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.

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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.

New Game Weekend: Innovation

Humans at one of our most basic levels are builders, and gaming offers a wide variety of opportunities to experience the push of civilization building over time. It’s no surprise then that one of the big genres a lot of board, card and even video games fall into is civilization development. The combination of historical facts and the linear nature of societal advancement through the ages lends the subject to a wide variety of games. Gamers return again and again to the chance to play out the evolution of technology, philosophy, warfare, religion, agriculture and art. Sid Meir’s Civilization, Small World, Settlers of Catan, Clash of Cultures and Tzolk’in are just a few of the games I’ve played that fall into this broad category, both historically-based or set in a fantasy realm.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers, a few of us played through Innovation, the 2010 award-winning card game from Asmadi Games. Retailing at $20, the game consists of 105 unique and text-heavy cards played against a simple set of rules but with a lot complexity in keeping track of your own civilization’s innovation track.

Like most civilization building games, Innovation proceeds along a linear timeline from the Stone Age to the Modern Era. After starting with four cards laid out in front of them, each player chooses two actions in each turn: Draw, Meld, Dogma or Achieve. Cards are drawn from chronological eras numbered 1-10 with cards depicting progressively-advanced innovations. A meld action allows a player to play a like-colored card on top of a card already laid out in front of them. Melded cards supercede the innovation on the cards previously played underneath.

The dogma action is where the meat of the game takes place. Each dogma allows a variety of single or multiple actions that can affect not just the one player but other players displaying equal or greater numbers of symbols such as crowns, factories, lightbulbs, castles, leaves, etc. Dogma actions can result in additional drawn or discarded cards, taking cards from other players or fanning the pile of cards to the right, left, up or down.  As cards are collected and scored, players can take an achieve action to score a level of era achievement for their civilization. Some dogma actions allow a combination of cards to be used to score special achievment cards such as Monument, Empire or Wonder. The first player with five achievements wins the game.

As with most civilization development games, Innovation involves a lot of balance between charting your own progress while keeping an eye on the advancement of other players. Certain dogmas are extremely valuable in moving your civilization forward, but they may also assist the other players, too. This combination of collaborative and competitive play allows Innovation to mirror the arc of human societal development as the ebb and flow of alliances and strength can shift from turn to turn.

Innovation is deceptively easy out of the box, and it’s only through a play through a game or two that the true complexity is felt. Unlike other civilization games which can often  involve managing hundreds of pieces, charts and cards, Innovation’s simple card mechanic is one of its strongest points. The devleopment of human civilization has been a complex road for sure, but with Innovation the road doesn’t get bogged down in a big box of stuff and all the strategy you need is right there in the cards.

New Game Weekend: Village

Lately I’ve been introduced to a number of board games known collectively as “worker management” games. The main mechanic of these games involves each player’s management of their main game pieces representing workers, family members, tribespeople, etc. With varying combinations of placement and removal of these pieces from the game board, the player gains resources, acquires skills, builds structures or otherwise advances in the varying points systems set up for that particular game. The games usually employ the ability to gain additional workers or lose workers over time. Gaining workers usually involves expending more resources to maintain them but also allows a player the advantage of being able to perform more actions within the game.

Lords of Waterdeep and Tzolk’in are worker managment games within fantasy swords-and-sorcery and ancient Mayan contexts, respectively. To a lesser extent, Small World is also a worker management game, where players manage successive rising and declining races of varying expertise and strength in a quest to control the board. The latest game I’ve tried within this genre is Village which plays out in a Medieval rural village with each player managing four generations of workers through their lifecycle of birth and eventual passing.

Each player begins with their first generation of family members born into the game in their “farmyard” and then deployed to the board. Players can choose to play their pieces in various areas of the board — Crafts, Market, Travel, Church and Council. There are also is also a Harvest area and Family space where new generations fo your family are “born” into the game. Placement in each area can allow a player to gain goods, trade goods for points or otherwise earn points over time. Cubes of four colors as well as pieces representing grain, gold, oxen, horses, plows, wagons and scrolls all serve as tradeable commodities within the game. These are all used in a number of combinations to either acquire different resources or score points.

The key to Village is managing the lifespan of your family members, as placement in each area of the board winds up costing passage of life costs marked in a track of hourglasses. Once a certain amount of lifetime passes, a family member dies off and is placed either in the prominent “village chronicle” book or in a generic grave. Timing exactly when your villagers die determines your shorter term acquistion of more goods or resources and long term point score at the game’s end. Each round of the game involves a re-set of the village and an interesting “mass” at the church where players have the opportunity to move up in prestige (and score points) through their prominence of placement within the church hierarchy.

Like most other worker management games I’ve played, Village is primarily competitive with little to no opportunity for collaboration between players. There’s variety to be had as players can choose to focus on one area of the board over others to rack up points. Players also exercise a certain amount of control of the game’s pace. They can agressively move their generations through their lifecycles and rush the game to quicker finish or they can take their time and focus more on points throughout the game.

