Elaine’s Birthday Adventure

Elaine’s Birthday Adventure

One of my great joys as a puzzle designer is when I can create something that taps into the loves, interests, and passions of the puzzler. So I was excited when Graham approached me to build a puzzle adventure for his wife Elaine's 40th birthday. Graham and Elaine have been fans of The Mystery League since our puzzle game for Alinea during the early days of the pandemic, and he thought it'd be fun to have us design a custom game for the two of them, and four friends, throughout the neighborhoods they like to visit in Chicago. Here's what we put together.

We started with a short close-up magic show in their home, by the awesome and mystical Rebecca Spectre. Rebecca was amazing to work with, and let us collaborate with her to script the show so it would set up the rest of the game. As the show went on, Rebecca's magic started to decay, seemingly due to a misbehaving grimoire, and causing lots of lemons to "mistakenly" appear. To fix the magic, she needed puns. The worse the better. She took off, leaving her grimoire behind.

When we designed the hunt, we wanted to make sure everything felt connected, and that there was some discovery involved in piecing the elements together. Our solution was the grimoire, a half-letter-sized book filled with mysterious pictures, diagrams, words, drawings and maps. (We considered binding our own notebook, but discovered Discbound allows for really easy inserting and removing and rearranging of pages. It was perfect for what we needed).

The first puzzle was inspired by Elaine's taste in food: a take-out delivery bag filled with 40 tiny dim sum baskets, each one featuring the picture of a food inside and a name on top. But the names and foods were mismatched, and the team had to figure out how to match them back up. The clues were in 5 printouts of lazy susans, each one named and designed in a clueful way. Once the tops were matched with bottoms, and the items put on the tray in the right spot, they could extract the first pun of the day: TAKE A HUGE BAO. They texted this to the magician, who told them where to go next: a nearby coffeeshop, for lunch.

At the cafe, as they ate lunch and drank coffees, they were tasked with lining up coffee sleeves with curious doodles marked onto the sides of the cups. A page in the grimoire told them which icons they were looking for, like the wishbone doodle visible in the photo above. When aligned properly, an arrow on the bottom of the sleeve pointed to a letter. In order, the letters spelled out STARTS OF SPECIALS, which was a clue to get to the answer. By finding a secret drink special board that we had installed at the shop (with permission), the team discovered five drink names:

  • Escape The Winter
  • Press One For Coffee
  • Total Bliss
  • Chain Reaction
  • Joe Schmoe

Reading the first syllables of each, they got their next pun: ESPRESTO CHANGE-O. Texting this to the magician yielded their next instruction: head to Gethsemane Garden Center.

Puzzlers enraptured by the plants, and missing the little buffalo just sitting there.

Here we planted 14 tiny animals, which had been shrunken by magical forces. Each one was paired with a map, found within the grimoire, of somewhere in America. These maps and animals were clues for American sports teams: Bears, Lions, Broncos, Orioles, etc. By drawing lines connecting the 5 points of interest on each map, they drew out shapes of numbers. Using these to index into the name of each animal’s plant of origin got them their next pun: WHAT THE FICUS UP.

Next up was a walk around the coffeeshops of Andersonville. (One player commented afterwards that in addition to enjoying the game, this was great exposure to a lot of cute places in her city that she'd never seen before.) The team collected 4 posters that we'd pinned up to community bulletin boards, each with hidden messages only visible by UV light. Each poster solved to a word, and together they spelled out LIL DEVIL COMIC BOOK ALLEYCAT.

This was a clue to head to nearby Alleycat Comics, where we'd hidden (with permission) a fake comic called "Li'l Devil". Hidden in the comic, in UV ink, was the next pun: IMP POSTER SYNDROME.

Next up was a visit to Big Mini Putt Club, a cute indoor mini-golf center in Lake View. By inspecting the holes' names, and their pars, and comparing them to 9 sketches in their notebook, players got the answer: NAKED PUTT. (This is a pun on "naked put", a term many of the players were familiar with from their work in the finance world. We call this "blind punning", as we had no idea if this was a funny joke; fortunately, it landed.) From there, we went on to the final stop: Snakes & Lattes, the board game cafe.

Two board game-related puzzles awaited them. First up was a Scrabble game that they had to recreate from the scorecard. Upon doing so, they found a message hidden in the letters: PLAY CATAN. That led them to get Settlers of Catan, a favorite of theirs, off the shelf. Inside the game box, they found five lists, and a new set of rules. The lists revealed a name for each tile, and the rules were a logic puzzle about how to arrange the tiles to make a legit Catan board. After arranging, and then putting down the numbered chits that come with the game in the right order, they used those numbers to index into the new tile names, which yielded their final pun: WOOD EWE LIKE SOME ORE.

When they finally got home, after a delicious (and puzzle-free) dinner,  they got a final video message from Rebecca, which hinted at heating up their answer sheet. So that's what they did. The sheet started out with a bunch of scribbles and doodles on it, but the heat caused them all to suddenly disappear! Except for a few small marks that pointed at nine letters in their collected answers. Those letters spelled OPEN LEMON.

Remember the lemons that had been mysteriously appearing during our opening act? During the magic show that morning, we hid a particular lemon in a bowl of fruit in their kitchen. They now dug up the lemon, cut it open, and found a playing card — the very same playing card that Elaine had picked during Rebecca's routine. Written on the card, in UV ink, was the final message: elaineis40.love, which is a URL and a tennis pun rolled into one. They visited the URL and found the grand prize: a special video featuring all the special people in Elaine's life wishing her happy birthday.

Absolutely blew us away. The amount of detail, ingenuity, and personal touches put into each puzzle left us repeatedly in awe. We’ll be talking about this adventure for years to come! Sandy is a genius!
- Graham & Elaine

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Want a game like this for your birthday, or the birthday of a loved one? We'd love to help. Click this link to get in touch:

The Mystery League
The Mystery League is a company of creative puzzlemakers. We stage live and remote team-building experiences. We weave gameplay, puzzles and storytelling in unusual and amazing ways.

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