A Charlottesville Puzzle Hunt?
An artist stood on the stage at Ix Art Park. Wearing a striped shirt and chapeau, she looked up to see some 600 people watching her every move and hanging on her every word as she made brush strokes across a canvas.
An artist stood on the stage at Ix Art Park. Wearing a striped shirt and chapeau, she looked up to see some 600 people watching her every move and hanging on her every word as she made brush strokes across a canvas. She talked about loving music, and sometimes letting the colors lead the way. Music played from either side of the stage. “Yellow Submarine” from one speaker, “Blue Moon” from the other.
The crowd included people of all ages. All backgrounds. United by their preparedness in toting water bottles and utilizing hats and sunscreen to counter the effects of this sizzling August afternoon.
There was one more thing uniting them - curiosity. That was the key word here at the first annual Charlottesville Puzzle Hunt. Modeled after a similar event put on by the Washington Post for many years, this iteration was the brainchild of event directors and husband-and-wife team of Greg Ochsenschlager and Emily Patterson. Game designers, lifelong pub trivia fans, and self-described board game nerds, the couple were such huge fans of the Post’s puzzle hunt that they recreated it on a smaller scale last year at their holiday party. The party’s attendees included their friend and WTJU General Manager Nathan Moore.
“They basically did a test run at the party,” Moore said, “and they put a ton of effort into it. Greg told me he had this secret wish to recreate it in Charlottesville. I was like, ‘Sweet, let’s do it!’”
Moore has a keen eye for events that can satisfy the station’s mission of bringing the community together, and this more than fit that bill. “It is a chance for people who are longtime residents to get out of the house and explore the town and solve some diabolical puzzles in the process. And it’s a great chance for newcomers to come and get a sense of the community and make new friends.”
When they moved to Cville a few years ago, Ochsenschlager and Patterson instantly recognized the event could be a great fit here. “You have a walkable downtown and a brainy crowd here that loves puzzles, games, and getting out and doing things.” Ochsenschlager said, “It really was a no-brainer.”
The event, Moore said, is “sort of like an escape room, but all of downtown Charlottesville is the room.” The complicated and multilayered puzzles incorporate every challenge imaginable, from word games to number challenges and more.
“It’s really a multimedia multisensory experience,” Moore said. “Clues were embedded in a podcast episode, a Tik Tok video, the Best of Cville magazine, and more.”
Every challenge was created by Ochsenschlager and Patterson. They welcomed the participants, broken into teams of roughly 3-6 people, and sent them on their way to sites across downtown to gather intelligence and bring it back to Ix Art Park at day’s end for one final challenge that would determine the winner.
Meanwhile, near the New Dominion Bookshop, a gaggle of guessers gathered to play a game inspired by Wordle. Down the mall, another game was afoot, this one tied to WTJU’s This Week in Virginia History podcast. There was another one inspired by TikTok. There were families, friends, longtime residents, and newcomers. Teams were huddling everywhere you looked, excitedly sharing ideas while gathered around their maps or phones. Some had a more civilized approach, meeting over lunch or a beer or both at various restaurants.
They were all trying to crack the same code. Each challenge had a numerical answer that may not make sense on its own, but they were all tied together in the mad dash of the final challenge, which featured prizes from community partners, including Wegmans, Firefly, Champion Brewery, Shenanigans Toys and Games, the CVille Escape Room, Unlocked History Escape Rooms and more.
As the 4pm hour approached, teams started trickling back into Ix Art Park – a little more tired and sweaty than the last time we saw them there, yet with the same enthusiasm they had shown hours earlier. Some swapped stories, most swigged water, and all waited for the crowning moment.
From an interested outsider’s perspective, the Charlottesville Puzzle Hunt was a hit in every way, the perfect mix of place and event, and a truly great fit for a community that welcomed It with open arms and minds. It was a most auspicious start, and one can only imagine that a year’s worth of classic Charlottesville word of mouth will launch it to new levels when Puzzle Hunt returns this coming August. Where it goes from there is, well, everybody’s guess.