Friday, December 30, 2005

Holidays and Games: A tale of a car trip, a shop, a calamity and the game publisher that saved Christmas.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year and the Compliments of the Season to all our readers. We're back home and recovering from our 860 km trip north to Sydney to spend Christmas with Fraser’s family.

To make the 10-hour car trip easier on all of us, we decided to split it over two days. In setting our day 1 target at Wodonga, 3 hours north of Melbourne, I confess to having had an ulterior motive. Wodonga's Twin City Albury has a games shop, with an ex-employee who posted regularly at BoardGameGeek. We were intrigued enough by her posts to want to see the shop for ourselves.

And what a games shop we found!

When we arrived, just after 10am on a Thursday morning, the shop was BUSY. There was a good range of customers – gamers and non-gamers, children and adults, families and single people. The shop itself was clean and brightly lit, with walls lined with games and a range of giant chess pieces (available for hire) in the window to draw people in. There was none of that back room/slightly dingy feeling that many games shops seem to have.

Up the front, there were children's games, with a range of Knizia's children's titles displayed prominently over a couple of shelves. Moving through the store, we saw a pile of Carcassonne, with a "recommended" notice that went into some detail about its Spiel des Jahres win. Settlers was prominently displayed, including a copy of the new Settlers chest (I looked but didn’t buy) and there were other big piles of 'featured' Euros on tables throughout the shop. A display folder held reviews of games for shoppers to browse, and many games were shown with little personal notes about what great games they were. When we asked about 'Essen games', Phil (the owner) disappeared into his back room and came back with a range that included Big City, Attribute and Shear Panic (!). More common games, including a range of -opoly variants, are further back in the shop - the opposite of the usual layout where Euros are banished to the back corner.

This shop challenges many larger games stores to lift their no-pun-intended.

Phil and his staff are clearly excited about games, and about helping their customers discover new games. They run a very accessible shop which offers something for everyone, whatever kind of gamer they may be. The shop has close ties with local game groups, which are clearly very active and enthusiastic – one local member publishes a regular game review in the regional newspaper, alongside their film and DVD reviews. A staff member is paid to visit local schools to demonstrate games and spread the word more widely – he clearly does a great job, as one school asked him to come back and run a full day program for them (and paid him for it too).

Phil is a guy who believes in his product, and works hard to promote it. With around 100,000 people in the region, we felt that he would have to work to build his market, but he's clearly doing it very successfully and enthusiastically.

We left with Big City, Attribute, Pick Picknic, Guillotine (for Fraser's 12 year old cousin), Halli Galli (another gift), a 'Diablo' toy for Biggie and a puzzle called Rush Hour, which has been recommended to me (as a game) by several parents at Biggie's school. Not a small haul.

Rush Hour is an interesting toy and would, I think, appeal to many gamers. It’s clearly a big seller for this year, and the shop had a big display with giant-sized pieces for customers to try. It’s a fun little puzzle, in which you try to move a gridlocked car off the 'roads' (a 6x6 grid).

The puzzles are divided into four difficulty levels; the 'easy' ones are definitely easy, later puzzles less so, and we've not tried the 'Expert' level yet but I hear they can seem diabolical. Additional card sets are available too. We took it to Christmas lunch and all the kids (aged 6-12 or so) gathered around to play it, while some of the parents snuck peeks too. Otto's keen just to play with the toy cars. Back home, it was the adults' turn to fiddle with it. At heart, it's a very dry abstract, but the theming works well – I'd recommend it for anyone over eight, possibly even younger. It's also very well packaged, which impressed me. They even supplied the elastic band to hold the lid on!

A brief stop at Mind Games Albury on the way home netted us a copy of Gargon, an older Rüdiger Dorn game. I've been a Dorn fangirl since getting the Louis XIV bug, and very much enjoyed this lighter card game when a friend brought it round recently for us to try.

We didn't do very much gaming at all on this trip. It was hot and humid, and swimming pools were a higher priority than scoring tracks, especially for the kids. We gave Biggie, after much pleading, a copy of Connect Four for Christmas. It had a good run, as did Boggle and Auntie's set of dominoes. We managed most of a game of Bohnanza one hot evening, played Gulo Gulo with a BGG buddy and his family, and I think one of Fraser's stepbrothers may be interested in Ticket to Ride, especially the Märklin version, but all in all not much gaming was done. We hope that our holiday at the beach will see rather more gaming - we're both on leave until the end of January, so we should have plenty of time for it.

