“Ha ha, you fools! Now you will never know the secret of Martin Luther,” cried the woman, a hundred feet below us in the courtyard.
It was cold at the top of the South Tower of Castle Wartburg, a UN World Heritage Site in the ancient German city of Eisenach. The freezing wind blew around our ears. The sun had set hours earlier, and now, flakes of snow were beginning to fall.
The tiny figure below us laughed again. Holding a sheaf of papers in one hand, above her head, a lit match in the other. And our mission went up in flames – figuratively and literally – as fragments of burned parchment flew away on the breeze.
Welcome to Suddenlife Gaming – a really fun way to bring history and places to life.
Suddenlife Gaming is a relatively new concept, but involves “players” taking part in an interactive story that combines text messages, phone calls and real-world clues and experiences.
I was invited to try Suddenlife Gaming for myself by the Tourism Board in Thuringia, a little-known corner of the former East Germany. Set in the dead centre of the country, Thuringia is reached by flying to Frankfurt, then catching an express town North East for a little over two hours.
You probably haven’t heard of it, but Thuringia has an important place on the so-called Luther Trail, a tourism trail that takes in important historical sites in the story of Martin Luther and the Reformation. I confess – I knew next to nothing about the Reformation before this trip, but the Luther to Go app, devised by the tourism board here, was a great place to start.
Long story short – Luther was the chap who decided that the church needed to stop excluding regular people by using Latin for everything – so decided to translate the bible into Latin. By hand. As you do…
My story began a week before I travelled to Germany, with a phone call from Nicholas von Hohnstein. I was invited to join the ancient (and entirely fictional) order of Bocathur. All I had to do was prove myself worthy…
A few days later, I received a formal invitation, in a posh envelope sealed with wax. My letter also contained a small brooch, to identify myself as a candidate. And a reminder – there are many enemies of Bocarthur, and it is important not to trust everyone you meet.
At this point you either accept that Suddenlife Gaming is completely and utterly bonkers – and buy into it. Or you don’t. And on the basis that no experience is more fun than something that looks utterly insane from the outset, I was ALL IN.
A Weird Beginning
A week later, I landed in Germany and took the train to the city of Erfurt in Thuringia. It’s a simple journey – the train station and airport are connected, and the trains fast and comfortable.
I arrived on St Martin’s Day, an annual festival in Germany that sees children take to the streets with lanterns, singing, and collecting candy. In some towns, like Erfurt, the festival is celebrated a day early, to coincide with the birth date of Martin Luther.
I met my six fellow travellers in the hotel lobby. We had each received a text message when we arrived in the city, instructing us to find our guide by a statue in the city centre – we would recognise him by his lantern.
Our guide was indeed carrying a lantern – but so was everyone else! But our guide was the only one wearing a Martin Luther costume, so…
For the next couple of hours, we took a tour of the historical sites of Erfurt, a beautifully preserved medieval city. There are ancient churches, cobbled streets, covered bridges and dozens of tiny bars, boutiques and cafes. The main square is overlooked by a beautiful cathedral, and the square was lit by thousands of lanterns, many home-made, being held by children waiting to hear the evening’s service.
Our tour took us through the square then down a series of small, cobbled alleys, each darker and more narrow than the last. Suddenly there was a small courtyard. A gate slammed, we heard a laugh, and our “guide” was gone – leaving us abandoned. Well, they did tell us not to trust anyone…
We found our way to a local restaurant to meet our real guide, and enjoy a traditional St Martin’s dinner of roast goose with potato dumplings and red cabbage.
The next morning, our band of travellers split into teams. We each headed out to each solve our own series of clues – one team went to the forest, another to the South, and we headed out into Erfurt.
Our mission started with a text message from Nicholas, telling us to visit the hotel lobby and ask for something that had been left for “Martina”. It turned out to be a blanket, which we had to take to the river.
Once at the river, we worked out that the blanket was for the beggar praying on the stairs – Martin Luther shared his coat with beggars in Medieval times.
Our beggar responded with a very enthusiastic and loud performance, including a clue which guided us to Erfurt Cathedral, where we had to hunt for our next clue – it turned out to be a book hidden behind a statue of St Anthony.
The hunt went on like this – each clue needed to be solved, and would direct us to a new city or building to explore in Thuringia – there were churches and courtyards and castles, and along the way various people in the community would help.
They might give us a clue, direct us to a location, or simply pull out a ridiculously welcome flask of gluhwein and three mugs on a cold, frosty afternoon.
With Suddenlife Gaming, the play is directed by technology, too. At each step we were sent text messages, or received phone calls, or emails. It’s a smart system – the “game” knows where you are, and uses AI to give you responses and prompts based on your phone’s location, or the things you might say on the phone. It’s really clever stuff.
The Final Mission
After two days of solving clues, we found our final clue – a small, leather circle with a number carved into it. Following a clue, we drove to the city of Eisenach, where we met the other two teams. Each had their own leather circle, and combined, they made a cipher – we just needed to find the code!
Together we solved yet more puzzles that took us first to the Luther House museum, then up a steep, dark hill to the 12th Century Wartburg Castle.
We took a tour of the castle, ending up in the bedroom where Luther had stayed when he translated the New Testament.
There, carved on the wall, was the number we needed to solve the last clue with the cipher. All we had to do to find our prize was find the hiding place at the top of the castle’s South Tower.
We hurried over the courtyard, barely noticing that one of the group was missing. Climbing the freezing tower steps, we found a small doorway, which was ajar. Inside was one a scarf belonging to one of our team members, together with a note. “I was here before you.”
We had been betrayed! Nicholas told us not to trust anyone and he was right. And that’s when we heard the sound of laughter coming from below us…
We had failed.
But all was not lost – because in Suddenlife Gaming, nobody is really the loser. So we headed back into the Castle for a huge dinner with the tourism team, the developers of the Suddenlife Game, and the traitor – better known as Melanie. We toasted our efforts with champagne and best of all, were welcomed into the Order of Bocathur for our good and sagacious efforts. #Winning
Besides, it’s not a failure if you remember to take a group team selfie, right?
Big thanks to Sanne, Sally, Julia, Jos, Lea, and special player Melanie for making the last few days awesome 😊 pic.twitter.com/OgwySEfU39
— Russell (@russellofearth) November 12, 2016
What I learned
Suddenlife Gaming is a fantastic way to explore a new destination. Walking around castles and towns and churches is all well and good, but hunting for an ancient clue behind a statue in a dark corner of the church? WAY more fun.
The clues in our quest were all tied to the history of Thuringia, so you learn the history without realising it. And our mission took us through a ridiculous number of locations across the cities of Erfurt, Eisenach, Muhlhausen and Creuzburg. There were castles and churches and homes and museums, with streets lined with thousand year old houses, and crossing the oldest bridges in Europe. It’s really spectacular, and I’m not sure how much I’d have absorbed without the framework of the game.
Thuringia Tourism is still working on the Suddenlife Gaming concept, but hopes to develop it into a free-to-access download for all visitors to the region. In the meantime, travellers can already download the Luther to Go app, which provides loads of information on walking routes, historical sites and everything Luther-related.