This site has previously discussed the upcoming Pyro Puzzles series of mechanical puzzles and the Top Secret cryptic treasure hunt being run near London on Sunday 3rd August 2014. It’s a privilege to be able to feature an interview with Stephen Miller, the devisor of these puzzles. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Stephen’s responses with SM below.
- EG: How did you get into puzzles, Stephen?
- SM: I’ve always liked puzzle boxes; the idea of having something on display that hides a secret inside, is something magical. However, until quite recently I didn’t own any such boxes, as I had no clue where to get them from. Now however, I have a decent little collection thanks to the guys at MPP – the Midlands Puzzle Party. I joined this group and have attended all of their recent gatherings, even going to the Netherlands for the Dutch Cube Day where there was a puzzle market, which resulted in me going home with an empty wallet, but a very full backpack.
- EG: What from your background led you towards puzzles?
- SM: I was an inquisative child and when I was nine years old (1979) my Uncle showed me a book called ‘Masquerade’, by Kit Williams. My Uncle was an nature artist and did lots of paintings of birds, animals and the countryside. He’d bought the book because Kit Williams had done some fabulous paintings of similar subjects to illustrate the book and had hidden a hare in each painting, my Uncle challenged me to find the hare in each – I found all but the first hare (which was hidden inside a hill in the picture!). Kit Williams had buried a golden hare somewhere in Britain and had hidden the clues for finding it in his book and I got hooked on the idea of buried treasure, avidly following the subject until the hare was dug up in 1982.
About eight years ago, the memory of ‘Masquerade’ surfaced, after being forgotten for some 25 years, and I went on-line to look it up and found several communities dedicated to it and similar treasure hunts. I joined the communities (Q4T – Quest for Treasure and TATHC – The Armchair Treasure Hunt Club) I took part in a few hunts and then started running them for these groups, which was great fun.
- EG: How is the market for physical puzzles, such as your past Isis Adventure puzzles and your upcoming Elemental puzzles?
- SM: That’s a very good question, I had very little to do with the marketing or sales of the Tessarisis or Tarka puzzles that I designs as the fourth puzzle in the Isis series. I can only go by the fact that the Isis series pays a living wage to the company director and also pays for one or two employees, so they must be selling. I’m lucky to have a full time job away from puzzles, which pays my mortgage, so it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do with the Elemental Puzzle Series, without the pressures of having to earn a living from it – this means I can afford to ‘Do It Right’ which is the overwhelming principle behind Pyro Puzzles and The Elemental Series, the main visible manifestation of this is that I refuse to take pre-payments from people for puzzles that are not assembled, packaged and ready to ship.
- EG: Of which physical puzzles do you have the fondest memories?
- SM: It has to be the Barcode Burr by Lee Kraznow from Pacific Puzzle World, I’ve never owned or even held one of Lee’s creations, but I saw a YouTube clip of him demonstrating one and fell in love with it – a cube made up of six identical shapes that took 128 moves (64 if you know the short-cut!) just to get the first piece out. Just the thought of it blew me away.
I’d been trained in 3D CAD at work, so I decided to try and draw up a Barcode Burr during my lunch breaks, using the photographs on Lee’s website – it took me three years! But eventually I figured it out (the experience and skills I gained by doing this made me a bit of a 3D CAD guru at work). I then had a Barcode Burr 3D printed and contacted Lee with some photographs of my creation – He said that other than him, I was the only person ever to make one. He was impressed with my work and has given me permission to make up to one hundred Bar Code Burrs – which is very kind of him. I’ve looked into getting them machined from aluminium and anodised, but the complexity of the design means they would cost far too much.
(See also a video review of the Barcode Burr.)
- EG: You have a background of co-setting some of the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club’s in-person events. What aspects of armchair treasure hunts and in-person events do you particularly enjoy?
- SM: I enjoy dreaming up the challenges and then formulating them and linking all the elements together to make a cohesive whole (so the interconnections hold the theme together – as I did for the Avebury hunt where everything appeared to have been waiting to be discovered for 3,000 years), where everything fits together properly. It’s also very important to vary the challenges so some are easy and some a bit more difficult, so everyone feels that they are contributing to their team and that their team is making progress. On the day, I enjoy seeing how people react to the challenges I’ve set, it’s great watching people sweat and then see the light bulb come on when they discover the key element that solves the problem.
