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Treasure Hunt 2003: There's No Place Like Home

On April 27, 2003, I held my Seventh Annual Birthday Treasure Hunt on the campus of the University of Washington.

First, some history. While a student at The Evergreen State College, I read this article on the annual MIT Treasure Hunt and decided that I wanted to host a similar (albeit greatly scaled down) event for my friends. So in 1995, the first Birthday Treasure Hunt was held in lovely downtown Olympia, WA.

Two years later I held the second "annual" Hunt in La Paz, Bolivia, for two score Peace Corps Volunteers. Since my return from South America, the Hunt has been run more-or-less-every year, always on the University of Washington campus. The first four Hunts were abstract, with generic puzzles and solutions, but in 2000 I switched to themed Hunts, and have since held "Treasure Hunt 2000: Down the Rabbit Hole" and "Treasure Hunt 2001: A Puzzling Odyssey". The theme for "Treasure Hunt 2003: There's No Place Like Home" was The Wizard of Oz.

April 27 turned out to be a beautiful day for a hunt. After oscillating between "crappy" and "also crappy" for weeks, the whether took and abrupt turn for the lovely that Sunday morning, and remained so for the rest of the day. So when the 30+ Hunt participants gathered on the north side of the UW fountain, they did so on what seemed like the first true day of spring.

As in previous years, the mechanics of the Hunt were straightforward. Players assembled into teams of 3-5, each of which received a sealed envelope. Upon my word all teams opened their envelope to find a map and the first clue. The map (seen here) showed a subset of the campus, with only 30 building names listed. All further clues would be found in one of these 30 buildings, a warning noted. The first clue, as with all clues, was a puzzle which revealed the location of the next clue. The object of the Hunt was to be the first team to solve all six clues and get to end location.

At 2:15 I gave the signal and the Hunt began.

Clue One: Welcome To Oz: The first clue came in two parts: a sheet of paper with instructions and a small ziplock baggy full of Jelly Bellies. The instructions said that that there were seven different types of Jelly Bellies in the bag, and that each distinct flavor represented a different letter of the alphabet (as shown on a chart at the bottom of the page). Players were told to first determine the seven letters, then "anagram the seven letters to spell out two common, uncapitalized words -- the first with three letters, the second with four. The two-word phrase is a synonym (of sorts) for where you should go next."

Based on color and flavor, teams had little difficulty determining the seven flavors: licorice, coconut, peanut butter, lemon, banana, cinnamon, and pear. (I was skeptical about the last one, but, by jimminey, it really does taste unmistakably like pear.) These seven flavors corresponded to the letters KLOPRSY, which can only be anagrammed into a single three-word / four-word phrase: "sly pork". Teams that didn't automatically assume they had made a mistake when confronted with "sly pork" looked at the list of buildings and quickly found the "synonym (of sorts) for where you should go next": "Cunningham". The second clue was posted in that building's main entrance.

Clue Two: The Scarecrow: Next up was the S.A.T.: the Scarecrow Aptitude Test. The puzzle had ten multiple-choice questions -- from antonyms to reading comprehension to problem solving -- all having to do with brains and each with a numeric answer from 1-4. Players were told to add all their answers together, plug the sum into an equation, and write the resulting six-digit number into a series of blanks: __ __ / __ __ / __ __. Written thusly, the solution gave the combination to a locker, in which the next clue was hidden.

Clue Three: The Tin Man: This was the toughest clue for many teams, because it revolved around a type of puzzle that most people have never heard of: the nonogram. In these ingenious brainteasers, players use logic to determine which squares in a grid to blacken and thereby reveal a picture.

Unlike most nongrams, this one had letters inside the boxes, and the note: "Ignore the letters in the boxes until the puzzle is complete, then use them to determine the building and room number where the next clue is located. Remember: "It's what's inside that counts!" This was a reference to the fact that, when the nonogram was complete, the letters inside the picture (a heart, of course) spelled out: ARTTWOTEN. And that's where the next clue was to be found: on the door of room 210 in the Art Building.

After the hunt, many participants expressed an desire to do more of these kind of puzzle. So here you go: this is my favorite online Nonogram site, here are a bunch more.

Clue Four: The Cowardly Lion: The next clue featured three Quotefall-style puzzles, the kind routinely found those "Penny Press Puzzle Books" available in airports worldwide. This may have been the easiest puzzle in the whole Hunt for a couple reasons. First, crafty teams discovered that they could deduce the full solution to the clue after solving only two of the three Quotedrops. Also, all three of the Quotefalls contained the word "courage," and figuring that out generally "unlocked" the rest of the puzzle.

