About a week ago, after a drink and a boardgame at a meetup , many of my friends were talking about GenCon in Indianapolis. I thought about traveling to this convention for a few years but never found others interested before. This time, I managed to find a pass last minute for a discount and found a room with an old friend. I had not been to GenCon in 20 years though. Back then, it was held in Milwaukee and I was in high school! Would the biggest gaming convention in North America still be a blast as a grown man? I wasn’t totally sure.
For those of you that don’t know GenCon, this convention holds all the types of events from Wednesday evening to Sunday afternoon at the Indianapolis Convention Center downtown. Events include board games, rolepaying games, sci-fi, fantasy, anime, costume contest, collectible card game, or minatures, and more. Almost anything new in the areas above are available at GenCon. It also includes minstrels, book signings, sales, game testing, card towers, game tournaments, and free giveaways. There are even seminars on anything from “How to be successful at online publishing” to “Basic bondage knots”.
Anyway, the plan was to drive about 4 hours to Indy after dropping of my kids and a half day of work on Friday. Then, I would meet my roomie for the weekend around 6pm to grab a quick dinner. Followed, by getting my tickets and pass from will call and play a game before driving 15 minutes back to our hotel.
Unfortunately, I forgot some noteworthy items before my trip:
- Indy is Eastern time, not Central time like norther Indiana and Chicago
- It always takes longer to pack and do errands than you think it will
- Don’t drive around Chicago at 4:30pm on a Friday if you can help it at all!
- Northern Indiana highways are almost always under construction in the summer, especially after dark.
Soooo…I pulled into a paid car park at 10pm local time. I got my tickets and pass and met up with some friends at the JW Marriott down the block where a few friends were meeting. There we played a fantastic and really simple new game called Happy Salmon. It only takes 2 minutes a game and is a really a amazing fun for all ages!
All of a sudden though, I realized stayed up a bit too late. I hurried back to my hotel down the road. After all, I was scheduled for a board game tournament of Puerto Rico* at 8am ET. I LOVE this game! It is also very popular among serious gamers. But, I was to be punished by tip number 1 above again. I am certainly not an early morning person and I awoke bleary eyed. So, I showered and hurried to the game in the morning, arriving just in time. As I ran through the hallways, I noticed the convention was surprisingly busy, especially considering the first official events were just starting.
I made it through to the semi-final round, and got beat down by a tiny mistake. Why, oh why, did I buy a hacienda on turn 4…but I digress! Oh well, I hadn’t played that game much in the last few years and I was tired.
Then, I had a little time to rest. I ate an early lunch and drove back to my hotel. I try to lay down but I am interrupted by housekeeping. I hurried back to the convention in time for my second tournament. The game was Onitama.
Onitama is only about a half a year old, so there are no experts yet. This made the tourney extra exciting, especially with a Swiss style format which allows someone to lose and keep playing. Additionally, any games that lasted 30 minutes were considered ties. I wasn’t too upset when I lost my first two games after 26 minutes of play. I won my third game and met another guy from my local meetup in the process too, so that was fun.
Then, it was on to the new Star Wars roleplaying game by Fantasy Flight games. I know, some of you are thinking, roleplaying, really? Aren’t you too old for that? Possibly. I quit roleplaying games after college for years before I came back to them.
When I tried them again, I realized I had become too rigid in my thinking and planning. Everything had to be just one way and roleplaying was difficult. I discovered that roleplaying is a GREAT way to increase your creative juices and improvisational skills.
By improv skills, I don’t mean just acting. I mean the ability to react differently to a change of plans or a sudden unpleasant discussion. For me it gives me practice I need to wing situations with sick kids in tow or hiding my discontent at work when management changes directions yet again or even to enjoy playing make believe with my kids.
On the other hand, as a parent, I don’t have time for infinitely long campaigns and every growing rulesets, along with other interests, so I just try to fit in rules-light games into my schedule occasionally.
