Pablo's Armchair Treasure Hunt

Armchair Treasure Hunt 2010

Title: The Lost Formula
Setters: Chris & David Baker, David Manley
Themes: Social Networking Sites, Mints

Chris Baker, David Manley and David Baker write...

Some Notes on the Hunt


From the beginning, we wanted to do something different whilst still retaining the essence of the ATH. This meant that we would include all the traditional elements - Questions, Christmas message, Logica reference, pictures, traditional codes, a Sean Bean question and a Red Herring - whilst trying to change the look and feel in an attempt to move people away from the comfort of a 10 page PDF. To this end, we decided that the increasing ubiquity of the internet meant that the web could be a host and setting for great chunks of the treasure hunt, rather than just the place you get the PDF and search for some answers

One look at a list of past winners will tell you that clearly some people are very good at this, so part of our thinking was to see if a change in methodology would unsettle them or allow them to prove themselves again. Attempting to 'modernise' the hunt was also intended to make it accessible and appealing to new competitors, hopefully without losing the aforementioned established and discerning hunters.


Despite having a fairly firm idea on how we wanted the hunt to look and work, we did not have any idea what it should be about. The inspiration came courtesy of a Radio 4 documentary about a rare coin issue heard when late for work. The Royal Mint, and more broadly Wales were in.

Unfortunately, it was not until much later, when we were committed to it, that we realized that the Royal Mint is not actually that interesting in terms of providing us with fascinating facts for the ATH. The many coin references were an attempt to address this deficiency.

Treasure Site(s)

In the planning stage, we were fairly settled on a little duplicity by introducing a place (Llantrisant, or more generally Wales) as a theme and making no early references to anywhere else. The earliest chance for this was the poster where we decided on the phrase 'southern Britain.' As no-one knew anything about me or my team other than that we are new and in Wales, we knew that this could prompt a few mutters of exasperation and 'surely they wouldn't put it in Wales' and 'don't they realise the rules about where it should be?' but knew it would add to the duplicity.

The poster of a polo (mint) was intended to do a number of things. It was intended to contain a clue (i.e. the mint) as to what was to follow whilst possibly pointing to a lot of other things, as countless pre-hunt theories will attest. Coupled with southern Britain though, we wanted to encourage the nagging annoyance that we would have the audacity to bury it more than a hundred odd miles west of convention.

In order to do this, we tried to keep end point codes away from the start of the hunt and make people work first in order to get them. This proved surprisingly straightforward, aided no doubt by our treasure site having no link to any of the hunt's themes.

For the record, we never seriously considered burying the treasure in Wales, although we did toy with the idea of having two treasure sites (one in Llantrisant) with a common set of directions, but different starting points. This was scuppered because of delays in identifying a suitable English treasure site.


Our other early ideas centred largely on the move away from the all encompassing PDF and attempting to hide things in plain view. This, coupled with the small fortune we would have to pay on domains and hosting, led us to use publicly available sites where we could exist in the real world yet still be part of the hunt. This option, however, is not without its dangers, the first of which was longevity. Planning a hunt a year and a half in advance meant we had to second guess which sites would last and potentially have content which may not fit if a site were to undergo anything more than minor changes.

Much as we are in no way fans, Facebook seemed an obvious choice. A simple way to store and host all manner of things combined with no data protection morals which could stand in the way of the public being able to view the content. We decided to not populate the information too early just in case we were inundated with all sorts of requests which would prove difficult or unwieldy to undo. As such, we waited until the 10th hour to populate the pages. Against all the odds, at the 11th hour, Facebook developed some morals, or were threatened with a sufficiently large lawsuit, meaning that our publicly available pages now required you to be logged in to be able to view them. This was 24 hours before the hunt was due to go live.

This was very annoying as we hadn't wanted people to have to sign up to anything (least of all Facebook). We reasoned that there probably wouldn't be many teams without a member with an account and that it would be too much work to put the contents of those pages somewhere else, especially with the ridiculous time pressure. Just to outdo themselves, Zuckerberg's minions then made an unannounced change at half past the 11th hour (four hours before hunt go live) which meant that the photo albums became hidden from view, regardless of what settings we chose. This is why they ended up in the news feed.

