Alea Apartments, Paros: Like you need 5 reasons to visit a Greek Island…

Paros is a Greek Island (64 sq  mi) in the Cyclades, about 100 miles south east of the mainland (south of Mikonos, close to Naxos). You can fly there in under an hour from Athens, or float over the Med in 3-4 hours by ferry. We travelled over at the end of May and were greeted by my ideal temperature; about 25°c (77°f) and sunny. In the high summer, you can expect temperatures to start from 25°c, heading closer to 35°c on a hot day.

It’s a trip we’ve been on before. Two years ago seven of us headed to Alea Apartments and had a fantastic time (read all about it). This time we were just four, which very much changed the dynamic, but for me the holiday was every bit as enjoyable – just different.

While the first visit was an adventure, this time it was much more about familiarity; but I think we all appreciated it as a chance to recharge the batteries. In the past when I’ve talked about Paros I’ve concentrated a little too much on the board games, which in hindsight is misleading and could potentially put people off. So in an attempt to redress the balance, and in a truer reflection of how we spent this holiday, I’d like to break down five very distinct reasons why everyone (not just gamers) should consider a holiday to this fabulous island, and in particular to Alea.

1) The trip

There’s no getting around it; England to a Greek Island is a day out of your life. However, travelling doesn’t have to be a chore and the best journeys become part of the experience, rather than simply going from A to B.

Flying from Heathrow with BA is about as easy as things get within Europe, while the metro from the airport to the port was nicer than the London Underground equivalent (I know, not saying much!). The best thing is that the the train drops you directly opposite the right berth for the Paros ferry, leaving a hassle free stroll to the last leg of the journey.

Travelling off-season left us one ferry option, but I wouldn’t take a different one anyway. The massive Blue Star ferry takes four hours; but when that’s on a carpet-like Mediterranean in balmy sunshine while the sun goes down, I have absolutely no complaints. And there’s a bar…

2) The town of Naoussa

The ferry drops you in Paros’ main port, Parikia. It’s a nice seaside town but for me it doesn’t have the personality of Naoussa (pictured), a sleepy fishing village just 15 minutes away by road. Hiring scooters seems to be de rigueur, but I’ll stick to the bus or a taxi thanks!

Naoussa is one of those great little places that, while being unabashedly touristy in places, gives off a sense of community rather than tackiness. It’s the kind of place that feels as if it’s open all year round, rather than closing when the Brits bugger off in September.

You only have to round a couple of lesser lit corners to arrive in pretty yet urban back streets, or before popping out into farmland and countryside. It’s also very friendly, with pretty much everyone having enough English for you to get by. Lazy? Sure, but I already know two languages (English and online game nerd) and I can’t remember another one.

Better still the shops, as well as having a bit of tourist tat, tend to offer some very high quality clothes, ornaments and jewellery. Naoussa attracts an interesting mix of people, but the relaxed, traditional feel of the place seems to help the the posh yacht sect mix easily with island hopping young ‘uns.

3) 10 minutes from the apartments

Alea Apartments is about a 10-minute stroll from the centre of the village – far enough to be nice and quiet.

You’re also about a five-minute walk from two beaches (one tiny and secluded; one lovely, pictured) and about the same distance from a decent supermarket (and some other shops, including the island’s best cake bakery).

The apartments themselves are average sized and pretty basic; but this is reflected in some very reasonable prices. There’s a basic cooker and a fridge, so you can be self-catering, plus air-con. There are 14 apartments, ranging from two to four person, with at least five having a sea view.

This certainly isn’t luxury living; there’s no pool and generally nowt fancy. There is a secluded private courtyard with tables, sun umbrellas and the odd deck chair which is nice for an afternoon chill – or an evening of board games, of course.

But this isn’t a place to come if you’re looking for a fancy resort; but the beach has a bar/restaurant and everything is within walking distance, which is good enough for us.

