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New game explores mysteries of Petaluma

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After several minutes of anxiously scanning every inch of the area outside McNear’s Saloon and Dining House, Catherine Alden finally spotted the clue.

She excitedly pointed her two west Petaluma teammates, Natasha Raymond and Glenn Tucker, toward a widely overlooked feature that punctuates the front of the iconic downtown restaurant.

They quickly scribbled down the answer and began working on the other hints in “The Petaluma Puzzle,” the newest clue-based scavenger hunt offered by Mystery Missions, which has launched similar games in Healdsburg, Sonoma and Windsor over the last year.

Two small teams, in a battle of east- and west-siders, squared off in a friendly competition to see which group could solve as many of the 17 puzzles as possible Monday morning. The Petaluma edition is the latest offering from Mystery Missions creator Bethany Browning, who works under the moniker “The Sonomist.”

As an outdoor alternative to escape rooms or murder mysteries, which have grown in popularity in recent years for team-building or a family game night, Browning said her goal is to encourage people to look at the world a little more closely.

And for the team of west-siders, that certainly seemed to ring true.

“We walk these streets every day, but you don’t notice all the little details that are around,” Tucker said.

Browning, a Windsor-based copywriter, started her first Mystery Mission in Healdsburg in June 2018, reviving a team-building exercise that the self-described lover of puzzle games said she had created years ago for a friend.

By setting up a centralized website and slowly expanding to Sonoma and Windsor — where she offers a game exclusively for kids — Browning said the missions have been well-received, and Sonoma County has been the ideal place to incubate.

“There’s a lot of really interesting historical details you find, the plaques and markers you walk past, but Sonoma County’s also a little bit odd,” she said. “There’s some quirky things. So I like to the find the things that make people go, ‘Well that’s different.’”

The creation process takes about a month and requires a good map and a walkable area, she said. She’ll spend time looking around for things that the average passerby would miss, and then combines them with clues that use pop culture references, for example, as a vehicle to answer a question.

Browning always debriefs with a group at the starting point. In Petaluma, that’s Putnam Plaza Park.

There, she provides a dossier and makes herself available during the 90 minutes it typically takes to complete the mission in case a group struggles or has questions.

Once the game starts, players can use their smartphones freely to help with unfamiliar references or answer questions that Google could assist with.

“When I come out and I watch people play, it’s like writing a novel and watching people read it in real time,” Browning said. “So I get to see what their reactions are, and I also get to see what’s working and what’s not working. Some clues are more successful than others.”

Everybody plays it differently, she said. One couple visiting from Tennessee spent the better part of an entire day on the scavenger hunt in Healdsburg. Others have given up and gotten drinks while they waited for their coworker to finish.

Browning is hopeful the Petaluma mission shows players the details in the city they’ve never seen before, like subjects hidden in murals, or things embedded in the pavement that until now have been nothing more than steps along a path.

“There are things that can surprise and delight you everywhere if you just take a minute to look,” Browning said. “I hope that when people play, it actually spurs them on to look at their town a little differently or more closely.”

The Petaluma Puzzle is available for $30 per person. For more information visit thesonomist.com.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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