While I’ve only played two-player versions of the game thus far, I can’t wait to try a three-or-four-person game where compettion for space and prestige on the board will obviously be more competitive. The game moves fast, and in just about 60-90 minutes players can easily cycle through the rise and fall of four generations in this wonderfully imaginative Village.

2013 Goal Setting

We’re just over a week into 2013 but with more than 50 weeks still ahead, I think I have time to squeeze in some ideas on gaming goals I’m setting myself for 2013. Here’s five goals I’m setting for the year (including one I’ve already checked off the list):

1. Join a club

I have been dropping in on the Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn for probably 4-5 years, and this year I’ve already finally got around to becoming a full member. The club occupies the basement garden level of a townhouse on a side street in historic Park Slope Brooklyn, just two stops from me on the subway. In a city where space for storage and gaming is at a premium, the club is a wonderland of gaming tables, boardgames and miniatures. While a lot of guys arrange to play a particular game ahead of time, there’s a big opportunity on the weekends to simply stop in at the club and grab a few guys up for playing whatever sounds good. The members of the club are incredibly supportive and passionate about gaming, and the diverse ages and backgrounds always makes for an interesting and entertaining mix over the course of a few hours.

If you’re in the NYC-area and you’re interested in what’s going on at the club, I’d suggest introducing yourself via their Yahoo! Group and then come in for a game at some point. You can also check them out via Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

2. Get back into World War II

A few years ago I got heavily into WWII gaming in 15mm with Flames of War. In pretty short order I painted up large German and American infantry armies, and then threw in a US paratrooper force for good measure. I signed up and played in a full-day tournament at a convention, and then I ran a game at another convention. Along with my infantry, I’ve also got dozens and dozens of tanks, jeeps, trucks and artillery pieces that have largely sat fallow for over a year as my interests (and schedule) have drifted elsewhere. In the interim, a new revised set of rules were released and a whole host of additional rulebooks focusing on the post-D-Day actions have also hit the market.

So, I’m jump-starting my interest in the era again in 2013. A big new starter boxed set containing the new rules and a bunch of new plastic figures and tanks wound up under the Christmas tree. I also scored the new Easy Company set of character figures who bring with them a whole set of special rules as you recreate the famed command exploits of the 101st Airborne Division. I spent part of my time off from work at the end of the year gluing up and priming my new forces and re-familiarizing myself with the rules. I’ve been talking up World War II with some guys at the club, my son seems interested in playing again and now I’ve just got to commit to returning to the tabletop battlefields of 1940s Europe.

3. Tackle my Anglo-Zulu War project

At a convention a few years ago I signed up blindly for a recreation of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift, one of the most significant engagements of the late-19th-century Anglo-Zulu War and a favorite of mine in the history of warfare. I tucked the game in the back of my head for a couple years, and then I happened upon some really inexpensive boxes of plastic British troops from the era at another convention last year. Well, once I had some Brits on the workbench I certainly needed some Zulus (and more Brits).

Months on, this project has stalled. I have hundreds of figures glued-up in various states of painting and a couple additional boxes of Zulus still waiting to be unwrapped. There’s a sameness to the British and Zulus which I haven’t quite cracked as of yet. I obviously need a system and a process to tackle all these guys in the coming year so I can finally get them up and running on the table. Long-term (really, really long-term), I fantasize about playing the battle of Rourke’s Drift in a true 1:1 scale of approximately 4,000 Zulu miniatures facing off against a contingent of 140 or so British troops. That said, getting this whole Anglo-Zulu project back on track this year is a promise I’m making to myself.

 4. Wrap up my American Civil War forces

If 2012 had a focus for me, it was the American Civil War in 28mm. With the 150th anniversary of the war in the news and Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in theaters, America’s greatest conflict was in the air. I worked along throughout the year painting away at the wonderful plastic and metal range of ACW miniatures offered by Perry Brothers Miniatures, and my sons and I played increasingly larger skirmish battles on the coffee and dining room tables.

At this point I think I’m maxing out with a couple hundred troops in both Blue and Gray. I have a few more models of artillery which are about 80% complete, some fez-hatted 5th New York Volunteer “Duryee’s Zouaves” to wrap up and one box of the new Confederate infantry to start. I’ve been really happy with results this year, and I’m looking forward to hauling the whole contingent out of my apartment by the spring to share my work with the guys at the club.

5. More boardgames (and maybe some card games)

I largely ignored all manner of gaming throughout the 90s, and, with that, I largely missed the boat on the rise of Euro games. Over the past year-and-half, I’ve re-invigorated my interest in boardgames. Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride have become mainstays in my home for “family game nights.” I’ve already added Small World to the mix this year, and a friend of ours introduced us to Bohnanza – a competitive bean-planting and harvesting card game – over the holidays. I’ve got a list of others I want to try this year, and there’s probably countless more I don’t even know about yet.

Playing games with friends, family and members of the local club is such a fantastic way to disconnect from the realities of the world and re-connect with people in a way we seldom do in the normal course of life. Here’s to 2013 and a year of play.

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.