The Big Reveal – Puzzle Room

Map of the Big Top Circus layout

Now that we’ve run through The Big Reveal multiple times as an event, the next step is to produce it as an actual Murder Mystery that we intend to be the first in a line of products. We focused on solving the mystery as opposed to group-readings. To that end, we have rewritten portions of it to make the puzzle room stage optional and will have it for sale in the near future!

Before that however, I wanted to go through the process and paths of the puzzle room we built into the event. It is not reasonable to expect folks to build the full puzzle room, but there are several ways to go about the stages of the mystery. We wanted to include our -rather extreme- version for reference. This was an incredibly satisfying process of weaving together puzzle paths that were accessible while challenging. Our players had varying experience levels but were generally able to make it through the room without too much help. While we initially figured they would clear the room in 20-30 minutes, we found that it happily took an hour or so. That felt meaty enough to let us know that we did a good job on the design.

Here is an excerpt from the additional documents we have included with the The Big Reveal murder mystery. Note that you’ll have to attend our parties or purchase once we finalize it for sale in order to get the full context. Sorry. But not that much. Also, the digital version will be cheap!

Spoilers Ahead


“The following is a description of the puzzle sequence we originally came up with to discover the Hidden Agenda items. We converted a dining room into ‘Maurice’s Trailer’ and Stage Two was held completely within the Puzzle Room. All of our groups were successful (with some amount of prodding in the right directions). An added benefit of the characters searching the room themselves was that some players were able to find and hide their clues. These were eventually forced out by the other players but made for very memorable events!

Note: Your level of production is completely up to you. We went a little nuts as you’ll see, but the key thing to remember is make it fun and feasible. Our groups generally took about an hour to run through all this when we expected it to take about 20-30 minutes. If you go this far, expect it to take longer than you think it will, and have Boris or Ma Lizzie on hand to point players in the right directions and drop not-so-subtle hints if needed.

For our setup, the Hidden Agenda items were each in their own key-locked box, stored within a large trunk that had two combination locks of its own. The trunk was stowed beneath a table, but it was very obvious that the characters would need to access it at some point.

One of the trunk locks was a 5-digit word lock while the other was a direction lock. While these are not particularly in line with the 1920s setting, for our purposes it was fine. You’re welcome to be as authentic as you please.

There were essentially three paths to exposing the Hidden Agenda items, all of which need to be solved for success. Our characters would need to get through both locks on the trunk and then get the keys to open each of the secured boxes within.

The concept for our room was that the characters would be exploring Maurice the Magician’s trailer to look for clues about his murder. Again, each character has a secret side objective and a reason for wanting to get into the trailer to protect their secret. Maurice was blackmailing just about everyone.

To start with, we dressed the room with curtains to make it a contained space and set out a table and chair to one side with another table opposite. The trunk was partially hidden under the first table. On top of that we set out a candlestick with a long lit taper, a set of books and a chess board that had an inner compartment. Additionally, we had a small chest with a chain wrapped around it and a doctor bag both padlocked. On the wall we put up an Old Show poster from a past circus act. We’ve included the image in this set.

There were also two small cages holding stuffed birds. One of the cages had a small, keyed lock securing it while the other could be opened. There was another cage with a stuffed armadillo and a hollowed out base. Finally, we had a small puzzle box in the shape of a monkey that was actually hidden outside of the puzzle room area.

To solve the Word Lock

Characters snuff out the candle and pull it out of the candlestick where they find a key hidden in the hollow beneath. The key opens the lock on the chain to the Wooden Chest inside of whichis a cipher tin. This is a circular cookie tin with the alphabet written all the way around one half. On the other half (the lid) a playing card progression: 2…10, J, Q, K, A is written in red and then in black to match up with the alphabet letters when the tin is closed. These two parts can be rotated to solve codes hidden in the room when the right code key is discovered.

(Alphabet =  26 digits, card progression = 13 digits x2)

The Old Show poster on the wall contains a key to the cipher tin. The hand of seven cards below the Magician’s head on the poster color-correspond to the word “DYNAMOS” above which provides a cipher position key:

Red 4 Black Queen Black Ace Red Ace Red King Black 2 Black 6 = D Y N A M O S

When these are matched up on the cipher tin, A B C = RED A 1 2… N O P = BLACK A 1 2…

There are five playing cards hidden throughout the environment in a Top hat, in the bill of the Knife Thrower’s hat, in the cipher tin itself, in the hollowed bottom of the Armadillo Cage and inside the pocket of the doctor bag: 2-JOKER 2 HEARTS 5 SPADES 0-JOKER 6 SPADES

The hollowed bottom of the Armadillo Cage also contains the key to the Doctor Bag and a queen chess piece we’ll get to in a bit.

