When a company like Wargaming holds a 15th anniversary party in its backyard of Minsk, Belarus, it can be difficult to imagine what the event would be like. Having never been to the region, I was certainly curious to visit the country. My token research prior to the event indicated I should learn my US Dollar-to-Belarusian Ruble conversion, my cell phone would be a brick due to no Sprint-compatible coverage, and the lack of widespread English meant I should bone up on a few basic Russian phrases. What would I find in the city of Minsk, and how can I survive a Wargaming party?
The trip started to take shape when our group arrived at the Minsk airport. With our passports and documents in hand, we made our way through the military-run airport to purchase mandatory health insurance. This $3.00 USD health insurance policy was required to enter the country and was supposed to cover us if we were injured or sick during our stay. It also made us wonder how much health care we were purchasing for such a small sum of money. Maybe a shot of vodka and a Band-Aid to staunch the bleeding? Belarus could be a country with very inexpensive health care. Either way, none of us wanted to find out.
We boarded shuttles to the hotel, a 30-minute ride through the Belarusian countryside into the city of Minsk. Little did I know then that music of the '90s would feature prominently throughout the trip, and we had fun laughing at the oddity of listening to Smashmouth's "All Star" while our shuttle drove down the highway. At one point, the shuttle literally drove down the middle line of the highway to get around some slower traffic, like a dash cam video come to life. The other drivers on the road accepted this as normal and maneuvered to accommodate our shuttle. The takeaway is if you rent a car there, be prepared to throw your coddled sense of "driving between the lines" out the window. Drivers of the region are more hardcore.
The first night was a welcome dinner and some needed rest. We set out bright and early the next day for the Stalin Line outdoor museum to check out some decommissioned Soviet military hardware and participate in the Wargaming movie. While it was listed on the trip itinerary, I'm not sure what was expected, but when we saw a proper filming tent, cameras on boom cranes, and a passionate director, we realized it wasn't a small project. The first series of scenes was to be in the line of Wargaming's game, Order of War, a World War II real-time strategy game. Each of us donned period-appropriate Soviet army uniforms and played our roles in three scenes: writing in a journal, chucking a prop grenade at a tank, and participating in a battle charge down a hill. For that last scene, I was in a Soviet uniform, screaming a bloodthirsty war cry while armed with a real Mosin Nagant rifle and running down a field in Eastern Europe. Moments of "If you'd told me I'd be doing this a year ago, I'd think you're nuts" were pretty common for the trip.
The second series of scenes switched gears and focused on the medieval combat of Wargaming's first title, DBA Online. I donned a linen tunic and some chainmail, had makeup done to make my face look dirty, grabbed a sword and shield, and engaged in a short sword fight versus another combatant, who was blocking my jabs with his shield. A previous scene had me putting on my helmet to prepare for battle, and the culminating scene had a group of us banging our weapons against our shields and chanting in victory. After that, we wandered to the end of a field to shoot at targets with traditional bows and a crossbow. I was told, "If I ever get lost in a jungle, I'm bringing you along!" It's good to have a backup gig as a crossbow marksman, but to my discredit, the plastic boar was standing still.
Minsk was often referred to as "The City of Green" during our trip due to its many parks, and on the second night, a small group of us ventured into the "park" across the hotel. The quotes were needed because the place was large enough to be classified as a reserve in the U.S. This was also our first chance to interact with some of the locals. Russian is the predominant language spoken in Minsk (and presumably all of Belarus), but some of the younger citizens can easily carry a conversation in English. For the most part, we conversed amongst ourselves and tried (and probably failed) to not enforce the stereotype of ignorant Americans.
The following day started with a bus tour of Minsk, and two things immediately became apparent. This is easily one of the more beautiful cities I've seen. For starters, there is interesting architecture everywhere, from older stone designs with elaborate facades to curved glass buildings. The city is also remarkably clean, considering how many people live there. Litter and gum on the sidewalk were scarce, so I'd imagine these offenses must be punishable by death. The tour shuttled us around to different areas of the city that we could explore on foot, such as the city hall building and a small green cottage that is apparently the birthplace of communism.
Ultimately, we ended up at the Belarus National Library, a massive structure of glass and steel and shaped like a geometric ball. It was there that Wargaming held its press conference, with the first announcement being that Wargaming is opening its 16th office in Austin, Texas. It was also announced that the long-foreshadowed British faction was going to be added to World of Warplanes prior to its launch. Finally, Wargaming announced that it now owns the rights to both the Master of Orion and Total Annihilation franchises. No games are in development yet, as they are fresh acquisitions, but it's currently having internal conversations on the best way to bring those franchises back to life.
As often as the trip deviated toward insanity, none of it compared to Wargaming's 15th anniversary party, which was held at the Stalin Line later that day. Media folks were a minority of the 3,300 people in attendance, as the majority of the party-goers were Wargaming employees and friends and family from all over the world. You could consider it to be a massive company retreat, but this company picnic included tank rides aboard a Soviet T-35, the ability to fire blank rounds from a Mosin Nagant rifle or a belt-fed PK machine gun, and a lavish amount of booze was consumed.
While those events were all going on, an air show broke out overhead, with a quartet of jets releasing smoke trails and practically buzzing the party. Later, a mock battle was held between German and Russian forces, with soldiers on each side firing at one another. Tank support was also present, culminating in the Soviet T-35 crushing the German troops' car. A stage showcased a few different music acts, with the high point being The Offspring taking the stage. This also kept the '90s music theme running. It could have been the noise of the jets, the smell of the gunpowder from the machine gun, or the copious amount of vodka, but the party felt like a mad lib borne of a fever dream.
Through the miracles of intercontinental travel, a small group of us had another day to check out the city and go off the rails. We went to a T.G.I. Friday's to get some food that felt closer to home and were surprised to see the same Missouri license plates and Steelers banners making up the décor. We wandered through the Belarus National Museum to take in some art, through a shopping center to pick up some souvenirs, and we hit a pub to take a break. Later that evening, we checked out a casino, and on the way, we were interrupted by a street magician who had a surprisingly amazing showcase. Shortly thereafter, it was time to get a taxi to the airport, and this time, the '90s music theme continued with Chumbawumba's "Tub Thumping."
I didn't know what I expected from Minsk, but despite it being on the other side of the planet, Minsk didn't feel that distant. It is an area that has an unsure economic future but is currently experiencing a construction boom with the upcoming 2014 International Ice Hockey Championships, and locals are uncertain about how that will pan out for the city afterward. Though the city is not a tourist destination, even the non-English-speaking residents were patient with my limited knowledge of a few phrases, and those who spoke English were very conversational and kind. With that city as a backdrop, Wargaming threw one hell of a party to celebrate its 15 years — and setting the stage for the 15 years to come.