Hogwarts Inside Out: The Play-test

Hogwarts Inside Out: The Play-test

I had hooked up with with team Continental Breakfast for this play-test because I wanted to write about how other teams operated. How did they withstand the frustration of difficult puzzles? How did they endure each others' company for more than twenty-four hours without hating each other? How did they cooperate effectively, becoming more than the sum of their parts?

In the days leading up to the play-test, I noticed the first difference between team Continental Breakfast and my usual team, Mystic Fish. It wasn't a difference in attitude. It was the difference between a two-year-old team and a six-year-old team. Continental Breakfast hadn't accumulated a posse of remote puzzle-loving friends on their mailing list. We'd received a DVD, a pre-clue. This DVD seemed to congratulate us for being accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but there were clues hidden within. Justin, our team captain, had the DVD. He had noticed that its "Alternate Angle Video" wasn't really an alternate angle video--but instead showed Team Snout's Chris Nichols making a message in sign language. Justin didn't know sign language, so he used a camera to take a movie of this movie and uploaded it so other people on the team could see it and decode it.

Not much happened for a couple of days. There weren't many people on the mailing list, and all were busy and/or stumped by the video. Team Mystic Fish has accumulated many people on its mailing list. These people aren't likely to play with Mystic Fish any time soon--they're on the East Coast, in Germany, in stranger places. But there are a lot of them, and they like to solve puzzles. If the Fishies who are likely to play in a game can't handle the pre-game clues, one of the other mailing list members is likely to step up. Continental Breakfast hadn't accumulated such a crew yet. Someone did eventually figure out the video.

Anyhow, the play-test. There was a big Game coming up. Game Control wanted to work out the rough spots, make sure they'd created something fun. So they were running three teams through the game a fortnight ahead of time. If any of us had an awful time, then Game Control, could tweak things to make them better. We were play-testers. We were Beta-testers.

Getting Sorted, Getting There

It was too early in the morning of August 26, 2006 for me to be up and stumbling around in Justin Ghan's living room, and yet there we were. The Game would start at 7:30 in the morning. Thus, this play-test would start at 7:30 in the morning. Thus three of us play-testers were blearily bumbling around in Justin Ghan's living room. We were assembling here before all driving over to the game's starting location--the Emeryville Amtrak Station.

Justin Ghan was one of the founding members of team Continental Breakfast. Looking around Justin's apartment, you could tell he liked puzzle-hunt games. He had puzzles from recent games hanging on his walls, like art. On the kitchen wall hung the "album art" puzzle from the recent Shinteki Decathlon 2. On another wall was an icosahedral puzzle from the same game. I might have thought I was sleep-deprivedly hallucinating these things, but Rebecca Weisinger, also of Continental Breakfast, confirmed that they were there. She thought this was pretty funny. She'd arrived before I did, and pointed out something I hadn't seen yet--on the living room table, there was a jigsaw puzzle from the Paparazzi Game. Justin wandered over to see what we were talking about. Oh yes, he was trying to figure out how to hang this puzzle up on the wall so that it would be easy to take down, and re-solve.

Phone calls trickled in--our team-mates were running late. A new plan, born of necessity: meet at the train station. We three mustered ourselves, piled into Justin's car, made our way to the station. The station parking was expensive, so we parked under a nearby bridge. So did the other team members. Soon we were all assembled; soon we were all walking to the Station.

Who were we?

We looked around the station, didn't see Game Control, didn't see any other teams. Before we had a chance to get frantic, Jan and Yar of team coed astronomy showed up--so maybe we were just the first arrivals. Or not--a few minutes later, Jan got a phone call from her team-mates asking where she was. Everyone else was on the station's pedestrian overpass, including Game Control. We joined them.

Soon we had our first task, albeit not so puzzly: go to a station ticket counter, tell the ticket agent that we were with "the group" and get a parking validation ticket. This would let us park in the Amtrak lot for free, instead of under a sketchy bridge.

