What are Puzzle Hunts or 5 Unwritten “Rules” after Solving 1k+ Puzzles 


What is a puzzle hunt? 

by Lilly Boneva

But really, what are puzzle hunts? 

A puzzle hunt is a collection of a variety of puzzles (in various shapes or forms) united around a common theme/story intended to be tackled by a group of solvers. Most of them are happening online. Usually, there are no clear instructions on what you need to do to extract an answer (often a word or a phrase) and it is common for the answers of several puzzles to be used to solve the so-called “metapuzzle” to finish the hunt. As you can see there are no clear rules that are always valid, but this is what makes it fun😊 

If you want to see how others have tried to systematize and explain this great hobby, you can check out these great resources: 

And just to give you some more visual examples of puzzles: 

Lego Art


30-minute Audio Escape Room:

Themed Conspiracy Board:

Very Long ACGT Sequence:

5 Rules to help you solve puzzle hunt puzzles:

Now that you know a bit and this still sounds like something you would like to try – here are 5 lessons that our team Furious Acorns has learned after 1,000+ puzzles solved. These often make the difference between a somewhat experienced solver and a newbie. (Yes, we still do not consider ourselves experienced :D, so I wish there was such a guide on how to become an expert 🙂

You may consider these as unwritten rules of what a good puzzle hunt puzzle is (nonverbally agreed upon among puzzle creators and solvers). So they do not appear on the puzzles themselves, but many of them apply to the majority of puzzles. 

All the information provided is intentional!

  1. Title & Flavor text
    • A puzzle usually does not have explicit written rules, but almost always, it has two elements besides the “meat” or “body” of the puzzle, which are its title and flavor text (a short italicized cryptic instruction). Make sure you read these carefully and try to understand why the specific title and flavor text were chosen – they are there to guide you into the theme of the puzzle or the method of solving. These are your free hints, use them, as authors try to avoid red herrings and provide extra/confusing information. While you are solving the “body” or the list of clues, always think about the title and the flavor text, so that you can get faster to the a-ha moment. 
  2. Numbers you observe bear meaning – order, lengths of words, number of clues, etc.
    • Order matters in a puzzle hunt!
      • Very often, a puzzle contains a list of “clues.” This could be word clues, images, song clips, etc. Your first step would be to identify them or solve the clues, but then what? Often, the order provided is alphabetical, which helps with identification and solving clues, but it will probably be reordered. If the order provided is not alphabetical, there is some other reason, and this usually means that no reordering of clues will be needed. Random anagraming or reordering is a sign of bad puzzle design and is avoided by authors. 
      • Read the first/last letter – sometimes, they bear a hidden clue on how to proceed.
    • Count everything
      • Number of clues sometimes or even the number of words
        1. Do you have an even number of clues – maybe you need to pair them up somehow? Do you have 26 clues – maybe you need each to start with a different letter of the alphabet? Do you have 6 clues – maybe the answer to the puzzle has 6 letters and you need to extract a letter from each clue? 
      • Answers length
        1. Do all your clue answers have 5 letters – maybe you need to stack them and read the first/last letters or read on a diagonal? Do some of your answers have 8 letters and the rest have 9 – maybe you need to remove a letter and get to an anagram? Do some of the answers have the same length and only one letter is the same in both – maybe you need to take the Eigen letter?
        2. Usually, spaces & other non-alpha characters do not count (another unwritten rule, we were unaware of at the beginning of our puzzle-solving career)
      • Frequency analysis
        1. Sometimes puzzle text will be encrypted or you would have a grid/string of letters… Frequency analysis will allow you to understand if you are looking at a substitution cipher (letters are replaced) or a transposition cipher (letters are rearranged). Doing this may also help you notice other interesting data points – an unexpectedly high volume of Xs, for example. 
  3. Is there a somewhat clear starting point?
    • Always look for clues which are unambiguous, clearly have a single solution, can easily be Google-d. Then, look for answers which seem very specific, odd in some way (due to their meaning or letter pattern). These may be intended starting points in the puzzle to help you understand what path the author intends you to take. 
  4. Is there something you have not used?
    • As a conclusion of this section – if all information provided is there for a reason, when you are stuck – try to look for unused info/data, this can really help with moving to the next step.

