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Laser Tag 101

The other night I had arrived at the laser tag arena much earlier than necessary. The extra time gave me a chance to explore some shops including a little artists' gallery on the upper level. While browsing, the man minding the store commented on my shirt. "It says 'legally blonde', but you are not blonde" he observed of my shirt from the broadway show. I said "true, but it was the first black shirt I grabbed out of the laundry" as I went on to explain that I needed dark apparel for laser tag that night. This prompted a continued exchange where he had lots of questions about laser tag...

"Are you going to a birthday party?"

"Does it take place in a maze?"

"Do you need to bring a partner or already be part of a team?"

He seemed to take genuine interest and, moreover, he asked really good questions that someone unfamiliar with the sport would sensibly ask or have preconceived ideas about. I suppose I take for granted that anyone reading this blog is already familiar with laser tag, however this exchange made me think that this would be a good time to use this forum to answer some questions and dispel some misconceptions about what actually happens when you enter a laser tag center. First, I'll address what he asked...

Q: Are you going to a birthday party? Subtext implied - Is this a game with a bunch of little kids?

A: Although laser tag is an all ages game and there will likely be some kids around early on, I prefer to go to a center where the players are mostly high school students and other adults who play, particularly into the later hours on Friday and Saturday nights. That's not to say there might not be some never know who will show up...but playing later at night on a weekend helps ensure there will predominantly be a more appropriately aged group of players. I personally would not enjoy a game where I am just playing against little ones...that's not a sport! I appreciate that even though most players are a bit younger than I am, that for the most part they are grown people who play with strategy, tactics and heart...not little kids. Some of the players I've seen on a random night include jocks, athletes or volunteer firefighters, so it can be an athletic challenge and age is not really a factor in the arena. However different places and different days may lead to a different mix of participants and I would fully expect that there would be more younger kids during the daytime than there are at night when I choose to select sensible times if you want to play against other grown players.

Q: Does it take place in a maze?

A: Yes. Each arena is set up differently, but you can expect the space to be large enough to get lost in with plenty of barriers, obstacles and hidey-holes to assist with that. I prefer arenas with multiple levels (the one I was at this weekend has two bridges that constitute the upper deck) as it is nice to be where you can see more of the activity going on below and get a clear shot from the best vantage point. The maze is integral to the game and also really sets the scene and makes you feel like you've stepped into a whole other world...even if it is just the next room over.

Q: Do you need to bring a partner or already be part of a team?

A: Nope. You can show up alone and you will either be put on a team or given the chance to select a team to join based on the colors of the packs you will find in the vesting room. It is often team play with a solo scoring component. Essentially, the better you do as an individual the more you help raise your team's score overall. However, you do not need to arrange a team in advance or even know the other people playing on your team. Although odds are you will get familiar with them before long.

I'd like to walk you through a typical night of laser tag for me. First of all, it will be a weekend. I go out on either Friday or Saturday night because any other time is hit or miss whether there will be other players there (and during the daytime it's more likely there will be younger kids if there are players at all). On the weekends I expect to see a good turnout, often times a packed arena. Before I leave the house I put on dark jeans, a black t-shirt and sneakers...and usually my lucky hat with my hair tucked through it in a ponytail. You ideally would want to wear dark clothing like this so as to be less conspicuous (even though you will be throwing on a vest with flashing lights shortly anyway). I can't tell you how many times I've seen people show up in bright or white clothing that just looks day-glow once they step into the briefing area under the black lights.

Upon arrival at the laser tag center I will go purchase a wristband if I plan to play for the entire night. This is the best option for the most games, although if I was a newcomer and just wanted to try it out I could buy my games individually or in smaller packages. I'll wait for the next game to be called. When I hear the announcement (which will identify which color wristbands are to go in or the time if you opted for a single game) then I will go into a separate room with all the other players for the briefing session.

A briefing room typically has risers for the players to take a seat...although I've been in several where you just stand as you listen...and the game master (i.e. employee who goes in to make sure everything goes smoothly during the game) will explain the rules and the equipment. In some centers this may be accomplished with a video instead. And believe me, those who have played before and are chomping at the bit to get back into the arena have a tendency to make it challenging for the game master to get through it nice, they have to go through the rules whether it's your first or 101st time there. If the game includes newbie players who have never been there before they may take additional time to explain how the equipment works, how to hold the phaser (the gun) and the procedure for scoring on other opponents and bases. At minimum they will go over the basic rules, which are pretty similar everywhere, but will likely include no running, jumping, climbing, sitting, kneeling or lying down, no physical contact and no offensive language.

