Fort – A Review

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that my wife and I travel a lot. Usually, I like to bring a smaller game with me, so during those down periods, we will have something to play. Usually this means a card game, and because my wife love the game so much, it usually means that we will be bringing Phase 10 with us. As far as card games go, I really do enjoy playing this one, but I have played it so many times, that I need to put aside for awhile. So when I started to prepare for a three week long Iceland trip, I started to look for a new game that I could take with me that would be refreshing, and a little more complicated. That is when I found one that might work from Leder Games, the king of board games with only four letters in their titles. I thought the theme, and the use of a simple resource management mechanic combined with deck building might make for the perfect game to bring on this trip.

THEME

You are a kid who likes to hang out with his friends, eat pizza, play with toys, and most importantly, build a fort in your backyard with this group of companions. Like any group of friends, there is a rival group of friends who want to outdo you by eating more pizza, playing with more toys, and making a better fort in their backyards. Of course, the friends that are collected are fickle. If you don’t play with them, they will run off and join some other group to help them build their fort, so it is important to make sure that they get some use. You can always make sure that they remain your friends forever by giving them a prestigious position in the lookout, but if you do that then they loose their special abilities, and can only help out by helping with which resources they bring to the mix. Of course, your best friends will never run off, and will always be by your side, and they will also help you come up with your own special rules to help you make the best fort possible.

I absolutely love this theme, and it works so well with the gameplay. The amount of characters that are represented in this game are numerous, and there are only a few repeats of cards. The fact that you bribe these kids with pizza and toys just adds to the overall theme, and there are moments when you want certain kids to play with you, so you are always looking at the ones that did not get used by your rivals. Certain kids get passed around all over the place, making the most popular kids in the game. Despite this, it is not as immersive as some of the other games I have played, though it does work well with the story that it is telling.

Rating – 8

GAMEPLAY

Leder Games is known for its complicated games that take multiple plays to become comfortable with the system that they have built. This has been a turn off with my wife who like medium level games where she can wrap her mind around the system rather quickly. Out of all of the Leder Games that I have played, this is the one that is the least complicated, and can be learned in fifteen minutes. Even though this is the case, it does take a couple of games before you can start to develop of strategy with the game.

At its heart, Fort is a deck building game. Each player has a player mat where they will pay attention to the resources they collect, and the level of their fort. They will also have a collection of ten cards to start off with, five of which will always be in their hand. Each card will have two actions that a player can take if they play that card. The top action is a shared action that if the other players meet the requirements of that action, they can do the same thing. The bottom action is a private action, and can only be used by the person playing the card. These actions allow you to do certain things like gain resources such as pizza and toys, build up your fort, or move a friend of yours into the lookout. A combination of these things set allow each player to reach a winning condition that will being about the end of the game.

Each card also has a suit with it that can trigger certain things from taking place if enough of the same suit is played. This means that if a player plays his or her cards right, they can use all of the cards in their hand at their turn. This is important because any cards that are not played go into the player’s yard unless it is one of their best friends which instantly go into their discard pile.

The last action that a player takes on their turn is to add a new friend to their deck. This is where the game can get a little brutal, and shows you what kind of friend you really are. The selection comes from three cards that are always shown from the unused deck of cards, or the cards that are out in other players’ yards. This means that the card that you did not use and were hoping to use at a later date could be stolen by another person and end up helping them instead.

The gameplay is not that complicated, even though there are a lot of actions that a person can perform. The design of the game was smart enough to give every person a cheat sheet that explains what each of these actions are and how you can use them. It does take one play-through to start to formulate a strategy that might work for you, but a game does not take long enough that you feel like you can’t collect everything up again and play another round after you have figured out how everything works together. Of course, the first play takes a little longer than following games, but when you get into the groove, a game plays around thirty minutes.

The gameplay also represents the theme well, and it creates a fun experience. Like most Leder Games, it has a learning curve that might discourage certain players, but if they can get over that hump, I believe they will eventually come to enjoy the game.

Rating – 8

ARTWORK

I may be a little biased, but I love Kyle Ferrin’s artwork. It is one of the things that always draws me to Leder Games. His cartoony figures add as much to the game as does the gameplay. Fort may be the game where his artwork fits in with the theme the best. Playing the game, and seeing all of these children sketched as cartoon characters, it makes me feel as if I am a part of some Saturday morning cartoon that never actually got produced. Each of the characters are completely different, and there personality seems to jump off of each card.

The design is not only based upon the drawings either. The resources that you gather are nice chunks that have a toy box or pizza painted on one end. They fit in nicely into each player board. The player boards themselves are these chunky pieces of cardboard that has indents in them that allows for fun manipulation of all the piece that you collect throughout the course of a game. And on the back of each board is the background of each player’s best friends which though not necessary, is a still a nice detail that adds to the overall enjoyment of the game.

Basically, I don’t think that there is any game that Kyle Ferrin could not do the artwork for that I would not be drawn to, and is one of the main reasons that I like to bring this game to the table. It is a little deceiving though. These characters that look like they could have been drawn by Charles Schultz make the game appear like it could be enjoyed by a much younger age. But this just adds to the nostalgic feeling that I get when playing this game.

Rating – 10

INTERACTIVITY

The game is fun to play because of your always changing deck. This deck changes not always because of the cards that you pick up from the big deck, but because of the cards that you take from other players’ yards. It makes this fun interaction take place during the game. This gives you the ability to manipulate other people’s hands, and at times, it hurts when a friend that used to be yours shows up in somebody else’s hand, especially if that kid has a power that you desperately need.

This interaction does add a little bit of fun to a two player game, but because only one kid from your yard can be taken each turn, your hand does not change that much throughout the course of a game. In a game with more players, this interaction becomes more important. Players can gang up on another player if they see that this person is getting closer to one of the win conditions. One player could lose a lot of their cards making their hands less powerful and they would need to build up their group of friends again. It adds for some fun moments and the kids that get traded around start to get their own personalities that add to the overall story you are creating as well.

