Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Code Yellow: A Tournament for Whitney

It was back in November that I first heard about a laser tag tournament fundraiser that was being planned in support of Whitney, a brave little girl from St. Joseph, MO facing a rare form of brain cancer known as Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). This captured my attention in part because cancer has directly impacted my family as well, so causes like this really resonate with me. Then of course hearing that I could support her fundraiser while playing laser tag sounded like a wonderful way to help while enjoying an afternoon of friendly competition. This event was to take place at Belt Entertainment, a bowling and laser tag center in St. Joseph, MO just outside of Kansas City and was originally planned for late January. However, the date had to be changed (due to the success of the Kansas City Chiefs this past football season), which resulted in it getting rescheduled on a weekend when coincidentally I was already planning to be traveling through the midwest. This change in date meant that I’d be able to be there to participate. The Code Yellow Laser Tag Tournament was jointly held with the Strike Out Cancer Bowling to support the Fight for Whitney and subsequently the Whitney Kate Wells Memorial Foundation in memory of Whitney who sadly lost her battle with DIPG at the end of 2019, prior to the event taking place. The event still moved forward in her honor (named for yellow which represents the designated support color for DIPG) and it made a difference by raising about $1000 to be presented to the Whitney Kate Wells Memorial Foundation.

Let me tell you about the event itself. There were two components to this fundraiser that was organized by two Lafayette High School business students, Caroline Ruden and Tarrin Deayon and an amazing volunteer team…please forgive me if I miss any names, but big props to everyone including Brooke, Lela, Terri and Trina for helping to make this a fantastic and successful event! While I was spending most of my time in or around the laser tag arena, other activities were going on simultaneously and they filled half the lanes of the bowling alley with supporters who turned out to help Strike Out Cancer. I arrived a bit early as they were setting up the registration table and raffle items donated by about a dozen local businesses. I was very impressed by how organized everything was right from the start. As someone who has coordinated fundraisers in the past, I know that this is no small task. And as someone who has participated in a wide variety of laser tag events, I can tell you that this one was exceptionally well done. They even brought in their own monitor to track the teams and the brackets…they really had their act together!

After checking in and meeting Caroline and Tarrin (who I had been communicating with by email for the last few weeks) I then met up with my teammates, Carson and Tyson. The three of us would play together as Team NYMO (meaning New York/Missouri).

It wasn’t long before the other teams started to arrive. Although I didn’t know any of the other players at the start, I could tell that many of them went to the same high school and it appeared that a few were definitely regulars at this arena. One of them walked by our group and casually mentioned that he had never been beaten for score or accuracy in this arena, so I assumed his team (Team MMMM) would be our greatest competition. We got to see what kind of a challenge we were in for as teams NYMO, Fortnite and MMMM were facing each other in the first game as we entered the “Cowboys and Aliens” themed arena.

First, we entered the vesting room and put on the Zone Helios CE packs. I love that we were playing on one of my favorite systems. Every time I put on one of these vests it reminds me of all the nights I played with similar gear at FJ.

Then we went in to duke it out in the double level arena. During the three-team games we played without bases or targets (because this site only has two bases) so those scores solely reflected player tags. We played throughout the entire arena starting out on the western themed lower level…

And my team played most strategically when we were tagging from the alien themed upper level.

We took first place in that game which sent us directly into the next winner’s round. Meanwhile the team in second (MMMM) moved into the other bracket as Team Fortnite finished the round in third. The Giraffes beat out the Braxton’s team (who as a result would go up against Fortnite) so they would be next to face MMMM. After these games we were already into the two team rounds.

The Giraffes were made up of three high school girls who I would have loved to see shake things up a bit in their next game against MMMM, so I tried to sideline coach as best I could by giving them a couple of tips about taking the bases as this was the first time that the bases and targets were turned on (they had been reserved for the two team games to provide even opportunities for points). I suspected that Team MMMM was going to play hard, but those ladies certainly put up a worthy competition.

When Braxton’s team came out ahead in their round we were ready to challenge them with a strategy I had suggested and Tyson sketched it out for us to review on his phone. This involved us collectively rushing the base together to make sure we all took the points immediately and then holding positions on the upper level to control three of the ramp access points. The upper level has good sight lines to each of the bases (except for the corner where there is a blind spot).

This also afforded us easy access to a lot of targets to grab additional points while the other team was down. We tried the strategy against Braxton’s team and took the victory. Zone is largely about two things…timing and team communication. Although this was a light version of the game, those two things still apply. My personal shot timing felt spot on during this round and I took the lead on the communication, trying to constantly let my teammates know where our opponents were in that arena as best I could (especially considering I didn’t know any of this arena’s reference points). It was a successful trial run with our strategy and we were ready to execute it again in the final round as we went up against Team MMMM. Which way do you think this one will go?

Well, this was a more intense round and Team MMMM really brought their A game. I appreciate that they were solid competitors all the way through. However, our game was on point and our strategy was now practiced once so we knew where we were going and performed even better on this round leading us to the win.

When the tournament games were completed the raffle prizes were announced before medals were presented to the top placing laser tag teams. Congratulations to the Giraffes who took third place.