Every solving tool/resource/path is fair game!

Puzzle authors cannot stop you from using any tool or resource (and they often anticipate you would), so make sure you are well prepared and have a strong toolbox to help you tackle any kind of problem!

  1. List of tools
    • Here’s a separate post on what are some of the most common and useful tools for puzzle hunting. I have no idea how we managed to solve puzzles before we knew these existed 😀 
  2. Google! Everything! In Groups! 
    • Google is your best friend! No, really… You have solved a few clues and have no idea what these have in common – paste them into a search engine. Not sure what this fish on the image is – do a reverse image search to identify it. Some of the words in the flavor text seem really forced and intentional – Google these together! Often a puzzle may have a theme that you are not really an expert in – Math Constants named after people, Constellations, Types of Cheeses, Pokemon Evolutions, Royal Corgis, Medieval Festivals, etc. (You get my point), so make sure you try Google. Your search history and ad suggestions will never be the same after your first hunt 😀   
  3. Sheets & formulas
    • Going back to the meme in the beginning of this post… The tool of choice for collaborative solving is Google Sheets – this is where most of the real solving happens. So having a sheet where you can all work together when you are not at the same place, jot down ideas and try out hypotheses is invaluable. Plus, some knowledge of formulas really helps speed up the process. For example, often you need to take out the n-th letter of a word (known as indexing), so the MID function really comes into play and saves time. There are some great people like Jonah Ostroff, who have created ready-to-use Named Functions you can add to your sheets, so that you can focus on solving rather than researching formulas.  
  4. Know your ABCs or more likely common ciphers
    • As with this whole post, there are some very common encryption methods and ciphers which would seem like obvious options for experienced solvers, but may be hard to notice for newbies. These include things like: something long, something short – maybe Morse? 2×3 grid – Braille? Directions indicated – Semaphore? Zeros and ones or true and false statements – Binary? 2 characters (a number and a letter) – Hex? Other popular ones may be the NATO alphabet or Pigpen cipher, but the most commonly used one is for sure converting numbers to a position in the alphabet (or A1-Z26 for short), which means that if you get a string of 12-9-12-12-25, this may be converted to L-I-L-L-Y, as L is the 12th letter in the English alphabet.
  5. Have a team with diverse interests and abilities
    • This should not come so down the list as it is one of the most important things you can do in preparation for a hunt, but still – here it is. Having a bunch of people who like different things and are good at different things will not only help you with getting more ideas on the table and solving puzzles faster, but will also allow your team to divide and conquer, since to be honest, not all puzzles in a hunt will seem fun to you, but they will maybe for another team member. For example, I like visual puzzles, puzzles with no clear start that you can stare at for hours, trying to get to an a-ha moment for a very long time. Others on the team like research, programming, logic puzzles, images, interactivity and whatnot. This allows each of us to shine and contribute to different puzzles and there is a great beauty and satisfaction in that. 
  6. You do not need to solve all the clues to get to a final answer
    • For all of you who absolutely need to know everything or finish everything, this may come as a disappointment. But… Imagine you solved 6 out of 9 really hard clues, you extracted letters and what you get is W?K?P?DIA as your answer with 3 letters still unknown. I would rather just try to submit the obvious answer, rather than spend time to solving the remaining 3 clues 🙂 Plus, there are some great tools like nutrimatic, which may help you at this stage. But I am the type who is looking for progress rather than completion, so please do what is the most fun for you! 
  7. Backsolving is still solving
    • Similar to the previous point – you don’t always need all puzzle answers to solve your metapuzzle. So maybe you solved 10 out of 12 of the regular or so-called “feeder” puzzles and this was enough for your team to solve the meta. But this gave you enough information about the solutions of the answers you did not solve – i.e. they both need to be 6 letters long, start with B and P, and are both dog breeds. So you decide to try POODLE as an answer to a puzzle, which you could not solve and voila – this is the right answer! This method is called back-solving and it is also anticipated by the authors, so please do not feel like you did something wrong! 😉
  8. Most hunts do not penalize wrong answer submissions
    • In most hunts you submit an answer in an online checking form and it indicates if you are right or wrong. Usually, there is no penalty for a wrong answer, although sometimes you can get blocked from submitting for some time if you try to submit too many answers in a minute, let’s say. However, if you are sure that the answer is ?ATHER, it would not hurt you trying out FATHER, GATHER, RATHER, etc. to try to get the right answer and move on.