Players are also interested in what other people are doing during their turn. The shared action on the cards allow the other players to do something even when it is not their turn. It also forces you to think about which card you are going to play because there are times when other players cannot do something with that shared action, and you will want to think about whether or not this is a good time to play that kid. It just means that you are constantly thinking about what other people are doing while planning out your strategy as well.

The design of the game was put together so the various players around the table are interacting with each other, but that interaction works better on higher player counts than it does with only two players. It is still fun with two players, but I find myself wanting to play with at least three.

Rating – 9

EXPANSIONS

Leder Games is known for their expansions to their games. They know that some games can lose their edge if you play them over and over again because it feels as if you are playing a round that you have already experienced. When they design their expansions, they do it in such a way that does not just add new cards to the game, but also adds new rule sets, so the game feels just as fresh as it did the first time that you played it. I have the feeling that Leder Games has these expansions already in mind when they release their games because the original boxes seem to have spots for these expansion already in them. The game, Fort, is no exception. They have just recently released the Cats and Dogs expansion that is packaged in a nice card box that slides in nicely next to the original deck of cards.

The cards add three new ways to enjoy the game. You can play with the dogs who will always be loyal to the player who can lure them into their doghouse, or the cats who are fickle and will jump around the table to different players sometimes granting them special things, sometimes hinderances, or both at the same time. They do add some victory points for the players at the end of the game, so it is important to pay attention to them while playing the game, but the dogs have the potential of becoming a distraction for the players; whereas, the cats can sometimes be forgotten if you get to involved with what you are doing with your fort.

Still they are both fun, but if you decide to add them to your game of Fort you will want to make sure that you are first very comfortable with the game. They do throw a big enough monkey wrench into the gameplay that it can make the game unbearable if you play with them before you are ready. When you do start to add them, I would recommend playing one at a time before adding them together. I would suggest starting off with the dogs because they are more apart of the gameplay; whereas, the cats can become an afterthought, and you might forget to hand off one to another player. But once you become comfortable with them, they become the only way to play the game.

Rating – 8

OVERALL

I love playing this game, and always look for a way to bring it to the table. The theme is great enough that it will attract others to it, and the explanation of how to play is not that hard that you can teach it relatively quickly. But this is not a game for everybody. Like most of Leder Games, the learning curve of this game to make it feel like you know what you are doing takes a little time, and it might discourage some people from playing again. Still, it is the most accessible of all the games I’ve played from Leder Games, and a great gateway game to get those other games of theirs to the table more often. If you are a fan of Oath or Root, you will love this game as well. It also plays a lot quicker than those other games, making it more of a casual game to play.

Overall Rating – 4.3 stars out of 5

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine – A Review

Some people may be wondering why I am reviewing a game that won the prestigious Duetscher Speilepreis award in 2020 for the best board game. It should be obvious that this is a great card game, and the fact that it is now available in so many different shops around the world beyond the typical board game stores should make it a game that will soon be in everybody’s home. Why would I need to throw in my two cents, when people don’t really need to hear it anyway?

Well, it is a great game worth talking about. It only takes five minutes to learn how to play, but the amount of time that you will play, and how many times you will want to come back to the game makes this game worthy of being talked about again.

GAMEPLAY

The Crew is a collaborative trick taking card game where communication is limited. When I heard about it, I couldn’t wrap my head around a collaborative card game that used the trick taking mechanic. But it works. Basically, there are four suits of nine cards each, and a trump suit that has four cards. After dealing out all of the cards, cards from a smaller deck is selected from depending on what part of the adventure you are on. People take turns around the table selecting which card it is they will take on a trick, and without speaking game play begins.

There are ways to communicate a little bit of what is in your hand to help with that urge to work together, and there are a couple of special challenges that happen along the way to your voyage to planet nine. A hand can take anywhere from five to ten minutes, and from my experience, the moment you finish one hand, you want to scoop them up and play a new hand, whether that is to repeat the challenge you did no win, or move on to the next one. The game play is very addictive, and we found ourselves playing late into the evening with the promise of this being the last hand over and over again.

It also solves one of the biggest problems of collaborative games, the quarterback. I love playing collaborative games, and I always want to manipulate the board the way I see it so I can beat the game. This happens so much that I have the Pandemic app on my tablet so I can play the game over and over again without having to find others to play it with. This becomes a problem when I play with other people because I want to tell everybody what they should do. I have to remind myself that they are playing as well, and I need to keep my mouth shut. The communication rules written into The Crew will not allow one person to take control of the game, and creates some tense moments during the game play.

Rating – 10

THEME

On the back of the rule book, you will see this hook to the adventure you will go on if you choose to continue to open the pages. It tells the story of a group of astronauts who go through training, blast off from Earth, and the problems they encounter along the way as they pass the various planets of our galaxy. Each challenge comes with a little flavor text that you have to read before you try to overcome the challenge. The flavor text is about all there is to the theme of the game. Yes, there are some that work better with the challenge as opposed to others, but for the most part, they don’t really add much to the overall experience of the game. Yes, we would take the time to read the flavor text before each challenge, but most of them end up being pretty forgettable as you spend more time trying to get over the challenge rather than think about why you are getting over that challenge. For the most part, they could have tagged any story to the game play and it would have felt exactly the same, and this is not why you play the game over and over again.

Rating – 6

ARTWORK

Even though the theme feels a little tacked on to this game, designer, Thomas Sing, and artist, Marco Armbruster, made sure that the artwork bought into this theme. The pictures on each of the cards lends itself to the story and each highlights another problem that could be encountered along the way to Planet Nine. But this is not where the genius of these cards lie. Marco Armbruster understood that many people would want to play this game, and he designed the artwork on the cards to be all inclusive.

