This weekend I was at Gen Con and I realized I had no idea what I was doing.
The Best Four Days in Gaming
As I mentioned last week and maybe a few other times, I play Magic: the Gathering. Accordingly, trips to Gen Con started out as reasons to grind Magic events, and in recent years focused on trading for value to sell to dealers. After an abysmal trading landscape last year that included no free tables in the Magic area, an unfavorable shark-to-guppy ratio and dealers paying the least I’ve ever seen, I decided I wasn’t going to even take binders or sell boxes to Gen Con this year.
I wasn’t about to skip the event, mind you. A free badge coupled with a free place to stay made it an impossible event to pass up, but if I wasn’t going to play Magic and I wasn’t going to grind events and I wasn’t going to grind value, what else was there to do at Gen Con?
I don’t know, how about everything?
I decided to take my wife with me because if I was going to wander around aimlessly without a plan, I wanted to at least be able to play some two-player games.
Actually, I decided to take my wife with me because I always say “I’m off to have fun for five days in Indianapolis! Don’t forget to pay the utility bill and mow the yard on Sunday,” and she always punches me right in the kidneys. She has tiny little fists, like a Capuchin monkey and it hurts like crap, but I deserve kidney punches for leaving her at home with a dog and responsibilities and no board games, so bringing her along was a no-brainer.
This meant we were bringing the dog with us and waiting until she got out of work, so we wouldn’t be getting into Indianapolis until around 8pm, which wouldn’t be too big a deal. We dropped the dog at my brother’s empty house–the little prick is in Hawaii for work. Must be nice–and headed over to Kilroy’s Bar and Grill in downtown Indy for a party thrown by Gathering Magic.
Adam Styborski’s photo diary is a great summary and saves me from posting a bunch of pictures from the event–handy because I didn’t take any.
Scroll all the way down for Wednesday. I know, I don’t get that format either. Still, would it kill you to read the whole thing? It’s 90% pictures. I met a lot of great people at the party and put a lot of faces to names.
It was the best possible way to start the weekend. Not only that, despite the line to buy a badge being closed at 7pm, we found out the will call pickup line was open later and snagged Brittany’s badge after waiting a mere nine seconds. Not having to stand on that line Thursday morning was an excellent break.
I did start to get a little heartburn when the guy at the booth insisted I would have to have current and relevant press credentials to pick up a press badge but he ended up being full of it and I got my badge fine the next day.
With not a ton of relevant Gen Con experience I assumed everything was either like the Magic the Gathering area, where you buy a bunch of generic $2 tickets and then sign up for events an hour before they start or like the Rio Grande Games room where you sit down at an empty table and a volunteer shows you how to play a game.
Gen Con is NOT like that. At all. I managed to walk into this year with the only experience I have being exceptions to the rule. For the most part, you sign up for a time you want to play a certain game, months ahead of time usually, and buy a ticket for that specific event. You can randomly stroll up and pay with generic tickets, but people who pre-registered get priority and you get booted if they show up.
I ran into a bunch of my friends, including Aaron “the Godslayer” Sulla and after he showed me his entire day planned out in the form of specific game tickets he had for each two-hour block, I realized I had made a huge mistake and was not going to get to play anything.
The thing that I found is that people like structure in their lives and they tend to follow rules. In this case, total ignorance of the rules actually got there. Every time Brittany or I saw a game we were interested in there was a timed session about to start and people who pre-registered didn’t show up. Nearly 100% of the time, in fact.
If it was slated for six people and one didn’t show up, they’d say “screw it” and run it with seven people and take our money. I’m not saying “have a chaotic, unplanned Gen Con” because sometimes you get blown out, but in my experience, if you really want to do something and it sells out, go anyway. Chances are the other thing you picked at that time slot is something you wouldn’t mind missing if the event is indeed full and it’s not hard to kill a few hours.
My experience was that despite events selling out, people like my wife and me randomly walking up and saying “this looks fun” were rewarded at an astonishing rate. Show up to the “sold out” game session and you’ll likely be able to play it.
We did a fair amount of gaming in the Rio Grande Games room as well, because they didn’t charge money, generic tickets or otherwise, to demo the games, they had a good volunteer-to-attendee ratio and there was a relaxed atmosphere. We got most of a full day in gaming and went back to the house to check on the dog and call it a night.
