-- Peter, Paul, & Mary
Are you old enough to remember that seemingly interminable chunk of the '80s when Trivial Pursuit temporarily supplanted baseball as our national pastime? It was a period when, every Saturday night, in living rooms across the country, groups of friends and families gathered to intellectually intimidate each other in a quest for one more little colored piece of the pie. The craze prompted the Parker Brothers to co-op the hitherto free game of family charades, morphing it into $24.95 versions with names like Pictionary, Scattergories, and Scruples.
Meanwhile, Orville Redenbacher laughed all the way to the bank.
Of course this was in the days before we got distracted by long, lonely nights of lattes and laptops, not to mention search engines, chat rooms, and persiankitty.com.
So where did all the board games go?
Well, Seattle, of course. That's right: Seattle. When the Internet first reared its ugly head, they all high-tailed it to the Northwest. There they've been regrouping, hibernating, germinating, and gestating (or something like that), just waiting to be born again -- as Entros.
Now approaching its one-year anniversary in San Francisco, Entros is the Seattle-based restaurant/socially interactive entertainment company that took over the cavernous old South Beach Billiards building and turned it into a giant, life-sized board game. Inside, instead of plastic triangles, or a little metal top hat, you and your friends serve as the Entros game pieces, moving around the perimeter of the "board" to compete in a variety of physical and mental challenges.
In the center of the room, the big old bowl of microwave popcorn has been replaced by an upscale restaurant serving an Asian-Mexican fusion cuisine. My visit was prompted by an invitation from Allyson Kulavis, a part-time Entros employee and full-time local actor. Joining us for dinner in one of the large booths was Allyson's boyfriend Jeff (the comic book artist), her girlfriend Lauren (the teacher/massage therapist/a few other things, I think), and my friend Señor Café (the renowned novelist visiting from Boston).
We started our evening of gaming with a bottle of 1996 Rabbit Ridge zinfandel. "It's an angry wine," joked Jeff.
"Mmm ... testy," I agreed. "I would say precocious, but the word is overused."
As our appetizers began to arrive (delicious scallop, shrimp, and avocado pot stickers, followed by a plate of duck mole spring rolls -- yum) Kat, our fun-time facilitator, stopped by to give us the rundown on our upcoming options. One game, we learned, would require us to sacrifice virgins into an erupting volcano. "Oh, but I forgot to bring a virgin," I lamented.
"We'll just have to use you," said Señor Café.
"You're a virgin?" asked Kat.
"This month," I explained. "I recalibrate. Every 30 days I roll it back to zero."
As we doled out our next course, a large bowl of poha mango salad, Kat went on to detail each of Entros' games: the Build a Better Burger game, the Human Pinball game, the Scavenger Hunt around the restaurant game, and the Interface game, in which one player directs another through a blind obstacle course.
"It's like virtual reality," I suggested.
"No. Not at all," said Kat. "It's like sensory deprivation."
Oh. That sounds fun, I thought. And people pay for this? "It's easy," Kat assured us. "Have you ever pushed a button?"
"I already told you -- not this month."
Then I raised my hand for one final clarification of the rules. Yes, you in the back of the booth? "Are there any games that don't make you look like an idiot?" I asked.
"No. Drink some more wine," instructed Kat.
Instead we upped the ante with a round of booze -- a Maker's Mark Manhattan for me. That got the ol' game muscles going. But before we could embark on the rest of our evening's events we polished off platters of two fine Entros entrees: wok-seared prawns and scallops in a mango-oyster sauce over egg noodles, and the daily special, a vegetable chow fun with red curry coconut sauce, accompanied by large banana leaf tamales.
Everybody chow fun tonight. And let the games begin!
As we played our way around the virtual game board of the first room, Señor Café and I quickly distinguished ourselves as formidable opponents. In the Big Toys area we met a young couple decked out in full Hawaiian attire, including grass skirts, plastic leis, and an old camera for a prop. Through an intricate series of strategic leans based on precise geometric planning we proceeded to kick their faux-tourist asses all over the Travel Maze game, earning ourselves the incredible score of, uh, seven, I think. Which is really, really good. Really.
Next up was a quick refueling stop at the hook-shaped bar in the center of the joint. Make mine a Maker's Mark Manhattan, Mike. Then I rejoined the rest of our group to embark on the ultimate Entros experience -- the Blender.
As the previous players were let out, we stepped through the sacred doors into a world of which many men dream, but few ever actually get to see: the Television Game Show Set. The room was fully decked out with nine glowing podiums, a stage, a screen, microphones, music, and an authentically cheesy game show host -- in our case it was Kat. Everyone paired up behind a podium. Allyson and Jeff. Señor Café and me. Lauren and some stranger down at the other end. This was serious business. And we intended to win.
Each team was asked to select a name for itself and scribble it, Jeopardy-like, on the glass podium plate. Señor Café and I did not even have to consult. "The Cunning Linguists," I proudly Magic Markered onto our screen. While other teams continued their debates, Café and I instead considered whether some sort of added graphical representation might not help us win the Best Team Name competition that was about to take place.
Kat went on to explain the rules of play involving pictures and words and buttons and lights. Double money if you're first. Bonus points for dancing like a fool. (I think I got that one.)
Round 1 brought questions about Killer Weed, Colonel Mustard, and Dual Darrens from Bewitched. When the smoke cleared, Kat hit a button and the scores for each team magically appeared on the big screen. Lauren and her teammate were in first place. Allyson and Jeff were in third. Café and I were second to last.
I'm telling you -- our buzzer was broken.
The Action Jacksons (our Hawaiian friends) were then given a chance to earn 200 bonus points by coming onstage to recite an evil version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." This left Café and me dead last. We dove into Round 2, where the points could really double, with renewed vigor, determined to come back strong.
Tied for last place after Round 2, we were forced to come onstage to compete with a young couple in a game of Evil Twister. On first call, "Right leg blue," both the boyfriend and the stranger (Señor Café) instantly leaped through the poor girl's legs. I dutifully leaned backward to form an arch over their mess of human sculpture.
In the end Lauren's team lost out to a miraculous comeback from the Action Jacksons. The pseudo-travelers leaped onstage for an enthusiastic victory hula. I was just thankful to save face by having made it back up to sixth place. Pouring ourselves out of the Blender and back to the bar, we spent the rest of the night upstairs navigating the challenging Interface game. I don't remember if I won or lost, but there were definitely free jelly beans involved, which is always nice.
Later, waking Señor Café from his little nappy on the sofa, I warned him, "If you're drunk, this next game can be pretty dangerous. It's called Whiskey Stairs. Hang on to that railing there." A few minutes later, and halfway down to the main floor, we'd had enough. "I forfeit the stairs," I announced, before heading off for a challenging round of the Urinal Game.
In the end, I was a little too entertained to decide whether Entros is in fact the reincarnation of my long-lost Candy Land game, a hypersocial prescription for the residual alienation of our emerging cyberculture -- or just good, clean fun.
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