in memoriam ludorum: Entros

Cartoon gravestone pictureThis site announces a new, infrequent, irregular series about some of the most interesting games of yesteryear, for fear that they are forgotten for good. The title in memoriam ludorum hopefully works better than the alternative Game but not forgotten.

Entros was a restaurant in Seattle, and later San Francisco, for most of the 1990s. It was distinctive for offering imaginative games along with the food, on a scale sufficiently grand and with equipment sufficiently advanced that a dedicated centre was necessary to house them. At a basic level, you could pull up to the bar and have some fairly familiar fare accompany your food and drink: Boggle, backgammon, card games, or pen-and-paper puzzles. However, for a few dollars more, you could get a sticker to get you access to the six or so big games, rotated once or twice a year, and these big games were about as imaginitve and exciting as it got – arguably, among the most progressive games made available to the public of all time.

Peter Sarrett, a fixture of the Seattle game and puzzle community, wrote a juicy, love-laden tribute to the big games on offer in his wonderful old board game printed ‘zine. Sadly the publication is no more and the URL (gamereport.com) of the archive site was far too good not to be snapped up, but happily archive.org has a saved copy. The article is a must-read, but here are some of the most interesting parts to whet your appetite:

“The office is quiet – perhaps too quiet. My companion and I quickly speak into our headsets, describing our surroundings to our partners tucked away in a remote control booth. Cross-checking our descriptions with their information, they tell us to search the bookcase. Sure enough, we find a hidden latch and open a secret door to a darkened room. There, on an illuminated pedestal in the far corner, is our prize- a valuable statue stolen from the art museum. My companion starts to move for it, but I hold him back just in time and point to the floor, an ominous black grid of unusual symbols. Sure enough, our partners tell us it’s rigged to an alarm, but they can guide us through it safely.

We scan franticly for the safe symbols they describe, using them as our stepping stones toward the statue. Halfway through we seem stranded, unable to find a nearby safe square. We shout into our headsets, panic rising, until my companion shouts triumphantly and points to a safe spot. But we’ve taken too long now and we’re out of time. A klaxon wails and the room floods with light, and we’re escorted politely but firmly from the room. Caught. Undaunted, we get back in line for another try.

[…]

After dinner a tantalizing array of activities await. Designed by on-staff gamemakers, these activities aren’t about virtual reality or man vs. machine. They’re about people interacting with each other cooperatively and competitively. Take Interface, for example – Entros’ longest-running game. One player wears a blinding helmet with a front-mounted video camera which sends an image to her monitoring partner. That partner talks the “operative” through a series of activities through a two-way radio link, racing against the clock in a high-tech trust walk. Three different sets of activities exist so players can swap roles and still get a fresh experience.

[…]

The first time I visited Entros they were running a multimedia odyssey called The Forever Formula which contained a puzzle sequence which remains my favorite. As we entered the building, we passed by a telescope mounted on a tripod in the lobby. It seemed an usual bit of decoration, but we forgot all about it as we entered the restaurant through the fake phone booths, humming the Get Smart theme song. During the game, a clue suggested that we look between the pillars of Stonehenge. We remembered that a stone arch was painted on the glass of the building’s front door, so we returned to the lobby. Sure enough, when we aimed at the painted icon we could see through the telescope the magnified image of a small sign mounted on a building across the street. The sign said something like, “For your next clue, call the Kremlin.” As it happened, a pay phone sat just a few feet from the telescope. Dropping a quarter, we dialed K-R-E-M-L-I-N and got a recording of a man with a Russian accent directing us to our next stop.”

It’s not clear why Entros went under (and the eight or so years it had are far from a bad run) though this site notes that a 1998 review noted that “Given the heady nature and price tag of an Entros visit – about $75 per person – Entros tends to attract a well-educated clientele” and that the closure happened at about the same time as the first dotcom crash. Or perhaps the games were great but the restaurant half of the business didn’t pull its weight; the food is discussed in this 1994 review. Maybe the whole prospect was just ahead of its time and the mainstream nature of exit games shows that the market is prepared to accept brainier, gamier fare now than it was half a generation ago.

The games are still offered by Forrest-Pruzan Creative, a company with many former Entros employees working for it, and were seen in the wild at the Pacific Science Center in late 2010, and perhaps since. This list has details of all the games on offer, and we can but dream about playing them. To show just how old-school the list is, most of the games have videos available… but to see them, you’ll need to dig out RealPlayer!

(Reminiscences from people who were actually there at the time would be most welcome, especially if people can place them in the context of the games and puzzles that have followed it. This site’s writers live eight timezones away, as well as years too late, but can tell when they’ve missed a treat.)

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