Israel, November 2006

The Monday after Thanksgiving weekend (Nov 27) I traveled to Israel for the second time this year on Corillian business. Scary thing is, I’m growing used to the routine.

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This trip involved a staggered schedule with me and my comprades at Corillian to account for different meetings and a firm desire by me not to travel on Thanksgiving weekend. I arrived Tuesday afternoon and after a long taxi ride due to traffic checked into my room at the Dan Tel Aviv on the Med coast. The next two days involved a series of business and technical discussions with an Israeli Bank – always exhausting but rewarding at the same time.

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On Friday Debra, Scott, and I rented a car and drove to Jerusalem to meet our pre-arranged guide (thanks to Yehuda) at the Jaffa Gate of the old city. It took longer than we expected – though the distances are short, traffic and navigation can be a challenging. After a few passes by the parking lot (we almost circled the old city) we parked in the garage and walked up to our guide. Yehuda came along for the tour as well – nice to have the company of another local.

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The guide was fantastic, and like many of the locals we’ve met in Jerusalem, he is from North America originally (Baltimore in this case). He has been doing this for 15-20 years and is deep on the history and topology of Jerusalem. I say topology because he continually referred to the peaks and valleys of the area and how it has affected the development of the city over the years. A common phrase: “this place is venerated as the…”, followed by a pragmatic (skeptical) accounting of how it is unlikely to the actual place where [the last supper was held, Jesus was crucified, Jesus was entombed, etc.]. His commentary was not biased by any religious perspective (in my view) but certainly colored by his understanding of the history of the area.

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Our time spent was primarily in the Christian and Jewish quarters – once again our timing was bad to enter the Muslim quarter so I must coordinate and plan better next time. We did get a chance to peer into the quarter through a security checkpoint and snap some photos.

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In the mid afternoon we had a bit of logistical coordination to work through – get our car out of the parking garage (closes at 3pm), and get Yehuda back home before the start of Shabbat (about 5:30pm-ish). We decided to take a cab from the Zion gate and were greated with the all-too-familiar flat rate proposal from a cabbie (30 NIS for a 2 minute ride??) who happened to be Arab – apparently he took both of us for tourists based on our western looks. I may be a tourist but I’ve been there enough to ask him to turn on the meter instead and he refused. As we walked away his parting words to me were “he is a Jew, you are a Christian – what are you doing together??”

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We found another cab, got back to the car and I dropped Yehuda off at home. I returned back to the Zion gate and parked there – the lots were emptying as the religious Jews worked there way back home to start Shabbat. I met back up with the group and we expored some other areas and enjoyed the sunset. One of the areas was a building that may have housed the upper room that held the last supper, was a mosque for a while, and is now a synagogue. From the top of that building we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and shortly thereafter bid farewell to our guide. In case you wondered, a full day tour like that (about 7 hours) costs about $150 – $200.

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We were eager to go visit the Western Wall (aka wailing wall) at the start of Shabbat. As we walked down the winding streets of the old city, a pretty young (and pregnant) Jewish mother came running down an alley and asked me if I was Jewish in a frantic voice. I told her no, and she asked me if I could come turn her oven off – she had mistakenly left it on past the start of Shabbat. I complied and we followed her to her home where a nice spread was set out for Shabbat dinner and took care of the oven for her. I figured I could probably get a nice dinner out of the deal if I asked nicely, but perhaps that would be pushing her hospitality.

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Scott and Debra then dropped my off at Yehuda’s home and began their drive back to Tel Aviv to get some sleep before their early flights the next morning. I enjoyed a very nice extended family and friends dinner hosted by Yehuda and his wife Rachel. I’ve always felt very comfortable in settings like that (I’ve attended many Jewish meals during high holidays) but at times I feel that I make them uncomfortable – or maybe they are all just very shy! I’m fine talking away and telling stories, and I always enjoy the story telling and dialog initiated by Rachel (she went to Reed College right here in Portland, by the way).

After dinner we sat down for some gaming. I avoided another spanking at Puerto Rico by teaching Yehuda and his son how to play our new game 24/7. I think it was received pretty well. We also played Yehuda’s Menorah game – VERY enjoyable with three and I’m glad I got a copy to take home with me. We ended the evening of gaming with a learning game of Tichu.

Now most groups will sit attentively as I teach Tichu (I’m no expert myself – I still have to refer back to the rules to play and teach it), but this group… I’m not even halfway through the rules and scoring when they learned about how cards are passed. Yehuda and crew proceed to digress into an in-depth discussion of the merits of different passing strategies and signals, e.g., I’ll always pass odd, you always pass even, if I pass a dragon, that means my hand is weak, etc. And they haven’t even played a hand yet! I scold them, saying that they shouldn’t even consider such strategies until they are much more familiar with the game but I think deep in my heart I was flustered as I realized that they probably already grasp more of the subtleties of the game than I have after 10 plays or so.

