Pablo's Armchair Treasure Hunt

Armchair Treasure Hunt 2000

Title: Snakes and Ladders
Setter: Dave Kee
Themes: Hillingdon Trail

Dave Kee writes...

Some Notes on the Hunt

By the time we came to set this ATH our desperation to be first to the treasure site had subsided. We felt that we already had two firsts to our credit. Admittedly one was the false treasure in the Mary Queen of Scots hunt of 1997. However, in 1999 we did get the coveted raffle ticket number 1. The lateral thinking powers of the team were such that we were able to ignore the rather obvious code that revealed the combination of the lock to the treasure box. Instead, through careful, handcrafted and undetected use of watchmakers tools we bypassed the lock altogether! Outrageously we were demoted to 2nd.

One of the rewarding aspects of an ATH is that you become an expert in a hitherto unexplored (and unwanted?) genre. For years to come you are able to amaze your friends with your in-depth knowledge of the life and times of Christopher Marlowe, Mary Queen of Scots, Mrs Gaskell and more recently the contribution of Tolkien to the war on terrorism.

I walked the Hillingdon Trail in the late 90s with some members of the team. It is very long but well worth the effort, more people should know about it I thought. On the way we came across remnants of the Grand Junction Canal feeder, running from Ruislip Lido to Brentford, that I thought would make a great place to conceal the treasure. I have always felt that the treasure site should be interesting, especially given all the work that the entrants put into finding it.

I was ready to set another ATH, I had a theme, a treasure location and a team that had proved themselves in 1996 when they correctly graded the hunt as "too hard" (I had overruled them). The problem was how to persuade the powers that be to let me have another go. My first ATH had bitten deep into the psyche of many entrants who were only just coming out of care in the community programs. However, I did get the green light.

I don't remember where I got the idea for Snakes and Ladders from. It might have been Oxford Circus where I spent many happy hours waiting for trains staring at the stylised snakes and ladders on the walls. I knew that I wanted a cut and paste job. There had been a very good ATH some years ago where you had to assemble the 12 pages into something resembling a Möbius strip but nothing where you had to go wild with the scissors.

As with my first ATH the team researched the questions and reviewed the overall approach. Yet again they were not overwhelmingly convinced that they understood what it was about but I managed to persuade them that we would have another review when there was more to see.

As I constructed the first draft I ran into another of those "show stopper" moments. My idea was to cut up a snakes and ladders board and randomly distribute it across 12 pages and put in clues to help reconstruct the board. When I tried to do this I realised the stupidity of the process, it was a simple matter to reconstruct the board by realigning the snakes and ladders which ran across my cut lines. When the panic subsided I moved into another dimension. My snakes and ladders would disappear though the board and reappear elsewhere, thus giving no assistance to reconstruction.

Another "show stopping" moment came as I started to plan where exactly to bury the treasure. My memory of several years ago did not agree with the map so I couldn't find the treasure location! I knew it was off the Hillingdon Trail, but we had been lost when we discovered the site. I spent several Saturdays visiting sites close to the trail before I found the correct location.

This time I wanted a real treasure box, up to then it had typically been a small plastic container. I bought the box on a holiday in India and thought that the best approach would be to bury it inside a small ammunition box. Usually it is concealed under leaves in tree roots, or the bole of a tree, this time I wanted to put it in the ground. Unfortunately I could only buy a large ammunition box emblazoned with all kinds of warning marks, including nuclear radiation symbols. One Sunday morning, in November, I set off with my wife to bury the ammunition box. We parked in a small suburban street and put on large rucksacks (concealing spades and boxes) before heading off as if for a walk in the nearby open space. Let me tell you that it is not easy to dig a large hole and refill it without leaving any too obvious marks - you need lots of black bags to store the earth. I would not advise any future setter to follow my example, these days you might end up in Guantanamo Bay.

Detailed construction of the puzzle was a nightmare. I had to first construct a snakes and ladder board that when played a particular way covered the board in a specific sequence so that the sentence describing the treasure location was spelt out. I had then to cut the board up and reassemble it in a random manner. I could not do this in my head and in the end 10 megabytes of spreadsheets were required to generate, randomise and check what had been built.

When the team reviewed the final version they seemed to understand it so I was confident that it would be found. Although I was confident I hadn't liked being in the dark, as happened when I set the ATH before, so I asked a few of the teams if they could email me with their progress on a regular basis so I could see what was happening.

The Logica manager in charge of the house magazine was not too happy when I mentioned that I had gone over budget to 13 pages but relented when I said it was that or no ATH.

Dealing with the printer this time was relatively easy. His premises were in the East End and I was at home base in Great Marlborough Street. We had interchange problems but settled on CDs that I took down to him. The printer was very helpful and overcame a lot of problems. After a couple of goes I thought that we were there and requested a proof copy. As I reviewed the proofs he pointed out how some erroneous lines had crept in but he had fixed them as well. He was clearly not an ATH devotee and had almost completely ruined the whole puzzle - we put the lines back in.

When the ATH was released the teams made very rapid progress and I thought that I had made it too easy. However, it soon became clear that assembling the snakes and ladders board was non trivial, in fact there were 1065 possible combinations. I and other members of the team spent long hours double and triple checking that it could be reassembled correctly.

The treasure was eventually found and we were happy with the result. However at the celebratory drink where the prizes were presented it was clear that none of the treasure finders, like the printer, had understood those erroneous lines. But at least this time we had put in sufficient redundancy to permit alternative solutions.

For those of you who have not set an ATH I cannot over emphasise the benefits of making it a team effort. It is the team that makes the setting and competing in an ATH so much fun, mine is scatted all over the UK, the Far East and the Americas. Sadly, between setting the two ATHs, we lost one of the team who had been there from the start in 1985. We used his on-file questions in this ATH as an appropriate "in memoriam".

So if you have some brilliant ideas for an ATH give it a go. I have had another brilliant idea but I doubt that my chance will come again.