Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Random Dungeon

I’m returning to my Oracle System-driven roleplaying game design for Basic Fantasy Heroes as an occasional break from work on the miniature wargame rules for Panzer Kids. The rules went through several rounds of playtesting earlier this year, with solid input and good insights on fine-tuning the system and improving the presentation. But aside from running a few test encounters myself to see how combat worked out within the overall Oracle System, I’d not have a chance to run a small band of heroes through a scenario. So I turned to a solitaire alternative using a random dungeon system to generate an adventure in which I, as player, truly could not anticipate what the characters would face from one room to the next. Beyond offering a taste of the Basic Fantasy Heroes game system mechanics in an actual play setting (albeit solitaire), the experience helped me come to some conclusions about what I expect in random dungeon solo play.


I wanted to adhere to certain conditions in undertaking this foray into solitaire random dungeon adventuring, primarily to provide a realistic experience using the character and combat rules I’d developed in a fully unexpected setting. To this end I created three beginning characters using my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules: a priest, elf, and dwarf, each with their own specialties that would affect gameplay (primarily combat).

My main concern was generating a dungeon layout with interesting results for solo gameplay. I’m no expert on the various options available today for solitaire dungeon generation. Giving in to my nostalgia, I initially turned to the original material created on this subject, the Gygaxian system in “Appendix A. Random Dungeon Generation” of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide.

To vary my approach I also polled some folks on Google+. Several offered good suggestions on alternate, more recently developed random dungeon generation systems available. Thanks to John Fiore, host extraordinaire of the Solo Nexus blog, I picked up the No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 by John Yorio over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. (Though I’m also interested in eventually picking up the geomorph Dungeon Dice Clayton Rider suggested.) The discussion also covered TSR’s Cardmaster Adventure Design Deck, which I own but declined to use in this particular exercise.

In both cases I decided to create my own first-level dungeon monster encounter table based on the low-level creatures I’d devised for Basic Fantasy Heroes -- not all the creatures I’ve developed have corollaries in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide monster tables, and I didn’t want to outright translate that game directly to mine -- but they still ran the range from bandits and goblins to giant centipedes and slime. The presence of traps in both dungeon generation rules revealed to me that I’d not considered rules for traps in Basic Fantasy Heroes; so I quickly drafted some functional notes on how certain iconic traps worked within the Oracle System framework with an eye to developing them more fully later.

I intended to try two strategies in recording my solo dungeon-delving experience: creating an annotated map (somewhat of a necessity in these exercises) and writing an in-character chronicle describing events, encounters, and reactions (an idea John Fiore has featured over at Solo Nexus, though he recommends not writing in a player character’s voice). Experience with both random dungeon generating systems showed the map an obvious requirement and the primary focus of the game. In the course of rolling, mapping, and handling combat encounters, however, I regret the adventure diary chronicle fell by the wayside; I liked the character narrator, but it seemed a strain to catalog encounters in an engaging style, even in the most general sense (though I was quite happy with my introduction).

The Gygaxian Labyrinth

At first glance the byzantine tables in the Dungeon Masters Guide appendix seemed to lead one down the path to revealing a dungeon with all the complexities one expects: traps, monsters, treasure, secret doors. Slightly weighted tables favored some results over others, but not by much. The system seemed more attuned to taking into account every possibility within the dungeon layout and offering an unbiased result, giving almost every option the same chance of occurrence.

Amid all the twisting corridors and intersections my intrepid heroes came upon seven rooms, four empty ones and three containing monsters. For the solitaire play -- and in chronicling the adventure writing as one of the heroes -- empty rooms proved extremely boring. I found myself wishing I had some means of determining any descriptive features about the chambers just to liven things up and give some clue about their past use and the dungeon’s origins. Despite the tables for traps and treasure, the heroes didn’t encounter any. The random monsters they confronted had no theme to them other than “Level 1” and, typical for this kind of exercise, there seemed no rationale for them being there other than excuses I created for the adventure diary chronicle: obviously bandits were probably looting the dungeon like the heroes and the cave mantids made a nest in one of the chambers, but why kobolds were hiding behind an illusionary wall in one room is beyond me.

