Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Charm of Cozy Cons

In 30 years engaging in roleplaying games and other gaming pursuits -- including 20 of those years working in some capacity in the adventure gaming hobby -- I’ve attended my fair share of conventions great and small. While I’ve enjoyed the massive, crowded spectacle of GenCon, I’ve found more satisfaction at smaller, regional conventions with more personable atmosphere.


Immense conventions like GenCon -- and its cousin in the board and wargaming hobbies, Origins -- certainly have their place. They offer fantastic opportunities for those fortunate enough to attend all while drumming up floods of excitement for game lines. These mega-conventions often attract industry representatives from the hobby’s most illustrious publishers who interact with attendees in dealers halls and seminars; many use huge conventions to announce or debut new products or entire game lines. Awards ceremonies recognize outstanding achievements in the hobby. Demo areas offer gamers a chance to try the latest games, often with those actually involved in their production. They host a huge roster of events ranging from small games, mini-campaigns, organized play, vast miniatures scenarios, seminars, workshops, even giant-sized board games. GOA4

It can all seem a bit overwhelming, even to some who’ve attended several times. I was fortunate to go as a representative for West End Games while working on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game line and returned several times since. When I wasn’t working the booth or running a Star Wars game, I spent most of my time wandering the vast dealers hall, checking out games and companies that interested me, trying demos, talking with industry notables, and drumming up freelance business. The only games I ever ran were for West End Games events (including a few notable charity auction events featuring illustrious Star Wars novelists roleplaying their characters). I spent evenings with colleagues and friends, but, as I was usually working, couldn’t indulge in the all-night gaming that usually occurs. The crowds often hinder one’s ability to simply move around, whether you’re trying to navigate the ever-packed dealers hall, expo center corridors, nearby streets, or even restaurants. Attending a massive convention like GenCon always seemed like the ultimate aspiration for the average gamer -- it certainly was for me as a newcomer to the hobby long ago -- but such an overwhelming experience isn’t always the best introduction to the world of gaming conventions.

Small Regional Cons 

While the massive cons occur once a year in what for many gamers are geographically distant destinations, many live within driving distance of several smaller regional conventions. These vary widely on different levels, including the nature of the organizing body, venue size, variety of game offerings, and attendance. Local game clubs, gaming stores, or a core of gaming fan friends frequently organize conventions to encourage the hobby and offer a safe, hospitable place for longtime gamers and newcomers. They host events in whatever venues fit their expected attendance, planned activities, and budget, anywhere from a local civic center hall to all the conference facilities at an area hotel. The range of events varies, too, with different conventions offering roleplaying games, miniature wargames, board games, vendors halls, and panel discussions in different quantities. Convention attendance often fluctuates depending on its popularity, time of year, location, and reputation over the years, but many come in at less than 1,000 attendees; even those exceeding that number still seem small when compared with GenCon’s reported 50,000 unique attendees.

Some conventions rely on a cozy, community set-up where several aspects of the convention share a central space that encourages mingling and movement. This usually focuses on two areas essential to many conventions: gaming space and dealers hall. In these cases organizers sometimes take a vast ballroom space and -- without actually using room dividers -- designate different territory, with vendors at one end and game tables at the other, or with gaming tables in the center and dealers set up around the perimeter.

One of my first small conventions after I joined West End Games more than 20 years ago demonstrated this concept nicely. At the time MarsCon was a cozy little sci-fi fandom convention with a sizable representation for roleplaying and other games. The hotel programming space consisted of a large ballroom and a few smaller rooms (divided ballroom space) for seminars, workshops, and entertainment. Dealers occupied one third of the gaming ballroom; when the “dealers room” closed, hotel staff shut the divider on that portion of the room and locked the door. The arrangement allowed for the dealers to directly front the gaming area during most of the convention, giving free visibility and access to a solid portion of their customer base.

I’ve attended several bi-annual wargaming conventions in Williamsburg, VA, that demonstrate a similar community concept. The convention has one vast ballroom (in addition to several others divided for various kinds of gaming); tables for miniature wargames occupy the center of the ballroom with numerous vendor tables set up around the perimeter, allowing attendees to freely wander between the two, gaming, shopping, and observing all the convention’s action in the main venue. Certainly many cozy cons overflow into nearby meeting spaces or ballrooms, but concentrated as they are, they offer a cozy community space where most of the attendees can freely mingle whatever their personal goals for successful convention enjoyment. They offer a friendly atmosphere where gamers, customers, dealers, and convention goers mingle freely in a central common space.

As a gamer parent I’m partial to smaller events with fewer crowds and stimulus to overwhelm my preschool-age child and distract me from my parenting duties. Granted, I’m hoping to bring him to one of the smaller conventions within driving distance, though ones that require hotel stays to fully appreciate. My past experience has shown these can more fully cater to kids in providing a less-overwhelming atmosphere, plenty of friendly places to sit down and catch one’s breath, and yet not skimp on the presence of friendly gamers and fantastic-looking, engaging games. Keeping a few parental strategies helps, too: focusing on events the preschooler might like; staying open-minded in exposing him to new games; finding events particularly suited for kids or parent-child players; and knowing when to take a break or call it a day.

Where Do You Find Those Wonderful Cons?

Networking remains the key to finding fulfilling gaming experiences. The internet has made finding local conventions much easier through convention websites, social networking circles, gaming forums and communities, publisher websites, gamer blogs, and gaming news feeds. Running a web search for “Virginia gaming conventions” (inserting your own state name, of course) can summon a host of helpful and dubious convention listing sites. Don’t dismiss actual face-to-face networking, though; talk to folks in your gaming circles, including staff and customers at the Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS). Some regions have more conventions than others; it’s a sad commentary on the geographical distribution of gamers, game stores, and overall interest in the hobby.

I’ve taken years to discover and in many cases try out various local conventions. Many I found while looking around on the internet, though some I’ve heard about through word of mouth from fellow gaming friends. Some I try to attend as scheduling permits, but a few I’ve yet to try out. Living in on the frontier of Northern Virginia I’m within two hours’ drive or so of several interesting gaming conventions: Williamsburg Muster in February, Madicon in March; the relatively new 1d4Con in April; and Guns of August in, well, August. Virginia boasts several other conventions, but they’re primarily fan media cons with smaller, often tertiary gaming tracks.

The fluid and impermanent nature of the internet makes finding one source for regional conventions difficult, but here are a few websites which -- at first glance, at least -- look like fairly helpful, informative, and maintained convention listing websites: the Upcoming Cons website features a listing of gaming cons limited to the next several months (as well as listings for other kinds of cons); Game Convention Central lists cons by region (and includes international conventions); and the always-helpful BoardGameGeek website features a conventions listing wiki page.

Online communities also offer forums one can search for references to past or upcoming conventions and receive the usual biased reports on what goes on there, how well-organized they are, and the kind of events to expect. Searching Facebook and Google+ may also yield results, as many established (and even some nascent) cons maintain social networking presences there to build interest and inform potential con-goers.

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