My Hench Life: Part 0

Getting There

Months before this game, we applied to get in. (Spoiler: We got in.)

Team Mystic Fish has a tradition for complex applications for The Game. We work on an application. Then, in the last week, we toss out what we've done in favor of another idea. Then that idea doesn't turn out to be so easy and we end up working frantically up to the last minute and turning in something kind of gnarly.

That happened again this game, but it worked out OK for me and that's the important thing, right? We knew we would be team Bloody GoldFish Meat, and figured we'd do something aquatic for our application. We'd been working on an application video with footage we shot at the San Francisco aquarium. I'd helped out with getting the footage, and was working on the editing. But then we got an idea for better footage: steal stuff from Youtube and edit it together with funny voiceovers. It would mean a frenzy of last-minute video editing, but not for me. I went to NYC to volunteer at DASH. I left behind an emergency backup video and tried not to cringe too much when I heard about how late my teammates had stayed up working on our video. (It turned out great, guys!)

It was good enough (along with solving the pre-game puzzles and filling out a team application) to get us in. Then again, it sounds like everyone who applied in the Bay Area got in. It sounds like most of the serious competitors wanted to play this The Game at its first running, up in Seattle. We were competing with a slackful crowd.

Friday of the game start, I took the day off work to pack and prepare. Late in the afternoon, Joe drove his van to a BART station and picked me up. Now there were four of us in the van. We drove out to Pleasanton, talking about what we had to look forward to. The #Occupy movement was making waves in Oakland. Would we have to get through that? There were rumors that the #OccupySF had some bad folks: e.g., someone had dosed a batch of communal food with LSD. But GC hadn't said to look out for #Occupation, so maybe we'd skirt around all that. There was some comedy as we navigated Pleasanton's maze of parking lots to find the hotel where we'd stay that night. There was further comedy as we picked up Erik at the Pleasanton BART station, which features two passenger loading areas on opposite sides of a freeway. (So you really wnat the load-ee and the load-ers to agree on one passenger loading area, it turns out.) But soon we had arrived at the game's first destination: a community hall. Sarah met us there, and the team was now complete.

Memorial Hall

This game did something that I'd heard that the Mooncurser's game had done, and thus might be considered part of the Seattle Style. The Game started on a Friday night instead of a Saturday morning. But instead of starting out in race-mode, we were in mixer-mode. Friday night would start with a dinner and then some activities. But these activities would reward cross-team collaboration. Afterwards, we'd head back to the hotel for sleep; thus, no matter how quickly we solved here, that wouldn't help our standings in the race-ish part of the hunt. The pressure was off.

And so: at about 6:30pm, we walked in through the Pleasanton Memorial Hall's front door where there were registration tables where Game Control (GC) folks could witness us signing our liability waivers.

And while we were waiting for that, we could see some surprises. E.g., Curtis Chen wasn't here to play the game—he'd played in Seattle. Instead, he'd flown down as a GC volunteer. Here, he was snapping photos. There were a lot of GC folks. (There would be about 100 players in the game; there'd be about 20 volunteers. That was a lot of volunteers! But thanks to these volunteers, GC mostly didn't have to skip teams over puzzles, since there were enough folks to stay at sites and monitor.)


Team Bloody GoldFish Meat arrives. Photo by Curtis Chen.

And so we ran a gauntlet of GC folks in the registration area. Kiki Bragg was on GC and explained why all of GC was dressed up: The World Henchmen Organization was kinda corporate. (Though maybe folks were also dressed up to celebrate GC member Robert Cheng's birthday.) I had a chance to tell Jeff Phillips and Donna Whitlock that I was impressed that they'd kept the game announcement under their hats when I talked to them in Seattle back in February. "Airtight Security" I didn't recognize GC's Kim Vlcek, who I'd only recently learned was a big wheel in MS Intern Game circles, and who'd be playing the supervillain "The Mentalist". Jeff Wallace stood guard at the Hall's inner door. It seems like there's always Wallaces coming down from Seattle to help bay area GCs these days. Some Burninators were around, too. They'd played the game in Seattle before; now they were volunteering at the bay area "re-run".

