"The game is on. I'm flat on my belly, inching forward through scrubby brush trying to keep as low as I possibly can. With yesterday's rain I'm good and dirty. My weapon's out in front of me and every few feet I'm sighting down it, laying it on its side so that neither it nor I have to rise even an inch above the undergrowth. Success or failure depends upon surprise; lives are in the balance
Not really. This is laser-tag at a kid's birthday party.
Jack, the party's host and the only other Dad in the game is on the far side of the battlefield from me. He and his boys are drawing the bunker's fire and trying to keep the defenders' attention focused his way. They've been making noise and trying to look like our whole force while us three circled completely around two houses and crept through the weeds to try to get some leverage on the situation from the other side.
Leverage. I'm telling you, "leverage" is a magic word in gaming, board or otherwise. It's about establishing a position where you can control your opponents, where you can influence the game more than the people around you. In just about any game with a shared geographical space there's some position that is inherently more valuable, and if you can do what it takes to get there you can start dictating the flow of the game. That's why I'm in the weeds. That's why there's dirt in my mouth.
Do I bring AT Attitude to other situations? Hell yes. I'm all in when it comes to this kind of thing. I don't need to jump out of an airplane to get a thrill. I was chosen to be the second chaperon at a you-rent-the-guns laser tag session for good reason -- I'm a complete idiot when it comes to throwing down on friendly competition and everyone knows it. Head first, no reservations. And I'm not going to let the fact that I'm playing a bunch of nine-year-olds lessen my thrill for the hunt either. They knew the risks coming in. So I'm on my belly, in the brush, getting real damn dirty. I'll deal with the ticks after the score is tallied.
Frankly, given the setup my team with the two adults is at a big disadvantage. The guy running the operation told a group of four boys to find a defendable position. This scenario is called "Defend the Bunker" and he told them that anywhere on the property was legal. So these boys had picked a little observation deck, a platform that overhung a steep drop-off to the massive South River underneath. Built as a place to watch the sunset, it has 180 degrees of its potential exposure removed by a cliff face and it was lower than the ground it was attached to. A perfect location for defense. The boys had dug in and set up for us in one majorly strong position. There was only one viable approach, or so it seemed.
Here's the thing about nine-year-old boys. On the whole, they're lunkheads. Ok ok, they have the potential to learn, but if it isn't something that they can apply right now to a situation they are in right now in order to achieve something right now they won't listen to a word you have to say. They can figure out secure wireless networking and punch a port through a firewall to move their Pokemon from the DS to the Wii, because they need that NOW. But explain the concept of getting their bag packed early so they won't forget things later? Hardly worth looking up from the game screen for that complex nugget of wisdom.
So it wasn't until we had gotten shot up three times trying to charge into this bunker from the front that any of these boys were willing to listen to anything about tactics. With the four in the bunker taunting us in the distance, my buddy Jack brought everyone around the corner of the house and explained the heart of the scenario.
"Boys, there's only four of them, and there's nine of us. They're winning, by a lot. You know what that means? They are going to brag mercilessly about this for the next two weeks at school. You have to at least make a showing of this. We HAVE to crack that bunker." Jack's was doing his best Eisenhower impression and he's good. He looked to the rest of the team for alternatives.
"What if we all just charge onto the platform at once and take 'em out?" This still seemed a popular option to a couple of them, in spite of complete failure three times. Some nine-year-olds are lunkier than others.
"Just not working Tom." Jack (the CIO of a household brand name) can persuade more with his eyes more than his lips. He's got a look that makes you think about what you just said, often to your detriment. A man who seizes control in order to have things work his way, I've learned more than a bit about life (and even a little about gaming) just by watching how he manages a Cub Scout troop. In this conversation, the look on his face was sufficient for all to understand -- what we were doing wasn't going to work. Given the rules of the game (particularly a required five foot separation between players) coming right down the middle had no chance.
"What if some of us climb the cliff underneath them?" Pete was thinking bigger.
"You won't get ten feet up that cliff before you run out of lives Pete." Jack was right. All dirt and sand, it would fall out from under anyone trying to climb it and each of us only had six lives at the start of the game. Half of those were already spent. The cliff was a no go.
"Do you have anything that generates smoke?"
Jack looked me in the eye and said, "you're completely insane."
I'd play Poker with Jack, but never Diplomacy. He's a consensus builder and what I find remarkable is that often he'll let someone else talk just to give them the chance to burn out their fuel. In this case I don't think he was so interested in having the boys find a right answer, but just to get them to consider the concept of using their head at all, even in failure. He was lifting the game from a shouting session to a tactical challenge, but he wasn't forcing it on them. He couldn't This isn't something that comes naturally to boys this age and they'll reject it unless it's eased in. They want games to be a heads-down affair whether it's soccer or Heroscape or laser tag. Coaches spend most of their time just getting the kids' eyes up off the ball and out onto the field. It's the hardest part of the job.