What also occurred to me as I tired of this exercise was the lack of any meaningful conclusion. My heroes simply reached a point where they’d had enough and back-tracked their way to the dungeon entrance. Assuming they returned to the nearest town to tend their wounds and cash in their treasure, they had little compelling reason to return to their subterranean explorations other than the promise of haphazard carnage and loot.

No-Frills Simplicity

The no-frills dungeon generator promised a far more simplified method than the Gygaxian model: roll 1d12 and consult the table. The 12 possible results included an even distribution for various corridor types and three kinds of rooms, those with monsters, traps, and the infamous ones with nothing at all. Asterisked notes included intuitive methods for determining corridor length, chamber size, and the number of doors in a room (though I modified these from 1d10 rolls to 1d6 rolls). .

My heroes began their delve and started exploring the catacombs with far more ease than navigating the numerous Gygaxian dungeon-generation tables. The results seemed more interesting, too; of four rooms they discovered, two held monsters and two traps…no empty rooms in this dungeon. That’s as far as they got because the presence of more traps wore down the party. Traps appear in locations (rooms or corridors) one time in six, with monsters appearing one time in twelve. The dungeon also remained void of any kind of thematic rationale aside from the fact that the bandits were probably looting the place, too, and the giant centipedes had nested in another chamber.

Between the two random dungeon generation systems, though, I liked the no-frills one over the more complex and time-consuming Gygaxian method. The no-frills system benefitted from both brevity and a better presentation, with each result illustrated by a mini-map geomorph depicting the dungeon feature. But it highlighted the need for separate tables for corridors and rooms as well as the variability of having even slightly weighted tables. Both systems -- one possibly the first in the adventure gaming hobby, the other a recent refinement -- left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Yes, they both certainly challenged me as a player to use character resources and specialties to overcome adversaries and survive traps, but they lacked even the most basic contextual story elements.

Themed & Skewed

Although I actually achieved my original mission of playtesting the rules and characters in the context of a solitaire random dungeon crawl, I can’t help but consider how to craft a more fulfilling solitaire play experience in a relatively random dungeon. I think adding both a basic theme and some skewed (or escalating) results might help add more intriguing narrative elements to elevate the experience beyond a completely random hack-and-slash delve. I’m envisioning a quick setting paragraph to put the dungeon entrance and its theme in context, followed by tables to generate corridors and chambers (favoring some results over others). I’d include a monster encounter table customized to the theme (vermin, goblins, magical creatures, etc.) incorporating an escalating mechanic to push future rolls up the spectrum toward a “boss” monster. It’s something I’ll think about as a possible solitaire random dungeon generation system when I next feel the need to explore some new game design territory.

My ultimate lesson learned concerns the nature of random dungeon generation as discovered by the necessity of gradually revealed solo play. Dungeon delves -- while the primal form of adventuring in the hobby -- remain a limited form, more so in the random dungeon generation style used for solitaire play. More involved campaign play, balancing wilderness, town, and dungeon encounters, offers more possibilities for a richer solitaire experience and hence more interesting narrative possibilities for chronicles recording adventures.

Next time I need a break and feel the need to test my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules in a more varied narrative setting, I’ll grab my sets of Rory’s Story Cubes (regular and Voyages) and send my characters through the paces of John Fiore’s The 9Qs Solo RPG Engine.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Charm of Cozy Cons

In 30 years engaging in roleplaying games and other gaming pursuits -- including 20 of those years working in some capacity in the adventure gaming hobby -- I’ve attended my fair share of conventions great and small. While I’ve enjoyed the massive, crowded spectacle of GenCon, I’ve found more satisfaction at smaller, regional conventions with more personable atmosphere.


