- ["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. Today is the beginning of a two-part article on one of the most grueling puzzle marathons available, the MIT Mystery Hunt.]

In 1980, a graduate student at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology named Brad Schaefer hid a valuable coin on the campus of his Boston college and wrote a few devious riddles leading to its location on a sheet of paper. Since then, the IAP Mystery Hunt has grown in size scope and importance; and while the puzzles were once bound on paper, the growing intricacies of the puzzles have turned the game into something increasingly dependent on computers.

Today, the Mystery Hunt has some unusual traditions. Puzzles are distinct, and lead to an answer that is a word or a phrase. Then, all of the answers in a round feed into another puzzle called a metapuzzle. Completing these metapuzzles help a team progress through the Hunt until they can find the location of a "coin," which has recently been anything from a small disk to a snowglobe. And Mystery Hunt puzzles tend to have very unusual twists to them. Something that appears to be a crossword might be something totally different. The unsual text introducing a puzzle (called "flavor text") can hold critical, if abstract, clues. And sometimes, you just need to know the MIT campus.

This article is going to be a little weird. When this Part I goes live, the Hunt will be over. But right now, as I write it, I'm in the headquarters of the team running the Hunt. In 2006, my Hunt team, The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight, won the Hunt and consequently was awarded the duty of running the 2007 Hunt. Since that time, we've been frantically planning the game and writing the puzzles, and now thirty-eight teams and hundreds of players are finding their way through our maze of enigmas.

To maintain secrecy, I cannot reveal much about the meat of the 2007 Hunt at this time, so I'll be writing more about it later this week, when I return from Boston. You can look at the address of the current hunt, but I can't guarantee that there'll be anything there. It could be all of the puzzles from the 2007 Hunt, it could be none of them. But in the meantime, I'm going to talk a bit about Hunts past with an eye, of course, toward videogames

Going Online
Back in 1988, about sixty people arrived in Lobby 7 to grab photocopied packets - a much smaller event. On Friday, the lobby was filled to brimming with players (with hundreds more still in respective team headquarters) who received a handout with no puzzles, just URLs, usernames, passwords, and e-mail addresses. The hunt is being staffed by about a dozen people, with ten laptops and a server.

The computers have proliferated for many reasons. Foremost is the monumental effect that search engines have had on the discovery of trivia. Back in 1980, a puzzle was made difficult by checking all the related books out of the MIT library. Obviously, that's no longer an option. Since the proliferation of Google (and its predecessors like Alta Vista) and other repositories of trivia like Wikipedia, it's become more common to see trivia puzzles about identifying pictures or music instead of answering written questions.

More importantly, bringing the puzzles online have created an opportunity for more complex organization. In 2003, the Hunt took on a theme of The Matrix. In addition to normal time-released rounds, teams could "take the red pill" that would unlock an entirely new "world" of puzzles outside of the Matrix. These Reality puzzles were ironically patterened after a text adventure maze. In this complicated web of twisty puzzles (all different), a team could only progress to a new puzzle when they had solved a puzzle adjacent to it on the web. This kind of node-based distribution has become a standard, and requires solvers to have logins and passwords and organizers to have complex databases and servers.

Games Within Games
Though programming and electrical engineering have been common subjects for Hunt puzzles, videogames usually take a back seat. The notable exception has been Infocom text adventures, which have appeared at least twice. Certainly, videogames like Mario's Picross, which are common as pencil-and-paper puzzles, have made several appearances. The 2004 and 2006 Hunts, written by somewhat younger teams, had more videogames, like in this Dance Dance Revolution puzzle, an Angband puzzle, and this general videogame puzzle.

Playing videogames is actually more common. In 2001, one "puzzle" was just a command to have someone visit headquarters. Once there, teams had to beat Adventure on the Atari 2600 to receive their answer. But most often, teams will devise their own games for teams to play. Web-based mazes are common; very little is still available from the 1996 Hunt but this Godel Escher Bach–themed maze is. And there are lots of applets which are, of course, harder than your average web-based Java games, since they are specificall designed for the Hunt. This maze from the 2003 Hunt follows some unusual rules, and this maze from 2005 is far too large to actually be played through. Other games make solvers play through more difficult variations of very common games, as in Pentris and Feel Your Way.

Getting Up to Date

The last seven years of Mystery Hunts are available online in their entirety, along with partial records of the twenty years previous. There are more videogame puzzles waiting to be discovered, and there are hundreds of other challenges to be found. Most importantly, perhaps, the last seven years of puzzles all have answers available, so if you aren't used to these types of puzzles or don't have the time to solve them completely, you can still get a sense of the elegance and ingenuity behind them.

And finally, an update, I'm finishing Part I on Sunday morning, and I can announce that the first team to find the coin was Dr. Awkward, though other teams have followed close behind. I'll be writing about the whole experience soon, so keep reading Game Set Watch until then!