A Place To Play: Brooklyn Game Lab

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Living and gaming in New York City is all about space. While gamers worldwide enjoy games in their basements, garages, dining rooms and even dedicated spaces, gamers living in the five boroughs wage a constant struggle for tabletop real estate. It’s in this context that Brooklyn Game Lab opens today and joins a mini-boom in storefront gaming spaces and stores that have opened over the past five years throughout New York.

Brooklyn Game Lab is the vision of Robert Hewitt, a former Silcon Valley game developer, designer, co-founder of game app company HashGo and ESL teacher in Brazil. Carrying his start-up experience and a passion for games and teaching, Bob’s mission for the Brooklyn Game Lab is to provide not only a space for play but to challenge players to think about games beyond what comes right out of the box.

Located in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the core of the Brooklyn Game Lab is an afterschool program focusing not just on kids playing games but evaluating games and creating homebrewed expansions. The curriculum involves player self-evaluation of gaming mechanics, strategy and tactics, as well as a reward system which will allow kids to earn merits as their gaming prowess develops. Euro, cooperative, social and conquest games like Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island, King of Tokyo, Werewolf and Small World will serve as jumping-off points.

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Aside from the afterschool program, the Brooklyn Game Lab also features a number of After Hours gaming events targeting adult players. Mondays are Miniatures Night with a revolving series of fantasy and war-themed minis games the likes of Star Wars X-Wing, Space Hulk, Warhammer 40K and Flames of War for experienced players and curious newcomers alike. Wild Card Night on Tuesdays invites outside groups to host favorite go-to games for their own members and drop-ins from the general public. Thursdays are Singles Night, bringing in 20-somethings to roll dice, play cards and mingle. The old mainstay, Magic: The Gathering, occupies the Friday night slot, and weekends will provide opportunity for open gaming.

The 32-seat space will focus solely on the game curriculum and  special events for the time being, although there may be room for retail and private party rentals in the future. Things are off to a great start for Brooklyn Game Lab which is opening with a fully-booked afterschool program including my oldest son who will be a particpating Monday afternoons. Meeting with Bob for coffee last month, I was glad to connect with another passionate gamer looking to put a spin on New York’s gaming spaces. Getting kids engaged in games for life and igniting a developer mindset in them makes Brooklyn Game Lab a very welcome new space for the community.

New Game Weekend: King of Chicago & RoboRally

Friday night at Metropolitan Wargamers in Park Slope, Brooklyn had a decent crowd of six of us collected in the back with a few other people up front continuing play of a multi-week and fairly dense American Civil War battle. Coming to agreement on an ad hoc game together for a half-dozen guys is a challenge on its own, but we managed to settle on two games which are standbys at the club but pretty new to me.

King of Chicago

Produced in Denmark in 2005, King of Chicago takes place in the Prohibition-era Windy City where each player takes on the guise of gangster looking to rule the streets by creating and breaking alliances, building their empire and whacking the competition along the way.

The game begins with each player owning a gangster, a car, $1000 and a few resources. Resources in the game are booze, henchman and girls, and additional resources are picked up in various landmarks spread throughout the city. Combinations of booze, henchmen and girls in your gang allows you to build bars, casinos and brothels which create income at the completion of four turns in each round of play. At the end of a round, players collect income, new gangsters are put into play and resources get set on the board. Bidding takes place for gangsters to add to your mob, gaining you bonuses of speed, income, protection and lethalness. Players also bid to bribe the cops, controlling them through the next round of play.

The game offers a lot of strategic play in how a player chooses to build their empire and also in managing relationships with the other mob bosses on the board. Drive-by shootings, shutting down competing businesses and sending the other guys to the hospital or the morgue makes for a lot of opportunity for deals to be struck and double-crosses to take place. Certain cards cause “events” like police raids to be played and others send players on “jobs” which net substantial sums of income. The player who quickly amasses ten points from money, businesses and influence wins the game.

The game looks great with simple components and a wonderful collection of historic photos from the Chicago gangland days depicted on the cards. The many paths players can choose to build their mob empire adds significant replay value to the game.

King of Chicago was released with a limited print run and can be hard to come by in the United States. However, for lovers of gangster movies and the period when the underworld ruled Chicago, chasing down a copy is well worth the effort.

