Whether you’re trying to throw a scavenger hunt for a birthday party, a work event, or just for fun, you’ve selected one of the most fun, challenging activities to get brains and feet moving! As the founder of DFW Scavenger Hunt, I’ve designed quite a few scavenger hunts in Dallas, so trust me when I say they’re as fun to build as they are to solve. As fun as the process is, doing it right takes a lot of work. I put together a few tips on how to build your own scavenger hunt.
Go For a Walk
To get started, you’ll need to decide exactly where you want to host your hunt. Pick an area that’s pedestrian friendly, full of interesting art and architecture, and relatively contained. Google Street View can be helpful to start, but eventually, you’re going to need to get up, grab your camera and your notebook, and go for a walk.
On the course is where you’ll find the unexpected surprises that make a hunt unique. Look up. Look down. What’s that cool gargoyle on the tippy top of that building? What’s that inscription on the sidewalk? Walk up close to buildings, read the words on signs. And don’t just rely on sight, either! Maybe there’s a way to incorporate sound. Or smell? Let your creativity run free! Bonus: besides the close-up experience, walking will give you an idea of how strenuous the hunt will be for the participants. If you’re getting tired, imagine how they’ll feel.
Pick a Theme
A great scavenger hunt tells a story. Finding a thread for your hunt will make for a more engaging activity. Consider how the location – or the occasion – could inspire you. For example, our hunt through the sculptures and murals of the Dallas Arts District sends players on a chase after a nefarious art thief. When we host hunts in December, we tell players the story of some North Pole elves in search of the perfect gift. It doesn’t take much to apply a layer of storytelling to your hunt. Find ways to apply your theme to the introductions, the games’ instructions, and the illustrations.
Mix up the Activities
Simple scavenger hunts usually present a list of tasks to complete or items to collect. Then at the end, the team with the most boxes ticked off wins the game. That’s fine, but challenge yourself to go further. Instead of a straightforward catalog of items to track down, get innovative. Create cryptic clues that lead your players to the next spot. Why say “statue” when you can say “silent sentinel”? Let a team know they’re “on a roll” to guide them to a bakery (or a tire shop)! Use common puzzler’s tools, like anagrams, ciphers, and rebuses. Consider Morse code, foreign languages, even simple synonyms as ways to offer hints without giving too much away.
While you’re at it, play with ways to present your clues, too. Get inspired by poetry, riddles, and visual elements. Our Arts District Scavenger Hunt includes a game consisting only of rhyming clues, while our Plano hunt includes a section that’s structured like a math equation. Take photos of the area, then present them in a clever way as you challenge teams to locate their origin. Extreme close-ups, weird angles, even filters can add an extra level of challenge.
It’s also important to include activities that require no walking at all. How about a word puzzle or a trivia game? A few pages like this will give different members of the group the chance to showcase their particular skills, while simultaneously giving teams a chance to rest their feet. Remember, creating a diverse game allows everyone to use their strengths, optimizing the opportunities for team building.
Know Your Audience
Different groups will respond to different types of puzzles. You’ll need to pay attention to their likes, interests, and values to ensure you’re creating a puzzle that they respond to. Challenge different sets of skills, like problem-solving, knowledge, observation. A good mix will please everyone while fostering collaboration.
Knowing your audience doesn’t just apply to the types of clues and challenges, it refers to the content itself. For example, if you’re building a scavenger hunt for kids, make sure you’re speaking their language. Your clever clue about Eleanor of Aquitaine will probably not get the appreciation it deserves if your group is made of middle-schoolers. Meanwhile, that reference to the Fortnite Fandangle Emote just might mystify a most adults. If you’ve got a mixed group of participants, that presents an ideal scenario.
You can create a diverse puzzle that lets each participant use his or her particular knowledge base. Make sure that the questions you’re asking, the clues you’re giving, and the story your telling aren’t just things from your world. Strive for a diversity of content that will appeal to a lot of different groups. Other thoughts to consider: Does your audience share your sense of humor? Will they understand local references? How far are they comfortable walking?
Use What’s There
Hosting a scavenger hunt doesn’t mean you need to wake up early to hide trinkets all over a course. If you’ve found the right neighborhood, you can use the existing features and landmarks as clues and guideposts. Incorporate public sculpture, murals, and historical markers. They’re probably not going anywhere, and teams will enjoy learning more about the area. Avoid corporate signage, if you can. It’s way more fun to discover hidden local surprises than it is to visit that same old fast food restaurant.
