Puzzle Hunts: The Smoking GNU: Back to Basics

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On Saturday, April 5 2008, my phone rang. I picked up and was talking with Jonathan McCue, captain of The Smoking GNU, a puzzle-hunt team out of Santa Rosa. "We're running ahead of schedule," he said, "but that's unusual, don't get used to that." Excellent. Soon they would be at my apartment, soon we would all be on our way to play in the Midnight Madness: Back to Basics Game.

Does that make sense? That might not make sense. Maybe I should provide some background.

I was going to play The Game, a team-based road-rallyish puzzle-solving activity. I was going to play with a team called The Smoking GNU. This instance of The Game was named "Midnight Madness: Back to Basics". This name suggested that this game would be themed on the movie "Midnight Madness," the movie which had inspired Joe Belfiore to start running puzzly-rallyish games--a tradition which he'd brought to Stanford University, and which had thence spread through the San Francisco Bay Area.

No, Really, Some Background

Teams Snout and Drunken Spider--approximately the core of Game Control who'd run the Hogwarts and the Draconian Prophecy Game--were running another game. I'd put on my "embedded reporter" hat and asked if any teams would be willing to let me play with them. A couple of teams which had previously been interested in embedded reportage weren't playing this time: Chris Dunphy of RadiKS had nomadically migrated to Florida; Taft on a Raft wasn't playing (but Ian was playing with the Gold Team).

But the Smoking GNU was interested, yay!

I already had a little history with The Smoking GNU. Jonathan had sent me mail asking for advice getting into the Hogwarts Game. (He hadn't gotten in, thus demonstrating the value my advice...) I read Puzzalot, the blog of Scott, one of the team members. And then of course there was the time they wrapped me in tinfoil.

I was glad that I would be with a fun bunch of folks, because I wasn't sure that I was going to enjoy the Game itself. The Hogwarts Game had stayed true to the Hogwarts/Harry Potter theme. Snout's earlier game, Justice Unlimited, had stayed pretty true to its superhero theme. Would this Game stay true to its theme of Midnight Madness? Midnight Madness was not a good movie. Worse, it had depicted a pretty bad Game--a Game whose challenges were filmable, but probably not fun to play through. Search a brewery for an hour for a message which wasn't even put together when the teams arrived... argh, I didn't want to play a Game like that.

Fortunately, game control didn't stay that true to the movie. And the Smoking GNU was fun to be with.

Hardcore Gamers, Yeah You Bet

The Smoking GNU had warned me that they might be in disarray for this Game, starting this evening. Why? Because they would be coming from another game in Santa Rosa. The team had met each other in Santa Rosa; most of them still lived there. But there weren't many puzzle-game activities in Santa Rosa. For puzzling fun, they typically had to drive many miles to San Francisco, the peninsula, or Berkeley. So when they heard that Santa Rosa was holding a puzzle hunt, they wanted to attend--not just for fun, but to support the community's puzzling community. Heck, they wanted to meet the community's puzzling community--they hadn't been sure that such a thing existed.

Hardcore gamers, yeah you bet.

So I was kind of surprised when I got the phone call and found out that they were running ahead of schedule. What had happened?

The Santa Rosa "puzzle hunt" hadn't been so puzzle-y after all. It was a team-based challenge, all right, but of a different variety. I'm not sure if this variety of activity has a name; I tend to call it "Riddle-me-this guess-what-I'm-thinking crapola". While a puzzly clue might look like AMID _PYR RICA SAME TRAN, a riddly clue might look like "Two flanges, one point, name spans a nation." To solve it, you need to think like the puzzle author--and you're probably not sure that you've guessed the solution that the designer had in mind. I find such challenges annoying. The GNUists hadn't been too pleased with this hunt, either--they'd bailed out early, and were now on their way South.

Hardcore Gamers, yeah you bet.

And now I was getting another phone call--their car was out in front of my home. It was time for me to grab my gear, run downstairs, and pile into their car so we could drive to SFO airport to pick up the rental van.

But we weren't able to talk too much at first. Jonathan was on the phone. Why was he on the phone? Because he'd set up a birthday treasure hunt for a friend of his. This friend had just finished the hunt and was calling up to talk it over. So let's tally that up: planned to play one community puzzle hunt game; ran a birthday puzzle-y treasure hunt game; playing The Game in the evening. That's a lot of puzzle gaming.

Hardcore Gamers, yeah you bet.

[Photo: shirt front (Smoking GNU symbol)] [Photo: shirt back ('All the GNUs that's fit to print')]

They had team t-shirts! They made me a t-shirt! A reporter one, no less!

Hardcore Gamers, yeah you bet.

Meet the Smoking GNU

Who was playing today?

It was a good thing we were running early. Renting the team's van would take longer than expected. (Paradoxically, you can generally expect that renting the van will take longer than expected.) Fortunately, this gave me a chance to ask a little about the team.