Given the situation, we didn't have a lot of options. Jack gave me a look that indicated he was empty, and the only thing I could come up with was a cross fire. We needed someplace where we could get line of sight, and we needed to get to it unnoticed. The guns fire incredibly far -- you can tag someone from 200 feet away with these things. And as luck would have it, that range included the neighbor's shade garden. While everyone stood there pointing and talking, I asked Jack, "do your neighbors like you?" Jack's answer of "for the moment" was all the permission I needed to go on a flyer.
As me and the two boys weaseled our way through the grass our goal was simple -- find a position with a clear line and start pot-shotting. Do damage, sow confusion, make the boys in the bunker change their game. That's not as hard as it sounds. Laser tag guns don't make a big "bang" when you fire them and one of the more confusing aspects of the play is trying to figure out where the hell the shot that hit you came from. As often as not you never do. Sure the guns make a noise, but nine-year-olds yell a lot and a smart player learns pretty quickly to cover the speaker of their gun with their hand to minimize the sound. If we could find a spot where we could see, we could begin taking lives off them, and with a bit of cover noise and luck eventually take a couple of them out of the game. It didn't matter if they eventually got us -- we just needed a spot with leverage, and if we got knocked out while the rest of our team finished the job so be it. Bragging rights secured.
So everyone on our team is serious now and the two boys with me are completely quiet. The rest of our force is working the boys in the bunker, chattering, moving around, but it's not the chaotic play of an hour ago. Now it's business and the boys are really getting into it. They know a secret. They're keeping the bunker boys looking the wrong direction. For the most part I had Ied the way around the back of the two houses which is natural enough, but as we're working our way through the underbrush Zach begins to get out ahead of me. Smaller and lighter, he's moving with more grace and I'm concerned he's pushing too far. But that's ok -- he's a kid and he's taking initiative. That's majorly cool considering the situation. I click my tongue just once and when he turns his head to look I place my hand over the speaker on my gun. He looks back ahead without responding, but his hand slides up the weapon over his own speaker. He's in the game and he stops advancing, sighting up his gun and settling down low into the weeds. Three feet farther and I've joined him, with a solid view of two of the boys in the bunker. Our third guy Heath isn't far behind and he comes up between us. We're set. We begin firing, but carefully.
There's this "what the hell" look that you get when your got-shot noise goes off and you don't know where it came from. Three of the boys in our sights begin doing that, and I had warned my two kids not to pound them too quickly. They're looking for what's going on but they haven't figured it out yet. Lucky shots? We keep plunking them, one, then the next, then the next. But the fourth boy, Jake, he's this calculating bastard. When one of us tags him he gets down low where we can't see him. He isn't looking around, he's thinking around. He's ducking down low and figuring out where we are without looking. My boys been in scouts with him for four years and I know he's a natural predator. I quietly tell my boys, "Jake comes first" and as I say the words he pops up again, but facing the wrong way. We have his back and all three of us pull the trigger. His red light flashing, he drops out of view again -- he's guessed wrong and lost another life because of it. The other three are still in view, moving around, defending their front and we get another. And another. Soon one of them raises his gun -- he's out. Jake pops up again and this time he's guessed right -- he levels his gun pointing damn near right at us and before we can hit him he picks me out and adjusts. My got-shot alarm goes off. He starts calling out to his buddies and pointing, but it's too late -- Jack and the boys have seen what's happening and are attacking now, pressing hard from the other side. This is what crossfire is about. Zach calls out from beside me "they're on us! Stay low and keep shooting!" I shout "sir yes sir!" -- the kid's turned into a nine-year-old Audie Murphy and is issuing orders! There's nowhere to go at this point. It's a matter of doing as much damage as possible to them before they finish us, and hope it's enough. The other half of our team is right in front now, firing from a few feet away, and it becomes a matter of arithmetic. The four boys keep firing, but eventualy run out of lives. I'm out shortly before the end. As each in the bunker lifts his gun the fire focuses tighter until Jake is left alone, and finally admits defeat.
The sessions we had played earlier and the one last one we played afterwards were good, but this bunker one had just seemed to take a life of its own. An odd little piece of ground and the right people in the right places had conspired to make for an exceptionally good round. Lightning in a bottle. Even the guy we rented the guns from said that it was likely the best he had seen, and certainly the best with kids.
You can't plan something like this. You can put the building blocks in place as best you can to give it a chance, but fundamentally it's about everyone stepping up, and about a bit of lucky circumstance finding its way into the mix. The trick is to know it when you see it, and to go all in. That's when the game gets good.
Sagrilarus is a monthly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.