How to Make a Treasure Hunt

December 27, 2013 - Blog

So maybe you don’t have the budget to drop $360,000 on an epic treasure hunt like Goldman Sachs did as a charity fundraiser, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put together an unforgettable treasure hunt for your friends, family, or coworkers. Here are some tips from my playbook.

Every treasure hunt is basically a creative combination of two key ingredients—(#1) clues and (#2) unique hiding places. Here are some helpful how-to’s and tips for both compelling clues and interesting hiding places:

How to Make Great Treasure Hunt Clues

  • Tip #1—Good treasure hunt clues, like bad poker players, have “tells.” In treasure hunts a tell is a technical term for the little hints within the clue itself that are like a trail of breadcrumbs that suggests a way toward the solution. They give players a place to start. Here is an example—can you spot the tell?
  • Tip #2—Test your clues. Select a few unsuspecting victims friends to try a few clues on before the treasure hunt begins.
  • Tip #3—Maintain flow. “Flow” is a phrase coined by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi to describe the perfect state where a players skills match the challenge facing him or her. This is the place where the player’s enjoyment and sense of accomplishment are highest. If a treasure hunt clue is too difficult, the player will feel frustration. If the hunt is too easy and the player’s skills exceed game’s difficulty, the player becomes bored. Flow is the sweet spot; designing for it is a key part of understanding the effects of the game on a player’s psychology and emotions.
  • Tip #4—Presentation is everything.  Think through how your materials will look graphically. Spend a few more bucks on the nice paper. Don’t cut corners unless you’re using a corner rounder (under $10 on Amazon… thank us later). The first few seconds of experiencing a new clue or puzzle should pack a little visual or tactile punch.
  • Tip #5—A certain amount of confusion can be fun, but too much and it turns into frustration. The average treasure hunter enjoys being stumped for about as long as they can hold their breath—after that you enter the danger zone. Frustration is a fun-killer.
  • Tip #6—Always include a help line players can call for a hint if they need it. You’ll need to keep a weather eye on the treasure hunt in case troubleshooting is needed anyway; make yourself accessible to the players. I prefer to station my help desk behind a giant green curtain. Just kidding.

Clue Categories
Here is a brief list of different types of puzzles and clues to get the creative juices flowing:

  • Sudoku, crosswords, word finds, anagrams, and cryptoquotes. Don’t sweat making your own; internet generators abound.
  • Ciphers—Ciphers add a puzzling twist to any message. Read up on substitution cipherstransposition ciphers, and Scytales. If you get really ambitious, you could build your own cryptex.
  • Building tasks—Put your players in MacGyver’s shoes buy giving them a building challenge and a limited array of materials. “Build a bridge over this pit two people can stand on pig-a-back using only a bag of rubber bands, seven toothpicks, a book shelf full of books, and this avocado. Go!”
  • Hidden objects—If you are anything like me, most of your childhood was spent pouring over those hidden object pictures from Highlights and searching for the tiny objects they cleverly hid in the images. It turns out that is a simple pleasure one never grows out of. Study your clue locations and look for ways to hide or camouflage objects there. Getting a clue that says something like: “There are 50 passwords on slips of paper hidden in the staff break room. Find as many as you can!” is guaranteed fun (and a guaranteed mess in the break room; employ at your own discretion).
  • Subjective questions—Throw players a curve ball by asking them to brainstorm as many responses as possible to outside-the-box questions that put their creativity to the test. For example: “Why is a manhole cover round?” “How would you actually go about finding a needle in a haystack?” “If you were the size of a golf ball and were stuck in the bottom of a blender with 60 seconds to escape before it turned on, how would you get out?”
  • Physical challenges—Give your players brain’s a break by adding some physical challenges. For example: “Someone is hunting you with a laser pointer. Your goal is to survive without being tagged by the laser and without leaving the building.” On the other hand, if you have access to an artfully disguised bottomless pit or a medieval gauntlet, you could also do something like this or this. (Note: please don’t attempt the second one at home…).

Helpful Clue Resources
Peruse these sites for inspiration:

  • Brainbashers—A treasure trove for clue and puzzles ideas.
  • Mazelog—Creative mazes and interactive puzzles.
  • Make your own sliding tile puzzle.
  • My Script Font—Make a font of your own handwriting or random symbols—great for computer keyboard clues.
  • QR Stuff—QR codes are treasure hunt friendly; print them out on stickers and you have ready-made clues people can solve on their smartphones.

Clue Locations
Before choosing where to put your clues, check through these tips:

  • Tip #1—Always ask for permission from the relevant authorities to be in a public place. This is not only good form, but often those in charge of a place will know more about it than you do and, if they are excited about the idea, will help you with some key knowledge or access. It has happened before.
  • Tip #2—Safety first. Treasure hunt’s are ruled by Murphy’s Law; what can go wrong will go wrong. Allow for entropy in your design.
  • Tip #3—Use ludic markers or visual clues that signify the playful nature of the activity. Examples of ludic markers are playful costumes, name badges, or a pass phrases. They can be helpful for players to know what is and is not part of the game. Likewise, they can be helpful for bystanders to know that a game is being played.
  • Tip #4—Explore. Use the occasion of making a treasure hunt to do some exploring. Open doors. Pry up manholes. Climb into the attic. Rifle through the boss’s desk drawers… maybe not that last one.

Zany Ideas to Get You Started
Examples of ideas for clue locations in various contexts:

In the Office:

  • Push away some ceiling tiles and see what is above them.
  • Hide something on the company intranet.

At Home:

  • Go exploring with a screwdriver and open some vents. Hang a clue down an AC duct on a string.
  • Hook up a Skype feed to the TV and turn the brightness off. Then use a text to voice convertor to speak to anyone who comes in the room and voila! you have an instant disembodied voice to talk to your players.

Public spaces:

  • Libraries already have everything categorized by number—perfect puzzle fodder.
  • Museum’s have built in maps—hide four things in the museum and tell players to connect them with an X on the map when they’ve found them all. Send your players to the X after they find the four map locations.

The Internet:

  • Write a fake Wikipedia entry. Pro tip: The good people at Wikipedia know what they are doing. They’ll catch your fake entry unless its really good. Before you spend time doing this, follow their guidelines to learn to write a real Wikipedia entry.
  • Use Handbrake and some basic video editing software to pull clips from your favorite moves to build a clue like this one.
  • Use a geolocation app like SCVNGR to send people around the area to complete challenges.

Originally posted by Andy Patton at Corpevent.com.