Zarana here at Traipse captured the sentiment well with her blog post headline summarizing the big treasure hunt we ran in Staunton, Virginia this fall: “Thank God, they found it!” That was pretty much my exclamation when Traipse CEO Darren’s message came through to everyone here declaring that the treasure had been found-- though my exact outburst may also have contained a few expletives of relief.
The wait was stressful. Leading up to the treasure hunt we visited the final location multiple times taking dozens of photos of things around the area that we could use as clues. We discussed at length what the physical container should be, wanting it to be obvious to the finder who solved the hunt but not so obvious that a casual park wanderer would notice it. I had warned the team of the numerous geocaches that already existed in Montgomery Hall Park and that we’d need to plan around those to prevent an unknowing cacher from finding our treasure too.
The thing that I found most daunting about building the treasure hunt was that we’d need A LOT of clues. So very many clues. We’d be promoting this thing over six weeks in partnership with radio station WQSV-106.3 who’d be reading clues on the air pretty regularly. How could we possibly generate enough clues to announce that frequently without diluting their quality?
Darren chatted with some folks he knew who ran this sort of thing before and was given an invaluable piece of advice. The bulk of our clues could be about where the treasure is not located. Genius. Now instead of dancing around and struggling to subtly describe the piece of shrubbery where the container was actually hidden for weeks, we could release dozens of clues that would allow players to chip away at a map of the Staunton area. Suddenly we had much more freedom.
Now, that’s not to say that things suddenly became easy, balance became the new challenge. As an amateur cryptologist and avid puzzler I’ve got a memory bank of some righteous ciphers and codes, and while this contest would certainly attract people who are into that sort of thing, unleashing those at this scale wouldn’t be fun for anyone. Nor would anything especially complex sound very good when read aloud on the radio. Writing our clues then became a juggling act of considering the audience, considering the medium (would the clue be one for WQSV, for social media, via the app, etc?), and considering if it was something solvable given enough thought and research. A limerick doesn’t necessarily need support, but for a cipher that may not be familiar to the uninitiated, we also issued clues hinting at where a solution might be found. The Caesar Cipher we used, for instance, may be one of the simplest ciphers there is, but if that’s something you’ve never seen before, tracking down the supporting clue we wrote of “Et tu, cipher?” might have been necessary.
I’m in love with the family that found the treasure. Matt and Deena Warner summarized their search in a blog post but also shared with us the Google documents where their family compiled their thoughts on the various clues they found. It made me so happy to read that retroactively, following their various lines of thinking as they diligently cracked our clues and put the pieces together in the right order. Ugh, it’s such a relief.
Sure, I think next time we do a treasure hunt (and yes, there will be a next time) we might change some things. Some of the clues I split up into parts and I’m not sure I’d do that again. I think having the aforementioned supporting clues is fine, but I’m not certain actually splitting a clue in twain led to the assembly I had aimed for. I envisioned a wall of collected clues parts and red string, and while the Warner’s notes indicated that folks were doing a bit of that, I think it ultimately added an unnecessary level of complexity.
We shall see what devilry we can cook up for the next one, I’ve already started a document of possible puzzle mechanics.