August brings GenCon – arguably the largest, most comprehensive adventure gaming convention in the world – the ideal game experience for which every gamer should strive once in their lives (if we are to believe much of popular gaming culture). It also brings a far smaller but more accessible game event much closer to my own neck of the woods, a cozy but engaging wargaming and board game convention called, quite appropriately, Guns of August. I’ve attended both in the past, yet one remains more realistic in terms of time and finances. Both fulfill roles in satisfying gamers’ needs for shopping, playing, and overall fan interaction.
The GenCon Pilgrimage
When West End Games hired me to establish and edit The Official
Star Wars Adventure Journal in July, 1993, it was a dream come
true on more than one level. One of the perks of that job was finally
attending GenCon, though in a working capacity representing the
company and its Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I attended every
year until West End plunged into bankruptcy, mostly working the
company booth in the exhibition hall but also occasionally running
charity Star Wars games with author guests, talking with
freelancers or potential contributors, and mingling with other gaming
professionals. Back in the mid-1990s GenCon was overflowing its
Milwaukee, WI, venue, but was still run by industry giant TSR and
still seemed quite manageable in terms of the crowds. I attended a
few times in my post-West End career, only once since the convention
moved to Indianapolis under new management. That year I spent most of
my time wandering the exhibit hall shopping and occasionally talking
with old game-industry contacts, hoping to find freelance work. (We
did spend Saturday visiting family in the region.) It was already
starting to get stiflingly crowded, with an expanded exhibit hall and
function rooms spread out over numerous hotels.
I’m not sure GenCon is the kind of game convention I could enjoy
much these days, especially with a young person (the five year-old
Little Guy) in tow. The expense in both money and time remains an
issue; the cash investment in travel, food, and hotel remains
significant, not to mention cash for game purchases. From all
accounts I’ve seen (mostly on the internet) the crowds seem
overwhelming. I find the exhibit hall the most interesting feature
and enjoy dropping into demos, but don’t care for navigating
through wall-to-wall attendees and waiting on long lines, especially
going with a young child. I’d love to meet folks I’ve contacted
in wonderfully engaging online communities and spend some actual
face-to-face time hanging out; often in the busy, never-enough-time
environment of GenCon these interactions remain fleeting, often
confined to dinner out in a crowed, noisy restaurant. I’m not
saying folks shouldn’t attend GenCon, nor that people don’t have
extremely satisfying levels of engagement in that environment; I
think GenCon is an incredible celebration of the adventure gaming
hobby, particularly roleplaying games. Publishers announce new
product and demo games, attendees indulge in an extended weekend of
gaming, and old friends in real life and from online interaction can
hang out face-to-face; but at this point in my life it’s no longer
the kind of game convention I can enjoy given the vast crowds, size
of the venue, and overwhelming array of activities (aside from the
main concern of the sheer expense).
I’d love to see statistics estimating the number of gamers in
America compared to the “unique attendance” numbers for this
year’s GenCon just to gaugue the percentage of the adventure gaming
population that actually made the pilgrimage this year. It’s hard
to say, but overall I’d guess GenCon attendance represents a small
portion of the overall gamer population.
This year the online movement to celebrate gaming without having
to travel to GenCon manifested itself in the “GenCan’t”
movement, complete with badge images and even a few games. Some might
view this as sour grapes for those who aren’t committed enough to
the hobby to dump huge sums of cash making the ultimate pilgrimage,
but others view it as a celebration of gaming in absentia. The
internet connects far more people than print gaming magazines ever
could have, giving rise to communities of far-flung individuals
indulging in online games year round, or even during online
conventions through Skype or Google+ Hangouts. For those of us unable
to attend GenCon, alternate events like GenCan’t offer an
opportunity to follow the fun vicariously while still fitting some
gaming into our schedule.
While massive events like GenCon stand as the pinnacle of gaming
events, smaller, regional conventions offer satisfying and engaging
game experiences at a more affordable level. I’m fortunate to have
two located within a two-hour drive; Williamsburg Muster (in
February) and Guns of August (in, well, August) in Williamsburg, VA.
Although these conventions primarily focus on miniature wargames,
they also include board games and have, in the past (and, from what I
hear, possibly again in the future) roleplaying games.
Smaller, regional conventions like these don’t incur the massive
financial commitment of attending an event as large as GenCon, nor do
they take up the extra time for extensive travel. Even at the height
of the summer tourist season hotel rooms remain reasonable compared
to GenCon offerings (and February rooms are a steal).