At the ticket window, we told the ticket seller, R. Terrell, that we are with "the group". In theory, he would respond to this by handing over some parking validations. In practice, he asked us where we were going. We didn't know our destination. That was to be a surprise. R. Terrell said that he needed the group leader to show him the tickets. We stumbled away from the window. Someone pointed out that Elena of Team coed astronomy had picked up validations no problem at the other ticket window, so we went there. Justin asked for parking tickets and that ticket agent handed them over.

Walking back to the parking area under the bridge, we discussed The Amazing BANG. Like the TV show The Amazing Race, the Amazing BANG had Yields: by solving a certain puzzle, a team earned the power to delay another team behind them. I never understood this rule: I don't want to delay a team behind me, I want to delay a team that's ahead of me. Why would I want to delay a team behind me? Rebecca pointed out: "To be mean." Then she pointed out: "I'm the only one here who understands this value." Prasad points out that maybe there's a team you're worried about catching up to you.

We moved cars to the lot, walked across the pedestrian overpass, down a street, and into the parking lot of a nearby movie theater. I asked how the team had formed. Justin and Prasad and two other not-present folks were all from Australia. They hadn't gone to the same schools, but they'd met at Mathscamp. (Australians have their own version of Mathcamp which they, in their outrageous Australian accents, call "mathscamp.") These Australians had ended up going to grad school in Northern California and stayed in contact. One of them (David Varodyan, not present for this play-test) had found out about the local puzzle hunt scene, and they'd started playing. Rebecca had met Prasad at Stanford, she'd started playing with the team, and it had been a good fit.

Erik wasn't generally part of Continental Breakfast, but this is as good a time to talk about him as ever: Erik seemed like an experienced Gamer, though I didn't find out what team(s) he'd played on. But he seemed to know what he was doing. Someone compared his appearance to that of Draco Malfoy--a pale, blond character in Harry Potter. In real life, he did "strategy" for eBay.

Continental Breakfast, before they were "Continental Breakfast", played in several BANGs, changing their team name each time. Eventually, they'd decided it was time to settle on a name.

In the theater parking lot, there was some milling around. Game control was huddled around. Some Game Control (GC) folks chatted with players, but mostly they were busy. So the players chatted amongst themselves.

The core of each of these teams was grad students. I thought back to my student days, wondered if some of these folks might have been extra-eager to play-test since it was free. It's good that Game Control had the freedom to set up some elaborate stuff and could charge enough money to recover costs. It was also good that this play-test gave students a way to play in such an elaborate game.

What did we talk about in the parking lot? Well, there was our team's misadventures getting tickets. When the ticket seller had asked us where we were going, we should have responded, "Can we ask you twenty questions about our location? We might be going North. Does North sound right? We might be going to Richmo--Carquine--Sacramento?"

Prasad was planning to travel to Oaxaca, where there was a teachers' strike going on. Recently, this strike had escalated, and there was a travel advisory. It was difficult to find news about this strike. Surely if there's a travel advisory, that suggests something newsworthy going on, a good place to send a reporter? Apparently not. Some people had shot some protestors. Rumor said that the shooters were off-duty police. Things had escalated. Prasad still wanted to go to Oaxaca. He would do his best to look unlike a protestor.

Curtis Chen, one of Team Snout's guiding lights, gave us our initial play-testers' briefing. He thanked us for play-testing. He told us that GC was aiming to give us a complete Gaming experience: actual clues, actual locations, as much as they could. GC would not be in costume, but they would speak in character. With that, the play-test began. Curtis was now in character as the head of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and/or Witchcraft. (I probably got the Hogwarts name wrong, and I don't care.) His voice and accent settled into something like that of a retired and respected sergeant-major. Curtis Our headmaster said something like this:

Greetings students! Can you all hear me?

Excellent. Greetings and congratulations on your acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! We are very excited for this year's transferring class and I believe I speak for all the faculty when I say we are very much looking forward to getting to know each and every one of you.

Allow me to review your schedule for the next two days. First, you'll receive a brief orientation this morning. In the afternoon, you will attend classes and have some time to familiarize yourself with the school. After classes, you will retire to your dormitories until breakfast time on Sunday.

