Monday, February 17, 2020

Road Trip! …and Other Unexpected Surprises

I’ve just arrived back home from an incredibly memorable weekend laser tagging back and forth between Kansas and Missouri over the last several days. I’ll have plenty to share very soon about the entire trip and all the sites that I visited, but until I get a chance to write up all my adventures let me just give you a quick overview of some of the highlights and surprises that were part of my most recent round of tag travels.

This trip certainly had a few unexpected turns! I had spent the early part of the week covering the ECT event in Syracuse and talking with the players about why they choose to travel for laser tag tournaments, but on Thursday I was getting ready to begin my own travels to play laser tag out in the midwest. Unfortunately, weather was not on our side and on that particular day none of us were going to be able go anywhere, at least not by plane. I ran into three of the ECT players at the airport as we all navigated around the challenges of our flights being cancelled. We actually were all scheduled to be on the same cancelled flight to Chicago. They were trying to make a connection there to get back home to Sacramento and I was trying to get myself out to Topeka, KS in time to play in the first ever Laser Trooper Valentine’s Day Massacre Tournament, which was set to take place on Friday afternoon. However, a snowstorm in that part of the country prevented any flights from leaving that day. We went our separate ways in the airport after speaking to the airline representative and I hope they were able to get where they needed to go, but as for me, I had a decision to make. It looked highly unlikely that I would be able to get on any flight that would result in my getting to Topeka on time. I could take my chances and wait in hopes of being re-routed the next day, but that would be a bit of a gamble and it looked like chances were slim that I would get there prior to the event. All that was certain was that there was no flight available that would allow me to fly west that same day. So, I took stock of my options and made the decision to rent a car instead and just drive to Topeka…ROAD TRIP!

Of course, Topeka is about halfway across the country and an eighteen-hour road trip in total. I did the calculations and realized that if I didn’t commit to that decision right then and drive all night there was no way I could make it there by the following afternoon. So, I took the plunge, rented a Jeep Cherokee (a very solid vehicle in case I was about to drive right into that snowstorm) and began driving. I drove for a solid twelve hours on Thursday and stopped at a hotel when I got too tired to go any further. Then the next day I was up bright and early making the remainder of the trip. With less than an hour to spare before the start of the tournament I arrived at the Laser Trooper site in the West Ridge Mall in Topeka, KS.

I’ll fill in all the details from that event in a separate post, but that was the beginning of an amazing weekend that included playing at eight more laser tag sites, a nice visit with friends and the chance to play in two fun, local competitive events. The second of these was a charity laser tag tournament in Missouri raising funds for the Whitney Kate Wells Memorial Foundation in honor of a young girl who had recently lost her battle with a rare form of cancer. For those who don’t know, my brother passed on from cancer so this is something I care about deeply and I have been involved with several laser tag fundraiser tournaments that have raised money for similar causes. I commend them for putting on an excellent event and raising around $1000 in support of the Fight for Whitney. I’ll also post in more detail about this event as soon as I have a chance to organize all my thoughts, photos and memories from this weekend.

When all of my adventures were over (almost) I got the very last seat on a plane bound for Charlotte, NC where I was going to have to make a connecting flight back to Syracuse. However, my flight was delayed by about an hour with us just sitting there on the runway. I thought I was sure to miss the connection, but by an absolute miracle the Syracuse flight was delayed by ten minutes. This was EXACTLY enough time for me to exit the first plane and rush across the terminal as they were just finishing boarding the last of the passengers. I got there with absolutely no time to spare, but in just the nick of time I boarded the flight that got me back home. Whew!

