One of the most common questions I hear from prospective clients is, “So what can you tell me about your scavenger hunts?” For a native San Franciscan like me, this is akin to a tourist saying “I just love Frisco…especially your trolley cars.” Sad to say folks, my lovely hometown by the bay is San Francisco (not Frisco), we have cable cars here (not trolleys), and Dr. Clue creates treasure hunts (not scavenger hunts). Semantics do matter!

So what exactly is the difference between a scavenger hunt and a treasure hunt?

Simply put, a scavenger hunt is based on a list. On this list, you might be asked to bring back a specific object — a pine cone, a flag, a coaster from a particular bar, etc. Or the hunt might be more photograph-based: ie. “Take a picture of yourself in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, snap a shot of yourself at the top of the Eiffel Tower,” etc. You get the idea. Scavenger hunt lists tend to be quite direct and straightforward; here’s your task–now go out and execute it. Each task in a scavenger hunt is worth a certain number of points and the team with the most points accrued at the end of the game is named the winner. Pretty fun stuff, huh? Absolutely. But not very cryptic! From the beginning, you pretty much know what your tasks are; the biggest challenge, then, is prioritization. How long will it take to reach this spot vs. that spot? Is it worth going for the hard 10-pointers (which will take more time and effort) or the easier the 1-, 3- or 5- pointers, which take less time but are worth less points?

By contrast, a treasure hunt is based on the solving of cryptic clues. A clue might be a riddle, a rhyme, or some simple wordplay. It could be in code. It could look like a puzzle. What matters is that the clue, when solved, directs you to a specific location. For example, let’s say a clue in San Francisco starts with, “There’s an eye in your milk — remove it!” After pondering this phrase for a minute, you would realize that when you take the “i” out of “milk”, you get MLK — short for Martin Luther King — a street in Golden Gate Park. A harder clue might be encrypted in Morse Code, Braille, or Sign Language. Or it might involve a crossword puzzle, sudoku, wordsearch, or anything else the hunt master can think of. Clues can require pen & paper; they can involve music or video; they can incorporate physical items. One of my favorite clues had participants searching for messages in a bottle, floating in a lake. Another one had teams opening up specially-made Cracker Jack bags. Inside each bag, the peanuts and Cracker Jacks had been divided into separate baggies to represent dashes & dots, a la Morse Code.

Moreover, treasure hunts break down further into two distinct sub-categories: sequential and non sequential. A sequential treasure hunt looks like this: you go to the first clue location and find clue # two…you then proceed to clue location # two and there find clue # three, and so on. The hunt proceeds down a linear path until you reach a final location, where a “treasure” is awaiting the team that reaches there first. The final location may also be the site of the final party. 🙂 A non-sequential treasure hunt, on the other hand, is a little bit like a scavenger hunt in that the clues are NOT in order. In fact, you get ALL the clues up front. Not only can you solve the clues in any order that you like, you can also visit the revealed clue locations in the order of your choice. If you get stuck on a clue, just skip it and come back to it. If you see a team going one direction, perhaps your team will head off in the opposite direction. Each clue is worth a specific number of points; like a scavenger hunt, the team with the most points is named the winner. How you acquire points at each location is up to the hunt master. Perhaps there is a question to answer at each location. Perhaps you have to pick up a certain item or take a specific photo (a la scavenger hunts). The possibilities are endless.

What are the pros and cons of these various hunt formats? Scavengers hunts are perhaps the easiest hunts to mount. All you need to do is come up with a list and the teams take care of the rest. For people who are more action oriented, scavenger hunts can be a great option. Without too much planning, teams get out on the course, rushing around, and crossing items off the list. Conversely, treasure hunts take a bit more time to set up. As the hunt master, you need to go out and scout a number of potential locations, choosing the very best ones for your hunt clues. You must take detailed notes and digital photos. And you must then write the clues, bearing in mind that any ambiguity will literally send teams on a wild goose chase. That means that you really need to playtest all the clues in advance, which — again — takes more time and effort. The advantage of treasure hunts, however, is in my opinion quite worthwhile. In particular, it’s simply a blast watching participants get that delicious “Eureka Moment”, when they’ve solved a clue, pulled meaning from chaos, and then followed the “trail of breadcrumbs” to a cool location that they wouldn’t have otherwise known about. For people who are more “mind-oriented”, treasure hunts really do the trick. And for teambuilding, treasure hunts are terrific because groups are required to assess their skills and knowledge and delegate the right person to the right clue. If the hunt master has done their job sufficiently, one person — alone — could never solve all the clues. It take a diverse group, with diverse skills and knowledge, to succeed at a puzzle-based, non-sequential treasure hunt (like we create here at Dr. Clue).

So what’s it going to be the next time you’re in Frisco riding a trolley car? A scavenger hunt or a treasure hunt? As they say in Pig Latin (a fun decoding language): “ouyay ecideday.”