It started off with the colors of the four suits. Sometimes in low light, the colors of blue and green can blend together making them hard to tell apart, especially when the only color used on the card is for the number. By making highlighting the picture in the same color as well, it makes it easier to distinguish between them. There is nothing worse than accidentally playing the wrong card especially in a game that every card played eventually becomes important.

This inclusivity continues to people that can’t see color at all. Each of the four suits of the game are also designed with easy to distinguish symbols underneath each of the numbers, allowing people who are color blind to play the game just as easily. It was a great way to bring the fun of this game to more people, and just adds to the enjoyment.

This game could have easily been created with a two regular decks of cars, and couple of quarters, but because of the artwork, you really want to play with this deck. It makes it feel more like an event and less of just playing a game of cards.

Rating – 9

INTERACTIVITY

You wold think that a game whose key rule is no talking between the players would not have a lot of interaction, but this is where you would be wrong. Just because you can’t talk about the cards you have in your hand does not mean that you can’t talk. The game presents this wonderful opportunity to get together with friends and just talk.

But the best interaction with this game happens when the play stops. Whether you win or lose the round, you are going to want to talk about what happened during the gameplay afterwards. Every time I have played, we have discussed what moves worked really well, and mistakes that we made along the way. Even with the limited amount of communication, you find that it gives you enough information to make good decisions with the group. You also find that you start to trust your teammates to do the right thing, and you can even start to anticipate what your teammates will do next. The group I play with on a regular basis has gotten so comfortable with each other that we have named our What’sApp group after the game and our the trust we have built extends beyond the game play itself. The interaction in this game is so surprising that it always becomes a part of game nights because people find that they enjoy themselves that much because of that interaction.

Rating – 10

EXPANSIONS

There is not an expansion to this game, but that does not mean that you cannot get a lot out of this game. With the fifty missions that come in the log book, it will keep any group busy for a long time, and I have found myself returning back to earlier missions that were really fun to play and replaying them.

There is another version of this game that has been released that is its own stand alone game called The Crew: Mission Deep Sea. The game introduces its own set of rules and game play, but still has the same feel as the original. It only comes with 35 missions, but they are a little more complicated in game play. I would recommend playing The Quest for Planet Nine first because it is a little easier to digest, and if you wish to continue with the collaborative game play, get the second installment of this game. It is a little easier to find the first one, and it has become a staple at Target stores now, selling for around ten dollars; whereas, the second version is a little harder to find.

Either way, you will not be disappointed by picking up this game.

Rating – 8

OVERALL

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine is a really fun game that I come back to time and time again. I have started three different quests with different groups of people and each time I introduce the game, we spend the whole night playing and laughing. It is a great shared experience, and I can see why it won the Duetscher Speilepreis award. The best part about it is its price. It is not an expensive game which is becoming a rarity in this market where publishers keep on creating bigger games with more components. It is nice to know that there are affordable games still out there.

It is also an easy game to teach, especially if people know the trick taking mechanic from card games such as Hearts and Spades. Each time I have taught this game, we have been up and playing it within five minutes. The early missions are exceptionally easy, but they get people into the game. But don’t worry about it being too easy of a game. By the time you reach the eighth mission, it is difficult enough that it will take you multiple times to get through that mission.

If there is any complaint to the game, it is that the theme does not really contribute much to the overall enjoyment of the game. Basically, it is nothing more than flavor text, and it could have just been a list of challenges that is tied to any other theme. The game is still so much fun that it is a minor complaint that is quickly forgotten about as you play. I definitely recommend that you go out and form your own crew today. You will find yourself wasting hours playing this memorable game.

Overall – 4.3 out of 5 stars

Learning about English Learning – The WIDA Institute

Pardon the interruption, but I am going to talk about something that veers down a different path. For those of you who read the usual travel posts, or various poems, or review of board games, this post might not be for you. Many of you might not know this, but I spend a lot of time as an educator. For those of you have your educator license in the United States know that one of the requirements to keep that license is professional development. As an international teacher, this means some time during the summer I have to travel to various parts of the world to take a course that I might find useful in my craft as an educator.

I picked the word ‘might’ for a specific reason. There are many educators out there that will know the meaning of that word choice. Professional development, a lot of the time, is just a moment in your career where you try to develop your ability to remain professional. A lot of the time, it is a rehashing of what you already do, or a way for some retiree to make some extra side money by selling some program that they developed during their teaching career. You have to sit in this program, and nod your head as you try not to get mad that you paid money for this checking of the box that you need in order to renew your license. Rather, you would like to get that professional development that you can bring back to your classroom and use to fill in those gaps within your own instruction.

This brings me to this year’s summertime professional development. I took off to Wisconsin for a week so I could learn everything I could about WIDA, World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment. For those teachers out there, this is probably a program that they are familiar with, and may even implement in their own schools. For everybody else, WIDA is a program used for English language learners to help them in that struggle while they still try to be successful in their content classes. It is usually used for those teachers who run the English language learning programs in their schools, and their purpose is to guide the other teachers as to what they can do in their classrooms to help these students.

I know what you are asking now?

What is an English teacher doing getting trained on how to support English language learners?

Well, the short answer is that in the state of Colorado where my license is, I need to have a a certain amount of hours of English language learning in order to renew my license. There are many Colorado teachers are annoyed by having to jump through this hoop in order to renew their license. I get that feeling, but I like to go into these trainings with the idea that there is something that I can get out of it that I can take back to this classroom. It is this positive attitude that makes these professional development moments worth it.

It was pretty easy to go into this training with this attitude though. The conference covered an area that all international teachers should be aware of when working with their students. There are a variety of languages that are brought to my classroom though I can easily forget this fact because everybody is expected to speak English. Though they speak, read, write, and listen to this language in my classroom, they may still struggle with processing and expressing themselves using this language, and might need those extra structures in place to be successful. What I discovered in this training was that the structures that I could implement for my language users could also be used for my regular students, helping to reach those higher level of expression as well.

