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I like music because it allows me to sink a lot of attention and skill into making something the way I want it to be. I find that to be especially handy on days when I don’t feel that same level of self-efficacy at work.

I’m pretty sure you could replace “music” above with “having a creative outlet.”

Recapping Mystery Hunt 2019, Part 2: Structure

This is a part of a series about MIT Mystery Hunt 2019. It is preceded by “Puzzlehunts: An Overview” and “Part 1: Story,” and proceeded by “Part 3: My Puzzles.”

Note: While I was on the team which wrote this year’s Mystery Hunt, I had very little impact on the overall structure. My efforts were focused on writing, testing, and laying out puzzles.

Rounds == Holiday Towns

Each round of this year’s Hunt represented one holiday town in the Holiday Forest from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Initially, solvers were presented with a handful of puzzles in Christmas Town. After completing their first puzzle, solvers unlocked the first puzzle in the next town: Halloween Town. After completing eight more puzzles, Thanksgiving Town materialized. And so on.

The full list of main holiday towns, in the order in which they appear (and, roughly, in increasing order of esotericism), is as follows:

  1. Christmas Town
  2. Halloween Town
  3. Thanksgiving Town
  4. Valentine’s Day Town
  5. President’s Day Town
  6. New Year’s Town
  7. Arbor Day town
  8. Holi Town
  9. Pi Day Town
  10. Patriots’ Day Town
  11. Bloomsday Town

The existence of each holiday town was revealed to solving teams as soon as they unlocked the first puzzle from that round.

The Holiday Forest, with all rounds unlocked. Art by Roger Ford.

Metapuzzles == Problems

The flooding molasses is causing unprecedented interactions between the holiday towns! And as we all know, interacting with your neighbors can only lead to problems.

Each problem (yes, that’s the official term) straddles two adjacent towns, requiring some answers from each of the two towns. But we don’t tell you which answers are associated with which problems. As someone on my team explained, “that’s part of the hard part.”

Here are all the problems, in what I consider to be increasing order of difficulty, but YMMV. You can get the solutions by clicking “SOLUTION” in the top-right of each problem page.

  1. Christmas Town × Halloween Town
  2. Thanksgiving Town × President’s Day Town
  3. Halloween Town × Thanksgiving Town
  4. Halloween Town × Valentine’s Day Town
  5. Valentine’s Day Town × President’s Day Town
  6. Valentine’s Day Town × Arbor Day Town
  7. Holi Town × Pi Day Town
  8. Arbor Day Town × Pi Day Town
  9. Thanksgiving Town × New Year’s Town
  10. Pi Day Town × Bloomsday Town
  11. Arbor Day Town × Bloomsday Town
  12. New Year’s Town × Holi Town
  13. Holi Town × Patriot’s Day Town
  14. New Year’s Town × Patriot’s Day Town

Because you didn’t know which answers were associated with which problems, these were some really hard metapuzzles. The leading teams sometimes went eight hours or more between meta solves. After our 17-hour Hunt in 2017, I was happy with these results.


Per tradition, teams were invited to participate in a series of in-person events. It helps to break up the monotony of solving puzzles. You can read all about them here:

Upon completing each event, teams received a 3D printed structure made of unit cubes. By arranging these structures in the correct orientation, solvers were able to assemble the likeness of MIT’s Killian Court, which was the key insight required to solve the events metapuzzle.

Extra Towns

After solving the first five problems, teams unlocked Your Birthday Town. Calling in the interaction request PARTY ON initiated the midgame sequence, which I described earlier.

After unlocking all other puzzles, solvers saw another town on their map: April Fool’s Day Town. This town had no instructions.

Solvers uncovered that each town (other than Christmas Town) had one extra puzzle whose answer was not used in any of its problems. These were all pranks that the April Fool played on other holiday towns. Using these answers, solvers deciphered the April Fool’s plan to pull a JEST IN THE TIME OF NICK. Read the full solution here.