And to our worthy competitors on Team MMMM for coming in second place.

And Team NYMO came in first place.

This event was a lot of fun. So much fun in fact that it really reminded me of my early tag days playing every weekend at FJ, and that was really very cool to experience again. Big thanks again to Caroline, Tarrin, Brooke and all who were involved with putting this all together.

I had a wonderful time and really think this group of students did an exceptional job with a successful fundraiser for a very worthy cause. You can watch Tarrin and Caroline talking about the event on the local KQ2 station.

When the event was officially over and there were still a few minutes of time reserved in the arena everyone went in for a free-for-all game just to let loose and have some fun. It was a great time and I’m so pleased I was able to be part of an event that helped to make a difference. Although I never had a chance to meet young Whitney, she will not be forgotten and has clearly touched the hearts of the entire St. Joseph community. To learn more about the battle against DIPG visit

Thank you to Belt Entertainment, their staff and all the volunteers.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Cookie Cutter Deja Vu

Because I love visiting laser tag arenas and I play to appreciate what’s unique and different about each one, I feel somewhat of a let down when I see the cookie cutter formula that is being adopted by a lot of corporate laser tag operations. I just find it unfortunate when I see the same design aesthetic repeated in arenas over and over again, knowing that there are so many ways that a space could be customized to make it special or distinctive. It’s like fast food…you always know what you are getting, but that doesn’t always equate to a gourmet experience.  So, when I recently played in three identical arenas nearly back to back over the course of two days I felt compelled to address this.

Let me just say that what I’m about to share is in no way a criticism of the laser tag equipment, the arena layout or the overall experience provided at any of the locations I am about to reference. I actually enjoyed all of that and I don’t want that to get lost in the point that I’m about to make. This is just about the fact the way sometimes corporate facilities find one thing they like and repeat it so often in multiple locations that it loses its uniqueness and the predictability becomes the thing that you remember more than the individual experience. For example, I recently played three of the same company’s arena at corporate-style FECs all within less than a 35 mile radius of each other. Here are selfies I took at each of the three arenas. The similarities are staggering and an example of the cookie cutter formula that I am describing.

If I hadn’t played these arenas so close together I might not have realized just how identical they really are. From the briefing room, to the design on the walls and right down to the structures built within the double level map that used the very same floorplan in each arena (which I know because I stood behind the same corner wall in every single one) I had three startlingly similar experiences.

Each arena had these walls…

This center structure…

And this triple arch (you can tell it’s a different arena only because this one happens to still have a few Tron tubes scattered around)…

Why is this even worth mentioning? Well, of course any business can do whatever it sees fit for its own operation. If you want all your centers to be indistinguishable from one another and all look alike I suppose that is your prerogative. But personally, I worry about what this cookie cutter formula does to the overall health of the laser tag industry. More and more as large corporate FECs are becoming the norm and stand-alone laser tag facilities are becoming far less common it seems like we’re starting to slide down a slippery slope and running the risk everything becoming homogenized, at least in terms of public perception. And perception is reality in many ways. I think the general public already thinks all “laser tag is laser tag” and perceive it as all being the same. You’d be amazed how often I call a site in advance to inquire about what system they use and even the staff doesn’t know the difference. Too many times I’ve just been told “ours has a vest with lights on it”. Now, of course I realize that most people will never have occasion to walk into enough laser tag sites to notice this kind of thing or if they do maybe it doesn’t even register to them. But I’d like to think that site owners would want to take the steps to make their experience at each and every location something unique, special and memorable. When I walk into an arena for the first time I want to be pleasantly surprised by what I see, not go in thinking “ah, this again.” So, while it’s of course the prerogative of a corporate business to have twenty arenas that all look alike, I’d like to hope that somewhere along the lines consideration would be given to making the arena a reflection of the special and unique experience I’m sure they would want their customers to enjoy. That is what would make me want to seek them out again in the future. And while I’m certain I’ll play this company’s arenas again somewhere in my travels, for right now three in a row of the same thing makes me feel like I’ve had my fill of fast food and now I’m looking for something different.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020

An Epic Night, Then PowerPlay The Next Day

There’s no better way to close out a full day of laser tag travels than to play even more laser tag with good friends. After visiting a few sites around the Kansas City area I met up with Miranda and Elaine for dinner and we decided to play a few games at Epic Fun in Lawrenceville, KS. We were treated to some free play in the arcade while we waited for the final session of Lasertron to start. Elaine opted to continue her winning streak in the arcade while Miranda and I suited up for some Tron.

This was Miranda’s very first time playing Tron, so I gave her an explanation of the standard base game…and then found out we were going to be starting with a team shield game so none of what I said really mattered…at least not until the next game of Capture the Arches.

Then those bases came into play again.

We explored the arena and took the base points. I walked my way through this game, but enjoyed being a disruptor nonetheless. :)

We finished the night out with a bonus mode team game playing in spy mode. It was an enjoyable (and fairly typical) night of Tron tag, but the best part was getting to share it with friends. It’s always great to see Miranda and Elaine when I’m traveling through the Midwest.

I’m going to share my next day’s experiences a little bit out of order, but one of the sites I got to play when I passed back through Kansas City was PowerPlay North.

