MIT Puzzle Hunt 2021 – Chapter 2

Puzzle Hunt is over. It took just over two days and one of the teams solved all puzzles necessary to declare a win. It was a very impressive experience, with a lot of pros and cons.

Pro 1: Sheer volume

I don’t even have a complete count of how many puzzles there were, but I’m sure it was more than 150. So much to do, so little time, and it really opened the door for participants to be fully immersed in puzzles for the full weekend.

Pro 2: Impressive variety

Between the online “second life” interface, physical items mailed to the teams, and one-off games created for the puzzle hunt, the variety can’t be matched. I can only imagine what the MIT Puzzle Hunt would look like on a year when the campus is active and has everyone running around and solving more interactive physical puzzles. It opens the door for tremendous creativity.

I noticed a lot more recursion in the puzzle solving than I’m used to- this was also highlighted in the MIT Puzzle Hunt intro video this year. When you finish spotting something unusual and following through on it, the answer is rarely the first thing you see. Rather, the first stage of the puzzle tends to yield a clue to another stage- clever and exciting.

I’m also happy to say that the puzzles weren’t unfair. I had heard that the MIT Puzzle Hunt is brutal and requires extreme amounts of outside knowledge to make headway, but I didn’t see anything that a clever person with Google wouldn’t be able to figure out eventually.

Con 1: Too big an endeavor

The ambitious design is also part of the puzzle hunt’s downfall. With so many puzzles and no limits on participant count, most teams inevitably have huge rosters, and any given player is only going to touch a handful of puzzles in the end. If a participant can be involved in the solving of 25% of the puzzles, it’d be a huge accomplishment.

This meant that I didn’t really get an opportunity to meet any fellow puzzle enthusiasts; even when we have ten people on a call working together, we’re focused on the objective and not about building connections as a team. Ultimately I shouldn’t enter a puzzle hunt expecting time to pause and meet people, but it’s a little disappointing nonetheless.

Con 2: Time sinks

Saturday midday I spent a few hours working on one particularly tedious puzzle in which we figured out the challenge early but then spent a few hours wrangling Google Maps and Reverse Image Lookup to get the information we needed to finish it.

This was a recurring theme I noticed in most puzzles I was involved in; there was more than a little legwork to complete every puzzle. Someone out there probably loves these, but I know when my smaller Puzzle Boat team ran into ones like this, we’d groan and pray we could find a way to reverse engineer the answer from a metapuzzle.

Con 3: Limited Participation

The two cons I mentioned add up to one particular problem I’m labeling as a third con- it’s hard to feel any kind of thrill with the team’s success or failure. Sure, I come away with a few puzzles in which I’m happy to have moved past a difficult hurdle, but in the bigger picture, did I really make a difference?

This is probably one of those things where being in person would help a lot. As it stood, this gap meant that when I had a decision to make this weekend to spend time with Christina or to dive into more puzzles, my choice was easy. If Christina was away for the weekend, I would have enjoyed diving in for the sake of getting to play around with neat puzzles, but to sacrifice time with my wife for the sake of moving the needle from 151 puzzles to 153?

What’s interesting to me is that this could be a good way to test management strategies, since the objective is somewhat similar to day-to-day work. How do you get every employee of a company to feel rewarded working there? When some of the puzzles feel like work, the analogy hits close to home, and this puzzle hunt could be a good testing ground for new management ideas.


I’d like to give the MIT Puzzle Hunt another shot, taking off work on kickoff day and really focusing on getting to know some of the other participants ahead of time. It’s a really great contest, and I think I didn’t play my cards right to get the most enjoyment out of it.

I imagine the large team size is always going to undercut my enjoyment of the contest, but I can’t deny how cool and challenging the contest is, and that’ll keep drawing me back to it. Next year I might branch off and start my own small team of 3-5 people who would be ok solving only a handful of puzzles a day. Either that or go the opposite direction and try to work with every single one of my seventy teammates.

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