Puzzlehunts: An Overview

January 22, 2019

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. (Example; solution.) In larger hunts, multiple metapuzzles might be used as inputs into a metametapuzzle. (Example; solution.)

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; 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 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5): 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.

Puzzlecraft

I ought to give a quick mention to the wonderful book Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle, which 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 life, 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.


Greg Edelston

Greg Edelston is a software engineer, Zen student,
comedy nerd, and herbivore.