Pablo's Armchair Treasure Hunt

ATH Design Tips

Below are collected a few suggestions, tips and pieces of sage advice that will hopefully evolve over time (with the benefit of each successive setter's experiences) into a comprehensive encyclopedia of Armchair setting wisdom. Where as the other pages in this section concentrate on practical elements of Hunt setting (Hunt Production Tools, Publicity, Marking Entries, Website Maintenance), the tips below are targeted at the process of actual Armchair Treasure Hunt design.

1. Collecting Ideas

  • Its never too early to start! As soon as you have some inexplicable urges in the ATH Setting department, even before you get the green light to set from the ATH Elders, start making notes, jotting down thoughts and suggestions, and start sketching out how it might all fit together. Experience suggests it will take you somewhere between six months and a year of reasonably concerted spare time effort to put the Hunt together, so the sooner you start, the less intense it will all be.
  • Keep a Notebook Close to Hand. Quite an old-fashioned technique, but you never know when that light bulb will flash, or when some mundane daily activity will suddenly inspire a great idea. Make sure you don't forget it, even if you later discard it for whatever reason!
  • Copyright. The web will most likely be your primary source for ideas but books, magazines, newspapers, etc. all have their place. In all cases give due consideration to copyright issues.

2. Solvability

  • How Would Somebody Solve Your ATH? One of the most difficult aspects of ATH setting is judging the appropriate level of difficulty. The ATH is not supposed to be easy, you know there are some high calibre teams out there with many millennia of combined ATH experience between them, and you don't want teams to complete your Hunt within hours of it being published. At the same time, there will be first-time Hunters, and you don't want to deter them with an unsolvable Hunt. Its difficult sometimes to assess the difficulty level when you are so involved. Try and step back, and ask yourself: "How would somebody go about solving that?" Apply the same question to the Hunt as a whole to make sure the constituent parts can lead Hunters to the treasure.
  • Trial Your Hunt If Possible. In reality, you are probably unlikely to find anyone suitably qualified who is prepared to forego entering the real Hunt in order to selflessly trial your ATH in advance. But if you can find some such person, then such a guinea pig is invaluable, and can be used to validate the basic concepts and level of difficulty. Remember that if someone is going to trial the Hunt, you will need to have it ready a little earlier, and also allow time afterwards to make changes if necessary. Even if you can't find a Hunt triallist, you can still test individual questions, puzzles or even treasure directions on unsuspecting family members or friends to ascertain do-ability.
  • Be Ruthless! Another hard piece of advice to follow, but don't be afraid to jettison some part of your Hunt if it is not working, or becomes redundant. Just because you have invested considerable time and effort in developing a great looking puzzle, that isn't sufficient reason in itself for its continued inclusion if it is no longer relevant or useful. In particular, pay heed to any feedback you get from any trialists you are able to recruit. Don't think you know better than your users!
  • Googlability In this age of internet search engines, beware a Hunt that can be solved quickly by the simple but dull expedient of entering key words into Google. It is quite hard to circumvent, but you can at least verify whether questions, puzzles or other vital clues are easily Googlable by entering the key words yourself to see what comes back. Try and set questions or clues such that a little lateral thought is required before the Hunter is able to resort to Google. Try and include puzzles that require mental thought rather than just straight information look-up. Beware that even images are becoming increasingly Googlable. Its hard to avoid, but being aware of the problem and testing for it will help greatly. Apart from anything else, most Hunters do not want to spend a month slaving over Google.

3. Giving the Game Away

  • Avoid Meaningful Filenames. Its basic stuff, but don't give the constituent files making up your Hunt names that will give clues to Hunters. An obvious example is the names you give image files in a web-based Hunt: if you include a picture of Westminster Abbey that Hunters need to identify as a clue, don't call the image westminster_abbey.jpg. In times of yore, rumours abounded that some particularly devious Hunters could examine the internals of a PDF file to derive the names of constituent image files. To be on the safe side, call all your files something like y4yad6gsft.jpg . Red herrings are, of course, another matter...
  • Website Clangers. A web-based hunt brings its own threat of setter gaffes. For example, don't inadvertently leave any pointers in your HTML source, such as comments that say things like <!--Put Westminster Abbey image here--> Most net-savvy hunters will be looking at your source code. Make sure that Hunters cannot see the website directory listings: if your hunt is dependent on Hunters deriving a password, for example, to get to subsequent stages or pages, then being able to see a directory listing of all the hunt HTML files undoes all your careful puzzle setting. In a similar vein, if your HTML files form part of a clued but logical sequence, don't give them guessable names. A couple of sharp Hunters stumbled across the second stage of Pablo's 2007 Tarot Hunt simply (but shrewdly) by entering HTML file names such as StarEntry.html into their browser address bar. Never underestimate the intelligence, nor the deviousness, of the Hunters, and remember that almost all approaches to getting to the treasure are legitimate! Try and think of what you would try in similar circumstances in order to avoid giving teams any unintentional short-cuts to the answer.