As the plane took off, I sat there contemplating how many wonderful experiences I had this weekend. I got to play Laser Trooper at the only current location in the U.S. where this system is used. I experienced some unique arenas ranging from a ninja turtles themed design to one of the most amazing mazes ever (and even a few that gave me a sense of déjà vu). And one of the very best parts of the trip was being able to play Helios with such an enthusiastic group of players that really reminded me of my early days playing laser tag. Let me just say that the highest compliment I can give is that playing at this site with these guys felt a lot like playing Zone at FJ back in the day. It might have been my first time visiting this particular arena, but the experience really brought back some great memories! As I think back on all the tag sites I got to play in between, this was a full and fulfilling journey. I’m so glad that I made the right decision. It was absolutely worth making the long drive at the beginning of the trip in order to be able to experience all that I did along the way. I’ll be posting the complete stories of all these adventures very soon, but for now let me give a big thanks to everyone who was involved with making this such an amazing weekend for me to enjoy so much great laser tag in Kansas and Missouri.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

East Coast Tournament 2020

How far would you travel to play laser tag? For Laserforce players looking to enjoy the competition and camaraderie of this year’s East Coast Tournament (ECT) all roads led to The Fun Warehouse in Syracuse, NY and many of the competitors came from much further away than you might expect.

Some players arrived from overseas and others from across the country to participate in three full days of Space Marines 5 games during this annual tournament event that had a few particularly notable elements this year. The distance that many individuals were willing to travel was impressive and the tournament included international players from Germany and the United Kingdom as well as competitors from across the United States who arrived from as far away as California and Colorado to spend up to 15 hours of preliminary round play each day leading up to the finals. Considering this was not a national level event it’s really quite a testament to the enthusiasm these players have for the game that they would come so far just to have an opportunity to play.

An interesting observation about this particular event is that this year’s tournament drew a significant number of female players who accounted for 25 percent of the field of competition. Now, laser tag is a game for everyone to enjoy and there are no age or gender limitations, but the reality is that in tournament play the competition typically tends to skew far more heavily towards male players than female. So, to have 12 women competing out of a field of 48 players was what many participants perceived to be a record percentage for a tournament like this. Some see this as an indicator that the competitive scene is expanding and encouraging more players feel welcome to get involved. And if you have 12 players that is exactly enough to fill out a game of Space Marines 5, so prior to the start of the tournament an exhibition game was played just for fun with teams made up entirely of the female competitors. A few participants considered this to be a bit historic, while others just enjoyed the fact that new friendships were being made by all.

Space Marines 5 is considered the official Laserforce tournament format and players are assigned to play a specific role on their team, which requires good communication for the team to be successful. Positions including Commander, Heavy, Ammo, Medic and two Scouts make up the roles that must be filled on each six-player team. For this tournament teams would do a blind roll of dice to pick their positions, so while a player’s skill level is important there is also an element of luck at play because competitors are often times more experienced in playing one position versus another. This is one consideration that could impact a team, but perhaps an even larger factor is the make-up of the team itself.

A first for this Laserforce tournament was the implementation of a salary cap on the teams based on the skill levels of the players. Prior to the tournament all players were assigned a numerical value for their skill level ranging from 3-10. Teams were able to assemble any combination of players so long as the team’s total “value” didn’t exceed 38. This is a variation on the way random draw tournaments have been done in the past, however they key difference is that it allowed for teams to select the players they wanted to play with while simultaneously balancing the field so that there was a more even spread of abilities and player strength among the teams. Markus “El Diablo” Welsch of Germany noted that this tournament in particular caught his interest because of the balanced teams and random draw for positions. He also commented “I love the atmosphere and enjoy challenging games very much.”

A few other players took some time out from the competition to share their thoughts about why they traveled so far and what they love about laser tag and the tournament experience.

Over the course of the preliminary days the eight teams competed in two groups with teams known as Impaired Hybrid, Misfits, -24K and Hart Foundation playing in Pool A and Meme Teme Extreme, Rick Rollers, Taghub Play Hard and Sanch Cult in Pool B. All of this competition was leading to the third day finals where the intensity really started to ramp up. Every tournament gets a bit more intense during the final games as everyone wants to take home the trophy, and let me say, these trophies were particularly impressive as several were custom created with the symbols for each of the SM5 game positions.

When all was said and done the final outcome was the result of many hard-fought games and incredibly intense competition. Michael “Beanz” Brandt, manager of the Fun Warehouse, observed that “All the games for the tournament were fairly close in score. Most games were within 3,000 points of each other and came down to who had their bases.

Congratulations to the top teams and players. Results are as follows:

Congratulations to the Hart Foundation team for taking first place in the tournament.

Sanch’s Cult came in second place.

And the Rick Rollers took 3rd place.