Immense conventions like GenCon -- and its cousin in the board and wargaming hobbies, Origins -- certainly have their place. They offer fantastic opportunities for those fortunate enough to attend all while drumming up floods of excitement for game lines. These mega-conventions often attract industry representatives from the hobby’s most illustrious publishers who interact with attendees in dealers halls and seminars; many use huge conventions to announce or debut new products or entire game lines. Awards ceremonies recognize outstanding achievements in the hobby. Demo areas offer gamers a chance to try the latest games, often with those actually involved in their production. They host a huge roster of events ranging from small games, mini-campaigns, organized play, vast miniatures scenarios, seminars, workshops, even giant-sized board games. GOA4

It can all seem a bit overwhelming, even to some who’ve attended several times. I was fortunate to go as a representative for West End Games while working on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game line and returned several times since. When I wasn’t working the booth or running a Star Wars game, I spent most of my time wandering the vast dealers hall, checking out games and companies that interested me, trying demos, talking with industry notables, and drumming up freelance business. The only games I ever ran were for West End Games events (including a few notable charity auction events featuring illustrious Star Wars novelists roleplaying their characters). I spent evenings with colleagues and friends, but, as I was usually working, couldn’t indulge in the all-night gaming that usually occurs. The crowds often hinder one’s ability to simply move around, whether you’re trying to navigate the ever-packed dealers hall, expo center corridors, nearby streets, or even restaurants. Attending a massive convention like GenCon always seemed like the ultimate aspiration for the average gamer -- it certainly was for me as a newcomer to the hobby long ago -- but such an overwhelming experience isn’t always the best introduction to the world of gaming conventions.

Small Regional Cons 

While the massive cons occur once a year in what for many gamers are geographically distant destinations, many live within driving distance of several smaller regional conventions. These vary widely on different levels, including the nature of the organizing body, venue size, variety of game offerings, and attendance. Local game clubs, gaming stores, or a core of gaming fan friends frequently organize conventions to encourage the hobby and offer a safe, hospitable place for longtime gamers and newcomers. They host events in whatever venues fit their expected attendance, planned activities, and budget, anywhere from a local civic center hall to all the conference facilities at an area hotel. The range of events varies, too, with different conventions offering roleplaying games, miniature wargames, board games, vendors halls, and panel discussions in different quantities. Convention attendance often fluctuates depending on its popularity, time of year, location, and reputation over the years, but many come in at less than 1,000 attendees; even those exceeding that number still seem small when compared with GenCon’s reported 50,000 unique attendees.

Some conventions rely on a cozy, community set-up where several aspects of the convention share a central space that encourages mingling and movement. This usually focuses on two areas essential to many conventions: gaming space and dealers hall. In these cases organizers sometimes take a vast ballroom space and -- without actually using room dividers -- designate different territory, with vendors at one end and game tables at the other, or with gaming tables in the center and dealers set up around the perimeter.

One of my first small conventions after I joined West End Games more than 20 years ago demonstrated this concept nicely. At the time MarsCon was a cozy little sci-fi fandom convention with a sizable representation for roleplaying and other games. The hotel programming space consisted of a large ballroom and a few smaller rooms (divided ballroom space) for seminars, workshops, and entertainment. Dealers occupied one third of the gaming ballroom; when the “dealers room” closed, hotel staff shut the divider on that portion of the room and locked the door. The arrangement allowed for the dealers to directly front the gaming area during most of the convention, giving free visibility and access to a solid portion of their customer base.

I’ve attended several bi-annual wargaming conventions in Williamsburg, VA, that demonstrate a similar community concept. The convention has one vast ballroom (in addition to several others divided for various kinds of gaming); tables for miniature wargames occupy the center of the ballroom with numerous vendor tables set up around the perimeter, allowing attendees to freely wander between the two, gaming, shopping, and observing all the convention’s action in the main venue. Certainly many cozy cons overflow into nearby meeting spaces or ballrooms, but concentrated as they are, they offer a cozy community space where most of the attendees can freely mingle whatever their personal goals for successful convention enjoyment. They offer a friendly atmosphere where gamers, customers, dealers, and convention goers mingle freely in a central common space.

