A Vermont Action Games participant plays a bow-and-arrow game
How does it feel to be struck by an arrow squarely in the nape of the neck? Normally you wouldn't be able to answer this — because you'd be dead. But on a recent day at Shelburne's Field House, I find myself experiencing the sensation and living to tell about it, given that said arrow is topped not with a deadly tip but with rubber and foam.
Still, it kinda hurts, which compels me to pick up my bow and start slinging arrows back at my assailant, Jeff Folb. He dodges behind a red inflatable bunker, then darts back out to shoot me again.
This, my friends, is a glimpse of Vermont Action Games, or VTAG. The acronym serves as a mashup of Vermont's postal abbreviation and the terms "action games" and "tag." The game is a mashup of archery, dodgeball, kickball, paintball and suicide sprints, and the Green Mountain State version just debuted. (It shouldn't be confused with Vermont Airsoft Group, an older, outdoor action game that also uses the abbreviation VTAG.) Promoter Folb of Wolfgaard Productions envisions turning VTAG, with its Renaissance Faire flair, into an organized sport that can be played year-round.
For fans of The Hunger Games, restless families and jaded athletes, VTAG just might hit the bull's-eye. Regular player Autumn Dufresne sums it up succinctly: "It's absurdly addictive."
Predecessors of VTAG have a long history as part of live action role-playing (LARP) events, which can involve staged "battles." "I've been LARPing for about 20 years," Folb explains, "and about 15 years ago, someone came up with the idea of putting foam heads on arrows and using them in the games. Then, a few years ago, somebody said, 'Hey, let's do it as an organized sport.'"
And, as I find at the Field House, VTAG is well organized. Cylindrical and trapezoidal inflatable bunkers have been lined up on the indoor soccer field, with sets of bows and arrows and bright orange cones nearby. A square of PVC piping marks the "neutral zone."
In a one-hour session of games lasting five minutes each, players on either side — two teams of 10 — shoot at one another until they run out of arrows. Physical contact is forbidden, and no projectile can be fired from closer than 20 feet — the width of the neutral zone. Players who've been shot must go to the sidelines but are soon "recycled" back into play.
The point? Don't get hit. And do hit your opponents.
"This is for anybody who's looking for something new and different," says Folb. "It's quick, easy, low impact. You come, you play, you go home. It's not taking the whole day — anybody can play."
A group of 10 to 20 VTAG players now gathers on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. to play the game — and then, perhaps, to throw back a pint or two at the Field House's sports bar. Kids playing soccer at the facility have been curious enough to join VTAG games, too — which speaks to the sport's wide appeal, says Folb.
"It's a very body-, gender-, age-neutral game, and yet it brings that element of a little risk, a little excitement, a little adrenaline," he says. "A lot of people aren't going to play paintball or dodgeball or soccer or lacrosse; this gives you a little bit of that element, but it's real low impact."
Players wear goggles — and are often full of giggles. Or so siblings Caitlyn and Nick Alden and their dad, Howard, demonstrate during a recent game of VTAG as they dash in and out of the bunkers, launching arrows.
Between sessions, Caitlyn admits she was drawn to VTAG because she's a Hunger Games fan. Sci-fi and fantasy fans form an underground tribe in this state, notes Folb. "There are a lot more people than you think who are very into The Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings and Vikings and all that," he says. "And in Vermont, there have not been a lot of venues."
After 28 years in operations management, Folb is now working full time to promote not only VTAG but a Renaissance Faire he's organized — think faux fairies, knights, jousters and jesters, along with outdoor bow-and-arrow tag. It's scheduled for June 25 and 26, 2016, in Stowe.
"We're tapping into this whole community of creative people who don't mind thinking out of the box — or building their own box and doing fun things," Folb says of the crossover between the Ren Faire crowd and VTAG players. "You don't have to be a sci-fi or fantasy geek to do it, but it may bring an extra smile to your face."
Rayne Herzog, owner of the Shelburne Health & Fitness facility that shares the Field House's building, has dabbled in VTAG and says it's more of a body burner than it initially seems. "You do get some good exercise," he says. "You're moving around, squatting, running — you start sweating."
Dufresne, a 40-year-old special-needs paraeducator from Vergennes, points out that VTAG can be tailored to individual preferences. "You can be running from bunker to bunker, drawing fire and dodging and dive-rolling to retrieve ammo, and you'll get a serious whole-body workout without even realizing it," she says. "But if you're not feeling that ambitious, or you tweaked your ankle, you can spend more time behind cover."
VTAG does require coordination, Dufresne adds — in ways that, say, bow hunting doesn't. While deer and turkey are moving targets, they don't shoot back at you.
Though I have the misfortune of being nailed right on a neck nerve, the VTAG arrows are harmless. The sport's only real inherent danger is that of being outfoxed by an opponent, or perhaps out-costumed. "You're never shooting anybody closer than 20 feet — the impact is nothing compared to paintball," says Folb.
He's thinking about offering more themed nights, as well as disco lights and glow sticks. Folb has also experimented with a version of VTAG in which teams aim their arrows at an athletic ball located in the neutral zone; it's called "football."
My attempts to hit anyone or anything with an arrow fall flat, but I'm intrigued enough by VTAG to plan to give it another shot this winter, especially if wacky garb and garish lights come into play. Sounds like a great way to forget about a gray winter evening.
As Dufresne says of the game, "It's a fun combo of coordination, sensory awareness and adrenaline." And proof that geeks and jocks don't have to be mortal enemies after all.