The Armchair Treasure Hunt Club’s 2015 Club Meeting

Generic blue cartoon armchairThe 1979 book Masquerade established the genre of the Armchair Treasure Hunt: a treasure hunt where a document contains all the clues to solve a series of clues that (typically) points to a location, – in the grandest hunts, a physical item has been buried at that location. People still set such hunts – for instance, the final chapter of The Cloud Quest was published last month; rumour had it, a few years ago, that there were still dozens of books with prize competitions being published each year. While treasure hunts have longer histories still (any excuse to link to the story of the Treasure Hunt Riots!) Masquerade is still the most famous.

The genre still has many devotees, with the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club being a prominent virtual gathering-point for them. The site tracks open armchair treasure hunts, some open to the public, others intended for club members alone. The club also has an annual meeting, open to all and sundry rather than just to its membership. The invitation describes how the day will run. This site shan’t repeat it, for fear that even a simple transcription might somehow obliterate a pre-clue hidden within the invitation. Players will arrange themselves into six or so teams, investigate the Cathedral and more, share a buffet lunch in a pub and then solve a hunt in the afternoon. A full day’s play, including food, for £25 per player sounds like a good deal, and this is certainly the right company in which to enjoy the event.

The club also has an announcement from Steve Miller of Pyro Puzzles about his mechnical puzzle projects, as previously discussed. Steve recently exhibited his wares and ran a hunt at the Nine Worlds convention in London – making the event even cooler still!

The “Top Secret” one-day Cryptic Treasure Hunt in Essex

A logo for the location where the puzzle hunt took placeMonths ago, this site previewed the “Top Secret” One-Day Cryptic Treasure Hunt that happened last Saturday. Here’s a second-hand report of what happened.

The event took place at the so-called Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in West Essex, just outside the M25. The site is a tourist attraction now, but has a history of having played a number of different roles in civil defence over the years.

One challenge that puzzle hunt organisers face is trying to set potential players’ expectations appropriately, not least to give people the right information to judge whether this is the right hunt for them or not. (Not that there are a great many hunts to choose from! At least, not yet…) It’s a particularly difficult challenge for a one-off or first-time hunt, as a good technique is being able to point to (at least an account of) a comparable hunt. This hunt had its original flyer (.pdf file) that cunningly contained hypertext (marked “Top Secret!”) that linked to a teaser that give a hint to the location.

The hunt offered the teams the chance to attempt to retrieve clues from within a variety of rare, valuable and intricate mechanical puzzle boxes, construction puzzles and the like. These clues would give hints, in various media, towards decoding a metapuzzle to find the exit of the bunker section of the hunt.

One particularly popular and clever puzzle saw the teams exploring a recreation of the nuclear bunker within Minecraft – upon finding a particular object hidden in the virtual world, teams were directed to find a clue hidden in the counterpart location in the physical world.

Outside the bunker, there was a later clue requiring use of part of the ropes course on site, and the conclusion of the hunt saw a very visual demonstration of where Stephen Miller, who organised the hunt, got his Pyro Puzzles brand name from. You can see how atmospheric the location was and judge the reactions of the players from this collection of photos from the event.

There are many different parallel puzzle hobbies in the UK and Ireland, often with little overlap – the armchair treasure hunt hobby, the logic puzzle contest hobby, the mechanical puzzle hobby, the DASH-and-Puzzled-Pint hobby, the exit room hobby, and so on. Part of the impetus for this site is to try to bring elements of these hobbies together and help people who know they like one to find other hobbies that they may enjoy as well.

It was clear that most of the entrants to this hunt came from one particular background. The extremely positive social media response goes to show how well-received the hunt was and how well the hunt succeeded in its evident aims.

Many thanks to organiser Stephen Miller and team for putting the show on; it’s clear that a great deal of effort goes into running any puzzle event. This site notes the imminent release of his Fire mechanical puzzle, the start of the Elemental series, and looks forward to further developments.

Interview with Stephen Miller, proprietor of Pyro Puzzles

Pyro Puzzles logoThis 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.

Coming up later this year: Autumn

Autumn logoAs the second part of this two-part feature, here are the events that have recently reached us which are set to take place later on in the year:

August 3: ‘Top Secret’ One Day Cryptic Treasure Hunt, in-person, Essex
August 22: Mind Sports Olympiad KenKen and Sudoku puzzle contest, in-person, London
September 6: save the date
September 13: Armchair Treasure Hunting Day, in-person, Oakham

This site has discussed the “Top Secret” hunt in Essex in August previously, but some more information has been revealed: The event will be team based, with each team consisting of up to six participants. Teams are requested to be there well before the 10:30am start time, for a 6pm finish. The event is described as “similar to ‘escape the room’ events”, except with multiple rooms; many of the rooms will contain mechanical and physical puzzles, codes and riddles that need to be solved in order to reveal an escape route that the teams can use, but there’ll still be more to do even after escape. The planned treasure should deliver a haul of limited edition puzzles valued at £300 to each member of the winning team. I would expect the event to be particularly heavy on physical puzzles; if you want practice with them, the 15th Midlands Puzzle Party will happen on June 15th, and you can read an archive of reports from past events.