As a gamer parent I’m partial to smaller events with fewer crowds and stimulus to overwhelm my preschool-age child and distract me from my parenting duties. Granted, I’m hoping to bring him to one of the smaller conventions within driving distance, though ones that require hotel stays to fully appreciate. My past experience has shown these can more fully cater to kids in providing a less-overwhelming atmosphere, plenty of friendly places to sit down and catch one’s breath, and yet not skimp on the presence of friendly gamers and fantastic-looking, engaging games. Keeping a few parental strategies helps, too: focusing on events the preschooler might like; staying open-minded in exposing him to new games; finding events particularly suited for kids or parent-child players; and knowing when to take a break or call it a day.

Where Do You Find Those Wonderful Cons?

Networking remains the key to finding fulfilling gaming experiences. The internet has made finding local conventions much easier through convention websites, social networking circles, gaming forums and communities, publisher websites, gamer blogs, and gaming news feeds. Running a web search for “Virginia gaming conventions” (inserting your own state name, of course) can summon a host of helpful and dubious convention listing sites. Don’t dismiss actual face-to-face networking, though; talk to folks in your gaming circles, including staff and customers at the Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS). Some regions have more conventions than others; it’s a sad commentary on the geographical distribution of gamers, game stores, and overall interest in the hobby.

I’ve taken years to discover and in many cases try out various local conventions. Many I found while looking around on the internet, though some I’ve heard about through word of mouth from fellow gaming friends. Some I try to attend as scheduling permits, but a few I’ve yet to try out. Living in on the frontier of Northern Virginia I’m within two hours’ drive or so of several interesting gaming conventions: Williamsburg Muster in February, Madicon in March; the relatively new 1d4Con in April; and Guns of August in, well, August. Virginia boasts several other conventions, but they’re primarily fan media cons with smaller, often tertiary gaming tracks.

The fluid and impermanent nature of the internet makes finding one source for regional conventions difficult, but here are a few websites which -- at first glance, at least -- look like fairly helpful, informative, and maintained convention listing websites: the Upcoming Cons website features a listing of gaming cons limited to the next several months (as well as listings for other kinds of cons); Game Convention Central lists cons by region (and includes international conventions); and the always-helpful BoardGameGeek website features a conventions listing wiki page.

Online communities also offer forums one can search for references to past or upcoming conventions and receive the usual biased reports on what goes on there, how well-organized they are, and the kind of events to expect. Searching Facebook and Google+ may also yield results, as many established (and even some nascent) cons maintain social networking presences there to build interest and inform potential con-goers.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cutting Down to the Essentials

In adapting Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game for play with a three-and-a-half year-old preschooler I’ve learned some lessons about cutting down a game system to the essential rules, a task applicable to the kid-friendly tank skirmish game I’m developing.

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game

My preschooler son has reached a point where he’s voraciously absorbing everything Star Wars we allow (i.e., only original trilogy material), primarily inspired by the numerous Star Wars toys, games, and other images in my office. Over the past few months we’ve read him the pop-up book, listened to the soundtrack in the car ad nauseum, got out some old Playskool figures (and the Millennium Falcon) he plays with, and finally watched Star Wars: A New Hope together (the pre-special edition version).

We spent a day at Historicon this past July where he inevitably noticed and intently watched the last half of a Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game playing out, including such ships as Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and Darth Vader’s advanced TIE fighter. Between that and actually watching Star Wars he was hooked. Luckily I found a nicely discounted copy of the X-Wing Miniatures Game in the Historicon dealers hall; after adding a few more starfighters acquired in numerous quests to gaming stores near and far we were ready to play.

The game itself offers several levels of play, from the extremely basic quick-start rules to the main game and several more involved “additional rules.” The system includes some innovations on a style of miniature wargame “lite” popularized several years ago by the World War I aviation-themed Wings of War (an Italian game Fantasy Flight Games distributed in America). They’ve added several layers of complexity beyond the basic move-and-shoot system, including pilot actions (barrel rolls, focusing, evasion), pilot cards for each spacecraft to vary the pilot skill and actions, upgrade cards to enhance individual ships, and special eight-sided dice for attack and defense rolls.