4) The Varrias Family

People so often make the difference to a holiday and you simply can’t fault the Varrias family as hosts. On both of our trips they’ve picked us up from the port and this time also drove us back. They were a constant font of knowledge when we needed it, offering us all kinds of trips around the island and tips for food, drinks etc. The main point of contact are the two sons, Dimitris and Simos. They’re friendly and intelligent people (a teacher and a doctor) who have been brought up on the island, but have good experience away from it as well. They’ve always been around for us as much as they can, joining us for drinks, games and even meals – actually becoming part of the group (although I’m sure this isn’t compulsory!). Mum Maria provided regular home cooked treats and coffee in the mornings, and while she only has a few words of English she exudes such personality that it’s always great to see her at the start of your day. Dad Aristides is a renowned Parian marble sculptor and while not involved in the day-to-day of the apartments, he gave us a fantastic tour of the old marble mines and a local church on our previous visit.

5) Playing Cyclades in the Cyclades

And finally, yes, there are some 500 board games in reception. They range across the scale from silly, short dexterity games up to hugely involved four to five hour epics.

Any taste is catered for here and the guys are often around to teach games when they can. They love to play, so if you’re into games it’s a bonus.
I’m a self-confessed board game addict but on this trip, I barely played two games a day.

Our days soon became very uniform; stagger out of bed at 10ish, go to the beach for a swim, get some lunch then chill out in the afternoon, go out for a meal in the evening then head back for some more wine and some games.

The fact is that the games aren’t really notable in the price; it’s just an added extra you can take advantage of if and when you like. You can comfortably bring people along who simply aren’t into games – it’s just a nice place to be.

And if you just so happen to play board games 14 hours each day while they top up their tan, so be it…

Advertisements

My board gaming life: 2012 highlights

I think that, if I’m honest, I should describe 2012 as the year board games went from being a hobby to a minor obsession.

Despite saying a year ago I was happy with my collection of just over 50 games, I still managed to practically double my collection. Add to that the fact I had three game related holidays in the year, joined two new game groups and wrote more on board and card games than ever before, the evidence is overwhelming.

For this reason I thought it best to separate my gaming year from everything else, as there was a big list of highlights. But as I started to put the list together it became clear the traditional ‘top 10’ wasn’t going to cut it. So (in 3,000 words or less…) here’s my raggle taggle list of 2012 gaming goodness.

My 8 best gaming experiences of 2012

These really stood out but are hard to categorise. In no particular order:

  • Ra for the Galaxy: While I spent a lot of time playing new and often brilliant games in 2012, Ra and Race for the Galaxy remain firmly in my ever fluctuating top five – usually in the top two spots. It’s been a pleasure to continue playing them, especially with my midweek group (Andy and Carl), and I never see them getting old. Simply brilliant games I enjoy every time.
  • Spreading the love through plastic trains: Another game rarely out of that top five is Ticket to Ride. Once again it has been our go-to gateway game of 2012, with Zoe and me successfully introducing it to four new couples. We just need to make sure we repeat some of those experiences in 2013, as we got a bit lazy late in the year. As for TtR, it should also be said it’s not just its gateway value that makes it shine – it’s a game I’m always happy to play.
  • Games as souvenirs: I guess it’s another mark of my burgeoning obsession, but I love to look on my shelves and see my Greek version of Citadels (from our awesome trip to Paros) and Spanish version of Lost Cities (from my regular trips to Barcelona). They’re great reminders of good times and are far more useful than fridge magnets! Well, ‘Exploradores’ is anyway – sadly my Greek doesn’t extend to playing Citadels (or, in fact, to doing more than asking for a beer).
  • Thrashed by mine own wench: During 2012, Zoe won every game of Ticket to Ride: Switzerland we played – seven wins in seven. This is important to me because it’s brilliant to have a girlfriend who is happy to play games – but also one who is good at them. She talks herself down sometimes, while some games simply don’t click with her, but on her day she’ll wipe the floor with me and that’s healthy! Happy to say I’ve already broken this duck though, with our first play of this year, but this record will forever stand.
  • Score draws: Following on from celebrating my defeats, I’ll move on up to drawing. While some people obsess over winning, I absolutely love a close game – whatever the outcome – and it doesn’t come closer than a great draw. 2012 saw some epic draws, including a fantastic game of Alhambra and back to back draws in Carcassonne – with two different groups in two days. I definitely fall on the side of ‘celebrate your shared victory’ rather than pointless deciding factors (most gold, or similar); you can’t really be expected to play for those in games where draws are rare, so why add these conditions in? I blame American sports.
  • Board in the sun: I’ve rattled on enough about Paros elsewhere, but the memories of sitting in the shade with a beer, enjoying the heat (it was just right for me when we went in early June) and learning a new game deserves a final mention. We learnt both Calus and Power Grid on this trip and my gaming life is much rich for the experience. I’ve managed to balls up going in 2013, but the minute the flights go on sale for 2014 I’m booking us in!
  • Playtesting prototypes: Another mark of my obsession has been further reaching into the hobby through playtesting and designing. I’ve had a lot of fun helping with the upcoming City of Guilds: The Card Game, while joining the Cambridge Playtest Group via Meetup.com has been a real revelation. I’m nowhere near a finished game myself, but to play both mine and other people’s prototypes with published game designers has been truly inspirational. I really hope the likes of Inspector Moss: House Arrest, Space Dogsbody and Divinare Dice get the published versions they deserve.
  • It’s a trip: Again, I’ve rattled on about these elsewhere, but trips to Essen, Eastbourne and Paros were full of great memories that will stay with me forever. Add to that the camaraderie I’ve found through my irregular trips down to London on Board (LoB) – and the related games days that have followed – and it has been a year of travelling far and wide for some fantastic gaming experiences.