History Jonathan and Scott (and some guy named Bryan, who hasn't played with the team) had known each other since the fifth grade. They hadn't met Given until college, which sounds a lot later but it was still 15 years ago. These people had known each other a long time. They'd done puzzly things amongst themselves, but hadn't found out about the SF Bay Area puzzling scene until a couple of years before. But they'd jumped in, playing in BANGs, Shintekis, Pirates BATH, No More Secrets, and... and more. They'd done a lot.

Philosophy I asked: When is it time to ask for a hint? The team compromise was: after 15 minutes of being stuck or after 30 minutes of having too-many-choices. (I was glad I asked--during the Game proper, it wasn't always clear that we could ask for hints, so the team seemed more hint-averse than you might think. I also wanted to point this out because, as you read this, you'll see that we asked for hints a lot during this game. Yet the 30-minutes-wandering rule doesn't seem extreme to me. Based on my observations and what I've heard from other people who played in this Game, I think that this Game had more "stumpers" than the usual, many teams found themselves asking for more hints than usual.) I asked: What is the best way to run applications for a game with limited slots? Given Clatterbaugh figured that it was best to post a puzzle and go on the first-solved-first-served system. But other folks on the team didn't agree. But before I could get much detail here, we were interrupted--we'd reached the head of the Van rental line.

Boring Logistics Whining: Vans are Hard

The van rental seemed to be going smoothly--until we started to drive the van out and realized that it had no GPS. We'd reserved a GPS for the van, but apparently this "reservation" didn't mean "reservation" in the usual sense. Apparently, it meant "Enterprise rent-a-car will charge you for a GPS but not provide one." However, we didn't notice this until we'd driven the van outside the Enterprise lot, but still in this strange between-rental-car-agency-parking-lots area of the airport.

We moved the van to another lot so that a couple of team members could hop out and run back to the Enterprise desk and learn about the interesting interpretation of "reservation". Meanwhile, Scott and I stayed with the van, parking it in another lot... which turned out to belong to another rental agency who chased us away... so we drove through this strange between-lots area until we made our way back to the Enterprise lot... Meanwhile, Jonathan and Given had talked with folks at the desk, then made their way down to the Enterprise lot.

Enterprise was out of GPSs. But at least, since we'd complained, they wouldn't charge us for one. We were looking forward to a night of driving around the bay area, lost, but at least we weren't paying for a GPS we didn't have.

Except... as we started to drive away in the van, someone from Enterprise ran up and waved. Some other customer had just returned a vehicle, and that vehicle had a GPS. So now we had a GPS, modulo some waiting and some further paperwork and...

Brothers are Better than Rental Agencies

Next we went to Scott's brother's house, close to the airport. There, we ditched the van's center bench so that we'd have more solving room inside the van. Scott's brother wasn't there, but there was a friendly dog. We didn't let the dog out of the house.

We drove to Stanford and eventually found parking structure number five, the designated start. We were running kind of late. But that's OK. Game Control had a starting activity in mind. There was a milling crowd of teams. Geeks with clipboards abounded.

[Photo: Scott Royer, Goonies, burninators (background)] [Photo: Given Clatterbaugh, Derek Westcott, Arshad Tayyeb, Crissy Gugler, Corby Anderson]

Crissy Gugler (of Drunken Spider) was moving through the crowd, carrying a poster. I recognized this poster--it was a screen capture from the credits of the movie Midnight Madness. I remembered this screen because I'd paused the movie credits there-- they hinted at the existence of road-rallyish puzzle-huntish games that predated "Midnight Madness", that "Midnight Madness" was based on something that had gone on before. OK, so why were we looking at this? Crissy said something like "One of these people is here today." Hmm. The movie had come our in 1980. It was about grown-ups... I did some math in my head and not-so-tactfully blurted, "I think we're looking for someone old." Sean Gugler pointed out that someone here in the crowd could probably hear what I was saying. I looked next to Sean. There was a man there, not old, but older than me; I didn't recognize him. I walked up to him and asked, "Uh, excuse me, but are you, maybe, uh"

He Said "I'm Don Luskin"

[Photo: Scott Blomquist, Teresa Torres, Don Luskin, Scott Royer, Jeff Philips] [Photo: Given Clatterbaugh, Derek Westcott, Teresa Torres, Scott Royer]

He spoke quietly, so you wanted to lean in to hear what he was saying. But also, there were dozens of old-time gamers who were curious to hear what he had to say. So I wandered away after a while to give other folks a chance to listen in. Here are my notes.

Ran 4 games 1971-1978. (The The Game Wikipedia entry says 1973. I don't know whether to trust "1971" because it's "from the horse's mouth" or "1973" because it's probably written down by someone who has a chance to doublecheck dates instead of someone who's chatting atop a parking garage.) A reporter for the LA Times reported on the games. Disney, inspired by the article, decided to make the movie Midnight Madness. Don Luskin and the other organizers sued Disney; part of the settlement is that their names appeared in the credits.

