The Lost Art Of The Armchair Treasure Hunt

armchair treasure hunt masquerade kit williams

Masquerade by Kit Williams – it looked pretty but did your head in

The late seventies gave birth to a very different kind of publishing phenomenon; the armchair treasure hunt. Long before Geocaching was a thing, the book ‘Masquerade’ featured puzzles hidden in beautiful and elaborate illustrations by artist Kit Williams and sparked a national craze as armchair puzzle solvers up and down the country (and later the world) attempted to unravel its mysteries and thus discover the prize; an 18 carat gold hare buried somewhere in the British Isles.

But the contest morphed into its own conundrum as a spectacularly bizarre turn of events mired the competition in controversy and, despite the author’s best efforts, the prize was never officially won.

Three years after the book’s release Kit received a solution by post from Ken Thomas describing the exact location of the golden hare. However, details of its unearthing became slightly sketchy as Mike Barker and John Rousseau, two school teachers who’d dug in the correct place previously, had unwittingly re-intered the hare during their excavation leaving Ken Thomas a fresh dig site with only a few piles of earth to sift through to claim the prize. Even though they had technically solved the puzzle first, by the time Mike and John’s correct solution had popped through Kit William’s letterbox the story was already out and Ken Thomas had been declared the winner.

The press picked up the story and in December 1988 The Sunday Times labelled the contest a sham as it turned out that Ken’s business partner was the boyfriend of a former live-in girlfriend of Kit Williams. The accusation went on to describe how, given they were privy to inside information, Ken and his business partner John had been to the site with metal detectors but after a few fruitless searches had resorted to ‘writing in’ to claim the prize.

Shocked at these allegations and subsequent revelations, Kit Williams* withdrew the Golden Hare as the Masquerade prize and created a new puzzle in the form of a two computer games titled Hareraiser: Prelude and Hareraiser: Finale. Unfortunately both parts of Hareraiser were several fathoms more impenetrable and opaque than Masquerade ever was and has been largely panned as unsolvable.

* Twitter reader Dreams Of Gerontius has politely pointed out that Kit Williams had nothing to do with Haresoft or the Hareraiser games. These were created by Dugald Thompson (aka Ken Thomas) and John Guard who did find the golden hare after Kit was misled into prompting them.

armchair treasure hunt hareraiser kit williams

The ZX Spectrum version of Hareraiser: Prelude looking somewhat less illustrative than Masquerade

Haresoft went under in 1988 and the Golden Hare was sold at Sotheby’s during liquidation for the staggering sum of £34k.

A slew of competing armchair treasure hunt books by other authors followed; The Key To The Kingdom, The Piper Of Dreams, The Secret, The Golden Key, Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse and The Merlin Mystery to name but a few. Kit Williams himself also created a second treasure-hunt book, The Bee On The Comb, in 1984 but none of these releases captured the public’s imagination quite as as much as the original Masquerade.

armchair treasure hunt golden hare sothebys auction

Sotheby’s listing for the Golden Hare – the pendant sold for well over its list price of £3-6k

No doubt inspired by the success of books like Masquerade, a straight-to-computer-game treasure hunt called Pimania was release in 1982. Pimania follows a strange mascot, the Pi-Man, across a surrealist world where players solve puzzles to discover the location of a golden sundial (worth £6k at the time). Unlike the Masquerade puzzle, Pimania required its treasure hunters to not only be in the correct place geographically but also there at the right time and, unlike Masquerade and Hareraiser, Pimania was solved three years after its release in 1985 by Sue Cooper and Lizi Newman who worked out it could only be found on July 22 (because Pi is sometimes rounded to 22/7) at the chalk horse at Hindover Hill near Litlington, East Sussex.

Pimania completely failed as a stand-alone piece of entertainment and, compared to other games written in machine code, was clunky and amateurish having been written entirely in BASIC; next to Pimania, other games like 3D Monster Maze were unrivalled masterpieces. You can see for yourself if you decide to run them through an emulator.

armchair treasure hunt pimania cassette tape

The B Side of Pimania – see hilarious Sinclair founder joke in the name of the lead singer

Pimania was available on cassette for the ZX 81, ZX Spectrum and Dragon 32/64 and featured on its non-computer game side an extremely strange song called ‘The Pimania Song’ that featured the retro-before-retro-had-been-invented Casio VL-Tone synth. The VL-Tone had recently been elevated to cult status by German band Trio’s crossover hit ‘Da Da Da’ and it’s interesting to note that the Pimania Song is not at all dissimilar to the German effort.

A more recent 2005 treasure hunt called Perspex City was created by the founder of the geek toy website Firebox with a prize of around £150k and was set in an alternative universe that used blogs, media and other assorted websites to circulate its puzzles. Although the aim was to keep the idea alive by turning the game into an ongoing franchise, plans to go into a new phase of the game were put on indefinite hold and Mind Candy, the company behind it, went on to develop Moshi Monsters.

armchair treasure hunt perplex city cards

A Perplex City card pack – one of the many ways to collect clues to the puzzle

Although not the stuff of headline news these days, armchair treasure hunting never really went away and still flourishes online. Most of the news regarding these things revolves around the website The Armchair Treasure Hunt Club where you can share adventures in puzzle solving with like minded individuals.

The current flavour of the month appears to be The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt. Of twenty solid silver eagles ‘hidden’ in the USA and UK, several have been won already with an estimated value of $20k each. The website describes in great detail the crafting of a jewel encrusted golden eagle but it’s unclear whether it’s part of any future prize. Perhaps it will be ‘unlocked’ along with a new set of clues once the silver eagles have all been discovered. Regardless, it’s nice to see a treasure hunt supporting a cause as worthy as breast cancer research.

armchair treasure hunt worlds greatest treasure hunt eagle

Golden Eagle mascot of The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt – careful you don’t drop it on your foot

The story of Masquerade came full circle exactly twenty years after its release when Kit Williams was reunited with the golden hare after the BBC tracked down its Egyptian owner for the 2009 BBC4 documentary ‘The Man Behind The Masquerade‘. It turns out that Kit Williams originally buried the golden hare with help from his mate Bamber Gascoine of University Challenge fame and it seems fitting that a man who went spent his life asking near-unanswerable questions helped bury a prize for a competition so opaque in both solution and execution that its prize would never be claimed.

It also transpires that Bamber was instrumental to the initial cover up, but not in the way you may be thinking. ‘Because there were cattle in the field, we took a tupperware container of cow poo’, said Kit in a Telegraph interview. ‘Bamber did the pouring of the cow poo to disguise the hole.’

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