My top individual game plays of 2012

I looked back through my gaming year blog on Board Game Geek and picked my most memorable individual plays that don’t get a mention elsewhere.

  • January: A great start to the year thanks to Matt’s hilarious 0 in Peloponnes during a fun gaming night at morph and Davina’s; Zoe trashing me at Hamburgum after seeing a better strategy; and me winning an epic game of Ra (versus Carl and Andy) 39-35-32.
  • February: A rare Endeavor win for me on 46, where I finally remembered there is something to do other than shipping; scoring 200 points in a completely dominant display in Revolution! Sometimes it’s just great to win big.
  • March: Most notable was a brilliant game of Decathlon with Zoe which was tense throughout. I won it 220-219 on the final throw of the dice – we really need to get this Knizia P&P game back to the table soon.
  • April: My first game of the excellent Manhattan Project at London on Board, with Ed pulling out a win that no one (except him, I suspect) saw coming. It couldn’t have been a better advert for the game.
  • May: A pretty depressing month of illness and miserablism was made more palatable by some great solo games; most notably Pizza Box Football, Adventures of D and Mage Knight. There was also a fantastic game of Ticket to Ride with Zoe, Morph and Davina that saw the four of us separated by just 11-points at the end.
  • June: Again with morph and Davina, but this time a different TtR: this time it was Team Asia, which Zoe and me lost 174-168 on quite literally the last card as they just completed a tunnel. Carl and me also had an epic two-player slug fest in Race for the Galaxy, which I lost 62-60 in a prestige drawing vs big military high-scorer.
  • July: I really didn’t expect Zoe to like Pizza Box Football – not did I expect one of the closest games of the year, with me finally losing 16-13 in overtime. We also had a fantastic game of Through the Ages where Zoe took a huge lead that I almost managed to claw back, finally going down 225-211.
  • August: A brilliant day at the Olympic tennis ended with Zoe’s first trip to LoB and us finding Jambo in the big random box of games; one that has since been bought and become a favourite. I also thoroughly enjoyed coming in dead last at Stone Age to Carl and Andy – a game I’d previously dominated; while Carl scored 87 in RftG – the highest total in any of our 200+ plays to date.
  • September: We had a fun game of Pompeii with morph and Davina, where Morph got crap draws and barely got a person on the board – but got them all out and came second – while Davina got bucket-loads out and then got terrible tile draws, ending up last. I also had a memorable introduction to Vanuatu at LoB.
  • October: The real Essen playing highlights were Snowdonia (with the Woking crew) and Tzolk’in with our new Australian friends. I also have a great image in my mind of playing Love Letter on the train when visiting Zoe’s sister.
  • November: Most noteable from our Eastbourne trip were the plays of Die Macher (thanks to Soren, who also introduced me to Vanuatu) and Goblins Inc (with the rather silly Tom and Lloyd). Also noteable was a great introduction to Terra Mystica on another regular LoB night.
  • December: Two Morph related incidents stand out: him crying with laughter while playing Cards Against Humanity, plus his Stone Age epiphany; he hadn’t liked it when we played a long time ago when he’d only just started gaming, but playing now he just ‘got’ it – and nearly beat me too.