The All Star Awards were given to the top players for each SM5 position including PHNTM (Scout), SCYTHE (Ammo), Beanz (Heavy), Brew (Commander), Princess (Scout) and Ghostyy ox (Medic).

Brew was also the stats based MVP and took home a very special trophy.

Ultimately the sentiment that was expressed the most during this tournament was that the players feel like they are part of one big family in the Laserforce tournament community. And so the tournament concluded with the players doing just what any family would do at the end of an intense experience…they all went out to dinner. It was wonderful to observe this tournament with a bird’s eye view of the distinctive factors that made the event both a destination and a journey for the players from across the nation and the globe who have found a shared experience through laser tag that has left them with wonderful friendships, the feeling of having an extended family and lots of tournament memories.

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Sunday, February 9, 2020

When All Else Fails… (aka the Mississauga Five Man Tournament)

If you understand why that title is funny then you probably already know all about this weekend’s Laser Quest five man team tournament in Mississauga. If not, let me tell how things went. :)

Ultimately, we had a wonderful time and I’m really glad that I made the trip. It was great tagging with these guys and Hot Dice organized a really terrific event, even though we encountered a few bumps along the way.

The day before the tournament there was a really bad snowstorm where I live, so bad that my car got stuck in the parking lot at my office. I wasn’t even certain that weather would be reasonable for me to make the trip. And we had one player who had to work and would end up missing the first couple of games, but in spite of all that we decided to proceed anyhow, so I set out from my house around 10:00 Saturday morning bound for Canada. I hoped to take a leisurely drive up (of course stopping for some excellent shopping as there are two major outlet malls along the route), then I had dinner plans with friends in Toronto before meeting up with my team for the overnight tourney that started at 10:00 that night. I was going to be driving back immediately afterwards, so this was already a long day before we even got going.

My team was set to include my ‘geddon teammates Slayer, ShadowDragon and Ski Patrol (Wil, Emily and Dave) and a local Quest player I had not yet met, Frieza (Marshall). Well, nothing ever goes entirely according to plan and one of the challenges we encountered before even crossing the border was losing Emily to the flu, so with only a couple of hours notice we were down a player. I tried to find a sub, but fortunately Justin was able to rearrange things so that Clueless joined our team at the last minute. On top of that we were scheduled to play in the first two games of the night which Dave would miss because of the work conflict. So, yeah…there were a few challenges.

When I got there Wil was already waiting and we were among the first players to arrive. However, it wasn’t long before a familiar face walked in and we got time to visit with our old teammate Giorgio. So great to see him again! And we were appreciative that we were able to “borrow” him as Dave’s sub for the first game and then take Eli as the sub when we played against Giorgio’s team in the next game. Will the real Ski Patrol please stand up?

It’s tough to jump into a system that you don’t get to play often when you go up against players who get to practice at an LQ site every week, but it’s also nice to meet some new people. I was glad to see there were two other female players in the event and I enjoyed chatting a bit with Kathleen and Victoria from Toronto East. We are all fairly new to the scene, so I think it was easier for the newer players to find common ground. Before things got underway we sat in on the briefing and then we toured the arena.

The last time I was actually in this arena was about a year ago when they really rolled out the red carpet for me with a nice welcome and a photographer following me around the arena for some promo pics. Let’s just say it was a completely different experience looking at the same space this weekend! However, with the low light camera on my new phone I got some pics that showcase how impressive the LQ Mississauga arena really is. It’s a great space for a tournament!

The bottom level was taped off so that three teams could play on the floor while three other teams simultaneously played on the upper level. This worked MUCH better than the last time I experienced this kind of structure. It also kept the flow of the event moving along pretty well…until someone stopped the second game. It was a simple mistake, but someone had noticed Eli playing on our team (as a sub) and thought the wrong players were in the arena. Unfortunately, the player stopped the game without authorization or realizing that everything was as it should be, so that game had to be reset. Back into the arena…

During prelims my showing in this tournament was marginal at best. However, I was really there more for the experience because I so seldom get an opportunity to play against serious players on this system (since there is no LQ to play at in all of New York and I have to travel so far to get to any LQ usually the best I can hope for is to get into a good Ironman game). So, I just enjoyed the experience for what it was and took away what useful things I could. I tried to be more conscious about side positioning and a few of the tips players have given me along the way, but this is not my primary system so I didn’t have any crazy expectations about our placement. We were not the weakest team, but we were a far cry from playing out the full course of the night (which is why I figured I could power through driving back that night as our team was done by 2:00 am).

