Tuesday, August 11, 2015

GenCan’t & the Guns of August

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

Traveling to GenCon and gaming for four straight days has always seemed a mandatory pilgrimage every gamer should aspire to at least once in their life. Back before the internet – when gaming magazines shared info about new releases and conventions along with their other game-source-material fare – the venerable Dragon Magazine ran ads promoting GenCon as well as occasional reports about miniatures competitions. Some of the very first “module” scenarios initially served as tournament adventures at GenCon. As a high school kid and avid reader of Dragon Magazine I quickly came to believe GenCon was the hobby’s leading gaming event, a Meccas every truly dedicated gamer would reach in making the ultimate roleplaying game pilgrimage. But for a scrawny, geeky kid this seemed little more than an unreachable dream one only read about in the pages of Dragon Magazine or other industry periodicals. I realized it was unrealistic to commandeer the family summer vacation to go to a gaming event only I’d enjoy, and one that seemed overly expensive given admission, travel, and hotel expenses, let alone shopping cash for purchasing dream game product I never imagined my local hobby shop carrying.

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.

Local Engagement

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).

These conventions manage within hotel ballrooms and meeting spaces, often settling on a cozier “community” layout. For instance, Guns of August occupies one large ballroom and several smaller ones; vendors set up around the main ballroom’s perimeter, with game tables filling the open space within. This fosters a friendly, relaxed community atmosphere where gamers can wander around the exhibitors, observe or drop into games, and otherwise hang out with their friends. The space can sometimes feel crowded despite a lower attendance than GenCon, especially on Saturday when local clubs sponsor several large tournaments; but it’s still a smaller community where I’ve come to know several of the convention organizers, a few dealers, and some of the regular attendees.

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 try:

X-wing Miniatures: An old friend of mine, John Wade, is running an entire Saturday of Star Wars: X-wing Miniatures Game geared toward beginners, just perfect for dad and son to enjoy. The Little Guy recently learned the full game (beyond the extremely kid-friendly quick-start rules) and held his own rather nicely at a similar beginner-friendly game at another convention. While I expect we’ll play at least one game, this may be our go-to game for the weekend if I can’t interest the Little Guy in a few other events.

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 quick demo.

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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