We did more luck-sacking on Friday. We just barged into gaming sessions about to start and there were always empty spots. A lot of board gaming tends to be “you had to be there” and doesn’t make for great copy, but Friday night is worth ranting about.
Friday afternoon I did manage to meet QS’ own Doug Linn and his charming wife right before we cut out for the afternoon. They also introduced us to their friend Andy D who performed his crazy blend of rock and rap about Vikings and Wizards and other nerd craziness on Saturday night. There isn’t enough room in the article to list everyone cool I met, but Doug is on the short list of QS people I haven’t met and I feel like it’s noteworthy. Whatever, you’re a captive audience. Do something. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
We called it an early day Friday to eat something away from downtown, let the dog out and to take a break because we planned head back at around 8pm. We had an appointment with Rob Dougherty to preview a game he and Darwin Kastle had been developing called “Star Realms” and you probably already know how to play it.
We sat down across from each other and Rob started explaining the game to us. You command a fleet of Spaceships and you’re engaged in a battle with another fleet commander. They have a starting life total of that can be adjusted but this time was set at 50 and cards that have attack power are applied to either your opponents’ bases or their faces.
It plays similarly to Ascension or Dominion (the games are quite similar to each other, but “Star Realms” incorporates elements that are unique to both) but I feel like it pared down the game into pure gameplay and dispensed with a lot of the elements that complicate those games a bit.
What you are left with is a very straight-forward game that is simple to learn without lacking nuance, quick to play without feeling unsatisfying and affordable at $15 per set without feeling like the designers skimped on anything. Unlike Ascension, it doesn’t require a board and a ton of accouterments–the entire game fits in a box the size of a standard deckbox.
Being able to play a game that plays the same as Ascension that you can carry around in your pocket is very appealing. A few brief key points that made me like how the game played a lot:
- Scoring is simple–there are no point values on cards or honor points to win. You shoot your opponent until they are out of life to win.
- The base game is expandable–add another deck for each two additional players. This allows 2HG, Emperor and other variants, which are actively encouraged.
- The game felt balanced. The starting player gets an opening hand of three, the non-starter gets five. That feels like a number that was arrived at after lots of testing by the developers.
- The one-cost units are good, even late. Most similar games make you dread drawing the first units you buy, but “Star Realms” didn’t have this problem.
- There are four factions and some of the intra-faction synergy you saw in Ascension is incorporated into Star Realms–it pays to play multiple cards sharing a faction in a single turn.
- The game introduces two types of bases, both of which grant bonuses (they’re like constructs) but one of which must be destroyed before they can attack your life total.
I enjoyed the demo and it’s safe to say I’m a big advocate of the game. Accordingly, you can be sure that when the Kickstarter campaign for this game launches, I’ll be one of the first to support it, and I’m going to make sure all of you know about it. This is a great little game, it’s affordable, it’s a play system most people know already from other deckbuilding games, and it’s cheap, portable and expandable. A great way to end Friday.
One drawback of playing it all loosey-goosey with the schedule is that occasionally you don’t look into something as much as you should. We resolved to look at the event guide a bit before Saturday to decide when we should get up and head over and we found a Discworld game at the JW Marriott at 8am.
Now, Mayfair games has a Discworld board game that we’d demoed on Friday and really liked. It’s easy to win, but easy to disrupt the other person from winning too and it’s simple to learn. If you like Discworld books you laugh at a lot of inside jokes. If you haven’t read the Discworld books, you laugh at a lot of dick jokes, but it doesn’t impair your ability to play the game (Brittany has read a lot of the books, I haven’t).
Following a positive experience with one Discworld game we expected another and resolved to get up at 7am (sometimes I am still awake at 7am so this was not the easiest feat in the world for me) to be there on time. If I’d read a little more of the description I might have seen it was slated for a five hour block of time. I might have questioned, “Hey, what gaming system is the ‘Hero System’?” Some of you may already see where this is going.
We arrived five minutes to 8:00 at the JW Marriott and walked into a room that contained two large, circular tables and what was unmistakably a DM/GM and a few players already seated, passing around character sheets. This was to be a five-hour Dungeons and Dragons-esque roleplaying Session set in the Discworld universe.
What do you do in this situation? Well, if you’re us, you say “Sweet, this is happening” and just go with it. We’d been letting fate guide our Gen Con experience thus far and it hadn’t steered us wrong yet. It turned out to be a decent experience. I’ve played D&D as well as a few other D20 and D6 systems before but Brittany had exactly zero RP experience. She turned out to be a natural and didn’t get bored or hate it.