When I'm in this room I will casually look around and size up the other competitors. I imagine they do the same and I know at first glance people don't often look at me as heavy competition...I like to be underestimated...and I realize I can easily make a snap judgment based on appearance too. Many a great player may sneak past your radar on the first pass, but if you frequent the same center you will soon identify who the powerhouse players are. Then, if given the opportunity to select the team you wish to play on, you can make strategic decisions about who you want on your side. Sometimes the decision will be made for you and you might be assigned to a particular team by the game master, but more often I've experienced the freedom to chose your color and join up with the players you wish to. When contemplating which team I want to play for I usually don't care what color our packs are. I prefer to play alongside the best players (since I'm going for scores it behooves us to team up rather than waste valuable time taking each other out) and ideally play opposite the greener participants who are easier marks. However, some of my favorite games have been those where I really couldn't predict the abilities of the other players in advance and found some cool unexpected that night where one small, unassuming team of underestimated powerhouses dominated time after time over the jock team who anyone would have perceived at "Goliath"...that was fun :)

OK, so we've learned the rules and scoped out the competition in the briefing room. Now it's time to move into the vesting room. This is where you'll find rows of brightly lit up packs. They usually flash a team color unless you are playing free for all or a specialty game. I'm pretty much cool with playing any color...although I hate to switch colors in between games as it's easy to forget which one you picked in the heat of the moment! Here you will pick your vest with your team color. If I'm in an arena where I have membership I will swipe my card or attach my tag to the vest. If not, I hope to be in an arena where they allow you to select your player code name. And if I'm in a familiar arena where neither scenario applies I look for my favorite packs based on the code name on the back (or on the phaser). A tip about the vests...take a moment to make sure yours fits well. It should have adjustable straps on the side that you can pull for a snug fit. You do not want your vest loose an moving during the game. First, it may make your sensors more vulnerable. Second, it can be more noisy. You don't want your equipment banging into walls when you're trying to be stealth. Third, it's just plain uncomfortable to play with a poorly fitting vest. There are options...make sure you get one that works for you.

Now we move into the game itself. The object is to aim your phaser at the lit up sensors on the vests of any and all opposing team members. Generally there will be sensors on the front, back and shoulders of the vest and usually on the phaser too. These are the points where you should aim. If this sounds like a "shoot 'em up" game, it's really not. There's no violence intended with the are simply tagging an opponent out for a few seconds and they will come right back. You want to rack up as many points as you can and sometimes there will be different values for different sensors. For example, in one arena I frequent you will acquire more points by tagging an opponent in the back than you will in the front, so it behooves you to know this information going into the game. There will often be bases located throughout the arena which will be worth lots of additional points, so it's good to know the values for the bases and also whether a base can be tagged more than once...this varies by system and facility.

When the game begins the players are let into the arena, which is a giant maze of obstacles and barriers. There are plenty of places to hide and a rush of excitement as you enter this new atmosphere. I love artistic arenas that have cool age themes are among my favorites. However, don't expect too many clues to which part of the arena you are in :) The soundtrack will often have cool music to enhance the game and may give you periodic time warnings about how far into the game you are. Some arenas may use fog or interesting lighting. All in all, atmosphere is cool to note on your first pass, but once you are in there you should be focused on the game and not the aesthetics. I find this is an adrenaline pumping time where you are on high alert. Even though you are not "running" per se, you are moving quickly in a "battle-like" situation and it is frenetic and focused. I come out of a fifteen minute round feeling like I've had a great workout. If your team is really playing as a team you should have some support and strategy for protecting each other against opponents and capturing as many bases as possible to boost the team's overall score. This comes with continued experience and familiarity with the space and players.

When the round is over all the players will be directed to exit back to the vesting room to remove their packs. If you are not using your own code name remember to take note of the name or number on your pack so you can identify your score at the end. Once the vests are off everyone will filter over to the display monitor where stats and rankings from the game are posted. You will be able to identify your score and see who got the top scores of the game. There may be additional details about player accuracy and the total points earned by each team. In some arenas you may be handed an individual scorecard...I like that and spend way too much time analyzing the results when I'm handed the details on paper. If I'm in an arena where this is not the case I usually photograph the monitor so I can reference back on what happened in the game. Then I hydrate (water fountains or vending machines), take a short break and prepare to go back in and do the whole thing all over again.

I hope that if you have never before played laser tag that reading this may inspire you to do so. If you're looking for a place to begin you might want to check out for information about where to find a nearby arena. Enjoy!

If you have comments or questions please feel free to visit my website at or email me at

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