Saturday morning found me searching for something to do – not for lack of options, but for lack of decisiveness. I had a quick coffee with Yehuda then saw him off to Saturday morning services, grabbed my camera, then walked out the door. I was thinking I would walk to the promenade overlooking the old city, but was also considering a trip to Bethlehem. Yehuda and I discussed that option in the morning and he advised me that it should be safe for me. So when a taxi came my way as I strolled towards the promenade, I hailed it and asked for a ride to Bethlehem.

Clearly the cabbie was surprised, and he indicated that he would have to drive me around the security wall as he was unable to go through the checkpoint. I shrugged my shoulders and said “OK, let’s go”. 20 minutes later I found myself outside the nativity church in Bethlehem – one of only about 10 or so westerners (that I saw) visiting the area that day.

The church was interesting but I didn’t find it that moving. The main cathedral is fairly smoked out and has apparently been the holding place for Palestenian millitants at least once over the past 2-3 years. Underneath the main alter is the nativity alter where it is venerated that Jesus was born – this is the manger grotto. Of course it is divided into at least two sections – one the Orthodox Christians own, and another the Catholics own. I couldn’t figure out where the Methodists are supposed to go.

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I then wondered around the wonderful Arab / Palestinian market near the church for the next hour or so, taking in the sites and smells, sipping some coffee, and eating shawarma. My flight to Frankfurt was due to depart at about 4pm, so around 11:30am or so I needed to work my way back to Jerusalem. I walked down the hill from the church area to one of the main strips leading into Bethlehem, hoping to find a taxi. I found one but he could only take me to the checkpoint.

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Unfortunately this checkpoint was only for vehicles – the guard repeatedly waved his M-16 at me, telling me to go around to the pedestrian checkpoint. It was an obvious where that place was as it could have been, but a friendly local offered a short drive to the checkpoint. I knew I would owe him something upon my arrival (it was about a 90 second drive) and it turned out the fee would be the purchase of a few necklaces which I gladly performed.

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The trip through the checkpoint was interesting – two different metal detectors and I had to show my papers. When you hear about the challenges of access and travel between the different parts of the Palestinian Authority (PA), this is likely one of the concerns.

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I won’t get into the politics of the whole situation there. I do encourage you to read the Good Neighbors blog, of which Yehuda is a contributor. Clearly the story of Israel and Palestine is still being written.

First Class?

I’m a United 1K class member (meaning I earn at least 100,000 qualifying miles in a year – two trips to Israel, a trip to Brussels, and a trip to Germany virtually guarantee this) so often get upgraded to 1st class when I do my frequent travel-to-the-east-coast-for-a-two-hour-meeting trips. I often use this time to catch up on emails (though this is not nearly as critical now that I’m a GTD cult member – now, I use the time to knock off @offline next actions), reading, and weblog posts.

You would think laptop power would be available in first class. I’m well equiped with a universal power adapter including car and airplane DC power conversion, but alas no joy even in first class. What I do notice is what used to be a power receptacle now covered with a screwed-on plate. Come on – many American Airlines planes have power even in coach. Portland is a long ways from everywhere so unless I carry 1 or 2 spare batteries with me I’m stuck.

We’re Back

Sorry about the extended outage – had some problems with the ISP (server outage). I’ll actually post a few things this weekend too!

The Hottest Game Company in Portland

Somehow we’ve managed to leverage our Chuck Norris guerilla marketing skills into a number of local press coverage items around the Portland area. Seriously, the fact that we launched a boardgame company must be such an oddity that people can’t help ut wonder “What were they thinking?”. When I tell people I launched a boardgame company, they generally ask “oh, you must do computer games too, right?” Right…

Burndown at the Beach

I’m late writing this up, but we had a great time out at the coast last weekend. The weather improved on Friday allowing us to spend some time playing football on the beach, and we used the storm time to make a serious dent in my unplayed games list. I added some ceremony to the process by moving games from the right side of the stove to the left as they got played. I brought out over 20 game candidates and we played 14.

Games to Play

We started things off on Thursday night with a game of Trendsetters, a new card game release from On the Spot Games. This is a group-think party game where you draw a card which has a poll question for the group. You are trying to guess what everyone else will guess, and you score points if you are in the majority. Oddly enough the game says it is for 3-6 players but it only comes with 4 voting wheels. I also don’t know what happens if there is a tie. Consensus was “meh” in the family, though Matthew seemed to like it more than the rest of us.