It wasn't just GC here. There were players, too. Chiu-Ki razzed me about my nametag. Instead of my Henchman name ("Grouperman", continuing my superheroic-universe role from the Justice Unlimited Game), it just said "Larry" with a photo of a crab. This made sense: all the teams had seen our application video, but they hadn't seen our written application. But our application video hadn't used our Henching identities. So GC had done their best: used a crab still from our video and put it onto a nametag. Debbie Goldstein was there and introduced me to James from Chicago(?), Emily and Phil from Washington DC(?) and Robin from... I have no idea, probably someplace awesome. Deb let me know that I was sitting at her table. There was going to be a sit-down buffet dinner. But instead of one team per table, there was assigned seating that mixed up teams. It was tempting to interpret this as a puzzle: would we be quizzed about our tablemates later? Eventually, Curtis whispered to me that this was just a way to force some inter-team mixing.

On my way to pick up food, I had a chance to talk to Scott Royer face-to-face for the first time in too long. Lisa Long was wandering around, taking a break from running games in London long enough to fly out to the states for this game.

Back at my assigned table, there was a new arrival: Arshad, normally of Team Bat. So I finally had an excuse to talk with him. He'd just been laid off from one startup and was founding another; it reminded me that while I kinda missed the startup life, I didn't miss the between-jobs stress. I also learned his secret weakness: he is powerless to resist carrot cake.


Debbie chats with someone while I stand and eat, attempting to "solve" the seating arrangements. Erik sits with Jesse Morris, David Mendenhall(?) and some folks I don't recognize. Photos by Curtis Chen.

More folks trickled in, found food, sat down by their nametags at the table. Justin Graham talked about the family dynamic of convincing Victoria to watch the offspring while Justin puzzled all weekend. Debbie had helped a couple with a marriage-proposal puzzlehunt; but the couple weren't puzzlers. Debbie had done some proofreading, caught some garbles, maybe saved a relationship. Kai Huang of team Code Yellow (or Yellow Snow or Snow Job) had something in common with Justin: they had both played MIT Mystery Hunt with team Codex (on different years). Kai said that a bunch of Code Yellow folks had gone to MIT, but hadn't played in the Mystery Hunt while students; they'd only started once they'd been out of school for a while. Justin, a doctor, had done a residency in Boston years ago—again, he hadn't known about the mystery hunt then, and had only discovered it after he moved away. Chiu-Ki dropped by to razz Kai and also revealed: contrary to what I thought, she didn't write the excellent Puzzle Pal app for puzzlehunts; she wrote it for cryptic crosswords. It's still pretty darned useful for The Game though; I'd use it a bunch this weekend.

Soja Marie-something of team Dragonarmy showed up. She said that Dragonarmy had some bay area folks and some out-of-town folks. Kai was used to conference-room games. He wasn't sure how well Code Yellow would do at a van game. The team was used to having many people working on multiple puzzles, not so accustomed to having everybody work on one puzzle. I suggested my slackful attitude: if you notice you're not helping on a puzzle, it's a good time to don't-forget-to-eat, to help clean up the van, help take notes for somebody else; you don't have to be 100% "on" all the time; it's good to pace yourself. (Or maybe I'm just lazy.) Kiki of GC sat with us for a while, but at the other end of the table from me; I don't know what she talked about.

At our end of the table, we talked about big teams in small vans, the cramped solving conditions. Arshad had the opposite problem: the van rental places ran out of small vans, so his team would be driving an oversized cargo game around all weekend. Soja said that team Dragonarmy would be driving around in a 6-person van with 6 people and a dog. The bad news was that the van would be that much more crowded; the good news is that they had an ace in the hole if there were any scent-based puzzles. We talked about the long history of players unfortunately eating edible clues too early. (It predates Tyler Hinman.) Soja and I had something in common: we'd both brought bathing suits, and were hoping for an excuse to use them. (Pay attention to that. That's foreshadowing.)

