Woah, hey, remember like a million years ago when I had a big puzzle weekend in San Francisco? And then I only wrote about the first day of it? Time to finish the story! Luckily, past-me has been on the ball this year and already wrote it all up on the plane ride home! (Present-me just couldn’t be bothered to get the file off the laptop and add photos.)
It’s been four months, so I’ll briefly re-cap the last post. The purpose of my trip was Shinteki Decathlon with Todd’s team, Boneless Chicken Cabaret. I got in on Thursday, picked up our rental car, visited a friend from my hometown, visited Tyler Hinman, and then picked up Todd and Chris from the airport. We drove to our lodgings for the weekend — Rich and Kiki’s house. We let a bird fly into their house. Everything was perfect. Take it away, past-me!
On Friday morning after breakfast (with delicious fresh fruit prepared by Kiki!), Todd, Chris, Rich, and I headed back to SFO to pick up the last member of our team, Andy who had flown in from Austin. From the airport, we decided to drive straight into downtown San Francisco for a day of casual puzzling.
First up was a playtest of Larry Hosken’s Octothorpean location-based puzzle trail. We had a good time running around, and even asked a local for help! The second part of the hunt sent us near where Tyler works, so we met up with him for lunch at a Mel’s Diner nearby before getting started on part two.
We really struggled getting started with the next part of the hunt. We were way too stuck on the mechanic of the previous portion and totally disregarded the next clue we needed, even after looking right at it. Once we finally figured it out, things went smoothly and we had fun following the clues. We eventually ended up near Market St., and Todd suggested that Chris, Andy and I play some of Larry’s 2 Tone Game since part of it started nearby. That part of the hunt was based on really vague photographs of sidewalks and sides of buildings and things like that. I was amazed that we were actually able to find the places photographed and follow the path, it was pretty cool! We took a short pit-stop when I spotted a Beard Papas cream puff store. I never pass up a Beard Papas, and nobody else in the group had tried them before, so I insisted we stop and enjoy a box.
After we finished the photograph portion of the hunt, we stopped and worked on some word puzzles in the next section, but before long we had to start making plans to head to our Real Escape Game appointment. (I knew I couldn’t miss an opportunity to play REG, so I suggested we all get tickets for Friday evening to play Escape from the Mysterious Room). Rich left the group at about this time to do some scouting and playtesting of his own, and we decided to make a quick trip over to the Haight district to see Brent and Linda (the owners of Shinteki and head GC for the Decathlon), with another Octothorpean puzzle stop along the way. (I’ll admit, I was way more interested in the strange abandoned estate near that puzzle than the puzzle itself.) We only had about 15 minutes to chat with Brent and Linda before we had to head back over to Japantown for Escape from the Mysterious Room! What a busy afternoon!
It was fun walking through Japantown since that was one of the places Nick and I visited on our honeymoon. We didn’t have much time to look around, but I recognized a few shops and restaurants that we had been to. Escape from the Mysterious Room is located on the third floor of the NEW PEOPLE building, which didn’t even exist when we had visited 3½ years ago. The building was pretty neat, with a glass front spanning all three floors. There was a cute cafe on the first floor and a boutique on the second floor. We were instructed to wait on the 2nd floor mezzanine for our appointment, and we found some of our teammates were already there. (They sell 11 tickets per game, and we only bought four of those, so we knew we’d be playing with some strangers.) The players that were already there said they had just gotten the tickets from a friend who couldn’t make it after all, so we weren’t sure what to expect from them. Surprisingly, one of the girls in the group actually recognized Todd’s Shinteki T-shirt! Our puzzle prowess was revealed. The rest of the group trickled in, and as the four of us introduced ourselves as being fairly seriously involved in puzzles (both recreationally and professionally), it became pretty clear that expectations were high of Boneless Chicken Cabaret. No pressure!
The rest of our group appeared to be pretty much all people my age or younger, with maybe a few more women than men. A wide variety of professions and backgrounds were represented, which I thought was pretty cool (and might even improve our odds of success). Eventually, the elevator opened and our chrismatic host, Pearl, greeted us all. She scanned our tickets, had us sign waivers, gave us name tags, and encouraged us to do introductions and discuss strategy for our time in the room. It was a bit difficult to strategize without knowing what the room would be like, but we laid down a couple of ground rules: 1) Don’t be shy about taking things apart and searching thoroughly (pretty much everyone had already heard this advice from friends who had played before) and 2) If you see something, say something. Or, if you’re doing something in the room or find something interesting, try to announce it to the group. Communication!
Finally, it was time to enter the elevator and head up to the mysterious third floor! The door opened to a hallway, which lead to a waiting area outside The Room. There was a place to put jackets and bags, and we were instructed to leave everything (including cell phones) outside of the room. We all sat down and Pearl explained the rules of the game, which again included the advice to BE THOROUGH. She advised us that if we could take something apart with our hands, we should do so. She also explained some of the limitations (don’t touch the things that have the Don’t Touch symbol on them, don’t climb on the furniture, don’t use tools to take things apart), and the very important No Running rule. She also explained an interesting feature of the room – there would be “spirits” inside. These “spirits” were the two staff members that would act as monitors to make sure we weren’t breaking any rules, and who might also give us helpful hints if they thought we needed them. (I thought they would be distracting, but most of the time I forgot they were there!)