4. Test the Hunt

  • Trialing. See notes under Solvability above.
  • Codes. Particular attention should be paid to testing any codes that are included in your Hunt, as these are usually fiddly and ripe for errors. Use Pablo's (De)Coding Tools to double-check your encryptions.
  • Website Testing Never shirk the tedious but essential basic testing of the website in a web-based Hunt. Always verify that all links go successfully to their intended destination. Make sure that all images correctly display. Do this validation both locally and once your Hunt has been uploaded to the web server, since sometimes differences can occur between the two e.g. links that don't correctly include upper or lower case letters in folder or file names might not cause a problem locally, but may do on the target web server if there is a different operating system. Note that some of the more powerful Website Production tools can often save you much of the laborious manual testing effort by automating checks. Even without such tools, the W3C HTML Validator and CSS Validator can be used to help spot some basic errors
  • Browser Compatibility Browser compatibility testing is also vital, unless you are falling back on the rather lame caveat of demanding Hunters use a particular browser. Test your site in the latest version of Internet Explorer on a Windows PC/laptop, the latest version of Safari on a Mac, and the latest version of FireFox on both a Windows PC and a Mac. If layout is crucial to any element of your web-based Hunt, make sure the relevant pages lay out consistently in all these browsers. Likewise test any JavaScript functions in different browsers, especially if they make use of the Document Object Model (DOM) or other non-basic features.

5. Hunt Content

  • Questions, Questions !? If you are going to include questions, choose questions that are of some interest as well as being intrinsic to your Hunt. See Pablo's Setting Guide for some sound advice on how to pitch questions. Pablo liked to include questions targeted at different generations in effort to make the Armchair Treasure Hunt a more inclusive family pastime over Christmas.
  • Logica Question: In the past it has been a tradition for one question to be Logica-related. With the demise of Logica this tradition may not continue but nostalgic setters may well refer to the history of the Hunt.

6. Burial Site

  • Treasure Site Suitability. Make sure you choose a suitable treasure burial site location. It should not be in too busy a location such that the treasure might be discovered or disturbed accidentally (by humans or animals), or that the setter or hunters will raise undue curiousity in their Hunt activities, which might be interpreted suspiciously by the casual onlooker! Neither should the site be too inaccessible or dangerous. Do not bury treasure on private land, National Trust property, or similar. Nor anywhere requiring an entrance fee to be paid - you might end up getting expense claims from tight-fisted teams!
  • Treasure Site Testing. What looks like the perfect Treasure burial site in August, may have become inaccessible or highly dangerous in the rain or snow by December. Try and visit the burial site during inclement weather, e.g. during the preceding winter. You could check in November or early December just prior to launch, but that's a bit late to change locations if problems are found! Also check that vital landmarks intrinsic to your directions have not been removed, vandalised or re-orientated in any way. Ditto the treasure site itself!
  • Treasure Box. The minimum requirement is simply a tupperware lunch-box containing a book of cloak-room tickets that enable visitors to take the next lowest ticket number. In some recent Hunts, the tickets have become works of art in themselves, but this is far from being a requirement. The most important criteria in relation to most burial sites is that the Treasure Box be water-tight. In some previous cases of special treasure boxes, or unusual burial sites, a water-tight bag has been used to protect the box.
  • Treasure Ticket Instructions. The treasure box should also contain some basic instructions, both to Hunters, and to anyone who might stumble across the treasure inadvertently. A polite request to the latter to replace the box as they have found it should suffice. For the former, include instructions to take the next lowest ticket number, replace the box as they have found it, and instructions on how to notify the setter of their find.
  • The Logica 'L':Original Logica Logo Final Logica Logo Don't forget to surreptitiously mark the burial site with the traditional Logica 'L' if at all possible. This is intended to confirm to Hunters once they are in the right place. If a team has successfully solved all your clues to reach the exact burial site, you not should try to mislead them further. Remember that many teams will travel quite substantial distances to visit the treasure site. Although, the Hunt is now rebranded as the Pablo's Armchair Treasure Hunt, it is suggested that the familiar old 'L' (original or final form) is retained as a familiar and traditional treasure site marker. Please ensure the instructions explain the use of the 'L' for new entrants.

7. Go-Live

  • Start and End Date. The Setter is at liberty to select their own ATH publication and closing dates, within certain limits of course. The Hunt should take place over Christmas, and last for no more than five weeks. Traditionally the Hunt starts 1-2 weeks before Christmas, sometimes being published on a Friday to give teams a first weekend to get their teeth into it. Make a note of when Christmas Day falls: you probably want to give teams at least a week and a half to make progress before turkey, stockings, and relatives provide distractions. In times of yore, the ATH used to be published at midnight, which was quite exciting. You might consider setting the closing deadline to be a Monday, to give teams one last weekend to visit the treasure site. A careful choice of start and end date should give teams a calendar month of Hunting that includes five weekends. Also be clear about closing dates and times, especially which day midnight refers to, if that is the deadline.
  • Team Watching. Try and encourage at least one team to let you watch their progress silently. There is nothing worse than publishing the Hunt and then having absolutely no idea whether anybody is even looking at it, let alone how teams are progressing. This will also help you to spot any minor errors as teams stumble around blindly. Obviously you need to resist the temptation to shout at said team: " LOOK! IT'S RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOUR EYES, HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT?!"