After about an hour and a half of dinner and chatter: it was time for things to begin! Someone got up to speak at the lectern; I totally failed to recognize him as Bob Schaffer of GC (Team Longshots) partly because I'm a moron, but mostly because he was sporting an evil-henchmannish van Dyke beard.

Bob spoke.

The P.A. system echoed in the big room, and I couldn't tell exactly what he was saying. But I heard enough such that I was sure I didn't need to sweat the details: he was playing a character, the President of the World Henchmen Organization. I'd been in enough of these Games with their story twists to predict that his character would not survive the evening. (I was wrong about that, but was still OK not hearing exactly what he said.) I caught the important bits. E.g., it was GC Robert Cheng's birthday: we sang happy birthday to him.


President Bob addresses the prospective henchfolks. Photo by Curtis Chen

He reminded us that we were on the honor system and introduced the evening's festivities: there were seven activity stations set up. Each team could send at most one member to each station. He made sure that our laptops were set up OK. There was a Silverlight application that teams could use to check answers. We'd need it now. (Thus making it clear, as if there were any doubt: our "activities" were really puzzle stations; we'd need to be on the lookout for hidden messages.)

Time To Play

People got up from their tables, grabbed their gear. Teams assembled. Folks pushed up towards the front of the room to get a lecture about the computer program that would judge our answers, dispense hints, and give us "communiques" (bits of the story). We also got the "start code" to tell our laptops that the game had started. Meanwhile, behind us, GC folks cleared away tables and started setting things up under seven signs that had been posted on the walls of the room.

We folks of Team Bloody GoldFish Meat didn't really figure out our long-term plan; folks got tired of waiting for that plan go get figured out and wandered off to try activity stations. That turned out OK, though. With about half the team still around, I blurted out "If we solve something, should we seek out Joe so he can enter them on the laptop?" Would have been nice if I'd thought to say that earlier. Kai Huang of Code Yellow was nearby and said "Who's Joe?" I said, "Never mind you're not on our team," and then kicked myself. Kai's pretty smart. Team Bloody GoldFish Meat could have used his help.


Folks from several teams look over data gathered from the dixit game. Photo by Curtis Chen.

I wandered around the hall until I found a station that didn't already have a Bloody GoldFish Meater. I ended up at a station at which Doug Zongker was looking for groups of ~five henchers willing to demonstrate their psychic powers. We'd do this by conferring amongst ourselves to psychically attune ourselves and then counting up to 25 out loud. We couldn't have just one person do the counting. We had to have different people say different numbers.

So we started to figure out a complex system and discussed a while how it could work. And it looked like the discussion might go on a while so I piped up for the idea of just counting off in a circle—and if that wasn't sufficiently psychic-seeming to impress Doug, maybe he'd give us a hint as to what more-impressive display he was looking for. A quick-thinking member of GNUs and Roses had a good idea for a simple variation on that: reverse numbers partway through. As it turned out, that was psychic enough.

But we were not so brilliant: GNU-guy said "1". I said "2" and waited for the count to come back around to me: "3", "4", "5", "7". I rolled my eyes. I was supposed to say "8", but we'd already screwed up, skipping "6". Except that we hadn't skipped "6" after all. It's just that our 6-er was kinda quiet and facing away from me. In fact, I'd screwed up the count. That's right, I was clever enough to realize we were over-thinking our counter scheme, but I was bad at counting.

We were intrigued when Doug told us our psychic score for successfully counting up to 7. And we were even more intrigued when we found out that our 7-score was higher than our next score, when we successfully counted up to 25. Counting to 25 was worth just 2 points. So then we took a while to count up to numbers between 1 and 25. Our answers depended on how far we got, but didn't seem to depend on how psychically-weird our delivery was.

