Our Most Favorite Things About Gen Con, 2015 Edition

It’s quiet now at the Indiana Convention Center. All the gamers, designers, and publishers have gone home and every last meeple and foil pack has been swept away. But for four glorious days (and as many long nights) 61,423 gamers made the pilgrimage to Indy to enjoy the “Best Four Days in Gaming.” We saw a lot, played a lot, and talked to a lot of people. In the end, we were exhausted, but we couldn’t stop smiling because we had such an incredibly, wonderful, perfectly, good time. Here are some of the best things we did and saw.

After losing a quarter of his hit points, John Booth tries to heal through hydration. (Photo: Brian Stillman)
After losing a quarter of his hit points, John Booth tries to heal through hydration. (Photo: Brian Stillman)

The RPG King: John Booth

Three Gen Cons in, it has become very clear where my core time-balancing struggle lies: I absolutely love the free hours (often late) spent at the table with fellow GeekDads and friends, playing new game after new game after new game. That said, with each passing summer trip to Indianapolis, I’ve spent more time sitting down with dice and pencils and character sheets for role-playing adventures.

After last year’s first visit to the Ninth World in Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, I returned this year for another ticketed small-group adventure, “The Hideous Game.” GM Ryan Chaddock led our party through an increasingly creepy mystery and a fun climactic face-off (for real: someone’s face came off. Numenera‘s weird.), and the four-hour session zipped by. It also added to my knowledge and appreciation of the Cypher System developed for the game, which came in handy less than 48 hours later, on day three of Gen Con, when, for the first time, I sat in the GM chair and ran an adventure. (I’ll write more on this in an upcoming GeekDad post.)

I also tried out Monte Cook’s second Cypher System game, The Strange, which is set in the modern world, with the core premise that the collected myths, legends, and fiction of humanity have spawned small pocket dimensions called “recursions.” This means adventures can take place in pretty much any setting imaginable, and bizarre stuff is way more likely than not. The adventure we played was called “Mastodon,” and there were velociraptors and cyborgs and something called a Wonder Gun, I think. Our GM, Dan Guderian, had a nice flair for cinematic storytelling that was put to good use in our final showdown. There’s definitely a Numenera flavor to The Strange, not just in the game system, but in the use of one-shot odd items called cyphers, and the chaotic undercurrent that means what’s behind that next door is probably never what you’re thinking.

After playing one-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions my first two Gen Cons, we went for one of the three-hour D&D Epic adventures this time. After a bit of a rushed, confusing party muster just prior to game time, our party of seven settled in for “Mulmaster Undone.” As part of this year’s D&D Adventurers League events, this meant that as we took our place amidst dozens of other tables and parties, we were a small part of a large, single story event, and our table’s success (or failure) contributed to the overall story arc for the entire group. We had a fun mix of players and characters, levels one through three, and despite losing a quarter of my hit points in literally the first two minutes of the game – which is what happens when you’re a first-level deep gnome rogue facing a panicked stampede and YOU ROLL A ONE – I survived to the end of the night and had a ton of fun bringing down some nasty Elemental Evil cultists. Full credit to our dungeon master Ashley Oswald for keeping things moving and ensuring everyone at the table got to contribute significantly to the play. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

Those three sessions, plus my Numenera game, accounted for more than a half a day of my real-world time at Gen Con. Of the remaining hours, I played nine new tabletop games – my favorites were Mysterium, Codenames, and Camel Up – along with revisiting two others.

Somewhere in there, I also ate and slept. I think.

Camel Up, just one of the late night games played by the GeekDads.
Camel Up, just one of the late night games played by the GeekDads.

The Noob: James Floyd Kelly

As I try to wrap-up my thoughts as a first-time Gen Con attendee in a few paragraphs, it occurs to me the four-day event was a whirlwind of activity. Therefore, my summary will also be a whirlwind of sorts. Here goes: Arrived Wednesday evening, checked in, and proceeded to stay up until about 2am playing games with fellow GeekDad crew. Up early Thursday to get Press Pass for 1-hour early entry. Exhibit Hall is insanely HUGE and completely overwhelming: boardgames, RPGs, dice, miniatures, artwork, author tables, tee shirts, videogames, card games, and more … everywhere. Any game you’ve likely ever wanted to play can be found here at a table where you can sit down and get instructions. Got to see (and play) many new games in development. 

