Invite Japan’s Epic Suitcase Mystery Adventure in Okinawa: Team Building With a Tropical Twist

Picture, if you will, a high-end resort near Naha, Okinawa. From the wide windows in the lobby you can see outside, to where the palm trees sway listlessly in the breeze that smells like sun and sea salt. The turquoise-colored waves of the ocean crash rhythmically into the golden beaches. The large pool glistens and beckons under the pure, nearly cloudless azure sky. 

Typical, you might say. But step inside the huge event hall, and you will find something that you might not always see every day. Forty tables, set up in neat rows, with groups of five to six people sitting around them. All of them are concentrating intently on the suitcases in front of them–old suitcases that look like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. 

Many of the tables have objects scattered around them: ribbons, horseshoes with strange symbols on them, maps and smaller antique-looking boxes. The group’s members are all huddled together, talking animatedly, excitedly–gesturing to the objects on the table or picking them up to examine them. 

Suddenly, a loud pop and a burst of bright streamers. Shouts and yells of elation from one of the tables. What’s going on? The whole room goes silent. Everyone turns their heads to see what is happening. After only about thirty minutes of playing, a team has won the game.

Suitcase Mystery in Okinawa

Suitcase Mystery: Classic

This was the scene at our latest event this past Friday. It was also one of our biggest events, with around 240 players participating. This number is especially significant considering that the event was indoors, and the game was our dispatch puzzle game, Suitcase Mystery: Classic.

While we have done large events (300 plus) before, those have mostly been with our outdoor scavenger hunt games, where there is lots of room and the puzzle kits are much easier to produce. 

Suitcase Mystery, however, is an indoor game. Each puzzle kit is an entire self-contained game, chock-full of puzzles and challenges, with strange objects, symbols and cards that players spend 60 minutes figuring out how to complete. While the game was designed to be able to travel, usually groups request up to ten or so at a time. So it takes more effort to make each one, as well as send them to the location of the event.

As you can see, there are clearly a lot of challenges involved with making 40 suitcase game kits (one for each team), and then shipping them to an island across the country. 

The lead-up 

So how did we end up here? As usual, a combination of different situations and forces allowed us to pull off this feat. A while ago, we were contacted by a large consulting firm (unfortunately we can’t give away the identity of our client), who wanted a team building activity to do during their off-site retreat–in Okinawa. 

It turns out that the client hadn’t been able to put on their regular retreats for the past few years, as a result of Covid-19. Now, they were ready to splurge a bit. Luckily for us though, we had a team member, our Creative Director Dennis, who moved to Okinawa after we shifted to remote work. 

Having someone on the ground in Okinawa definitely made us more confident that we would be able to pull the event off. And so in one of those strange twists of fate, in some ways Covid-19 ended up bringing us to Okinawa.

Makin’ suitcases

Setting up the suitcases.

The only major issue, though, was figuring out how we would both make and send all of those suitcases. The time schedule was tight, too, and we didn’t have that much time to waste before we needed to send the suitcases out to make sure they reached Okinawa in time.

Yuki and Kazu stepped up to organize the production of the new suitcases and the logistics of sending them. They organized shopping lists and got team members to come into the Invite Japan  lab to help with printing, laminating and setting the suitcases.  Through their guidance and everyone’s hard, we managed to make enough suitcases for the forty teams. 

Shipping them also turned out well. As you can imagine, shipping ten 30kg boxes is no laughing matter. Still, we were able to get within the right weight,and the boxes arrived even earlier than expected. All that was left was to get there ourselves.

The day of the event

Dennis gives the introduction to the game.

The client only requested four facilitators on the day of the event. However, we decided that we wanted to send more (out of our own pocket), in order to make sure that the event went well and that the players went home happy. With years of experience doing events like this (albeit at a smaller scale), we know what is needed to make an event go smoothly.

So we ended up having eight facilitators there (one who lives in Okinawa, and seven that traveled in from Tokyo). That ended up being a wise decision. We had enough facilitators to help all the teams when they were struggling, take pictures, and clean up the suitcases in a timely manner.