He lost track of Patrick Carlyle and Cherie Chung--the other Game organizers. "If you find them, let me know--one of them owes me money." He looked pretty intense as he said it. I was pretty sure right then that I never wanted Don Luskin to think that I owe him money.

I asked about favorite game challenges. He mentioned that he'd had people play the then-new game Pong--for many players, this was the first time they'd played Pong. He said that back then, some of the roads had emergency phones on the center divider. So teams would stop and park on the road so that they could use these emergency phones to call in. If this sounded unsafe... well, maybe it was kind of unsafe. There were no waivers then.

I wandered away, gave other people a chance to talk. And I talked with other people.

Other People

JessicaLa was in the crowd. She was just married--this was the first stop on her and Jeff's honeymoon. She was handing out leftover wedding party favors--blue pencils labelled with their new, married names. And thus I found out, without having to ask, that she had taken Jeff's last name.

Dale Neal likes the movie Midnight Madness. He let me know: this was the only movie he had both on VHS and DVD. He didn't think it was that high quality of a movie. But when he'd first seen it, he was very young. And he'd thought that this movie depicted the greatest activity ever. And he knew that he wanted to play this game. Here it was, years later, and he was with coed astronomy, living the dream.

Start of the Game Proper

The intersection of the Richter Scales and Team Snout is... was... Look, I'm just saying that with great singing power comes great responsibility, a certain obligation to work for the greater good of society. And then on the other hand, there is the evil theme from Midnight Madness... Look, I'm just... Oh, let's move on.

We heard the Game rules. I forget the exact wording but it was something like... No cheating, nobody goes to jail, nobody bleeds, have fun.

To get us started, Game Control chose team names from a hat. When they chose your name, they gave a member of the team a trivia question to answer. It seemed kind of like the tough teams got tough questions. When our team's name come up, we sent Given forward to represent us. We got an easy question: "Midnight Madness" was the debut film for two actors; name one of them. Ah, Michael J. Fox. Soon we were back at the van with a little scrap of paper.


The movie's first puzzle is a piece of paper with cryptic statements and some strange numbers. We had something similar, and we solved it in a similar way. Except in the movie, you used the cryptics to figure out where to go next and the numbers to figure out what to do when you got there. We solved our cryptics to "VISTA SLOPE" and called in to confirm that--only to find out that we were supposed to get another word. But we got that from the numbers OK. I'd brought my laptop along for this hunt and this was the only time I got to use it--to convert a number to hexadecimal notation. (Then again, we would have gone to the right place even if we hadn't got that last word--so the laptop was useless after all.)


Google HQ is next to a giant landfill hill. I guess it was getting less toxic than it used to be--I didn't see as many methane-vent pipes sticking out of the ground as a few years before at BANG 7. We climbed the hill. There was a swarm of gamers there. Crissy Gugler was there, asking if we needed to borrow some binoculars or if we'd brought our own. We needed to borrow binoculars--we'd failed to spot a pre-clue.

We were looking for three impressively giant posters which were in the windows of the Googleplex, facing this hill. We only ever spotted two of them that evening. I'm not sure any teams ever spotted the third poster that evening. I did find it, by accident, the Monday after the Game.

It became dark. It became cold. It was too cold for some folks to hold binoculars without shivering. It was soon too dark to see posters. Game Control brought out some "telescopes" with the relevant graphics lodged inside of them for us to look at. So now we were able to see the contents of the missing third poster. We sat and puzzled over the information. Then word went around: the park was closing. It was time for us to make our way down the hill. The good news was that we theoretically had all of the information we needed.

We headed down the hill to Charleston Park. I was hungry. I had sandwiches in my backpack. It turned out that a couple of other folks were hungry, too. Soon, three of us were munching on sandwiches. Someone went to fetch the van, drove it over to a nearby parking lot. Soon we were sitting in the van, continuing to wrestle with this puzzle.

There were many ways to interpret the data. None of them seemed quite right. We wanted a hint. Game Control had told us that there was no hint line yet--that one would be revealed later in the game. We were stuck. We were trying to solve this puzzle which would tell us the combination of a padlock. Given decided to hop out of the van, try out a couple of our guesses (summing some polynomials from the posters) on the padlock. I decided to follow him; I wasn't doing much good in the van. I was stuck.

Our guesses didn't open the padlock. I spotted a big crowd of people around Team Snout member Lisa Long. I asked another player what that was about. He said that Lisa was doling out hints. Oh, maybe we had a hint line after all. Given got in line; I headed back to the van to tell the rest of the team to come visit.