Clue Five: The Wicked Witch: "I'm mellllllllllllllllllllllting!!!!" That was the theme to this, the fifth puzzle in the hunt. The puzzle consisted of a table containing 27 numbered cells in three columns and nine rows, with shaded boxes between each of the columns. (Oh fer crissakes, just go look at the damned thing.) Below, definitions were given for each cell, along with the following instructions: "Write the five-letter answer to clue 1 in the first space. Then drop one letter to get the answer to clue 2. Put the dropped letter into the shaded box between the two columns. Drop another letter (again putting it in the shaded box) to get the answer to clue 3. Follow this pattern for every row in the puzzle."

When completed, the letters in the shaded boxes were: CAPFOUNDONCARTIRES (e.g., "cap found on car tires"). A glance at the sheets listing the building names should have revealed the answer: the "HUB" (Husky Union Building).

Clue Six: The Wizard Of Oz: This was it, the final clue. The clue was in an envelope, which also contained a set of nine tiles. The clue said "Place the nine tiles into the frame of your map so that there every road leads to Dorothy, a house, or Kansas (i.e., there will be no dead ends). The orientation of pictures and letters on the tiles do not necessarily correspond to the correct orientation of the tile itself, so do not rely on them as guides. Once the path is complete, just follow the yellow brick road!" The "map" indicated was the small map that was included with the first clue.

One of the tiles had a hole cut out of it, and it was fairly simple to place it onto the map in such a way that the final building was indicated: Mary Gates Hall fit in the cut-out hole perfectly. But the clue was fairly well hidden within the building, so teams who dashed off to Mary Gates without solving the entire puzzle generally looked in vain.

Those who managed to place all nine tiles onto the map, however, could trace Dorothy's path all the way to Kansas and jot down all the letters she passed on here journey to spell out: MARYGATESHALLATTHEBOTTOMOFSTAIRONE. ("Mary Gates Hall At The Bottom Of Stair One"). Sure enough, those who went to the stairwell labelled "Stair One' and walked down it all the way to the bottom found a map of Kansas squirreled away down there. This was the final location and solution to the Hunt.

The first team to arrive at the final location (and win the Hunt) was Toto's Teeth: Josh Davis, Gunilla Eriksson, Linda Mitchell and William Pross -- not coincidentally, the exact same team that won last year's hunt under a different guise.

Congratulations to Toto's Teeth, and a big thanks to everyone who participated!

Posted on May 22, 2003 to Games


Wow. Dang. Was it on foot?

Please send me an invite next year... oh, happy birthday!

Posted by: Rob Cockerham on May 23, 2003 10:17 AM

Oh, so much cooler than celebrating your birthday with two-for-one margaritas at Bennigan's.

Next year: web cams for each of the teams?

Posted by: Laurie on May 23, 2003 10:31 AM

Holy crap, dude. That is about the swellest shit I have ever seen. The Wizard of Oz is my most favorite movie of all the movies, and to have been a participant in this would have had me grinning brighter than Dorothy's sparkly shoes.

Good work.

Posted by: brittney on May 23, 2003 11:00 AM

Next year you should invite Peter Greenaway to make a film of the whole thing. Except that someone will probably die.

Posted by: Mrs. Kennedy on May 23, 2003 2:22 PM

Holy crap, dude. That is about the most fucked up shit I have ever seen.

Posted by: K on May 23, 2003 2:56 PM

Still, if you don't invite your faithful readers to it next year, we will probably commit suicide.

Posted by: K on May 23, 2003 2:59 PM

If you make it public, you'll get more presents. That's all I'm saying.

I live on the UW campus, so I guess while I was writing a paper last sunday you guys were just a few hundred yards away. Man, I should have dressed up like a flying monkey and chased people around.. like I do every Sunday anyway.

Posted by: Hildago on May 23, 2003 3:07 PM

I did something very similar, except it was King Arthur-themed and a spectacular failure:


Posted by: josh on May 24, 2003 7:43 AM

That's awesome. I think you should celebrate your birthday in NYC next year so I can come. (Purely selfish, I know.)

Posted by: Vidiot on May 24, 2003 12:26 PM

Thank God you don't invite me. I'd never make it past Clue 2. But it sounds like so much fun, anyway.

Posted by: Miel on May 24, 2003 10:42 PM

What happened to Treasure Hunt 2002?

Posted by: mcduck on May 25, 2003 6:03 PM

also what the hell was in it for the winners? were they the only ones who got cake?

Posted by: discourageo on May 27, 2003 8:11 AM

What? The satisfaction of a job well done, a puzzle solved, is not enough? It was a game. Games don't need to have prizes.

Posted by: Fred on May 27, 2003 8:53 AM

OK i know i'm in idaho and stuff but you know how to find me and sure I haven't made it to the last seven but that doesn't mean stop the invites! I just have one question: what place did debbie and matt finish?
and just so i can finally make it to one how bout a summer scavenger
for everybody just reading the clues, just wait to talk to some of the team members they have outrageously funny stories

Posted by: effie on May 28, 2003 7:15 PM