Stripping this all down to the level of a three year-old seemed daunting at first, until I focused only on the quick-start rules, designed to get people playing right out of the box. These rules use the main ship stats, maneuver dial, movement templates, and dice in a very bare-bones game even young players can comprehend with a little adult gamer guidance. Gameplay focuses on the essential basics of movement and attack; no fancy actions, no dealing with pilot skill, no starship upgrades or special weapons. Granted, we play with lots of parental assistance using these extremely basic yet functional rules. From a parent’s perspective, it offers a chance to teach numbers using the movement and turn templates (“How far do you want your ship to move?”), counting dice to roll and their results, and direction (straight, left, or right; gradual turn or sharp turn). We also let the preschooler fly the Millennium Falcon, which, thanks to guns mounted on turrets, has a full 360-degree field of fire, so he doesn’t have to worry about lining up his target in a limited forward-facing fire arc. (It also gives him plenty of shields and hull strength so his ship has only rarely been eliminated during a game.)

We’ve played it several times, usually with Mommy flying Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter and Daddy fielding a pair of TIE fighters or the newly acquired TIE interceptors. With our help the preschooler has quickly mastered the basic game concepts (though his moves on the starfield don’t always make sense); so he’s recently asked for (and his parents desperately sought) some new additions to enhance his game experience. Although I thought he might appreciate the range rules -- allowing an extra attack die when firing on close targets or giving an extra defense die for those at long range -- my son saw the cardboard punch-out asteroid pieces used in some of the game’s missions and wanted to use those. Of course, they made the game harder for Daddy’s TIE fighters….

Panzer Kids Basic

My approach to a kid-friendly tank skirmish game takes a similar strategy as the X-Wing Miniatures Game’s incrementally more involved rules. I intend to release Panzer Kids in two stages, the free/pay-what-you-want PDF basic edition containing the barebones rules, several tank stat cards, rulers, and print-and-play top-down tank pieces (in lieu of miniatures kids can find or purchase from other sources). The for-pay Deluxe Edition would include all the basic rules plus tons of optional rules players can learn piecemeal and include in their game when they feel ready to add greater depth of play.

I’m in the process of drafting the core rules based on pages of notes and disparate paragraphs hastily written as inspiration came in the design process. As I write I’m finding a number of things to toss out of the basic edition. I knew I’d relegate many rules essential to complex miniature wargames to the more advanced deluxe edition -- hull down vehicle cover, static anti-tank guns, shots at close range, traversing difficult terrain, mine fields, and mission objectives -- but I’m still finding concepts I thought might work in the basic edition to move to the deluxe edition or even eliminate altogether. Here are a few I’d thought to include in the basic game that, in the course of developing a rules set for a younger audience, I ultimately decided to cut to stick more closely to the absolute essentials:

Variable Scale: I’d originally intended to include information (primarily speed and range, both measured in inches) for both 15mm and 6mm “micro-scale” tanks. I personally like wargaming with both, and have a small collection of tanks from the North African theater in both scales. But in considering what kids might have available to them, or what they might find in hobby, toy, and game stores, I decided to cut references to the 6mm scale. I’ll include some top-down pieces kids can print and play with in lieu of actual miniatures, but will relegate the 6mm information as an optional appendix in the deluxe version of the game.

Deployment Options: In determining how players set up games, I’d devised a few alternatives to the basic “put your tanks along your edge of the battlefield” strategy reflecting the terrain set-up and any slight disparity in the total unit point costs between Axis and Allied player forces. For instance, with cover terrain set up along the middle of the play area, the side with the slightly lower total point cost might deploy tanks up to 12 inches from their edge of the board. In writing these conditions out, however, I realized it might be too much for kids to comprehend amidst all the other nuances of miniature wargame rule. These options might go into a sidebar in the deluxe rules’ movement section, but they don’t belong in the basic game.