The best 16 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2012

I was going to painstakingly distil this down to 10, but then I realised I already on my third page of A4 and thought – why bother? So, in no real order:

Bought

  • Notre Dame: Engaging, tactical and strategic, while being well produced and playing in under an hour.
  • Puerto Rico: A classic for a reason – tough decisions, barely any luck and where watching your competitors is crucial.
  • Caylus: The granddaddy of worker placement rewards forward planning, but also ruthlessness.
  • Power Grid: A genius blend of route building and auction mechanisms which, despite the odd theme, looks great too.
  • Dixit: I’m not a party game fan, but the creativity this encourages through its beautiful artwork is impossible not to fall for.
  • Jambo: A brilliant two-player card game that has a great (and hard to find) blend of strategy, luck and interaction.
  • Acquire: A clever mix of tile placement/area control with a stocks and shares engine that actually makes investing seem like fun.
  • The Boss: There can’t be a game that packs more painstaking decisions into such a tiny box. Clever, quick and a lot of fun.
  • The Scepter of Zavandor: An economic/auction game with a fantasy theme? Who cares, it works!
  • Jaipur: Two-player set collection with just enough push-your-luck bells and tactical whistles to make it stand out from the crowd.

Not bought (yet…)

  • Fairy Tale: Card drafting done right in a tiny box of cards. It shall be mine! Should have the popularity 7 Wonders has.
  • Kingdom Builder: A lovely twist on area control, which initially looks restrictive but is quite the opposite.
  • Glen More: Another big game in a small box, this tile-layer has a great rondel mechanism and builds beautifully to a climax.
  • Galaxy Trucker: Space! Build your ship on a time limit then fly your box of bolts to its ultimate destruction! Fun!
  • Die Macher: My head still hurts. Hours and hours of German political wrangling, deal making and influence building. Brilliant.
  • Cards Against Humanity: A party game where being the most inappropriate and simply wrong in the head will get you the win.

I’ll add two expansions here too – Rattus: The Pied Piper and the Rattus 2010 Bonus Cards. As any good expansion should, these breathe new life into a game that I’d initially enjoyed but that had started to gather dust. You could of course argue that these should’ve been in the original box, but that’s another debate…

My 7 favourite new releases of 2012

I certainly didn’t play them all, but these are the 2012 releases that had the strongest impression of me. There were plenty more; in fact three great games I really enjoyed – Seasons, Goblins Inc and Coup – were on the list until the last minute. However, I felt there was a significant drop to those, so I left them off. So, in order of love:

  1. Snowdonia: My game of the year – worker placement goodness with the theme perfectly integrated alongside some properly clever mechanisms to keep the game ticking along and to be different every time.
  2. Tzolk’in: Another brilliant worker placement game, where the gears work perfectly to negate annoying upkeep duties. There are lots of routes to victories and forward planning is a must.
  3. Terra Mystica: The Eclipse killer for me, intelligently integrating area control with civ building and worker placement to make a non-confrontational yet tense and interactive experience.
  4. Plato 3000: What a surprise this was; a cyberpunk themed rummy variant that does just enough to the solid original mechanisms to make it a real gamer’s game.
  5. Love Letter: There are just 16 cards, it has very simple rules and it packs a ridiculous level of luck – but who cares? Fast, furious and fun.
  6. Copycat: I’m totally sold on this simple blend of Dominion’s deck building, Through the Ages’ card drafting and Agricola’s turn structure. I’m not sure of its staying power, but for the moment I’m having a blast.
  7. Manhattan Project: Another worker placement game that stood out from the crowd. Blocking key spaces is fantastic, especially on other players’ personal boards, while the hidden endgame conditions make for some tense finales.

I’d also like to add Ticket to Ride: Asia here as my best expansion release of 2012. It brings two genuinely new maps to the game – one introduces a brilliant team variant, while the other plays faster than any other version of the game. Both are great fun.

Incidentally, I didn’t play Descent 2, Waterdeep, X-Wing, Mage Wars, 1989, Space Cadets or Mice and Mystics (most now in the BGG top 250), while I don’t consider Android ‘new’ (although I enjoyed playing it back in the day).

