My Trip to Gen Con, Where Board Games Never Go Out of Style

Video games are excellent, but analogue gaming is too exciting to ignore right now. Really!

by Matt Lees
Aug 12 2015, 5:50pm

All photos courtesy of the author

In the week before Gamescom opens up its doors to the occasionally washed teenage masses, there's another massive gaming thing taking place on the other side of the world. More than 60,000 lovely people travel to the state of Indiana every year to celebrate Gen Con—the longest-running major gaming convention in the world. I pop over every year with the Shut Up & Sit Down team, because we're cool and board games are cool and leave me alone you aren't even my real dad.

Gen Con kicked off quietly in the late 1960s when Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax couldn't make it to a wargaming convention in Chicago and so invited a bunch of people around to his place near Lake Geneva instead. Half a century later it's an eclectic mess of all sorts of games and all sorts of players, with board games, card games, RPGs, and miniatures.

A group of friends grab a free table to play through last year's excellent Dead of Winter—a cooperative zombie survival game staged in a mess of post-apocalyptic snow. The end of the world has sent them all a bit funny, and there's a good chance that one of them is actually a traitor. It's hard to tell when everyone playing has their own strange, unique agenda.

Last time I played Dead of Winter my secret mission was to collect enough gasoline to burn our safe house to the ground when we had enough supplies to move on to the next one. I wasn't a bad guy, I was just a bit fixated—but you can already see where the paranoia slots in. Video games are excellent, but analogue gaming is so exciting right now that anyone ignoring it is a bit of a mug.

Gen Con feels like the best example of this—a sprawl of inventiveness and options that feels like a welcome break from the usual landscape of blunt marketing. Comic conventions often just feel like big shops, and video game conferences are a sea of billboard adverts and queues. People line up for silly-hours just to get a brief look at an unreleased game. I appreciate that many find these rituals exciting, but compare them to something like Gen Con, and culturally it all just feels a little bit shit.

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There's a ridiculous amount of stuff you can do. There's an area entirely dedicated to "boffing"—the art of making giant foam weapons, then using them to joyfully beat up your friends. Last year's highlight for me was True Dungeon—a lovingly home-brewed puzzle-filled adventure which is basically a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and The Crystal Maze. I was a bard, which meant I spent most of the time singing Bowie songs in the hope that I'd be providing some sort of buff for the rest of my party. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I was.

(There's footage of me making a prick of myself about ten minutes in, here.)

An entire hall is dedicated to just providing people with tables, so they can sit down with strangers and play something cool. Some people bring their home-brewed sci-fi hobby projects to the show; others spend their time having a blast with the My Little Pony collectible card game.

Aside from a mild spritz of snooty snark from an older gentleman who clearly felt that World War II miniature gaming was the only worthwhile activity at Gen Con, there's an astounding lack of judgement to be found in these halls. Some people have traveled to the con to play and buy brand new games, others arrive for the competitive play, and some people just come along to hang out. In contrast to the hype-machine buzz that fills the air of most modern gaming expos, Gen Con is full of people actually playing games.

Kickstarter has proved endlessly viable for board games with a primary selling point of "look you get hundreds of tiny plastic figures," but within the traditional industry pre-order culture isn't really a thing—there's very little prominent promotion for anything you can't actually buy right now. It might be an oversimplification, but I wonder how much this simple difference accounts for the dramatic change in tone: people mostly seem excited about the stuff they've just bought, rather than fixating on The Next Big Thing™, and the endless cycle of imaginary promises, which can swiftly begin to tarnish enthusiasm in video gaming.

You can't digitally distribute boxes full of cardboard, which means games that won't be available for months are at this very moment "on the water"—finished and printed and mass-produced, and now being slowly shipped across the world from China. The big surprises here aren't just announcements—it's what you'll turn up to find on sale. Publishers arrange small speedy deliveries of finished stuff, which means it's entirely possible to get your hands on a game that won't be on shelves until after Christmas.

Heavily buffed vertical slice demos, like you get in video games, obviously aren't a thing here either, but you can still sit and get a quick preview of a prototype of something that's out next year. Mostly though, people just play the games they love, or the games they've just bought, or the games that strangers they met in their hotel bar invited them over to try. The impact area of the convention seems to span the entire city—everywhere you go you find pockets of people raucously laughing at party games or furrowing their brows above a sea of reference sheets and dice.

And everyone you meet is so bloody lovely. At one point I was sure I was losing my mind, until I started interrogating the locals. As a city built entirely around racing events and annual conventions, Indianapolis is basically a giant hotel network, joined together by a chain of skyways that let you walk across most of the city without ever leaving the safety of air-con. It's a strangely empty realm of familiar restaurants and underground parking, a city specced for maximum capacity and seemingly little else. Gigantic government buildings and a towering civil war memorial sit like splodges of old punctuation stuck within a mass of fresh, uncaring glass. It's a place that seems content to annually import its culture from elsewhere, and the local Hoosiers take great price in being excellent hosts.

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This'll be where the people come to boff, then.

Everywhere we go, we're thanked for attending. The locals adore Gen Con, and always give the exact same reasons why. Everyone comes to have a good time, everyone is friendly, and nobody causes any trouble. I'm told that years ago the convention used to fall on the same week as a major motor biking event—the bars were still full of people wearing leather, but some of them weren't steampunk enthusiasts, and many more of them came looking for a fight.

It's an awfully useless and tepid word, but Gen Con is just unbelievably nice. You'll find passion seeping out of any convention, but the rare quality here is sincerity. Everyone turns up and has an awesome time doing the things they specifically like doing, whether that's jaunting around a shit Crystal Maze or sitting in their hotel playing Dungeons & Dragons. You ask people about what they've been doing, and they're excited to tell you. They're excited to find out what you've been doing, too.

It's an infectious atmosphere that effortlessly crushes almost any cynicism. On my last night I poke my head into the costume ball, taking place within a grand hotel ballroom, where cosplayers seize the week's last opportunity to try and hook up with someone in a Spider-Man suit. Two Jedi use their lightsabers to host an impromptu limbo competition, while hundreds of people in amazing costumes smile and enthusiastically dance to shit music. Despite my evil heart of stone, I physically couldn't help but join in.

I've been to Gen Con twice now, and that's what I still can't fathom. Everyone turns up to have a nice time, everyone has a nice time doing nice things, and then everyone goes home with a big smile and writes articles that make them sound like a fucking intolerable Valium-stuffed Care Bear. It doesn't matter what you're playing: here, joy wins. It just always wins.

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