The top four teams were going to play on, however for our team to go any further we would have to succeed in the Quad-Quest where the four other teams would go against each other in four blind rounds, meaning we would play the arena on one set of packs, return to the vesting room, swap onto another set of packs and repeat until we had gone four rounds without seeing the scores in between. This means you really don’t know how you are doing based on anything but your gut feeling.

When we went into the Quad-Quest that’s when things started to feel real and like it was time to pull out the stops. It also felt like the time in the evening where we were starting to play with some team synergy. One example of this came from Dave directing me in the tower to control the ramp while he “kept this guy busy” in a dogfight with a player vying for that location. So while Dave did his thing I did my sniper thing, which is typically my strongest position when I play other systems. That seemed to work well.

After the second game I turned to Wil and said “no matter how this shakes out I feel good about that,” meaning how that game had gone. After the fact when we could see the scores I learned that this was my strongest game all night.

At the time I just played as best I could against some competition that had pretty much leveled out at this point. What I mean by that is that every round played out with very similar results. For the plate cup there was no beating the NexGen team. Montreal 2 was the next strongest followed by us and then the Toronto East team in that order nearly every time. So, the outcome was not exactly a surprise, but the scores were interesting to hear at the end anyhow. Kudos to all the teams who played in the Quad-Quest rounds and also to the top solo players after prelims which included Yoda in second place with 646 and Dark Fenix in first with 701.

At this point in the night (or morning as it was abut 2:00 am) I had been on the road all day and had a five hour drive ahead of me, so I thanked Justin for putting on a really nice event and made the rounds to say goodbye to my team. Ordinarily I would try to stick around through the finals, but this time it just made better sense to get on the road and home as safely as possible as there were snow squalls as I made my way through western New York. So, I learned of the final results after the fact. The Chicago team won the whole event and I want to sincerely congratulate them and all the other teams who came out to compete. It is a pleasure to play in the company of really talented players and to learn from the experience how to come back stronger the next time around. I really am glad that I made the decision to join my team for this event. I had a great time!

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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

An Interview with Jim Kessler, CEO and Founder of LASERTRON

I want to thank Jim Kessler, CEO and Founder of LASERTRON for taking the time for an interview with me.

I hope you enjoy this as the first installment of the Industry Leader Interviews in the Oral History of Laser Tag for the Laser Tag Museum. Watch the video here...

New interviews will be added monthly so keep checking back for more great stories about the early days of laser tag!

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

“Green Team, DON’T Score!!!”

It was about 20 seconds before the end of our second game on league finals night when across the arena we heard Beanz bellowing “Green Team, DON’T SCORE!!!” And here’s why...

We WANTED to take second place that game. Not third, but definitely not first. Because if we took first we’d be challenging the front runner teams earlier in the night than we would want to and if we took third we’d be eliminated early. Our first game we lost by a hair (or more accurately, a missile). We would have been fine if we had gotten just one more missile off...which Beanz actually had! He had the lock on tone in the final second, but the clock ran out. Sigh. 

But we were still in it at this point and just had to beat Jared’s team to stay in it. Sorry to just be calling it “Jared’s team” as I’m sure by this point in the league I should remember the team names, but I don’t. I barely remembered from week to week that our team was called “Not Fast, Just Furious” made up of Beanz, Ragnar, Stealth Elf and me...and for four of the weeks we had MJ Slaughter as our sub because of Ragnar being injured.

So circumstances aligned forcing us to begin in a less desirable starting place, but at this point we wanted to stay in it so when we heard “Green Team, Don’t Score” we just stopped tagging because we did not want to accidentally win this time! We happily accepted second place that game which kept us in the running...ironic as I know that sounds. 