Grilling Lisa revealed: we'd generally figured out the puzzle; there were a few places we'd had to make decisions about specifics. In each of those cases, we'd made the right decisions... but we'd never made all of the right decisions at the same time. Ah, so X was indeed 3. And XX represented 33, not 9. Ah. Ah and... So now we knew what to do. And Jonathan was super-fast at arithmetic, so we were ready to open the lock right away.


The next puzzle was at Acorn's house. (Acorn was a member of Game Control.) There were strange characters painted on the interior walls and an unlikely number of pianos. There were many teams here, picking out tunes on pianos. We were handed some sheets of music to play. This clue hit our Achilles' heels. None of us were good at music. I could read notes--as long as there weren't any sharps or flats to worry about. But this music had those. A couple of people on the team could read this music nonetheless, but they could barely play it.

It won't impress you, but it's true: of the tunes that I figured out, I mostly figured them out by listening to other teams play. We figured out that these music pieces were theme songs for product jingles. The music sheets were labeled with blanks. So when we heard a team play the Rice-a-Roni song, we looked for a sheet labeled __ __ __ __-__-__ __ __ __ and filled it in. But we weren't able to get all of the songs this way.

Scott had a brother who knew more about music than we did. But we didn't have his phone number with us. But we did have the phone number for Scott's other brother, the one we'd left the van-bench with. He would have phone numbers. We called up this brother. He thanked us for the "loaner couch" which his family was enjoying the use of. He gave us contact information for the musical brother. Yay. But musical brother didn't answer his phone. Which was reasonable--it was now night-time.

Someone from Game Control was moving through the room handing out calling cards. Oh--these had a phone number for a Game Control Hint Line. I think we called it up and said we were in trouble because we didn't know much piano. They told us that Chris would help us.

Chris Nichols of Game Control was in the house, and he could play the piano. He went from team to team, playing music for them. So he played some themes for us. We were still in trouble, though--we still didn't recognize some of these. And one that we did recognize, the Kit Kat theme, seemed wrong, like it had a note out of place. Jonathan: "They wouldn't do that to us, would they?" The rest of us "Nah." We were having enough trouble just recognizing the themes; surely we wouldn't have to spot wrong notes.

We traded some answers with another stuck team. Now we knew what all of the themes were. What to do next? Anagram the first letters? That gave us "BRICK OF HAM". That didn't seem promising... but maybe that was as good as it was going to get. We called in the answer "SPAM". GC seemed amused, but told us that we weren't on the right track.

Chris saw us staring at the list of product names. We didn't know what to do next. He asked if we'd noticed any wrong notes. Oh no. We were in trouble--we barely knew these themes, we'd never spot the wrong notes. Chris took pity on us, playing the themes some more, this time emphasizing the wrong notes. There was one wrong note per sheet.

So... ordering the sheets by the name of the product, pulling one note from each gave us a tune to play. Chris looked at our notes, said we'd gotten them OK. Then he played the tune for us and looked at us expectantly. Chris had hope in his eyes: We had all of the information we needed to solve this puzzle; soon he would be rid of us. We looked at each other. None of us recognized this music. Duh dadum Duh dadum Bu dadum doo doo.

Chris played it a few times. Chris asked--had we noticed any signs when we walked into the house? Someone said, yeah, there was a sign pointing out the way to the Bar. Chris asked, OK, so what about the "bar"? Uhm, were we listening to the theme for Dove Bar? Chris, desperately smiled--we were soo close, think bar, think ice cream... We sat. We looked at each other. There was a pause. And then there was another long pause. I guessed again: "Uhm, is it 'It's It'? I don't know the theme to tha--" Chris pointed out that we needed to concentrate on "Bar". We stared at each other some more. Someone said "Klondike Bar?" Chris beamed at us: that was it. Now we could wait in line to go downstairs for the next stage to this puzzle.

For the next stage, we walked downstairs to the "bar" where Acorn stood. (You remember Acorn--he was a member of Game Control; we were in his house.) There, each member of our team drew a slip of paper from a hat. Each slip of paper described some task. We could choose one of these tasks to perform.

Now pay attention because this was the occasion for which I was the most help to the team: One of our possible tasks was "Give the bartender a sandwich." I had one sandwich left in my backpack! I squealed something like "Sandwich sandwich gogogogo" as I fetched out that sandwich and flung it at Acorn. He seemed impressed. He gave us some Klondike bars to eat, one of which was wrapped funny--then he shooed us out of his house.

In his back yard, we looked at the funny wrapper--there was writing inside. It told us to look for our next clue behind the Tied House brewery. OK. Soon we were back on the van, heading out onto the road.

It was dark. We were concentrating on navigating to our next location. The street was really dark. I'm just saying.

And that's when the man ran out of the darkness and hit our van, as it was in motion.

I don't think any of us literally pooped our pants.

Fortunately, the man was not some random insane person: it was Acorn. He had received a phone call with important news. He had run out of his house, ran after us, chased our van as we pulled out, and had got our attention. Wow.

