SPOTLIGHT : GAMES PEOPLE PLAY : No Joysticks? No Mayhem? What Are They Up to, Anyway?

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for the Times Orange County Edition.

Remember hanging at the local park recreation shack, catching a friendly game of checkers or plotting brilliant military strategies in heated rounds of Battleship?

Games can be a great way to while away a summer afternoon, and even in a county beset by slashed community service programs and quarter-scarfing video arcades, there are still places where you can play a seemingly endless array of non-electronic games, whether you prefer such classics as chess and Monopoly or the current hot seller, Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game that's attracted a huge following among teens and adults.

Discussions with area game players and a scan of the local phone directories have yielded the following helpful, but by no means exhaustive, sampler of gaming venues in the county. With the exception of Chess for Juniors in Huntington Beach, most of the places listed are retail establishments that have set aside space for game playing.

Some have just a table or two tucked among the shelves; others, such as the Game Arena in Tustin, have large rooms and a generous supply of games available to use while you're in the store.

Tournaments are offered for the competitive, but beginners are welcome; in fact, at most of these places, the staff is more than happy to teach the games and offer pointers as time allows.

Fees vary. Some places, particularly those with games to loan, charge a small fee; others will let you play at no charge, although clearly they wouldn't mind if you made a purchase or two while you're hanging around.

The Game Arena

Only recently opened, this cavernous storefront has a smallish display of games at the front and at least 1,000 square feet of playing space at the back. There's a snack bar in house and a handful of fast-food restaurants within walking distance.

Twentysomething co-owner Michael Williams (who, incidentally, develops computer games for companies such as Nintendo) says he got the idea for Game Arena after hanging out in pubs in Sydney, Australia.

"I totally liked the atmosphere," said Williams. "People all sit around these big tables [and] bring out their checkers or backgammon or whatever. People talk, play games; it's just a really friendly environment." Williams said he plans to open a second Game Arena in La Habra early next year.

Players here run from preteens and teen-agers during the day and early evening (students have been known to do their homework at an empty table before beginning to play) to a nighttime crowd of mostly adults.

Magic, which involves multiple layers of mystical characters and environments and is somewhat like chess in terms of strategizing skills, is probably the No. 1 game here, says manager Jason Sherlock, followed by longtime favorites such as chess, Risk and Clue. A starter Magic set runs about $20, with 15-card booster packs going for less than $3, but collectors have been known to pay as much as $200 for an extremely rare card. Avid players such as 13-year-old Andrew Levine typically amass decks of 4,000 or more cards (there is no limit to the number of cards a player can have).

Game Arena hosts tournament play daily, sometimes several times each day, in these and other popular games such as Battle Masters, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the "Star Trek" collectible card games. There will also be open play and tournaments of some of the more arcane games scheduled to be released later this year, including Doll, which Sherlock describes as "a game of murder and mayhem using little pipe-cleaner people."

Although Game Arena hasn't attracted senior citizens in the numbers Williams had expected, you can generally find a pretty diverse crowd there. On a recent weekday afternoon, Levine and Sherlock, 24, were offering Magic tips to a newcomer, while a group of men in their early 20s maneuvered miniature armies across a table-sized battlefield dotted with tiny castles and mountain ranges, the soundtrack from the movie "Glory" booming from a portable CD player in the background.

The Game Arena, 17271 17th St., Tustin (in the French Quarter retail center). (714) 665-2400 or (714) 258-8700 for recorded information. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Sunday till midnight. (The store will be open until midnight daily during the summer.) Open play fees: $2 rental for most games, plus a refundable security deposit (bike helmets are cheerfully accepted). Visitors can also bring their own games. Tournaments: Schedule varies by day; call the information line for that week's lineup and start times. $2 entry fee. (Game Arena also sells annual memberships for about $30, which are good for reduced tournament fees, a newsletter and other perks.)

Galactic Archives

The patrons of this small Anaheim shop aren't themselves. Vampires, military strategists, acid-spitting monsters sure, but hardly ever just plain folks. Store owner Mac McMahon says that fantasy role-playing games that include characters like these have it all over most electronic games because they promote social interaction.

"Most video games, especially the arcade games, are all shoot, shoot, shoot," complained McMahon. "It doesn't matter if you're shooting a monster or Mother Teresa. The concept is just to keep that joy button going. Although I guess you might lose some points if you shot Mother Teresa.

"The point is, when you play games like that, you're rarely interacting with people. In role-playing games, you have that social interaction, that connection with people." (And those who just can't do without their high-tech fix can play role-playing games on the Internet computer network, noted McMahon.)

Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons are among the most popular games played at Galactic Archives. McMahon has also crafted his own "game bash," a conglomeration of horror-based role-playing games based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. The store also has a central bulletin board on which visitors can post announcements of upcoming games and tournaments. Players are welcome to bring their own games in and play during shop hours at no charge.

Galactic Archives, 5219 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim. (714) 693-0673. Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Collectors Only Comic and Cards

Store owner Shawn Attebery pulled all his sports cards off the shelves in protest when the major league baseball and hockey strikes hit, and he never put them back. Milk caps, once an enormously popular kids game, were similarly dumped when local interest in them bottomed out late last year.

In their place, the Anaheim Hills store has put a stronger emphasis on collectible card games, such as Magic.

Attebery predicts that the "Star Wars" collectible card game is going to be "huge" when it's released this fall, especially among teens and young adults. He already carries all manner of "Star Wars"-inspired paraphernalia, such as comic books and trading cards.

