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May 22, 2009 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm creating a scavenger hunt for friends and family, and the first step for participants is to figure out what they're looking for through a series of riddles, codes, and puzzles. I'm looking for fun ways to encode or otherwise obfuscate the clues.

The clues (objects or signs the participants must find) are generally single words or short phrases, like "mermaid," "bird decoy," "the words 'great fun'" and "lighthouse." Each one will be the answer to a puzzle of some sort. The teams include both kids and adults, so I'm particularly interested in obfuscation techniques that are fun to figure out and don't require a lot of time or outside resources.

Some ideas I'm using are a rebus, a substitution code, and hiding the clue in a find-a-word puzzle. What other riddling means can I employ?
posted by itstheclamsname to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've organized similar scavenger hunts before, and the single, best piece of advice I have to offer is this: do not overestimate your friends' or family's intelligence. Seriously. I've got rocket scientist friends who couldn't for the life of them figure out puzzles I thought were pretty simple. It is difficult to gauge the simplicity of your clues and puzzles because you already know the solution.

If you can, have someone review your hints/puzzles/clues. Rebus puzzles are a great idea. I've used photos and Polaroids as pictorial clues to locations, with additional clues/puzzles written on them, or marked on the photo itself. But again, keep them simple and limited to well-known landmarks.

Depending on your budget, the addition of walkie-talkies can be a ton of fun. If you've got a limited number of them, you can split them up amongst teams. Have periodic announcements preceded by some repetition of a phrase to alert the teams that a message is inbound. You can read off numbers as clues (A=1, B=2,... Z=26), and people can transcribe then simply translate them. Similarly, you can send SMS messages to cell phones with clues.

If you're in an area with shops or businesses, and know their owners, you can have people go in and speak a codephrase to receive an item. Supply your contact items to give out, and puzzle out a codephrase so that when a sekrit agent kid goes up and says "THE RAIN IN SPAIN FALLS MAINLY ON THE PLAIN," the contact says "The Professor would be proud," and palms a swizzle stick to the agent.

But really, seriously, keep the puzzles simple! You want the hunt to be swift and exciting. Sekrit agent stuff is fun. Shoot, get walkie-talkies anyway. They're just cool to have, and everyone can make fun of each other. Over.
posted by herrdoktor at 6:13 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

What about a physical puzzle - they have blank ones at craft stores - or a clue that other wise has to be revealed or assembled?

The funniest 'solve this clue' I ever saw involved a youtube video of someone doing semaphore, but you'd need a reference to figure out the semaphore unless anyone's an ex-sailor or something.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:54 AM on May 22, 2009

do not overestimate your friends' or family's intelligence. Seriously. I've got rocket scientist friends who couldn't for the life of them figure out puzzles I thought were pretty simple

I agree, with any kind of non-obvious puzzle there is a risk that they will get stuck. One thing that can help with this is to make the game non-linear so that they for example only need to solve 3/5 puzzles, or they get a choice between two puzzles. Another one would be to give them an out of some kind. For example, give a puzzle a time limit, and if they don't finish it in time have them call a number for a hint or an alternate solution. Also, make sure that when they do figure it out, there is some way to verify that they are correct. There's nothing worse than having people think they've solved a puzzle and then waste a lot of time going in the wrong direction.

One good type of puzzle for people you know is a trivia game based on inside jokes or other personal knowledge that only they would know. Have fill-in-the-blank answers, circle some of the individual letters of the answer blanks, and have the clue be formed from the circled letters. Another versatile game mechanic is a key puzzle. Get a lock with the correct key and some incorrect keys. Have some way for them to find or earn keys, and when they end up with the one that opens the lock they can move on to the next puzzle. If you don't want to go through the trouble of getting a bunch of keys you could also just use a combination lock and either have them find the combination by solving puzzles or try different combinations that are given to them the same way that they would try keys.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:16 AM on May 22, 2009

I did something similar for a Christmas party. One puzzle I gathered a bunch of Christmas themed words (Tinsel, Elves, Holly, etc) and I put them in order so that the first letter of each word spelled out the clue.

For the rebus puzzles incorporate some pictures of players and use their names or nicknames.

Have a list of scrambled words. Once they are unscrambled certain letters can be numbered to correspond to a numerical placement in the clue word/phrase. Does that make sense? I see it in the newspaper.

If you know a lot about the players you can include some personal trivia. One of mine: "Where does Uncle Johnny keep his stash of Playboys?" (Under the sink).
posted by simplethings at 7:32 AM on May 22, 2009

A friend of mine organizes these every so often and puts most of his media up on his website here.
posted by mkb at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2009

As tempting as it is to be excruciatingly clever, I would highly recommend restraint. Some simpler visual clues I've used in the past are a connect-the-dots drawing, where the final picture is of the desired object... or a newspaper page with the letters that spell out your item blacked out.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:22 AM on May 22, 2009

How about haiku? That can be as simple or as obscure as you want it to be. Obviously doesnt have to be very traditional.

"Rose bush"

Despite my thorns, I
would smell more the sweeter
as any poem

Just an example.
posted by elendil71 at 8:58 AM on May 22, 2009

I once used a clue something like "not on my pizza," the next clue was taped to a jar of anchovies on the shelf at a nearby market.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:25 PM on May 22, 2009

Make sure you set the out-of-bounds parameters and communicate them clearly, so your participants don't waste time on wild goose chases, and so they also have a limited set of correct answers.

For example, for an "Amazing Race"-type activity I was recently involved with, we told the teams that all the places they would have to go to were within the village limits of our town, and we supplied them with a copy of the local phone book. The village limit helped them narrow down the possibilities if they couldn't figure out the exact answer, and the phone book helped if they knew the type of establishment they needed to get to, but didn't know its exact name or address.

We gave our participants actual physical items for some clues (as well as the paper and pencil-style clues you've already mentioned). As an example, one of the places they had to go to was the local VFW hall. So their clue for that location was a tiny American flag and a toy army dude.

The best clue ever for our contest required advance planning and the cooperation of the local newspaper. We got them to print a paragraph at the tail end of a local "Around Town" type of column with the name of the next place the kids had to go to. We gave the kids a copy of the newspaper, and told them that the next clue was in the paper. Conveniently (and without any intention on our part), the newspaper printed our clue in a section with a lot of local advertising, so lots of teams ran off in all sorts of different [wrong] directions. It wasn't until they sat down and actually *read* each article that the face-palming occurred, because their clue was spelled out in black-and-white for anyone who bothered to read the whole section!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:31 AM on May 23, 2009

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