His news: the next clue site was compromised. We shouldn't go to the place that the wrapper was telling us to go to. Instead, we should go to a place called Cardinal Coffee. So, OK. We programmed the GPS for Cardinal Coffee and started driving that way after making sure that Acorn wasn't still attached to the van.

We called up Game Control to tell them that Acorn had successfully warned us about the compromised clue at Tied House, and that we were heading to Cardinal Coffee instead. Game Control told us that that the "compromised clue" was not, as it turned out, actually compromised. We could still head to the brewery. Acorn had run for nothing. Ah, the joys of being on Game Control.

So, OK. We programmed the GPS for the Tied House brewery and drove that way.

Searching the Brewery

San Jose's Tied House Brewery is on San Pedro Street. Apparently, San Pedro Street is Party Street on Saturday Night. There was tons of traffic. Our van inched along. We dreamed of finding parking. There was tons of traffic; there wasn't going to be any parking. Jonathan decided to hop out and jog over to the brewery, get a head start on searching. I was ready to follow him... but Jonathan and I were the only two people on the team with phones, so I needed to stay with the van. So... Jonathan hopped out.

The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan searched something. The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan searched something. The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan talked to other teams, maybe? The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. The van passed the brewery! The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan searched something. The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. The van passed a driveway! The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan searched something. The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. We realized that we'd passed the brewery driveway! To get back to the brewery, we'd have to drive to the corner and hang a couple of rights. The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan searched something. The van inched along. There was tons of traffic. I guess Jonathan searched something. The van inched along. We reached the corner! We hung a couple of rights! We were behind the brewery! And here was Jonathan with our next puzzle.

The brewery parking lot was full; it seemed like the whole neighborhood was parked up with party-animal vehicles. Maybe there would be parking available at Cardinal Coffee, which we knew was our next destination. We let the GPS steer us to Cardinal Coffee. Us passengers did the first stage of the puzzle: some nonogram "paint by number" puzzles. We were glad that we knew where we were going, because we would have been hard-pressed to figure it out from these nonograms. One of them solved to a picture of card suits. (We were supposed to get "card" from this.) One of them solved to a picture of a circle-slash. (This was a "null"--OK, we probably would have got that.) One of them solved to a steaming coffee cup. ("Coffee".)

I Have a Poor Memory for... for Faces

Teams milled around outside the Cardinal Coffee Shop, looking for the next clue. They looked in planters. Looked along the parking lot fence. Looked, looked, looked. We looked out there, too. Then we went inside. Folks on the team were hungry again, so we decided that we might as well sit down and order some food. As we moved through the cafe on the way to a table, we scanned tables, patrons, waitstaff, signs. Didn't spot anything promising.

We sat. We ordered sandwiches, milkshakes, coffee. A couple at the next table asked us why so many strange people were wandering around. We told them about The Game. They seemed amused. Scott recalls that they tried to convince us that some team in gold sweatsurts had looked around a certain bush outside, then got excited and left. Well, the guy tried--the firl told him not to be mean.

We looked around. We looked--hey. I spotted a familiar face. I didn't quite recognize her, because she was dressed differently than the last time I'd seen her. But that was definitely Miss Jerry, who'd been on Game Control for the Hogwarts Game. So she was probably still on Game Control. And there was her boyfriend--now husband--Ken.

She was wearing a dress which accentuated her boobies. Oh--this was a reference to the movie. The teams go to a diner, where they know to look for a clue "between two big melons", which turns out to be a necklace on a waitress with certain, uhm... yeah, well, anyhow, this was definitely a cultural allusion.

I said, "Hey, don't I know you from the Hogwarts Game?" and wandered over. It was indeed Ken and Jerry, not dressed Hogwartishly, but still definitely them. And Miss Jerry was wearing a necklace, resting upon her boobies. As in the movie, this necklace featured a message: HOTMETER.

We went back to our table to figure out what to do with HOTMETER. The neighboring couple asked why we'd harassed the folks at that other table. We told them that it was part of The Game. They accepted this.

In the movie, the necklace message was an anagram. So we tried anagrams. We tried a lot of them. I pointed my Blackberry at the Internet Anagram Server and rattled off possibilities. (If I'd been wearing a tux, it would have seemed a lot like a scene in the movie.)

That must be it. We were looking for The Metro. I didn't even know that San Jose had a public transit system called The Metro, but we must be looking for a close-by station. It had taken us long enough to figure this out that we were done with our meal, so we tossed down some cash and hustled out of the building. There wasn't any obvious bus station nearby, but there were a couple of locals smoking. We asked for pointers to The Metro. "You mean like the magazine?" No, we meant the nearest metro stop. "Oh yeah, I think it's really close. I think you can see it from here." We walked to the corner. There was a bus stop here, but the local bus wasn't called The Metro. We poked around the bus stop anyhow. But not all of us were out there. Scott had paused at the exit to the restaurant, having noticed a local events magazine titled The Metro. Oh, maybe we should have paid more attention to that smoker.