In a moment, we will all board the train to go to Hogwarts, but before we do, we've made arrangements in this magically hidden... parking lot--

--to sort each of you into one of our four houses. This ceremony is traditionally conducted in our Great Hall, when first year students arrive, but since you are transfer students, we thought it would be good for you to meet your fellow students right away, to start forging friendships and such.

Once sorted, your study group will receive a pouch containing house point tokens. As I'm sure you've heard, these house points will be used to determine which house wins the house cup at the end of the year. So make sure to pay attention in class and always be on your best behavior. Any professor may choose to give or take away house points at any time.

You will also receive bandanas in your house color. You're free to wear this article anywhere you like, but it must be visibly worn at all times. House points may be taken away if anyone in your study group is found without wearing his house colors. I believe that's all. Please hold all your questions until the end of the sorting ceremony. And now, please allow me to introduce... the Sorting Hat.

The sorting hat was a puppet. It was pretty funny to see a talking hat puppet. The hat gave a poetic speech on the nature of Hogwarts' four houses. Then it delivered a scary prediction:

...This is the warning that I must give
Past danger I see coming fast
Pay attention to the signs around you
And find the secret path.

It's time again that I must leave for Hogwarts to unite within
All must work together to ensure that everyone can win.

The study groups were called up, one by one. Everyone in the team had to put their head under the hat-puppet at the same time. First went coed astronomy--they were sorted to Ravenclaw. Next came Continental Breakfast--we were Hufflepuff. Finally, there was Get on a Raft with the Weasleys--sorted to House Gryffindor.

Someone asked if we, as play-testers, had any special duty to report what we were thinking as we approached various puzzles. Curtis said no--we'd have observers with us. They'd note down what we talked about and report back to GC. "They will not talk to you. Do not encourage them to speak." (We encouraged our observers to speak, and they responded--without giving away anything about the game.)

We received our bandanas, house point pouches, and bagged breakfasts. I grabbed the point-token pouch, slipped it onto my wrist, and insisted on calling it a "reticule" for the rest of the game. The bandanas looked like regular paisley bandanas--but someone had drawn straight lines connecting some of the paisley dots. Hmm, our first puzzle.

We made our way back to the train platform. Here, Game Control observers were assigned to study groups... and we got Anna Hentzel! Anna usually played with a team called the Hollowmen, but she'd joined up with Team Snout to help run this game. Anna and I worked at the same place and sometimes talked about game stuff. I was glad to have her along.

I wandered over to the Get on a Raft with the Weasleys and asked if they'd be amenable to comparing bandanas. Their bandanas had the same line-pattern as ours. Someone noticed that the lines looked like semaphore. Soon we had some letters. Someone anagrammed those letters to "CHANTERS". Yay, we'd solved a puzzle, and we weren't even on the train yet.

Erik told a story about his sister-in-law. She'd played in one of Alexandra's games. In this game, she'd walked to the top of a hill. She'd got winded--more winded than you would expect. So she got checked out by a doctor. It turned out that she had cancer, but the prognosis was good--because she'd noticed it so early. How's that for an endorsement--one of Alexandra's games had saved a life.

There was a bit of wait for the train, which was a nice thing because these were three friendly teams. Ian was making up puzzles and handing them around to the Get on a Raft with the Weasley folks to solve. Chat was exchanged. Eventually, the train showed up. The conductor leaned out of a car and said, "If you're going to Sacramento, board this car!" The GC fellow with the tickets said, "We're going to Sacramento." Thus we found out our secret destination--we were going to Sacramento. GC hadn't wanted us to find out, but they did need to get us onto the train car. No doubt that's when they started planning how to keep the players ignorant when the real Game ran.

The train, being Amtrak, was delayed. We lounged and chatted. We talked about various folks' various past experiences traveling to Sacramento. We talked about Harry Potter, specifically about the "Bertie Bott's" Harry Potter-themed jelly beans, wondering who tested the flavors like "snot" for accuracy.