Unit Point Cost: The gamer in me insisted on rating each tank type with a “cost” to field it, a value reflecting its firepower, armor, and speed. Theoretically this helps each side build a force of relatively equal strength to make sure each has a fair chance of winning. But when I took a closer look comparing Axis and Allied tanks, I realized they had fairly close values. Rather than spend an entire section explaining the concept of unit point costs and balancing forces, I cut it and instead offered some suggestions for Axis and Allied tank face-offs (mostly from the North African theater). Most represent equivalent numbers of tanks (3 German Pkw IIIs against 3 British Crusader IIs), though the one exception proved the Pkw VI Tiger tank, which I paired against two M3 Stuart tanks.

Two miniature wargaming concepts remain essential to playing the game beyond simply moving and shooting in the open: line of sight and cover. Both might seem too complex to include in the basic edition, but through playtesting I realized they really form the core of tactical decisions for a small skirmish. Players need to maneuver their tanks around the available cover (mostly hills and oases in my desert games) to hide from enemy tanks and gain some small advantage from cover.

I also realize these rules remain bound to other constraints I’ve placed on myself, notably some foundation in the tanks’ historical performance (demonstrated in the tank stats themselves) and a desire to introduce young gamers to wargaming concepts one degree beyond simply moving and shooting. I have also, rather foolishly I might argue, taken on the challenge of trying to draft a set of miniature wargame rules intended for kids 10 and older to pick up on their own, learn, and play without adult supervision. Old Dominion GameWorksMein Panzer Junior offers a set of basic move-and-shoot tank rules with some slightly more complex stages; but it presumes involvement and supervision from a miniature wargames-informed adult. (Downloading these free rules requires registration at the ODGW website.)
We’ll see how my continued development and writing for the Panzer Kids rules challenges my ability to hone rules down to their bare minimum while still clearly and concisely explaining game concepts to a younger audience.

As always, I encourage construction feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Our Geeky Pilgrimage Home

Usually about once a year my wife, toddler son, and I make the arduous pilgrimage “home” to New England to visit our families. Aside from the 8-10-hour drive -- complete with annoyingly frequent queries of “Are we there yet?” -- it’s a time for us to reconnect with our families and revel in memories of growing up in New England. We rarely visit for more than a week, given two entire days to drive there and back again, and our time is often already assigned to various family gatherings to maximize our visit with as many relatives as possible. But occasionally we find time to indulge our own interests, inevitably those of a geeky nature.

Game Quest

My personal quest was to find some additional miniatures for Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. I’d bought into the game after the initial wave of hype and, given FFG’s distribution rationale and collectors/gamers snatching up starships for resale and high mark-ups or to add to their own collections, choice vessels were hard to find (ironically Boba Fett’s Slave I was seemingly overstocked everywhere, followed closely by the Millennium Falcon). My toddler son, now absorbing everything Star Wars we allow (i.e., only original trilogy material), has latched onto the game, which we play with lots of parental assistance using the extremely basic yet functional quick-start rules.

I’d searched online and found two game stores near our destinations. We had a day to ourselves in Massachusetts before becoming immersed in family activities, so we drove down to Warren, RI, just southeast of Providence, to visit my wife’s friend’s soap shop, the Stella Marie Soap Company; not two blocks away stood The Game Den, a cozy store with retail display space and several gaming tables in a nicely renovated brick industrial building. Being midday on a Friday the store was quiet, but the staff was friendly; they also had the A-Wing miniature I was seeking, some additional specialty dice for the X-Wing Miniatures Game, and a discounted copy of King of Tokyo, a game I’d been hoping to acquire after seeing it featured on Wil Wheaton’s excellent Tabletop online video series over at YouTube’s Geek & Sundry channel (the game also caters to my wife’s love of Godzilla and other giant monster fare).

