Puzzle Hunts: Gamers' View of Petaluma

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It was April 8, 2006, and Team Giant Die Protocol was wandering the streets of Petaluma. That was Paul Du Bois, Anisa Zahir, and me. We were playing in BANG Appetit, a puzzle hunt game. Contienental Breakfast, one of the teams who won the Trick or BANG game, hosted this game. Continental Breakfast had some creative puzzle ideas, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with in the future. Usually, the Bay Area Night Game is in the Bay Area at night, but this game was in Petaluma in the afternoon. So we got a chance to see Petaluma. Well, we saw a strange subset of Petaluma.

Public Space

Playing a puzzle hunt game is not a great way to see a city. Teams show up at a clue site in a horde. They loiter in clumps, speaking seeming nonsense, scribbling furiously on clipboards. They wander around, looking into nooks and crannies for hints they may have overlooked. If this happens at your city's main landmark, police might suggest that the teams move on. If this happens on private land, private cops may suggest that teams loiter elsewhere.

And so the team wandered from spot to spot: a small park, a parking lot, an unfrequented corner of a parking center. Paul clobbered a puzzle featuring a spice rack, his culinary skills serving him well. Anisa showed her superior mastery of spatial relationships by assembling a beehive from parts.

The puzzles required leaps of intuition. Sometimes we had the necessary intuition, and sometimes we didn't, and we had to take a hint.

Once, we thought we had the proper intuition, but we didn't, really. We were certain that the answer was "tongue," when in fact it was "salmon." Puzzle answers corresponded to spots on a map. Incorrecct answers led to incorrect spots. Thus, instead of going to another small park, Team Giant Die Protocol wandered far off course.

We went to a shop called the Copperworks, a sort of copper-working studio. It looked pretty interesting, but didn't look like a puzzle site--there was no-one around. Eventually, we figured out that we were on a false trail and started walking back towards the course of the hunt.

From the Ashes

As we walked, young punks walked with us, walked past us. It's not clear what these punks thought of these middle aged folks with fists full paper and pencils. I was carrying my strange clipboard and had fuzzy dice hanging of the back of my backpack, vying to out-weird the punks.

We walked past a theater. We had found the epicenter of the punks. It looked like an old theater, but inside there was darkness and graffiti. A few punks milled around outside. It looked like a good place. "It looked kinda like Gilman," Paul said.

Soon we were back in the game. We went back to the spot where we'd gone wrong so that we could pick up a hint. That hint pointed out the intuition that we'd missed. We sat to look at the map and figure out where to go next. A little further down the bench, I heard another team saying "So it's 'tongue'!" and they started to pack up. I recommended against getting excited about "tongue". But maybe I should have told them to take a few minutes to check out that theater.

Back Where We Belonged

We moved on to a little park, and another little park, and then in a bar trying to solve a long "Smith-Jones-Robinson" logic puzzle. This bar was a karaoke bar. I'm not so good out logic puzzles. It turns out that I'm even worse at them if someone nearby is mangling the song "Sit on my face and tell me that you love me." It was harder to concentrate when someone sang "This Charming Man"--and that person could actually sing. That was shocking.

The Downfall of Western Civilization

But then BANG Appetit was over, and it was time to head over to Chris and Susan Ross' house: tonight was Petaluma Game Night. Soon we would be playing board games. First there was some civilized conversation with the GameNighters. This was a different crowd from the puzzlehunters.

I mentioned the theater. Chris said, "Oh you mean the Phoenix Theater?" A wave of nostalgia washed over me. I remembered a time when I still went to music shows, searching through Steve Koepke's THE LIST. This was a list of local punk, funk, rock, and thrash shows--pretty much every live show in the bay area worth going to. I'd search this list for bands that I'd liked--I'd get excited when I found them. And very surprised when I found out that they weren't playing nearby, but were at some weird theater in Petaluma. I'd been curious about the place.

The Next Five and a Half Hours

Soon, it was time to choose a game to play. We made a stack of six candidate boardgames. To choose one game from this stack, we rolled a giant die. This decision-making process, a tradition of Petaluma Game Night, had inspired the name of Giant Die Protocol: order from confusion through randomness.

Soon I was sitting and playing Princes of Florence, cozy back in the coversation of Lucasarts people and ex-Lucasarts people, talking about games and pizza. The Phoenix Theater is a good place in Petaluma. I was sitting in another one.


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