The store has no areas dedicated specifically to open play, but Attebery sets aside special play periods and tournaments each week for the most popular games; he plans to add a few more during the summer, and in the fall, a "Star Wars" night.

Collectors Only Comic and Cards, 5655 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. (714) 777-4424. Magic: The Gathering open play every Sunday, 2 to 6 p.m., and Monday, noon to 2 p.m.; bring your own cards; free. Magic: The Gathering tournament, last Saturday of the month at 6 p.m. (days and times may vary, so call ahead); limited to first 32 players; fees range from $2 to $5, depending on the value of prizes awarded. Open play Mondays, noon to 2 p.m.; visitors generally play Magic, but the new Rage collectible card game is also catching on; bring your own cards; free.

Comic Quest

You may run into an occasional chess set at these comic and game stores in Lake Forest and Dana Point, but owner Don Kelly says strategic simulation, or war games such as Warhammer and Space Marine, and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire are the hot ticket among his visitors. Players are welcome to drop by any time with their own games, and Kelly and his staff will even offer instruction if they're not busy with customers.

During the summer, there are tournaments for Magic and any number of war or role-playing games every weekend at one of the two locations, as well as demonstrations on how to paint the tiny figures used in a variety of historical miniatures games.

You'll need to call for times and rules.

Comic Quest, 24344 Muirlands Blvd., Lake Forest. (714) 951-9668. Also at 34255 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point. (714) 443-3603. Open play any time during store hours, Monday through Friday, noon to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. War and Role Playing game tournaments most Saturdays at noon. Magic tournament most Sundays, generally starting at 11 a.m.; free.

Brookhurst Hobbies

This 30-year-old game and hobby store in Garden Grove includes a 1,000-square-foot game area. Visitors can bring their own games or use one of the 60 fantasy, science fiction, role playing or historical games available to borrow free in house. If time permits, Brookhurst Hobbies staff will give instruction and playing tips.

The store also hosts tournaments and organized games almost every day of the week. The Game Club, a group for game enthusiasts that has been around since 1974, meets weekly. There is a $2 admission for each meeting of the Game Club; groups for specific games such as Warhammer 40,000 and Star Fleet Battles meet once or twice a month. Membership is free.

Magic tournaments are held every Friday and Saturday. On Fridays, in addition to the $2 game club fee, each player pays a $10 buy-in fee that gives them admission plus a starter deck and a booster pack of cards; these are the only cards they may use in play. Points are recorded; high-point winners may compete in one of two semifinal tournaments each year. Saturday tournaments tend to attract a younger crowd. Admission for these is $2; players use their own cards, and no point totals are recorded.

Brookhurst Hobbies, 12188 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove. (714) 636-3580. Open play Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Game Club every Friday, 7 p.m. to about 3 a.m.; $2 entry fee. Warhammer 40,000 Club, free play on the last Saturday of every month, noon to 6 p.m. Historical Miniatures Club, first Saturday of every month, noon to 6 p.m.; games vary by month; free. Star Fleet Battles Club, first and third Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m.; free. Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (formerly Jyhad) tournaments every Saturday at 1 p.m.; $1 fee; bring own cards. Magic: The Gathering Tournaments, starts Friday at 9 p.m. and continues into the wee hours, $10; also Saturday at 1 p.m., $2.

Chess for Juniors Center

Billing itself as the country's largest chess program for young people, this 130-member club in Huntington Beach is not the kind of place where you can drop in for a quick game. But, says club director and national chess master Robert Snyder, first-timers can usually nab a free lesson on Sunday evenings. There's also an open house some Saturday afternoons, and facility tours Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

Youths pay $34 for a four-week membership package that includes small group instruction, weekend practice sessions and--if they pass muster--a chance to compete in local and national chess competitions. The group is governed by the U.S. Chess Federation, so competitors receive national chess rankings.

Although Snyder is quick to rattle off his kids' achievements (the club has produced 19 national chess champions), you don't have to be a budding Bobby Fischer to enjoy the game.

"People think you have to be super intelligent to play chess, but a kid of average ability can be a very good player with the right training," explained Snyder, who said that children with learning disabilities often benefit from chess because of the way it builds logic and abstract thinking skills. The author of "Chess for Juniors" (Random House), Snyder also teaches chess in several school districts, including Laguna Niguel, and will lead chess programs this summer at parks and rec programs in San Juan Capistrano, Long Beach and Gardena.

Chess for Juniors Center, 15081 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach. (714) 531-5238. Free beginners class most Sundays, 6:45 to 8:15 p.m. Club tours Tuesday and Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. Open House on selected Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m.

Kid Stuff

IN LAGUNA BEACH: LITTLE MAN, BIG HEAD

The new kid in town and a school counselor help a campus bully get off to a new start in the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater's staging of Louis Sachar's "There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom," Friday through June 18 at the Moulton Theater. $7 to $10. (714) 494-0743.

IN COSTA MESA: GREG AND STEVE

Greg Scelsa and Steve Millang went to different O.C. high schools but have been in and out of classrooms together ever since, creating tunes used in grade school curricula nationwide. They perform at 2 p.m. Sunday at Orange Coast College. $7 to $10. (714) 432-5880.

IN BUENA PARK: 'PETER PAN'

The world-renown Flying by Foy special-effects firm supplies the "fairy dust" in this production by the Buena Park Youth Theatre, running Friday through June 18 at the Buena Park High School Performing Arts Center. $3. (714) 562-3844.

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