Mystery Hunt participation trends over time

I finally snagged a few minutes to crunch some numbers from this year’s Mystery Hunt and add them into the data we have from the past few years. Firstly, the chart everyone likes to see, the hunt duration:
Hunt length
The spike from the epic 2013 Hunt is a bit aberrant, but overall it took less time to find the coin this year as opposed to the 2008-2009 Hunts.

The next graph is the total number of hunters, which has been generally increasing over time:
Total number of hunters
This is somewhat alarming, since running a hunt for 2000 hunters is a significantly different challenge than running one for 1000 hunters. A number of caveats are in order. Many of these numbers are estimates, and this does not disaggregate remote from on-site solvers. Because each organizing team gathers statistics differently, the thing we can infer from this is that the Hunt has been growing over time.

Finally, the most interesting chart (at least to me): the distribution of team sizes:
Team sizes over time
This year we had a record-breaking 62 teams register (actually more, but some dropped out — I’m looking at you, Fangorn Foureast). The growth in this chart is not because we have more mega-teams (100+ people) — there are only 3 of those, after all. The biggest change in the last 3 years is the total number of teams in the under-50 (or under-40, really) category. We have a large number of moderate-sized teams who need enough space for their HQs that they can’t do it out of their dorm rooms. This growth in the number of smaller teams is part of why adopting a design philosophy like Erin’s is important.

I’ll have to dig through the raw numbers from this year’s hunt to get more specifics about the split of this year’s hunters. As Erin pointed out, with the increase in “smaller” teams, the question is who is on these teams — mostly students? A post for another time, I imagine.


33rd Annual Conference on Maturing Young Scientific Theories: Emerging Resolutions for Yielding Heuristic Unphysics using Noncomputation Techniques

I’m on the organizing committee for this pretty cool conference at MIT this week. Any readers of the blog who are in Cambridge on Friday might want to attend the plenary lecture. I hear it’s going to resolve a fundamental enigma that has been puzzling scientists for decades.

MIT Mystery Hunt Registration Now Open

Hi there, puzzle hunters!

We’re pleased to announce the 2014 Mystery Hunt! This year’s Hunt will begin at 12pm on Friday, January 17, 2014 in Kresge Auditorium.

Registration for this year’s Hunt is now open. Please have one member of your team register at

Instructions for unattached hunters can be found at

Just like in past years, we’ve obtained a number of rooms from the Schedules Office and will be assigning them to teams who need to use classroom space for their HQ. If you need classroom space for your HQ during Hunt, please indicate so on your registration form in the Base Reservation System section. Please do not contact the Schedules Office directly for space during Mystery Hunt, as we’ve already worked with them to reserve rooms. A list of this year’s rooms is available at

The registration deadline for teams requesting classroom space for their HQ is December 18. We ask that all teams try to register as soon as possible. We’d prefer teams to be registered by January 6, although registration will stay open right up until the beginning of the Hunt. We’d much rather receive a partially filled out registration form now with final details emailed to us in a few weeks than a fully completed registration form submitted right before the deadline.

More details about this year’s Hunt can be found at We’ll email out any major updates, but up-to-date news can also be found there.

If you have any questions, you can always reach us at

See you in January!
-the team formerly known as [the entire text of Atlas Shrugged]

On entitlement and the Mystery Hunt

The MIT Mystery Hunt ended a little over a week ago — the premise is that a coin is hidden somewhere on campus and teams have to solve a bunch of puzzles to find its location. The prize for winning is writing it the next year. It was the longest hunt on record — 75 hours and 18 minutes if you count from the kickoff event, and 73 if you count from when the servers went live. My team, whose name is the entire text of the book Atlas Shrugged (although we often used the shorter name PART I: NON-CONTRADICTION; CHAPTER I: THE THEME ‘Who is John Galt?’…), managed to emerge victorious. Here’s a footprint outline we were given as part of an event puzzle:

Our team name on a footprint

Our team name on a footprint

And here are some fuzzy snaps of the coin:
The coin, obverse

The coin, obverse

The coin, reverse.  Now we can raise the debt ceiling.

The coin, reverse. Now we can raise the debt ceiling.

The hunt was so long because many of the puzzles were underclued and the team running it, Manic Sages, essentially mis-estimated how hard the Hunt would be (from gameplay and actual puzzles). Naturally there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the internet after this, and a lot of people took the Sages to task. Some of this criticism was a bit unfair, I think. The Sages put on a huge event for more than a thousand people, and much of it was quite fun. There were problems, sure, but let’s not get hyperbolic here.

Of course, hyperbole is par for the course, and Wired ran this piece by Thomas Synder who indulges in some pretty questionable plot extrapolation to conclude that there is a “trajectory” towards longer and longer hunts. For reference, here are the solving times for hunts up to 2010, showing the mysterious trend Snyder flags is more or less fabricated. So basically that line of argument is just hand-wringing. But why the calls for smelling salts?

The crucial line is this : “[w]hat started as an MIT-only event has now become a mainstay on the puzzle calendar.” Puzzle writers and solvers such as Snyder think that MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles should be less… well, MIT. One of the metapuzzles required you to know something about Feynman diagrams. There was a fractal word search. This is not a complaint about puzzles having too many steps, but about them being too nerdy or too inaccessible to those who have a “puzzle calendar.” Of course, those sorts of things are right up the alley of some MIT students. The subtext of this article is that it’s just not “professional” enough.

The Hunt is a free event (for solvers) that costs several thousands of dollars to put on, is much longer than most other puzzle events, and is done entirely by volunteers. In the case of Sages (and my team), many or most of those people are students. The sense of entitlement voiced by Snyder in this article (and by others elsewhere) is palpable. The fact that it’s a mainstay of the “puzzle calendar” is irrelevant — the Mystery Hunt owes its participants a good time, and those participants are still largely drawn from the MIT community, I think. Sure there were moments when I was not having fun, but also moments when I was having a lot of fun solving. There were some great/innovative puzzles in this hunt, and other great/innovative puzzle ideas. I wouldn’t keep going to Mystery Hunt if it was going to be like any other puzzle contest, and this hunt definitely delivered, even if reading some of the solutions breaks my brain.

Just next year, we’ll try to make it shorter, of course.