The team behind “Top Secret” claim responsibility for three past Armchair Treasure Hunt club events, and a date has been announced for the next one: September 13th. The announcement makes it clear that non-members are welcome along with club members. The event will be taking place in Oakham, in the traditional county of Rutland – or the East Midlands to the rest of us. I have heard rumour of something happening on September 6th, rumour which might never be mentioned again if nothing comes of it, so the week of the 6th to the 13th might be a big one, not least because of Puzzled Pint in the middle of it!

Ready? Aim… Fire!

Fire puzzle diagamPart of the reason for starting this site was to learn about exit games I didn’t know about; another part of the reason was to learn about whole other aspects of the puzzling hobby. I maintain there are plenty of separate puzzle hobbies in the UK who often just don’t know about each other, but would benefit from learning about each other.

For instance, I know next to nothing about the world of physical puzzles. A quick search points to Puzzlemad, a beautiful mechanical puzzle blog in which an anaesthetist discusses his growing collection. He writes enthusiastically and emotively about the fun he has solving, and the puzzles often look gorgeous. To pick just one post, his favourite puzzle of 2013 was the Angel Box, and his joy is infectious. It sounds like a tremendously impressive piece of craftsmanship, at the very, very least.

The price tag is commensurate, but that’s OK. One of the great things about the puzzle hobby is that it’s accessible at so many levels. Perhaps you travel around the world to attend a party and come home having bought dozens of masterpieces; perhaps you stay at home and solve an online contest from your seat at no cost. (To pick a second post, I love and recommend his beginner’s guide to “twisty puzzles”.)

This all links to my recent post about the August Essex puzzle hunt. Details of the hunt are available; investigation suggests that the hunt is expected to run from 10am to 6pm or so. While no formal deadline or size limit has been announced, it has been suggested that registrations by the end of June would help with planning.

The hunt’s co-author, Stephen Miller, is credited for the architecture of Tessarisis and Tarka, two of the Isis Adventure series of physical puzzles; the hunt may also be connected to his upcoming Fire physical puzzle, the first in a series called Elemental, hinted at by the above graphic. A strong track record indeed – and this description of the solution to one of his previous hunts shows the breadth of his skills and makes me all the more excited about the Essex hunt.

An exciting prospect indeed. The company name, Pyro Puzzles, may also link to another of his interests, for he is chairman of the the UK Pyrotechnics Society. It seems reasonable, in that case, to expect the Essex hunt to go with a bang!

August 3rd: one-day Cryptic Treasure Hunt in Essex

Pyro Puzzles logoExciting news arrives (and thanks to for this one!) that Sunday 3rd August will see a highly relevant-looking cryptic treasure hunt (heck, it’s a puzzle hunt to you and me!) taking place somewhere in Essex, probably not far from north-east London.

The hunt will be a team event, with each team consisting of up to six participants. The objective for each team will be to escape the puzzle box and locate the prizes once outside. This is similar to the exit games we discuss here, except that here there will be multiple rooms to challenge and confound the participants. Many of the rooms will contain mechanical and physical puzzles, codes and riddles that need to be solved in order to reveal an escape route that the teams can use, but there’ll still be more to do even after you’ve escaped. Apparently the venue was designed to securely contain 300 people away from the outside world, so escaping will be a real challenge!

The hunt is being organised by Stephen Miller, Nick Ball and others, who have been running such puzzle hunts for many years. A full write up of one such hunt can be found here to give you an indication of what goes into them. It’s interesting to see ATHC at the top of the document; this surely refers to the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club, who hold one-day puzzle hunts like this, extended research-based hunts and online competitions. Much more about them some other day.

The whole event will be themed, but this will remain “Top Secret” until the day of the hunt. (Whether this has a double meaning, and that the theme will actually be revealed to be “Top Secret”, rather than being kept as top secret, remains to be seen!) The winning team (and hopefully the runners up) will be able to claim limited edition puzzles as their prizes for being the first to escape and find the treasure.

There’s a little more information about the logistics on the hunt’s web site, as well as an entry form and PayPal link to pay the £25/person fee. The site also has an e-mail link which will surely reach the organisers.

Very exciting! More news about this as it reaches us.