RoboRally

After a couple hours on the mean streets of Chicago, we had a seventh player show up. Our second game of the evening took us in a different direction with the hilariously chaotic RoboRally. The game was originally published by Wizards of the Coast way back in 1994 but was created a decade earlier by Richard Garfield who would go on to design the insanely-popular Magic: The Gathering card game.

The game takes place on a factory floor with each player’s tiny robot attempting to navigate through a set number of flagged gates. This seemingly-simple mission is hampered by moving conveyor belts, rotating gears, solid walls and laser arrays spread throughout the factory. Robots controlled by other players also wreak havoc on your path by bumping into and zapping your robot with their lasers.

At the beginning of each round, players draw up to nine cards each with directional actions such as left and right rotations, u-turns and movement backward and forward. Players secretly place their cards face down in front of them defining their robots’s moves for the round. In turn, players reveal each card and move their robots in order of card value and according to the movements selected. The fun and craziness comes in when well-thought plans quickly go awry as robots beginning bumping into each other and throwing each other off course. Just when you think you have a direct route neatly plotted out to a flagged gate space, some other robot (or two or three) ram straight into you, sending you wheeling off in some other direction.

Lasers cause damage to your robot, reducing your movement choices in a round and only made better by spending a turn shut down repairing. Occupying repair spaces can also provide fixes for damage, and even special robot upgrade cards. The truly unlucky robots will find themselves bumped off the board, returning to their last starting point at the beginning of the next round.

The more players who play only contributes to greater chaos on the board. Our late night seven-player game stretched to nearly two hours of mechanized madness until one player managed to get through a few gates and away from the crowd. My sad little robot, on the other hand, wound up spending the game unluckily bumping into his mechanized comrades and finished the game exactly where it started.

RoboRally has won multiple awards, and its many versions and expansions have ensured its continued love among gamers for nearly two decades. After the cold-bloooded and calculating play in King of Chicago, it was great to end the night on a much more lighter but no less challenging game like Robo Rally.

Memorial Day 2013 in Brooklyn

Memorial Day in Brooklyn saw a crowd of the guys gaming and grilling at Metropolitan Wargamers, but I chose to spend the sunny day with my youngest son retracing the historic military past in my own backyard.

I live about a 15-minute walk from Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The cemetery occupies a 478 acre hilly, picturesque landscape traced with winding roads and paths. It is a who’s who of New York City and American history, and the design of its entry gates, grave markers and mausoleums provides a visual history of how Americans have celebrated themselves in the afterlife across three centuries.

What we celebrate today as Memorial Day began as Decoration Day when freed slaves decorated the graves of Union dead following the American Civil War. Green-Wood’s marking of the war is found with 1869’s Civil War Soldiers’ Monument (photos below). The pillared monument ringed with four bronze statues was restored and re-dedicated in 2002. The re-dedication kicked off interest in documenting and marking the Civil War dead interred at Green-Wood, and to-date the Civil War Project has identified some 3,300 residing for eternity in the cemetery.

    

    

The Civil War Soldiers’ Monument sits along Battle Avenue and atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn. The hill won its name for its important strategic role in 1776’s Battle of Long Island as Colonial forces held off multiple attacks on the far left of the invading British line. Standing on the hill today, you can clearly see the military importance of the hill with its broad views of the sloping land down to New York Harbor to the west and the island of Manhattan to the north. The battle is marked with the Altar of Liberty (photo at right), a 1920 monument installed as part of the plot of Brooklyn India ink magnate Charles Higgins. The bronze statue of Minerva raises her arm to the Statue of Liberty standing in the distant harbor, making the view from Battle Hill on a clear, sunny day one of the most breathtaking vistas in the city.

Next, we wound our way toward the center of the cemetery and to the family plot of Abram Duryée (photos of Duryee and his monument below). I’m a fan of Duryee and his command of the 5th NY Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Known as “Duryee’s Zouaves,” these Manhattan men saw action throughout the war at such battles as Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. I’ve made the 5th NY with their baggy red chasseur trousers, dark blue jackets with red braiding and fezzes with yellow tassels a big part of my 28mm American Civil War painting project this past year, so it was great to stop and pay tribute to him at his final resting place.