There was a loose piece of paper inside the magazine, as if Game Control had slipped something inside. That piece of paper had a word search puzzle. Oh. We got into the van and solved that. It told us to find our next clue at a Purple Moose.

At the Moose Lodge

At the Moose Lodge, we hunted around for a clue but didn't find one. As at the Cardinal Cafe, there were a lot of team vans parked around, so we were pretty sure we were in the right area. Unlike the Cardinal, there weren't any other teams poking around looking for the next clue. But there didn't seem to be that much ground to search; surely we couldn't overlook something?

Another team showed up, started looking around. Why couldn't we find our next clue?

Our next clue drove up in a convertible: It was Sean Gugler and Lisa Long of Game Control. But they were dressed up. They were acting. They were kind of re-enacting a hitchhiking scene from the movie but not quite. They invited us two teams to hop in the back of the convertible. Except there wasn't really room for both teams. So most of the two teams hopped in the back of the convertible for a drive around the parking lot. A couple of us folks didn't fit, and trotted along beside the car. The car went pretty darned slow--again, this was true to the movie.

Sean and Lisa had a conversation. I furiously scribbled notes about the conversation--but most of it, while funny, turned out not to be pertinent to the puzzle. Every so often, one of them would pause, as if at a loss for words. "Uncle Morty, he, whaddya callit, he stole a bunch of money from his employer, he, aw, what is it..." Someone on a team would say "EMBEZZLE?" "Yeah, that's it, EMBEZZLE." It was a good skit. It was over all too soon. My notes? Sadly incomplete:

Real jobs-- Uncle Morty-- such a good man-- so much money EMBEZZLE embezzler-- arrogant REGULAR take care of your health--ARROGANT-- fiber bms-- right color-- BROWN poop-- we're like sal sal HUMBLE-- mean by lake PITCHFORK-- fish kebob-- COUPLE-- em at the mall-- ESCALATOR LICENSE OLD florist ROSES sheelah-- games-- boardgames-- SCRABBLE-- kick-- ass-- harriett-- cabin-- 2x triple-word scores-- RATTLESNAKE-- on tv-- LUMBERJACK-- singing-- ALOE-- maybe-- BASEMENT boiler broke

You had to be there.

All too soon, we were back in the van with this list of mysterious words. We wrestled with this pile of words for a while, suggesting theories, shooting them down.

It was interesting to watch the team work. I get the impression that Jon and Scott had solved together a fair amount before. Some teams talk about people who specialize in different kinds of puzzles. "Oh, it's a logically-narrow-down-lots-of-choices-fast puzzle. Give it to Wei-Hwa". Jon and Scott did this at a finer granularity, coming up with theories--and then looking to the other if that theory fell within the other's sphere. Each of them respected Given's insights--but they didn't seem to have an instinct as to where those insights were likely to arise.

In the end, none of our theories stood up. Scrabble was a dead end. Repeated letters... nice but no dice. Vowels vs consonants, anagramming first letters... Were these really "theories" or were they cries of desperation? Long story short: we had to take a couple of hints on this puzzle, the second one basically telling us what to do. Now we were on our way to a Mini-Golf course.


Game Control had taken over a mini-golf place, getting it to stay open late, paying for all of us teams to play mini-golf. And... they had added decorations to the course. At each hole, there was a a sign with a picture. E.g., at hole three there was a sign with a picture showing an electronics diagram Ground symbol.

In the movie, there was a mini-golf puzzle. The secret to that puzzle was: play mini-golf. Savor the game. Don't try to short-circuit the game by skipping playing mini-golf. We skipped playing mini-golf, instead just gathering data. (Hey, give us a break. There were two courses to play through.) The pictures seemed to suggest words. So we had a list of words. What next?

We went inside and sat and stared for a while. Chris Nichols stopped by to check on our progress. He looked at what we were doing. He told us we were missing some information. He asked: Had we played miniature golf?

The rest of the team headed out to play miniature golf. I sat and "watched our gear" (dozed).

Jesse Morris stopped by and asked if I wanted to play air hockey. Not for Game-ish reasons. He just wanted to play air hockey. OK, sure, why not. We headed over to the air hockey table. There were no paddles out. Never mind. I went back to sitting.

Soon the team was back. They'd played golf, albeit by tossing golf balls instead of by putting. Game Control had added motion detectors to a lighthouse and a windmill, playing those holes triggered audio messages, one that said "Fore!" and another that said "After this, let's play air hockey." (I'm forgetting whether the team heard these messages, or if they played those holes and then someone from Game Control told them that they would have heard the messages if something had been working better? Anyhow.)

