They called it “Las Vegas: The Game,” which seemed redundant. After all, isn’t our city itself a kind of giant board game—tourists dashing from one glittering casino to the next, scooping up as much Monopoly money as they can gather, playing roles, fulfilling fantasies?
Regardless, when a mime showed up at the Vegas Seven offices bearing a cake and an invitation to a mysterious night of pranks and revelry, it was hard to resist. The company in question offered customized Vegas nightlife tours that allowed buyers to hoodwink their friends using actors and staged scenarios. Would they do deep background research into each of the would-be marks on their media preview trip, using their insights to punk us good? A few of us headed to the Cosmopolitan on a Tuesday night to find out.
7:30 p.m.: Yet another mime cavorts in the lobby of Vesper Bar, handing out silly hats to the assembled scribes, as Las Vegas: The Game CEO Justin Oswald explains to me the company’s peculiar hybrid of party bus and Candid Camera. Say you’re organizing a Las Vegas outing and want your guests to have the full Sin City experience, complete with Hangover-style mishaps. Rather than relying on serendipity, Las Vegas: The Game brings the crazy to you. Your gullible friends think you’ve hired a standard nightlife company, and you sit back and watch as bafflement ensues.
One bachelor party from London paid $10,000 for a female actor to track the group from venue to venue, Oswald says, claiming to know the groom and offering details about his family that only someone close to him would know. The gag spread out over multiple days, with the actress eventually staging a girl-fight outside a nightclub with another company plant.
At a bachelorette party, the company hired a van driver to stage a fake pedestrian accident, slamming on the brakes as a second actor fell to the ground, pretending to be injured.
“We got it all on video and it was fantastic,” Oswald says. And also potentially traumatizing. Which Oswald realizes. The actor was only supposed to lay on the ground for 30 seconds, he says, but botched his instructions and ended up being there for six minutes—long enough to cause a genuine scare. “I had to break character, bend down and whisper in his ear to get up now.”
While such customized pranks start at $2,500, we’re about to experience the company’s newest and most affordable offering: a $179-a-head bus tour that includes stops at a view spot, a dive bar and a tourist attraction, spiced up with hijinks along the way. Host “Jamie” promises a safe return to the Cosmo by 11 p.m., then botches the rest of her welcome speech, bungling the teleprompts on her tablet, confessing that it’s her first day on the job. Oh, and she’s a recovering alcoholic. I sense the game is afoot.
8:45 p.m.: Inside the bus, our group—which includes a theater writer and a blonde in a leopard pantsuit who identifies herself enigmatically as “with the Game”—kicks things off with a champagne toast, but soon transitions to a horrid, reddish liquid we quickly dub “roofietinis.” They are getting us liquored up for the journey and it is working. There are two dancing poles on the bus, and the actors aren’t the only ones taking advantage.
At our first stop, Mandalay Bay’s Mix, a showgirl in full feathers just happens to run into one of our tour guides and joins the party. Jamie, meanwhile, is getting increasingly intoxicated, and back on the bus, the first gag of the night unfolds as her co-host “discovers” a bottle of booze in her purse, along with a deck of pink escort cards bearing her picture and a $69 price, which he passes around in mock outrage.
I spy Oswald sitting at the very back of the bus. Clad in a vintage-looking brown suit and rainbow shoes, and sporting an endearing mustache, he looks for all the world like an old-time master of ceremonies, watching vigilantly as his show unfolds.
9:30 p.m.: By the time the group hits Champagne’s for apple-flavored shots, we are old friends—sharing cigarettes, drunk-texting exes.
But what’s this? A man in uniform is at the table next to us, flashing a picture of one of our tour guides. The bounty hunter, as it becomes apparent he is, follows us out of the bar, where a sign-spinner in a monkey outfit is plying his trade on the sidewalk. When we clamber onto the bus, the bounty hunter follows. Will he catch up with our host? No, wait, he’s being tackled by the monkey! Now they’re fighting!
With the two continuing to wrassle on the roadside, and the showgirl complaining that she has to pee, our bus peels away into the night.
10:30 p.m.: When we reach the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, I’m really feeling down the rabbit hole, and am not even surprised when a transvestite woman on crutches starts a fight with Jamie—heels and falsies flying everywhere, startled tourists shooting video. I’m even less surprised when the crutch-wielding drag queen boards our bus and starts to dance with us.
The gags unravel fast and furious then, as if the team is trying to pack as much as possible into the 20 minutes it takes us to get back to the Cosmo. Jamie is tossing out her escort cards willy-nilly, throwing popcorn at passengers. Suddenly, she’s curled into a fetal position on the bus, moaning, then quiet, one hand clawing at the air in a silent plea. I know it’s all an act, but for a moment I’m frozen: Does she need help? Both ignoring her and laughing feel cruel.
But that was all before the showgirl gave a burlesque performance ending with a lap dance in which she fake-peed on one of our party. And before we all crammed into the aisle—showgirl, crutch lady and all—swaying and twerking to M.I.A. for the fifth time that night.
12:30 a.m.: Afterwards, when we’re all recapping the event, the alcohol in our bodies soaked up by slices from Secret Pizza, one of our party mentions that she was grabbed and kissed by a woman in the restroom at Mix, who claimed to be a married tourist celebrating her birthday.
Was it part of the game? We don’t think so. But in Las Vegas, it can be hard to tell.
Las Vegas: The Game, 702-947-3489, LasVegasTheGame.com