Exit Games UK loves puzzle hunts. If you like exit games, you might well do too. However, what are they? The definition that has evolved over time on Wikipedia and gained general acceptance seems to run along the lines of:

A puzzle hunt is a puzzle game where teams compete to solve a series of puzzles at a particular site, in multiple sites or via the Internet. Groups of puzzles in a puzzle hunt are often connected by a metapuzzle, leading to answers which combine into a final set of solutions.

History

The idea of the treasure hunt is as old as time immemorial, with Treasure Island arguably influential for spreading the concept and setting the form. There are related variations on the theme. If there are many items to be found, then the game is probably more strongly considered a scavenger hunt; the items to be found can be quite mundane, or can be as obscure as those in the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt. If there is one document containing, or hinting at, all the clues that (with copious research) eventually lead to a physically hidden treasure, the game may have more in common with an armchair treasure hunt. The sorts of puzzle hunts considered by this site are often distinguished by being played in teams, having multiple puzzles and often heavily featuring the style of puzzle where the challenge is to figure out what the puzzle is asking.

More specifically, there is some degree of focus on the style of puzzle hunt referred to as The Game. It has a history of its own, researched by (among others) Scott Royer III at Puzzalot, where factual hunts intertwine with fictional depictions of them. As a sidebar, a precis of the timeline for history fans:

  • Gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell is sometimes credited as the adaptor of treasure hunts as a party game; one attendee at one of her parties was musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers, and both Rodgers and Hammerstein and their families are known to have been keen on all sorts of anagrams and other puzzles.
  • Their friend and prodigious composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim is known to have been a big puzzle fan and even ran his own hunts through the 1960s (and occasionally later, even five decades later). Sondheim drew on his experience in co-writing 1973 mystery film The Last of Sheila.
  • This movie is knowingly speculated to have been one of the influences on a series of games organised by Los Angeles graphic designer Don Luskin and friends, some of which were reported in the LA Times.
  • Walt Disney Productions released a movie, Midnight Madness, in 1980, about a fictional puzzle hunt, and the writer/directors acknowledge Luskin’s games as the inspiration for the principle, though they never played themselves. At this point, several puzzle fans of a certain age were inspired by the movie and would go on to consider it to be a good idea to bring such hunts to life themselves, in their later lives. In a sense, this might be considered the breakpoint between prehistory and history; at this point, the trail splits into several independent branches, some of which continue to this day.
  • One influential one is detailed at a long-dormant site, gamecontrol.com, which happily is captured by the blessed archive.org. 17-year-old Clearwater Central Catholic High School students Don Myhill, Marie Martin, Tegwyn Stockdale and Joe Belfiore created what they thought would be a 4-hour race on a Sunday night, December 30, 1985. The hunt turns out to run rather long, and spawns local sequels through 1985 and 1986.
  • Joe Belfiore and friends attend Stanford University and run similar, bigger-scale games known first as Bay Area Race Fantastique (attractive acronym!) and then later as The Game. The capital-G Game still retains a close association with Stanford University, with sequels following after Belfiore leaves (and still continue to this day) and more generally with the Silicon Valley area in general where Stanford is sited.
  • Belfiore then goes on to work at Microsoft and brings the tradition there as well; Microsoft develops its own puzzle competitions, and Seattle residents (both within Microsoft and without) start running their own full-length Games after that. These full-scale, incredibly ambitious, non-stop, through-day-and-night(-or-nights) Games have been running in the Bay Area and Seattle from time to time ever since, and more recently in other areas as well (notably Portland, Boston and the Washington DC area). See the Wikipedia page, links to mass media coverage from 1990 to 2002, Team Snout’s archive and more. If this sounds good, you’ll love doing your own research into the genre using these as starting-points.
  • Perhaps, completely arbitrarily, modern history might be considered to start with the increasing popularity of single-day games (BANG, SNAP and BAPHL in the Bay Area, Seattle and Boston respectively, plus the commercial events run by companies like Shinteki), possibly at the expense in popularity of longer games (see also the Shelby Logan’s Run game incident) and a split between modern history and contemporary history might be defined by the considerably wider spread of game availability in the most recent years, starting with DASH and Puzzled Pint – and, up to a point, the relative mainstream acceptance of exit games as the most gateway form of the genre.