Next up was Mille Bornes, the classic card game of driving French highways. This was a gift for me about 2 years ago and I was hoping for something more. This is really just a take-that game where you hope to draw the right cards and are likely to spend several turns drawing exactly the wrong cards to help your situatin.

First thing Friday morning Jacob and I opened up the wooden box game Astoria to play the Alchemy game (the one that isn’t the Epic game). Players will immediately be impressed by the (gratuitous) glass bottles and beautiful plastic gems, though I wish the green gems actually looked green instead of clear. The game play involves placing and moving gems on a game board with six different locations around a circle, trying to achieve certain recipe combinations (goals) drawn byt the player (oddly similar to the lighter cardgame Experiment). There are some nice twists in the game, such as trying to get majorities in certain kinds of spells to gain advantages. There are tough choices to be made on your turn – do you try to set yourself up for that spell you need, or do you disrupt the opponents plan? There are also reactions that happen when 2 gems come together with the same color.

Astoria Alchemy

We haven’t tried the Epic game yet, but this initial game was enjoyable enough that I don’t regret the 20 euro spend this year at Essen.

Next up was the On the Spot Games new cardgame Zero In, a trivia game on a card deck game with a nice twist. Each card has a letter (or in the case of XYZ, three letters) on the back, with a choice of 4 different characters. Each character has 5 hints, with one player successively giving the hints until someone guesses correctly. Players get only one chance to guess, and you score more points by guessing correctly with fewer clues. Fun game but I worry about replayability – there aren’t that many cards in the box.

Jacob and I wanted to play at least one war game over the weekend in remembrance of Veterans Day, so we played Axis & Allies: Pacific for the first time. The game took about 4 hours to play and was easy to learn given our experience with other A&A games.

Axis and Allies Pacific

The game is fun but a bit tedious. Jacob eventually conceded (I was starting to bomb Tokyo on a repeated basis) after a well-fought battle. This one doesn’t stand up well against other light wargames today (C&C Ancients, Memoir ’44, etc.) but I suppose there aren’t good alternatives that have a theater-wide scale like this. Sounds like an opportunity to me.

On Saturday morning the rain started in earnest again and it was time for more gaming. First up was the new Face2Face games release of the Knizia game Genesis. I had low expectations of this game given first impressions I heard from fellow Essen attendees and other buzz.

Genesis

The game is exceedingly simple to learn – you roll two dice and play corresponding tiles to vacant spaces on the board, and you can’t play on the volcano or tarpit tiles. If you don’t like the dice roll, you can always play a single tile of any terrain type (instead of the two you rolled). The goal in the game is to have majority herds (orthogonally connected tiles of your species) in terrain groups – each player plays a different kind of species (dinosaurs, cavemen, lizards, and tigers). There are bonuses offered if you score in the largest terrain group on the board as well as the largest group of each of the four different terrain types.

Genesis Closeup

The game played in 40 minutes and I pulled out the victory with 30 points (Matthew had 25, Jacob 23). In the words of Matthew: “My Kind of Game”. He and I rate it an 8, Jacob a 7. If you discounted this game based on Essen anti-hype, you owe to yourself to give it a try.

The boys and I then tried the Fantasy Flight game Mutiny!. Quite nice – you place bids on crew members to influence them and get rewards with the ultimate goal of getting enough sabres to conduct the mutiny. Jacob took control of the gunner early on and walked away with an easy victory. We all rate it a 6.

I picked up the children’s card game Wie Hund und Katz while in Frankfurt a year ago (on clearance) and finally managed to get it out with the four of us. This is a cute little card game with a decent amount of chaos but we all had fun playing it.

Wie Hund und Katz

Another highlight was the Fantasy Flight game Atlanteon, a quickly played 2-player abstract. Very classic Knizia design where each player starts with the same resources and must strategize on when and where to use each tile. Jacob won and we both rated it an 8.

The last game played over the weekend was Ys, a game I picked up down at the Funagain warehouse last summer. While I generally don’t like blind biding games, I can tolerate games where each player is sequentially making bids (some secret) in different areas of the board (I also like Aladdin’s Dragons). The game clicked for everyone pretty quickly and it was a well fought game where I came out slightly ahead. I’m really glad I picked this one up and would like to try it at work sometime soon.

Ys

On another burndown note, I managed to trade away another 7 unplayed games and pick up only 2 that I hadn’t played. The goal is in sight and can be realistically achieved – I think I’m under 20 games to go for the year now.