Anyway, while some will really enjoy this new game, I found the system clunky with dice rolling slowing down every action. Fantasy Flight made sure everything was thematic but forgot to consider KISS (Keep it simple stupid!) I don’t seem to remember Luke spending over a minute trying to decide how to swing a lightsaber….but again I digress.
Later that night, I played a game called Room 25***, which is themed after a movie called The Cube. Sci-fi prison escape where 1 – 2 players are the guards. This game with the secret roles and rooms was great fun. What made this even better is that I got to play the brand new version with friends of mine AND the game designers while having a couple drinks! This was amazing fun and exactly why I had come to GenCon. This was the highlight of my trip.
Finally, the next day I bought a couple of sweet games that I will explain in later blogs. I also attended a seminar on how to e-publish and sell roleplaying games, comics, and books on DriveThrurpg.com. This was really interesting and inspirational. This seminar led me to create this blog. After that, I chatted with friends and left for home.
All in all, the trip cost me around $500 (which is about all I could spare) and about 10 hours of driving. So, was it worth it?
- I got to play great games that I rarely get to play otherwise.
- I was inspired to write a blog and possible work on a board game Kickstarter or Drivethrurpg.com projects.
- I spent time with some newer friends
- The Con really felt like an escape
- I got a brand new board game which is not yet in stores and another game that is usually out of stock.
- If I had planned ahead, I would have had the logistics cleaned up (but that’s not a fault of GenCon)
- I was unable to hang out with friends as much as I had hoped as they had their own gaming agendas
- GenCon is SO big now that it is impossible to feel like you did everything you wanted to do
- I’m out $500 and lost 10 hours driving
- I got to geek out in board game lingo, roleplaying a role, and escaping reality for a weekend.
- OVERALL ASSESSMENT: It was worth the trip and expense. I came back refreshed even though I didn’t get much sleep. I won’t be able to go back for a few years due to my fresh divorce in any case, so I can at least savor all the fun I had on this trip.
- If you have never gone and any of this appeals to you or your family, plan this trip in the next few years. I haven’t seen anything much like it. GenCon is SO big compared to most other conventions, it is a bit like comparing New York City to Kansas City. I am saying this as I live near Chicago and this city is no stranger to conventions.
- To get the best time out of it, pre-register and plan your schedule with a couple of your best friends. Then, get a hotel that you can walk back and forth from. This will save you time, frustration, and parking $ as well.
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Additional game notes:
*Puerto Rico may be my favorite game. The theme of this game is to create the most successful colony on Puerto Rico. A player does this by growing crops, buying buildings to process the goods / make bonus money / earn points, and then either selling the crops for money to buy buildings for points and shipping crops for points. This game includes a unique combination of choosing different roles, using worker placement, and subtle gotcha mechanics. It was the first game to use some of these mechanics when it was first sold in 2005 as well. It takes about half an hour per player, so 2.5 hours for 5 players. I have yet to introduce this to my 7 and 9 year old kids due to the moderate learning curve but most people can get a handle on it partway through.
**Onitama is a Chess derivative game but easier. There are only 5 pieces per side and 5 cards per game for movement. There are less pieces, less spaces, and less possible moves. The cards are rotated between players so the game is fairly balanced and no one needs to memorize what any moves are. This is really easy to teach kids, even though the box suggests 14+. It’s all tactics and not strategy because there is no long game planning. You win by getting your “Shaolin” (aka King) to the opposite “temple” (aka the center space on your opponent’s side of the board) OR by eliminating the Shaolin. My kids are 7.5 and 9.5 and they like this game just fine.
***Room 25 is a game of hidden tiles and roles. With a larger number of players, there are 2 guards that are trying to prevent prisoners from escaping by any means necessary. The other players are trying to find Room 25 and escape (and possibly kill the guard if this helps them get away). The prisoners win if all but one escapes before time runs out. Otherwise, the guards win.