And yet this is only one branch of the puzzle hunt tradition. For instance, Brad Schaefer started the MIT Mystery Hunt in 1981, the year after Midnight Madness was released. Was there a connection? It’s hard to know either way. Certainly the MIT Mystery Hunt has been influential towards a great many other university puzzle hunts. The Czech Republic’s TMOU tradition also bears remarkable degrees of similarity to that branch of the puzzle hunt tradition that follows from the Midnight Madness path, though with motion restricted to public transport and the unwheeled foot. There is nothing to suggest common inspiration, just mutual independent reinvention of a notion.

Types of puzzle hunts

Puzzle hunts lie on a spectrum. At one end, there are purely online hunts, which can be completed anywhere and purely rely on the transfer of puzzles out and answers in by electronic means. At the other end, there are Game-style hunts, defined by a series of interesting locations, travel between the locations being part of the challenge, a consistent theme running through the event and the locations often being tailored to the clues they host. Towards the online end of the spectrum are “conference room” hunts, where the majority of the challenges posed by the hunt are purely online puzzles, but some of these challenges may be physical tasks or require attendance at a location. DASH is towards the Game-style end of the spectrum, but travelling time between locations is (essentially) not a factor and the fact that the same puzzles are set in different cities means that there cannot be the same locations and thus the tie-in between locations and puzzles cannot be guaranteed.

Game-style hunts often refer to clues rather than puzzles, because they can often require physical tasks rather than (or even as well as!) puzzles in order to get the location of the next clue. Relatively high-end hunts can involve interaction with extremely unusual or complicated physical props; perhaps you might be quad-biking among sand dunes in the dark, or getting a piercing, or exploring an abandoned prison by torchlight, or “casting spells” by waving a physical, electronic-laden “magic wand”.

The highest-end hunt might just be the Midnight Madness series (again, another branch drawn from that movie!) played between teams of ten, many of whom were drawn from different sections of Goldman Sachs, each team having raised at least $50,000 for charity. The 2013 event was discussed in the New York Times; teams in 2012 “(…)got to change the lights on the Bank of America building and play laser golf in an abandoned building(…)“, 2013 teams visited a marble cemetery and knocked out rhythms from Queen songs on door-knockers on specially installed fake tombstones.

One possibly counterintuitive emphasis of Game-style puzzle hunts is that some players do not remember them for their particular puzzles. Instead, what tends to last in the memory is the adventure they had: the incredibly cool locations they visited, the gadgets they played with, the story that they played through or the crazy stunts they were required to perform. These can take very significant resources to establish; participation fees can be significant, and the work required to produce an elaborate game can make it a full-time-job-scale all-consuming hobby for many months for a reasonably large team. That’s why these high-end games are significantly rare, and why the people who put them on are so celebrated.

Online puzzle hunts

While online puzzle hunts cannot replicate the cool locations, the amazing gadgets or the physical challenges of an in-person hunt, they can present you with fantastic, creative, original puzzles to solve. As with just about every other aspect of the puzzle world, there are genuinely accessible shallow waters to explore, or you can dive as deep as you like.

The first port of call has got to be the Order of the Octothorpe. This deliberately assumes no prior knowledge of puzzle hunt conventions, introducing you to the most common codes and styles of puzzle, with a brilliantly well-balanced hinting system. Keep going through it far enough, solve the most central mystery of the Order, and there are hidden depths, some of which are as subtle and meaty as many hunts you’ll find. You can solve this alone; you don’t need to do it in one sitting as there’s an excellent progress-tracking mechanic, and several players in a team can solve the puzzles together. There are something like a hundred puzzles to solve, and it might take something like 20-80 person-hours to crack them all, at no cost.