This puzzle has a theme and there are enough credible resources online.

  1. There is a canonical source! 
    • We mentioned that puzzles are often created around a theme, being it Space Missions, Batman Villains, Android Versions, and whatnot. Being aware that not everybody will be well versed in such a topic – the author would try to work with a so-called canonical source of information, something widely accepted and accessible, which would not make disputes arise, is constant and can be easily fact-checked. You should be looking for such sources online when solving. If the information is not specific enough, then it is probably not what you need. Some very obscure blog articles on the 3rd page of Google are probably not what you are looking for.

You need to extract an answer! Duh…

  1. Extraction & indexing
    • We barely mentioned these when talking about sheets and formulas, but a common mechanic in puzzle hunts is to take the n-th letter of a word (called indexing), to extract an answer. For example, APPLE 1, INSIDER 2, SALT 1, COW 3, BEAR 2, ROLEX 1, may lead you to the word ANSWER. [A]PPLE, I[N]SIDER, [S]ALT, CO[W], B[E]AR, [R]OLEX.
  2. Very often, a puzzle repeats its mechanic for the extraction stage
    • This is considered as an elegant puzzle – let’s say you had to identify countries by their horizontal striped flags in the puzzle. As you do that the first letters of the countries spell WHITEGREENRED. It would be very common for the solver to repeat the step/mechanic one more time to come up with a country with a striped flag with white, green, and red in that order – BULGARIA! 
  3. Sometimes you get a new clue or an  instruction
    • Beware that sometimes after solving a puzzle you would not get a final answer… I know! What you get may be a phrase like HARRYPOTTERAUTHOR, ANSWERISPARIS or even SUBMITAVIDEOOFYOUDANCING. Then, you need to do what your phrase says to get to the answers – ROWLING, PARIS, or send a video of you Twist-ing.
  4. You are often looking for a thematic answer/phrase/pun
    • When you are close to an answer but not 100% ready, think about the fact that the author would have wanted the answer to be appropriate for the theme of the puzzle as a final confirmation that you are doing things right. So in a fish-themed puzzle where you get S?ARK, the answer is much more likely to be SHARK, rather than SPARK, for example. 
  5. The answer needs to fit the meta because of the letters it uses or the meaning it carries
    • This is more of an advanced advice, as you need to solve a lot of puzzles to get to a meta, but still… Always be on the lookout of why certain “feeder” puzzle answers are part of a meta – is it because of their meaning or because of the letters they contain. When you get to this point you will see why this is important 😉

Puzzle Hunts are supposed to be fun!

  1. Ask for hints if you are not having fun!
    • This is something that we did not do for quite some time out of pride maybe… Although the puzzle hunt allowed for one free hint every 10 hours, let’s say, we tried not to use them. Now that we have played 40+ hunts, I know that these are offered intentionally – not every puzzle is perfect, fun or suitable for your team – so please use your hints (wisely), so that you can unlock more puzzles you will like.

Thanks for reading through all of that, we hope it was useful!

And if you got to here, make sure to look for your next hunts on the puzzle hunt calendar: