Survivor games with Google


I hope your summer weekends have been everything you hoped for. As a game designer, I love it when my weekends are full of play and mirth as this past one was. Friday in particular which was as lovely and satisfying as any day I could hope for.


Two Xmases ago, Greg and I ran the December Game at a holiday party for Google. And then earlier this year we booked our second game for the LA Google team. A July luncheon at the beach, with fun and games and a Survivor theme. Our mission: design a challenge course of 3 mini games that anyone could play in any order over the course of a couple hours. Expected attendance was 600, plus kids.


Based on a game event we’d previously run for our friends and family at a church in El Cerrito, we designed a passport players could take around to every station collecting scores and stamps. The players with the highest total scores won prizes, but the point was a fun day of mental and physical games suitable for family play. In hindsight, I wish we had been notified how many kids would be present but luckily the games were suitable for all ages.



In designing the day we quickly settled on two of our perennial games, Dot Racing and No Match Catch. Myriad reasons make these games suitable for just such an event, not to mention the coincidence of the colors in the client’s iconic logo.



Our conjectural o course had a balance beam, retrieving something from the water, digging up a buried chest at coordinates, a lock and key, or perhaps combination lock (less vulnerable to sand when buried), ending with a puzzle or code as a mental catch-up. But problems multiplied before we even began. A game like this can be played only once at the party: no re-setting things that need to be dug up, plus a code or puzzle is only good once: when people see how it’s solved, it’s spoiled.


I came across the name of the game first, while looking on Wikipedia at lists of songs by the band KISS. It’s John Kirhoffer’s favorite band, and as challenge producer John ultimately decides which challenges make it past the idea stage and onto the board, which is one step on the way to a playtest, none of which is a one-way street to making it on the air. No matter how good a challenge is, it has to have a good name or it’ll never make it on the board. Sometimes we sit around getting sick of a good challenge because nobody can name it and we can’t move on until it goes on the board. Greg holds the record for best name for an endurance challenge that didn’t make it to air. I’ll let him post it in the comments, I don’t want to steal his thunder.


So there I was, mining for challenge names among rock songs with the plan to work backwards. When I read the track listing for Unmasked (1980), the song title Two Sides of the Coin made me think of this challenge. It came to me fully formed.


This, in its entirety, is a write-up from March 2011:


Two Sides of the Coin.

            In this individual challenge, every player has a solving station in front of him made of 4 colored stripes with 4 matching colored coins on them, each coin with a heads and tails side. Jeff reads a series of instruction on how the players are to turn, swap and move the coins. They must listen to the directions, try to remember them, and then move the pieces on their station. Then Jeff checks to see who is right; anyone whose station doesn't match his card is eliminated.

            With each elimination, instructions get longer and more complicated. Also, additional coins can be added to increase difficulty. Sample instruction: 

"Turn over the red coin. Swap the first two coins. Turn over the coin on the yellow space. Swap the middle two coins. Turn the first coin showing heads."


Before and after:

Pitch image 1.jpg
Pitch image 2.jpg

I did not make a playtest of this game for the Survivor room, which was probably its downfall, but a few weeks ago when Greg and Laura the intern were over at my house, I made up a playtest of it with scratch paper, Sharpies filched from my wife’s desk, and coasters we don’t use any more for a game where you roll coasters across the floor of a bar at a target, like a cuspidor. It’s called Roller Coasters and it could be suitable for Tiny Games.


We determined that the game was good enough and replay value high enough to build out further. Greg had the crucial idea that it could be played with 3 coins to start and then moving up to 4 coins, perhaps with a reversible game board.


To make the mats, I assigned Laura to find cheap placemats we could paint but she observed that getting raw materials and fabricating the boards out of items purchased in the garment district would be better. It took Greg a whole day to get what he needed because none of his usual haunts had all 4 colors, and he is very particular about quantities. He’s been to a lot of foreign countries and shopped in many bazaars so he’s a tough negotiator. He is the guy who will walk out the door. Many merchants have called him “my friend” but not meant it.


Greg designed boards that folded over and used Velcro to transform between three and four stripes. Funny story about the Velcro. We obtained it for the original Dot Racing board back in 2011 by getting it for free off Craigslist because a woman didn’t want it. Greg failed to bring it to the East Bay so we hot glued the dots on the big mat instead – that is, until someone suggested a pencilution.


During the move into our new workspace, I put the Velcro in a safe place, alongside other seldom used items. I retrieved the Velcro which Greg then hot glued to the fabric. Greg observed that in its initial state the game board resembled the flag of Romania. He also recognized that its reverse looked like the flag of Mexico, but rotated and lacking an Eagle. Further research showed its reverse is the flag of Mali.


I ordered wooden disks for the coins from this store. Never use this store:

I still have no idea where the disks are. This store is terrible.


Greg got the wooden disks necessary from Michael’s in Burbank, along with other craft items. He also got some 1/8 inch foam in the correct colors and hole punches in the right sizes. This way, the coins could be punched out fully formed. There need be no painting, only stenciling on the heads and tails images. We agreed that the foam might be lighter than the wood coins, but it might be okay.


Greg’s first stencils were of eagles and George Washington heads but I opined that I preferred snakes and skulls for heads and tails. I used Bing to find images and sent them to him to make and cut stencils. He modified them in Photoshop first and printed them a couple times to get the right size. Cutting them then was accomplished easily enough but painting them was time consuming. After finishing half the job (1 side of each coin) we worked together to move the newspaper outside so the paint could dry and the lightest breeze blew the coins everywhere. This was a game intended for the beach. Wind would be a major factor.


As if with one mind, we had the idea to glue the foam coins to either side of the wooden disks. This would have more weight than foam or wood alone and, another nice side effect, look like madeleines. As we’ve learned from Minute to Win It, people have a good time when they’re playing with cookies.


Greg completed the coins and also fashioned boards that would somewhat elegantly serve two purposes, protecting players from wind and cheating competitors. He used foam board, bookends, and hot glue.


The hardest item to come up with was rubber stamps to put in the programs. Unless you get them custom made, and we were out of time, you can’t get a one-inch square stamp with a torch, a skull, a rat, a snake, an idol, an X marks the spot… Feel free to prove me wrong. Who would have thought this would be the item that would prove so tough? We went with bugs, as in what Survivors ate on season 1. Specifically, we used a scarab, a spider, and a ladybug (for Dot Racing of course).


Then there was the snafu at the printers where 250 of the passports were printed 50% offset, but it turns out Greg designed them with a nice symmetry so it wasn’t a problem, plus we gave away the good ones first. Adam the new intern did a noble job folding all those programs.

But Adam’s most noble work by far was building the Two Sides of the Coin application from scratch, with instructions from 2 guys he barely knew who were not always communicating in the best way. And he did it under deadline, on hardware that wasn’t easy to work with (mark 1 iPad), away from home and out of his comfort zone. It was a bang-up job. He has already named two good ideas for improvements to the app, but the product we played with on Friday was robust and easy to use. It’s a wonder. For someone like me who sees coding as achievable magic, it’s a fine thing. And I don’t usually work in digital games. I don’t think Two Sides of the Coin counts as a digital game, but the app is a crucial addition.


In addition to his proficiency at digital games, Adam was a great game show host for No Match Catch. It was a pleasure to be on the beach next to him as he capably led the teams through this game. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


I packed everything the night before the game. Adam and Greg beat me to the restaurant but there wasn’t much for them to do until I arrive. I got there 10 minutes before the appointed time of 10 AM. The weather was partially cloudy and there was a snap in the air. I was permitted to park near the restaurant for loading, right off the Pacific Coast Highway. We loaded items.


First we snapped together the carpet pieces that assemble like a puzzle; Greg bought scores of them on a visit to the Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland. Now we lay them on hardwood floors to put under the Dot Racing game for players’ comfort. We oriented the mat so as no to obstruct the bar but to block the door that led to the dangerous staircase to the beach. Down on the beach we placed the balls and buckets for No Match Catch. I taught Adam how to call the game and he understood it right away. I knew he had the right attitude when he asked me if he could tease and encourage the players.



  The two smartest things we did were show up early and expect wind would be a factor. Wind was a factor and being there early gave us time to deal with it. Part of the solution was borrowing duct tape; I had the idea to ask the guy with the ladder to use his. We never did give it back to him. Sorry mate. Then there was the remarkable coincidence of having 4 magnets that were packed along with the dry erase board on which I used red and blue tape to transform it into a scoreboard that looks like the American flag. Those magnets were also enlisted in the battle against the wind, adhered to the bookends hotglued to the foam board and duct taped to the table.


The restaurant manager gave his waitstaff a terrific pep talk. I’m going to do that more. Our support team comprised Jaclyn and Clinton, two all-star game confederates. You know they’re good because they both own Wise Guys shirts. They’re family. Greg and I wore polos. It was that kind of day.


The whole lunch was a big success and our games were a big success too. I was so grateful we didn’t build an O course. I had a great time playing Two Sides of the Coin. I hogged it so much I hardly let Jaclyn host any rounds at all, but she was there to step in and did a splendid job, allowing me to get some extra water, relieve myself, and check out the rest of the event.


If I’d hosted a little more I would have fallen into a more easy rhythm like I did with E3GoMania, but I got some good lines in there. I borrowed a line from Jeff Adamson, manager of ComedySportz Quad City, used in describing the brown bag foul: “Put your hands up in the I-work-at-7-11-position.”




But beyond the games going very well, which they did, there were some other remarkable things about the day. Some were very small but they added up to a day that was full of wonderful surprises and smiles.

  • The woman who gave out programs to guests as they arrived was Pamela. Pamela was a student in an improv class I taught earlier this summer: other than that, we’d never met before. No coincidence, no story.

  • During the very first coin game of the day, a woman earned the high score: 23 points. Her name was Tammy and after she played she said, “Aren’t you Owler from the NPL?” Which indeed I am. She also remembered me from when I ran a Go Game for Google interns about 6 years ago. Her intellect is simply off the charts. She has to be super human. Late in the day another contestant, Jesse, equaled her score but no one topped it. EDIT: Larry Hosken, a brilliant puzzler in his own right, has identified this player as Tammy McLeod, the reigning US Sudoku champ, so that kind of helps explain that.

  • Another fun, spirited contestant who played our games had a mustache with waxed tips (styled points, Greg calls them) and piercings: his face rang a bell but I’m not good with faces. He confirmed that we knew each other; he’s Joseph, friends with Jason Stein, who is in graduate school with my wife. Actually Jason graduated recently but that’s beside the point. Another chance encounter: Joseph (or Seph) is a summer intern for Google.

  • And then as I passed the elaborately presented desert buffet, featuring a volcano of Cocoa Krispies Rice Krispie treats with Oreos and gummy worms that looked like lava, a woman called me by name. It was Sara, whose husband works at Google, and whose son Charlie attends My Gym with my son Fenton. At this point I was kind of gobsmacked, but I was having so much fun it just felt like a party where I kept seeing people I liked but never expected to run into. Because that’s what it was.

Greg and I did some fun back and forth MC banter at the scoring ceremony; we guilt tripped some people into rescinding their high scores so as not to exclude Ariella, a very bright girl of about age 11 who, with 17 points, had the second-highest score of the day in Two Sides of the Coin. About 4 people got 14 points in that game but the winners had 49, 52, and 59 points total.  

We gave out gag gifts as well as nice gifts donated by Google and a trophy for our first place finisher Adam (no relation to our intern). The highest scoring team at No Match Catch got Spelling Bee Participant ribbons. Their high score was 20. I’ve seen scores of 25 and I’m told at Lair of the Bear they got 30, but they are exceptional there.


And after all that, I got to go compete on The Experts, the YouTube game show, where my topic was Survivor. I won’t say too much about what happened until the episode airs but I did get to meet Rob Cesternino which was a privilege. I attest that in person he is warm and self-effacing and a pleasure to talk to. Jaclyn, who knows Rob through tennis friends they have in common, came along to cheer on all the contestants. But mostly me.


I won’t reveal the outcome of the competition, but afterward Jaclyn and I went out to celebratory drinks at Kay n Dave’s ;) and invited along Marty and Alan, the co-creators of The Experts. We geeked out on game shows like Million Dollar Mind Game, Merv Griffin Crosswords, Only Connect, Mastermind, and many more. Plus I drank a frozen blended mango margarita, make it a grande for $1 more. It was like putting a fruity milkshake of booze in my gob and I loved it. And that’s why I attest Friday was really great.


It’s times like this that make me appreciate how fortunate I am to have play in my life. Thank play, as intern Adam would say.