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Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Time Event
Mystery Hunt weekend
Melinda and I traveled to Boston this weekend to play in the MIT Mystery Hunt. We've played with a team co-located in Boston and SF, Team Left Out, for a couple of years, playing only on the SF side. I've wondered what it'd be like to actually be on site for the game, and in part because our friend Ian was on the writing team for this year's hunt, we decided now would be a great time to try playing in Boston for a change. Man, what a lot of fun it was!

The hunt starts at noon Friday in Boston and generally runs until mid-Morning Sunday; that's about 48 non-stop hours of puzzling. The game hosts about 30 teams, in sizes from about a dozen to more than 100 people. Team Left Out has about a dozen in-for-the-whole-weekend solvers in SF, and the crew in Boston is about 4 core people, although this year out-of-town visitors doubled that number. On Saturday we also had many more drop-ins for several hours at a time, bringing the Boston side up to about 15 people or so.

Melinda and I didn't want to take extra time off to travel so we took a red-eye Thursday night, landed at Logan at 6a, and headed to MIT campus. In the future we would choose to spend Thursday night entirely in Boston, rather than on a plane; we were pretty weary already by the time the morning was going. Fortunately, Nina had arranged for a hotel room for the entire weekend and the four out-of-towners shared it. I can't imagine the experience without it. Melinda and I napped there for about 2 hours after we landed, then freshened up before heading to MIT proper. Nina was a great sport for not minding us barging into the hotel room while she slept.

Having always played the game remotely from SF, I hadn't ever thought much about the weather locally during the hunt; it was always sunny where I was. It was sunny this past weekend, too, but also with a high of about 8F. The streets were bare and dry and the sidewalks mostly clear, but snow was about 10 inches thick everywhere else. And Saturday night through Sunday mid-day Boston warmed up to the mid-teens and received another several inches of the white stuff. Looking back now I realize that this was the coldest weather I've ever been in. Melinda and I had packed accordingly, but it was still pretty darn cold. We took advantage of MIT's inter-building tunnels on several occasions, especially when heading back to the hotel room (the hotel was on just the edge of campus but still was a 10-15 minute walk from our room in building 1).

We actually had two rooms in building 1, although we used mainly only one; the other was where we spread out meals, sleeping, and light-duty welding (for one of the events our team built a spaceship and our spaceship engineers were *very* enthusiastic). Both rooms were ordinary classrooms, with blackboards on the walls, the kind that can slide up and down, and chairs with desks attached. We hunted down several small tables, we stacked the chair/desks in the corner, and had a mostly usable set up. The stack of chair/desks also nicely cordoned off the radiator that was venting steam into the room, which later condensed into a nice puddle.

I think what I enjoyed most about being in Boston was that I got to do many things I really enjoy about puzzle hunts, and I didn't get stuck with only the puzzles that the really smart people grabbed first. In that: I like knowing about the plot of the event, I enjoy the theatrics, and I enjoy mingling with other teams. The event started in Lobby 7, a short walk from our room. The room had a few hundred attendees and Melinda and I found ourselves in the front of the crowd when the event started. We were excited to see our friend Ian dressed in all-orange, as the ship's exo-biologist Ralph. We saw a few people we knew from SF among the players, too. The hunt also features several events, the first one being a mixer among teams. I was surprised that the locals weren't all that excited to take part, but I and Todd, another out of towner, quickly signed-up. The event was fun and made us feel all smart. First, we played Set, where each person was given only one Set card and had to find two others to make a Set (the cards' attributes were thematic for a Space / Sci-Fi event). I bumped into Asher, who I know from work and other SF games, during this event. Our team was the second to finish the Set-building part, so we moved on to the SET-I part: given some more Set-like cards and some information scattered about the room, build more sets. We figured out pretty quickly how it should work, and Stephen had the key insight Todd and I would never have had: that 02139 is the zip code for MIT. Our last task for the event was to prove we were intelligent life: I circled the prime digits in the zip code and we were done. And, yeah, it's exactly these sorts of things that I like about these events: puzzle-y but also social and friendly.

