ATH 2002:

Armchair Treasure Hunt 2002

Title: Wasted
Setter: Mark Abbott
Themes: Christopher and Philip Marlowe

Mark Abbott writes...

Some Notes on the Hunt

Having seriously attempted about four Armchair Treasure Hunts previously, I was overtaken by a strange desire to set one. Perhaps my enthusiasm was fired by reaching the previous year's treasure via a combination of ignorance (we had not decoded the second set of instructions) and instinct (I had deduced my way to the treasure site anyway). Perhaps I should not have employed the same approach when I became a setter!

The starting point was what I thought was a cracking idea. I had always found the story of Christopher Marlowe's death quite intriguing, and had a loose idea of basing a detective story around it. The flashing light bulbs appeared when it dawned on me that the detective hero of Raymond Chandler's novels shared the same surname - Philip Marlowe. Ingenious, Holmes! The Cluedo idea quickly followed as a vehicle for a murder mystery to supplement the central theme of Christopher Marlowe's murder.

There had been some debate amongst the Hunt Cabal about the merits or otherwise of the well-tried, traditional format: questions, codes, pictures and so forth. In my naive enthusiasm, I was keen to try a couple of different ideas that I'd had for changing the format slightly: the use of a narrative or story element, and I also very much liked the extra armchair dimension of having to visit a number of websites. After brief consideration I decided that internet access was wide enough for this not to be too contentious, but in any case did NOT make reaching the treasure site reliant on these Cluedo sites.

I decided to maintain the questions element, because I thought that was a good way in for many teams, and was also aware from experience that it provided entertainment for many casual hunters over Christmas. However, I did make an effort to phrase the questions in such a way that they might require a little lateral thought before hunters dived onto Google. I think this worked okay.

I had a clear idea about a red herring location for the treasure: both the church in Chislehurst where Sir Thomas Walsingham was buried, and the church in Deptford where Christopher Marlowe is recorded as being buried, were called St. Nicholas'. However, a day trip to Deptford persuaded me that this was not such a good idea. A pity, because the vicar at the Deptford church proved extremely helpful, and spent over an hour telling me all kinds of interesting tales about his church.

With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that I was a "little" too ambitious. There was too much contained in Wasted for a five week hunt, and I think a number of teams were overwhelmed with the number of cross-links, allusions and references contained in the text, questions and pictures. If I had my time over, as well as cutting down on the breadth of content, I would have made the instructions far more explicit.

I would also not have made a couple of the puzzle elements quite so over-elaborate: the answer grids, and the versified Notes code instructions / riddles hidden in the text of Wasted. The hardest thing I found throughout the setting was gauging how difficult the whole would be to solve. My biggest disappointment was that the riddles were so well hidden in the text, that only one team spotted them. The missing line in the source text for Hero and Leander was also a bit embarrassing, but not as calamitous as I first feared when I realised what had happened. These things happen I guess.

Having said all this I was reasonably pleased with my first attempt at an ATH. The success criteria I had set for myself in advance were that nobody would find the treasure in the first two weeks, but that around ten or so teams would have successfully visited the site by the deadline. I also hoped to get 20 or more teams submitting an entry. All these things came to pass, one way or another. And the feedback from the teams who attended the post-hunt drinks at the Old Doctor Butler's Head seemed to be that it was by-and-large enjoyable.

I was very proud of the look of the whole thing, and disappointed that few teams took up my generous offer of a free printed colour version! I really enjoyed creating it, but (frighteningly) could have done with some more time to fine-tune the ideas and remove some of the unnecessary clutter. I think the story, the hidden riddles, the Cluedo websites, and the crossword were fine ideas, if not perhaps perfectly executed. I greatly enjoyed writing the story, and amused myself immensely (if few others) by the wealth of hidden clues, anagrams, acrostics and specific allusions buried therein.

At the end of it all, if I were ever foolish enough to volunteer to set another Armchair Treasure Hunt, I think I would have a far better idea of the level to pitch it at, and what works and what does not.