First, what is a puzzle hunt?
A “puzzle hunt” is a type of game in which a team (or multiple teams, usually competing against one another) solves a series of puzzles. It can take place across multiple locations, be site-specific to one location (i.e. meaningfully integrating the area into the play structure as opposed to simply taking place there) or be played remotely via the internet. The term “puzzle hunt” is quite broad and can encompass many different styles of games and events. Let’s look at a few examples across the spectrum:
Facilitated in person or play-on-demand, short duration, low-medium level of difficulty: Puzzled Pint is a monthly gathering that takes place simultaneously in many cities. Players typically get together at a bar and solve about five puzzles in small teams. These are typically "paper-and-pencil" puzzles with a unifying theme, making this "hunt" somewhat comparable to games in the tabletop escape room genre, only these are pure puzzles containing no story or immersive elements. Puzzled Pint is free and non-competitive, so if you're not in it for the social aspect you can even print out the puzzles and solve them at home. Puzzled Pint is a good introduction to “puzzle hunt style” puzzles—not necessarily easy for a beginner, but generally still solvable after a beer or two.
Facilitated in person (but can be downloaded for later play), medium duration, medium level of difficulty: DASH (“Different Area, Same Hunt”) is an annual event that takes place in multiple cities. Similarly to Puzzled Pint, this event can be organized locally and the puzzles remain the same across locations, meaning there are no site-specific elements, despite it taking place outside. DASH is typically a full-day event (6-8 hours) and players compete in teams of 3-5 using the ClueKeeper app. The difficulty level of the puzzles is not far off from Puzzled Pint, but the entire event is about three times as long, and may require walking up to four miles.
Facilitated in person and online, long duration, very high level of difficulty. The MIT Mystery Hunt is a massive annual event that usually takes place on the MIT campus (though 2021’s hunt was entirely online due to COVID-19 restrictions, and that seems to be the case for 2022 as well) but contains many online elements, lending itself to large numbers of remote solvers. Teams can grow up to as many as a hundred people, competing to solve many dozens of puzzles over an entire weekend. Puzzles tend to be of a high difficulty level and contain multiple layers, with some even requiring specialized knowledge. The winning team gets massive bragging rights, along with the enormous task of creating the following year’s hunt. (Similar to Puzzled Pint and DASH, puzzles from previous hunts are archived and can be accessed online after the event.)
Facilitated, site-specific, medium duration, medium level of difficulty: The Great Gotham Challenge is a site-specific event that takes place in New York City. This puzzle hunt is played by teams of 4 over approximately 4 hours, and often mixes elements of immersive theater into the experience. The winners typically take home a prize, and the variety of tasks and encounters involved (often with actors and physical objects) makes it feel more like a competitive outdoor escape room than a paper-and-pencil puzzle hunt. The difficulty level is significantly higher than that of an escape room, but closer to DASH than the MIT Mystery Hunt.
Facilitated, site-specific, short time frame, low level of difficulty: Mystery City is a company based in Amsterdam that makes “city games,” otherwise described as outdoor site-specific puzzle hunts, often with a historical theme. More like an outdoor escape room, these games last about two hours and are available for small teams to book and play on a set schedule, rather than organized as large events. Players are handed a bag of items to use along their journey and hints are facilitated by a live game master. Unlike most puzzle hunts, these tourist-friendly city adventures don’t require outside knowledge to solve, and instead rely on integrating elements of the environment into the puzzles.
Play-on-demand, site specific, short time frame, low level of difficulty: 2nd Sight is a site-specific play-on-demand game that I designed in collaboration with Crux Club. This narrative-driven experience combines elements of the environment with augmented reality to tell a made-up story using real local landmarks. It takes about two hours for a person or small group to solve and requires nothing except an app on your phone and the streets of New York City.
Play-on-demand, online only, long time frame, low level of difficulty: Colby’s Curious Cookoff is a play-on-demand online-only puzzle hunt that can be played solo or in collaboration with others (on separate devices). The puzzles are a lower-to-medium level of difficulty, making it fairly accessible for newer players, even if it is not something you can play in one night. There are many hours of content in this hunt, but it is easy to split up over multiple days since there is no time limit and the puzzles are self-contained. (Side note: this game is super fun and you should play it!)
Having outlined some context for how broadly the term “puzzle hunt” can be used, I’ll add that the most commonly used definition among the puzzle community lies somewhere closer to the MIT Mystery Hunt corner of the genre—games notorious for being too difficult for most people. And when I say “most people” in this instance, I don’t mean people who’ve never done a puzzle—these hunts are often too obtuse even for those with plenty of experience in escape rooms and tabletop puzzle games, because they’re designed to be solved by those already familiar with the puzzle hunt format. While it is understandable for enthusiasts to be the core audience, there is frequently a unique vocabulary of expected knowledge and techniques involved that can come across as exclusionary to newcomers. Puzzle hunts can also sometimes be quite lengthy, lasting from many hours to many days, and containing dozens of puzzles—a big commitment for a person not already devoted to the hobby.
For casual players that are used to escape rooms and tabletop games but are interested in exploring the world of puzzle hunts, it seems a shame to have so many barriers to entry, but I have played several location-based outdoor puzzle hunts in recent years that have made a bigger effort to be accessible to non-expert puzzle hunters. Puzzle hunts can be frustrating, but they can also be really fun, and just like with escape rooms and tabletop games, the difference lies entirely in philosophy and execution. There is no reason why a puzzle hunt can’t be enjoyed by both beginners and experienced players if that is the intention of the designer.
The first question to ask yourself when designing anything is “why am I doing this?” Consider what your primary directive is with the project. If the answer is “to facilitate player fun,” then make sure your design reflects that, and create puzzles that feel like fun and not like work. If your answer is “to give people a challenge,” remind yourself that “challenging” and “fun” are not mutually exclusive, and aim to design a game that is both, with a difficulty level and player accommodations that are appropriate for the core audience.