Where do you go from there? The Order of the Octothorpe will give you a solid grounding in the basics, but the path from its green-circle gentle learning curve to the double-black-diamond no-holds-barred runs of the MIT Mystery Hunt and the like can be unclear. For small and accessible chunks of puzzle hunt fun, you could definitely do worse than Dr. Bob Schaffer’s short online holiday puzzle hunts, free to play but partly intended as fundraisers for his Elevate Tutoring non-profit, from 2012, 2013 and (slightly harder in) 2014.

Please do bear in mind that these hunts are designed to be solved by teams of people working together, sometimes very large teams, so please do not be discouraged if the puzzles seem horribly difficult and you don’t know how to even start to get to grips with them. (Working in a team is, for many people, so much easier and more fun than working alone – bouncing ideas off each other goes a long way towards the idea generation process.) When working out what the puzzle wants is part of the challenge, if you work out what you’re meant to do, award yourself considerable credit for getting that far, even if that’s as far as you get rather than actually doing it.

If you want a next step after Order of the Octothorpe and Dr. Bob’s holiday hunts, consider those puzzles that have been deliberately designed to be more accessible. For instance, consider the DASH puzzle hunt; the DASH 5 and DASH 6 years have both deliberately had “new players” tracks as well as “experienced players” tracks, and you might want to consider the “new players” versions of the puzzles as targets to consider after that. You could even consider past months’ Puzzled Pint sets to be very short hunts in their own right; after all, many months’ sets do culminate in a metapuzzle, and the puzzles have been designed to be accessible, though many teams do take advantage of the hints that are available freely at the time.

The physical logistics of DASH 6 – specifically, the aspects of entering answers, checking their correctness and being directed to the next location – were delivered by software called ClueKeeper. This has been used for a number of location-driven puzzle hunts successfully and may well be used for more in future. As well as events that only happen at specific times, it has also been used for hunt which are fixed in location but variable in time – specifically, self-guided hunts that will introduce you to certain locations. You can find which cities are available at the Cluekeeper web site; at time of publishing, none of them were in the UK, but this may well change.

You might also take a look at past year’s puzzles, hints and solutions from the CiSRA Hunt. The more difficult puzzles are very much towards the upper end of the difficulty spectrum, but the relatively accessible puzzles are indicated clearly, and hints are also given. The same approach is also taken by the SUMS hunt and the MUMS hunt, though they tend to have a higher concentration on the difficult end of the spectrum.

Many people have created their own hunts for their friends, both online and offline, and have shared these hunts online. There’s no reason why you couldn’t play them online for your own enjoyment as well. If you played DASH 5 or DASH 6 in London, you’ll know (or, at least, have met) event organiser Jordan Smith. His Prouts Neck hunt is reasonably accessible, and the answers are available. Video game speedrunning community The Elite had their own hunt in 2010 as well.

Some very experienced puzzle hunt setters create whole hunts, but generally aim these at more experienced players, so don’t expect people to go easy on you. Mark Halpin has several hunts, as does Dan Katz. Possibly the most accomplished of all is Greg “Foggy” Brume, most notable for the bimonthly P&A magazine, each $6 issue containing several connected puzzles leading up to a metapuzzle. He is also responsible for the free 99-puzzle Puzzle Boat, and the $30 Puzzle Boat 2 of similar size. He has since suggested on Facebook that Puzzle Boat 3 will be launched during the summer of 2015, though the quoted date is not to be taken literally. Another page details his other puzzling projects, several of which have the hunt nature.

The closest UK enterprise to P&A Magazine is probably Puzzlebrains, featuring a thriving forum. It would also be incomplete not to mention the almighty hardback A Maze of Games, widely discussed elsewhere on the Internet.

