Treasure hunt games for groups

Codes, Ciphers and Secret Messages

Posted on July 14 2017

It will be no surprise to learn that we love cracking codes, deciphering secret messages and using ingenious methods of communication in our games, so we decided to take a little look at a few favourite examples.

Morse Code

Who better to start with than the father of the Victorian Internet, Samuel Morse who interestingly had an earlier career as an accomplished painter, but dedicated himself to improving the state of long-distance communication and invented the telegraph after his wife tragically passed away in 1825.  

  • The first Morse Code message was transmitted in 1844 and until today Morse code is still used for communication, although mostly under amateur radio operators these days.
  • The most common Morse Code signal is the distress signal SOS or three dots, three dashes and three dots, internationally recognized by treaty and widely used until 1999. 
  • Another well-known Morse code rhythm from the Second World War period derives from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and used to be the opening phrase at the beginning of many BBC broadcasts.
  • The standard Nokia tone for incoming text messages used to be the Morse code for SMS.
  • Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife in Morse code and they used to talk in secret by tapping on each other’s hands.

Encrypted messages

Some say encrypted messages date back to Roman Times when Caesar was invading countries to increase the size of his Empire.  Apparently he communicated with his men by using the method of substituting every letter with the letter that comes 3 places further on in the alphabet (A = D, B = E, C = F). And, when he got to the end of the alphabet, he would go back to the beginning, so instead of an 'X', he would write an 'A'.  So, for instance: ATTACK AT DAWN could have been written as DXXDFN DX GDZQ.  Numbers could also be encrypted as letters (1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C) and so on.

Codes and ciphers are both forms of cryptography and both transform legible messages into a series of symbols that are intelligible only to specific recipients, who might have a code book or decryption formula.

As a general rule of thumb, codes are usually created by using a set of symbolic strings along with their assigned meanings - which are noted in a code book.

And, a simplified explanation of a cipher is an encryption which uses a system of fixed rules - or an algorithm - to transform plain text into a random string of characters.

For example, a cipher might be - much like Caesar's method - defined by the rule that every letter of plaintext should be substituted by a two-digit number which specifies the plaintext letter's position in the alphabet; plus a constant number that shall be agreed upon in advance. So, if 46 is the agreed-upon constant, then the word ZAP would cipher to 724762 as follows:

  • Plaintext letter Z = 72 (alphabet position 26 + 46).
  • Plaintext letter A = 47 (alphabet position 1 + 46).
  • Plaintext letter P = 62 (alphabet position 16 + 46).

So, where codes have the advantage of simplicity, since no complicated calculations are required, they do require a code book in order to decode a message; and users can only send messages that can be expressed using the terms defined in the codebook.  

And, where ciphers have the capability to transmit all possible messages they do have the vulnerability that the enemy might determine the algorithm and interpret all messages at once. Today’s secure ciphers, however, entail complex calculations and ever changing algorithms to keep them secure.

Remember, secret codes and secret messages can make up an exciting part of team building, so why don’t you try making up your own secret codes and messages and challenging team mates to decipher them? We would love to hear what you come up with.  

Or, if you would like some ideas for outdoor puzzle adventures and treasure hunts, please send us an email at or give us a call on +44 (0) 207 193 4401; or visit our website to get your hands on one of our exciting clue hunts.

We understand that researching, planning and booking team building venues can be hard, so if you engage us to host and manage your team treasure hunt awayday, we are always happy to help with this step too!

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