And not forgetting…

It’s traditional around this time to put the boot into a few things; to let off some steam on some crap because it’s therapeutic, fun to read and possibly controversial. That’s pretty cheap, in honesty – but I’m going to do it anyway. Why the hell not? These things wasted my precious free time and/or money and I have precious little of either (although this blog post may call that into question).

  • Kickstarter games: What a bunch of crap – and I fell for it. Three times. I won’t go into the Glory to Rome debacle again here (I save that for my therapist), but since then I’ve been burnt twice more: Ace of Spies and Lost City of Karez, both of which I was meant to collect at Essen in October, still haven’t arrived. Bastards. So help me god, I will not back another game on Kickstarter – although the site itself isn’t to blame and I’ll continue to use it to back other things (such as the fantastic The Spiel podcast).
  • Crappy games: I’ve played a few real stinkers this year – the worst offenders being Swordfish and Courtier (both get the strategy/luck/length mix completely wrong), Spectaculum (a pointless rearranging of the Knizia toolbox), Among the Stars (combining the worst elements of drafting and tile laying) and Barista (lovely bits, lovely box, no game).
  • Overhyped games: Only a few for me this year: Suburbia (an exercise in mathematical efficiency totally devoid of charm), Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (Agricola with the game skilfully removed) and Spartacus (either too long, or too short).
  • Race for the Galaxy: Where the hell is the Alien Artefacts expansion! Bastards! And Dice for the Galaxy too. Don’t make me come over there…

Sun, sea and strategy: Alea Apartments, Paros, Greece

Who hasn’t sat in the pub one night, shooting the breeze, coming up with ideal jobs and hair-brained schemes that will either make them happy, or make them rich?

Alea Apartments, Paros

We all love to dream, but few of us wake up the next morning and put those ideas into practice. Thankfully, the Varrias family did.

When you think about it, the idea makes perfect sense. Take a beautiful, sunny and relaxed tourist destination and instead or relying on a sea front position or swimming pool, pitch at a niche market: in this case, board gamers. It’s a growing market, while players tend to be educated and well behaved, as well as sociable (at the least within the confines of their chosen hobby).

So, last summer, the Varrias family opened the doors of Alea Apartments for the first time. It’s a block of around 15 apartments (some with sea views, as pictured above) which all have small kitchenettes, bathrooms and two well lit and shaded gaming areas – plus a collection of more than 300 board games to drool over.

Parikia, ParosWhen I read reports from Board Game Geek reviewers late in the summer, I had to go. By the end of October, a group of seven of us were booked in for an early June 2012 visit.

I’d not been to the Greek Islands before, as I’m not a hot weather fan – hence booking off-peak (coinciding with half term from the school Zoe works at).

I booked flights to Athens, thinking we’d be fine to sort out local connections nearer the time. If you’re thinking of doing the same, be warned: off peak, this can be a chore: ferry services to the islands are running at a minimum and timings can be tricky. It’s definitely worth checking into options available from closer international airports (Mykonos and Santorini), or considering staying a night where you fly into to break up the travelling a little.

That said, on the way out, the trip was 100 per cent smooth (if a little long!). The flight and connection to Athens’ Piraeus Port went smoothly, while the four-hour ferry to Paros was smooth, comfortable and blessed with a beautiful sunset.

If you’re not keen on long ferry rides, there are much shorter options from the other two airports (you can get them lasting under an hour), while quicker ferries and also internal flights are available from Athens if you can time them right.

We were met at Paros’ port (Parikia) by Simon and Maria Varrias, who had generously offered to pick us up once we found out the bus service would’ve stopped for the night before we’d arrived. This seems the perfect time to talk about these guys, as they’re an integral part of why it was such a fantastic trip.

Alea Apartments are owned and run by the Varrias family: parents Aristides and Maria and sons Dimitris and Simon (there may be more of them, but these are the ones we had contact with).

They are all incredibly well educated and unbelievably friendly and welcoming, giving their time freely throughout the trip well above and beyond our expectations. All the guys have great English too, and what Maria lacks in language skills are more than made up for with enthusiasm and baking ability!

Simon (half of him expertly photographed by me on the right here) was our main point of contact throughout the trip and essentially became part of our group. We were lucky, as it was the first week of the season and we were the only group booked in, so he could give us his full attention. But even so, we couldn’t have expected the level of service we got: being driven to the beach, taken on swim/fishing trips and a tour of “the church of 100 doors” in Parikia (and this was a fraction of what was offered).