We went to the air hockey tables--small pieces of paper were attached to them. These had blanks suggesting that we were looking for 18 words--but now we knew how many letters in each word, and we could see that one letter of each word was highlighted. OK.

Did Chris have to visit us again to get us to concentrate on "fore" with the picture words? I forget. I was pretty sleepy by this point. I think we got a nudge but not a full-fledged hint for that part. Anyhow, we were supposed to prefix each picture word with the "fore" sound. E.g. "ground" became "FOREGROUND". This fit the number of letters we wanted based on the air-hockey paper. The air-hockey paper also let us know that the last letter of this word was highlighted, so circle the D in "foregrounD". So OK.

San Jose Amtrak Station

The San Jose Amtrak Station is big. There are many places where you could hide a clue. We wandered around a lot.

I spent a while looking at some electronic announcement signs. When transitioning between messages, these signs didn't just flash-update. Sometimes the old message scrolled off to the left. Sometimes the old message scrolled off to the right. Sometimes the old message scrolled up, sometimes down. I carefully counted these, looking for patterns. I eventually figured out that the pattern repeated, but not in a way that would make a message. I'd wasted several minutes looking at something that had nothing whatsoever to do with the game.

Flashback to the Hogwarts Game playtest:

Our team has stumbled out of Maidu Regional park. We have searched this park for our next clue, have failed to find that clue. We are nerving ourselves up to call up Game Control for more help narrowing down the clue's location. We're feeling kind of foolish because we already called them up once for directions for finding this clue in this park. Landmarks involving paths and trees weren't so useful then; there's no reason to think they'll be more useful now.

We look over at Team Coed Astronomy, also playtesting. They have already found the clue. We decide to ask them for a navigation hint instead of asking Game Control. And thus I hear one of the most beautiful statements I will ever hear. "Hint? I'll just tell you. You've probably been right next to it. It's hidden under a bush. We must have walked past that thing three times."

I forget what team Schmolli was on. He wasn't with the Smoking GNU, wasn't with coed astronomy. He was searching the train station. I saw him talking with Yar of coed astronomy. And when Yar started leading Schmolli out the door, I figured Yar was on a mission of mercy, I figured Yar was going to point out the clue. I hustled over and followed. Sure enough, Yar was pointing, Schmolli was walking. Walking outside the train station building, out to a strip of lawn by the parking lot. There, there was an out-of-place political campaign sign, and scribbled on that campaign sign was a radio frequency.

Soon we were back in the van, listening to the radio. This puzzle used stereo sound: one song played on the right channel, another on the left. We identified a bunch of songs. (Here was my other big contribution to the team: You know how different mobile phone service providers tend to cut out in different areas? Jonathan's phone service provider didn't like this train station; but my phone was still quite capable of searching the internet for song lyrics.) We stared at our data for a while. We had a bunch of theories, none of them seeming more likely than the others. We tried them out for a while, and eventually called up Game Control for a nudge. Now we learned that some of the flavor text, which had suggested that we ignore song arts, was misleading. And we got a big nudge: we would need to know artists of some songs, titles of others.

Aha, we had pairs of songs: left channel and right channel. For some songs, folks couldn't be expected to know the artist--you might recognize the Bonanza theme, but what artist is associated with it? No doubt we wanted the title of one song and the artist from another. What was paired with the Bonanza theme? Nancy Sinatra. We joked that these had a "NAN" in common... it started out as a joke... but then there was "SANta claus is coming to town" with "adam SANdler" and the joke was looking like the real deal. A few syllables later, we knew we were going to the San Fernando streetcar station.


(If we had been faster to reach this place, we would have been given an extra puzzle, a sheet of typos. But we weren't faster, so instead...) We were skipped past that puzzle and given a stack of strange cards. These weren't playing cards.

Each card on one side had a LOLCAT image with the addition of some editor's marks, off to the side. The other side of each card had a word. Some of the words seemed to go together--to follow each other as compound words or word-associations. Maybe we could use that to re-order the cards?

We came up with an ordering that seemed pretty good... and another... and another... This was taking a while. Jonathan was working hard on this puzzle and then, without any warning, fell asleep. But we got him back. This was good, because he was smart. However, our possibilities of word-chains kept multiplying the more we looked.

We were starting to bicker about some of the word associations. (No, wait, I mean everyone else in the van was bickering; I was presenting well-reasoned arguments which just happened to mostly turn out to be wrong.) We called up Game Control, asked them to "confirm our work" so far, gave them one of the orderings... which they said was wrong. And they told us which parts of that ordering they didn't like, which was nice--once we had that information, we were able to narrow down to the correct ordering pretty quick.

So we flipped the cards over to look at the LOLCATZ. There were editor's marks, which were funny--there are a lot of typos in a LOLCATZ. But there were also strange "forbidden" symbols amongst the editor symbols. What were those for? We had some ideas, they didn't work... I think we called up Game Control again to find out what to do with those?