I realize roleplaying games like this aren’t for everyone and I was glad we both got a kick out of it. If you’d told me Friday night “Hey, you know Hero System is a roleplaying system and it’s scheduled for a five-hour block, so you’re going to be playing some sort of D&D thing until 1pm,” I’d have likely said “Oh, well %&^* that noise” and we’d have slept in.
But since a bit of misadventure saw us showing up to the session (and two of the people who scheduled their spots six months in advance didn’t show, natch) we went with it and had a good time. I really think you should get outside of your comfort zone a bit because you never know what kind of games you like until you play them.
A large chunk of our day was gone, but we were undeterred and did some gaming in the TCG Hall. We also cruised over to the exhibitor hall and got a ton of games demoed for us, including Sol Forge, a game I’ve somehow managed to avoid being exposed to until now. I like Sol Forge, but I got crushed by the computer on Normal difficulty my first game–I was ahead by like 56 before it stabilized, too, it was brutal–so I clearly have a lot to learn.
If you want to play it loose like we did all weekend, the exhibitor hall is a low-risk place to get games demoed for free. You’re surrounded by a bunch of sweaty gamers and it’s quite loud in the hall, but games are being demonstrated for free and you don’t have to worry about someone who pre-registered showing up and booting you.
I’m not sure Gen Con should be allowed to advertise itself as “The best four days in gaming” when everyone packs up on Sunday. There is less than half as much to do on Sunday as there is on Saturday and the exhibitor hall is jimmy-jammed with people trying to take advantage of last day price drops and the free “Family Fun” passes they give out to people with small, screaming children in strollers.
We got some decent gaming in, still, but we got there at 8am and there wasn’t much to do until 10. Luckily we left our EDH decks at home because we were sick of the weight. Actually luckily there were game libraries where you could check out a game and play it, so this helped us kill a few hours.
If I had it all to do over, I would play some Magic on Sunday. 2HG with the wife would have been a nice capper to the weekend. As it was, we had some fun, but we were on the road headed home by 3:00. Sunday is a great day to play Magic, however, as the same events that fired all weekend fire on Sundays.
Sunday also saw the Magic 20th Anniversary Tournament I want to talk about briefly.
There were eight qualifying tournaments of various format and the winner of each got to play in a special draft event on Sunday that involved drafting every set, some regular booster draft, some Rochester draft. I’d love to bust a pack of Alpha or Arabian Nights. Even the Zenidkar pack was nuts.
That Underground Sea wasn’t in a pack of Revised. It was in a pack of Zendikar. All.The.Value.
It must have been an amazing experience to draft off Magic History to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the game.
How Wizards of the Coast Celebrated the 20th Anniversary
There was no party, no event, nothing. Magic the Gathering wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the exposure it got during Gen Con in the early years and it literally boggles the mind that they had no presence at Gen Con whatsoever.
The Magic events were put on by a TO and by all accounts the prize support was bad and the entry fees too high. With special goggles, pins, promo cards and spoilers at PAX, I thought for sure the Gen Con stuff would be even better. Even San Diego Comic Con got exclusive planeswalkers.
Wizards only got one chance to celebrate its 20th anniversary in the place that helped launch the game into the global juggernaut it is today and there wasn’t so much as a promo card given out. It felt like a slap in the face and no one in attendance could quite figure it out.
That said, I mostly tried to play games that weren’t Magic so it’s not as though it ruined my weekend. I would have loved for the Magic stuff to be better, but the rest of the con was so good it hardly mattered. My enjoyment wasn’t impaired at all, and taking the wife and playing new games was clearly the play.
I’ll be there next year, and I’ll be playing some Magic on Sunday so make sure you say hello. I’m sure I’ll have something even better than our current angry stag token to hand out by this time next year.
Since Gen Con is such a cultural juggernaut, there wasn’t much Magic played this weekend outside of the TCG Hall. I’ll be back next week to talk more about Theros, most likely, and we’ll probably have some decklists to talk about.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little Gen Con retrospective. If you aren’t planning to go next year, perhaps you should. Playing Magic 24/7 is worth the $80 cover charge by itself, and the other fun things to do for nearly free–we bought $40 worth of generic tickets on Thursday and used only half of them in four days–make it more than worth going. What else do you have to do, anyway?
Until next week, this is Jason Alt and this has been my article.