    

Our final destination of the afternoon was to the grave of General Henry Wager Halleck, a relative of mine (photos of Halleck and his monument below). Halleck served as General-In-Chief of Union forces for about two years of the Civil War before being replaced by the much more famous General Ulysses S. Grant. Known more for his intellect than his military exploits, Halleck was nicknamed “Old Brains” during the war and spent his years after the war as a lawyer and author. While by no means a household name, I was glad to have the opportunity to visit his grave again after many years.

    

As a wargamer, my hobby wouldn’t exist without wars and the men and women who fight and die in them to this day. On this Memorial Day, it was a good change of pace to put down my dice, step away from the tabletop and venture out for a few hours visiting the monuments to those who have paid the ultimate price throughout American history.

New Games Weekend: Small World & Lords of Waterdeep

The first weekend of the New Year brought me an intro to two new games – Small World and Lords of Waterdeep. Both games are based in a fantasy realm with the mechanics of a Euro boardgame, and each offer a different take on some fast-paced group play of control and development of an imaginery world.

Small World

You can pick up a copy of Small World at specialty game shops and in book stores like Barnes & Noble. The game has been around for about three years, but my brother just tipped me off to it being a great game to play with a mix of kids and adults in about an hour-and-half’s time.

Small World comes with four maps on two game boards comprised of different regions of hills, fields, forests, mountains and water areas. Players take on the role of some 14 races including Elves, Humans, Giants, Dwarves, Amazons, Sorcerers and Ghouls. Each race comes combined with one of twenty random special powers such as Commando, Diplomat, Alchemist or Flying. Using a combined special power and race, each player spreads out across the board occupying regions, fighting other races and scoring coins toward victory. Once a race becomes over-extended, a player marks that race in “decline” and selects a new race.

The nearly endless permutations of races and special powers creates immense replay value in the game. One turn, you may have Diplomat Dwarves battling Flying Ratmen. A few turns later, Hill Giants and Mounted Haflings may be vying for control of the board. The art and combinations of races and special powers make Small World funny, fierce and a great entree for players new to strategy boardgames.

Lords of Waterdeep

I spent Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn, and the guys turned me on to my first game of Lords of Waterdeep. Longtime D&D players know Waterdeep to be one of the main cities within the storied Forgotten Realms campaign. The Lords of Waterdeep, released just last year, takes the history of Waterdeep as a jumping-off point for a strategy boardgame that can be played by 2-5 players in about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

You begin the game as a Lord with two agents in your employ. Using these agents, you recruit parties of thieves, warriors, priests and wizards to complete Quests selected from a pile a cards. Along the way you also gain and play Intrigue cards which can be used to block or reward other players as loyalties shift. As you complete quests, construct buildings and reap gold, the play quickly switches-up throughout the game as your opportunity to change the turn order and grow your pool of agents and influence.

My first go-around with the game was with a group of experienced players, yet I quickly picked up on the raucous tone of the game as competition grew more heated yet good-natured. Five players seemed a bit cumbersome, and the other guys said a 3-4 person game is ideal. I’d recommend Lords of Waterdeep for veteran strategy gamers looking to bang out a quick, fun game or for a group of players who are looking to graduate from a game like Small World.

“Do you wanna play a game?”

Nearly a year ago I started a new job and was flown from New York to Seattle to spend a week with my new team to plot out our goals for the year. In one of those typical corporate ice-breaker exercises, we each went around the table in turn and stated something unique about ourselves. People talked about how they liked to dance, a funny anecdote from their youth or an exotic trip they once took.

When it was my turn, I said, “I play wargames. I paint hundreds of tiny soldiers and then spend hours refighting historic battles.”

I love games, all sorts of games.

Board games, dice games, card games, strategy games, role playing games, video games, logic games and wargames. For most people I meet, their idea of a game is Monopoly or maybe chess. So, when I start describing my love of games to new acquaintances it usually takes a fair amount of description before they understand.

Brooklyn Wargaming is my new place to talk about games, most probably to an audience who already has an interest but hopefully to other people, too. I’ll post pics on my own gaming adventures, plus some commentary on wider gaming innovation, evolution, theory and applications.

And yes, I would love to play a game.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)