Archilochos, by Aristides Varrias, in ParikiaThe church tour was given by father Aristides Varrias (pictured above), a sculptor particularly renowned for his work with Parian marble (translucent and flawless, it was used to make masterpieces such as the Medici Venus).

After visiting the church they took us to the old mines where the marble used to be brought up, before taking us back to their family home for coffee and a look at his workshop – well beyond the call of duty. He also talked us through this beautiful sculpture he was asked to create by the council of Parikia, which stands proudly in the central square (right).

During the day, when not on excursions, we simply enjoyed the town of Naoussa and its wonderfully named local beaches, big and little pepper. In high season it’s a bit of a clubber destination, but during the day and early evening it’s a pretty, tranquil and relaxed traditional Greek Island town with some great jewellery shops and restaurants.

'Big Pepper', Naoussa, ParosWhile not spectacular, the beaches were more than adequate for us and there were many more around the island (both more popular and secluded, depending on your tastes) for those who wanted to seek them out (car and bike hire, alongside taxis, were all simple options).

I hadn’t been in the sea for years (OK, decades), but despite a bit of an early June heat wave (it got up to 35 centigrade in the sun while we were there) I managed to get in there three times. Even an unfortunate dumb ass moment with a sea urchin (I’ll be picking bits out of my fingers for weeks) on my first swim didn’t dampen my spirits. It really was lovely.

When not in the sea, and often while others were sunning themselves on the beach, I could be found back at the apartments in the shade reading board game rule books (nerd, me?!).

I won’t go into much detail about the board game collection here, as I’ll save it for a Geek List over at BGG (link to come once it’s finished). But as it’s one of Alea Apartments’ main USP it certainly merits a mention.

Unfortunately due to a very blurred image, I can’t show you the main wall of games, but this at least gives an idea of the extent of the collection which has been constructed mostly by Dimitris (sadly we did not get to meet, as he was away doing medical exams – next time!).

This part of reception holds mostly the smaller card games, a wall to its left holds about 150 big box titles, while other games are stored elsewhere. And you don’t have to be a board game enthusiast to enjoy the collection. There are simple games, party games, drinking games, brain games, all sorts – and Simon was more than happy to teach us the ones he knew.

If there is something specific you want, it’s worth mentioning it in advance so they can have it on site when you arrive. It might also be worth getting them to check which languages the rules are in too – several games I opened up were only in German or Greek. Simon was happy to teach games he knew, or to try and find rules online, but having them pre-printed would’ve been useful.

ParosWhile I’m talking negative, there were two very small niggles with the trip: the Wi-Fi and the kitchen facilities. Describing the Wi-Fi as ‘intermittent’ would be generous, while the kitchenware on offer was sparse at best (have you ever tried flipping fried eggs with a table spoon? It’s an art, I tell you). However, that’s as bad as things got.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m giving the Alea Apartments on Paros a massive thumb’s up. The Varrias family set out to offer two things beyond the normal: an impressive board game selection and hospitality above and beyond the norm. I’m happy to say they achieve both of those things with flying colours. All seven of us have vowed to return, most next year and the rest probably the year after, which speaks volumes.

One of the most glowing recommendations came in the fact that Zoe didn’t even try to turn the TV on during the entire time we were there – fact!

Of course, even if you don’t end up going and simply want to support this great idea for a holiday destination, you can simply go and give them a ‘like’ on Facebook.

I’ve already started plotting next year’s trip, and with lots of new games promised to add to its already impressive collection, I look forward to building on the nine new games I learnt this time (several of them taught to us by Simon – cheers mate!).

Parikia, ParosBut before then is the Cambridge Folk Festival; a bank holiday weekend in the New Forest, Hampshire; my first trip to the world’s largest board gaming fair in Essen, Germany; another visit to Devon; a weekend in Goteborg; plus at least one Tesco Clubcard/Avios fuelled city break in an as yet unnamed European city.

But I can safely say that, already, the trip back to Paros and Alea Apartments is the one I’m really looking forward to. And hey, Simon – I expect you to have learnt the rules to Twilight Struggle by the time we return!