Always keep track of your hunt! Don’t expect every clue to be evergreen. Construction projects move sculptures. Murals get vandalized. Trees bloom and block historical markers. You may even be surprised at how quickly businesses change. Our Plano scavenger hunt nearly included a hint leading to a local favorite shop, but just before we launched, the shop closed. Think: what will last? You’ll need to keep an eye on your course, and your game, to make sure everything is still legible, accessible, and most importantly, safe.
Remember that a scavenger hunt is supposed to be playtime. Sure, the challenge is fun, but make sure you haven’t created something that feels like work. Including an extra credit photo (or video!) hunt is a great way to encourage the players to cut loose. Dare them to reenact a famous movie scene, or pose like a statue along the course. Human pyramids, funny hats, swimming in fountains; how goofy are you – and they – willing to get? You may be surprised. Just keep it legal! Teams will get a kick out of posing together, and of course, it gives them content for their social media feeds. Do it for the ‘gram, y’know?
As I’ve said before, a great scavenger hunt isn’t just a series of ticked boxes. If the clues all work together to tell a story, so should the answers. There are simple ways to have the parts add up to a satisfying whole. Consider having each individual page of your hunt yield a clue, a clue that when taken together with all the others, leads to one united answer. Professional puzzle builders refer to this as a metapuzzle.
Say, for example, your puzzles yielded the words SNAP, CRACKLE, and POP. That might lead your players to the ultimate meta answer, RICE KRISPIES. Or perhaps each puzzle led to the clues AMERICA, CRUNCH, MORGAN, KIRK – in which case, your meta answer would be CAPTAIN, ‘cause those are all famous captains. There are several ways to prompt solvers to discover the metaclues, including asking them to note the first letter of each entry, or by giving them a list of possible answers and leaving the metaclue as an extra item in the list.
Include a Map
People like to know what they’re getting into. With a map, the players have an immediate sense of where they’ll need to go. It doesn’t have to be labeled in detail, but simply giving players the boundaries of the course will be an essential guide to their solving and their safety. Just take a screen grab from Google maps, add some borders in a program like Photoshop, and print. It’s up to you how much attention you call to the map. We’ve placed maps as the last page, only to see players never notice it. So we moved it to the first page, and watched them flip right past it. So you do what you can.
Test it. Test it Again. Then Test it Again!
Feel like you’re done? You aren’t done till you’ve tested it, multiple times. Testing with different groups is essential. There’s literally no way for you to know how difficult a hunt will be, because you already know the answers. Remember, just because you know the answer to a question doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s a reason credit cards ask you for your mother’s maiden name: it’s easy for you to answer, but really hard for almost everyone else on earth! You’ve got a unique set of knowledge that will probably overlap with someone else, but understanding the size of that overlap will be key. As you build, recognize that your perspective is one of billions.
Remember that there will be people of distinct ages, backgrounds, and cultures participating, so try to test with as diverse a group as possible, too. Draw from your friends, but try to go outside your circle. Besides just testing for solvability, ask your testers to offer their notes on the puzzle’s content. Was there anything included that could be considered offensive? Was there jargon, slang, or hyper-local references that proved indecipherable? Test the logistics as well: How long did it take? Were all the directions clear? How strenuous was the walk? Did they get lost, or miss the course at all?
And of course, test for errors. Did you make any mistakes when creating? Are there typos? Do all the meta clue revealers work as they should? There’s nothing more frustrating for a solver than a clue that sure seems like it should work, but doesn’t.
One Last Thing
A final word of advice? Keep in mind that people would much rather solve a puzzle they deem too easy than struggle with one that’s too hard. Turns out, people like getting the answers. It makes them feel smart. The worst that happens is that they finish quickly and get to brag about it over refreshments. And isn’t making them happy what your goal was?
Enjoy creating, and enjoy the hunt! When the hunt happens, go with them. Take pictures. The groups will appreciate having the day documented, and so will you. Take notes – there’s no better way to learn what edits you need to make. Take time to enjoy yourself! Watch them try to decode your expression as they wrestle with a tough clue. If you’re feeling nice? Give ‘em a hint. Feeling not so nice? Just give ‘em an evil laugh.
Good luck, and happy hunting. If you need more inspiration, next time you're in the DFW area, check us out and try out one of our scavenger hunts!