Pinball, Pixels and Play In Rochester, New York

StrongMuseumIt’s been a couple years since I visited The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, but I took advantage of a recent week visiting my family in Western New York to pay the place a visit. The museum was founded in the early 1980s with the massive hoard of dolls, toys, games, household items and other objects collected over the lifetime of Rochester heiress Margaret Woodbury Strong. Since then the museum has evolved and expanded to encompass the more recent history of play, as evidenced in some of the wonderful exhibits I had a chance to see this past month.

Pinball Playfields

2014-07-08 11.59.24Running through September 7, 2014, Pinball Playfields offers up a tight overview of the American history of coin-operated pinball machines from their earliest appearance in the 1930s through today. A number of early games from the museum’s permanent collection kick off the small exhibit showing the first rudimentary gravity-fed games where balls plunked and clinked their way through a series of “pins” which would give the game its name.

2014-07-08 12.00.10Early 1930s and 1940s pinball machines

By the 1940s, electrified games were on the rise and the introduction of flippers late in the decade added enormous playability and control for anyone willing to feed the growing craze a coin at a time. As explained on the brief wall text, it was this coin-fed frenzy that caused many cultural killjoys throughout the country to advocate for laws banning pinball as a frightening tool of gambling in the 1940s through 1970s (just this past summer, Oakland, California finally repealed an 80-year ban on pinball).

2014-07-08 12.02.40Superman pinball (1979)

Despite its opponents, pinball fandom grew into the 1960s and 1970s, crossing over into rock music with The Who’s iconic “Pinball Wizard” from 1969’s Tommy. In my 70s childhood I can easily recall many pinball machines tucked into pizza parlor corners or inhabiting the basements of some of my lucky friends with their constant glow of light and pinging sounds. The exhibit includes a number of playable machines from the 60s and 70s, including superhero tie-ins with Superman and the Incredible Hulk which demonstrate intersecting pop culture influences on games.

2014-07-08 12.12.03Hercules (1979) — the largest pinball machine ever made

By the late 1970s video games were creeping into territory dominated by pinball machines. Gimmicky games like 1979’s enormous Hercules machine attempted to maintain the hold on fistfuls of coins which would soon be increasingly making their way to video arcades. With video games dominating coin-fed play throughout the 1980s, it was not until the 1990s and the 2000s that pinball rebounded by incorporating increasingly-complex mechanical animations, advanced LED and video screen elements into games. The more recent Wizard of Oz, Monster Bash, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games on display — and all playable — show how the old-time pinball fun has truly been integrated with a modern thirst for visual effects overload.

Aside from the dozen or so playable machines, Pinball Playfields gives a good deal of historical information with descriptive text, early photos and advertisements, news articles and modern design schematics. All this is certainly fine stuff for the museum context, but anytime I found myself lingering a bit too long over some of the historical material I had to look around to find my wife and kids feeding another token and pulling back the plunger to start another play.


2014-07-08 13.01.51The last time I was at the Museum of Play, the museum had just launched its important International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The collection now contains tens-of-thousands of video game artifacts, making it one of the most important repositories and research resources for the dominant mode of play of the past forty years. The debut exhibit a few years back presented an overview of  video game history and dozens of playable arcade and home games from the 1960s through the present. My latest visit allowed me time to see the full permanent exhibit, eGameRevolution.

2014-07-08 13.20.36Early home video game systems from the 1960s and 1970s

2014-07-08 13.20.26The Atari 2600 and Apple II computer — two machines that changed my world in 1977

The exhibit traces the development of the now-ubiquitous video game from its science lab beginnings of the early 60s through early console and home computer games in the 70s and 80s to the modern games which now inhabit so many living rooms worldwide. Changes in the sophisticated technology, graphics and marketing of video games are well-traced along with traditional curated displays behind glass. And, of course, there are plenty of playable games throughout the exhibit.

