Waxwing Puzzle Co. mixes adventure and tourism

By Sophia Coleman

Investigate unknown tunnels, target strangers with squirt guns and become a spy in a matter of hours, all within the borders of Chicago.

In the world of Waxwing Puzzle Co., participants can spend an evening or weekend on an adventure that takes them through hidden parts of the city. So far, three games that engage one’s inner sleuth—the Rabbit Hole, Ambush and Labyrinth—take place when a sufficient number of players sign up.

“You’re carried along from clue to clue,” said Andy Patton, founder of Waxwing. “You’re finding secrets and meeting people that you have no idea are in on it. It’s like being in the movie ‘National Treasure.’”

Patton came up with the idea of a high-intensity scavenger hunt while attending the University of Missouri. A blizzard dumped two feet of snow overnight, and Patton and a group of friends were stuck in the house for four days.

By a stroke of luck, there was a TV marathon of “National Treasure” starring Nicolas Cage. After watching the movie, they had the idea to start a similar treasure hunt on campus.

“People skipped class, didn’t eat [and] didn’t sleep,” Patton said. “They were only focused on the game.”

His passion for adventure games grew while in Portland, Ore., where he experienced a game hosted by a scavenger hunt company. This inspired him to create Waxwing, a more engaging company he started in Missouri and brought to Chicago in July 2011.

Labyrinth was the first game Patton created, which took the scavenger hunt group through the Pedway system, a vast network of tunnels underneath the Loop that runs through shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, businesses and train stations. The teams are first given clues, such as puzzles, word problems, phone numbers or hints through the website.

The clues lead them to different “marks,” who are people placed throughout the Pedway to give participants more clues. Once the final clue is found, the players are sent on a chase to the final prize.

“You see tunnels underneath the Loop, and it just oozes mystery,” Patton said.

Katie Stipanovich, marketing assistant and “mark” at Waxwing, said Labyrinth is the most popular game because people are intrigued by this “second city” beneath the streets.

“When you start playing the game, suddenly everyone who is around is potentially in on it,” said Seth Putnam, a college friend of Patton who also works for the company. “There’s intrigue, thrill and secrecy.”

Another game, Ambush, is designed for a campus or business setting. Players are given a squirt gun and a picture of another player at the beginning of the game. Each individual must squirt a target, grab his or her picture and find the next target until there is only one person left.

Putnam, who also works as a “mark,” recalled an Ambush scenario at the Missouri campus where he had to track down a girl majoring in biology. Putnam worked for the school newspaper, so he found her number within the school’s database and pretended to want to write a story about something science-related.

“I set up an interview with her, told her the time and place, [and] then I shot her [with the squirt gun],” he said Putnam said he ended up moving to Chicago and became part of Waxwing after reconnecting with Patton.

He said, in Ambush, the prize is surviving, but in the future Patton may introduce a totem or gift certificate.

“Andy is really unique [and] his imagination really comes into play,” Stipanovich said. “He’s able to incorporate a lot of suspense and mystery into the clues surrounding the game. People are thrilled with it.”

Another game offered by Waxwing is Rabbit Hole, a free online introduction that is a series of four mind-bending puzzles. Two additional games, Spy Game and Chicago Streetwalk, are currently in the planning process. Almost 60 people have registered with Waxwing since its opening, according to Patton.

“It is such a new venture, [and] it’s not on many people’s radars, but it looks very promising,” Putnam said. “People love to figure out secrets and surprises, [they] love to pretend and take themselves back into a different reality.”

To register for games, view prices or start your own team at Waxwing Puzzle Co., visit WaxwingPuzzleCo.com.