Armchair Treasure Hunts

A recurring theme for me as author of this blog is discovering that some concept or game that I like actually has a name, a history, and a community.  Today that something is the armchair treasure hunt!  An armchair treasure hunt is one which is based around a puzzle or book and can be worked out from the comfort of your own home (hence the name).  The puzzles usually take an extended period of time to solve and often lead to real physical locations where actual objects, often valuable, are buried.  I’m going to go ahead and extend this definition, for the purposes of this post anyway, to include hunts that begin online and lead to physical locations.  (Though I’m not sure the physical location or prize elements are even vital, since I keep finding The Eleventh Hour and non-physical prize-based hunts referred to as armchair treasure hunts.)

I think my first encounter with this type of hunt was with The Stone, which originally included a hunt back in 2000 called The Journey.  The Journey consisted of fifteen “Journey Pieces” hidden across the US (and one in the UK).  Each piece was a fragment, and they all fit together to reveal a larger image.  The clues, like the rest of The Stone puzzles, were mostly visual, featuring photos of each fragment location and its surrounding area, as well as spot on the map.  As the fragments were collected, a strange image was revealed — a rendition of The Last Supper which featured celebrity faces instead of apostles and a cryptic code across the bottom.  Although all of the pieces were supposedly found, I’m not sure the larger puzzle, if there was one, was ever solved.  The vital central figure of the image remains a mystery as well.

More recently, I happened upon The Clock Without a Face, an armchair hunt for twelve emerald-studded, hand-crafted buried numbers, the last of which was discovered a couple of months ago.  This hunt used a book where the pages represented the different floors of a building.  Reading about this hunt lead me to discover Michael Stadher’s book-based hunts A Treasure’s Trove, a 2004 national hunt with $1million in jewel prizes, and its sequel, Secrets of the Alchemist Dar, a 2006 international hunt involving 100 rings worth $2million total.  While A Treasure’s Trove was successful, the author’s company went into bankruptcy during Secrets of the Alchemist Dar and no prizes were awarded.

So now that I know these things have a name, let’s talk about them!  They’re obviously appealing to anyone who loves puzzles and treasure hunts, but these hunts have a certain magical quality to them as well.  Here are some of the elements that seem to make these hunts so special:

  • Scarcity — It sounds like these hunts usually only have between one and maybe 15 buried clues, so getting to dig up a buried clue and win the prize is pretty special.  There is also a certain amount of prestige involved, especially when your discovery story is posted on the official website and such.  Also, I’m assuming that once a prize is found, its corresponding puzzle loses most of its solving value.
  • Urgency — In the same vein as scarcity comes urgency.  Although these hunts often take months to complete, players report a strong sense of urgency to get to the buried clue before someone else does, especially when they have a strong lead.  It’s a lot like the golden tickets in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — there are only so many out there, and it’s first-come, first-served.
  • Value — The prizes are often somewhat valuable, usually decorative items hand-crafted from fine materials.  Just another factor to up the ante and make the hunt a little more special, more worth one’s time and energy (though in the case of straight-up cash prizes, value can be the biggest motivating factor of all).

Players might not feel the urge to drive several hours just to dig up one of 1,000 plastic knick-knacks, but make it one of just a dozen artisan pieces and the hunt becomes an exciting and memorable journey for the lucky few who make it to the end.

Those are the big three, but there are a few other elements at play as well:

  • Novelty — Everyone dreams of getting to dig up buried treasure.  (Winning a non-buried prize is pretty great too)
  • Accessibility — A book is a particularly accessible medium for puzzles.  Websites are accessible in a different way, but I love the physical accessibility of a book (easy to take with you, self-contained, etc.).
  • Community — It’s fun to feel like you’re part of a larger group of people spread all across the country, all working toward a goal of solving this mystery (though competition to win the prizes can override this to a certain extent)
  • Luck — The thought that you might happen to live close to one of the clue sites, that you will quickly recognize something familiar or close by and be able to get to the clue site immediately.

This is the part where I tell you about all the exciting armchair treasure hunts in progress and coming up, right?  Well, I’m having a little trouble finding any active communities that keep track of this sort of thing.  UK-based The Armchair Treasure Hunters Club website seemed good but it’s a little dead (though the forums still seem to be active).  Your best bet is probably to keep an eye on Puzzles, Hunts, Contests, a blog which seems to keep up with a number of various hunts and races.

Here are a few ongoing hunts I managed to find in searching, does anyone know of any others?