Flickr, too, tried their best to ruin things for us at the last minute. Two days before publication, Ben's favourite images from Faye's album dropped into the ether and some hasty reworking of permissions became necessary. During the hunt, the order of Ben's favourite pictures got reversed. Prinicipia Numismatica was also affected by this, as the initial to-do list had a different name that by launch time was one of two pages worth of sites that came back from the Wordpress search. The name became more unique and the blog gained a Logica 'L' to attempt to protect it for the five weeks of the hunt.

All of the public sites that we chose are free to use, but make their money through advertising (and selling your details to anyone with a few quid free, but I digress). This gave us a handy potential benefit in that anyone getting to one of our sites would have a computer full of related searches which meant that our pages of related content would be filled with on topic adverts to confuse someone looking for specific clues.

As this was the 25th Hunt, we wanted to do a "where's Wally" style sideline to find 25 'hunts' (which we managed) and 25 references to the previous hunts (which proved too time consuming.) We also added 20 mints to ensure that the perceived theme did not slip towards coins, which would affect one of our cipher keywords. Without a 25th ATH reference and the past hunt references, these sadly became unnecessary filler (see mistakes/lessons learnt) and confused the main themes.

What Can We Take Away From Our Experience As Setters?

There was too much filler. This was in part a deliberate choice that we'd made, an attempt to provide themed posts and pictures, mostly coin related, to add depth to our hunt but which did not contribute to the overall puzzle. However it also led to an awful lot of hours being wasted by a number of teams and prevented some progression through the hunt. We had aimed to stall and confuse but ended up doing a lot more.

A sanity check is a necessity. As previously mentioned, our choice of hosting sites and content had led us to decide to populate them quite late on and this left little time for checking, particularly given the changes made by those sites, which filled the nervous last day before publication. We also lacked another person familiar with, and interested in, the ATH who could perform a walkthrough and point out any errors. That said, if we had someone who fitted the bill, they'd be part of the team and maybe we wouldn't be quite so bad every year.

There were two main errors from this. Firstly the failure to coordinate the dating of blog entries and comments which killed the back story and secondly the late realisation that the Braille message to mail Ben would be redundant if we put his site or email address somewhere visible as any seasoned hunter would fire off an e-mail regardless. This led to some VERY late file management and frantic PhotoShopping by one of the setters.

I think we can put both of these things down to inexperience and be content that they didn't ruin the hunt.

As first time setters, there are a number of difficulties faced. Planning what to do, when, is hard, but was helped by Pablo's Guide. The hardest thing we found was gauging difficulty. Every question and every puzzle looks too easy from within and every keyword looks like it has flashing lights on. Being able to take a non informed look at your hunt or having someone independent look it over is invaluable. One thing we did well was to gather a wealth of facts on our welsh theme which meant that we had plenty to choose from and could afford to drop some from the hunt without worry.

The key to our hunt coming together would have to be the day we finished creating the structure. Having a picture that showed where everything was and the relationships and flows between the different sections pretty much opened the floodgates in terms of the hunt production. It seems an obvious statement, but the basic flows we had in place from fairly early on described most of it, but had unresolved gaps which meant that we could never quite finish any section as we didn't know exactly what the output had to be.

Did We Do Anything Well?

Obviously many people will disagree with us, but overall we were very happy with what we managed to produce. We think that the completely different look and feel of our hunt represented the innovation that we wanted to introduce, as our favourite hunts so far have been those that have had something a little different. With technology advancing we think that there are ever more opportunities for setters and we wanted to take advantage of them.

Overall, despite the work involved, it was an enjoyable experience and we would definitely be keen to do it again in the future. Whether we will ever be invited again remains to be seen...

And Finally...

Thanks to the teams who allowed us to monitor their progress. It is extremely helpful to be able to see how people are progressing and fills a rather addictive gap that would normally be filled by competing. And thank you for realising we were watching and not slating us too heavily.