I moseyed over to talk with the Desert Taxi folks. I was glad that they'd made it into the play-test; they were glad, too. Amongst the Rafters, Ian continued to produce puzzles. Darcy said that Ian had come up with 13 puzzle hunts so far. They were currently wrestling with the puzzle: Think of a common word that starts with 'w' and ends with 'c'. I never did think of an answer to that one, unless if it's a pun and the answer is "woodsy". I suspect that isn't it, though.

I walked back, rejoined Continental Breakfast--and looked up the aisle and there was an owl delivering some Harry Potter-style owl-mail. Or rather, one of the GC folks (who I would later learn was Miss Jerry) had put on a feathery mask and was walking down the aisle, passing pieces of paper to players. Oh, it was time to look alive again.

This was a school newsletter, letting us know that a professor had gone missing--Professor Cassandra Cross. Professor Cross was the planned instructor for the Defence Against the Dark Arts class. There was also a crossword puzzle. Justin and I skimmed articles while Prasad and Rebecca solved the crossword. The answers to the clues formed a message:

To find out how to reach our first class, we would need to ask a chaperone, specifically the chaperone of our first scheduled class. But we didn't have our class schedule.

Justin had noticed a message that we could get our class schedules "from a flavorful source." Hmm, hadn't we just heard an announcement that the snack lounge was now open? We made our way forward to the observation car, down to the snack lounge. Justin suavely approached the fellow behind the snack counter. "Excuse me, do you have any class schedules?" The snack-counter guy said yeah, he had schedules, and fetched out a train schedule. "No, er class schedules?" The snack-counter guy didn't know anything about those. Just to reinforce the point, the tables in this snack area were labeled "NO GAMES".

We were overlooking something. Where was our flavorful source? We made our way back to our passenger car and scanned the newsletter some more. We were distracted by a GC person strolling down the aisle, distributing shiny boxes. The boxes were labeled Bernie Bott's. Ah, candy. Flavorful candy. We hadn't overlooked our "flavorful source" after all.

The label on the outside of the box listed several jellybean flavors. We noticed that one of them was not the usual B.B. flavor name: "Vomit" had been changed to "Upchuck". So names were probably important. Inside, there was a bag full of jellybeans, several flavors of jellybeans. But there were some duplicates. There were many duplicates, in fact. Rebecca sorted the jellybeans by flavor: how many Earthworm flavor? How many Fried Bacon? Rebecca knew her jellybeans pretty well, and was able to identify most of them by sight. When we'd counted them out, it turned out that no two flavors had the same number of jelly beans--there was one of one flavor, two of another, three of another, and so on. This suggested a way to sort the flavors. When we weren't sure about the flavor associated with some color of jelly bean, we'd hand them around and taste. One of our unidentified flavors was the singleton. We couldn't pass that one around. Erik suggested that we pass it around and smell it. Then he held it pretty close to his nose and sniffed. Juvenile fellow that I was, I said that now it was snot-flavored. But eventually we figured out its flavor from the smell just fine; Erik's idea was good. Tasting was not always so easy: there was one flavor that I thought was some kind of fruit, but everyone else thought was Earthworm. So the number of beans gave us a way to order our flavors, and we knew what the flavors were. Looking at the first letters of the flavor names thus sorted revealed our first class: Defence.

So we needed to find a chaperone who was of the same House as our professor of Defence against the Dark Arts. Looking in our newsletter, we saw that our substitute Defence teacher was Guzzany, of house Slytherin. Someone pointed out that Anna Hentzel was wearing a Slytherin bandana. I pointed out that Anna was an observer, and that we should pretend that she wasn't really there, but she broke in to say that, she was also a Slytherin chaperone. And then she handed us a folder containing a sheet of photos.

They looked like photos of city locations. After staring at them for a while, we figured that they were taken in Sacramento--perhaps when we disembarked from the train, we could follow them to our location. Some of the photos showed signs. The Sorting Hat told us "Pay attention to the signs around you/ And find the secret path." Perhaps each photo was taken either of a sign or from right in front of a sign? Maybe we were thinking about this too hard, and should just try to find the locations in the photos.


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