2014-07-08 13.22.23The video arcade in the eGameRevolution exhibit at the International Museum of Play

Pinball machines, an air hockey table, arcade cabinet classics, interactive dance and music games and a half-dozen home console games of different eras are set throughout the exhibit. A dark, low-ceilinged room reminiscent of the video arcades inhabited by many first generation video gamers like myself in the 1980s is set in the middle of the more traditional displays. At five plays for a buck, a visitor to eGameRevolution can easily lose themselves in decades of electronic gaming history.

 Game Time!

2014-07-08 13.09.07Museum goers willing to take a few steps further back in time will also find a dizzying and deep story of traditional games in the Game Time! permanent exhibit nearby. Three centuries of American board, card, puzzle and electronic games with brief, well-researched text offers a tremendous overview for those who wonder how gaming culture has evolved since the 19th-century.

2014-07-08 13.04.51An early 1970s Dungeons & Dragons set and the famed Dark Tower game from 1981

Games are arranged both in a historic timeline and also along themes such as economic games, chase games, strategy games and puzzle games. Along the way, a story unfolds where games provide a view into the American values and politics of each era, as well as the rise of the big business of games and the importance licensing particularly in the late 20th-century through the present.

2014-07-08 13.10.29War games, including classics like Risk (1959), Stratego (1961) and Battleship (1967)

2014-07-08 13.11.05Role-playing games, including 1970s and 1980s Dungeons & Dragons books

Wargames and role-playing games each receive their equal due with an early copy of Little Wars by H.G. Wells and some classic Dungeons & Dragons books from its genesis in the early 1970s. Seeing these games side-by-side with other games, like the extensive exhibit on Monopoly, is incredibly validating for someone like myself who has spent my life engaged in games which once dwelt only at the edges of our culture.

Putting all these games — from pinball and video games to board and role-playing games — which so shaped my youth and those of countless others within a broader context of American history is something one can experience in few places like you can at the Strong Museum of Play. If you can get yourself to Rochester, stealing away a few hours to play through time will be time (and maybe some game tokens) well-spent.

Games Take A Vacation

I’m currently midway through my family’s annual summer vacation week on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and as always, games are on my mind. Renting a vacation house often gives an odd insiderish view to other people’s lives. The weird assortment of kitchen gadgets (who needs three waffle makers?), the hodgepodge of furniture, the collection of beachy knickknacks and bookshelves of worn bestsellers all seem to exist in various forms in the homes we’ve rented over the years. I always wonder how much this conglomeration of stuff reveals about the unseen owners who cash our rental checks each year and how much it tells me about my fellow vacationers.

Piles of games also usually inhabit vacation rental homes. Cottage owners probably provide a few games to start. Over the years families may pick up a game at a local gift shop and then leave it at the house for the next renter. For rainy days away from the beach or late nights after the sand has been rinsed off sunburned bodies, games hold a pretty consistent presence in the vacation home experience. I would hazard to guess that families who hardly ever find themselves playing board or card games together at home do so as part of their sacred vacation ritual.


Games found in vacation rentals usually fall into a few broad categories. First, there are standard playing cards. Adults and kids alike can find many games for cards, from a calm game of Go Fish with a toddler to a game of Poker on the screened porch for the grown-ups after the children are tucked into bed. The house this summer has no less than ten decks of cards, including two unopened packs and a sailboat-decorated double set like the ones my grandmother and aunts used to use to play Bridge. Cribbage boards are also pretty commonly found along with cards, although I personally know few people who know how to play the game these days. Poking around in drawers and shelves this year revealed five cribbage boards, including two folding portable ones and a folksy handmade version with holes drilled into a slab of age-darkened wood cut into the shape of a whale (pic below). Tucked in a desk drawer I also found a set of five standard six-sided dice still sealed in their dusty package. Like so many items in a vacation home, I wondered at the story behind these dice. Why were they purchased? Why have they been left abandoned for so many years without use?


The second class of vacation games fall into what I call “American Classics.” These are family-friendly board games like Life, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Checkers and Clue. To these I’d also add word games like Boggle and Scrabble, the dice game Yahtzee and Dominoes, all  of which were with us in this year’s house. Nostalgia and tradition resonate with these games, each offering a familiarity to vacationers year after year. These classics also give the flexibility for  games to be played among family members of all ages and the chance to introduce a new generation to an old favorite.

