Introduction: How to Create a Cryptic Egg Hunt for Grown-up Treasure Hunting Fun

About: I'm a guy who likes games and design and making stuff.

I'm just going to say it: treasure hunts are awesome. It's a game, it's a quiz, it's an adventure. Done right, the humble egg hunt can be literally the most fun you've ever had.*

Forget the infantile, mindless hunts of childhood. Finding a melted kinder egg under a flowerpot is all well and good when you're six, but proper egg hunting is a serious business. We're going to show you how to make an engaging, challenging treasure hunt for competing teams of adults (and really smart kids).

Fellow puzzle enthusiast and all-round good egg Martha Hearn and I recently masterminded an elaborate treasure hunt for our friends. We called it The Hunting of the Egg and it was really great. We'd like to share the experience so you too can feel the joy of the hunt. I hope you're wearing socks, because they're about to be knocked off.

*Results may vary.

Step 1: What Makes a Good Egg Hunt?

What's so great about The Hunting of the Egg, I hear you cry? Why should I care? Well, pipe down for a moment and I'll tell you.

A good hunt should be a mental and physical challenge and make participants feel alternating bursts of smugness and bewilderment. It should push the boundaries of elaborate, convoluted cleverness as far as possible without becoming overly smug or frustrating.

Creating a treasure hunt of this ilk takes more effort than you might expect. Ye need to dip your toes into the seven Cs, me hearties: Creativity, Cartography, Cryptography, Codebreaking, Cruciverbalism, Coordination, and, uh, Chocolate-sharing. If you're the sort of person who revels in writing alliterative sentences for no real reason, you'll probably be good at devising an egg hunt.

The success of a hunt is all about the planning. You need to find a great location with plenty of potential hiding places, write awesome clues that require effort and lateral thinking, design a comprehensive clue sheet complete with a map, and offer a desirable grand prize to keep your hunters motivated. We'll cover all this and more if you read on, or you can skip to the end for a full walkthrough of the clues and solutions from our hunt.

    Above all else, it should be fun. Your job as host is to handle all the boring bits so your friends can concentrate on looking and reading and thinking and running and climbing and generally having a nice time. Oh, and egg hunts are for life, not just for Easter. Don't let the calendar tell you what to do, man. This is an all-year round activity.

    Step 2: You Can't Have Fun Without Rules

    Everybody knows you can't have fun without rules, and that goes double for a treasure hunt. Rules set the boundaries of the challenge and let everyone know what they're trying to achieve. Even anarchic rule-breakers need something to rally against.

    The formula of a good treasure hunt varies, but we've come up with a system you can follow or tweak to your needs. It's a little complex, but it allows for a few important things: the clues can be solved in any order; multiple teams can all search at once; there's a clear win condition to aim towards; and it hopefully feels as though the clues are tied together into an overarching mystery.

    Here's the important bit: don't hide actual eggs. Physical objects are easily lost, stolen, moved, compromised, eaten, or all five – especially in a public place. Instead, we chose to print graphical egg stickers which could be affixed to flat surfaces. They're much easier to handle, more versatile and won't roll away. More on how to make cool egg stickers later.

    Anyway, here's how our hunt worked. Pay attention, class:

    We hid thirty eggs, each adorned with a letter of the alphabet. Every team was given a sheet of cryptic clues, hinting at the location of specific eggs (and thus specific letters). Only half of the eggs were relevant to the clues – the others were red herrings. Finding and matching the correct eggs to the correct clues spelled out three words.

    Meanwhile, we hid a combination bike lock – only by finding the eggs and uncovering the hidden words would the passcode become clear. The first team to unlock the bike lock and bring it back to the start won a big bag of chocolate goodies and muffins. Got all that?

    Step 3: Picking a Suitable Location

    The location of your hunt is going to vary depending on how many people you're planning it for. A private garden would work for a small-scale hunt, but for more than a handful of teams you're better off with a public park.

    We settled pretty quickly on an area called Brandon Hill in Bristol. It ticked all the boxes: big, but not too big; plenty of good hiding places; pretty easy for all our friends to get to. Win-win-win.

    Put aside a few hours to take a nice stroll around the area to scope out good hiding places and points of interest you can build clues around. Though you don't want to be too obvious with your hiding places, if something catches your attention it's probably worth building a clue around. You want to be on the lookout for any particularly prominent trees, ponds, sculptures, statues, benches, lampposts, signs, plaques, public toilets and so on – and don't forget to take notes and photos so you don't forget any of your brilliant ideas!