By the time our host was finished explaining the rules, I could barely contain my excitement. I think I even exclaimed “I want to escape from this freaking room!” or something right before we went in. I definitely already had the feeling that this was an activity where you could succeed as a direct result of your efforts and skill, and that was super motivating. The door was unlocked, we went inside, and Pearl gave us one last piece of cryptic advice (which I won’t share here) before locking the door. A voice announced that we had 60 minutes remaining, and we got started.
I can’t say anything more specific from here (I would never dream of spoiling this amazing experience for anyone else), but I think I can give a few general impressions and tell you how we did.
First of all, the room was WAY bigger than I had imagined! I had only seen a photo online, which I think was of the Tokyo version, and this room seemed huge in comparison. The size was definitely appropriate, though, with ten of us (we were short one player) moving around, and with all the props that were in the room. And the amount of stuff in there was pretty overwhelming at times.
Second, it was a bit harder to stay organized than I was expecting. Since our initial strategy kind of had to be divide and conquer, there ended up being quite a bit of overlap. Sometimes it wasn’t clear what things had been searched, and some things got overlooked. I think we probably organized better than the average team, but I think we could have communicated and planned a little better.
Third, communication was super important! It helped us define what pieces of the puzzle we were still missing, and where the bottlenecks were. There was one clue in particular that I found, but wasn’t sure where it was needed, so I announced it to the group. Later, it was someone else in the group who found the connection that was needed, and at a critical moment. Amazing!
I had such a good time and was riding a total adrenaline rush through the whole thing. I liked trying to get our team organized and keep us motivated. I felt like we were doing pretty good throughout the whole thing. There was a point where I thought “Okay, if don’t escape, it won’t be because we weren’t thorough!”
So how did we do? See for yourself:
We hit a couple of big roadblocks with clues that were really vital, and also REALLY well-hidden. I’m talking three, four, five people have searched something and it’s only the sixth person who finally sees it. We unlocked what I would call the Endgame with about 10 minutes to go, and then we just totally hit a wall. We got hung up on one particular (and arguably misleading) element, started to panic, and just couldn’t advance. I wonder if we had gotten to that part with a little more time, and had therefore been a bit less frantic, if we might have had the presence of mind to figure things out. It was pretty disappointing to have gotten that far with a solid amount of time left and not figure out the last few steps. But no amount of disappointment could outweigh how much fun we all had playing the game.
Pearl unlocked the door, entered the room, and walked us through the solution, pointing out the clues we had missed along the way. We had only really failed to solve one pre-Endgame element (and boy did I hate myself for missing it after I saw what it was), but the Endgame stuff really felt like we should have been able to follow and figure it out. There are times in puzzles and puzzle events where the solution is something that feels really out of left field, and you get annoyed, thinking “I never would have figured that out!” But it can be even more frustrating when the answer is pretty logical, and you say “Yeah, we probably should have been able to get that.” What’s worse — to be annoyed at the puzzle designer’s flaws or your own? It was especially painful this time because we were so, so close.
Something we discussed after the fact was that the game was really well balanced for eleven people over 60 minutes, which is kind of amazing. There was plenty for everyone to do the whole time, and we were right on the edge of finishing. Maybe if we had had that eleventh person instead of playing a man down?
Afterwards, Pearl asked us our favorite parts of the room. Mine was the part where Todd got a “No running!” warning from the spirits because what we had found was so exciting. We also filled out a survey with our thoughts about the experience, and took the customary “We failed” photo.
Just as we were about to leave, one of the staff members asked if there was a Clavis Cryptica in the group. That was me! I thought that staff member had looked familiar, and it turned out to be Kazuya Iwata, the director of the US branch of SCRAP Entertainment!! He introduced himself, and I told him how much fun I had and how glad I was that they were doing this and that I got to play. I’m still kicking myself for not using some of my four years of Japanese classes to talk to him, but I was way too jazzed up to think clearly. (I’m pretty sure he was one of the spirits in the room too, so now I keep thinking about all the instances where I was squatting under tables and such right in front of him, ack!)
We got a photo together, and I left with the biggest smile on my face. (I’m still not sure how they knew I was there! I totally forgot to tweet about it before we went.)
The four of us talked and talked about the game the whole way to our last appointment of the evening (which we were super late for), a puzzlers’ dinner at a local Thai restaurant. The guest list included Debbie, the founder of DASH(!!), Larry Hosken, and Scott Royer. I enjoyed listening about how Deb started DASH, and she told some great stories about her experiences.
Another photo before we parted ways, and then our team headed back toward Rich’s house to get some much-needed rest before the Decathlon. We attempted to go to a local Safeway to get some snacks and supplies so we wouldn’t have to do it in the morning, but the Safeway turned out to sort of not exist and we ended up just deciding to do it in the morning anyway.
Did I just say were were going to go get some sleep before the big day? Not so much. Back at Rich and Kiki’s, we ended up staying up a several more hours chatting as new friends arrived, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, we had to keep telling everyone how we ALMOST escaped from the mysterious room, but not quite. We all did eventually make it to bed, and I fell asleep with the most all-encompassing feeling of warmth and inspiration and anticipation.
Tune in next week for the main event, Shinteki Decathlon on Saturday!