I am also starting to see why the state of Colorado requires this training as well. Whether you like it or not, the United States is becoming more multilingual every year, and in ways that would surprise many people. I was talking to a person from North Carolina who is working with many students that use Arabic as their first language. I know that Denver has a huge population of Russian immigrants where certain parts of town, that is the major language spoken. Los Angeles has the second largest population of Korean speakers over any other city in the world, except for Seoul. There are Chinese, Hmong, and Ukrainian speakers coming in all the time, and it is the role of the teacher to help these students learn the material. Even walking around Madison where I was getting the training, I heard a variety of languages spoken from the students that were getting some extra credits during the summer. It is no longer the need to know Spanish in order to help the students coming from Latin America, but a variety of tools that can be used to help all students.

I am really glad that I took some time this summer to go to this institute and learn what they had to teach me. It will definitely help my practice when I arrive in Jordan for my second year there, and it introduced me to other conferences that I will want to take in the future. My only regret was that I was the only content teacher in the training, and I wish that there were more of us there rather than just the English Language Learning teachers that I got to work with. I would hope that more content teachers take that leap and take this class. It will not only help their craft, but it will help to bridge that important gap between them and the English Language Learning teachers in their schools. It will create a classroom that everybody can learn in, and not just the ones who are already comfortable with the language.

Campus During the Summer – Madison, Wisconsin

When I was in college, I would drive up 1-25 in early September every year with a carload full of my stuff to get ready for the upcoming school year. I would spend the next couple of months in Fort Collins, making the trip back to Littleton around Thanksgiving, the holidays, and Spring Break. When I finished the school year up in May, I would pack all of that stuff up again to head back down I-25 for a summertime job, leaving behind the college campus. This is the story of many college students, but what story is not told is that of the college campus that we all travel to. During the school year, it is a crazy place of activity and stories are being written around every corner, but what happens to that campus during the summer months when the population drops because of the mass exodus of college students?

I was lucky enough to have stayed behind one summer to be able to answer this question. It is a strange experience to be on a college campus without all of the students. It is calm, and relaxed. The insane parties and rallies to support the college lifestyle are also gone. It is instead populated by people who are considering on attending the school some time in the future, the students taking summer classes because they are really interested in learning, and people coming out for professional development in their fields. I am having a similar experience I had during that summer on the University of Wisconsin campus right now.

Let me start off by saying that the campus of the University of Wisconsin is absolutely beautiful. It sits on a lake, and there are amazing old buildings and some really cool statues usually centered around Bucky the Badger. It also is not far from the state’s capital building on State Street where there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops, so not only does it make for a cool place where the students can hang out, but it also presents a place that attracts tourists that seem to always wandering about. I never knew that Madison was such a destination place, and I was surprised about the amount of tourists that I saw as I wandered around the campus.

The experience that I had though was a completely different one than the ones that happen as soon as the school year starts up. There was a little bit of the hustle and bustle that I saw with the tourists, but they did not have an agenda, and could leisurely make their way around town. As soon as classes start, the students will need to be at certain places at certain times, so there will always be this constant flow of people moving from one place to another. State street will also have a different feel to it every night. Instead of easily getting into restaurants or bars, I am sure there will be places packed with people inside, and even more waiting to get in. I could also imagine more of a party atmosphere as people hop from one bar to another. I was not getting that kind of flow while I was out here.

There is also the aspect of the weather. I was here during the summer months and was lucky enough to experience that time during a mild spell during the summer, so the days just begged for me to come outside and enjoy walking around. I have been told that this not always the case during the summer, that sometimes it gets really hot and humid. The winter months can be even more brutal with the winds and snow that sometime blow in from the lake. So this made this moment in time even more special. I got to be out here during the slower summer months with the weather that people hope to find when they go traveling to any place in the world.

All of this probably helped in the way that I fell in love with this city and campus. I have to keep on telling myself that this is not the way that it looks most of the year, and it makes me want to come back again some other time to see it in its other iterations. I do hope that I get to do that some day, and for those of you who consider yourself badgers, thank you for sharing your school with me during this week.

Happy Campers vs. Go Campers – Iceland by Camper Van

One of the best ways to enjoy Iceland is to rent a camper van and spend the day driving from sight to sight while spending the night in one of the various campsites that can be found all over the country. If you are planning a trip to Iceland and you are thinking about going this route, there are a few things that you need to know about traveling this way. If you want to get that information, look at my post about tips for traveling by camper van. If you are interested in knowing which camper van is right for you, I have a comparison of two of the bigger and more affordable companies that can be found just outside of Reykjavik, Happy Campers and Go Campers.

Organization

Both companies use the same type of van for their smallest version of a camper, the Nissan        . It is really funny to get in the driver seat of both vehicles and have it feel exactly the same. They do have all the bells and whistles that you need to drive comfortably and safely, but as soon as you get in the back of the vehicles, the organization of them change dramatically.

Happy Campers tries to make the back of their camper vans to feel like a mobile home. On the side behind the driver’s side they have a couch that at night can be folded down to become your bed. Underneath this, they have some storage space that they claim is easily accessible, but this is not the case. The lifting and lowering of the couch becomes a chore if you store the wrong stuff in this part of the camper van. The side behind the driver’s side is where they have the kitchen area. This consists of a sink, more storage space for dishes and pans, a place for the stove, and the refrigerator. It takes up a large portion of this side of the van, and if we used the couch more, it would have been a comfortable way to cook. Unfortunately, there never seemed to be enough space in this camper van. We spent a lot of our time moving stuff from the front of the van to the back of the van depending on whether we were driving or settling down for the evening. Granted we took too much of the extra, such as the bedding, a table, and chairs which we should have scaled down on, but I think that the way the van was organized, we would have had to continued to do this with our stuff anyways.

