When was the last time you played an arcade game? A real-life, quarter-powered, cabinet-the-size-of-a-refrigerator game you had to leave your house and go to a second location to play?
For a group of Madison gaming enthusiasts, the answer is “last Wednesday” — to play a newly-minted 10-player arcade game called Killer Queen.
Killer Queen takes the nostalgic ‘80s arcade-game concept and blows it up into something heretofore unseen: an arcade game that’s also a social-networking phenomenon. Two cabinets wide and played on two giant screens, you can’t really get a good game going with fewer than eight people. Madison’s KQ cabinet is located in a pretty unlikely spot — the taproom of ALT Brew, the East side’s gluten-free brewery at 1808 Wright St.
The owner of the cabinet, Hilton Jones, is one of the founders of the group Madison Pinball. He first spotted KQ at a gaming convention and was immediately hooked.
“I played ‘til like four in the morning,” he said. “That kind of planted the seed.”
Afterward, he put out a post on Reddit to gauge local interested in bringing the game to Madison. Jones’s wife Heidi, also a pinball enthusiast, is celiac, so ALT Brew was a logical spot for him to house the game — along with eight of his own pinball machines.
Trevor Easton, the owner of ALT Brew, got to know Hilton and Heidi when the taproom first opened. Hilton spotted an unused area in the back and suggested bringing in some of his own pinball tables for tournament play. When he found out about KQ, he asked Easton if he could add the game to the mix.
What makes the game so addictive is its combination of simplicity and complexity. Each five-player team has four drones and one queen, whose responsibilities include putting in the multiple quarters required to play each round. It’s simple to learn, with characters controlled by a single joystick and button. But team strategy is essential, and there are three ways to win the game: economic (gathering berries), military (killing the opposing team’s queen), and snail (riding a giant snail into a net).
Facebook has been critical in connecting players. The Madison Killer Queen group brings in new fans as well as helping the community organize meetups to play. Wednesday is the current weekly KQ night, and it draws an increasing crowd of players at all skill levels.
Jenn Gilbert runs the monthly “Flight School” meetup at ALT Brew, where players can trade tricks and tips. She recently took part in Bumble Bash 2, the second annual Killer Queen tournament in Minneapolis, where she and her boyfriend, Lev Bakin, were both competing.
“Before I played Killer Queen, I wasn’t a big arcade person,” she said. She was introduced to the game on a trip back to California with Bakin. “I was used to being at home on my couch playing Xbox. Playing KQ, having ten friends and playing this game where you’re all right next to each other in this space that has alcohol and is fun — I was like, I have to keep coming back and playing this game.”
Madison’s KQ community is a rarity. It’s one of less than two dozen publicly-playable cabinets in the US (Google reportedly owns a couple). Since the cabinet was first installed in September, the group has been growing purely through word-of-mouth and Facebook.
At a typical Wednesday gathering, a range of ages, genders, and walks of life are represented in the group. Players are welcoming to new faces and eager to share their advice with new learners.
“I would like to build a really fun and inclusive scene,” says Gilbert. “It doesn’t have to be huge and it isn’t a goal of mine to be ultra-competitive. I’d just like to have a community where we can play together and have a good time.”