Pablo's Armchair Treasure Hunt

Pablo's guide to hunting for beginners

Where do I start?

Firstly, it must be said that an Armchair Treasure Hunt is not designed to be easy. If you don't like crosswords, quizzes or puzzles then the event may not be for you. But if you enjoy a mental challenge then don't be put off: you will just love the Armchair Treasure Hunt!

This Guide is designed to help new Hunters make a start on a typical puzzle. More practical information can be found in the FAQ. You may also glean much useful knowledge by studying the previous hunts - all the puzzles and answers can be found in the History section of this site.

A typical Hunt consists of around 10-12 pages, each having a number of questions, pictures, puzzles, or other clues. However, this is not the only format - some setters have deliberately set out to break the standard structure, with varying degrees of success. For examples, see the 1997 and 2002 Hunts. Some Hunts have been web-based, and this allows for more flexibility in structure - in particular, see the 2005 and 2007 Hunts set by Pablo. Whatever the format, the setter(s) will provide some questions, pictures and/or puzzles that offer a starting point.

Of the questions, you might find you can answer one or two just from your own knowledge. A few more will yield fairly easily to Internet search engines. You are on your way. However, the setters are no fools. They have deliberately set out to draw you into a web. The remainder is going to need a little more effort.


All the Hunts have at least one theme. Sometimes there is an obvious theme shown in the choice of artwork, and continued in other ways. For example, the 2004 Hunt featured playing cards in various combinations on every page, some forming simple codes. As teams delved deeper, they realised that the solution depended on the order of play of a particular bridge hand.

But there may be other themes - often not quite so obvious. Again, in the 2004 Hunt, several references to Rupert Brooke and Lord Byron emerged - significantly, because the treasure was hidden at a spot called Byron's Pool, near Brooke's former home in Grantchester.

Spotting the themes - whether obvious or hidden - is the key to solving a Hunt. Previously mysterious pictures can be aligned to one of the themes, and a more general vision of the way the Hunt has been constructed emerges. You are looking for that "aha!" moment, when everything becomes clear, and you are starting to get into the mind of the setter.

Themes can cover a wide range - a sample from previous Hunts includes astrology, chess, Sherlock Holmes, the London Underground, The Archers, Mary Queen of Scots, Cranford, Food, Time, Snakes and Ladders, The Fibonacci series, George Orwell and many more.

Finding the treasure

The general area in which the box is hidden can often be determined relatively swiftly by solving just part of the puzzle. For example, in the 2000 Hunt, a slightly blurred map of the borough of Hillingdon was included, so it was easy to spot that you had to focus on that part of London. However, the detailed instructions for locating the box, "turn left at old oak tree, 40 paces, dig under fallen log" and so on, are usually better hidden - for example, you may need to use the initial letters of the answers, or decipher a code.

Other tips

Cryptography is often used. Past setters have used simple substitution codes, Morse Code, and Caesar, Vigenère and Playfair ciphers as well as home-grown techniques. Some codes are fairly easy to spot, but may require a keyword to be derived from somewhere else in the puzzle. There are many sources of information about cryptography on the Internet, including hints on how to identify particular types of code. Excel spreadsheets that will encode and decode some popular ciphers can be found here.

Look out for red herrings! The setter will often include some puzzles that are of no help in finding the treasure, but when solved reveal a festive greeting. Sometimes there is a completely false trail to a site where no treasure can be found. On the other hand, what appears to be a red herring might be a double-bluff - in one hunt "Merry Christmas" was spelt out in several different languages, but the initial letters of these languages spelled part of the instructions for finding the treasure!

Persevere. The setter has designed the Hunt to be solved within a month, not to be completely impossible. If you get stuck, then try approaching it in another way, put some different words into the search engine, ask your friends and family for ideas, or give it a break for a day or two to see if your subconscious can get to work.

It is worth the trouble. There is nothing quite so exciting as driving to an obscure spot, getting out the trowel, uncovering the hidden box and finding that you are the first to do so. But the Hunt is just as much about the voyage as the destination. Along the way, you will have researched all kinds of obscure topics, discovered plenty of new facts, and set your brain to work on something other than your job for once. Even if you don't find the box, you will find out something about yourself.