Go Campers went for a more stripped down approach. The kitchen equipment is located in the very back and you have to open the back doors to access it. It definitely puts it out of the way, and as long as the weather holds out, it is a great location for this stuff. Unfortunately, this was not the case while we were in Iceland, and it made cooking in this camper van a little bit of a chore. Still, most of the campsites have kitchens that make for easier cooking, so the fact that we used the kitchen so little made this one a better one for the overall organization of the van. The bed is folded up and placed on top of the kitchen equipment. When bed time rolls around all you have to do is pull the bed out, climb on in, and get some sleep. Our stuff became a little disorganized in the back because there is a huge open space in between the back and the front where we put all of our stuff. The bed just covers up all of this stuff, so there was never a need to move all our stuff from the front to the back every evening.

Though they both had their flaws, I do believe that Go Campers organized their vehicle better than Happy Campers make it the better choice in this category.

Comfortability

Let me start off by saying that being a six foot two man, living in a camper van for three weeks will never be a comfortable experience. With that in mind, I still got some wonderful nights’ sleeps while on the road. This was due to the fact that we rented sleeping bags with the van, and did not rely on the duvets that they gave us with this rental. I do believe that this was one of the most important things that we did on our trip to make it more comfortable, but it did add to the overall cost with both companies.

The front of the car was comfortable for both vans as well, and both were organized the same way. They both had nooks and crannies that allowed you to put all of the important stuff that you needed while driving, and there was not much difference there. It was the beds and the movement in the van that mattered when we stopped.

In the case of the Go Camper van, there was a lot more freedom of movement and I did not feel as cramped inside. There was also a lot less of the moving stuff from the front to the back as we prepared for either driving or the night. They did only supply one door to exit the van at night, so if the person sleeping on the left had to get up in the middle of the night to use the facilities, they were forced to wake up the other person which was a poor design. The bed also had wide open edges on either side that I some times felt threatened that I will fall off. The heater was in a more wide open space though which allowed for more access to the heat, and the lack of windows made it very dark in the land of the midnight sun.

The Happy Camper van did have windows which made for a feeling that you weren’t staying in a cave. They did give you some blinds for the windows to make the space dark during the evening, but they did not close well enough and you could never make it dark enough at night. The bed also fit in almost perfectly to the back of the van with the kitchen adding a nice space to put your stuff at during the middle of the night. The bed was a little skinnier which sometimes caused some struggle for the fight for space at night, but it was still big enough for a good night sleep. The door on either side of the van made for easier entrance and exit access which was great for the middle of the night as well.

For the most part, either van had some flaws with its design which made it difficult to completely get comfortable, but that is part of the appeal of traveling this way in the first place. Despite this fact, I would still give the edge to Go Campers but it made things a little more simple to move around in which was much appreciated after a long day of exploring Iceland.

Friendliness

Both companies did a great job when getting us to our camper vans. They had somebody come and pick us up from our hotel and take us to their office so we could go through the paperwork and start our adventure. Both companies did not do a good job of getting us back to where we needed to go after we dropped off the van. Basically we were on our own, except Happy Campers did supply a shuttle once a day to the airport which was nice. Otherwise, we needed to pay for a cab which are ridiculous expensive or to work our way to a bus stop with all of our gear if we wanted to get anywhere. Both companies are not located in central locations with Happy Campers being the further out of town, but they are located closer to a bus stop. Figuring out this problem would be nice for both companies to figure out because it was a struggle both times to make it where we needed to go.

As far as the people helping us out and making sure we understood what was required of us, there was one that I felt more comfortable with. Happy Campers were more willing to answer our questions, and had a more warm and inviting office that when we left, and made for a better overall experience. They were a bigger company with more vans, but that did not take people away from giving us the help we needed when we needed it. At Go Campers, it felt like we were rushed through a little more, and it wasn’t because both places weren’t busy. They both had about the same amount of customers, and employees to help out those customers, but Happy Campers took that little extra time to make sure we were ready to head out on the road than Go Campers did.

Price

Of course, this is a really important thing to consider before renting a van especially in a country where things are really expensive to begin with. Considering you are getting the same van for each company, and both of them gave us coupons to N1 gas stations for free coffee, there is not a lot to say about the differences but the bottom line.

As of July 2022, Happy Campers 90 Euro a day/ Go Campers 129 Euro a day. Both include heaters, and kitchens. They both had strong batteries that would allow us enough power to run those heaters and kitchens when we needed them. So if I was just looking at the cost, Happy Campers are obviously the choice to go with.

Extra Perks

Both companies have a list of items that you can rent with the van that can supply you with the experience that you are hoping for. These can be anything from camping chairs, French coffee presses, tables, coffee mugs, and bedding. You can get wifi as well, but we found that all we needed was a SIM card at the airport when we first arrived, and had enough GB of data to make it through a three week trip with some even left over at the end. The prices between items were very comparable between the companies, but there is something you want to keep in mind when you add these extra bonuses. Whatever you rent, you have to carry around with you, and that will take up precious space in these vans. So before you keep adding on the comforts of home, thing about the size of the item, and if you will really need it. There is nothing more annoying than spending each night rearranging the whole van so you can be comfortable. With that in mind, Go Campers recognized this and would warn people if they kept adding things that would make their vans more crowded. Happy Campers just kept on adding it on to the bill and pulling it out from the supply.

They both had a pantry of food left behind from other campers that you could grab for free. This was a great perk, and an easy way to get started on our trip. Happy Campers’ pantry had more of a selection but this was probably because of the size of the company as opposed to Go Campers.

Happy Campers also gave free gas for the camp stove which was a life saver. The stoves were not always needed though because many of the campsites had a kitchen with a stove that you could use instead, so I do not know how important this really was.

Happy Campers also had a stack of flannel blankets and allowed each customer to take two for free. This was a great perk, and we used those blankets on a regular basis, and felt the absence of them when they were gone.

