Pile of Money + Randomness = Recipe for Frustration

In many ways, it’s more difficult to design a big prize treasure hunt than to design a good puzzle. Even tricky puzzles are designed to be solved. If you’re five days into a puzzle event and there’s a puzzle with zero solves, the designer probably goofed up at some point. For treasure hunts, that’s often the norm.

Looking back at most of the famous $10,000+ treasure hunts, very few of them were solved, and of those, even fewer were solved without some kind of reverse engineering or gamesmanship circumventing the rules of the hunt. 75% of The Secret’s treasures remain unfound. Masquerade’s treasure was found by asking people who knew the author. In The Thrill of the Chase, the only non-generic clue left participants searching the entire country for a place with trees and water somewhere in the vicinity of “the house of Brown.”

With the rough track record, some people might wonder why anyone would participate in hunts like these. Some of the answers are better than others.

  1. The lure of the prize. Long-unsolved hunts often come with huge prizes. It’s not a coincidence that Forrest Fenn and the “house of Brown” was one of the most popular hunts of all time given the multimillion dollar prize.
  2. The enjoyment of the activity. Even for an unsolvable puzzle, many people have fun organizing hundreds if not thousands of theories and connections and tracking them in a novel way.
  3. The social aspect. Shooting wild theories to other treasure seekers is a great way to get exposed to new ways of thinking.
  4. When you see the answer written out, it usually sounds plausible, like something you should have been able to figure out. It’s sometimes hard in retrospect to remember that without any confirmers along the way, “simple” correct paths are competing with thousands if not hundreds of thousands of alternatives.

That last point is extremely important when it comes to both design and being a smart consumer about this kind of game. I’ll give you an example of a badly designed treasure hunt I just came up with.

PuzzleDrifter is offering a $5 million bounty if you can find a special key I’ve hidden in a public park somewhere in the lower 48 US states. Your clue to get started is here:

Ok, ready to go? Any theories? That $5 million is calling!

Five, four, three, two, one… time’s up- no one has solved it!

The key was hidden on a tree branch in Prairie Park in Arlington Heights, IL. How were you supposed to get there?

The image shows a man licking a golf club, and that’s a reference to Golf Liquor (Licker).

Look on a map and you’ll see there’s only one park anywhere close to Golf Liquor.

Clearly the treasure was going to be in Prairie Park. If that wasn’t enough for you, we even have confirmers! You can clearly see eight golf clubs in the image, and eight is the number of letters in ILLINOIS. That would also help because Illinois is the “Prairie State.” Illinois is also in the top five states for number of golf tournaments hosted.

With all those clues, it’s a shocker no one found the $5 million!

However, when you pause and think about it for a second, it becomes obvious again that no one was ever going to find the treasure here, for a few key reasons. One is the high number of alternative proposals. Maybe it’s near the golf course closest to the famous scene from a Christmas Story where a kid gets his tongue stuck to a pole. Maybe it’s hinting at one of the many, many “clubs” of many kinds.

Even if you happened to think “Golf Liquor,” you’re probably too far away to make it worth your while to test the theory. That said, it’ll take hours to validate any one of your hundreds of theories.

After hearing the answer, many of those barriers seem smaller than they truly are, and it’s easy to think the next time will be different.

Some hunt designers are finding ways to avoid some of these problems. Some newer hunts give you enough confirmers along the way so that even if you never find the end of the path, you’ll get some little wins along the way to keep it interesting. That seems to be one way to balance the situation- no one wants to hide a million dollars and have the treasure found within a week, but they can still make it fun!

As for me, I’m probably never going to go all in for one of these “big” hunts, although I will pay attention to what happens with them. There are plenty of smaller hunts designed to be achievable to keep me more than engaged!

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