HolidayBuyer's Guide

'Graveyard Games' makes lively debut in Bay Area

About 100 people gather at Colma cemetery for "Last Call Poker," an alternate-reality game meant to drum up excitement for a forthcoming video game western. Photos: 'All in' for 'Graveyard Games'

COLMA, Calif.--It's Saturday afternoon and I'm standing in the middle of one of the largest cemeteries in this town chock full of almost nothing but cemeteries.

I'm one of at about 100 people gathered here for the first-ever "Graveyard Games," one piece in the very large, very complex puzzle that is "Last Call Poker."

"Last Call Poker" is an alternate-reality game (ARG) meant to drum up excitement for Activision's forthcoming video game western, "Gun."

It revolves around the fictional story of the late Lionel "Lucky" Brown, who decreed that upon his death some of his fortune would be used for poker-based "wakes" at various American cemeteries.

Thousands of people have been playing "Last Call Poker" online, in most cases oblivious or unconcerned about its corporate sponsor. It has spread through word-of-mouth and through the main online ARG community, Unfiction.

Other alternate-reality games--which involve large numbers of people solving puzzles both via the Web and through real-world clue hunts--have included "I Love Bees," a promotion for the video game, "Halo 2," and "The Beast," which promoted the film, "AI: Artificial Intelligence."

But we weren't talking about "The Gun" on Saturday. All we cared about was winning chips and hopefully, the poker tournament. And a strange brand of poker it was.

It was called "Tombstone Hold 'Em," a variation of Texas Hold 'Em first played in World War II, or so we were led to believe, by soldiers like Brown stuck for long, boring hours in European cemeteries.

Players' hands comprise tombstone-shaped cards: those with rounded tops are hearts; with pointed tops, spades; with flat tops, diamonds; and with statues on top, clubs.

Face values depend on the number of people buried at a plot: Stones with two people are jacks; with three, queens; and with four or more, kings. If a single person is buried, the card's number is based on the last digit of the year the person died. "So a gal who died in 1898? She's an 8," explained the game's instructions. "A kid who died in 1951? He's an ace."

We began at precisely 2 p.m. We formed teams of two and played several teams per table, in our case a small stone bench. Each of us had been given 10 chips and many had found more scattered throughout the cemetery before the game. I spent a fruitless half hour sprinting through countless rows of graves for extra chips, but they'd been stripped clean even before the official 1:30 p.m. beginning of the event.

Note to self: In free-form games like this, ignore the stated rules. They're for suckers.

Anyway, my partner and I quickly formed a strategy. On each hand, we'd run to a section of the cemetery where he'd scouted out the location of specific "cards." But we soon found that his section was too far from the bench, as each hand lasted only three minutes. Thus, we kept running out of time to find the right cards to make winning hands.

The one time we did have the best cards--an ace-high straight we made by locating tombstones equating to an ace and a queen to go with a 10, a jack and a king in the community cards each team shared--we weren't the first team back to the bench. The rules said that in case of a tie, the winner was first back.

After half an hour, a murmur spread across the cemetery. Players perusing the "Last Call Poker" Web site on their wireless Treos and Sidekicks discovered we had a new task: Find a box hidden on the grounds that would lead us on a new hunt.

Within minutes, everyone was running up and down the rows. Someone found the box in a bunch of geraniums and we all began to follow new clues that went roughly like this: Go to a spot northwest or southeast of where you are now, walk thirty paces, look for the tombstone of someone who lived from 1906 to 1913, write their name down. Repeat. Again and again.

We spread out and combed the rows. Here? No. There. Yes! We'd all run to the new spot, read the clues out loud and then move on to the next one.

This went on for a good hour. We finally ended up at the last tombstone, where, we were instructed, we were to make an offering of at least 500 chips to a child who had died at seven, form a circle to pay homage to the boy and then await further clues.

Fitting the real-time nature of the game, those new instructions came live via the Web. Those with Treos and Sidekicks would punch up the "Last Call" site, find a clue, read it aloud and then we'd all try to decipher it.

Somehow, the 500-plus chips we donated actually added up to 666. It had to be fate. Then we formed the circle and sang "Amazing Grace." Then we waited.

It turned out the last clue would be broadcast on the radio. Someone figured out, via the Internet, that the radio station was 101.9--the Web site had spelled out ten, ace, nine--and there was a rush to find a radio that could receive the station. Finally, with all of us gathered tightly around, we got it. One player--by chance, my poker partner--listened on headphones and shouted out the instructions. Basically they boiled down to poetry, thanking us for our participation: "I do love to watch smart, creative people do what I tell them," Lucky crowed from the ether.

After that, it was over. There were beers to be drunk in a local tavern, and strategizing for future rounds of Tombstone poker to be played. Prizes were handed out to those with the most chips and then we all went on our ways, happy to be alive and excited to be on the vanguard of an entirely emergent kind of game play.

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