Fraser and I didn't give each other games this year – our gifts were a casualty of the need to pack the car, although I did manage to buy a dice tower for Fraser (it's the "woodburned sample" with the F on the front), which was waiting for him at home. I do have something coming (from adamspielt! yay!) from my BGG Secret Santa, a last-minute activity that really added some fun to the Christmas season thanks to Tom Vasel. My mark got a copy of Power Grid and some Meeple-shaped gingerbreads - I'm still terribly proud of the Meeple-shaped cookie cutter that I made before Christmas. We got a big parcel from another BGG buddy today, who had ordered in bulk from Boards & Bits and forwarded some games to us on the slow boat, which feels like our Christmas gift to ourselves.

With gaming sessions planned for January 2nd and 6th, as well as whenever our friends want to play, the gaming outlook is fine for 2006.

Before I finish, though, there’s a special story that I have to tell:

How Looney Labs saved our Christmas.

A month or so ago, I finally bit the bullet and ordered a copy of Zendo from Looney Labs. They were offering a free copy of "Flowers and Fluxx" with every order over a certain amount – essentially, a copy of Fluxx with some little plush posable flowers.

Being a sucker for any kind of freebie, I ordered a set. When it arrived before Christmas (in about 4 days – how's that for prompt shipping!), we decided to give one little flower to each of the six girls or women we were looking forward to spending Christmas with – our daughters, Fraser's sister, and his cousin and her two daughters, who were travelling to Sydney from New Zealand. We packed them up in the bags of presents and loaded them into the car.

Christmas Eve came, and we finally got the girls settled into bed around eleven (we'd been out visiting the cousin and her family). We retrieved all our bags of presents to wrap them, while Santa did his special magic. We'd left some of the larger gifts at home, so I wrapped a gift for each of the girls – a toy for Otto and a copy of Connect Four for Biggie, before sorting out the rest of their smaller gifts (mostly books) from their individual bags.


When we packed the car, we had done the unthinkable: all of Otto's carefully chosen gifts were still in Melbourne.

That's right. I left my daughter's gifts in another city, and didn't realise until it was too late to buy things anywhere except a 7-11.

We had nothing to give our almost-three-year-old, who had been looking forward so desperately to Christmas.

I was calm for about half an hour, then had a spectacular meltdown. Which just proves that melting down can be constructive, because I didn't think of anything while I was calm!

We had bought her a magnetic "Maisy Mouse" playboard to use on the car journey, which we'd never given her. Retrieving it from the car, I wrapped it. Things were looking better, but it didn't feel like we had a proper gift for her yet.

Then inspiration struck. Forget supplementing other presents with plush posable flowers, we had a bouquet for our little darling.

Well, that bouquet of flowers was the first gift she opened, and the one she carried with her all day. She kissed them, she cuddled them, she showed them to everyone. We played guessing games where we hid one flower and she had to guess what colour was missing. They were in her hand when she dozed off in the car, and in her hand when she sleepily toddled into her auntie’s home at eleven o'clock that night. They were the gift that the other kids wanted to look at and play with, and the gift that she guarded most fiercely – even overcoming her reticence to speak to one of her stepcousins (she'd never met any of them before) to ask for her flower back.

So thankyou to everyone at Looney Labs. You saved Christmas.

Mind Games Albury
Looney Labs:

Lastly, a reminder about our very own Gone Gaming: Board Game Internet Awards. If you've not already read about them, please do so and nominate your favourite sites, articles and podcasts for this prestigious award.

You know you want to.

May your Meeples be Gingerbread Meeples,



Coldfoot said...

I've had the Rush Hour puzzle for years--even before I got interested in board games--and I still like to dig it out once in a while. I have a couple of the additional decks, too, and the harder puzzles can really make you crazy!

Melissa, your cookie cutter turned out great! I was thinking of making meeple-shaped throw pillows. Where did you get the outline to use?

Melissa said...

There's a thread on BGG where a bunch of people posted their own outlines. Here 'tis:

Meeple throw pillows are a great idea! Perfect for the gaming room :)

Melissa said...

Thanks, Gerald! And a Happy New Year to you from 2006.

Stormy Seas sounds intriguing - I will look out for that one too.

The cookie cutter was from a kit - all I had to do was bend the (supplied) copper using the (supplied) tools. And curse a lot when it didn't go right :) I was going to make one for a friend but now I wonder whether I could petition the company to make a range of game piece shaped cutters that I could just buy instead!