On our way back to my wife’s parents’ house we diverted through downtown Worcester, MA, via the vortex of traffic chaos known as Kelly Square, for her to swing by the Worcester Historical Museum to pick up a book she wanted and stop by That’s Entertainment on Park Avenue. The store is a wonderful warren of tables and shelves covered in comic books, vinyl records, games, action figures, and other goodies for fans of numerous stripes. Although dominated by comic books, the store had a solid representation of board games, with recent roleplaying game releases as well as several shelves of used books (including a small collection of West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game books). Although I didn’t see anything on display for the X-Wing Miniatures Game beyond the core set and several Falcons and Slave Is, I asked at the counter and they’d just gotten their shipment of new starfighters; so I snatched up two TIE Interceptors for my collection.

Danbury Geekery

Although we didn’t have a chance to swing by Cave Comics in Newtwon, CT, on our way to my parents’ house, I’ll recommend it here as one of our usual stops (schedule permitting) to peruse their mainstream collection of board games and miniatures, usually combined with a stop at Burgerittoville next door for lunch, all housed in a classic railway depot building.

While we didn't indulge in game-related pursuits in Danbury, we found other geeky activities well-suited to our toddler’s interests. We spent a few hours at the Danbury Railway Museum housed in the city’s former train depot. The museum might seem small at first: the former waiting room contains several large model train layouts and exhibits featuring railway equipment and tools. For an additional fee visitors can ride in a vintage coach or caboose pulled through the train yard by a diesel engine, with a stop to get out and ride on the yard’s functional turntable track. For railway aficionados, however, the yard itself offers opportunities to explore rolling stock and engines both dilapidated and in various stages of restoration. Other railway museums exist in the northeast with far more comprehensive exhibits and more complete railway excursions (and far more expensive admission prices); while we have them on our “to do” list for family expeditions, the Danbury Railway Museum was just the right speed to keep our toddler entertained and engaged for a few hours.

We also partook of what has become an unofficial family tradition: riding the carousel at the Danbury Fair Mall. The classic carousel stands as one of the few reminders of the mall’s original heritage as the once-sprawling site of the great Danbury Fair. After last year’s attempt -- with our toddler literally kicking and screaming -- we finally succeeded, though the Little Guy chose to sit on one of the stable benches instead of even a stationary horse.

My parents live in Ridgefield, CT., where I grew up. We always enjoy walking downtown on the bustling Main Street, noting changes from my younger days, and spending time at the playground in Ballard Park. Inevitably we make a trip to The Toy Chest nearby, a tight warren of shelves packed with diversions for young and old, including a solid board game section and a fine selection of toy cars (our toddler got the candy-apple red BMW roadster). This year we finally had time for my favorite store, Books on the Common, housed in the building near Town Hall that for many years housed Bedient’s Hardware, where I had my first job in high school. Here I found two tomes catering to my interest in local history, Jack Sanders’ Ridgefield 1900-1950 (part of the Postcard History Series) and Charles Pankenier’s monograph Ridgefield Fights the Civil War. (I’d worked for Jack as a reporter and editor at The Ridgefield Press years ago in my first job out of college; he’s become one of several leading and prolific town historians.)

The One that Got Away

Our pilgrimage faced one major failure -- not just this year but for all 10 years my wife and I have been married, actually -- for we have never visited the fantastic collection of medieval arms and armor at the Higgins Armory in Worcester. We made it into the gift shop one visit while rushing between family gatherings, but never quite had the time to go inside and take the time to view the exhibits. Unfortunately the museum has fallen victim to the economic woes plaguing the nation and is closing at the end of 2013; luckily the collection is “integrating” to the Worcester Art Museum. Although the museum plans on exhibiting pieces from the Higgins Armory collection piecemeal in temporary exhibits, the entire collection won’t be reassembled again until the museum converts its current library space to a permanent exhibition gallery for the collection sometime in 2018. Something to put on the future “to do” list for our pilgrimage home. Maybe by that time we’ll have fully immersed our toddler into medieval history and other such fantasy fueled by arms and armor.