This year we also found a copy of Mastermind at the house, a classic board game outlier I’d never encountered in a rental cottage before. I hadn’t played in probably 30 years but was glad to find my eight-year-old son was an old hand at the game from playing a school. While not very challenging for me at this point, I was more than happy to pass an hour with this classic deductive code-solving game as part of a rainy day of indoor activity.

Finally, there’s the modern adult party games like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scattergories, Balderdash and Outburst which grew out of the boom in adult board games in the 80s and 90s.  These games are light on rules and big on group participation, making them the perfect thing to fill rowdy late nights for adults well into their gin and tonics or local summer brews. A copy of 1967’s trivia game Facts In Five was in the pile at the house this year, perhaps the result of a local yard sale find in the past.


Along with packing the car with luggage, beach gear and bikes, we usually stow some games for our annual week away. This year, we hauled along several games from home, including Small World, Civilization (pic above), Settlers of Catan and the horse racing game Winner’s Circle. My kids and wife have developed a liking toward well-designed strategy games and can even be found delivering sneers and eye-rolls at the mere mention of a game like Monopoly. A simple deck of cards or a heap of Parker Brothers classics just don’t make the grade when there are grand civilization-building strategies to be played, even while on vacation.

Like many vacation home renters, I often fantasize about owning my own funky little cottage on the Cape. Part of this fantasy is how I’d decorate it with only the most thoughtful and interesting collection of furniture, useful yet surprising books and top-of-the-line kitchenware. Added to this list would be a set of well-curated games, short on too many classics and filled out with the best Eurogames there are to offer. Maybe a couple basic Dungeons & Dragons books and a bag of polyhedral dice sitting on a shelf would inspire some vacation role-playing. I’d be sure to throw in the occasional retro game for irony, but my hope would be be that my renters would be pleasantly surprised by having their minds expanded while on vacation.

But then, I wake up from my real estate dream and realize most people probably don’t want a challenge on vacation. A deck of cards or a familiar board game is what most folks will ever want on those few precious days away from home each year. For me though, gaming never takes a holiday.

New Game Weekend: King Of Tokyo & Chinatown

A fun, quick boardgame is a good thing any time, and this past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn I tried my hand at a couple which were new to me. In King of Tokyo and Chinatown, players get to run through some very quick gaming (less than hour each) under very different mechanics and themes.

King Of Tokyo


Whether you’re a fan of old Godzilla movies, remember playing with Shogun Warriors toys in the 1970s or caught this summer’s Pacific Rim, 2011’s King of Tokyo may be just the thing for you. Battling as giant monsters like Gigazaur, Cyber Bunny, Alienoid, Meka Dragon or Pandakai, players duke it out through a cartoonishly-funny game to become the ultimate King of Tokyo.


Each turn, a player rolls six special dice with values of 1 through 3 or a symbol indicating an Attack, Heal or Energy result. Numbers score victory points, Attacks take swipes at other monsters, Heals allow you to regain health points or evolve your monster, and Energy results allow for the collection of green cubes to spend on special ability cards. With three Heart results, not only does your monster heal but it also allows you to pull an Evolve card which gives you monster specific upgrades. Players choose to re-roll some or all of their dice three times each turn before finishing up and passing the dice.

Through the “king of the hill” action of the game, monsters jump in and out of Tokyo to heal and avoid being attacked by the other menacing players. Once you’re strong enough, you can choose to charge your monster back into Tokyo. The special ability and evolution cards give you added strengths to affect your and your opponents’ monsters. The expansions for the game add additional cards and room for 5-7 players so two monsters can occupy Tokyo and nearby Tokyo Bay simultaneously. The artwork of the cards and combinations of monster evolutions and special cards makes for a lot of variety and fun as the monsters pound away at each other until 20 victory points are achieved or all other monsters are destroyed.



