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'Payphone Warriors' call on New York streets

Street game players try to control all the payphones near city's Washington Square. Photos: 'Warriors' on call

NEW YORK--In this era of ubiquitous cell phones, I never imagined I'd be so excited about making a call from a pay phone.

But thanks to "Payphone Warriors," a game in the Come out and Play festival of street games that was held here this weekend, I've got a pocket full of quarters and I'm ready to use them.

In "Payphone Warriors," teams of four players spread out from Manhattan's Washington Square park in a mad dash for dominance over the area's many pay phones. The idea was that at each new bank of pay phones--and who knew there would be so many in such a small area?--a player would pop in a quarter, call a prescribed number and then punch in his or her team's code.

Teams would then get points based on how long their claim on an individual phone went unchallenged. A team could maintain control of a phone by leaving someone to guard it. But if a team left a claimed phone unguarded, another could swoop in and control it.

Payphone Warriors

The game, which was designed by several people, including Abe Burmeister and festival co-organizer Greg Trefry, lasted for only about 30 minutes, but I can honestly say I've never had a more fun--or exhausting--half-hour of making phone calls in my life.

The game began in Washington Square with Burmeister patiently explaining the rules to the many players in attendance. As people asked questions, Burmeister would do his best to answer them.

As we discussed practicalities of how to keep other teams from gaining control over an already claimed phone, I jokingly asked if we could sabotage the phones by, say, plugging gum in the coin slot.

"None of the pay phones in jail do any points for you," Burmeister answered, deadpan.

As the game started, many of the players sprinted off in search of phones to conquer. My team, which, like several others, had decided to spread out to cover maximum ground, chose to walk instead.

Quickly, we noticed that no one had claimed a pay phone kitty-corner to the park. So I walked up to it and, triumphantly, inserted my first quarter of the day.

It would not be my last.

Sadly, though, as soon as I walked away from the phone, a player from another team walked up and popped his own quarter into it. So much for control of that phone.

A few minutes later, I arrived at the corner of West 4th Street and Broadway and noticed that the two phones there were both being guarded by players from other teams.

So I decided to move on. I noticed that another phone was being loosely guarded by someone, but that he was straying a few feet away from the booth. The rules said that to maintain control, you had to be physically touching a phone.

Claiming territory
I swooped in, touched the booth and attempted to claim the phone. But the player disagreed and said he was still guarding it. I didn't want to argue, so I swallowed my pride and walked away, sure I had been right.

Fortunately, my perseverance paid off just a couple minutes later when I saw another phone being carelessly guarded. Once again, I appeared out of nowhere, and grabbed a phone out from under a lazy guard's eye. This time there was no argument, and the vanquished guard slinked away, discouraged.

Each time you claimed a phone by calling the prescribed number and registering your claim, a computerized voice would inform you that your claim was recognized, tell you which phones you controlled and then tell you how many points you had. But several players later said they'd wished they were told what place their team was in.

Finally, time was up and all the players began to trickle back to Washington Square.

Burmeister stood up and announced the final scores. Let's just say my team finished second. Never mind that the winning team outscored mine by more than 25 percent: We finished second!

Later, Burmeister told me where the game had come from.

"I wanted a game that went from the Bronx to Long Island," he said. "But when dealing with big games, you deal with the problem of where your players are."

Thus, he explained, he and his fellow designers came upon the idea of using pay phones as a way to keep track of territory being won, since each phone broadcasts a unique identifying code that could be easily correlated to location.

"Pay phones became our gaming device," Burmeister said, "and it was a gaming device that was strong enough (on its own) that we didn't need a story."

He also explained that "Payphone Warriors" is built on an open-source digital telephone exchange system called Asterisk.

The idea, he said, is that eventually "Payphone Warriors" will be automated in such a way as to allow anyone to play any time they want.

Several other game designers shared that sentiment, saying they also hope to turn their games into turnkey products that can be used by groups of people without the services of an official organizer.

And Burmeister said that while "Payphone Warriors" still had some kinks to work out, the automation was pretty far along.

"I could have been out playing it, honestly," he said, "which is great."

Afterward, I talked to some of the players about their experience with the game. They seemed unanimously enthusiastic.

"This is my favorite of all the games," said Dennis Crowley, founder of the mobile social software service Dodgeball. "It's the perfect mix of athleticism and strategy."

Crowley had a couple reasons for his exuberance: His team had won. So I asked him his team's strategy.

He said that its members started out much like everyone else, spreading out to try to get to phones in all four corners of the playing field. But there was a devious second part to their plan.

"With eight minutes left, we said, let's have everyone meet in the (most pay phone-heavy) zone and take them over," Crowley said.

It must have worked.