I first learned about “The Game” from articles in 1980s-era Games Magazine, where it was described as a puzzle-hunt format requiring teams to travel in vehicles around a specific geographical area and solve high-concept puzzles essentially nonstop for the better part of a weekend. Years later, Mark Gottlieb gave me more details based on his personal experience of The Games held in the San Francisco area. He encouraged me to try a The Game at some point, and emphasized the intriguing challenge of overcoming fatigue (physical, mental, and emotional) and hygiene while part of a solving team confined in a small minivan. I wasn’t accepted in the Ghost Patrol themed The Game in 2008 and only received postmortem reports of more recent events such as WarTron and Famine Games. Earlier this year I received an opportunity to join a team for a version of The Game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft to be held in and around Boston. I happily accepted the invitation, excited to experience a puzzle event with vehicular travel, high concept content, and sanity-compromising conditions.
The lead-up to the event involved an application to Miskatonic University, the fictional institution central to the Lovecraftian horror novels that inspired the theme of this The Game. Dan Katz captained our team, Mystik Spiral, which was rounded out by Eric Berlin, Jenn Braun, Tanis, O’Connor, Scott Purdy, and yours truly. We solved entrance exam puzzles, found a hidden puzzle alluding to a secret fraternity, and produced a video that included elements of interest to this fraternity. After our acceptance, we spent a the next few months discussing the logistics of our The Game experience — the vehicle and equipment we would need for the event. We congregated in Dedham last weekend and, on Friday evening, set off in our van to answer the call of Cthulhu.
The narrative frame of this iteration of The Game began with a Friday night freshman dinner in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Miskatonic University faculty members, portrayed by The Game organizers, revealed our academic responsibilities and guided us to exercises in nearby Hammond Castle. There we received some auxiliary responsibilities by members of the secret fraternity. After some sleep, we started fresh with academics in Newburyport, a quest for an invitation to a fraternity party in Bedford, a psychiatric evaluation in which we ended up on either a pro-Cthulhu or anti-Cthulhu team on our way back to Boston, and an endgame segment that culminated in a battle held in Boston Garden between teams that had adhered to the various Cthulhu cults. The results of the battle allowed all teams to solve one final meta puzzle that revealed the final message of the Lovecraftian deities.
The content was created by a team of puzzlewrights lead by Sarah Leadbeater. The puzzles included some impressive technological mechanics. We received academic credit in anatomy by playing a life-sized Operation game. We played word Master Mind with an automated, voice-activated Ouija board. We assembled gears to open a puzzle box and searched bushes at night (narrowly avoiding a rainstorm) for sinister, glowing eyes blinking in Morse code. I would have enjoyed seeing more puzzles with that level of sophistication, but a majority of the puzzles were handouts occasionally accented with props or small movable pieces, i.e. solid but typical puzzle hunt fare. Among the puzzles presented over the weekend, I was tickled to discover one based on Exquisite Fruit. The puzzle included a link to my CV page. It was my first call-out in a major puzzle hunt event.
The puzzle set was largely facilitated by staff volunteers, which meant that teams making only casual progress were likely to skip content in order to keep up with the pack. Mystik Spiral skipped no puzzles, but a few of the puzzles slowed us down. A puzzle in which we assembled construction paper cutouts to produce ship themed mosaics (findable on obelisks lining the Newburyport waterfront) had an ingenious extraction mechanism, but we fumbled on record-keeping and eventually had to start over to derive the answer. A puzzle based on the Witch Trials Memorial in Danvers used cards depicting the victims named on the memorial. We were instructed to peel the cards to get more information, but ended up mutilating them into paper bits and needed some help from staff to get on track. Aside from these incidents, we solved aggressively and managed to stay near the front of the curve throughout the weekend.
In the main leg of the hunt between 9 a.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m on Sunday I slept for a total of forty minutes in a conference room at the overnight stop in Bedford. I did okay physically, but was happy to bow out of the Sunday afternoon Simon Says activity in Boston Garden. I’m not sure if the lack of sleep affected my mental performance as I feel that I always struggle to maintain focus in stressful puzzle situations. I noted a couple of lapses in emotional stability. Fortunately, a few prickly moments with teammates quickly corrected course to productive puzzle solving. I went a bit longer than I would like to without a shower or tooth-brushing but managed to stay hygienically acceptable. People who were around me through the weekend are welcome to contradict. Was it fun overcoming the physical/mental/emotional/hygienic demands of The Game? Um…sort of. Puzzle events of this magnitude are going to experience hiccups: website glitches, answer-checking mistakes, shortages of puzzle materials. These issues can become volatile when both solvers and staff are sleep-deprived. I am immensely grateful for the efforts of the Miskatonic organizers, but after watching Sarah Leadbeater put out fires with a pasted-on smile I have mixed feelings about the value of the structure inherent to The Game.
I stayed in Boston an extra day. Jenny Gutbezahl, who participated on another team, put me up at her place in Somerville and after a long shower and a night’s rest I was fully recovered. I have no idea where or when the next The Game will occur, but I am always excited to expand my knowledge of the puzzle hunt genre and experience all the new twists and turns that members of the puzzle community come up with.
ETA: The organizers released a solving report indicating our team did skip one puzzle that would have been provided just before the fraternity party invitation meta.