Someone suggested that the numbers 1-25 might represent letters of the alphabet. I thought that was stupid: they could just as easily have had us count to 26 as 25. We obviously needed to draw our results on a 5x5 grid. But I kept my mouth shut, remembering the wise words of the Smoking GNU: Don't poop on an idea until it poops on you. And I was glad that I kept my mouth shut, since it turned out that my grid idea went nowhere and the 1-25 numbers did, in fact, represent letters of the alphabet. If you wrote those letters with their psychic scores, you got:

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXY
0000444444411111115322222

Someone (Yoyo Zhou?) thought to look at the first letter of each "run". That yielded

012345
ALUTES

Was it garbage? It was sort of like a misspelled "ALEUTS", but we hadn't mixed up our numbers. But Yoyo(?) had spotted SALUTE, just rotated a little. We asked Doug, "Is it SALUTE?" He said, "You can enter that into your answer system." We congratulated each other: We'd done it! We scattered to share our answer with our teams.

I wandered over to Joe who was sitting at a Dixit game, handed him a piece of paper with SALUTE on it and looked for another game to play. There were seven activities and just six of us. I'd finished pretty quickly. Maybe it was up to me to start on our seventh activity.

I found the Push Polling International table, where Ian started to explain to Jennifer Mendenhall and me how that station worked–

And then someone who'd been in our psychic group found us: the answer wasn't SALUTE. When Doug had said, "You can enter that into your answer system," he'd meant "...to find out that it's wrong." Whoops.

Soon we'd gathered again. We were discouraged. We started waiting for another team to finish so that we could compare data with them. While we were waiting Jennifer Mendenhall had an interesting thought: what if we weren't that far off? That was a good thought, as it turned out. Hey, what if we left out those 0-scoring letters? That would give us LUTES instead of ALUTES. LUTES was a word, worth a shot, worth entering into a laptop. And LUTES turned out to be the answer.

I again wandered around in search of a seventh activity. Here, GoldFish's lack of coordination cost us some time. At about this same time, Erik also finished his activity and, like me, wandered the hall looking for a seventh activity: one that didn't yet have a GoldFish playing. He found the Psychic Power Company, which I'd just finished. And he played it and solved it, too. If we'd been better coordinated, he could have got an early start at looking for a meta puzzle.

I didn't know that was happening though. All I knew was that I'd found a station with no GoldFish but plenty of other folks. (By now, Sarah had finished playing a Mafia variant and was at the Push Polling table. In theory, there shouldn't have been a space for me at the place I ended up, since there were just seven stations and there were six of us. But end up there I did nonetheless.) It was named Napkin Back Calculations, but it was more like Pictionary with interesting payoffs. And interesting people: Jim Keller was already sitting there.

GC folks set us up in teams and had us play Pictionary. Some words were espcially important. When we solved one of those, GC's favorite drawing would get taped to the wall in one of 12 numbered spots. Also, a team that won a few rounds received a small piece of paper with some numbers on it. E.g., something like 6 -8 +9. Fortunately, everyone was in a very collaborative mood, which helped me out a lot as a late arrival. Everyone was sharing the data from the small pieces of paper. We were sharing the words that went with the wall-art. And so in just a few minutes, I got in on conversation on how to extract an answer out of all this without much Pictionary. (Though Pictionary was fun, since I was paired up with Chiu-Ki, who could actually draw.)

There was still some data to gather. There were some wrong theories to suggest and dismiss. My main contribution was to encourage more collaboration: I'd just come from a group that had done well by collaborating. So I got people talking to each other (though some folks were already doing that). And I didn't really contribute much to the collaboration myself, except telling a group of smart people what another group of smart people had noticed: On the little three-number pieces of paper, the numbers from 1-12 appeared once each (some positive, some negative). That, combined with the drawings, suggested rebuses. But I couldn't make the rebuses work: in a set of three, I had to subtract some letters that weren't there. Fortunately, collaborating is a good strategy when you're sitting with people like Jim Keller, Chiu-Ki, Martin Renfried, Stribs, and some folks I didn't know.

