Armchair treasure hunts- I didn’t know what they were two weeks ago, and now I’m obsessed with them.
Everyone is familiar with treasure hunts. Find a map, follow obscure clues, and locate a buried treasure. A few famous treasure hunts from puzzle lovers even make the national news here and there. Byron Preiss’s The Secret captured imaginations as people scavenged across the country for twelve hidden casks and prizes of fabulous jewels. Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt in his autobiography concealed a cache of treasures valued at over a million dollars, and at least hundreds, if not thousands, of people scoured the country in search of it.
Armchair treasure hunts are the at-home version of this type of hunt. You still get a treasure map and vague clues, but to win all you need to do is send the hunt’s author the location or solution. It sounds easy, but it’s anything but.
At face value, an armchair treasure hunt sounds a lot like a puzzle hunt. However, while a puzzle hunt expects teams to solve dozens of puzzles over the course of a weekend or less, the treasure hunt gives you one puzzle that’s supposed to keep teams going for days, weeks, months, or even years.
Unlike a puzzle hunt, in which a well-designed puzzle should have a solution that seems obvious after you’ve had the right “aha!” moment, treasure hunts expect you to try anything and everything and pray what you try works. A hunt called Masquerade went unsolved for years, and the final solution ended up being to trace a line from each drawn character’s eye through the longest finger on its left hand, then from eye to right hand, and follow these lines to the border of the page to find letters that spell out a message. Nothing ever clued the eye/hand connection, but if any solver went ahead with this solution, he or she would have been happy to see a message starting to materialize. The problem that if you write out a list of things you might want to try on the hunt, this would be down somewhere around the ten thousandth thing you might go for. Persistence pays off- obsession may be required.
The Fenn hunt had a similar ending. The clues toward the treasure’s locations only really gave hunters a clue to look below the house of “Brown.” There are more than a dozen famous people with the surname Brown, and that’s not even factoring in clever interpretations (the headquarters of UPS!). It ended up referring to The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but even if you made the right guess there, there are still quite a few acres of forest to search for the treasure.
Thus far I’ve partcipated in two armchair treasure hunts that reached a conclusion, and I’m currently working on one other that is still ongoing. The first hunt I worked on kills me a little because my team had mentioned the correct answer a few times but we kept deciding it wasn’t worth submitting it until we solved some other aspects of the puzzle. If we weren’t so scrupulous about our guesses, we’d have gotten a cool silver & amethyst kraken!
I also need to add that the treasure hunts I’ve reviewed have had a few annoyances in how they’re structured. The foremost complaint I have is that the hunt authors I’ve seen so far tend to oil the squeaky wheel, and some of the most successful teams are the ones who spam the authors begging for hints and “clarifications.” In the most egregious case, you can actually see in the discussion topic for one hunt that the eventual winner never actually solved any of the components of the puzzle without being given explicit instructions by either the author or other participants, and by all indicators appeared to only have won through sending in every possible name loosely affiliated with clues multiple teams already had.
Another complaint in the small sample I’ve experienced is that the solutions have rarely been elegant. You might be looking for a person and solve 1/3 of the clues to reveal “Cat in the Hat.” It might actually be that the answer is Dr. Seuss and you can skip over 2/3 of the clues if you decide to guess early, skipping the other 2/3 of the clues on the page.
The last issue I’ll bring up is the “mind reading” aspect. In puzzle hunts, I tend to resort to mind reading – looking back at a designer’s previous work to understand his/her modus operandi – as a last ditch approach when stuck. It’s a surprisingly good tool sometimes, especially when the designer hasn’t paid quite enough attention to the solver’s potential experience. However, in some of these treasure hunts, it seems entirely necessary to start with this approach. Some of the connections in the hunts are ridiculous, e.g. including an image just to evoke a loose association the author feels connects to the hunt. In one example I saw, an author included a picture of an album cover to try to get solvers to think of one specific line from one song on that album, with nothing else cluing it.
In short, puzzle hunts are often more enjoyable than armchair treasure hunts in quite a few objective ways, but there’s still something thrilling about always being one guess away from a cool treasure. I will say that the final armchair hunt I’m working on now seems to be designed much more cleanly than some of the others I’ve looked at, and the author by all appearances is not indulging the “squeaky wheels” begging for hints which should also improve the overall experience. I’m also excited to jump in on some of the bigger treasure hunts this year that require teams to go and physically locate a prize, usually with a larger reward to boot, and I’ll keep providing updates on how those go!