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as a frightening tool of gambling in the 1940s through 1970s (just this past summer, Oakland, California finally repealed an 80-year ban on pinball).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.

eGameRevolution

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.

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New Game Weekend: Memoir ’44

mem44box

I’m about 10 years late to the WWII board game Memoir ’44, but after a few first plays through it this past weekend I’m glad this modern classic is now part of my gaming arsenal. Released by Days of Wonder on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy Invasion in 2004, the game has won numerous awards and remains high in the esteem of casual and serious wargamers alike.

mem44contentsContents of the basic Memoir ’44 game from Days of Wonder

The base Memoir ’44 game runs about $40 and contains over 300 playing pieces. The blue-grey Axis and green Allies tank, infantry, artillery and defensive features look fantastic, and playing with them evokes the little plastic toy soldiers of many a kid’s youth. The reversible game board with a beach on one side and countryside map on the other provides the basic layout for the more than a dozen historic scenarios included in the easily-read rulebook. Scenarios are laid out using hex tiles with various terrain features such as towns, forests, hills, rivers and hedgerows. Each historic game scenario is presented with a clear illustration on how to lay out the appropriate terrain tiles and initially deploy forces on each side.

M44cards

Sample Command Cards from Memoir ’44

Command cards and battle dice provide the basic drivers of game mechanics. Cards provide activation of one or more units in the left, right and/or center portions of the board. Infantry may move once and attack or move twice, artillery may move or shoot, and tanks may move up to three hexes and engage in combat. Attacks are resolved with a simple roll of special battle dice which hit units based on the icon results on each die face and what units are present in the combat. Die rolls may also result in misses of forced retreats. When a player finishes their moves and combats, they draw a fresh card and play passes to the opposite side of the board. Games are scored by destroying units or securing objectives like bridges.

IMG_3022

The Sainte-Mère-Église scenario for Memoir ’44

As fairly experienced WWII historical miniatures players with Flames of War, both my son and I were pleasantly surprised by the fun to be had with Memoir ’44. The intro scenario is for Pegasus Bridge which we tackled in about 20 minutes to get a feel for the game. Next up, we tried Sainte-Mère-Église with a fun added feature of actually dropping a fistful of paratroopers onto the board. We both found the command cards to be a good mechanic to represent the effectiveness of delivering orders on the battlefield. In out second game, my son’s tanks lay parked at the corner of the board the entire game since he never drew a card allowing activation of units to his left. We each pulled a couple special cards, allowing things like airstrikes and close assaults to happen as the game quickly moved to a finish in about four or five turns. With the basic rules under our belts, we’re anxious to push on through the remaining scenarios included in the basic rules.

M44terrainContents of the Memoir ’44 Terrain Pack expansion

The scores of  available official scenarios, expansion editions, campaign books and army packs add an amazing amount of replay value to Memoir ’44’s basic rules and mechanics. A nifty online design scenario design tool also allows armchair historians to have a go at creating official-looking games of their own, and I can just imagine the educational possibilities in using it in school settings. Along with the base game, I snatched a copy of the Terrain Pack expansion which offers nearly 150 additional tiles, markers, special unit tokens and four additional scenarios. With the vast expansions of Memoir ’44, just about any interest in the air and land battles of every major front in WWII can be endlessly played and explored.

I realize I’ve just begun with Memoir ’44, and I’m certain to have both my boys playing along with me. There’s so much appeal in Memoir ’44 for kids or adults who have dabbled casually in war-themed board games like Risk or Stratego, plus the added interest of easily replaying historic WWII battles. Quick games, some real history and a fun box of toys — Memoir ’44 brings the complete package to the table.