Four of the facilitators went to the venue early at 7:30 in the morning to meet with the clients, make some final decisions, and get ready for the event. The other facilitators came around 8:15. We showed a lot of teamwork in the time before the event. We talked about how we would handle the large number of groups, made an organized plan to carry out the suitcases, and were  generally flexible in terms of changing some of our preconceived ideas of how the day would unfold.

The event flow

A scene of the event space on the day.

Dennis set the stage with an exciting speech about the game and what players could expect, using a newly designed slideshow that looked really great. The players were clearly engaged, even before the game had started, no doubt because the sight of a strange antique-looking suitcase sitting on a table is a sure-fire way to capture people’s curiosity. 

Once the timer started it was off to the races. Teams excitedly picked up their suitcases and looked around for clues. This was a smart group, and they moved rather quickly past the first couple of challenges. 

Facilitators walked around, checking in on their teams and giving hints when needed. Something always happens, and you never know when things can suddenly go wrong with a lock, a code or a broken something. But we were all on and prepared. When problems emerged (like when a lock didn’t open and we had to use a screwdriver), they never ended up affecting the gameplay as a whole.

After around thirty minutes, the first teams started to finish the game. Other teams watched them celebrate and shoot their confetti crackers, and became more motivated to finish. As the hour winded down, the excitement level only grew. Facilitators rushed around, helping teams move forward and taking pictures of teams that finished.

After an hour, it was all over. Most teams had completed the game and were feeling tired but accomplished. A small ceremony announced the winning teams and gave a chance for each of them to give a little speech.

New online ranking system 

The final mission.

One thing we added to this event was a brand new online ranking system. Normally, facilitators can generally tell which teams finished first, because there aren’t that many of them and they can usually see what’s going on at all times.

This time though, there was no way that facilitators could keep track of all the teams and when they finished. Moreover, the client was very adamant about wanting to know the top three winning teams, since they wanted to give them special prizes.

After discussing the issue during our planning meetings, we decided that the best route was to make an online ranking system. Teams would be given a card with a QR code when they were close to finishing to access a special website. There they would enter the final answer of the game, and their completion time would automatically be recorded.

Thanks to our developer, Jet, this system worked flawlessly, and it even made us realize that we could use it again in the future. It also opened our eyes to how we could use more technology in the future to make our other games better.

Wraping up   

Players celebrate after completing the game.

After the wrapping-up speeches from the winner and the event organizers, it was time to pack up. Everything went back into the suitcases, which in turn went back in their boxes for shipping back (most to Tokyo, but some went to Osaka for another event this week). 

Almost immediately, we received positive feedback from the client. The event organizers told us how much fun everyone had, and we could tell that they were very satisfied. The event had been nearly flawlessly executed, and no major issues had occurred, which was our major task.

Participants also told us how much they really liked the game and how exciting it was. Getting that instantaneous feedback was truly heart-warming. It was all worth it–all the hard work and stress and effort. Seeing clients happy is our number one goal. 

Lessons learned

Of course, we needed to celebrate our success and our own teamwork (always important for teams to do, by the way) after such a major event. So we went out to a local Okinawan pub for drinks and food. We also talked about the day and reflected a bit on some of our teakeways.

One common thread was how much we’ve grown as a company. Pulling off something like this was always a long-term goal of ours, but we didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Yet, we rose to the occasion and did what needed to be done. We made new suitcases, flew hundreds of miles, and changed details on the day to make the event go as well as it did.  

We also realized how much of a team we really are. That may sound strange coming from a team building company, but it is always during challenges that you realize what kind of a team you have, and where your strengths as a team really lie.

We are a small team, working remotely most of the time. But we are powerful in how we coordinate and collaborate with each other. We can do more than we imagine when we stretch out and trust in each other. And this event has made us realize that there is a lot that we can do.

The future is definitely bright. We can do these types of events anywhere in Japan, and we now have the receipts to prove it. We can work with groups of any size and accommodate players from around the world. And we are ready for our next challenge!

Photo by Samuel Berner on Unsplash

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