Challenge your group to solve a mystery (with limited facts) as quickly as possible.
To help them find a solution, your group can only ask you questions that can be answered with “YES” or “NO.”
When ready, state the facts of a particular mystery, eg “Romeo and Juliet are dead, lying in a puddle of water with broken glass everywhere. How did they die?”
Invite your group to start asking questions. You may only respond with “YES” or “NO.”
You may respond with “IRRELEVANT” if your answer to a question does not bring the group closer to a solution.
If, after ten or more minutes, your group has not solved the mystery, you may guide your group to ask questions about a certain topic to draw them closer to a solution. Eg “Where did the water come from?”
Once solved, present another mystery if your group is interested.
How To Play Narrative
In my experience, groups love these little minute mysteries even though they tend to take a lot more than a minute to solve sometimes.
Here’s the basic set-up. Gather your group, invite them to sit them down and present the ‘facts, the whole facts and nothing but the facts’ of a particular situation.
Upon digesting the facts, you then invite your group to ask a series of questions that can be answered only with a “YES”, “NO” or ‘IRRELEVANT” reply.
To get you started, this is one of my favourite mysteries:
“ROMEO AND JULIET ARE DEAD, LYING IN A PUDDLE OF WATER WITH BROKEN GLASS EVERYWHERE. HOW DID THEY DIE?”
Hmmmm? There are just so many lines of enquiry which may follow this information. Yet, it is critical that you only respond to ‘Yes / No’ questions. For example, do not respond to “HOW OLD WERE THEY?” rather “WERE THEY YOUNGER THAN 10 YEARS OLD?” is cool.
Often times, a group will ask questions that are irrelevant or do not help the group to get closer to a solution. If this occurs, simply say “IRRELEVANT” and invite another question.
As the minutes tick by, your group will narrow their focus and finally arrive at the solution. It’s frustrating, it’s exciting and, most of all, fun.
On occasions, you may need to guide your group to ask questions about a certain topic to draw them closer to a solution, eg “Focus your attention on the type of house they were in.”
As with all lateral-thinking exercises, it is critical that you do not let these mysteries linger for too long, lest people quickly disengage and will likely refuse to play them again.
By the way, the answer to that second question above is “YES.” The solution? Romeo and Juliet were fish, and their fish tank fell and crashed to the floor. Poor fishies.
More Minute Mysteries
Here are fifteen more mysteries that will keep you and your group busy for a while:
A man pushes his car in front of a hotel and declares bankruptcy. Why?
The man is playing Monopoly and can not afford to pay the ‘rent.’
Two men go into a bar and order exactly the same drink. The first man chugs his drink while the second man savours it. Within an hour, the second man dies. Why?
The ice cubes in both drinks were poisoned. The first man did not give time for the ice to melt. The second man sipped his drink, so the ice had time to release its poison.
A man leaves home, and when he returns to it a short while later, he finds two men in masks waiting for him. Why?
The man is a baseball player, and the two men in masks are the umpire and catcher.
In the old West a man rides into town on Friday. He stays for three days and leaves on Friday. How can this be?
The horse’s name is Friday.
There is a man walking down the road dressed entirely in black. There are no lights on anywhere and no moon. A car with no lights comes down the road and manages to avoid the man. How?
It’s day time.
You are in a cabin with four walls all facing south. There is a bear outside. What colour is the bear?
White. The cabin is at the tip of the North Pole.
You walk into a room with only one match. You must light a lantern, a gas stove, the pilot light of a water heater and a fire in a fireplace. What do you light first?
Fifty people were sitting in a cabin eating a snack when they all suddenly died. What happened?
The people were sitting in an airplane cabin, and the plane crashed killing everyone on board.
A woman is found hanging from a noose from the roof of an empty room. There is a puddle of water on the floor and the room is locked from the inside. What happened?
The woman stood on a huge block of ice which, as it melted, hung her.
A man lives on the 40th floor of an apartment building. Every day, the man rides the elevator to the Ground floor and goes to work. Yet, when the man returns home, he gets off at the 10th floor and then walks 30 flights of stairs up to his apartment. Why?
The man is very short and can only reach the button of the 10th floor.
A man is found dead lying in the middle of a field with a pack on his back. What happened?
The man is a skydiver and his parachute failed.
A father and son are involved in a car accident. The father dies, but the boy survives and is taken to the hospital for surgery. A grey-haired, bespectacled surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I cannot operate on this boy – he’s my son.” Why?
The surgeon is the boy’s mother.
