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01 January 2008 @ 06:14 pm
A book? With secrets? How fun!  
Before I start the new year, I should write-up an account of a puzzle event that closed out the last year: The National Treasure: Book of Secrets Clue Hunt.

Three separate qualifying puzzle hunts were held in SF, LA, and DC to determine six teams of four (two from each city) to travel to NYC for a trip to the movie premiere, and a chance to do another hunt in the city for a wealth of Orbitz travel dollars and tax liabilities. Towards the end of November, I got an email from Nick Baxter about the hunt (he'd heard about it on the BANG list) and suddenly the two of us and onigame were trying to qualify for spots. Individuals would qualify their teams for the competition by demonstrating savvy in trivia, geography, and of all things, sudoku. Needless to say, we were an overpowering bunch to get some qualification spots and it turned out we all qualified, allowing us to form multiple teams. Wei-Hwa would compete with some other BURNiNATORS. Nick and I would team together; I brought in my best friend from college and Nick found a former Urban Challenge winner who would round out our group. Three of us had marathon experience and with both puzzle experience and travel speed, we thought we had a great shot at NYC.

We had no idea what to expect from this one-off event. I believed it would be either spectacularly fun or spectacularly bad and thankfully it was the former. The hunt started in Union Square on a rainy SF day. Over the course of about 4 hours, we would run around a lot of SF to famous sites like Lombard St, Ghiradelli Square, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Building, AT&T Park, and Golden Gate Park, solving a variety of (easy) puzzles that would in one way or another direct us to our next location. We had to use a metal detector to uncover a clue buried in a playground. We had to use a GPS navigator to go to an appropriate unknown location. A clue was hidden at one location (a coffeeshop) within their scrolling news monitors and at another location on top of a movie billboard for said Nicolas Cage film. Towards the end of the day, we even got our own Mercedes Benz + driver to direct around the city to more distant points (such as the aforementioned GG park) for the final clues. We were definitely overpowering all of the puzzles, but unlike some of the other teams, we were also fast enough on foot (over three major SF hills which split the field or encouraged people to wait for public transport) to build a good lead in the morning. Some unfortunate luck in public transport times would let the closest team behind us catch up when we had to do a long run on foot instead of waiting 16 minutes for the next train, and then pass us when we made a clue error near the end, but we finished fast enough to earn a trip to NYC to compete in the finals.

I had been excited to finally visit the city, and my brother's birthday was over the time we'd be there, so I figured it would be a fun trip. My coworkers and family seemed to be most excited by the idea of my getting to see the film's red carpet premiere and attending the after-party at the Museum of Natural History. The premiere was fine, with free popcorn and soda, and no previews before the movie which took small steps to build on the existing characters from National Treasure, but was the kind of sequel I expected considering the first film. The after-party was also enjoyable as we got to see the film's stars. I have a personal attitude, following the Charles Bridge incident last March, of not "using" people as objects because of their apparent celebrity. So, you won't find a picture of me with the stars, but my friend got the shots he wanted with both Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger. I did find myself taking a picture for Jon Voight and a fan, but that's different.

Between SF and NYC, we had lost our Urban Challenge teammate and picked up another ringer from the US Puzzle Team, Roger Barkan. We'd gameplanned our metro travel in the city the day before, and were ready to go on the morning the final puzzle hunt would be run. A huge surprise awaited us at the starting line. Some of the sponsors of the Hunt (not including Disney) were Mercedes Benz (ok, that got worked in already), Orbitz (they did the prizes), South Dakota Travel (we had to find something on their website), .... An odd partner was the NHL. We'd not done anything close to hockey-related during the SF hunt, so we figured maybe there would be something at MSG. We had no idea to expect that the Stanley Cup would be awaiting us at the starting line, with Commissioner Bettman and the white-gloved Cup handler as well. I have no qualms with using objects as objects, so I got my photo with the Cup which some day will have a Sabres team on it.

