Tuesday, May 5, 2009 by Dave Blum

Although my business is creating business team building games and corporate scavenger hunts, my wife, Jen, and I have a private passion for treasure hunts as well.   One of our most cherished traditions — on a date roughly equidistant between our two birthdays — is to hold a do-it-yourself treasure hunt in San Francisco for our friends and family.  This year that date was May 2nd–this past Saturday; it was our 7th annual birthday hunt.

Three things make our birthday hunt special:

1) The participants write the clues
2) There are no prizes
3) There are no goals or standards

Here’s how it works.  About a month before the game, we send out the invites and ask would-be clue writers to start thinking about their scavenger hunt ideas.  That means they should all be thinking about a cool, little-known clue location, somewhere in the City, where they can stash a bag or box of souvenir tokens.  And they should be thinking about what kind of puzzle they’re going to create. Once written, everyone’s clues are copied at least 10 times…enough copies for each team (of ~ 4 people).  Then, on game day, we all show up at a brunch place and distribute our clues to each other.  If all works well, each team will have a nice stack of puzzles to solve, locations to eventually visit, and tokens to pick up at each site as momentos.  At the end of the day, we all gather up again for dinner to talk about our day, discuss the clues, and share our memories.

Significantly, the game is NOT about competition.   There are no prizes for the high score–no awards for the first teams to return–no rewards for the best clue or the worst clue.   It’s a prize-free hunt…and perhaps more interestingly, it’s an adrenaline-free activity.   Teams aren’t *challenged* to do anything; they don’t need to beat a previous high score or exceed any other lofty standards.  The game is entirely for the intrinsic satisfaction.

Participants tend to enjoy:

1) Scouting locations and writing clues
2) Watching people solve their clues
3) Solving other teams’ clues
4) Seeing cool new locations
5) Hanging out with friends new and old.

That’s it.  And everyone loves it.

Some of this year’s hunt highlights included:

1) A smell-test clue, with test tubes filled with a variety of scents and aromas.  Identifying the scents allowed you to crack the accompanying puzzle, which led to a tiny community park (full of lovely, scented flowers).

2) A genetic clue, with beads representing the four DNA bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.  The final location led to a statue about the human genome.

3) A Harry Potter trivia clue which also included a CD guess-that-song quiz, all leading to a stash of Harry Potter photos hidden near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Our DIY birthday hunt isn’t for everyone.  For people addicted to adrenaline, it’s all pretty tame.  But for puzzle-minded folks who like to solve clues with friends while seeing the City, it’s a great, laid-back way to spend an afternoon, getting to know each other.  And it’s free!