I'm off to Nationals again. I've done five national Zone tournaments in the US, one in Finland, and this will be my second in Australia. That makes this my eighth all up, and I am fairly sure that this is more national tournaments than anyone else. This year, some of the rules are familiar to me (two hands on laser, two shots per second, eight second deactivations, must leave base when deac'ed), but some are new (all hits are deac's, covering is allowed). We've practiced these rules very little, and we've played together as a team not at all. It's teams of five, but we're taking nine players. Nominally, this is five regular players plus four substitutes, but in fact we have made no assignments.

Most of the team flies Qantas; I use frequent flier miles to fly American Airlines. Through the miracle of code share, this puts me on the same physical plane as my team mates. It's the midnight flight, and we arrive in Brisbane, Queensland, at dawn. We pick up the rental van and drive.

During the trip I am repeatedly reminded of a trip I took in the US, to the Virginia Beach Invitational, with Bad Karma, the Las Vegas team. There, too, we flew from the west side of the country to a tournament in a holiday town in the east. There, too, we took the midnight flight. And there, we came eighth. Hopefully, we'll do better here.

The tournament is at the Sunshine Coast Zone 3, a couple of hours north of Brisbane. One of our players, Kimbo, has had the foresight to buy a map book. It takes me a while to figure it out, because there are three separate sets of page numbers in the book: one set for the Sunshine Coast, one set for Brisbane, and one set for the Gold Coast.

I have printed some directions to our hotel from whereis.com.au, an online maps and driving directions site. Unfortunately whereis has a certain amount of trouble with the difference between left, right and straight ahead. Whenever we turn off or onto a highway, whereis tells us to go straight ahead. It is seeing the gently curving off-ramp or on-ramp, and interpreting this as "straight". And whenever our route involves a round-about, whereis tells us to turn left. As far as it's concerned, you always exit a roundabout by turning left. I can see its point of view, but roundabouts tend to have several lefts, and highway on-ramps tend to go in multiple directions, so following whereis's directions entails a degree of challenge.

We reach our hotel. It's a multi-storey block, looking suspiciously similar to the one we stayed in in Virginia Beach.

Only one of our two rooms is available for early check-in, so we elect not to sleep. A couple of the team go shopping, and several more go exploring to find the pub. Queenslanders must have a somewhat literal turn of mind, because the pub is called The Pub, and right next to it is a nightclub called The Nightclub.

The rest of the team decide to join those already at the pub, and I tag along. There then follows a series of mobile phone calls and false leads, and we walk a substantial amount of ground, some of it in completely the wrong direction, while trying to rendezvous. I come to the conclusion that six of the nine players on my team would encounter a certain amount of difficulty in organising a piss-up in a brewery.

(Note for Americans: piss-up: a drinking spree. -- Australian Concise Oxford.)

We visit the site in order to get a look at the arena. We get to walk through it but not play, as there is a state tournament in progress. I am extremely annoyed at this, and at the fact that we weren't told about it ahead of time. It essentially amounts to a warm-up event for the local teams, thus ensuring that they will do well in the Nationals.

The rest of the day is variously spent drinking, in the spa, and drinking while in the spa. In the evening, Brad, Chook and Heath and his wife Sarah arrive. We go out to dinner. Brad and I swap tech support war stories, and Heath and I swap programming war stories.

The following day would be a good day to get some practice games at the site, but we don't. Instead I go to Underwater World with Brad, Chook, Heath and Sarah. While there we run into some of the Coolangatta team. In the afternoon we drive to the Lawnton Zone 3 site in Brisbane. It's in a light industrial area, and it's nothing special. Despite the fact that it's a weekend, there are only two or three vehicles in the car park, and when we get inside we discover that they all belong to people doing the same thing as us: visiting other local sites while they're here for Nationals.

From the darkness I hear a voice cry, "Douggie!", and Doc from Canberra barrels into me at high speed. The entire Canberra team are here, having stopped in on their way up to the Sunshine Coast. We play a game (Version 3 gear, beat up arena, one short ramp approximately a metre high), and then we set off back to the Sunshine Coast. We're only half a kilometre away from the site when Heath's bag rings -- it's Doc, seeking directions. We pull over for a minute while he catches up, and he follows us the rest of the way. We realise that Doc will be forced to follow wherever we lead, so the route home is somewhat baroque: twice around roundabouts, through the occasional suburban subdivision, and so on.

I meet up with my team. Tomorrow at the site there are free practice games from 10am, and the rest of the team is therefore booked to go jet skiing at that exact time.

In the morning, I catch a lift to the site with Doc and his gang. His team is even bigger than ours -- it's at least a dozen people. We get into some practice games and start to see how the arena will play.