Finally, after teams had completed all 15 metapuzzles (including April Fool’s Day Town) and the Your Birthday Town interaction, Molasses Day Town appeared on the map. By calling in the interaction request WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN, teams triggered the endgame sequence, which I also described earlier.

Unlocking Puzzles

There were two ways to unlock puzzles: by time release, or by completing sufficiently many puzzles.

Within the story, the time release signified that Santa had found a puzzle to deliver to all the teams. This happened every 30 minutes early in the hunt; later, Santa sped up to every 20 minutes, and then every 15 minutes. At 6:00P.M. on Sunday, all teams had access to all 159 puzzles.

The “Santa Curve”: the rate at which puzzles were automatically delivered to teams.

By solving puzzles, teams could unlock puzzles faster than Santa would deliver them. Within the story, this signified Jack Skellington helping Santa deliver puzzles to the eager solvers.

Santa delivered each puzzle to all teams at the same time. If a team had already unlocked the puzzle that Santa was delivering, then that did not entitle the team to receive the next puzzle in the queue. Rather, it meant that they were ahead of the curve. If they kept on solving puzzles, then Jack would keep delivering puzzles. Otherwise, they would fall back onto the Santa curve.

Only two teams stayed ahead of the Santa Curve throughout the entire Hunt.

This unlocking mechanism, in my view, benefited everyone. Large teams were able to keep unlocking puzzles without having 40+ puzzles open at once (as happened in 2017’s famously short Monsters et Manus). Smaller teams had a constant inflow of new puzzles to play with, so it didn’t terribly matter when they got stuck. And everyone eventually got to see every puzzle, which is wonderful.


Some years, Hunt has a built-in hint mechanism. This year, we had “solvent.”

Teams accumulated solvent by completing each event and by solving the events metapuzzle. A team could use solvent on a puzzle in order to know which problem it is associated with.

Teams love to hoard their resources. In order to encourage teams to use their solvent, there was a cap on how much solvent a team could have at a time. Use it or lose it.

Parting Thoughts

Our team was thoughtful and deliberate about using our high-level structure to solve specific problems, such as preventing large teams from rushing through the Hunt. In my view, that deliberation paid off.

Stay tuned to see what puzzles I wrote.

Recapping Mystery Hunt 2019, Part 1: Story

This is a part of a series about MIT Mystery Hunt 2019. It is preceded by “Puzzlehunts: An Overview,” and proceeded by “Part 2: Structure” and “Part 3: My Puzzles.”

Note: While I was on the team which wrote this year’s Mystery Hunt, I had very little impact on the story. My efforts were focused on writing, testing, and laying out puzzles.


Some folks might prefer to watch the kickoff video. It’s 28 minutes long.

Three days before the start of Hunt marked the one hundredth anniversary of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood, the funniest tragedy to have ever hit our city. To commemorate the occasion, Setec Astronomy, the team running Hunt, declare January 18, 2019 to be Molasses Awareness Day. Hooray!

At that moment, Santa Clause and Jack Skellington appear on behalf of the Administrative Division of the Holiday Oversight Council (AD HOC). They inform the audience that whenever a holiday is created, a corresponding holiday town is simultaneously created in the Holiday Forest from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Representatives from nearby holiday towns (Thanksgiving Town, et al.) announce that a manhole cover has gone missing from the molasses tower in Molasses Awareness Day Town. The ensuing molasses flood is causing problems between the towns in the Holiday Forest.

Thus commences a Hunt in which solvers must (a) solve puzzles to clean up molasses, (b) solve the flood-induced problems between adjacent towns, and (c) find the manhole cover to stop the flood.


After your team has solved the first five inter-town problems, a new town appears in the holiday forest: Your Birthday Town. The mayor of Your Birthday Town arrives at your team’s headquarters to throw you a birthday party. Hooray!

The mayor hands your team a beautiful birthday present and encourages you to open. it. A quick glance reveals that the present is padlocked four times over. But nevermind that; let’s play some party games!