Then, the hunt was on. It started with skating onto the ice to find some clue symbols on the underside of hockey pucks that had been arranged like a pyramid on the ice rink, and quickly took us down to Wall St, to the end of Manhattan overlooking the Statue of Liberty, to City Hall Park, to Times Square (where a clue was obviously going to be hidden on the monitors outside the ABC headquarters), up to Central Park and to the Museum of Natural History and the Met, and then back to Madame Tussaud's. The puzzles were harder, which played to our strengths, and Roger and I basically front and back-solved messages as fast as we could to find a location, with the rest of the puzzles being solved during transit when possible. A lot of the puzzles involved identifying words in the first part and then transferring letters from those words into a message as a second part. By getting a good start on the identifications and then playing a smart man's wheel of fortune game on the back end, we made great progress. We'd actually fallen behind near the start of the hunt due to some poor metro choices and failing to grasp one clue's answer, but spent the rest of the day catching up and passing all other teams. We identified Jelly Belly flavors, we assembled another jigsaw puzzle, we arranged a set of marked cards that bore a message on their outer edges, we found a clue hidden in a statue of liberty and another clue hidden inside a New York Times (well, we were supposed to at least. Our first copy was missing the clue!). We ended up taking a rickshaw across Central Park to find a needle in a haystack, or more appropriately, Cleopatra's Needle in the back of the Met. There, we read out a message by overlaying some cut-out sheets over the obelisk's inscriptions to find our final destination. High on adrenaline and forgetting our sore muscles, we ran back to the metro and to the finish line at that wax museum for another photo op with Nicolas Cage (this time in wax-object form) and won!

Overall, it was quite a fun set of puzzle hunts, particularly as the close competition of many teams gave it a real Amazing Race feel as you'd get to a destination first, but watch other teams catch up before you could leave. As onigame commented before, the early hunt [and parts of the second hunt] had fairly easy puzzles and so efficient travel routes and foot-speed were more important. However, by the end of the second hunt, puzzle prowess was key as well. Our super-team won by over a half hour. The hunt organizers are planning future events around forthcoming Disney films, and I hope - if they receive a little more advanced notice and advertising - that they become popular challenges. As the first puzzle event I invited my college friend to in the Bay Area, it was a great experience for him and has truly whetted his appetite. Indeed, aside from Ditch Day at Caltech, this was the most involved in puzzles he has been in awhile.

The experience makes me strongly want to start my own Bay Area team with some of my smart, but not yet truly puzzled friends, instead of just joining up with the powerhouses I already know out here. Who knows if this will happen, but I have some time before the next expected Bay Area event and until then, I have a team in the Evil Midnight Bombers (What Bomb At Midnight!) to support in Cambridge in a couple weeks. I hope (and simultaneously fear) my winning streak continues.
thedan on January 2nd, 2008 03:45 am (UTC)
Seconded on the advance notice and advertising. I didn't know any of this existed until Wei-Hwa mentioned it a while back.
THrpipuzzleguy on January 2nd, 2008 04:07 am (UTC)
I didn't know it existed until now.

If all goes well, I'll be moving to the Bay Area soon. Will keep you posted.
Ellenennienyc on January 2nd, 2008 05:16 am (UTC)
Wow, sounds like fun. Never heard of it until now. The organizers should get some NPLers to work for them.

What is this "metro" you speak of? (assume you mean the subway)
Georgi Benevbenevg on January 2nd, 2008 07:39 am (UTC)
happy new year!

those puzzle hunt things seem like fun. i should try one, but there really aren't any around here. maybe i should figure out how to make one instead. as a somewhat random aside, Ronald (of the u.k. puzzle team in Bulgaria) now has his own company that does that in London.

here is a question: if you could see the other teams come and go, couldn't someone just follow you around, perhaps doing the puzzles on the transportation as you said, to finish at least a close second? or is this sort of cheating somehow prevented?
ivoryvampire on January 2nd, 2008 01:52 pm (UTC)
Wow! Sounds like SO much fun!
I went to a similar hunt in London in Feb 2006 and it was fantastic!

--> http://perplexcitywiki.com/wiki/London_PCAG_event

I wish there were more events like these! :D
nickbaxternickbaxter on January 17th, 2008 12:33 am (UTC)
Clue Hunt Samples
I finally got permission to reproduce two of the more interesting clues. They are at http://www.baxterweb.com/puzzles/ntHunt.

(Anonymous) on February 1st, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
TreasureQuestSociety.org Clue Hunt
Thanks for posting the clues for the hunt. I missed it. Sounded like a blast. We are working right now on a interactive E-book clue hunt. It is really fun. Check it out Treasure Quest Society (http://treasurequestsociety.org)