Sunday, August 16, 2020

Best Board Games for a Pandemic

If you're like us, you're spending a lot more time at home during this pandemic. We've seen a lot of recommendations for things to binge on Netflix, read on Kindle, and order online. But what about if you want to have some wholesome fun with your family or roommates while giving your eyes a rest from the screen you're probably staring at most of the day and night? Well, then this post is for you.

I thought I'd put together a list of some of our top board games that we can recommend for folks who are social distancing. After all, the games you want to play as a household can be quite different from the ones that fit better at a larger party. (And it's no secret in the Foreign Service community that many U.S. diplomats are full-on board game geeks.) Here are some of our favorites:

  • Pandemic (2-4 players): Of course this had to top the list! Besides being the perfect ironic game for our time, it's the first co-op game Marwan and I enjoyed playing over and over again. This is a great introductory game for people who are more used to playing games where all the players compete against each other, and it doesn't take too long to learn.
  • Forbidden Island/Forbidden Desert (2-4 players/2-5 players): These two are made by the same folks who created Pandemic. The mechanics are different, but both are still cooperative games. These are great ones to turn to when you get tired of playing Pandemic (or if you keep winning on Heroic mode).
  • Fluxx (2-6 players): This is usually M's favorite. This is by far the easiest one to start. The rules are simple (or at least start that way), the cards explain most of everything you need to know, and it doesn't take long to set up or play.
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill/Betrayal at Baldur's Gate (3-6 players): These games are almost exactly the same, but the former is set at a haunted house and the latter is based on Dungeons and Dragons. For the first part of the game, you work together to explore the area. At some point, your exploration will trigger a shift to the second part of the game with a variety of scenarios and rules that will apply depending on chance. Sometimes it's every man for himself, others you work together against the game, and sometimes one of you will become a traitor. The diversity of scenarios, all extremely well done by professional game writers, gives these great replay value.
  • Codenames (2-∞ players): This one is known more as a party game, but did you know you can play it with just two people? Check the instructions for fun variations on the rules that allow you to play it with a group of any size. This one is simple, fast, and doesn't require a lot of explanation. (Also, for those in language class: Codenames is available in some non-English languages, as well!)
  • Terraforming Mars (1-5 players): My wonderful sister shipped this game to us as a surprise, and we love it! The best way I can think of to describe it is a cross between Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. I would recommend this more for people who already like board games and want to add a new one to their collection. And yes, you can even play this game by yourself (though we haven't tried that version ourselves).

We hope you enjoyed this list. Feel free to let us know any of your favorite #quarantinelife board games below in the comments so we can expand our collection, too!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Celebrating an Anniversary Mid-Pandemic

Happy anniversary to us! We weren't able to do the things we originally planned to commemorate this year's milestone anniversary, but we went out of our way to make it special while still respecting public health guidelines during a pandemic. When we knew we wouldn't be at our next post and wouldn't be able to travel for our anniversary, we looked around for other options to get away from our claustrophic, one-bedroom apartment by the city. We were thrilled to find this delightful private yurt nestled in a small town by the Blue Ridge Mountains on Airbnb. The best part was that it was part of a category of Airbnb rentals with "Enhanced Clean", meaning the host "committed to a rigorous cleaning protocol developed with leading health and hospitality experts". Our hosts were wonderful, responsive, and went above and beyond to prevent the spread of COVID-19: from sanitizing the doorknobs to letting us check ourselves in with a key instead of interacting with other people.

We took the weekend away to enjoy nature and the beautiful outdoor spaces our home state of Virginia has to offer. We saw a bunch of wildlife, including multiple families of deer, black bears (a momma and her cub), and this adorable wild rabbit (pictured below). During the day, we went for walks and enjoyed beautiful plants and not-quite-ripe blackberry bushes. At night, we watched fireflies light up the grassy fields as the sunset turned to dusk. It was beautiful and reminded me of some of the things I love and miss most of our home when we're away.

For a few meals, we ate outside at a few restaurants with socially distanced tables and mask requirements. It definitely felt different than dining out did before the pandemic, but it was a special treat after months away from restaurants. We had everything from German fare to American breakfast food to Peruvian delicacies to very unusual and exciting artisanal chocolate. (I couldn't help myself and bought some cocoa nibs herbal tea, halwa chocolate from Dubai, and pistachio/fig dark chocolate. I also tried shrimp and bonito chocolate for the first time, which isn't nearly as off-putting as one might expect.)

Lastly, we sought out online experiences we could safely from our yurt to help make the weekend more special. We did an intro to Argentinian tango class run by an expert in Buenos Aires who taught us not only the moves but also the culture of tango. We booked a session with a composer in Singapore to improvise custom music for stories we shared about our life together (the first photo of this post). We even danced again to our first dance song at our own wedding. The best thing about all of these moments was that they allowed us to create that special feeling of celebration and commemoration even if we couldn't go to the places hosting those events.

But all things must come to an end, and so has our weekend away from it all. As disappointing as it was for us (like so many others) to forgo their plans this year, we have been able to reaffirm our appreciation for those things we miss and create happy new memories anyway. And, thankfully, we get to keep doing it all together.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Need a Challenge and a Break? Hike Old Rag!

One of the best social distancing activities you can do is a hike. If you go to a place at a time that isn't crowded, you can stay safe and still enjoy some fresh air and the majesty of nature. We decided to head out to Old Rag Mountain for this exact reason with our friend R, whom we met and traveled with in Kenya. If you can go on a weekday, that'll be your best best for avoiding crowds but we had to go on a weekend so we went early. We left the DC area at 5am and arrived at the mountain around 7am. This timing had the excellent bonus of making sure our hike was much cooler than if we'd gone in the middle of the day. We even enjoyed a beautiful sunrise on the drive over:

The hike was about nine miles, but you should budget more time than you usually would for a hike that length because there's a decent bit of rock scrambling. You don't have to be a rock climber or a technical expert to get through those parts, but they do take a while to move through. Reviews online recommended we budget about eight hours for the hike, but we did it in only five including breaks! We were pretty proud of ourselves by the end. (You can see the stats of our hike at the end of this post.)

There are a few must-haves for this hike, including lots of water and decent sneakers or hiking boots. Some parts of the rock scramble are slippery, so if your shoes lack traction it can get dangerous. (I wore hiking boots that don't fit perfectly and paid the price for it with torn heel blisters. If I go again, I'll probably just wear my perfectly sized sneakers instead.) People are divided on whether to wear shorts or jeans, but I was glad I wore jeans for the extra protection against the rock even if they were a bit warmer.

You need to be pretty in shape to do the regular hike, but there's actually an easier route through the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and Saddle Trail that you can take. We saw a few families go that way with kids, but if you can do the harder route I recommend it. The views are awesome and the sense of accomplishment can't be beat. Be prepared for incredibly athletic people to pass you, though. One guy passed us on the way up and down and up again, and when we asked him from a distance about it he says he likes to come every week and do the whole thing twice for fun! I will not be reaching that level of motivation anytime soon, but I really admired his discipline.

We enjoyed perfect weather the whole time. It was overcast and relatively cool, and when it was sunny we could stay in the shade most of the time. If you're in the DC area and looking to get out for a half-day or full-day trip, definitely check out Old Rag!