- EG: Are there any armchair treasure hunts of which you have particuarly fond memories?
- SM: Well, obviously ‘Masquerade’ was the genesis of armchair treasure hunting and I have memories of that (I have 16 picture frames hung on my wall which show the 15 beautiful paintings and title page from the book – cost me £26 for the two copies of the book and £171 in picture frames!), as far as hunts I’ve taken part in, those would have to be my first one which was at Ampthill with Q4T in 2008 and then Olney in 2011 with TATHC (the only one that I’ve actually won). The most memorable moment from one that I’ve run was at Bourton-on-the-Water in 2010 when someone who’d claimed that they were not competitive, solved the final clue, ran about 500 yards and jumped into the river, without taking their shoes off, in order to recover the treasure (we had waders available for them to use, but they didn’t bother to stop for them)!
- EG: How are preparations going for your “Top Secret” treasure hunt in Essex on Sunday 3rd August?
- SM: We’ve got all the plans in place, just need to write everything up and laminate various pages, so they don’t get trashed too easily – I’m having to get it all sorted well in advance, as I’m planning to launch ‘Fire’ the first challenge from the Elemental Puzzle Series at the beginning of August, so most of July is going to be taken up with assembling, engraving and packaging ‘Fire’ ready for August.
- EG: You have said that your event will be “similar to ‘escape the room’ type events, except that here there will be multiple rooms to challenge and confound the participants. What have you learnt from such games that you will be applying in your hunt?
- SM: That would give too much away at this stage, I don’t want to let the players into my head or they’ll figure out how I think!
But I can say that the ‘Top Secret’ event is similar to ‘Escape The Room’ games, in that the teams have to escape. There will be multiple rooms, each containing codes and riddles that need to be decyphered and solved to reveal how a team can escape the venue and recover the treasure once outside.
- EG: You have previously suggested that you expect to be able to accept teams until the end of June. Are you still taking entries?
- SM: Actually, we can accept individual and team bookings up until the end of July – the more the merrier. However, we’ll be sending out final instructions and details for where to meet a week or two before the event, so everyone knows where to be and at what time. We have had a few full team entries, but most are individuals, we’re happy to shuffle people around at the start of the day, so everyone is in a team, so don’t worry if you don’t know anyone else who wants to come, we’ll sort you out with a team and you’ll probably make some good friends that you’ll keep in contact with.
- EG: Can you reveal anything about the hunt that has not yet been made public?
- SM: There is a teaser hidden within the electronic flyer for the hunt (.pdf file).
- EG: Why are you making your puzzles under the name ‘Pyro Puzzles’?”
- SM: I have always worked with explosives and pyrotechnics (I was a qualified bomb disposal engineer before I left school!) and have used the ‘Pyromancer’ name in pretty much every forum I’ve ever joined. So when it came to finding a suitable name for a puzzle concern ‘Pyro Puzzles’ just fitted the bill – It also appealed to me through the links and interconnections that I love so much, in as much as my first solo puzzle will be called ‘Fire’, the Greek for fire is pyro and of course ‘Greek Fire’ is considered one of the first pyrotechnic/explosives used by man.
- EG: Is your upcoming treasure hunt completely self-contained or is there useful preparation or background reading that players might do in advance, particularly in terms of the theme of the event?
- SM: It is completely self contained, as we don’t want anyone having an unfair advantage, so we’ve included elements for puzzlers, treasure hunters and mere mortals.It is completely self contained, as we don’t want anyone having an unfair advantage, so we’ve included elements for puzzlers, treasure hunters and mere mortals.
Thanks so much for that, Stephen! While that week will be a tricky one for the webmaster of the site, this site very much hopes to be able to feature coverage from the event. If you enjoyed DASH in April, or if you’ve played and enjoyed a few exit games, while nothing can be guaranteed, this sounds like it has the potential to be spectacular, and you can investigate the considerable strength of Stephen’s track record for yourself. At the very least, it sounds like a good excuse to get your team back together and have a puzzle-filled day out.
While Stephen suggests above that individual applications are welcome as well as team applications, if readers of this site happened to want to organise a team for this hunt between themselves, there’s a comment box below which would do the job admirably.