It's mostly single level, with one ramp of any consequence. The map that we'd been given ahead of time was incomplete -- there are twisty little tunnels under the ramp that weren't shown, plus barricades in the bases, plus some mirrors. Mirrors are always a home team advantage because the home team are most familiar with how they can be used. At Ultrazone tournaments we usually cover any mirrors up to level the playing field a little, but that won't happen here. The base targets are each set out radically differently: yellow is in the middle of the base so you can stand at the back in good cover and shoot forward, green is at the back of the base through a hole in the wall so that you have to line up carefully to get it, and the red target just doesn't bloody work. During one game, it fails to register 12 shots in a row while I am trying to hit it. The rest of my team arrives and we get some games in which we play more-or-less together as a team.

The next three days are a series of 84 games, in which every possible combination of the nine teams is played once. Our team plays in 28 of those games; that's about 9 games each day. (Ultrazoners reading this are right now picking their jaws up off the floor: this is a stunningly large number of games. In a 9-team tournament, with 3 teams in a game, it takes just 12 games for every team to play every other team exactly once. But to run every combination of three teams takes 84 games.) Luckily because we have nine players and only five of us play in any given game, each individual player gets less than the full 28 games.

We use the three days to learn more about the arena, learn more about the other teams, figure out what our final line-up is going to be, and come together as a team. By the start of the third day, we have our line-up down to just six people, and at the end of that day, we are ranked sixth of the nine teams. We go home and make our strategies for the semi-finals.

The semi-final is an Ascension. The bottom three teams (the teams ranked seventh, eighth and ninth) play a game, and the loser is eliminated, while the two teams that get first and second proceed. The next team up (which is us) comes in, and these three teams play. Again, the loser is eliminated and the teams that come first and second proceed. All you have to do to avoid being eliminated is: don't come third. This continues until there are only three teams remaining, at which point these teams play a three game series for the finals. We are reasonably certain that we can survive at least a couple of Ascension games; ending in sixth, fifth, maybe even fourth spot.

Surfer's Paradise is eliminated first. This was predictable -- apparently they've only been playing leagues at their site for a week, so they have no real experience of top-level play and team coordination. So the two teams we're against in our first game are Coolangatta and Rockhampton. Both these teams are from Queensland, but from parts of the state too far away for them to have had much chance to play this arena and get experience with this arena. Nevertheless, they've both really improved their game here over the past three days.

We beat them easily anyway. Rockhampton is eliminated, thus taking eighth spot on the final ladder.

In our next game, the team that comes in at the top is the Black Guard, from the Lawnton site in Brisbane. Other than the home team, they are the only team with lots of experience in this arena. This is the game for which we have prepared strategy, and our strategy involves crushing the Black Guard and paying little heed to the third team. It works. The Black Guard are eliminated (putting them seventh), and we carry Coolangatta with us into the next game.

This was important, because the next team in is Canberra, who are capable of beating us. But when they look at the two teams they are against, they realise that they are more capable of beating Coolangatta. And since they only need second place, they reach the conclusion that we're already at: Coolangatta are the team that's going to go. Coolangatta thus place sixth.

Sixth is where we came in to the semi finals; we've now bettered that. If we get eliminated now, we'll place fifth. Up until now, we've been coming first, which gives us second colour choice in our next game. Now, since we're starting to place second in some games, we get third choice, which is to say no choice at all. Luckily, this isn't a problem -- the least favourite choice of colour at this site is red, and so the team with third colour choice usually winds up at red. Red is our least favourite base to attack or defend, too; but four of our five players don't have to defend it. Our plan involves four of us attacking an enemy base, and thus overwhelming its defenders, while Kev stays in defense until the attackers dig him out. It works: we manage to hang on, eliminating Canberra. We are extremely happy with this result -- the worst we can now place is fourth.

The next game is us, Box Hill (who were last year's premiers), and Hobart (who were ranked #2 going in to the semi-finals). To the surprise of everyone, including ourselves, we come first. Box Hill scrape through, and Hobart are eliminated. We've reached the finals.

The finals are Sunshine Coast (who are the home team), us, and Box Hill. And that's how all three games go down. Until now, Box Hill relied on getting through their bases easily, and getting points off weaker players. But now that at least one of the bases they are trying to attack is intensely defended, and there are no weak players to pick off, their luck runs out. They place third every game. For our part, we are unable to work over the other teams hard enough to gain enough points to win. We place second every game; and the home team, with the advantage of arena familiarity, place first.

We end the tournament with second place trophies, a result far better than I had dreamed possible.