I think we used the "correct" letters from the edits, ignoring those marked with "forbidden" symbols and put them together to find out where to go next: Calderon Street in Mountain View. Hey, that sounded familiar: we were going to Curtis and DeeAnn's house! I was glad I'd been there; if the message gave us an address, then we missed that part.

In & Out

We walked up to the house entrance. People milled in and out. There were grocery bags full of marshmallows and oreos by the entrance. Inside, people were playing computer games. We wandered inside, wondered if we were supposed to pick up some marshmallows and oreos.

Then Sean Gugler showed up and shooed us out of the house. We weren't supposed to have been inside yet. Sean was dressed up as a cowboy. Oh, was that from the movie? Wasn't the proprietor of the arcade in the movie dressed up as a cowboy?

Sean explained that the house was currently too full for us to go in. We had to wait for another team or two to leave.

I pointed out that Curtis and DeeAnn were moving to Portland OR soon after this hunt, so the house didn't need to survive today in great shape. I pointed out that we could convince many teams to leave if we set the house on fire. Sean pointed out that this was against the game rules. I wanted to know which rule. He pointed out the "nobody bleeds" rule--and if I tried to burn down the house, Sean would make me bleed. That was a pretty convincing argument, so we decided to do things Sean's way.

Sean handed us a puzzle, a huge drop-quote puzzle. If we solved it, we could enter the house the next time a team left. Otherwise, we'd have to wait for two teams to leave (without either being replaced by a team that had solved the drop-quote). We headed back to the van to look at this drop-quote puzzle. It was decorated with a screen capture from the movie--people watching Leon's intro presentation. While folks tried to solve the puzzle with brainpower, I decided to watch Leon's presentation, see if it fit the puzzle's quote. And found out that I hadn't loaded my Gaming laptop with, uhm, software for watching DVDs. Scott loaned me his and--

Then we saw a crowd of people--a few teams--running out of the house. (Later on we'd learn that when someone in the house solved the puzzle a video played, and thus everyone in the house got to find out where to go next. Mass exoduses were common.) We didn't have to solve the drop-quote after all.

We walked in to the house. Jonathan sat down to play the computer game--

We got a text message telling us that a team had solved the penultimate clue. Now we were all being summoned to Stanford, the site of the last clue, so that we could all solve at the same time.

This was another tribute to the movie. The movie's game was pretty dumb--why work so hard at solving all of the puzzles if all of the teams get to the last puzzle at the same time?


The GPS didn't understand Stanford's roads. Eventually we decided to stop listening to its advice on how to reach Hoover Tower and we just went to park at the Oval instead. There we saw many teams... not at Hoover Tower, but running around the Oval, with giant inflatable hammers, looking at some strange white floppy things. (These were deflated giant balls.) Someone on the team asked a player from another team what was going on--and found out that we could get the rules if we went to Hoover Tower as we were supposed to.

[Photo: Jonathan McCue, Chris Nichols, Given Clatterbaugh, Scott Royer] [Photo: Jonathan McCue, Chris Nichols, Given Clatterbaugh]

At Hoover Tower, Chris Nichols greeted us. (If we'd gotten there sooner, we would have had us solve a Hissy Fit puzzle. Instead...) He gave us the rules to the game going on at the Oval: Those white floppy things had words written on them. Members of our team could run out on the field and try to read words. But if a Game Control person hit you with an inflatable hammer, you had to go back to the sidelines. (Some team members were filling in as hammerererers, too.)

[Photo: Jesse Morris on hammer patrol, Trisha L. gathers data] [Photo: I beg to differ]

Back at the Oval, I found out that Scott's asthma doesn't prevent him from sprinting. It just prevented him from doing long hikes. Me, I'm lousy at sprinting, and I don't have a respiratory excuse. I sat on the sidelines to gather data that the team brought back from the field. This took a while. Scott found out the hard way that photographing a ball cost a five-minute penalty. Jonathan had the bright idea of bringing note-taking equipment with him out to the field. This attracted the attention of the hammer patrol, however, who harassed him that much more. Once we had data, we headed back to the van, out of the morning drizzle.

In the van, we had many words+phrases to look over. These words and phrases seemed to come from various categories. There were a lot of Bond movies. And Oscar winner movies. And when we moved those aside, relations between other words became obvious--hey, it was words from the Star Trek intro. Words from an amendment in the Bill of Rights. We offerred to trade some data with Team XX-Rated, and they wanted to trade after they organized their data just a little more. So we organized our data just a little more... We never got around to trading data--patterns emerged.

There was a word/phrase/title/whatever missing from each category. I think we needed a hint from Game Control to get the last step: if the missing word was the second in its category, that meant to take the second letter from its name. Something like that.

End Party

I was asleep on my feet for the end party, as is typical for me.