Once you’ve dabbled in some or all of these, if you’re interested in the MIT Mystery Hunt specifically, this brilliant online presentation was given by 2014’s winning team to would-be participants in the 2015 hunt. It details the history, logistics and typical overarching structure of the hunt, plus gives some walkthroughs and general techniques for approaching different sorts of puzzles that might be expected to be found.

A brief history of puzzle hunts in the UK

This section may well evolve over time as this site’s research on the subject continues. It does not intend to cover predecessors such as Masquerade or other armchair treasure hunts, though the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club‘s annual events may bear some similarity to the genre.

It is rumoured (and investigation about these rumours is ongoing, though slowly) that tech workers who learned the Game tradition in Silicon Valley and then moved to the UK may have played some similar games in London in the very early 2000s. Apparently the 7th July 2005 bombings made some of the players think again about what might be considered sensible or suspicious.

Cambridge University’s Computing and Technology Society ran their first hunt in 2012, which bears some similarities to US-style conference room hunts, particularly those put on by other universities, including puzzles of a comparable level of difficulty (and some first-hunt signs of roughness around the edges). Happily the tradition has continued since then.

The global event DASH holds comparable, very light Game-style single-day hunts, using the same puzzles, in cities across the US, but both DASH 5 in 2013 and DASH 6 in 2014 had legs in London alongside the ones in the US. It is to be hoped that further DASHes will also be represented in the UK; the best place to follow is the @playdashlondon Twitter account.

2014 also saw the Top Secret Treasure Hunt at the very exciting location of Kelveden Hatch’s Secret Nuclear Bunker, also discussed elsewhere on Exit Games UK, and Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play in London that was also discussed further on this site. Both of these were again Game-style single-day events, and fingers crossed that there might be further such events in the UK down the line.

However, if you’re more interested in the adventure aspect of a hunt than the puzzles themselves, a door in a wall‘s events are well worth considering. They have the experience to put together extremely popular, quick-to-sell-out games that have the locations, storyline and characters down to a tee; they tend to be based around solving overarching murder mysteries (using some of the conventions of the murder mystery game genre) rather than discrete puzzles.

Conclusion

If these puzzle hunts sound exciting and you want to carry your excitement on and do something now, the single most important conclusion that this document would like you to draw is that you really can learn how to get to grips with them, starting from absolute scratch, by playing through the Order of the Octothorpe. There’s no charge, it’s genuinely accessible from first principles, and gets this site’s highest recommendation. Getting to grips with that would stand you in excellent stead for the in-person challenges of Puzzled Pint, DASH or any of the other puzzle hunts that may be organised in the UK from time to time. Be sure that this site will tell you all about them just as soon as it becomes aware of them!

5 Comments

    • Great shout; we played that at the time (there were about half a dozen of us, all solving from our various homes, in touch over a Skype chat) and it was cool. It’s unusual in that it largely eschews many of the usual puzzle hunt conventions and is fairly construction-y, but is recommended.

      Reply
  1. Thanks for the mention of Puzzlebrains – I would note that, like Panda, it is theoretically meant to be a single-person exercise rather for teams, although that doesn’t mean that collaboration doesn’t happen!
    However – and it’s a big but – I am not sure what is going to be happening next year. I need some time off: when you’ve written 500-odd (some very odd) puzzles over a six year period, your brain starts to go peculiar – well, more peculiar than it already is, anyway. so I suspect that it may go quiet for a bit. On the other hand, the intention is to put some of the earlier issues back on-line so that people can get some idea of what it is about.

    Reply
    • Thanks very much for all you’ve done and sorry for not engaging with it more fully. One of the main motivations is to find people who are interested in some aspects of the puzzle hobby and introduce them to other aspects of which they were not previously aware.

      Of course, Puzzlebrains subscription is not limited to the UK, so Panda magazine subscribers looking for a fill for the “off” months might well enjoy taking a look as well… *grin*

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