That’s probably the most noteworthy (and quote worthy) memorable takeaway I had from this league. That and possibly observing a little bit of karma in action once it got down to the final game (which my team was not in, but I actually enjoyed watching as a spectator). Fast forward to that final game. It’s Jon’s team, the Fam team and Abby and Cody’s team. I wish I had been recording the monitor outside the arena earlier because watching things unfold was really interesting!

There was a point within the last few minutes when Fam was solidly holding first and the other two (arguably the stronger teams) kept flip flopping between second and third place. I would have actually been pleased to see a shake-up like that materialize! Then there was a point where EVERY team was flip flopping positions. That’s how close the scores were at different times. But what ended up happening was a little more predictable. Jon’s team won (congrats!) and Cody and Abby’s team took second with Fam finishing respectably in third. After that we all sat back and watched the “performance” (read “absurd and unnecessary shouting match”) that ensued between the captains of the second place team over what had transpired. Although this show was totally popcorn worthy, I feel like I have something of value to impart from many years competing and mentoring in the pageant realm. Here it is...

It’s fine to be disappointed with an outcome. Sure, we all prefer to win, but keep it classy and PLEASE just keep your mouth shut until you are in your car five miles down the road. Then you can feel whatever you want, but when you are at the venue (be it a laser tag arena or the like) simply congratulate the winners on a good game, be gracious and otherwise just zip it. I think this advice applies in all forms of competition, not just laser tag.

Also, try to stay cool because you’ll likely have to come back and play with at least some of the same group of people the next time around. Save the drama for your mama!

As for everyone else, let me give a shout out to my team and to all the other players who were involved in the league. No matter what, it’s always a great time just getting to play with you guys. I hope we can keep the momentum of these leagues going and I look forward to tagging with you again the next time around!

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Hills are Alive...with the Sound of Lasers

It was recently suggested to me that a review of my favorite game formats for each system might make for an interesting article. I wholeheartedly agree! However, to be fair there are some systems on which I have played a wide variety of special game formats and then there are others where I’ve only had the opportunity (so far) to play the basic standard games. An example of the latter is Lasertron. Most places I have played use primarily the standard team or free for all solo formats and little else, even though the system has much greater capabilities. So I decided that to rectify this and broaden my horizons by trying out some different games it would be worth detouring over to the home Lasertron location in Amherst, NY to meet up with a couple of my Armageddon teammates and experience a couple of their other game formats.

I met up with Emily, Cage and Kevin and we joined a public group for my very first game of King of the Hill. Although there would be a briefing video shown to us inside the vesting room, I got Emily (aka ShadowDragon) to give me the scoop on this game.

We went into the vesting room and got ready to play!

Even though this is the oldest operating laser tag facility in the United States it has a very modern design, which I believe has been updated since my last visit.

Before the game started Emily showed me the sectors of the arena. For King of the Hill a sector or “hill” that is ready to be claimed starts off blue on the bottom and yellow on top like this...

Once it is taken by a player it turns either red or green when the player stands directly underneath the sensor. You want to stay there earning points for your team for as long as possible (even if that means less personal points earned from tags...this is about what best helps the team, not the individual).

The neutral sectors glow purple and the active sectors can be identified on the digital maps.

So, during the game the hills move every 45-60 seconds, which is why I say (and sing) the hills are alive! It really sort of feels like that! This was fun and so far it is my favorite Lasertron game. :)

We played four rounds of King of the Hill to complete our first session, then took a short break and played a session of Domination. I think I can now say I have played Domination on just about every laser tag system.

This is similar to King of the Hill (or maybe KOTH is just a variation on Domination), but the sectors are constant and the goal is to control as many of them as possible at the same time.

To me this was a little less interesting. Much like in the standard team base game I found myself just running to and from sectors, trading a few tags and then running back to my recharge. I found King of the Hill more interesting as the game moved around. However, from a vanity standpoint alone, I do like how a player’s name and photo pops up on the monitor when they take over a sector in Domination.

I also like that the sectors have different values and the ones closer to the opposing team will get you bigger points as you can see on the map.

I would have liked to stick around for a session of Headquarters too, but due to timing and weather it was better for me to get back on the road after these two sessions. But after four games of each I feel ready to say (just out of the games I’ve experienced) that King of the Hill is my new favorite special format game of Lasertron. Thanks to Emily, Cage and Kevin for coming out to show me the ropes!

