I Helped Run a Game

…and that’s why I haven’t posted anything for the past two months!  (Warning, this post will probably contain some spoilers for The Famine Game.  All photos are either by Sana Malik or me unless otherwise noted.)

Last week, my husband and I flew to Washington, D.C. to help run The Famine Game, a Hunger Games-themed Game organized by Todd Etter and Philip Dasler, and the first ever Game run in Washington, D.C.  In this post, I’m just going to re-cap my personal experience with the Game.  It won’t be a comprehensive report of the Famine Game itself by any means (there are many puzzles and parts of the event that I never even saw), but it might give a bit of a behind-the-scenes look.

My Famine Game journey started just a few weeks shy of one year ago when I got lunch with Todd.  He told me he was planning a Game and asked if I’d be interested in helping out with web and graphics, and maybe a few puzzles.  I hadn’t even played in a Game myself at that point, but being a part of running one sounded exciting, so I said yes.

I got my first Famine GC email in early January, and we had the Game’s website up the next month.  At about the same time, Nick and I decided we were moving to Seattle, which was very exciting, but also a bit of a bummer.  I hated that I had just gotten involved in this great local thing with so many wonderful people, only to move cross-country with 8 months left in the project.  We got to go to one scouting/playtesting session just before we moved, and everything I did from that point on was remote.  Google Hangouts made things a bit easier as I got to see and hear my friends once a week, even if I couldn’t help with the on-site scouting, playtesting, and production processes.

In Seattle, Nick helped me develop a WordPress plugin to handle our team application process and I helped design a puzzle for that application.  We received a lot of incredible applications and agonized over which teams to select.  We announced the accepted teams via “livestream” and delivered the first taste of the flavor we wanted to inject into this Game.

That’s when the fun began for me, because once we had accepted all of the teams, I could start designing team logos!  I wanted to give each team a logo in the style of the District seals used in the movies.  I had been doing graphics and styling for the in-game app that Sana and Phil were developing, and originally I had only imagined these team logos being used in that app.  In the end, we slapped those logos on everything we could!  Car magnets, ID badges, table markers, powerpoints, a temporary tattoo puzzle, and probably more that I’m forgetting.  I hope the teams got a kick out of their logos (and if anyone wants a vector version, just let me know!).  It was fun making them, and I think they really enhanced the aesthetic of the event.

All 24 Team Logos
All 24 Team Logos

As the big day drew closer, my responsibilities expanded beyond just design work and print production, and I became a point person for our Friday night kickoff dinner, something I had been very interested in helping with.  I grew up catering weddings with my family, so event planning of that sort felt very familiar.  I found myself designing seating charts, chatting with our venue’s light and sound guy, finalizing the menu with our caterer, and curating a playlist to set just the right mood for the teams as they entered the ballroom.  I had a lot of fun working on this part, and I was pleased to identify another item (event atmosphere design) to add to my list of creative tasks that really spark my passion.

Finally, after months of hard work (well, months of leisurely work and about three weeks of ridiculous work, in my case), it was time to fly out to D.C.!  Nick serendipitously got some unexpected time off of work which happened to fall on my trip, so he ended up joining me.  (There were several moments throughout the trip where I wondered how I ever would have survived that week without him there!)  Our local friends Jen and Greg picked us up from the airport on Tuesday night, and graciously let us stay at their apartments for the whole week (me at Jen’s, Nick at Greg’s).  Jen even let us borrow her car, which we would have been completely hopeless without!

The last few days leading up to the event were a flurry of hard work and little sleep.  I still had so many printouts to prepare for Friday night and the Clock, Jen and I needed to make about 1500 leaf-shaped candies for a Friday night puzzle, and I knew there were probably an unlimited amount of tasks that could use a helping hand at Todd’s place.  Somehow, it all got done enough, and I found myself putting on my crazy Capitol makeup in the car on the way to the Artisphere for our Friday night dinner.  As we pulled up around 5:00, we saw Bloodshot hanging around outside.  Registration wasn’t supposed to open until 6:00!  Ack!  And when we got inside, we found they weren’t the only team that had arrived early.  Probably five teams were already mingling in the lobby outside the ballroom.  Panic!

Best Costumes - Disobedient Children from the Agriculture District
Best Costumes – Disobedient Children from the Agriculture District
My favorite team, The Hunger Dames from the Luxury District
My favorite team, The Hunger Dames from the Luxury District

For the rest of the evening, I ran around in my ridiculous high heels, trying to prepare this and anticipate that and make sure everything was ready to go.  (I must have looked as anxious as I felt, because people kept giving me hugs and telling me it would be okay and asking if I had eaten yet.)  Luckily, there was a room full of incredible and smart people who were eager to help make it all happen.  Nick and his brother Mike awesomely stepped up to run the projector and sound, with very little supervision required from me.  Jan and Yar let me dump 100% of registration on their shoulders, and put me at so much ease about it that I totally forgot to check in later and see if there were any missing waivers or anything.  Sana, Ann, Robin, and Melissa got all the upstairs activities ready and were always available to go grab this or that or someone I needed.  Sam somehow kept us perfectly on schedule, even when we knew the presentations were going long.  And Todd reminded me to take a deep breath and enjoy it all!



So somehow, with our powers combined, everything that was supposed to happen happened, and as far as we could tell, the kickoff dinner was a success!  I felt good, like we had made a positive first impression on teams and maybe started to build up some of the trust that is necessary for a fun puzzle hunt experience.

At that point, the worst was definitely over for me.  The only real responsibility I had left for the rest of the weekend was the Clock, and since that area didn’t open until 11pm on Saturday night, I had plenty of time.  After I got the Friday night activity scores video up, I washed off my crazy face and went to bed.

Cornucopia photo from Todd’s camera

Official build time for our Cornucopia started at 6:30am, but Nick and I decided to get there around 7:30 instead.  By the time we arrived, the team markers were almost finished, and the Cornucopia itself was about half-built.  I didn’t know anything about the latest incarnation of the Cornucopia, so I was really shocked when I saw it.  It was huge!  When it was finished (with plenty of time to spare, even), it looked incredible, and a lot like the one in the movie.  I was seriously impressed.  Chris and Charlie, who built the thing, played it off like it was no big deal.  Phil and Robin’s brilliant PVC and pillowcase team markers looked stunning as well and really gave it that arena feeling.  The weather was perfect, Hains Point looked gorgeous, and we seemed to be on track for a smooth start.

Sam and I drove down to the parking lot where we had instructed teams to gather, which was a decoy starting location so that we could do a big reveal of the Cornucopia.  Once all the teams had arrived, we gathered them around and had them enter the first start code in their app.  We instructed them to get back in their vans and follow the lead car (me and Nick) in a processional down the peninsula to Hains Point.  Nick and I barely got in front of the front vans who were eager to get out of the parking lot, and we made the slow, biker and jogger-filled drive down to the end.  It was a little nerve-wracking to be leading 24 vans, and we almost botched the parking situation, but luckily everyone found a spot and started gathering near the Cornucopia.

Panorama by Paul Chou
Panorama by Paul Chou

We split the teams into two lines, Todd gave an introduction, and then they marched to their respective starting circles.  Players reported this moment feeling kind of somber and momentous.  Mission accomplished!  Todd lead a group countdown for the Game to begin, which was very exciting, and teams opened their first puzzle.  We watched the teams run around for a while before Nick and Mike had to go to their puzzle site and Sam and I left to grab lunch and shop for Clock decorations.

I got all of my Clock materials printed out at Todd’s place, and after much more organization and some shenanigans with an old hornets’ nest, we finally got over to the Clock room where I finished up the details for the puzzles and started decorating.  I ended up having things to get done from that point until the room opened at 11pm, which I think was probably better than having to be shuttled back and forth to different places.  Phil and Robin arrived and worked for a while, and Nick and Mike made an appearance as well.

Finally, Golden SmokingJay arrived (quickly building what would be a somewhat problematic 3-hour lead on the other teams) and we got to have a nice and relaxed test run of the Clock before it started filling up with teams.  (The Clock consisted of 12 different rooms, with teams switching rooms every 15 minutes — a recipe for chaos!)  There were a few rules about traversing the Clock that we hadn’t finalized yet and debated about for several hours before coming to a conclusion.  I think we eventually settled on what to do when about the 12th team had arrived, but by then I was starting to lose cognitive function and made a few mistakes in explaining and answering questions.  I think our highest capacity was about 15 teams in the Clock at once.  There was one moment when the timer went off and all of the teams funneled through the lobby area, and I just had this dazed sense of amazement that it was actually functioning and people were getting in and out of the rooms they wanted and not getting completely angry and frustrated.  After the event, we actually heard that people liked this part of the game, and appreciated the bite-sized nature of the puzzles at such a late hour.  Somehow, frustration or neutrality were the only options in my mind!

Clock chaos
Clock chaos begins

Although things got pretty hectic at the peak, and then later on when we started running short on staff, nothing ever truly broke or fell apart.  That being said, there were a few emergencies and problems late in the night.  One player had a medical emergency and ended up going to the hospital, two GC members had a beloved pet pass away and needed to leave to address that for the remainder of the game, and at least one team’s app session data was lost and had to be recovered.  Every Game has its own share of unexpected events, and we’re thankful to all the players and staff who were patient and understanding during trying times.

Some Clock staff, photo by Linda of Golden SmokingJay
Some Clock staff, photo by Linda of Golden SmokingJay

Luckily, GC and player spirits seemed to stay pretty high, even as the sun came up.  At about 9:45am, we started encouraging the remaining four teams to try and wrap up with help from us so that they could keep to a schedule where they wouldn’t get skipped over too many of the cool puzzles on the National Mall.  Our last team left at about 10:15am, and Mark and I went into clean-up mode, getting all of the Clock stuff back into the lobby for the rest of the crew to transport later.

Almost at the end!
Almost at the end!

At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself!  Nick and Mike had finished their puzzle site at the MLK memorial and picked me up to go to lunch.  I seemed to be half sleepy zombie, half chatterbox telling funny Clock stories.  After that, we headed toward the National Mall to see how all of that was going down.  It sounded like Sana could use some staffing help at the Capitol, but by the time we got there things were pretty much under control.  We enjoyed the weather and the sights for a while, chatted with Todd, and watched teams make their way up the Capitol steps to the finale.  Without much else to do, we decided to go back to Mike’s apartment until the afterparty.  Nick and I fell asleep for a while, and then it was off to Nando’s Peri-Peri in Old Town Alexandria.

The party was already in full swing by the time we arrived, and we got a table for the three of us.  I set up a makeshift Lost and Found with items people left in the Clock room and managed to return a jacket to a player.  Nick’s family was meeting us for dinner in a couple of hours, so we passed on the food for the time being and just chatted with players as they went by.  After a while, I went and joined Sam, Phil, and Sana at their booth and started feeling very emotional about what a great experience it had been, and how much I loved all the people in the room.  Todd gave a thank-you speech, which elicited more emotions.  Then I had to say goodbye and leave for dinner — oh no, more emotions!

And then it was basically all over.  After dinner, Nick and I went to bed pretty early to catch up on many, many lost hours of sleep.  We got lunch with friends on Monday afternoon, and I took lots of naps.  On Monday night, Todd invited us to a puzzler’s dinner with some people who were still in town, and that was just lovely.  I was crying from laughing so hard at everyone’s stories, and then I was nearly crying again from saying goodbye.  I pretty much solidified my decision to fly to Boston for Mystery Hunt again in January rather than take the short trip down to California so I can be sure to see these wonderful East coasters again soon. (Nick told me to wait a week for my post-Game sentimental feelings to wear off before deciding one way or the other, but I don’t think they are going to!)

A lot of crazy things happened between the day Todd asked me to help and the actual event itself.  I got to join Todd’s team for the MIT Mystery Hunt, I moved to Seattle, fellow Famine GC member Phil invited me to be on his WarTron Boston team (my first Game!), I started helping out with ClueKeeper, I got to be on a winning Boneless Chicken Cabaret team for Shinteki Decathlon, and I got to play Real Escape Game.  I met the smartest group of people I can imagine at MIT, I finally met “crossword champion Tyler Hinman” (as we call him in this household) in California, I grew close enough to Todd to truly call him a friend, and I continually met the most lovely and welcoming people the more involved I became in this community.  And now that many of my friendships have been forged in the fire of The Game, I feel confident that these relationships will endure despite the geographical distance between us.

A few less sappy closing thoughts:  Although I think I had originally intended to be much more involved in all aspects of our Game, I only ended up writing two puzzles (both for the Clock), and I feel like I probably had the weakest grasp of the event as a whole among the core GC (certainly weaker than any of the teams that played!).  I think part of this is due to the fact that I’m maybe a bit less interested in writing and solving puzzles than the rest of the group, but a lot of it is obviously because I’ve been working remotely.  By the end of the event, I decided this was actually a very good thing.  Being somewhat removed from everything else let me focus on just the visual design of things, and I think I made a lot more cool stuff than I would have if I had any other elements on my plate.

And a few things I wasn’t expecting when I jumped onto this crazy train:

  • I wasn’t expecting how much work it would be.  I think I had a vague idea of “oh, I bet it takes a lot of work to pull off a Game,” but since I knew I wanted to help out no matter what, and therefore never had a decision-making process, it never really crossed my mind.  Even after WarTron Boston, when we all said “Holy crap, we have a lot of work left to do,” it hadn’t really sunk in yet.  This wasn’t a problem in that I disliked having so much work to do, but rather that I wish I had realized earlier on that this would become my Big Project for the year so that I would have taken it more seriously from the start and gotten more done instead of scrambling near the end and having to let some things go by the wayside.
  • I wasn’t expecting how much people would like it.  I think because I felt a bit removed from the actual organization of the puzzles and the event as a whole, I maybe didn’t feel as responsible for whether people had fun or not, and it wasn’t something I ever wondered about.  For the elements I was responsible for, I only ever imagined scenarios where people got annoyed and frustrated.  I think I have a tendency to prepare for and focus on worst-case scenarios and I totally forget about the possibility that things will go fine and the end result will be something that people really enjoy.  The player reaction also speaks volumes to Todd and Phil’s ambitious creativity and flawless execution.
  • I wasn’t expecting how satisfied and fulfilled I would feel afterward.  Probably a result of people having a good time and saying so.  I felt like I had really been a part of something special.  It was satisfying to be working with really competent people all year, having responsibilities, helping other people, and actually creating something for others to enjoy.  (Maybe this is what some people feel like when they have a real job that they like?  Maybe I should get a real job?)
  • I wasn’t expecting to be ready to do it all again so quickly.  In the ramp up to the event, and in the middle of the 36-hour Saturday to Sunday run, I was having some of those “why does anyone ever do this” thoughts.  But before the event was even over, probably when I was standing on the West Lawn with Todd and realizing it was all coming to a close, I was already starting to feel a bit melancholy about the end.  Then the e-mails started coming in with comments like “Can’t wait for the next one.”  By Monday night, I had a text file with things I could have done better, and might improve on the next time around.  I hope I made it clear to Todd that he needs only say the word and I’ll be on board for any future endeavors, be they full-fledged Games or otherwise.

And a few special thanks:

  • Nick – For being lonely while I worked my butt off in the weeks leading up to the event, for joining me on the trip, for helping run two puzzle sites and the Friday night projector, helping set up the Clock, for helping out on things that you might not have felt completely comfortable with, and for taking care of me when I was super stressed and exhausted.
  • Mike – For helping out with the projector Friday night, running two puzzle sites (in the dark, cold morning!), helping out with the Clock, and keeping Nick company.
  • Jen – For helping me make literally thousands of candies, putting me up in your apartment, lending your car to the cause, and running a puzzle site.  We could not have made this trip without you and Greg!
  • Greg – For housing Nick for the whole week, helping run a puzzle site, and putting up with a couple of late nights while I finished things up.
  • Jan and Yar – For taking over registration on Friday and being so reliable in the Clock room.  You are the loveliest people!
  • Phil, Sam, Sana – For working so hard on all of your components and being awesome people that I’m proud to call friends!  (Not to mention, keeping me sane on Friday night.)  Sana, an extra thanks for sticking it out in the war room by yourself for who knows how many hours, and taking some great photos on Friday night.
  • Mark – For being a cool dude and fun to work with 11 hours straight in the Clock room.
  • The Etter Family – For being so generous with Todd and your home and your own time and energy to help make this happen.
  • Todd – For being practically perfect in every way and bringing me into this great project and welcoming community.

That’s about all I have to say from my perspective.  I feel so lucky to have been a part of this amazing creation, and thankful to all of the teams who put their trust in us to pull off something worth their time, money, and energy.  Run more games!

5 comments on I Helped Run a Game

  • Summer S.

    Thank you for writing such a fantastic blog & letting us see what went on behind the scenes!!! The work you did on the event was absolutely stunning, and the friendly & warm demeanor put forth by you and the other Piecekeepers was so lovely (and needed…and appreciated!!!).
    This was truly the experience of a lifetime, and I for one cannot wait to see everyone again soon at another event. Thank you for being so awesome!!!
    Xox, summer s. (The hunger dames)

  • Josh Ward

    This was a great write-up! As one of the last couple teams out of the Clock, I appreciate the nudging out the door. We got to see a lot more of the other puzzles, and ended up solving the last few clock puzzles later… Just didn’t get the meta. Oh well!

    Could you please send me the vector image of Team Snout’s logo in the District 1 shield, please?

  • Bruce

    Great writeup! And great production values as well. Those badges were really slick, the app rocked, and the consistent graphic design across all media was very impressive.

  • Chris in England

    Delighted to hear that you had such a good time and thanks very much for sharing your experiences in such detail! Lots of fun to read, and I hope it has inspired a great many powerful thoughts in your own mind of precisely what you want to do and how you might be able to go about doing it.

  • Dan E.

    I didn’t realize you _made_ all those candies. I guess I had assumed you got them from some flavored-leaf-shaped-candy-online.com sort of place. That must have taken for-*ever*.

    And that’s just one little piece of the event. That’s a thing about Games — as a player, even a player who kind of knows what it’s like to run one, it’s so easy to miss the little details that make things great but which take untold hours and hours of work.

    It was an amazing game. Thanks to you and everyone else on GC and all the volunteers!

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