A man is running down a hallway. Suddenly the lights start to flicker and he stops. He turns around and walks back to his office. What happened?
The man is a prison warden, on his way to tell a prisoner on death row that he had been pardoned. When the lights flicker, he knows that it’s too late because the prisoner has just been executed.
A man wearing a scuba suit is found dead in the middle of a forest. What happened?
The man was diving in a nearby lake when he was accidentally scooped up by a water bomber to dump a load of water on a bush fire.
A man walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The barman pulls out a gun. The man says “Thank you” and leaves. What happened?
The man had hiccups, but the gun scares them away.
Do you have one or more minute mysteries to share?
These mini-mysteries are a wonderful way to occupy idle time because they take no time to set up, require no equipment and can be ‘solved’ on the run as much as sitting down. For example, I have often presented one or more mysteries to a group as we walk between two spots or journey in a vehicle. Or, in a residential setting, they have been presented over a meal.
Admittedly, many of these mysteries are a little gruesome, ie they involve death or dying. If you are concerned that they may be too dark or not sensitive to the needs of your group, adapt your language or choose a less disturbing scenario.
Please note, the point of lateral-thinking / mystery types of activities should not be to frustrate your group beyond enjoyment. They are designed to be fun, so in my experience, I rarely play these for more than 20 or 30 minutes. Gradually introduce more and more obvious clues so that, eventually, everyone gets the solves the mystery.
Note, you often need to be very careful in your presentation and/or language of the mystery. Some minute mysteries rely on a particular description, set of words or sequence of facts and, if you get this wrong, you may risk upsetting your group.
If you love a good mystery, take a look at a comprehensive catalogue of various (real-life and concocted) mysteries on Wikipedia.
You could integrate Minute Mysteries as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behaviour and social interactions across different situations.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
There is no specific health & wellness perspective to this activity other than promoting the benefits of exercising one’s cognitive muscles to solve a difficult puzzle.
If you can think of an explicit way in which Minute Mysteries could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
Small Group Challenge: Break into small groups and issue each group with one or more mysteries to solve as quickly as possible.
BYO Minute Mysteries: For the creatively-inspired, ask a small group to invent their own ‘mystery’ and challenge another group to solve it. Guide them to construct a small number of facts and a scenario, followed by a question such as Why? or How did this happen?
Bus Stop Pick-Up: You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus – an old lady who looks as if she is about to die, an old friend who once saved your life, and the perfect partner you have been dreaming about. There is only room for one passenger in your car, and it is possible to make everyone happy. How?
Help the old lady into the car, give the keys to your car to your friend, and wait with your perfect partner for the bus.
Arresting Mystery: Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman. How do they know they’ve got their man?
The fireman is the only man in the room, ie the rest of the poker players are women.
Falling Baby: How could a baby fall out of a twenty-story building onto the ground and live?
The baby fell out of a ground floor window.
An Odd Mother: Bad Boy Bubby was warned by his mother never to open the cellar door or he would see things that he was not meant to see. One day while his mother was out he did open the cellar door. What did he see?
When Bubby opened the cellar door he saw the living room and, through its windows, the garden. He had never seen these before because his mother had kept him in the cellar all his life.
Eggs In A Basket: There are six eggs in the basket. Six people each take one of the eggs. How can it be that one egg is left in the basket?
The last person took the basket with the last egg still inside.
Take a look at Mastermind Relay to explore a series of very different cognitive challenges.
Share the mystery with your virtual gathering and invite them to ask questions via the chatroom. It sometimes helps to share a slide on the screen that states the mystery so it is ever-present, ie if you add it to the chatroom, it will soon disappear as your people contribute ideas.
You could ask your participants to switch on their microphones, but depending on the number of people engaged in your session, this might become unwieldy.
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Useful Framing Ideas
Many of us are drawn to a mystery like moths to a bright light. Does this sound like you? There’s something very attractive, yet perplexing when we try to solve a problem. Let’s see if you can solve this minute mystery…
This next task will involve the exercise of lots of clear and critical thinking skills from your group. The solution is quite simple, but it’s not easy because you will make many assumptions that you will not even be conscious of…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this series of fascinating minute mysteries:
What reactions did you observe from the group when the mystery was first announced?
What feelings did you or the group experience during the activity? Why?
Did you or the group make any assumptions? Provide an example.
How easy was it to identify and/or dismantle these assumptions?
Where else in our lives do we make assumptions that cause us to make poor decisions?
The inspiration for these Minute Mysteries has been sourced from many people over many years. No one person in particular, they include youth group leaders, camp directors and fellow trainers. All received with thanks.