My game playing: Dozens of tabletop games that included Warehouse 51, Steampunk Munchkin, Imperial Assault, Flip City, Bad Beets, Dead Panic, and so many more that my tired brain just cannot recall at the moment. Card games: Evolution (definitely one of the best I played at Gen Con – thanks, Jonathan Liu!), Wrath of the Righteous (Pathfinder Adventure Card Game), Dead Man’s Draw (great for kids), Worst Game Ever (yes, that’s the name of the card game… and it was a very fun card game), and many more. What else? Zombie 15′, Pandemic: The Cure, Pathfinder Online, Mysterium (thanks, Dave Banks!), Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG, Numenera RPG (thanks, John Booth!) and, again, way more than I can recall. I got to play in a D&D Epic (300+ players) and participate in my first True Dungeon.

True Dungeon
Our True Dungeon party–yes, we’re dead, but we’re still happy. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Speaking of True Dungeon — WOW! Ten of us, GeekDad writers and a few new friends, were given an opportunity Saturday night to run through the puzzle version of Into the Underdark (versus the combat version). The first thirty minutes or so was spent picking our classes (I chose Wizard), finding the right mix of tokens for armor, weapons, and spells, and then practicing for the adventure. In my case, I had to memorize the position of special words on a dartboard-like chart — in the adventure, if I chose to cast a spell, the room’s DM would point to a blank chart and ask me to point to the location of a certain word. Out of ten spells cast during the adventure, I missed one. The adventure began, and our first puzzle turned out to be a timed puzzle to activate the elevator that would take us into the depths. We fought three different monsters (in three rooms) — the mini-shuffleboard game was a very cool way to resolve hits and misses and damage. The final puzzle, however, proved too much for our party. TPK (total party kill)… seriously. But it didn’t matter… that was two hours of pure fun.

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Gen Con was amazing, and I definitely plan on going back. I loved the late-night game sessions with Dave, Jonathan, John, Brian, and the other GeekDads in attendance. But I also enjoyed making new friends and visiting with gamers from all over the world. Leaving was bittersweet — I loved every minute of my time there, but I was also ready to get home and see my wife and kids.

Chuck Wendig signs books for a fan after a panel
Chuck Wendig signs books for a fan after a panel.

The Writer: Samantha Bryant

I spent most of my time at Gen Con Writer’s Symposium, and it was time well spent. This was my first time there as a published author, so I mostly attended sessions on advice for early career authors and publicity. (For a fuller write up of what kinds of sessions are available, see my article here). I got some good advice on utilizing social media to connect with readers and other ways to promote my book without annoying people. I got some reassurance that at least some of my own instincts about how to do this were good. I went home with new things to try and that’s always a good feeling. This year, I spent more time just enjoying book talk with other book nerds. I bought a pile of books and made a list of more to buy on next payday. Marc Tassin continues to put on a fantastic event. It’s obvious that the writers enjoy being a part of it. Sessions are full of laughter as well as sage advice.

Other highlights for me were the Exhibit Hall and people watching. I left myself a lot more unscheduled time this year than I have in past visits to Gen Con, trying to stay open to what might come up. That meant I had time to demo more games, stop and watch more spontaneous performances, talk with people I met, and just enjoy being there. I demoed an extra -arge version of an older game, The Duke, which is a tile-laying strategy game with similarities to Chess and RRR. That’s right up my alley, so into the bag it went! I also really enjoyed Dice City and plan to pick it up when it comes out later this year. It was easy to learn and seems open to a lot of different types of gaming, from a more aggressive screw-your-neighbor approach to a more my-space-your-space, side-by-side play.

I only played in one tournament this year. A heads-up tournament of the new Ascension game: Dawn of Champions. While I enjoyed getting to play with the new set, which I hadn’t had much time to explore yet, I was disappointed that my prize was an old card I already had. I’ll definitely be bugging my friends at home to play this one with me though. The new rally mechanic adds an element of luck that means strategies I’ve come to rely on in past releases had to be rethought.