I didn't sleep on the overnight flight (ugh) and the morning nap at the hotel lasted me only so long. I turned in for the night at the unseemly hour of 9:30p, with the plan to be back up at 3a. I didn't get up until nearly 5a, when Melinda called, but it proved to be a great move: I *really* needed the sleep, and not a lot actually happened overnight. And, really, even if it did, I knew that there'd be a lot more to do during Saturday, and I wanted to be ready for it.

During these hunts I figure I'll help solve only a few puzzles: I let other people grab the more tractable-looking puzzles first, and then I nose around at the ones that are harder to get in to. This arrangement is fine with me because no one is ever angry at me for taking the puzzle that *they* really wanted to do. I picked up a couple of puzzles this way in this hunt: Message Floating in Space, and Crossed Wires. And, as usual, I solved neither of these. 8) I transcribed the Message data (from a flash app that showed the Vitruvian Man in various semaphore-like poses) but didn't get the first important insight (the poses are from a Holmes story), but I did come up with the second insight just after I came back Saturday morning (all the images were mirrored; da Vinci, you sneaky guy you, what with all your backward writing). Crossed Wires was a lot of fun to work on, too, but I still don't know the answer. I did the data gathering, I had a few insights that transformed the data into a really beautiful table, but I just failed to come up with how to extract the answer. I found several other good puzzles in the process, but not this one. ;)

Mid-day Saturday we learned of a new sector in Outer Zyzzlvaria (the universe of the puzzle hunt): The Harvoid Constellation. In this sector there were several Galaxocache sites, each holding the key to unlock a puzzle. This sort of thing is again right up my alley. Rishi, a research assistant at Harvard playing with us, and I headed out for Harvard to find these sites. Tracking them down was actually pretty easy, because we had a Google map, latitude and longitude coordinates, and a contextually obvious hint for each one (my favorite hint: a gas between two solids, which ended up being, tied to a gas meter between two concrete bollards). We had trouble with one, which Rishi actually had nailed even from back in the room ("there's a trash can at the corner of that park"), but found it actually when a second team came along and frisked the trash can more thoroughly than we had. (It was team Off by 2 pi and I remember that one of the trio there was really sorta paranoid about talking with Rishi and me and more than a little uncomfortable that they had even seen another team. More teams are like that than otherwise, I think, but less so than in Microsoft PuzzlehuntS.) Rishi knew Harvard like the back of his hand, needing simply no map or other navigational aids in the process. I pulled out my G1 for its GPS only one location (yay, Tricorder app!), which turned out to be exactly 30 feet *below* us (we were on a balcony and the location was in a basement-level plaza). Rishi also knew the most important thing about Harvard: where to duck in to a building to get warm and use the internet (yay, EVDO card!).

I think another angle of why I liked the Boston experience was that I felt I was relatively equal with the other people on site. In SF I'm a pretty distant Nth between many very good puzzlers and the things I enjoy and am good at aren't really needed. So in Boston, I feel pretty happy that I can run around Harvard or mingle with other teams at events, and help solve a few puzzles along the way.

Puzzle solving continued well into Sunday. Mystery Hunt authors usually aim for the game to be over between 10a and noon on Sunday but there's a big variance (two years ago it was over at 3a Sunday, last year it wasn't over until 7p Sunday). Melinda and I figured that a 7:50p flight from Logan would be well after the end of the game, but it turned out we were wrong. We left our Boston home team around 5:15p, in order to stop at the hotel and pack, and the end of the game was no where in sight. We checked in while at Logan, still they puzzled on. We landed at Oakland shortly before midnight, I checked my e-mail briefly before we drove home, and to my great surprise the game was *still* going on! Only at 3:04a Monday morning did team Beginners Luck find the coin (the traditional item sought during the event) and end the game. Wow, epic. In future I think that leaving Sunday night would still be the right decision, although, especially if Monday was again a holiday (MLK day this year), flying home Monday mid-morning would be safer.

So, in all, yeah, I had a lot of fun, and more fun than I'd have had by staying in SF. Melinda and I would be pretty excited to playing in Boston again, and we'd be even better prepared for the adventure given this experience.

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