A lot of design decisions will be determined by the type of game you’re trying to make. Here are some questions needs to be addressed before you start:
Is the hunt casual or competitive?
Is it a paid event or is it free to play?
Will multiple teams be playing at once or will they be staggered across different times?
How big will the teams be?
How much time should it take the average team to complete?
Is it played online/remotely or in person? If in person, is it site-specific?
Will it be facilitated by live humans or accessed via an app/website to be played on-demand?
What sort of help will be available to players who get stuck?
Will there be any incentive to avoid taking hints, such as time/score penalties? (Not recommended for non-competitive hunts.)
Last but not least, who is your target audience? Are they experienced puzzle solvers? A corporate team-building group? Or a couple of tourists looking for a unique way to spend an afternoon and learn about the city they’re visiting?
Regardless of who your audience is, make sure they know what they’re getting into. Without spoiling anything, players need to have at least a general idea of what to expect, such as:
What are the rules?
Are external resources allowed, or even necessary for solving the puzzles?
Is it necessary to bring anything or will supplies be provided?
How long will the experience take?
How much ground should players expect to cover? (2 miles? An entire city?)
Will it involve interacting with actors? (Please don’t snatch unsuspecting people off the street for the sake of surprise.)
With all this in mind, what are some best practices for making an outdoor puzzle hunt a smooth and enjoyable experience for a broader audience? The following thoughts are based on observations from designing and playtesting 2nd Sight, as well as my own experiences as a player.
Use your environment
If you’re creating a site-specific hunt, take advantage of the location and make the scenery part of the game. Find interesting structures or places of historical significance and link them into the puzzles, or ideally, try to shape the story around them. This will always be more interesting than handing players a puzzle they could do at home on their computer. Just be sure to avoid any elements that could be temporary (for example, the decorative carvings on a stone building are more likely to still be there in a few months than a poster in a store window.)
Apply some structure
Some puzzle hunts are literally just a collection of puzzles to be solved one after another (or simultaneously) without any through-line or narrative. This is fine, but an overarching premise or story is more likely to engage a broad audience. This could be as simple as having an end goal besides just “solve all the puzzles,” or as complicated as a multi-layer mystery with actor interactions. No matter your budget, a well-introduced kickoff can get players excited and motivated to accomplish their goal. It can also be helpful to present a short-term goal (solve the next puzzle/reach the next location) and a long-term goal (find a hidden treasure/reach the final location.)
If you do include story elements, don’t forget to present players with a satisfying conclusion once they reach the finish line. Ideally, they should experience not just the personal triumph of having completed all the puzzles, but also witness what effect their actions had on the outcome of the scenario. In 2nd Sight, for example, (SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD) the initial goal is to help a dead poet’s spirit find out what happened to his lost love. As you solve puzzles and progress through the game, you are granted more insight into the characters’ pasts. Eventually, all the events are revealed, and the game concludes with the reunification of the two dead lovers’ spirits.
Keep people moving
This is the most important lesson I have learned, and there are many ways to facilitate this:
When it comes to puzzle design, avoid long extractions and finicky processes that can slow down a team for the wrong reasons. If a team figures out the next step of the puzzle, they should be able to execute the actions necessary to continue in a short amount of time. (For example, decoding an entire page of text is not a fun way to spend 30 minutes once you’ve already put in the legwork of figuring out the code.)
Remember that solving on-the-go feels very different from solving at a desk, so try to keep the tasks as friendly as possible for the context. Also, (and this should go without saying, but) try to avoid logic leaps, and be sure to signpost your puzzles properly. Playtest, playtest, playtest!
If multiple teams are playing at once, do your best to avoid bottlenecks. Staggering start times can help with this, but more importantly, try not to design stations that only allow a small number of teams to participate at once. That way, if one team slows down, they don’t slow everyone down.
Avoid rabbit holes and make sure players know where they’re going before they head there. Either have players input an answer to confirm the next location, or provide a very clear clue as to the next step.
Try to keep walks between stations fairly short (or easily accessible by public transport for a large-scale hunt) and aim to create a route without too much backtracking. For example, if you have two stations uptown and two stations downtown, don’t alternate between uptown and downtown. Organize the route so that it feels efficient and players don’t waste time and energy running back and forth. Make them feel like they’re always moving forward, even if they’re really going in a circle.
Help prevent player burnout. If the event is longer than 4 hours, consider including a station that offers food, water, a restroom, and a place to sit down. Although adding a rest stop may seem counter to the idea of “keeping people moving,” dehydration and fatigue can definitely kill momentum, and players will be thankful that you considered their needs. This station can still include puzzles as part of the hunt, but should be designed to keep players there for a longer chunk of time so they have the opportunity to recharge.
Don’t make the game longer than it needs to be—there is nothing wrong with short and sweet. (Is it more fun to watch a movie that is brief but exciting or one that drags on beyond its welcome?) In the end, you’ll want people to cross the finish line and rave to their friends about how much fun they had, not whine about how ready they are to go home.
Provide a hint system—there is nothing worse than getting stuck and not being able to move forward at all. The hints can be administered by a live game master if it is a facilitated event, or take the form of canned hints in the app or website you are using to host a play-on-demand game. Either way, just make sure the hints are useful and keep people moving forward. (For more on hint systems, watch my talk with Summer Herrick from RECON 2021.)
Play other puzzle hunts! As with any kind of game design, first-hand experience can be the best tool for learning what works and what doesn’t. This Puzzle Hunt Calendar is a great resource for finding hunts you probably have never heard of.
Have you created or played an outdoor puzzle hunt? What design lessons did you take away from it?