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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sharp Shooting at Sharp Shooters

It was a cold and snowy evening…well, actually it wasn’t. However, there was an impending snowstorm expected to hit the following day. I was scheduled to run audio for a pageant competition this weekend and the director asked me to drive out to Corning a night early because he worried if I waited until Saturday that the snow might prevent me from getting there at all. So that’s how it is that I found myself unexpectedly passing through Auburn, NY with some extra time on my hands on a Friday night. I searched for laser tag in the area and found an opportunity to play using Adventure Sports HQ tactical taggers at Adventure Zone Bounce, Tag and play at Sharp Shooters.

Upon my arrival I met the owner, Tony, out in front of the building and introduced myself. I could see through the window that this did not look like a tactical tag site. I inquired about the familiar looking Runner gate that was visible behind the bounce houses and games in the lobby. Tony told me that he and his wife, Hillary, had opened the business in this location in July (so just about six months ago) and they had started with purchasing pre-owned Lazer Runner equipment, but during the course of that time they had switched over to Adventure Sports HQ. I’m going to circle back around to all that because learning the history of the equipment at their site was one of the most interesting parts of my visit.

The arena is their own hybrid creation of walls from a former laser tag site and some of their older son’s design ideas. It’s a smaller arena (I’d guesstimate at around 2500 square feet?) and it is still evolving. Their hope is to add paint and design aesthetics in the coming months, but for now it is a black walled maze augmented with some barrels and tires for obstacles.

On one side there is a single respawn station for use by everyone (rather than having a separate station for each team). This worked just fine for the light kind of game we played. They cater mostly to kids and  parties and do not score their games. As such, it’s not competitive, it’s just for enjoying the experience in and of itself. And after the week I’ve had I didn’t mind just having some cathartic time to play just to play. We watched an introductory video made by I joined the “girls team”. :)

So, for 12 minutes we ran around the arena tagging, but not tallying any points. Once you were tagged out you’d return to the respawn station and jump right back into the game.

During that game I played with a group of kids including Tony’s son, Nicholas, and let me tell you, those kids were ruthless! Not since the movie Ghostbusters have I heard anyone scream the words “Get Her!!!” with that kind of intensity as they chased after me, lol!

Then towards the end of the game Tony discreetly snuck in to remove the respawn and that meant things were winding down and things would end with whichever team was left with players still in the game. So, there was a victory to be had, just not based on individual points.

While the game was fun, for me the more interesting part of the night was seeing just how small the laser tag community really is. As I mentioned, there was something VERY familiar looking about this Runner gate.

I had taken a picture of it before when it the top of it said “Glowtron” and prior to that it was part of Barski’s Laser Tag in Ithaca. Apparently Barski’s sold the Lazer Runner system to Tony and it was used until they switched to Adventure Sports HQ. As he was telling me about the various games they can play including Domination he showed me the tablet they use.

This is when I realized it really is a small world. I noticed the Laser Tag Guy logo pop up on the screen as he was starting it up. I asked about it and learned that the equipment I had just played with was formerly owned by Jason Bock who had passed it along to his son Alex. Alex brought it and operated it for the tactical part of the first Armageddon I had ever played back in 2015. Here’s a couple of photos from that event.

Meaning this was not just the first tactical system I had ever played, but the very same actual equipment that I had my first tactical tag experience with years ago!

I explained that Jason was the first person I encountered upon returning to laser tag in 2014 when I inquired about attending the first Phocon. Then Tony told me that they travel for their mobile laser tag business and one of their industry friends who they occasionally call upon if there is an event that they can’t cover is Marc Mueller…from XP…who is the second person I met in connection with Phocon. It is pretty amazing how everyone in the laser tag community really does seem to know everyone else. That’s how it is that I can say I have friends in every state because of meeting people through my laser tag travels.

So, I left Sharp Shooters that night really feeling more closely connected because of the history of the people and the equipment as I had played under that Runner gate before, had played using those taggers before and had found some unexpected shared history. Thanks for a great time and a good excuse to take a break before continuing on with my drive!

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