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Playing the Game

The Pre-Game Show

Thirty-two hours in a van, scavenging for clues and solving puzzles—that’s “the Game,” a battle of smarts and endurance, and the competition is beyond fierce. Part one: Wooing the judges and preparing to be crushed.

“In about 10 minutes this place is going to be overrun with geeks,” predicts Gordon.

It’s a quarter to 10 on a warm June night, and Gordon and I are sitting on a curb in Seattle. About 20 feet above our heads, affixed to the side of a building, is the “Fremont Rocket”—a 53-foot-tall Cold War-era missile modified to look like a spaceship. Sitting next to us on the sidewalk is a significantly smaller spaceship, but one that’s equally impressive in its own way.

We are there with the rest of our team, “The ‘B’ Ark”—Pat, Bruce, Chip, and Bob—in an effort to gain entry into “the Game.” This year’s Game, entitled “The Mooncurser’s Handbook,” has a science-fiction theme and is being run by a fictitious publishing company called Galactic Consortium Press. The Consortium’s website has instructed aspiring Game participants to assemble at this pre-arranged time and place and hand in their applications.

As with everything involving the Game, the application process has a few catches. In addition to general information about our team, Galactic Consortium asked us to bring an assortment of miscellaneous items; these requests, however, were hidden on the website and encoded into riddles. For example, this was the bio for Application Judge “Kered DaVeen”:

[His] pride and joy are his five children. The first loves to go buy things, the second is a homebody, the fourth won’t touch his food, and the fifth keeps repeating the Anchooozian exclamation, “Wee!” His third son is his only confusion. Kered would love nothing more than to have someone present little Snookums’s favorite dish; wouldn’t that spice up an application!

Upon reading this we knew immediately what to do. That is to say, Gordon, our captain, knew what to do. I was stumped until Gordon sent an email to our crew with a To Do list that included “buy roast beef.” Because I recite the “five little piggies” rhyme to my toddler several times a day, I felt like an idiot for not figuring this one out on my own.

 

Just as Gordon predicted, dozens of people suddenly pour out of vans and nearby coffeehouses and converge beneath the Fremont Rocket in the minutes before 10 p.m. All the prospective teams have models of their starships (another requirement of the application process), and the various spacecraft have been created from a wide variety of media. One team’s ship is constructed of Legos, another team has grafted tailfins onto a bong. The Consortium website encouraged teams to include bribes with their applications, so several teams have made their vessels edible, sculpting cake and pudding into the shape of space shuttles.

Applicants for the Game await the arrival of Galactic Consortium. Credit: Paton J. Lewis.

The Galactic Consortium representatives, dressed as aliens, arrive promptly at 10 and begin collecting applications. While handing in submissions, teams call attention to the roast beef, medium-sized T-shirt, and magazine cover they have included, to demonstrate that they have located and solved all the puzzles from the website.

Though we’re not certain we have found all the puzzles, we’re pretty sure we have the “model of your ship” aspect of the application nailed, as the “B” Ark is fortunate enough to have a master engineer on its roster. My teammate Chip has spent countless hours constructing an amazing three-foot spacecraft which, in addition to looking an order of magnitude cooler than any other another in sight, also dispenses coffee and doughnuts.

Chip has loaded up the “B” Ark with our bribes: fresh, hot Starbucks in one fuselage, a stack of glazed doughnuts in the other. We even have a bit of rehearsed patter for when we distribute the goodies. The third doughnut in is, in fact, a roast beef bagel sandwich; our plan is to give the first two pastries to Consortium representatives, “discover” the bagel, and then apologize profusely for the “doughnut dispenser malfunction” as we hand them the required roast beef.

I have somehow been tagged our team’s official “schmoozer,” so I wade into the crowd, latch onto a woman who is reviewing applications, and lead her over to my crew, talking up the virtues of our spaceship as we go. As we arrive, Chip quickly picks up the “B” Ark and tucks it under his arm. He is holding it such that the top of the ship and its twin pointy nosecones are pointing directly at the Consortium representative, and she, not knowing what the rocket is going to do once powered, looks vaguely panicked as Chip prepares to plug an extension cord into the ship’s tail.

