Puzzle Hunt 101

Puzzle hunts and escape rooms are different beasts.

Escape rooms aren’t really about solving hard puzzles. Success in an escape room has much more to do with communication, observation, and cooperation than it does with raw puzzling skill.

Puzzle hunts, on the other hand, really are about information organization and puzzling skill. That said, there are still a great number of skills, patterns, and tools that can help an individual find more success in a puzzle hunt.

My aim here isn’t to help you become a fantastic puzzle hunter. That truly takes years of practice and a lot more knowledge than I have to share. My hope is that this primer can set you on your own journey to become a stronger puzzle hunter.

A child's letter puzzle.

Basic Puzzle Hunt Structure

Puzzle hunt puzzles come in all shapes, sizes, and complexities. As a general rule, your typical puzzle hunt puzzle has 4 parts to it.

In this specific order:

  1. Flavor Text – When the puzzle is introduced there is usually some kind of contextual clue – however vague – that should key the solver into what they are looking at. Soak in this flavor text. Then look at the puzzle.
  2. What is the Puzzle – You cannot count on a puzzle hunt puzzle to declare itself at face value. If it looks like a sudoku, it might not actually be a sudoku. Take in the flavor text and other clues to determine what you’re even looking at.
  3. Solve the Puzzle – Once you know what you’re looking at, it’s time to solve the puzzle. Maybe that’s filling out a crossword grid; maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, do it.
  4. Extracting a Solution – Congratulations! In step 3 you solved a puzzle, but you didn’t actually finish the puzzle. Puzzle hunt puzzles have a final step called extraction where you have to push the puzzle a step further and pull a final answer out of a solved puzzle. Again, refer back to whatever flavor text you have on hand. It probably points you towards an extraction.

Extractions are one of the defining characteristics of puzzle hunt puzzles. It’s a different way of thinking.

Saving Your Work For Meta Puzzles

Another defining characteristic of a puzzle hunt is “meta puzzles” or puzzles made from the solutions of previously solved puzzles.

Meta puzzles are essentially a puzzle hunt’s boss battle.

As you solve along, save your previous solutions. Failure to do so will render the meta puzzle unsolvable.

As a general rule, when working on a puzzle hunt, save all your work. You never know what will prove useful later. Google Sheets has become the community standard tool for working on puzzle hunt puzzles. Google Sheets are great for sharing and saving information as you solve.

A toddler attempting to assemble a simple puzzle.

General Puzzle Hunt Tools

Unlike escape rooms, outside knowledge and tools are essential for solving a puzzle hunt. These are the basics that everyone should have on hand when tackling a puzzle hunt puzzle.

Cipher Sheet & Apps

You never know what kind of encoding a puzzle hunt puzzle might use.

The free monthly international puzzle gathering Puzzled Pint has a basic code sheet that they provide at all events. This thing is pretty useful because it lists a number of common puzzle hunt encodings.

The code sheet is far from exhaustive. These free apps offer a lot more detail and decoding functionality:

iOS – Puzzle Sidekick

Android – Puzzlehunt Assistant

Cryptogram Solvers

Cryptogram solver tools can make quick work of deciphering. Rumkin Cryptogram Solver has a great assortment of options.

A word of advice: don’t go crazy blindly running what seems like a cipher through every conceivable decryption method.

Google Sheets

Google spreadsheets are a puzzle hunter’s best friend. Use sheets to collaboratively puzzle with friends/ teammates. Use them to keep a record of all of your work and solutions for the eventual meta puzzle.

MOAR TOOLS!

Truly advanced puzzle hunters can have a silly volume of tools at their disposal. Sometimes they even build their own tools.

Don’t go nuts finding and using tooling. At the end of the day, these tools are only useful if you know how to use them appropriately. The best thing that a novice puzzle hunter can do is to figure out how the puzzle wants to be solved. Do not attempt to brute force every possible solution with a collection of digital tools.

Cryptic Crossword Puzzles

One last note on a specific puzzle type: cryptic crosswords or cryptics.

These are a special kind of word puzzle rooted in wordplay. There’s a whole language to these things. They are legitimately fun, but they require a ton of outside knowledge.

This guide can get you started on cryptics – or in a pinch – can help you work through a set of cryptic crosswords.

The first time I came across a cryptic crossword puzzle, I had no idea what I was looking at and failed so hard. Now that I’m dabbling in them, I like them a lot.

Starter Puzzle Hunts

If you’re completely new to the idea of puzzle hunts, I strongly recommend starting with Puzzled Pint. These are free puzzle events held all over the world. The archive is freely available online.

I’ve found my journey into puzzle hunts as fulfilling as it has been arduous. It takes work, but the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

Finding Puzzle Hunts

If puzzle hunts become your thing, the Puzzle Hunt Calendar is an invaluable resource as it keeps a comprehensive list of puzzle hunts.

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