There’s no battling monsters or references to Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 modern noir movie Chinatown in the boardgame Chinatown, but a different kind of intrigue abounds on these streets. Released in 1999 by Z-Man Games, Chinatown is a club favorite at this point for its pure economic strategy play. In the game, a map shows a series a of city blocks with numbered lots all set within the street grid of Chinatown. In six turns (or years), each player first draws and selects random building lots and businesses. Businesses include such common Chinatown landmarks like dim sum restaurants, pet stores, antique shops, florists, jewelers, laundries and factories. Players need to build businesses on their lots to earn rent. For example, a tea house requires three contiguous lots to complete while a restaurant requires six. The bigger the business, the more rent collected at the end of each turn. Partially-completed businesses can score modestly (maybe $10,000 per turn) but a sprawling big business can earn big money each round ($100,000 or more). Strategy might focus on completing multiple small businesses, one or two larger ones or a mixture of businesses of all sizes. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.


Unlike a more typical economic game like Monopoly, Chinatown is very fluid and involves little in the way of traditional game mechanics. There is no set play within a turn, no dice and a minimal amount of chance in the game. Players can buy or trade combinations of lots, businesses and money through an open negotiation process which only ends when there’s an agreement for no more that round. You might offer a business another player needs in exchange for a building lot you need on one of your blocks. During the draw phase, not only are you thinking of the lots you need to build your businesses but those which may prove valuable to your opponents. Balancing what you earn in a trade and what another player may gain in the exchange makes for both a competitive and collaborative game, much like the environemnt you would fine in any dense Chinatown.

Whether you’re up for some giant monsters slugging it out in Tokyo or some urban development on the crowded streets of Chinatown, both King of Tokyo and Chinatown make for very different but very entertaining games. At just around $40 each, these games are a sure thing for any group of new or experienced gamers looking for some quick yet engaging play.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Survive!

surviveboxBy the early 1980s, I had a shelf full of games from Parker Brothers. Like millions of other kids, I was brought up on Parker Brothers classics like Monopoly, Clue, Risk and Sorry! Most of these games were already a couple generations old by the time I first played them, and, despite their updates, they were showing their age a bit. But then in 1982 Parker Brothers introduced Survive! which has gone on to be a new modern classic for gamers of all ages.

The story of the game involved each player trying to get their tribespeople off an island which is quickly sinking into the sea. At the beginning of the game, the hex land tiles – beach, forest and mountains – were shuffled and then placed randomly on the board to create the island. Then, in turn, each player placed their ten tribespeople tokens with up to three per hex except for beach spaces which held only one. Each player piece had a number value etched into the bottom, and saving the higher-valued tribespeople was key to scoring and winning the game. Cardboard lifeboats were then placed floating at the edges of the island and a sea monster figure went in the lagoon at the center of the island.


Each turn, players moved their tribespeople and then removed a tile, beginning with beach hexes and then forests and mountains. Player’s pieces which fell into the water drowned, but you could also move your a piece to a water space as a swimming would-be survivor. Boats carried up to three survivors at once and could carry tokens from multiple tribes at once. Removed tiles had special events on the back and might indicate the appearance of a whale, dolphin or shark in that hex. Finally, a die was rolled to move a sea creature dipicted on the special die.


Strategy for the game involved getting as many of your tribespeople to the coral islands at the corners of the board before a mountain hex piece was turned over to reveal a volcanic eruption killing all survivors not safely away. Moving a whale to a space with a boat capsized the boat, tossing any passengers into the water. A dophin could carry one tribesperson swiftly through the water. Sharks ate swimming survivors and the sea monster destroyed a boat and all its passengers. Other tiles revelaed different special actions, including whirlpools which destroyed anything in that and immediately adjoining spaces. The combination of all the possible outcomes and actions of the other players made for a mix of competitive and collaborative play, always balancing what was best for your tribespeople against what the other player’s actions were.

At the time, there were a number of things that set Survive! apart from most other conventional board games. The board featured hex-shaped spaces like many of the fantasy and RPG games I was playing then. The board was also different each time you played, adding a randomness factor not found in most board games featuring a traditional static set up every time you played. The game components were a bit less abstract and more like the “meeples” now a common part of just about any Eurogame.

