzzles, another one in each line was a solution to a pseudo-metapuzzle, and the last two were basically shots in the dark based on the pattern of the other three in each line.

    However, that’s excellent pattern recognition on your part. There’s still a link between the four lines though . . .

    @ Lauren:

    Thanks for the clarification. I ate some of the sprouts before realizing that they tasted disturbingly like soil. The rest are in a cup on a shelf in BMF Lounge.

  2. I know how you got “SPACEBAR” ^.^

    I love graphic puzzles.

    Also, my life is WOE because I missed out on a Sci-Fi/RPG/Board-Games based Mystery Hunt… Those three words pretty much describe MY LIFE.

    Put the two caps-locked words together and you get: WOE MY LIFE.

    Also also, I wish I could blog half as eloquently as you. I can only stare in awe at your vocabulary every time I see one of your posts… and *I* get accused of loving big, esoteric words by my friends.

  3. Aww… I just saw that someone already posted the same thing I noticed about the “SPACEBAR” answer.

    However, nobody posted anything about Little Jimmy Dickens.

    I’m not sure if that’s the answer, because ‘Bolt’ is a bit of a stretch from ‘saws’, but I didn’t do much research about it raspberry

  4. Last post, I promise!

    …Is “groundhog” the right answer?

  5. Varun says:

    Amazing! Absolutely incredible. Boy I seriously wish I could experience something like that! And incredible blog entry Yan. Good enough even to make Ashwath comment! wink

  6. Varun says:

    Sorry for the dig dude! No offense meant. I just got a little over – excited on seeing your name for once!

    Honestly, I better get used to wearing glasses. I feel like I’d want to sit and solve that word search but I can’t look at it for more than a few minutes as my eyes smart. ( Have a complex problem though its negligible power )

    63 hours of puzzle solving? I’m game…hopefully!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of people, ice cream, and I really love that sunrise picture.

    Mystery Hunt sounds like it’s full of awesome.

  8. Tree says:

    I wish I got gift certificates for ice cream.

    It’s funny when people thing they’re “FIRST” but they aren’t (‘people’ once included me)

  9. …yeah, I wasn’t the anonymous who commented the ‘FIRST’. Frankly, it’s a little obnoxious.

    Anyway, after thinking about those four lines at the beginning again– I’m pretty sure the first line has types of saws (or most of them fit that category…), the second line is definitely Dickens novels, I have no idea about the third except that some of them are cities, and same with the fourth except that some of them are old movies.

    Are the four lines actually supposed to be related somehow?


  10. Yan says:

    @ 1st/4th Anonymous:

    Getting warmer. Yep, the lines are related.

  11. Jesse says:

    Kyaaa~~~ Puzzles, i Kyaaa~~~ Puzzles, i <3 puzzles and Mystery Hunt is just awesome!

    Thanks for the Post, Yan!

  12. hill says:

    That ice cream looks so good! Congrats on forth, that’s great, so what do you get for winning anyway (other than major bragging rights)?

  13. Sally says:

    Yay ^.^ a blog!

    This was a very interesting view into the Mystery Hunt. I still don’t get how you got ‘spacebar’ as an answer…

    Oh and more pictures of food smile they are looking deliciously wonderful as always. Excuse me while I find some icecream…

  14. Justin '13 says:

    The fourth line is a bunch of movies all starring kevin costner

  15. Hill says:

    Hey, the names in the third row are all… well, names of places in West Virginia

  16. Dylan says:

    This pretty much sums up my prospective MIT experience: awe-inspiring, exciting, daunting, tiring, and extremely rewarding, but also eliciting the constant question, “Can I really handle this?”

  17. Eric says:

    @Yan: Then where did the sixth word come from? :lol

    Hmmm…well, random Google search reveals: all four are the subject of parts of WPBS “A Time to Treasure” broadcasting, all four can be found on a page of links, under headings made up of random esoteric words, just to name a few.

    Bleh…got to go take my finals now. Be back later.

  18. Ngozi '13 says:

    The second line is Charles Dickens novels.

  19. Hill says:

    I am not sure but,
    Kevin Costner apparently has a band or something with West in the title, and he has won a Golden Globe, and a Globe is a type of motor that could be used to run saws, but I don’t think any of that really makes sense…hmmm

  20. Anonymous says:

    HAHAHA “zoom in to 6400%”
    ouuuuuuuuuuuch XD
    That’s hilarious.

    Can’t wait to join in next year!

  21. Lauren says:

    Lol, Yan, the alfalfa sprouts were from the cooking puzzle!!! They were used to make rootleaf stew or something (Yoda’s favorite). I guess we had extras…. haha.

  22. Eric says:

    Huzzah for Metapuzzles!

    1: Saws
    2: Dickens novels (is it just me, or do a lot of those have “Adventure” in the title?)
    3: West Virginia
    4: Kevin Costner movies

    Soooo we’re looking for a meta-meta?

  23. Eric says:

    !!!!! Moment of clarity! Just a minute…

  24. Lainers '12 says:

    I have tried to do justice to Mystery Hunt for the past few days. this is far closer than any other attempt I’ve seen. Well written, Yan.

    Pink beangoose tea. Seriously.

  25. Eric says:

    Here’s a hint. The 24 words are related to the hexagon puzzle.