Chip gets the ship running and pours the Consortium representative a cup of coffee from the left fuselage. “But that’s not all,” I say, in my best car-salesman voice. “The latest model of the ‘B’ Ark comes fully equipped with the absolute latest in doughnut dispension technology.” Chip opens a hidden panel on the right fuselage and presses a button. The ship says “rrrrRRRRrrrr!” and vibrates impressively, but no doughnut is forthcoming. “Huh,” says Chip.

Inside the ship, a central spindle is threaded through the stack of doughnuts. When the button is depressed, the spindle turns, raising the topmost doughnut to the dispensation hole. Chip is completely baffled, because he has thoroughly tested both the coffee dispenser and the doughnut dispenser; unfortunately, he had never tested both concurrently. As it turns out, the heat from the coffee has caused the doughnut glaze to melt and congeal, fusing the whole stack of pastries into a single cylinder while simultaneously gluing this cylinder to the inside wall of the fuselage.

While Chip tries to figure out the problem, I continue my salesman patter. People start to crowd around us, craning their necks and wondering what our rocket is supposed to do.

“The first thing you need to know, is that we have zero chance of winning.”

Eventually I run out of things to say and fall silent. Gordon steps in and points out a few more features of our ship, but then his verbal well also runs dry. Chip, sensing that we are on the verge of blowing it, decides to take a more direct approach to troubleshooting. He pops open the top of the doughnut chamber and yanks out the entire spindle—all while keeping the button fully depressed. Now unglued from the fuselage wall, the spindle turns just fine—it rotates with such vigor, in fact, that the centrifugal force rips the pastries to shreds, causing them to explode. The people around us shriek in terror, rapidly turning away and ducking, as they are abruptly pelted with doughnut shrapnel.

By the time Chip takes his finger from the button the spindle is empty, except for the roast-beef bagel sandwich. I pluck it off the shaft, hand it to the stunned Consortium rep, and announce, “And here’s some roast beef, just as you requested.”

The woman accepts it with a dazed expression, clearly unable to determine whether she’d just witnessed a complete debacle or an amazing, painstakingly orchestrated bit of performance art.

 

A week later we are contacted by the Galactic Consortium and informed that our application has been accepted. It’s official: We are playing the Game.

 

The Game is difficult to describe, but here goes. Imagine yourself and five friends barreling around a major metropolitan city in a rented van for 32 straight hours while solving insanely difficult puzzles and engaging in an assortment of tasks designed to test your mental and physical stamina, an event combining elements of road rallies, scavenger hunts, and “Mind Olympics” competitions. That doesn’t exactly describe the Game, but it’s as good a description as any.

The typical structure of a Game is linear. At the start, each team receives a clue that, when solved, reveals the location of the next clue; the solution to the second clue tells you where to find the third, and so on for the next day and a half. Usually there is a story arc of some sort, with some Games hewing closely to the theme and others only using it to give the activity some semblance of a narrative.

I have never played a Game before. In fact, five of the six members of “B” Ark are Game virgins (though Bruce and Chip have competed in similar events). Our captain, on the other hand, not only has participated in countless Games, but even has helped organize a few. But while many people play the Game to win, Gordon has always been more interested in enjoying himself—so much so that, when his team began to win with regularity, he decided it would be more fun to defect, assemble a band of rookies, and see the Game again through new eyes.

 

“The first thing you need to know,” Gordon tells us at our first team meeting, “is that we have zero chance of winning.” As we get closer to the date, Gordon gives variations on this pep talk frequently, both in person and by email. The word “crushed” is used more than once in describing the likely outcome of our efforts.

In the months after our acceptance, a few more puzzles are posted to the Galactic Consortium website. The solution of one urges us to come to the Game armed with a protractor; another explains that the background image of the website itself is a stereogram which, if viewed correctly, will reveal some hidden information.