Overall

Once again, both companies were great, and which ever one you choose, you will not be disappointed about it. It really comes down to what is important for you when you make the choice. For me, personally, it came down to how comfortable I was in the van. With all things put into consideration, I would lean more towards using Go Campers again in the future rather than Happy Campers. Because of the organization of their van, it was easier to move around in, and I enjoyed my experience with them more because of that.

Either way, Iceland is a great adventure, and you will want the right camper van for yourself to make the most out of that experience. I know this will not cover everything, but I hope it helps you out a little bit when you make that important decision when flying off to Iceland for that adventure.

Tucked Away on the Bay – Anacortes, Washington

Up on the northern end of the town of Anacortes in the state of Washington is a ferry port that will send people out into the San Juan Islands and beyond. You can work your way down to Seattle, and if you plan it right, you can even find a way to get up to the southern shores around Ankorage, Alaska. There are many sailboats that make their way up here, and if you look out into the water from certain points, you can see the constant flow of boating activity. At the same time, you can also move a little further into the bay and avoid all of this activity, and find yourself a quiet little bay instead.

This completely changes what Puget Sound can be. Instead of being staying on a place where you are constantly watching the passing of boats, you can nestle back in a chair and enjoy the quiet beach and calm waters. It makes the place the perfect place to come on vacation. A calmness comes over you as you sit back and enjoy the scenery, but there is still enough to do so you don’t get bored with your time there.

Most of it involves being on the water. I was amazed at how few boats I found on this cove, but the ones I did see were very active. There were a couple of motor boats that were floating waiting for their owners to come use them, and a couple of sailboats doing the same thing. But the others I saw were manpowered, and that was the way most people enjoyed this little corner of the Puget Sound. I went out a couple of times on a kayak, and my wife took it a step further to go paddle boarding. The currents in this bay made being on a paddle board difficult if you moved away from the shore. Kayaks were a little more stable but it was still a bit of a workout.

Getting across the bay took me to places even quieter than the simple Air B+B that I was staying at. There was some tribal land that is available to hike, but you are not allowed to dock your boat there. It does not make it any less beautiful as you can simply coast down the shore and look at the forest, beaches, and cliffs that make its landscape.

There are a couple of other islands that have easy access from this bay as well, some of which can give you the perfect private beach for an afternoon picnic. It does take a little bit of effort, but not enough to wear you down before you get there, and not so hard as to make it a chore to get back home. All of this, and free from the crowds that can found a little further to the north. It is a great escape, and if you can find that perfect little bay, you will get that quiet weekend getaway we are all looking for.

Deception Pass – Anacortes, Washington

On the northwestern tip of the contiguous states of America lies one of its greatest treasures, the Puget Sound, and the San Juan Islands. There is a lot of protected land out here, and many little place to explore using many different ways to explore those areas. The main town to jump off and explore this area is Anacortes, Washington, the home of the ferry that will take people out to the islands, mainly the biggest attraction out there, Friday Harbor. Many people make there way out here to take this journey and explore that town, but they miss a great spot that only takes a short drive from Anacortes to explore, Deception Pass.

Deception Pass is a state park that is celebrating its 100th year this year, and cover over 3,800 acres in the San Juan Islands. Its most prominent feature though is the Deception Pass Bridge which was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982. The bridge basically connects two islands, Whidbey and Fidalgo over the expanse of water that rushes between them that gives the park its name. The reason that this rush of water has earned the name, Deception, is because of the way the water has caused problems for so many sailors over the years. The water changes speed based on the flow of the ebb of the tide. At its greatest speed it can reach 8 knots that can make life difficult for people in kayaks, and they can be sped through this narrow pass, making it hard for a return trip.

The bridge is of course, a great viewpoint for the area, and there are walkways that people can take to safely walk leisurely over it. But this is not the only reason to come out to visit this state park. There are horse trails, bike trails, and 38 miles of hiking trails that will take visitors to various beaches, tide pools, and lush forests to explore. There is also kayaking, fishing, boating, camping and of course, for those just coming up for the day, picnicking.

The wildlife out there is worth the trip as well. There are tons of birds hunting for their next meal in the water with the herons being the most impressive of the ones that I saw. I also saw a few small fury creatures scurrying about, and there were signs for deer, so I am sure that there are sighting for those as well. If you stand at the shore long enough, you will also see seals pop their heads out from time to time. And of course, it is dog friendly, and there is always one of them that are willing to come up to greet you.

It is a beautiful park, and a must see if you ever make it up to this part of the country. It is a twenty minute drive from I-5 on highway 20 in Washington, and the drive over there is just as amazing as the park itself. It is also a great jump off point for exploring other parts of the San Juan Islands as well. I just spent an afternoon exploring what it had to offer and barely scratch the surface of this place. It will be a place that I will come back to visit again sometime.

Where the Lost Dogs Go to Play

Many of you tuned in to my post, A Short Love Story, a post about a puppy we adopted off of the streets of Jordan, and the tragic end of her life. It was a tough experience, but it did not end in Jordan. I like to think that there was a little bit more to her story that ends in Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon. For many of the dogs I have known, this is the place where their stories end, at least, the part I know.

My in-laws have a house that is hidden in a corner of the forest in Central Oregon, not far from Black Butte. Before I moved overseas, my wife and I would load up the car, and travel from Denver to here with our dog at the time, Bear. It is a great place to unwind and relax, and Bear loved it. There were plenty of places for him to roam, the wildlife always kept him on his toes, and it smelled of fresh pine. In other words, it was the perfect place for any dog. It was fun to watch him on the car trip over. He hated being in the back of the car, and would mope about the whole time, but as soon as we would get close to Black Butte Ranch, he would sit up and start to sniff at the air. I could easily say that it was his favorite place in the world.

When he passed away in 2014, there was only place that we could think of to spread his ashes. We took one more car ride across the country with him in the backseat, except this time he did not raise his head up to sniff the air as we got closer to Black Butte Ranch. We found a nice tree to spread his ashes at, and I like to think that he is now running through the forest that he loved so much.