I'd relayed this idea to some smarter people, including Stribs. He'd wanted the answer to involve drawing a letter-form as a 4x3 grid using the little slips of paper. But once he got past that idea and looked at rebuses, he reaized what the rest of us had missed: not each little set of three numbers was an individual rebus. They were four three-symbol parts of one big 12-symbol rebus. And that solved to THREE-TOED CREATURE. Woo-hoo, we'd done it!

(And I'd been too quick to assume that each of the four parts was independent, that they didn't all feed in to "one stream". That's foreshadowing: you can make fun of me for that again later.)

I didn't wander away quite yet: Chiu-Ki had been far away from Stribs when he'd figured out the method, and was still trying to figure out what happened. So I was trying to explain it—and was still explaining it when folks came back to the table: SLOTH wasn't the answer. The laptop hadn't taken it. Back at the table, we conferred. Someone noticed that the laptop wanted another letter: Oh, SLOTHS was the answer. we'd missed that the solution was THREE-TOED CREATURES.

Back with the team and Joe's laptop, I got caught up on our progress. One of us had gathered data from a game, but wasn't collaborating with folks who'd played with him. He had TREPDI. Fortunately, someone else on our team spotted that a couple of letters were mixed up: It should be TREPID. Might TREPID be the opposite of "intrepid"? And that turned out to be right.

I wandered around. A few of us were looking at the data that had been gathered at the Dixit game. They were most of the way done: they'd figured out that each player had "won" a separate thing, and that five players had too pool data to solve the puzzle. There were five sets of cards which pictures. The players had it mostly solved already: they had divvied the photos into matching sets, had noticed that each had an odd one out. When they were considering alphabetizing the not-odd-ones out, I got to point out that helped one set form a nice "D" shape instead of a janky "K" (in turn making a nice "WOOD" instead of a janky "WOOK"). But I think that other folks had already figured that out elsewhere. I wasn't helping much, and slunk away.

Back at the team laptop, I fed in SLOTHS and let folks know that someone else had come up with TREPID. Then I stared at the words and phrases we'd gathered so far and totally failed to spot the theme. Why SLOTHS instead of SLOTH? Why LUTES instead of LUTE? In each case, the singular would have been just as easy to encode. TREPID was a strange word, one that suggested GC must have been reaching for words to match some strange constraint. Someone was trying to make the activity's fancy names (e.g., "Napkin Back Calculations") go together with their answers somehow.

Curtis came by, snapping photos. I remembered something from the van's conversation on the way up: photographing gamers is hard, because they just hunch over and look at puzzles. "Hey guys, look up!" "Why on earth would I look up?" So when Curtis came by, I looked up.


Sarah, Allen, and I of Bloody GoldFish Meat stare at the meta (except I take a moment to mug). Photo by Curtis Chen.

We came up with more wrong Meta ideas. We pestered Doug Zongker: was there a Meta? Yeah, there was. Soon the rest of the team came in from Dixit with our last answer. It was time to get serious about the meta. So we came up with yet more Meta ideas. Was the number of words in each activity's title the same as the number of the letters in the answer? No. Did SLOTHS anagram to something? Puzzle Pal said No (aside from, y'know, "sloths"). Should we be taking letters out? Hey, NOT GUILTY might go to guilty, TREPID to intrepid. Should we be taking letters ou— Aha, Joe Fendel hadn't let the "Should we be taking letters out?" question fall on the floor. He actually tried it: he spotted the gimmick: each of our puzzle answers was one of the deadly sins, plus a letter, anagrammed. SLOTHS was SLOTH+S; LUTES was LUST+E; TREPID was PRIDE+T. In order, the extra letters spelled TOILETS, which was our answer.

When we entered TOILETS into the laptop, it congratulated us and told us to head back to the hotel. In one of our rooms, the toilet would contain our instructions for tomorrow morning.

Next: Saturday[next]

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