Game event offerings are, of course, far fewer than a convention
like GenCon. At large conventions I have to wade through vast
listings of events to find those that cater to my interests or seem
ideal for kids; in some cases I can search a PDF of the schedule,
though events can still slip through the search-criteria cracks.
Small cons like Guns of August have fewer events to choose from but
also fewer to sift through. And if you don’t find something you
like, the bureaucracy in proposing and running your own game remains
far more navigable than that at a large con.
Gaming with Kids
Although I wouldn’t consider dragging my five year-old Little
Guy out to Indianapolis and through the GenCon throngs, I have no
qualms bringing him to smaller, local conventions. I’ve decided to bring him
along to Guns of August. Our visit requires a little adjustment on my
part; since he’s already in school at that point, I can’t just
pull him out early on Friday and head down to the con...we’ll go
early Saturday morning and get a hotel room so we can stay late.
I’m already scouting out a few possible kid-friendly games to
Spearpoint 1943: I’ve had this game for a few
years now. I backed the Kickstarter campaign to produce the Eastern
Front version (with a heavy weapons expansion set) which finally
arrived last week (with a nice bonus pack of tracking counters). The
Little Guy frequently wanders into my office, notices one of the game
boxes (the Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion box has a
tempting picture of a tank on it...), and asks if he can play it.
Since he can’t read yet, he really can’t understand all the stats
on each unit card and hasn’t a clue about the effects of command
cards. The card game can seem intimidating at first, but becomes
quite intuitive when immersed in play. Designer Byron Collins
frequently attends the Williamsburg conventions to run demos of his
Spearpoint 1943 game. I’m hoping the Little Guy might want
to try his hand at a simple fight so he can get a taste of one of
Daddy’s more involved games. I expect I’ll read cards and avoid
offering too much parental guidance if he gets a chance to play a
Sulva Bay, 1915: The education director at
the Virginia War Museum and several young volunteers frequently host
small-scale historical games well-suited to beginners with an hour or
two on hand. This convention they’re running World War I trench
action at Sulva Bay. Their past set-ups have showcased some
impressive terrain and figures, so I’m looking forward to seeing
their trenchworks. Although I’m unfamiliar with the rules they’re
using (Through the Blood and the Mud produced by Two FatLardies), I expect, should we give this a try, the hosts will have
their hands full teaching the game to an experienced newcomer (me)
and an enthusiastic kid (the Little Guy).
Silver Eagle Demos: The friendly folks from Silver Eagle Wargame Supplies have become regulars at the Williamsburg
conventions, and indeed many cons throughout the Northeast and
Mid-Atlantic; they spend much of the weekend running demo games and
full events at the table right by their vendor space in the main
ballroom. I’ve enjoyed their demos and games before...they do a
fantastic job of teaching the rules and offering guidance (and gentle
reminders) during the game. Their demos and events don’t always
appear in the preliminary events listing or the program, but I’m
hoping we can drop in some games of Star Trek: Attack Wing or
the D&D Attack Wing if we have time.
Chariots!: Bob Watts is running a Roman chariot race
game on a huge map with 28mm chariots (seems someone at these
conventions always runs a well-attended, large-scale chariot race
game) using the classic Avalon Hill Circus Maximus rules.
Despite seeing “kids welcome with adult” in the game description,
I’m not quite sure we’re up for this one; I’m not familiar with
the rules – and frankly a little concerned the Avalon Hill
mechanics might be a bit more than I or the Little Guy can handle –
so we might watch first to see how well the Little Guy (and I)
understand the rules and game play before trying our hand at the
reins. At the very least it might be a fun game to follow.
The Guns of August board game room always remains a comforting
safety net. Run by the Tidewater Area Gaming Society (TAGS), it
offers a library of board games to borrow and several tables in an
auxiliary ballroom where players can sit and play. (I might also
bring along a few of our family favorites just in case.) It’s also
a good place to sit and chat with old friends, watch folks play a
game, or borrow a new game to explore on your own.
Unfortunately my attending Guns of August with the Little Guy
precludes me running any events myself, as I have to spend much of my
time focusing on, participating in, and enjoying his activities.
Perhaps when he’s a little older he can help me run some of my own
kid-friendly game like Panzer Kids and Valley of the
Ape...and perhaps after I’ve introduced him to some appropriate
roleplaying games we might venture into that realm, too.
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