Since then, I have been a part of spreading the ashes of other dogs from other members of the family. The backyard of the house has become a playground for all of these dogs and for most of them, this was their favorite place to be, so why shouldn’t they spend the rest of eternity frolicking here.

I was never able to bring Suji out to this special spot because she was not given that much time on this earth, but I would like to think that she would have really loved it if she was ever given the chance. So when we were thinking about a place to spread her ashes, this was the obvious choice. We could have found some place in Jordan to spread her ashes, but the places that came to mind did not lend themselves to a place for her to jump around and play with other dogs, so we started the long process of carrying her ashes halfway around the world to lay her to rest. It caused some fun moments at airports, but we eventually were able to make it, and introduce her to a couple of friends of ours in the process. I am happy to have done it too, because it gives Suji the happy ending that I know she deserved.

Rest in Peace, Suji, and have fun playing in the place where all the lost dogs go.

Camper Van Tips for Iceland

One of the best ways and also most common ways to enjoy Iceland is to get a camper van and drive the Ring Road. Along the way, there are many campsites where you just park your van and then just camp for the night. Some of these campsites are right in the heart of some quaint Icelandic towns; whereas, others are out in the middle of nowhere, and no matter where you go, you will always run into crowds. Despite this, there are things that you can do to make these crowds more manageable, and the time that you spend at these campsite more enjoyable.

Be Early

This is the most essential tip I can give, especially if you are coming from some other place than Europe. There are a lot of Europeans in Iceland, and they are pretty much already adjusted to the time zone. They are on vacation and want to take advantage of the ability to sleep in a little bit later than usual. Because of this, the camps don’t get moving early in the morning, but around 9 o’clock, things start to get busy in the kitchen and bathrooms. Considering that there are limited burners, and showers, this means if you start moving around this time as well, you will have a harder time accessing these things. It is amazing how easy these things are to access if you are up and moving as late as 7 o’clock. 

It adds another little extra bonus. You will be pulling out of camp before everybody else which means that you will be getting to the sights earlier as well. Sometimes you will be at extremely busy locations all by yourself until the middle of the day which makes it feel like you are truly in the wilderness that is Iceland.

Another bonus to this practice is that you will also arrive at the next campsite before everybody else. There are many times that we showed up at our campsite at 5:30 or 6 and basically had our pick of the sites, but by the time 8:30 rolled around, the campsite was so full that we would have ended up at the worst spot available.

Buy Pre-Seasoned Meals

We spent some time at home before we left getting a couple ramekins together with the spices that we thought we would enjoy the most when we arrived in Iceland. On our first day we ran to the grocery store to buy some food for the trip. We thought that we would have to find various meats and then prepare them at the camp at night. On a whim, we picked up a couple packs that were already marinated. They cost about the same, and little did we know how good they would be. We liked them so much that we bought more of them and were pleased each time. The best part of these pre-seasoned meals were the fact that they made cooking exceptionally easy.

Basically, it made us feel like we were eating something good instead of the ramen and hot dogs that seem to be the typical fare that is found in Iceland. They do cost a little bit more, but if you buy your food at Kronan or Netto, these meals will not break your budget. We still squeezed in the cup of noddle of hot dog every once in awhile, but this made our meals in Iceland so much better.

Park Close to the Facilities

This one goes hand in hand with being early. If you are moving an hour or two ahead of the crowds, this means that you will arrive at your next campsite before everybody else, and get your pick of where you want to stay. Some camps have some amazing views with them, and they are great places to sit, have a cocktail, and enjoy your dinner. And on nights where the weather is going to work with you, these are going to be the places where you are going to want to park. However, Iceland weather is unpredictable. There were many nights on the trip where we went to sleep with the sun shining, only to be woken up in the middle of the night under a wind storm and a torrential downpour. Of course, it worked the other way as well.

When the weather is great, traveling in a camper van is fun and exciting. When the weather is terrible, living in a camper van is a challenge. The nice thing about most of the campsites is they have facilities where you can get out of poor weather. Some of them are bigger than others, and it is not fun to make the trek there through this inclement weather. This is even worse when you wake up in the middle of the night and have to use the facilities. I would suggest trying to find that place that gives you the amazing view, but also allows you easy access to the facilities, especially if you know that weather is the going to be terrible that night. It won’t make it better, but you will have to deal with the weather for shorter amounts of time.

Run the Heat before Bed

A lot of the features of the camper vans run on batteries. In this modern age where people are always looking for ways to charge their devices, and the fact that you will want to run a refrigerator all the time to keep some of your food cold, it means that you will have limited power that you can tap into. Some of the camper vans, such as the company, Happy Camper, supply a battery that charges with the spinning of the tires. The guy that rented the car to us, told us that it should give us enough energy to keep the heat running all night long, but we discovered that this wasn’t actually necessary. This isn’t the heat that comes out of the front console of the car, instead, it is a big blower right under the bed that just cranks out hot air. It does take a little bit to warm up the whole car, but once you get the car heated up, it takes some time for it to cool down as well. Because of this, if you run the heat for an hour before bed and you get some good sleeping bags, you should have enough heat to keep you comfortable for the whole night.

The reason for this is quite simple. If the battery for your van dies, you are not moving further on your trip. Though there are a bunch of people at the campsites that could help you if this becomes a problem, this might not always be the case. We did run into a couple of people out in the middle of nowhere whose battery had died, and luckily we had some jumper cables to help them out, but in one case, they had been there for quite some time. The rental companies do give you a number to call if you do break down, but there were a couple of places where we ran out of cellular service. The bottom line is that you do not want to get stuck in the middle of some place because you wanted a toasty camper van instead of power in your battery.

Enjoy the Sun while You Get It 

Part of the reason that we decided to go to Iceland is because we had a friend a couple of years who went, and the pictures she brought back with her were stunning. She had sunshine for the ten days she was there and she was smiling underneath the warmth that it brought.

