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The Coming Noodlepocalypse
[03/19/2010] [Randall]

When it comes to making swords, it helps to know that not all noodle is created equal. This was made quite clear to me this past week. After the long winter, I discovered a ton of noodle in the toy aisle of Walmart, and that excited me enough to grab a dozen sticks – but then I noticed something weird about them. Even though they were dense enough and wide enough, the core was off-center and enlarged. Then I saw some noodle at Target that was so pathetic that it would be impossible to use for any Amtgard sword – it was smashed, narrow, and spongy. I stared in amazement at these tragic foam tubes, wondering to myself if I was seeing the future of pool noodles – and the end of their use in Amtgard. Considering how popular the noodle has become as a building material for weapons, the prospect of the coming Noodlepocalypse made me shudder.

It’s assumed by many Amtgarders that the noodle of today is worse the noodle of yesterday. Seeing these two 2010 specimens, and thinking about the smaller noodle I still have from last season, I started to wonder: how much worse? And is it going to keep getting worse? Will we be able to use the noodle of 2011? 2012? Are we coming up on a day when jokes that you can actually sleep on a camp pad – not just make swords out of it - will make sense again? With these thoughts in mind and a healthy determination to shoot a lot of noodle porn, I purchased the flattened noodle, fished last year’s crop out of my garage, and salvaged a chunk of even more ancient noodle from a sword I was rebuilding.

The green Wacky Noodle from my dismantled sword is still pretty good. This is noodle from the middle of last year, and it’s dense, 2 ½” wide, with about an inch of padding all around the 5/8” opening. I can give this noodle a squeeze and it won’t be destroyed. As you can see in the following picture, the green noodle is a pretty solid specimen which I could still use even a year later if I wanted to recycle this into another weapon. This is therefore the noodle I’m using as a baseline to demonstrate that is wrong with the current crop.

The other noodle I have from last year is some Rand Noodle, and I include it because it shows how some noodles out there are smaller than the 2 ½” requirements we have in Amtgard. This noodle is curved because of how I was storing it, but the important thing to notice is the width. I’ve placed it next to the green Wacky Noodle so you can see at a glance that it’s narrower. The close-up measurement shows that it’s about 2 ¼” across, with an opening that is about 5/8” wide. That means the padding beyond the opening is a bit over ¾” wide. Although this noodle is not up to Amtgard specifications, an e-Samurai poll from November of 2009 suggests that the majority of Amtgarders allow it at their parks and at events. As Champion of Dragonspine, I am letting people get by with it if the swords are otherwise safe, but tell them not to take their illegal swords to other parks or events. This noodle is reasonably dense based on the color – since different crops of noodle are made at different manufacturing plants and are color-coded accordingly, the products differ, often dramatically. And this particular noodle isn’t bad.

This brings me to the Walmart noodle, with is Fun Noodle brand noodle. I have two specimens, yellow and blue, and both noodles are pretty dense and come in at 2 ½” wide – better than the Rand Noodle from last year. The problem with the Walmart noodles is in the opening. It’s off-center, oblong, and seems to be slightly larger than a normal opening. The yellow noodle depicted below has an opening that has about 7/8” of padding on one side and 1” of padding on the other, with a ¾”-wide opening measured from the narrow side. This design means there is more space in the center for a sword core to wiggle around, with reduces the life of the sword by accelerating the tearing of the weapon apart from the inside.

Lastly, the Target noodle, also Fun Noodle brand. The purple specimen I have is a tragedy. It is smashed flat on one side with a deep groove along the length, resulting in an oblong noodle that is legal in no direction whatsoever. At its widest, the noodle is 2 ¼” wide, with an opening that is perhaps 7/8” wide. At its narrowest, the purple noodle is a mere 2” across, with an opening maybe 5/8” wide. This oblong noodle has all the faults of the off-center noodle from Walmart without being an acceptable 2 ½” wide. On the one hand, I think this noodle has been pretty badly mistreated between the factory and the store. On the other hand, I have seen similar noodle reaching our park in the form of 2”-wide swords. Maybe this noodle is an aberration. What worries me is that it might also be the future.

If we estimate an active weekly Amtgard population of a bit more than two thousand people, which is a reasonable low-end guess based on initial reports on kingdom sizes, and we use the data from an e-Samurai poll on noodle use as representative of the game, we can claim that Amtgard purchases about 25,000 sticks of noodle per year. This is almost certainly a high estimate, even accounting for non-weekly players who only buy a little noodle over the course of the year. I am saying this to demonstrate what a small portion of the market we represent. Among the three noodle companies mentioned in this article, only JAKKS Pacific, makers of Fun Noodle, list sales online. At 40 million since 1995, that’s about 2.5 million per year. If Amtgard only purchased from that one company – and we don’t – we’d represent a mere 1% of their sales figures. They could make up for the income lost by not selling swords to Amtgarders by reducing their costs by 1%. . . say, by reducing the amount of foam they use to make each noodle, thus making the noodles even more unusable to us. Even account for other medieval foam-combat games, which collectively use pool noodle as a building material enough to justify an entry on Wikipedia about it, it can’t be much more than a percent of total pool noodle sales when all noodle companies are counted.

The economic outlook for future noodle is not so good either. If we can expect the cost to make a stick of noodle to rise at least 5% in the next two years, which we can, the company can either tack a quarter on to the cost or reduce the amount of foam in the sword. They may end up doing both. That means that, if noodle’s price stays basically the same, we can expect to see noodle that is less dense, narrower, and with a larger and off-center gap in the center. That’s assuming that the only thing impacting the cost of the noodle is inflation, so we’re pretending for the sake of argument that the price of oil isn’t going up. We know that’s not likely to be true.

Considering how much we use the stuff, this represents a potential problem to Amtgard. If we decide as a game to embrace the 2 ¼” noodle, not only are we postponing the inevitable – we’re going to have to abandon noodle eventually if these trends continue – but we’re moving Amtgard out of sync with other foam games that have safety standards that are currently similar to our own. That’s bad for the future of foam-based games because it hurts cross-game cooperation. The solution almost certainly has to be for us to hold firm on safety standards and begin to explore other materials for sword construction – or return to the materials that preceded noodle.

How can we protect ourselves in the coming Noodlepocalypse? Losing the ability to explain a sword’s construction quickly and demonstrate how fast a person can make one is yet another problem that may emerge when noodle is lost, and that may further hurt parks that are already suffering problems with recruitment and retention. The solution here is less clear, but has to include working harder in other areas to make up for whatever harm losing noodle as a material will cause. And, of course, losing noodle as a material for ourselves means we have to find something else to use. I believe the key is shared information. With our forums and social networking sites, we have tools at our disposal that didn’t exist when noodle first came on the scene that will let us share techniques of weapon construction. We can post about the materials we use, how we make them work, and how we keep our weapons safe and legal week after week. Perhaps flat-blades may experience a renaissance. Perhaps there’s something out there we can make swords of out there that’s not discovered yet. By sharing all of this information with each other, we can reinvigorate the science of weapon construction, and in doing so create something positive in Amtgard – and that’s something that will be of value whether the Noodepocalypse comes to pass or not.

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