When I walked in I was a bit surprised to see the Lazer X sign prominently marking their arena. Was this a former Lazer X location?

I had assumed that this site would be using the same brand of laser tag as when I played their sister location a couple of years ago (formerly in Shawnee, KS). However, here they are using Cyber Blast, so I switched gears and got ready to check out their space themed arena.

The arena was a decent sized single level, but with two raised bridges to provide added height and dimension. I liked the theming.

The best part of this stop was getting to play a quality game against a decent-sized group of college aged players who made it really worthwhile. It’s always nice to play with a larger group and this was a good way to fill the in-between time along this trip.

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Tagging the Terror - A Behind The Scenes Tour of Survive KC

While passing through Kansas City I had an opportunity for a behind the scenes tour of Survive KC, a unique haunted house style experience that incorporates iCOMBAT laser tag equipment, which is why I was interested in checking this out. Located on the top floor of Kansas City’s historic Union Station, you can purchase a ticket for the experience on the main floor and then you will go up to the seventh floor that circles all the way around the grand hall where you can “battle the zombie apocalypse.”

I arrived during a window of time when the zombies were on break, so (full disclosure) I did not go through the complete experience here. Instead I got a tour of the facility from the manager, Giselle, in between the public sessions. However, I am familiar with the way this works as they utilize the iCOMBAT irSMG model tagger and know that the object of this “game” is a little different. There is special software to track the results at the end for an individual or team.

This is not what I would call a laser tag arena. It is far more similar to a haunted house, but the key difference is that the live performers (and some animatronics) are wearing the irHeadband, making them targets for the laser tag component that makes this a much more interactive experience.

When a visitor arrives they are given an irSMG tagger to take with them as they walk through and whenever one of these zombies jump out to scare them the visitor must try to tag the sensor to “kill” the zombie or, if they don’t react and the creature gets too close the software will register a “bite”. Obviously, to succeed you want to tag the most zombies without letting them “bite” you first. They could potentially jump out from anywhere!

This is not a guided haunt (although it’s fairly easy to follow the path to the end), so you can take it at your own pace. There are LOTS of themed rooms throughout the experience ranging from an infirmary with a ghastly nurse, an array of various horror scenes and my favorite, the hallway of dolls.

I won’t spoil the surprise by showing you too many photos here…you’ll have to visit them and see for yourself! However, I appreciate being given the access to see all that this attraction has to offer. If I had more time in the area I would have loved to go through it from start to finish. I always enjoy using the iCOMBAT system and particularly like seeing the innovation for how it is incorporated into this kind of attraction. However, the last group through left their results on the monitor if you’d like to check them out.

Many thanks to Levi and the management of Survive KC for allowing me to visit and I hope next time around I can visit a little longer and tag some terrors!

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A Hidden Gem - Lazer with a Z

I had to go a little out of my way, but it was absolutely worth the trip to visit Lazer Force Lazer Tag of Osage Beach, MO near the Lake of the Ozarks. No, that’s not a typo…this is Lazer Force with a Z. Although they currently run Gen 6 Laserforce equipment at this site, owner Ron Wilson told me that when he and his wife Debi opened for business 18 years ago they actually began operating with a different laser tag system and the name is purely coincidental. At the time when they named the business they had not even heard of the Laserforce laser tag manufacturer, but liked the name and opted to spell it with a “z” in order to purchase the corresponding website domain ( It’s something of a coincidence that about five years later they switched over to using the Laserforce gear and have been using it ever since.

At one point they operated four stand-alone laser tag locations, but over time they cut back to just this one facility in Osage Beach. The 4000 square foot arena really impressed me and is what I would consider a real “hidden gem”.

Now, it’s not what I would call a “flashy” arena, meaning it’s not decked out with any decorative theming or props to create the aesthetic. However, what is far more important is that it’s an excellent maze with a balanced map and a really great space for a game. To get from the vesting room to the arena you have to go downstairs.

When you enter the arena you notice that the walls are painted black, but accented with trimming and paint splatters in colors that correspond with the bases in three distinct sections.

These colors help with the navigation of the maze that has plenty of windows, cutouts and open sight lines.

This is seriously one of the best mazes I’ve played in awhile and Ron told me he constructed the site himself. I asked if they host tournaments here because this is what I would consider an excellent arena for competitive play. He told me they don’t, but that’s largely because of the nature of the region. As I mentioned, this place is a hidden gem nestled within a premier tourist lake resort area and tucked away in the heart of Missouri. He told me that during the summer tourist season this region sees about four million visitors, however the local residents of the area only add up to around 20,000 people so it is much quieter in the off months and the return clientele is much different than you would find at an arena located in a city that is well-populated year-round. So, playing here is really a unique experience.

It’s a homegrown laser tag site, much different from the huge family entertainment centers popping up all over, and it feels like both a fresh experience and a nostalgic step back in time all at once. You definitely get that feel when you walk into their lobby arcade.

If you’re one of the tourists passing through, you’ll definitely want to take home a souvenir t-shirt.

This slogan doesn’t lie…Lazer Force Lazer Tag is “real lazer tag, real fun.”

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