This summer, we were constantly told that Iceland was experiencing the coldest summer that it has had in thirty years. We rarely saw the sun, and there were many days where we were under five different layers, including rain gear, to go see the sights in the wind and rain. We were excited when we saw the temperature reach 4 degrees Celsius, or about 40 degrees in Fahrenheit. It did not prevent us from having a great time while we were there, but it was a much different experience than the one enjoyed by my friend.

With this in mind, when the sun did come out and we had those warmer summer temperatures that Iceland usually has during the summer, it was an amazing experience. It did not always last long, so when the sun did come out, we made sure to get out of the camper van and enjoy it. Iceland is one of those places where you have to take advantage of what is given you, and when you do that, those moments will become your favorite ones on the trip.

Bring Slide Sandals

This tip goes closely with the place where you park, and enjoying the sunshine. You will spend a lot of your time in Iceland wearing hiking boots. It is the safest way to see a lot of the sights, and they do keep your feet warm. But when you get to the place where you are going to stay for the night, you are going to want to take these boots off and stretch those feet for a little bit. During these moments, you will want your feet to be as free as they possibly can. This is where slide sandals come in. They don’t necessarily need to be slide sandals, but something that you can easily slide on and off.

There are added bonuses to having shoes like this with you. If you wake up in the middle of the night, and have to go to the bathroom, it is a lot easier to slip on these sandals and run off to the facilities than spending the time putting on your shoes again. They can also be used in the showers. All of the showers that I saw were always well maintained and clean, but this did not mean that you wanted to take a shower in your bare feet. The slide sandals give you that little extra protection, and they always dry off quickly. If you bring a pair of these with you, you will find that you will use them more often than you would have thought, and you will be happy that you have them with you.

Shower When You Arrive

Anybody who has ever spent time in hostels in Europe knows how busy the showers get in the morning. People tend to line up just so they can look their best for the day ahead of them, and there are times when you will wait a good hour before you can get your turn. Iceland campsites are no different. I was really surprised at the amount of people I saw making sure that their hair was perfect, and they looked good in their hiking gear. Didn’t they know what they would be doing the whole day? They would be hiking, sometimes in bad weather. They would not look good at the end of the day, so what was the purpose of standing in line to try to look good in the morning? Also, there were not that many showers to share in the first place. Some of the campsites only had one shower to share which made the lines longer and harder to endure.

When I first started on the trip, I was one of those people waiting for the shower, but as the trip progressed, I learned something. When I made it to the campsite, the showers had just been cleaned and nobody was waiting in line to take a shower. I also felt dirty from the day of running around seeing stuff, and really wanted a shower at that time. It made more sense to me to take the shower when I first arrived at the campsite instead of waiting in the morning and battling the crowd. It was not as if I was going to dirty myself while I was at the campsite, and I could wash away the grime of the day. I was also ready in the morning to move, and we beat the crowds because we were able to get out of the campsite that much quicker that everybody else. I am not saying that this is the way you should do it for other European countries, but I found that it worked best for Iceland.

Traveling Iceland in a camper van is an adventure, and the best way to see all of the sights on your own terms. It took me a little while to figure out how to make it work, and I hope these little tips help save you some time and pain as you figure out your camper van when you get to Iceland. It will give you the adventure that you are looking for without the trial.

Two Days in Tucson – Arizona

So far, the theme of this summer has been cold. Part of this I expected; after all, I did travel to Iceland. I was expecting the cold there, but I wasn’t expecting to participate in the coldest summer in thirty years. When I finally arrived back in the United States, I was expecting the warmer weather that is normally associated with this time of year, but I landed in the Pacific Northwest which was experiencing the wettest and coolest summer they have had in recent history. I was walking around in jeans and hoodies for the week that I was there, hoping that some day I would be able to switch over to shorts and spend some time at the pool. I finally got fed up with all of it, and decided to hop on a plane and fly down to Tucson, Arizona where I knew that I would find some sun.

So I might have misled you. The trip was not as spontaneous as I made it seem. It was part of the greater plan this summer as I hop all over the place. Two friends of mine were retying the knot, literally because they are both rock climbers and they made it part of the ceremony, because they had gotten married during Covid lockdown, and they wanted to have a more traditional ceremony with their friends. Of course I went down there to participate in this celebration. I would add pictures of the event because it was a big reunion with a bunch of people I used to work with in South Korea, but due to privacy reasons, I have decided to not share them with you.

That still does not mean that flying down to Arizona is not what I needed this summer. This time of the year is a thawing period for teachers and students alike, and I had not had those moments where I could let the sun do its work. Yes, it was extremely hot down there like you would expect from Arizona during this time of the year, but instead of running to air-conditioning to stay comfortable, because of my recent experiences with the weather, I embraced the heat.

A lot of my time down there was spent attending wedding events, so I do not have a lot to talk about outside of those moments, but I did have some time to wander around the University of Arizona campus and the area surrounding it. I have always found it strange to be on a college campus during the summer months because they do not have the energy that you can find during the school year. It is a beautiful campus though, and if I was ever going to make a movie about an evil dean that is not giving a group of misguided youth their fair shake, I would think about filming it here during the summer. Otherwise, I got to enjoy the great restaurants around the campus, and got that much needed vitamin D for the first time this summer. It made me feel that slower pace I have been looking for all summer, and it was great.

I know that it was a quick trip, and I was able to bring some of that sun back with me to Oregon, and they are starting to experience the same type of summer that I have been looking for as well. I hope that you are getting the same kind of summer as well, and it is allowing you to shed the problems and worries that we collect during the colder months out of the year, and you are allowed to go out and enjoy the outdoors a little more right now. Maybe what all of us need is a couple of days down in Tucson to get that feeling going for each of us. I know it was what got me in the summer mood for this first time this year.