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The Sentimental Veteran: Dave Banks

When I arrived at my hotel on Wednesday, I got on the elevator with a couple of jock-types who spent the whole ride up making fun of the “nerds in the lobby” and some others who were “dressed like it was Halloween.” While this sort of immature name-calling isn’t new to me (or, likely, any of you), I was a little taken aback because cons like Gen Con are usually safe places where we don’t have to listen to others judging us. But, whatever. Screw those guys. I was there to have fun and you’d better believe I did. After that elevator ride, it was a total and complete joyride for every single moment I was there. It’s difficult to articulate how much I enjoy gatherings like Gen Con. Here, I am among my people.

From the attendees to the staff working the booths and the volunteers to the ICC workers, everyone was just so darned nice and polite, it was easy to forget there were 9% more people jamming up the aisles and hallways than last year. Walk down any American street and bump into someone you’re likely to get a nasty look (or worse). Accidentally rub shoulders with someone in the packed aisles of the exhibition hall at Gen Con and you’ll most likely get a smile and apology. Over and over again. People are just better when they are around the things they love. So, yes, my favorite thing at Gen Con is being around other gamers. You are all beautiful and funny and I want to play games with every one of you.

Codenames
One of our many late-night Codenames sessions. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

However, the whole reason we are there is for the games. And I should talk about some of those! Far and away, the game we enjoyed most was Codenames from Czech Games, one of my most anticipated games before arriving. We must’ve played this game a dozen times over the course of the con. It’s a really fun, team-based deduction game. It’s easy to learn, simple to teach, and has tons of replay. I’ll be writing up an in-depth review soon, but if you can get a copy, just buy it. It’s that good and that fun.

Mysterium
Playing Mysterium in the Hyatt lobby. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I also really enjoyed Mysterium. I have an imported copy of the Polish version of the game, which we played a lot. However I also had the opportunity to take some time to evaluate the newer US version, read the rules, and get hands-on with the components. Everything I had an issue with about the earlier version has been fixed and improved. What felt like a really good idea now feels like a fully realized product. It is improved in every way it can be. And what an incredibly wonderful game it is. Grab one as soon as you can.

Again, we were challenged by the forbidding halls of True Dungeon (another thing we’ll touch on later this week) and, again, (spoiler alert!) it was a TPK. Nevertheless, we had a great time. There was a metric tonne of games that look great that I (and the other GeekDads) will spend time with and will write about in the coming days and weeks.

Evolution
Playing Evolution in Hall E, full of gamers despite the late hour. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Other than that, I really enjoyed Warehouse 51 (more on that soon) and Evolution, a game I hadn’t played before but played exceptionally well on my first try, decimating the other GeekDads with unforgiving brutality. But I apologized after every extinction because, to me, that’s what Gen Con’s about: hanging out with friends (and new friends — I’m looking at you, Brian Stillman, and your incredible True Dungeon insight!), gaming, and doing your best to totally annihilate your opponents. You can always hug them later!

And, unlike last year, I didn’t catch the con crud — win!!!

Gen Con Haul
The Gen Con haul: what I took with me, what some friends asked me to bring back, and everything else. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The Industry Insider: Jonathan Liu

I’ll admit: Dave’s the one who came up with the “industry insider” bit there, but I guess it fits. It’s gratifying (but still sort of unreal) to introduce myself to people and have them say, “Oh, GeekDad! Of course we know about GeekDad!” I’ve poured a lot of my time and energy diving into the world of tabletop games, and even though I’m still a relative noob when it comes to Gen Con (this is only my third year, after all), I’ve been making a lot of connections along the way.

Exhibit Hall
The Gen Con exhibit hall: vast and full of exciting things, and I want to see them all. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

This is probably best evidenced by the fact that, in this sea of over 60,000 people, I couldn’t turn a corner without spotting somebody I knew–designers, publishers, podcasters, or just other tabletop fans I know from Twitter. (I apologize that I can’t always place names on the faces, but chances are I’ll remember playing that game with you last year, and I’m working on getting better.) I’m pretty much in the exhibit hall the entire time it’s open, until they start turning off lights, because it’s the only way for me to say hello to all of the folks I’ve worked with in the past on board game reviews … and then try to introduce myself to all the new folks I haven’t met yet. A few people have told me that the exhibit hall was just too overwhelming–that they could only stay in there for a few hours before coming up for air. But for me, this is where I can catch a lot of people: while they’re stationary in a booth. Because once the exhibit hall closes, everyone scatters in search of dinner, rest, or a place to sit down and play games.

