Origami as puzzle mechanism: MIT Mystery Hunt


Every year during the January Independent Activities Period (IAP), MIT students, alumni and friends (in recent years, around 2000 people!) collect on the MIT campus to participate in a multi-day puzzle-solving game: The MIT Mystery Hunt. The objective is to (eventually) gather enough clues to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus.

The puzzles themselves are not easy to describe – many are familiar (crosswords, sudoku, jigsaw, scavenger hunt, card games, etc.) and others rely on more obscure mechanisms to generate an eventual answer, usually in the form of a word or phrase which gets used later on in the game as the input to some other puzzle.

In the most recent 2014 Hunt, for the first time in my recollection, the designers of one of the puzzles used origami as a mechanism for generating an answer to a puzzle. I describe how it works, below. SPOILER ALERT: a complete description of how to solve this puzzle lies below… do not read if you’d like to solve the thing yourself! (Note that it requires solving multiple crossword puzzles, in addition to following origami instructions.)

When you went to the puzzle page, you saw the a web page that looked like the image below. Clicking on each item on the puzzle page (flower photos, crossword puzzles) yielded either a wordless video of someone folding an origami version of the flower in question, or a crossword puzzle with clues.

Puzzle Page

Puzzle page as presented to us.

In the Hunt, sometimes half the puzzle is figuring out what the puzzle even is… clearly we had to do the two crosswords, so a couple of our team’s crossword hounds started in on those. I looked at the origami videos, and noticed that the Rose, anyway, would result in only some very small portions of the paper being visible after the piece was folded. It was not much of a leap, then, to say “hey, let’s fold the crosswords into the flowers, and see what letters are left showing.”

So a few origamically-minded team members and I, while the crossworders worked away, test folded each of the puzzles into the flower shapes. Given the alignments on the puzzle page, we folded the lefthand one into the poinsettia and the sunflower, and the righthand one into the rose and the cherry blossom. Sure enough, in three of them, only a very few letters would show unobscured (the cherry blossom exposed a lot of letters.) We colored in the squares that showed, and unfolded the pieces:

Test-folding the crossword grids

Test-folding the crossword grids

and checked that, thanks to the symmetry of both the origami pieces and the puzzles, it wouldn’t matter which way you started folding.

When the crosswords were done (they were themselves clever, linked puzzles, a fun twist) we printed them out and folded all four. The top two yielded reasonable phrases: “WEDS TECH” and “FRI NYT”. The other two… were gibberish. Well, “NYT” could be the New York Times; “TECH” could be MIT’s paper, The Tech: clearly we were supposed to do the Friday and Wednesday crosswords from each, and then try folding those puzzles.

Sure enough, the sunflower and the cherry blossom folded from the second set of crosswords yielded “NUMBER” and “THEORY,” so we called in “NUMBER THEORY” and were correct. (Solution page here.) On to the next puzzle…

me, folding

me, not having any fun at all, no!

Very fun, and an elegant and entertaining mechanism to get the clues and final answer.


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