Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where on Earth is...

A couple of years ago, CyberKev told me we would be receiving a board-gaming visitor in Brisbane, who'd be joining us to play games for a while. Tom turned out to be a journalist from Switzerland, and he'd previously been on the panel for the Spiel des Jahre. In fact, he still received copies of the SdJ games, so that year in Brisbane we played Fauna and Der Schwarm and Zack und Pack and Sushizock im Gockelwok and my first play of Dominion, in German. But then Tom had to continue his world tour so he auctioned off his games (woohoo!), and we added each other on Facebook, and off he went.

Then Tom started adding strange photos on Facebook. Like this:

and this:

and some of Tom's friends started speculating on where these photos were taken. But then one day, it got serious. Tom announced that this was in fact "The Big Cochabamba Photo Competition". The rules were pretty vicious - there were 200 photos of famous and not-so-famous places, all with those little Kinder Surprise dudes in front. As the focus was on the toys, it wasn't always so easy to see the background. For each, you needed to post as a comment to the photo: what country it was in; where it was; what the thing in the photo was. The competition would end at midnight, New Year's Eve 2010, Switzerland time - at the time, in about six months. Whoever had the most points would win. Tactics such as copying, lying, etc, were allowed. The first 5 places would win a copy of each of the SdJ nominees for 2011, and for first prize Tom would come and teach them to you.

Wow, huge! Apart from being a very sweet prize, it was also a competition that I *wanted* to be good at. I like to be at least faintly aware of the existence of the rest of the world. The first thing to do, being a gamer, was to develop a strategy.

That involved having lunch with CyberKev. We didn't come up with a really good plan, but we did agree that essential elements of a strategy were sniping, deception, and actually knowing the answers. Furthermore, I was convinced that everybody would forget about the competition, maybe even I would, so it was best to get the answers early and be prepared rather than try to do it all at the last minute. In fact, my primary strategy was to hope that everyone else forgot.

I started by writing down the numbers 1 to 200 and writing beside each what the location was. I didn't have many answers, maybe 30. There were obvious places like the Eiffel Tower and London Bridge (in fact, both the one in England and the one in Victoria). I then spent quite a while Googling for things like "building that looks like a spaceship on a harbour", which turned out to be the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. I also showed a lot of photos to Scrabblette, who was able to identify the Wrigley Building in Chicago, and one of Stalin's "Seven Sisters" in Moscow. I Googled for obelisks and found that there's one in Buenos Aires, and a couple of Tom's photos were from there. Along with comments from other participants, I think I struggled to about 100 confirmed answers. Although the list was filling up, there were lots of gaps.

Then I hit upon the idea of searching for tourist attractions in places Tom had been to, and seeing if any of the pictures thrown up by the search looked familiar. Consequently I was able to identify Pablo Neruda's house in Valparaiso, and a few others.

The search went on. As I was trying to identify exactly which part of the Great Wall of China Tom had been to, it occurred to me that there were photos from Beijing and Ulanbaator and Moscow, and maybe he'd been on the Trans-Siberian railway. Because I would, if I was travelling the world. So I Googled all of the cities at which the Trans-Siberian railway stops. I was able to identify one of the pictures as being the "Rossija", one of the trains which runs that track. By the shape of the banister, I was able to figure out that it was at Irkutsk station.

I also had the idea that Tom might have left some clues somewhere else on the web. He is a journalist, it's his job to write stuff. Maybe he'd written about playing games on the banks of the River Don, or something. So I searched for Tom and found just one article, in German, which turned out not to mention his holiday at all.

My next idea was that as some of the photos were of Brisbane, where I live, Tom had probably invited some other people who lived in other places pictured to be in the competition. So all I had to do was cyberstalk all of Tom's friends as well. There were 35 or so people who had "liked" the competition announcement, so I looked at their Facebook profiles to see if they had any photos of their home town. This was just a little bit successful - someone had gone down the Li River in China, or to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and I was able to confirm my suspicions on a couple of photos.

What else could I try? I took note of the date of publication of all of the photos - they weren't all uploaded at the same time - with the idea that they might be clumped by location. They were, a little, and I was able to guess that Tom had been to Tennessee, which I think was how I figured out that the gates with the musical notes must be the gates of Graceland.

Time was passing and I had some hard ones to go. There were lots of waterfalls, so I started searching for waterfall pictures. There were lots of photos of Iguazu Falls, and a couple of difficult ones from the Milford Track in New Zealand. I got the New Zealand idea from Pancake Rocks, which I had actually been to myself. There were a few volcanoes, including one with a classical volcano shape. I searched for volcano pictures, and eventually decided it had to be Volcan Osorno in South America... but what was the building in the foreground? I searched the surrouding towns of Patagonia street by street using Google Maps but could not find that building.

I had another idea. I started searching using Spanish keywords. Don't search for "volcano", search for "volcan", don't search for "church", search for "iglesia". I told Google to return results in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German, and let me worry about understanding it :-). For the South American churches, that was very productive.

Occasionally people would post an answer, which would set me off searching that town and everywhere near it, in multiple languages. In particular there was this guy called Eric who was posting LOTS of answers. If he was correct, I'd post my answer as well, because the cat was out of the bag for that one. This gave Eric the impression that I was just copying him, when in fact I was spending hours searching for answers. I had loads more answers up my sleeve, but following the sniping strategy I was saving them for the last moment.

Tom also started posting reminders that the competition was going to end. That messed up my strategy of hoping everyone else would forget! However as people started posting some more answers I got a few more hints - the wooden fort in Russia and the bridge over the Panama Canal were gifts from other people. And of course if they were correct I'd post my answer.

By December, I'd seen every bridge, waterfall, church, bell tower, desert and salt flat in the entire world, in 5 languages. I'd hassled colleagues in Beijing and Quebec, and lots of people at work, and had only a few left to go.

On New Year's Eve I made a pass through, and once again answered anything that someone else had correct. New Year's Eve, Switzerland time, was 10am New Year's Day, Australian time, so when I went to bed I knew I'd still have a few hours up my sleeve. Of course I was too excited to sleep well, having worked at this competition for months, and when I woke up in the morning there were of course hundreds of notifications. However I knew I couldn't do anything about other people, I could just hope that having answered many of them before anyone else that I would win any tie-breaker. I just had a few more answers to put in, but I knew I had to be aware of Tom's clock being out of sync with mine, and I had to watch for other people sniping answers to the ones I didn't know.

I had about 16 windows open, and at about 9:45 I entered my last answers. I knew Eric was on-line, as I'd copied his answer about the Chicago Fish Board or something just a moment before. Good luck to him if he was as obsessed and competitive as me... however as he was in California he might have been partying. I spent the moments until 10am refreshing each window looking for last clues... until Tom closed down the album, and I had to stop.

Wow, what a rush! And all of a sudden, it was gone. Apart from being tired as one always is on New Year's Day, I felt lost. I hadn't planned for life after The Big Cochabamba Photo Competition. Life returned to normal.

Then, one day, Tom posted the news that I'd won. (Names removed from the image to protect the innocent.) Michael was a bit of a surprise - he'd only appeared in about December and I've got no idea how much research he did himself, I always considered Eric to be the threat.

That means Tom's coming to visit! He contacted me a couple of days ago and told me I could actually select 9 games from the list of nominees, as I may already own (true) or not like (also true) some of the final 9 contenders. So, one day some games will arrive, and Tom will come over in September and play them with me!

It's a very cool prize, but it was also a very cool competition. It's really quite amazing how much you can find on Google, and how many cool things there are in the world to see. Thank you very much to Tom, it's been loads of fun.