Decrypting the history of the Berkeley Mystery Hunt

Jessica Schwabach/Staff

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Speed, stamina and a quick wit. These are the skills it takes to succeed in the Berkeley Mystery Hunt, a campuswide puzzles challenge that ran biannually on the UC Berkeley campus from 2011-16. The hunt has since been dormant, as has its organizing body, the Campus League of Puzzlers.

Though many campus students may not know of the hunt, its legacy remains in the digital-scape — a quick Google search to the group’s website leads to a treasure trove of intricate puzzles and brain teasers.

The hunt began as the brainchild of a group of campus graduate students and community members, led by then-campus electrical engineering computer sciences doctoral student Ankur Mehta. The hunt was structured as a 12-hour event, in which teams of eight to 10 were given clues to solve, often in an online format, that would eventually lead to a physical prize somewhere on campus. According to Josiah Schwab, who helped run the hunt as a campus doctoral student, there was sometimes a small prize, but it was mostly “just for the fun/glory.”

The competition was held twice a year, in the spring before Reading, Review and Recitation Week and in the summer. According to Michael Pihulic, a Berkeley community member who participated in the hunt starting at its inception in 2011, the hunt would draw both undergraduate and graduate participants, though the Campus League of Puzzlers members who helped write the puzzles were mostly graduate students. The summer run of the hunt would often also draw nonstudent participants from the broader Bay Area community. Within the varied groups that would participate, one universal theme was the satisfaction that came with solving a truly difficult puzzle.

“People (would get) completely stuck, but they were still having a great time. That was always a delightful moment,” Pihulic said. “People were super excited about working on it and trying to figure it out.”

Each hunt had a theme linking the puzzles together, ranging anywhere from OskiLeaks (a play on WikiLeaks and conspiracy theories) to Save Our University! But the competition was not just a straight Q&A format. Sometimes, the puzzles would feature video clues, interactive online elements and other ways for participants to get engaged, such as a creative arts and crafts challenge as part of the clues. The hunt was a dynamic tradition, building on itself in complexity each year.

“The more we did it, the better we got, right up until the end … just in terms of the production quality, and how well we ran it,” Pihulic said.

After its initial iteration of the challenge in 2011, the group of organizers founded the League of Puzzlers as the hunt’s official body. This was in part an effort to consolidate puzzling logistics and a practical way for the group to access resources such as campus meeting spaces. This was a necessary move as the hunt grew in size and scope — having initially drawn about 100 students, by 2016 more than 500 were trying their hand at the puzzles, according to Pihulic.

Other universities across the country also hold similar events, such as the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt and the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mystery Hunt. The MIT hunt began in 1981 and has since been a yearly tradition, drawing up to 2,000 participants in teams of anywhere between three to 150 people. MIT’s iteration is the spiritual predecessor to UC Berkeley’s hunt, having been recognized by the League of Puzzlers as an inspiration in both format and organization. Some of the League’s founding members had also been undergraduates at MIT.

According to Jennifer Berk, a member of the 2019 MIT Mystery Hunt writing team (from team Setec Astronomy), the process of writing the hunt takes thousands of hours, and organizers spend a good part of the year planning and testing puzzles.

The MIT Mystery Hunt is lucky to be a longstanding tradition, and it’s grown to its current size over 38 years because different writing teams try new ideas based on what they’ve enjoyed as solvers,” Berk said in an email.

When it was active, the League of Puzzlers was also known for its puzzles column, which ran in The Daily Californian from spring 2012 to spring 2016. The column, titled “Fiat Enigma” featured a weekly puzzle, often word-based, that would come without instruction, leaving it up to the reader to unravel its meaning. In its introductory article, the column forewarns the reader: “This type of puzzle focuses on the “Aha!” moment, when you realize how to wrangle a bunch of information into a logical order.”

Though the Berkeley Mystery Hunt hasn’t run since 2016, the tradition of campus puzzling remains strong through the legacy of Campus League of Puzzlers. Though there are no immediate plans to reignite the tradition, the League remains open to new members and new efforts to organize the hunt. Who knows what sort of “aha” moments lie ahead?

Camryn Bell is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected] .