After a rousing series of games, your team figures out how to disengage all four locks. You open the box and look inside to find that it is… empty!

APRIL FOOLS! The mayor tears off their outfit and birthday hat to reveal a jester’s outfit underneath, betraying their true identity: the April Fool! (“You actually thought that there was a Your Birthday Town? What would that even mean?!”)

The Fool delivers a heartfelt monologue in which they confess to stealing the manhole cover in order to incite fun and chaos in these boring woods. Cackling, they run back to April Fools Day Town. And you continue solving puzzles.


After solving all fifteen inter-town problems and discerning that the April Fool intends to pull a “JEST IN THE TIME OF NICK,” your team begins a final interaction with Jack Skellington, Santa Clause, and the April Fool.

The Fool announces their diabolical plan to replace the sugar in all of the Christmas Town cookies with molasses, giving them (the cookies) a slightly more robust flavor. Cruel indeed! Santa Claus helps the Fool realize that their pranks are killing people, which is bad. So they (the Fool) agree to help the team find the manhole cover.

Your team solves one more puzzle in order to unlock a box supposedly containing the Fool’s notes about where they hid the manhole cover. You eventually decode the instruction USE A MISSILE TOE. You kick the box, which swings open, thanks to the magic of electronics. You peer inside to find that the box is… empty! APRIL FOOLS! Always a classic.

The Fool hands you their actual notes, kicking off the final runaround. Your team runs across MIT’s campus to the first five holiday towns. Eventually you find an instruction telling you to go to Your Birthday Town, accompanied by a photograph of your team’s headquarters. You run back to your HQ, where you find that the manhole cover. It was there the whole time!

Finally, you lug the manhole cover to a certain room at MIT, where you discover a steampunky molasses tower with a giant manhole. You insert the cover, thus stopping the flow of molasses.

The Molasses Tower
The Molasses Tower, as photographed by Connor Stokes.

Jack and the Fool reminisce about how much fun the flood was. Together, they decide that it would be nice to maintain a small flow of molasses: a “treacle trickle.” Upon deeper inspection of the tower, your team discovers a miniature manhole cover which can be removed.

You extract the coin. You have saved the Holiday Forest and won Mystery Hunt.

The coin, as photographed by Roger Ford.

Puzzlehunts: An Overview

This past weekend, nerds from all over flocked to Massachusetts to spend over fifty hours solving puzzles at MIT Mystery Hunt. I was a part of the team which ran this year’s Hunt, so my brain is full of thoughts about puzzles which I would like to share. Because puzzlehunts are a particularly niche form of entertainment, I want to offer an overview of the genre before delving into more specific topics.

Puzzlehunts and the Puzzles Therein

Most puzzlehunts begin with a thin shell of a story. Solvers are presented with some high-level objective, such as “find the coin” or “stop the zombie outbreak,” which, for some reason, can only be accomplished by solving puzzles.

We use a definition of “puzzle” which is both specialized and broad. A puzzle might take a familiar form, such as a word search (solution here); or it might be more abstract, like a bunch of LEGO representations of paintings (solution) or a web error (solution). For many puzzles, the first step is to figure out what the heck you’re supposed to do.

Each puzzle is “solved” when it yields a desired word or phrase—i.e., the “answer.” In this sense, the puzzles we are discussing are different from your newspaper’s Sudoku and crossword puzzles: even after the grid is filled in, you still need to extract an answer.

There is a special type of puzzle called a metapuzzle. Metapuzzles take previous answers as inputs, thus tying the puzzles into a greater whole. (Examplesolution.) In larger hunts, multiple metapuzzles might be used as inputs into a metametapuzzle. (Examplesolution.)

In order to win, all you need to do is solve all the metapuzzles. Easy!