A European version of the game appeared a few years after the original with a few variations. In 2010, Survive: Escape from Atlantis! was released by Stronghold Games with an updated game using elements of both versions in one. Since then, Strongehold Games has also released a number of expansions including a 5-6 player variant and others containing extra sea creatures. The game remains widely available, and the 30th anniversary base game released in 2012 can now be picked up for $40 with expansions running for $10 (all cheaper online).

More than three decades on, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! has entered the modern canon of board games. Whether your tribe includes kids or a group of friends looking to pick-up a quick new game, heading back to the island of Survive! is well worth the ride.

Collector’s Note: While Survive: Escape From Atlantis is now widely available, original copies of the 1982 first edition of Survive! can be found on eBay for $25-50. Individual game components are also available for a few bucks apiece, just in case any of yours were swallowed-up by a sea monster over the years.

Not Buying Monopoly

Hasbro’s Monopoly managed to insert itself into several news cycles over a week ago with an announcement that one of the classic player tokens would be retired and updated with a new token. The classic game, originally owned by Parker Brothers, holds a storied place in American culture and you would be hard-pressed not to find a dusty copy in nearly every household in the country. Despite it’s popularity, I am one of those growing number of gamers who maligns this game for its poor gameplay and overall lack of satisfaction in investing a couple hours slogging through taking laps around the board and pummelling opponents into bankruptcy.

Everyone knows Monopoly. Since its early development at the turn of the 20th-century and then its acquisition by Parker Brothers in the 1930s, a mythology developed around Monopoly as a game which grew out of the Great Depression and flourished in the post-war boom years of the 1950s and 60s. Monopoly has hundreds of boardgame variants (I have a Brooklyn-themed set at my house),  video games, state lottery games and an annual McDonald’s sweepstakes, all of which have extended the game’s tentacle-like brand across the country’s culture.

My family spent hundreds of hours in my youth playing Monopoly. Family friends often came over for rounds of play propped up by pizza, soda for the kids and beer for the adults. We played Monopoly so much that we wore out a couple sets, and when I visit my parents I can still find a set on the shelf in a crowded closet of games and puzzles. The game does have appeal in its relatively easy rules of acquiring property, collecting rent, building real estate empires and out-earning your opponents. Kids enjoy the game early on as they learn to count, add and subtract, and I think adults enjoy it since you can be pretty much be assured anyone knows how to play. The game has expanded into a worldwide presence, but it’s usually viewed as a very American game where simple winner-takes-all economics wins.

The problem with Monopoly for gamers like myself is that it is no fun and requires little to no skill or input by the players. Moving your top hat, battleship, race car, dog or other game piece around the board, a player’s fate is left almost entirely to the roll of the dice. A simple strategy (if you can call it that) of agressively buying any and all properties you land on (except the Ultilities, who buys those?) usually wins the game. Random dice rolls, an ever-shifting variance of popular “house rules” and economically destroying opponents makes the game incredibly frustrating. I have rarely played a game where tempers haven’t flared and people haven’t walked away mad at each other.

So, when Hasbro announced plans to retire one of its Monopoly game pieces recently, I was and wasn’t surprised at how much press there was. Newspapers, magazines, TV and cable news, blogs, talk radio and even usually-serious outlets like NPR lept on the story. What the whole thing was to me was a cycnical modern marketing ploy, a manufactured media event cooked-up by corporate boardroom marketers to place a decades-old brand back in the public consciousness and boost investor shareholder value.

As I often write here, there are so many great games to play with your kids, in your college dorm or with a group of friends on your dining room table. Unfortunately, most of the best games today (like Settlers of Catan, which I talk about a lot here) simply don’t have the marketing behind them to insert them into the public’s mind.

Monopoly is very American. It’s the fast food of gaming – cheap, quick, easy, tasteless and ultimately unsatisfying. Do yourselves a favor and find something more nutritious for your gaming.