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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Favorite Tabletop Games Kickstarters of the Month (June 2013)

I’ve spent a month tracking my favorite projects and looking for new fun stuff on Kickstarter’s Tabletop Games section. Of the five projects I wrote about in May, four have been succesfully-funded to date. I wound up throwing my support behind one of these, Canterbury, and I’m still hopeful things will turn out well for 54mm plastic Civil War toy soldiers project now in its closing days. Here are the other projects I’ll be watching in June.

Princes of the Dragon Throne: This fantasy-themed board game combines deck-building, area control and resource management. Players build recruits and vie for control of the board on their quest to be crowned upon the Dragon Throne at game’s end. There’s a ton of stuff in this box with over 200 miniatures and more than 500 components overall. The levels of support for the game plus the accompanying specially-crafted meeples comes in over $100, but it’s got dragons so the game looks to be well worth it.

Euphoria: Build A Better Dystopia: This Saint Louis, Missouri-based project launched in May but wraps up this month with a very successful funding run. In this worker placement game, dice represent your workers and cards represent elite recruits. Using your workers and recruits, each player attempts to establish a new empire by managing and selling resources, collecting artifacts, building alliances, and undermining your opposition by digging tunnels and launching devious agendas. Dystopian scenarios are a big fave of mine, and the artwork captured in the design of this game is marvelous.

Amerigo: Another successfully-funded game slated to finish its run in June is Amerigo by Queen Games. Players aid famed explorer Amerigo Vespucci in his quest to discover new lands, establish settlements and collect resources in the islands of South America. The game uses a nifty tower through which players drop and draw colored cubes which determine actions available on their turns. Pledging support at different funding levels scores you a copy of Amerigo as well as one (or more) of Queens Games’s other popular historic-themed games such as Alhambra, Shogun or Lancaster, making backing this project quite a deal.

Admiral: In general, I don’t play naval games since I like the variety that a well-laid-out land terrain tabletop allows. That said, this game could get people like me interested in strategic wargaming on the high seas in the Age of Sail. The Ukrainian designers of this game have loaded the base game with 24 1:1700 scale ships that surpass their toy-like colors in their attention. Backers at higher levels get more islands, ships, seascape gameboard tiles and other game components, making supporting this project a fnatstic opportunity to set sail into a different kind of wargaming.

Giant 2 Inch Soft Foam Polyhedral Dice:  My final fave of the month is just goofy and fun. My two sons, ages 8 and 13, are familiar with real gaming dice at this point. But, if I had a small gamer-in-training in my life, these would be on my funding list. The set includes six large, squishy brightly-colored dice used in most gaming (D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 and D20) in a handy cloth storage bag. Appropriate for ages 3+, there’s a whole bunch of options for buying a la carte dice to supplement the basic set, and additional colors and number styles will be made available. What better way to introduce a kid to the wonders of gaming than throwing a few of these on the floor? Then again, they may just go nicely on my desk at work…