MIT Mystery Hunt

MIT Mystery Hunt is the puzzlehunt of puzzlehunts. It starts every year on the Friday of MLK Day Weekend at 12:00 PM sharp, and continues until somebody finds “the coin.” On average, this takes about 48 hours. There is no limit on team size; some teams are over 100 strong. This year’s Hunt contained 174 puzzles, including 15 metapuzzles. It’s a big occasion.

The majority of Hunt puzzles can be solved on your computer or on printouts. Some puzzles have physical components that you need to pick up, such as a set of rigged dice or a box of donuts. Some puzzles that require solvers to run around MIT’s campus (solution). There are always some on-campus events with puzzles embedded therein. And there are always interactions with the story characters. The event is immersive and entertaining.

If your team has the simultaneous fortune and misfortune of winning Mystery Hunt, then you receive the simultaneous gift and curse that your team will be responsible for writing next year’s Mystery Hunt. I was on the team that wrote the 2017 Hunt, Monsters et Manus, and the 2019 Hunt, The Holiday Forest. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the puzzles I’ve written for Hunt.

Hunts You Can Play

Here are some puzzlehunts you might enjoy, with varying depths of involvement.

In-person, location-agnostic hunts

  • Puzzled Pint: Two hours of introductory puzzles at a local pub in your city! Occurs on the second Tuesday of each month at cities across the country. Novices may be able to complete the puzzles and metapuzzle in 2–2.5 hours; experts, closer to one hour. Super chill. Team size is squishy, but I recommend 4.
  • Different Area, Same Hunt (aka DASH): I’ve never played this, but I’ve heard it frequently acclaimed. Teams of 3–5.
  • Microsoft College Puzzle Challenge: As the name implies, you need to be a college student (or have graduated within the last year) in order to compete. Teams of 4–6. The puzzles are great.

Online hunts

  • Puzzles and Answers (aka P&A, aka Panda): A bimonthly (every other month) puzzlehunt published as a magazine, for $10/issue.
  • Puzzle Boats (12345): Collections of 80–160 puzzles, made by the writer of P&A magazine. Solve alone or with friends on your own schedule. The puzzles are varied and great.

Boston-specific hunts

For some reason, Boston has a particularly strong puzzling scene. Probably because of MIT.

  • MIT Mystery Hunt: Described in great detail above. There are lots of teams that openly recruit, including a reddit-organized team. Small teams have lots of fun, too, so feel free start your own! I strongly recommend going in-person, if possible, as there are always some puzzles, events, and interactions which require your physical presence.
  • Boston-Area Puzzle Hunt League (aka BAPHL): A day-long event which involves running around some neighborhood of Boston. You’ll be home in time for supper. Teams of 4–6. There are “beginner” and “advanced” tracks, so anyone can play.

Other Overviews of Puzzlehunts

You might check out this 52-minute documentary about the 2017 Mystery Hunt, or this 12-minute TED talk about puzzlehunts. Both were created by members of my Hunt team.


I ought to give a quick mention the wonderful book Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle, teaches exactly what it says on the tin.
You can acquire it here in softcover or PDF.

Parting Thoughts

Puzzles will seldom save anybody’s lives, but they can create a deep beauty for people in much the same way as music. In the coming days or weeks, I intend to write a few more puzzle-related posts as I ramp down from a year’s worth of frantically writing puzzles and a weekend’s worth of delightedly sharing them.

Hello, world and Boston!

Did you know that .cool is a valid TLD?

the more you know

As I write this, I am sitting on an airplane bound for Boston, where I will (co-)run MIT Mystery Hunt 2k19 (a puzzle hunt). For now, the contents of the Hunt are super-secret. Once the puzzles are publicly available (estimate a week), I will post here the puzzles that I wrote. There are between three and seven such puzzles, depending how you count.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mystery Hunt, here is a great 52-minute documentary on the topic, and here is a great 12-minute TED talk, each of which provides a great overview. Or do what I do, which is to learn exclusively from Wikipedia.

So from now until the end of the long weekend, I’ll be working 14-hour days to enable a bunch of nerds to become frustrated. Stay tuned for the ensuing delirium. 🌠