So I spend my daytime hours here, collecting games to review. And when evening comes and the hall closes, I find a spot in the gaming halls to camp out and play games as long as I can. I played about 16 games (a far cry from Bristol-Liu Con, but of course that one didn’t include any publishers), and by far the one I played the most was Codenames, which Dave mentioned above. I’ve got a few other highlights, too, but the majority of my Gen Con gaming will actually be in the coming months, when I break open all those games I hauled home in my suitcases.

Gen Can't Emperor's New Clothes: Designer Edition
Contributors to Emperor’s New Clothes: Designer Edition. Photos: Jonathan H. Liu, made with collage.com

For Gen Can’t, I decided to give away a copy of my own game Emperor’s New Clothes as a prize. After all, what better prize for an “unconvention” than an “ungame”? But then I stole an idea from Rhiannon Ochs, who was giving away a giant meeple signed by all sorts of rad people at Gen Con. I took a stack of blank white cards with me, and asked a bunch of game designers to design and sign a card for the game. What began as just a small idea became one of the biggest parts of the weekend for me, tracking down designers and putting them on the spot. Mostly I approached people I already knew, though there were some available for autographs that I introduced myself to, and all of them were happy to oblige. There were so many people I missed, though–so expect an expansion next year!

Tony DiTerlizzi
Meeting Tony DiTerlizzi at Gen Con. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Tony DiTerlizzi–I find any excuse I can to have him on my podcast, but I’d never met him in person. So I was thrilled that he was the Artist Guest of Honor this year, and I got to spend a few minutes just hanging out with him at his booth–during which time the line of people who had come to see him and get an autograph never stopped. Tony and his wife Angela are fantastic, wonderful, gracious people, and it was an honor to meet them both. Tony gave a talk about his career, from discovering Dungeons & Dragons as a kid to getting hired by TSR to becoming a children’s book illustrator.

ePawn demo
The demo of the ePawn was eye-opening. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The ePawn Arena Kickstarter was canceled, but Christophe Duteil made the trip to Gen Con anyway and I was able to meet with him for a short demo of the prototype board. Even though I’d seen the videos and gotten some demos over Skype, seeing it in person still blew me away. Part of the challenge right now is having some established games that can be upgraded to use the ePawn system, so Duteil is working on making connections with publishers who would be interested in working together. I hope it happens quickly, because I can’t wait until this technology becomes available.

Storm Hollow
Storm Hollow sample books, cards, dice, and meeples. Photos: Jonathan H. Liu

I became friends with Angela Hickman Newnham and Julian Leiberan-Titus when they were working on Storm Hollow years ago, and I really wanted the project to turn out right. For me, part of that is stamping out grammar errors. So I offered my services as a proofreader, and I’ve been editing hundreds of pages of books and cards over the past year or so. They brought some samples of cards and some pre-production books to Gen Con, and I finally got to see things in their assembled form, with artwork and things laid out on a page (thanks to Dann May’s hard work). It’s the first time I’ve been a part of something of this scope, and I’m so pleased with how it’s shaping up. Of course, now I have hundreds of card proofs to re-check one more time for errors that may have cropped up during layout. Wish me luck!

GeekDads at Gen Con
A few of us managed to get a photo together on the last day–tired, but happy. (Next year, we’ll have to plan better for all the GeekDad writers to get together.)

Like the others, though, the best part of Gen Con is the people. It’s being able to strike up a conversation with just about anyone you see for several days, from the time you set foot in Indy (or sometimes even sooner) to the time you board your flight home. It’s staying up way too late playing games and laughing, or playing games and thinking really hard in silence about your next move, or just talking to people that you recognize as part of your tribe. I don’t get to see the other GeekDads that often–maybe once or twice a year for some, and even less for most–so the opportunity to spend four days rubbing shoulders with them is a real treat.

Thanks again, Gen Con, for a fun-filled week. We can’t wait to come back!

I work. I play games. Sometimes I work at playing games.