These “pre-clues” are part of every Game and, traditionally, it’s one of the pre-clues that announces the start location. Ominously, with a week remaining before the Game is to begin, we still have no idea where we are going. Gordon had received a very nice invitation in the mail—a white card with a gold frame mounted on thick, black pasteboard—but it only reveals the date and time the Game is slated to begin, not the location. Gordon finally decides to take drastic measures and disassembles the beautiful invitation. It turns out that the “gold frame” is, in fact, an envelope glued to the pasteboard. Inside is a slip of paper telling us that the Game will begin in Bellingham, a city about two hours north of Seattle.

 

On Friday, Aug. 19, my five teammates and I set off to play the Game. We first stop at Taco Guayamos for lunch. Halfway through the meal someone wonders aloud if eating Mexican food is such a great idea, given that we’re about to spend three days together in a single van.

On the drive to Bellingham, Gordon and Chip (coworkers who play Scrabble over lunch every day) pass the time by playing a series of absurdly difficult word games, including one where they take turn adding letters to a common pool and then trying to find words that contain all of the amassed letters. Between rounds they reminisce fondly about a game Gordon had won some time ago by taking the letters “rxcloy” and finding the word “carboxyl.”

I participate in a trivia game and a singing game and fail miserably in a few rounds of “Dance Dance Revolution.” The nastiest game I play is a modified version of Charades.

We arrive at our hotel in time to check in and unwind for an hour before heading off to the pre-game festivities. As we file into a large banquet hall, Gordon helpfully points out the other players he recognizes. “Those guys are from the Killer Bees,” he says. “They’re totally going to beat us. And most of the people over there are from my old team; they are also going to beat us.” I start to wonder why on Earth I have voluntarily put myself in the position of being the dumbest person in a room of 150.

No two members of the same crew are allowed to sit at the same table, so this is the last I see of Gordon for a while. This was a mingler, and Galactic Consortium has an assortment of tricks to ensure that this roomful of geeks, with the combined social skills of one homecoming queen, would have to do just that. We are given an introduction to The Mooncurser’s Handbook, served dinner, and then told of the evening’s activities.

At the pre-Game festivities, chief engineer Chip poses with the doughnut dispensing “B” Ark. Credit: Paton J. Lewis.

A host of party games has been arranged for us to play, but people are disallowed from playing any of them with members of their own crew. Whenever a player wins a game, he receives a series of numbers and letters; when players of a crew gather enough of these, then can use them to spell out one of the central “challenges” that can be performed to gain an advantage in the Game. Identifying and completing these challenges is the ultimate goal of the evening.

I participate in a trivia game and a singing game and fail miserably in a few rounds of “Dance Dance Revolution.” The nastiest game I play is a modified version of Charades. Teams of four are separated into groups of two and sent to separate rooms. When play begins, the clue-givers are shown a word and have to act it out in front of a closed-circuit video camera; the clue guessers, meanwhile, watch the video from three rooms away and shout out answers. There is a Consortium staff member with a laptop in each of the rooms, communicating with each other via instant messenger, and they determine when a word is correctly guessed. What makes this so aggravating is the complete lack of feedback: The clue givers have no idea if the guessers are on the right track; the guessers can’t just shout out “I have no idea what you’re doing! Try something else!”

Between the six of us, the “B” Ark figures out one of the challenges: form a human pyramid. We rush to do so in front of the Consortium judges. Other crews decipher the rest of the challenges, and the last one—passing two people overhead the entire length of the room—is completed around 10 p.m.

The Galactic Consortium representatives retake the stage and announce the close of the evening’s activities but remind us that the Game will begin tomorrow morning at eight. They urge us to get a good night’s sleep, as it will be the last rest we will receive for a spell.

I stagger off to find my bed, full of adrenaline and utterly exhausted.

 

Back in my room, I fall asleep immediately. All night I dream about puzzles.