The 2 of Hearts 5 of Spades and 6 of Spades correspond to B, R and S when combined with the cipher tin. A large 2 and a large 0 were drawn over the joker cards giving a set of digits that correspond to the 5-digit word lock. That combination was set to  2 B R 0 S

The word lock combination has numbers in fixed positions on the order of the dials so that last bit is a minor word scramble. Once complete the characters will have accessed the chest and the doctor bag, deciphered the key for the cipher tin, found all the playing cards and used them to unlock the word lock. Easy.

To solve the Directional Lock

The dial on the directional lock must be moved in the proper sequence to release. It can move up, down, left and right. We labeled each direction as a suit of cards Up-Spade, Down-Club, Left-Heart, Right-Diamond.

As mentioned before, we had a chess board set on the table with an inner compartment. On the chess board we marked the following pattern:

***Note: we did not color-code or shade the actual board

This sequence is based on the classic 8-queens puzzle where each queen must be placed in a particular spot where none of them are able to kill another. The solution to the puzzle is above and when read left to right, gives the sequence to move the directional lock.

Two queens were placed on top of the board at random marked spots with other queens found throughout environment, eight in total. Their locations were: Cipher tin, Doctor Bag, Armadillo mouth, Small Chest, and inside the chess set itself. One of the books on the table was also hollowed out with a piece inside and the clue “Eight are we, Friends All” written to the side.

Once located, the puzzle is solved by putting Queens on the correct spots (highlighted in yellow). Queens cannot kill each other in this formation using traditional movement rules.

Additionally, with the cipher tin set to the same position as for the word lock, the direction clues spell out another clue that we really didn’t expect anyone to find. No one did.  

B R O T H E R*

At the end of this path, characters will have found all eight queen pieces which means having accessed the doctor bag and wooden chest. They will have solved the puzzle itself and deduced that the icons below the correct placement determine the directions on the lock. We put additional graphic clues in the hollowed out book to give a few positions of queens to start with. Doing so can narrow down the options overall so they really only have to find the placement of 2-4 of the queens to figure it out. If the characters are unfamiliar with the 8-queens puzzle itself Ma Lizzie or Boris should be on hand to hint/explain.

Solving these two puzzle lines will get the characters into the trunk where they find a number of locked boxes. Inside are of course the Hidden Agenda items, but the path to their keys lies through the birdcages.

Cage Path

There were two birdcages and an armadillo cage in the room. The characters should have explored the armadillo cage thoroughly to get into the trunk but it had one other element not mentioned yet.

First however, there was an unlocked cage with a  stuffed duck. Below the duck there was a piece of paper that had an extensive coded clue on it:

Red2 Red7 Red10 Red10 RedK.  Red2 Black6 RedA Red9. RedJ RedK RedQ Red9 Red3 Black10.  

// Black5 Red6 Red7 Black3 Red2. RedK Black6 Black5 Black4 Red7 Red2 Red3. Black8 Red7 Black5 Red6. Red9 Red3 Black10.

This must be deciphered using the cipher tin of course. To find the key to that, the characters should have found a Red King playing card in the Armadillo Cage with the word DILLO written on the back also in red. The face of the card has 2 7 10 10  written in red on the face of the card with the last digit being the printed Red K. So the key to the Cipher tin: DILLO = 2 7 10 10 K which helps decipher the message “Dillo Duck Monkey // Third outside with key”

On finding that message, a character should exit the enclosed space of the ‘trailer’ to find the Monkey puzzle box outside which contains the key to the locked birdcage. We hid the keys to the Hidden Agenda item boxes inside of the bird inside of that cage.

Note: you don’t have to use a duck, but may need to change the clue accordingly for another bird/animal.

Additionally, several clues in the environment point to the notion of ‘Brothers’ – the Old Show poster clearly shows a doubles act, the word lock says 2BR0S, there’s a very obscure clue in the Eight Queens solution. This all points to Maurice having a brother which a few of the characters can and should speak to in the final stage. Be sure to help the party get there, as it is fairly important to the story. Whether or not you go quite as crazy as we did here is of course completely up to you.”