    Circular is Yellow
    Scroll is Pink
    Nickleby is Purple
    Chuzzlewit is Green
    Huntington is Orange
    Wheeling is Red
    Waterworld is Grey
    No Way Out is Blue

  26. Eric says:

    So…each metagroup has two words on the hex puzzle. Each of these words has a colored line attached to it. The intersection of the last line of each of these is a set of two letters:

    Yellow and Pink (saws): SP
    Purple and Green (Dickens): EB
    Orange and Red (West Virginia): AR
    Gray and Blue (Kevin Costner): AC

    A little rearranging gives you (drumroll please):


  27. Eric says:

    Actually, this was made much easier by knowing the word I was looking for. Were you given a blank hex? That would have made this devilishly tough! Oh, well, I got to the same answer you did. But, I have this suspicion that I’m missing something about the 4 metagroups…

  28. Dane says:

    Wow, this looks extremely fun. That puzzle… Jeez. That’s amazing. Congratulations on how well you did.

  29. Chris B. '12 says:

    Oh god, Mystery hunt! the hours spent in one room was appalling. Sidenote, even if you guys aren’t hardcore puzzlers, there are plenty of teams that do it just for fun, not to win, like mine

  30. Ahana says:

    What more do I live for?

  31. Ashwath says:

    Wow…. I wanna be there toooo ….. *sulks*

    Absolutely fantastic Yan! I love this entry!

  32. hcs says:

    The middle words are all dance styles… could that possibly has something to do with the video clips of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? (besides the actual clue)

  33. hcs says:

    Err sorry 4th words.

  34. Narce says:

    This… is all completely, 100% amazing.

    I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned recently that you’re a genius, Yan? You’ve just spent a semester at MIT, you’re the same age as the prefrosh, but surrounded by all the other puzzle-otaku you were the first to get SPACEBAR!

    Ya know, I had planned to stay home for my very first IAP and then participate in all the unique at-MIT stuff my other years, but now that you’ve reminded me about Mystery Hunt… that, by itself, is easily worth staying for. Every year. And it’s something that started while my dad was still attending! (he was class of ’82, I believe. I’m off by a maximum of 1 in either direction -.-” Too bad he never participated!)

  35. OH, the four lines were related to the hexagon puzzle! I thought they were supposed to stand alone. Darn. :|

  36. Narce says:

    And you have the best taste in food, as always!! I’ll never stop appreciating those pictures XD

    (I can’t believe that mystery hunt is powerful enough to make me forget the food comment…)

  37. time-variant word search
    WOW. that’s mind-thrilling I would say.
    I have three questions:
    the second one is : do you chose your own team?

    HaHa HAh
    By the way, I love the blog and I adore your writing style.

    Good Luck next year in the Hunt.

  38. Yan says:

    @ hcs:

    Yep, that’s the link. The next step is to connect this to the hexagon board . . . (keep in mind that in the actual hunt, we solved for the first four words in each line and then got the board).

    @ Narce:

    Thanks, but it sounds like I overstated my role in Mystery Hunt. Honestly, I basically slacked off for the first three hours we worked on the puzzle and then just happened to read the letters in the right order.

    Mystery Hunt is well worth the IAP stay.

    @ Abdallah:

    Random’s team, at least, was open to anyone who wanted to join. We were the biggest too.

  39. Hill says:

    Yan, I definitaly think you should give yourself a lot more credit, that puzzle was tough and just following it alone is difficult. By the way, please disregard my question above, I am sure you have seen the effects of sleep deprivation, and here is yet another great example. That and don’t do a Calc IA while blogging, not productive.

  40. Eric says:

    Hmm…dance styles…related to hex…blarg, wikipedia is no help here.

    Huh, that’s weird. The first word in each line is also an obscure type of country dance. Probobly just speculation.

  41. Anonymous says:

    i don’t think we were the biggest team…manic sages was bigger but they had a lot of remote solvers, and some teams were about our size altogether

  42. Alex says:

    The ice-cream looks so delicious! Wish I had some right now. :( There are beautiful sunsets in Cambridge. smile Hope I can witness such beauty soon.

  43. Narce says:

    Yan, to even “happen” to read that kind of thing in the correct order when surrounded by puzzle freaks and under whatever amusement-stress I can only imagine Mystery Hunt will induce is impressive, and shows that you have great puzzle intuition on some level or another, even you don’t feel like it’s been refined at all~

    I didn’t say “oh, Yan, you worked so hard on those puzzles to help out your team!” so I don’t want you to feel like you misrepresented your contribution XP

  44. Vaibhav says:

    That was so Awesome!!!
    (MIT’s the only place which would do something like this!
    Has the Mystery Hunt got some official site where we can see all the puzzles? – and you should try Baskin Robbins for ice cream!

  45. Yan says:

    @ Vaibhav:

    You might regret it, but here’s the link:

  46. Vivi '12 says:

    Mystery Hunt was definitely the highlight of my month. I’ll never forget the expressions of my teammates when I managed to churn out all four answers of Message Redacted literally within 30 seconds of each other.

    And I must admit the Hyperextensions puzzle was my all-time favourite. If you have even a smidgen of computer-related interest, I suggest you try it =)

  47. lulu says:


    actually, I missed it this year. oops

  48. Lyla says:

    are you implying that MIT is real life?