The Armchair Treasure Hunt of Perplex City~ by Kurt Konecny
In my last article, I wrote about “Treasure: In Search Of The Golden Horse”, which was one of my favorite armchair treasure hunts because of the nostalgia it holds for me. For today’s column, I’ll be writing about “Perplex City”. This hunt is also one of my favorites, but in this case, it’s one of my favorites because it was just flat-out FUN and very well done.
A British gaming/puzzle company called Mind Candy started Perplex City in April 2005, and it took place mostly in England. It was technically an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), where several aspects of the game intruded into real life to immerse the player in the game. There were fictional websites to scour, phone numbers to call where a character in the game would possibly give you clues, live events that took place at gaming conventions,and YouTube videos featuring characters from the story. At one point in the game, the players had to write a collaborative book to help one of the characters in the story get access to a location.
The story dealt with a fictional city, Perplex City, that exists outside of our dimension, but has portals that lead to our planet. One of PerplexCity’s sacred objects, The Receda Cube, is stolen by an unknown person and is brought to Earth and hidden somewhere in England. The players are tasked with helping the citizens of Perplex City find the hidden cube. The first person to find the cube and return it to the office of Mind Candy wins 100,000 Pounds, which converts to nearly $200,000.
Unlike most armchair treasure hunts, the majority of the Perplex City clues didn’t come from a book. They came from trading cards that the player could buy. When this was first announced, players were understandably skeptical, since it seemed to turn the contest into a “pay-to-play”, where the players who could buy the most cards had an advantage.
Once the contest started, however, players realized that this wasn’t the case.
Perplex City…more than any armchair hunt before it or since it…fostered an amazing sense of community. Websites, forums, and real-life meetups were encouraged and were even organized by the puzzle’s creators. Every trading card could be found online, where players were discussing the puzzles and providing high-resolution images of the cards. Every player had free access to the cards. And with the open access to the cards and puzzles, buying the cards themselves didn’t really give anyone an advantage.
The cards *were* worth buying, though, because they were simply beautiful. Once the cards were available to buy here in the states, my brother and I couldn’t get enough of them. They were gorgeous, challenging, and fun.
The way the cards worked was that each card would have a puzzle on it. There were different colors of cards, with red cards being the easiest and silver cards being the hardest. The cards had a scratch-off panel on the top, and when you thought you had solved the puzzle, you would scratch off the panel to reveal a code, which you would enter into the Perplex City website. If you answered the puzzle correctly on the website, you got points for that card. Once you got enough points, you would go up another level in the game, and you would receive a neat real-life pin in the mail from the Perplex City creators (I still have mine somewhere around here!). People loved the idea of the point system, and loved competing against other players.
The puzzles on the cards could range from easy word search puzzles to sudoku puzzles to extremely tough cryptograms. Many of the puzzles required thinking outside the box. My personal favorite card had an image of three urns on it, and a story about how a feast had been planned, but the server had accidentally forgotten to label which of the urns contained chocolate, which contained vanilla, and which contained cinnamon. Our task was to find out which urn was which. After puzzling over the card for a while, and trying to figure out if the background image was the key to the puzzle, my fingers accidentally brushed one of the urns on the card and I felt a familiar feeling from my childhood… the rough surface of a scratch-and-sniff sticker. I scratched one of the urns, and a scent of cinnamon wafted up from it. Other cards used heat-sensitive ink, ultraviolet writing, or microdots that could only be read with a microscope.
The most infamous card was a silver card named “One In A Billion”. The card showed the face of an Asian man standing on a city street, and had the words “find me” on it. The solution to the puzzle was the man’s name. Players posted his image on social media and on telephone poles and bus stations around the world in an attempt to find the man. To this day, he remains unidentified.
As time went on, players followed the story and figured out the hidden clues on the cards, and the location of the hidden cube began to be narrowed down. What appeared to be random squiggles on some of the cards were identified as being Jurassic era land forms, leading players to the 88-mile long Jurassic Way footpath. More clues were decoded, leading the players to the Fineshade Wood area of Northamptonshire.
At this point, players stopped all communication with each other, and dozens of teams and hundreds of players began converging onto the wooded area.
On the morning of February 2nd, 2007, almost two years from the start of the contest, player Andy Darley used photos found on a hidden in-game website and the cleverly encoded directions on the puzzle card “End Of The Line” to weave through the walking paths at Wakerly Great Wood, Northamptonshire. He dug into the ground at the end point, and felt his trowel hit something.
The Receda Cube had been found.
Darley managed to dig out the Cube without being seen, and left his “End Of The Line” card propped up next to the hole as a sign that the cube had been found. He took the Cube home with him, and held onto it for a few days. He also decided to pay tribute to Kit William’s “Masquerade”…often considered the first armchair treasure hunt…by travelling to the location where the Golden Hare from “Masquerade” was buried, and taking a photo there with the Cube.
Once Darley brought the Cube to the Mind Candy offices, the game was over and the storyline concluded.
To celebrate the successful conclusion, Mind Candy threw a huge party at a local pub, and players from all over the world (including many players from the United States) attended the event. The players enjoyed meeting the game’s creators and actors, meeting Andy Darley, getting to hold the Receda Cube that they have spent years hunting, and finally getting to meet the other players that they’ve gotten to know over the years.
A second season of the game was planned, but ended up being put on hiatus. Mind Candy then decided to focus more on children’s games, and the second season of Perplex City never happened.
Perplex City wasn’t perfect, but it was probably the best example of what an armchair treasure hunt COULD be.
From the game’s beginning to the Cube’s discovery to the endgame pub bash, Perplex City brought people together to solve puzzles, to have fun, and to live an adventure, proving that sometimes the path to the treasure is worth more than the treasure itself.
LINKS FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Article detailing the Cube’s discovery: https://www.argn.com/2007/02/perplex_city_how_the_cube_was_found/
Andy Darley’s Photos of the Cube’s discovery: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rand0m/sets/72157594520967005/
Kurt Konecny lives in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and has a B.A. in English. After accidentally stumbling across Kit Williams’ book “Masquerade” at the library when he was a child, Kurt became captivated by tales of buried treasure and armchair treasure hunts, and he has carried that love with him through his adult years.
His other hobbies include geocaching and ghosthunting.
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