    As Brandon Hill is pretty large (around 20 acres), we decided the split the area into three distinct zones. Later on, when writing the clues and drawing the map, we tied specific clues to each zone. This was mainly so that hunters wouldn't have to cover the entire park searching for any particular egg; it would at least be obvious which section it was in.

    Step 4: The Sacred Art of Cluesmithing

    Hopefully you've got some good hiding places in mind from visiting the location; now it's just a case of engineering clues to match. Writing good clues is the most important part of the hunt-building process, and each one should lead to a specific area with a hidden egg nearby. If you're as cool and organised as we are, you'll make a spreadsheet to keep track of all your ideas.

    You want to make sure the clues are varied, so the same technique can't be applied to solving them all. You want a range of difficulty, with some clues more obtuse than others. Even a difficult clue should have an obvious starting point or key phrase, though. You should design the solutions so that the internet can be used as a helping hand without spoiling the clue entirely. I call this google-proofing, because I'm a pretentious idiot.

    Here are a few solid ideas for different types of clue.

    Example: This bad egg hit rock bottom behind the dead smelly lav
    These can vary a lot, but what ties them together is the use of wordplay. Tonally it works well to write something vaguely crossword-esque, and it's nice to make the clue tell a little story so the sentence makes literal sense as well as hiding important keywords. Think of words with double meanings, or an unusual way to describe something straightforward. Basically, get creative!

    Example: Atbash legend tells of a deviled egg: HFNNLM Z WVNLM
    There are several inventive ways you can mask a word or phrase so it needs deciphering to make any sense. The internet is a great help here: you could use Google Translate to write a clue in another language; Binary Translator to confuse hunters with ones and zeroes; encode a sentence with a classic Atbash Cipher; or hide some Morse Code on the map. If you use a cipher that's not common knowledge, try to include the name of it in the clue so hunters can search for deciphering tools online.

    Example: Puzzle masters reveal secret upon hearing maritime signal
    Writing with symbols is the same premise as the ciphers discussed above, but will add some visual intrigue to proceedings. Some good ideas for symbols to use include semaphore, maritime flags, and sign language. You could even try writing a clue entirely in emoji. It'll spruce up the map and you can even incorporate symbols into illustrations to dot around the clue sheet.

    Example: A little blue bird told me to search for #EGGNO15
    Most people have smartphones these days, and you can take advantage of this fact by incorporating digital elements to your clues. Post to Twitter with a unique hashtag, or make a Tumblr blog with a specific URL you can allude to in the clue. It's also pretty easy to make a QR code which will show an image when scanned. You might also consider giving hunters latitude and longitude coordinates.

    Any of the above ideas can be used to lead to another type of clue, rather than straight to an egg. This is great for adding some extra complexity to an otherwise simple clue, and it makes solving it seem like more of a journey. You can layer these clues as deep as you like! It's like a hunt within a hunt: eggception.

    Step 5: Designing the Map and Clue Sheet

    So, you've come up with some devilishly cryptic clues – now what? You could just write them all in a list but that's a massive cop-out. Putting some effort into a clue sheet gives you the opportunity to add other cryptic elements besides plain text clues, like a map of the area and cool symbols and illustrations.

    We designed this clue sheet using a combination of Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign – but fear not, if you don't have digital skills you can still make an awesome clue sheet by hand.

    It's a good idea to start with an existing map of the area – Google Maps has decent satellite imagery, and Open Vector Maps is a good resource if you know your way around SVG files. Regardless of whether you're working by hand or computer, you can trace the important elements of the map to get a nice accurate representation of the location. Then it's just a case of adding your own flair.

    If you're splitting the area into distinct zones like we did, drawing a color-coded map is important as it shows hunters the zone boundaries. Next, draw any important elements onto the map (in this case, it was the big tower at the top of the hill) and dot a few trees around too. Make sure you get any particularly important elements in the right places, but beyond that don't worry about documenting every single tree or it'll overwhelm the map. If you've referenced any symbols in your clues, make sure they're represented as well.

    Try to fit the whole thing onto a sheet of A4 and print it onto card if possible. We laid out the clues in groups, made the map as big as possible without obscuring any writing, and then filled in the gaps with drawings and symbols. We wanted the clue sheet to be densely packed with information, so hunters could really get stuck in. We also threw in a few red herrings: useless symbols and words that didn't mean anything. Gotta keep everyone on their toes.

    Step 6: Time to Hide Those Eggs!

    Now for the fun bit. All your hard work and planning has led to this moment: let's hide those eggs!

    Download our egg template PDF – it should line up perfectly with any standard A4-sized 7x3 sheet of label paper. If you want to design your own eggs you can get a label template here.

    Once printed we found the best bet was to draw the letters on in permanent marker and seal the eggs with sellotape to protect them from potential rain. For flat, smooth surfaces like brick and stone the labels work a treat. If you want to hide any eggs in trees, you can 'laminate' the egg with a few bits of sellotape and then use drawing pins or tacks to pin it to a branch or trunk. Fully-grown trees aren't damaged by this, but don't stick pins into budding baby trees as mother nature doesn't like it!

    If you've been working efficiently you should already have noted down all the hiding spots, but it's still a good idea to document the egg placements as you go around. Make sure you know which letters are hidden in which places. Oh, and if you're pasting lots of paper and tape around a public park, it's best to go around and collect the eggs at the end so you don't damage the environment or get in trouble with the park ranger. (Are park rangers even a thing in the UK?)

    Step 7: On Your Marks, Get Set, EGG!

    How do you like your eggs in the morning? Personally, I like them scattered around a park and then descended upon by teams of ravenous hunters.

    Set a meeting place and a start time, and wait for teams of puzzle-hungry nerds to arrive. We amassed around forty hunters, split into ten teams, but forgot to get a nice picture of everyone gathered together. Whoops. Let everyone disperse – the beauty of the clues is that they can be solved in any order, so encourage the teams to spread out. Set a meeting point for teams to come back to if they get stuck or think they've won. Don't be afraid to give a few vague hints out if people get really stuck!

    Treasure hunts bring people together, and everyone seemed to really get into it. Just look at those happy, confused faced! The whole hunt took about two hours, and we had a photo finish as two teams raced to work out the final code. I'm pleased to report that even the most puzzle-averse of our friends reluctantly admitted to enjoying themselves. A great success!

    We'd love to do another Hunting of the Egg in future (if you're a rich business who wants a tailored team-building eggsperience, get in touch), but in the meantime we couldn't just keep the fun to ourselves. Read on if you want the full breakdown of every clue we wrote, and good luck running your own cryptic egg hunts! Love you bye!

    Step 8: Walkthrough: Full List of Clues and Solutions

    This section is optional, but it's also the best bit, so stick around.

    Below is a full list of the clues we used in the inaugural Hunting of the Egg, along with explanations for each one. Feel free to use this for inspiration or steal our ideas wholesale.

    1. This bad egg hit rock bottom behind the dead smelly lav
    A classic case of misdirection. Everyone assumed 'lav' meant lavatory and started by searching behind the public toilets, but the egg was in fact hidden on the bottom of a rock behind a lavender bush (which happened to be dead and smelly).

    2. Red Hot words will reveal the location (T.11)
    Our first music reference. Picking out just the red words from the border reveals the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Track eleven (T.11) is Under the Bridge, so we stuck the egg to the underside of a little wooden footbridge. Simple, no?

    3. Find Cabot's marquess – put behind bars – watch your step
    A tricky one, this. The first step is to find the plaque at the foot of Cabot Tower that mentions a Marquess. Put it 'behind bars' by standing the other side of the nearby gate and looking through the bars. Then just watch the steps by the gate and the egg will be found!

    4. I'm hard and wet and there's egg on my face
    This is a vaguely rude-sounding but ultimately very simple clue. The egg is stuck to the face of a large rock in the center of a pool of water. The rock is both hard and wet. Nothing more to it.

    5. Persimmon says: don't worry, about a thing
    This Bob Marley lyric is from the song Three Little Birds. We draw three little birds in one of the trees on the map, and the matching tree had three little bird feeders hanging from it in real life. The egg was behind them. Oh, and it's a Persimmon tree.

    6. I am an antichrist, what else am I?
    The final music reference. According to the Sex Pistols lyrics, "I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist." The anarchy symbol on the map leads to a spot to find an actual spray-painted anarchy symbol – the egg is next to it.

    7. Atbash legend tells of a deviled egg: HFNNLM Z WVNLM
    Atbash is a simple type of substitution cipher in which A becomes Z, B becomes Y and so on. Deciphering the nonsense letters spells out "SUMMON A DEMON," which links with the thought of a deviled egg. Ooh, symbolism. Anyway the point is to look for the pentagram symbol on the map and go there to find an egg hidden amongst a circle of five trees.

    8. Schoolboys defiled Queen Elizabeth's rear entrance!
    This is a fun clue that crams a lot of information into a cheeky one-liner that tells a little story. Bordering the park is an independent boys school called Queen Elizabeth Hospital School. We stuck the egg to the graffiti-laden back door to the school grounds. Simple.

    9. Wherefore art thou? Romeo follows Quebec to white brick
    The Shakespeare quote is just for flavour, to mask the true identity of Romeo as part of the NATO phonetic alphabet. Romeo follows Quebec suggests Q followed by R, and scanning the QR code we placed by the map shows a motivational image of Martha and I popping out of a giant peace sign. Find the matching peace sign on the map, and there's the egg – stuck on a white brick, of course.

    10. Find Vigenere's key: cvpkxe twnvftbgn dfvumjfcuxfja umvcxvesv
    A tough clue, this one. A Vigenère cipher encodes text with a key word, so the first step is to find the key. The phrase 'Vigenere's Key Is Brick' is hidden in plain sight amongst the random words around the border of the clue sheet. Typing the jumbled letters plus the key word Brick into an online decoder reveals a message, "behind collected consciousness sculpture." Fairly straightforward from this point – there's a big sculpture with this name right at the start point of the hunt. We hid the egg on the wall behind it. Phew.

    11. Puzzle masters reveal secret upon hearing maritime signal
    My personal favorite clue. The puzzles masters – a.k.a. Martha and I – had matching eggs hidden upon our person. Maritime signal refers to the maritime flags on the drawing of the ship. The flags spell "EGGMAN," which is the password to prompt myself or Martha to publicly reveal ourselves. In a good way.

    12. 01000011 01001111 01001101 01010000 01001111 01010011 01010100
    Typing this into a binary translator reveals the word "COMPOST." We hid the egg on the side of a large compost bin. It was tough to do anything more complex involving binary because you can't encode anything very long or becomes too unwieldy.

    13. At the crossroads, there's egg and white on a big wooden fork
    We found a distinctive-looking forked tree right by a part of the forest zone that splits four ways like a crossroad. The tree was marked with white paint, hence the vaguely food-themed egg/white/fork wording. We drew a forked tree on the map in the correct location and stuck an egg there. Done.

    14. Here come dots, heading up Jacob's Wells Road
    The clue signals to look for dots on a particular road on the map, which along with a few choice road markings make up a phrase in Morse code. When decoded it spells "JWRBUSSTOP," and we stuck this egg to the Jacob's Wells Road bus stop. Added smug nerd bonus: here come dots is an anagram of the morse code. *drops mic*

    15. A little blue bird told me to search for #EGGNO15
    Referring to the Twitter logo, this clue requires hunters to search for the #EGGNO15 hashtag to find a solitary tweet: Apprentice angry about alfresco ASBO art as Alan's alias aggressively altered. Albumen adjacent. Roughly translated from obnoxious alliteration, this means Alan Sugar (host of the UK Apprentice) is annoyed that vandals spray-painted his name wrong. We stuck the egg by a big piece of graffiti that said SUGER. I think this one was a little too esoteric because it's the only clue that nobody figured out. Oops.

    ***Locating the grand prize***
    A baker's dozen branches out to name the hiding place. Cabot knows it's somewhere betwixt Dundry and Long Ashton.
    As well as the 15 main clues, we also alluded to the location of the bike lock central to the whole hunt. A baker's dozen branches signifies the 13-branched tree drawing in the corner of the map, which links to the word Wellingtonia, which is the type of distinctive giant redwood tree we hid the lock in. The Cabot knows section requires hunters to head to the top of Cabot tower and look out on the park. Directly between the arrows pointing to Dundry and Long Ashton lies the Wellingtonia tree. The lock was hidden halfway up the tree, tied securely to a big branch so it could only be recovered with the correct 4-digit code.

    ***The combination lock***
    Combine each zone's secret word to unlock the prize.
    If all the eggs are found properly, the accompanying letters spell out three words. One for each zone: BRACE, SCORE and GROSS. These three words are all old-timey names for numbers: 2, 20 and 144 respectively. When multiplied together, you get 5760 – the combination of the lock. Figuring this out was the final piece of the puzzle, and the winning team was rewarded with a big hamper of chocolate snacks and as much respect as we could muster.

    If you made it this far, thank you for reading! Please consider voting for us in the GAMING and EGG contests, and if we inspire you to run your own treasure hunt, let us know about it in the comments!

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