Return to the Past: Gen Con 2021 Review

Friends, we had Gen Con.  It was different than past Gen Cons, but it was Gen Con and after a crushing year off, it was back this year, baby!  Those of us who attend are extremely lucky to get to experience such joy for 4-5 days every year, I hope each reader has found their own joy out there in the world.  I am personally lucky in that my entire family makes sacrifices so that I can go: wife, kids and parents.  I can promise them that I try to make the most of that time.

What Was New This Year

  • The masks, mandatory at all times except your hotel room, and my own hotel, the JW Marriott, a more business-oriented hotel.  But the other hotels connected to the conference center required them and I pretty much wore them 18-19 hours a day.  My ears hurt from the straps pulling on them.
  • And other than the masks, the reduced crowd size, reported around 35K, about 1/3rd or so of 2019.  Some really loved the reduced crowds, as it made the lines shorter for food and for restrooms and it did make hotel space easier to come by than in normal years.  At the same time, I like the energy of the crowds and I pack my own breakfast and lunch so the lines aren’t a big issue for me, except for the coffee problem.
  • The 3AM stop time in the hotel conference rooms that we gamed in.  You might not think that would matter, but we typically blow past 3AM at Gen Con.  Our group did it only once this year, finding a table in the lobby, but I kind of didn’t mind stopping at 3.
  • Not a whole lot of games were new.  The international shipping crisis, which is to this day impacting our ability to fulfill our Fearsome Wilderness Kickstarter, also means that pretty much all the game companies had their own games delayed.  Even when they had demos of games, they didn’t have them in stock.  Many game companies were therefore peddling their old wares, and that’s if they were there at all.  It was definitely a reduced number of vendors and just a vastly reduced amount of “newness”.
  • The coffee problem:  Bee Coffee Roasters closed their downtown location and this disrupted my routine.  They make a great cold brew, and they even got the bright idea to put a little table out front selling cold brew, so instead of waiting 30 minutes behind a line of people wanting lattes and mochas made for them, I could pick up a cold brew in about a minute and be on my way to my 9am event.  So instead I had to settle for Starbucks, which never got that bright idea, so I had to wait 30 minutes in line behind people wanting lattes and mochas made for them, for cold brew that isn’t as good as Bee’s.  It’s still good cold brew, but I didn’t have 30 minutes before 845am to wait in line, so I had to get it later, which just ain’t right.

The Dealer Hall

The tournament ended up tying me up pretty well this year so I didn’t get to see as much of the Dealer Hall as I normally do.  I still made my rounds, starting with Restoration Games, where I demo’d Return to Dark Tower, designed by Rob Daviau, Justin Jacobson,Isaac Childres, Noah Cohen and Brian Neff.  It is loads of fun, restoring the old 1981 board game that had an electronic tower in the middle, only this one is connected to an app, which adds new features.

The Indy Star was so struck by the game’s table presence, they snapped a photo of us for the paper:


I also really liked this Futuristic, Tron-like, bike-racing game, coming to Kickstarter soon:

But as stated, due to the shipping crisis, there just weren’t a lot of new games to see this year.  Also, the costumes were maybe 10% of what I feel like I’ve seen in past years.

I love this stuff, but there was so much less of it.  But, what really struck me, was the space.  This was on Saturday, the busy day:

That you can see any red carpet is unusual, that you can see so much of it is staggering by typical Gen Con standards.  On top of that, there was just a lack of newness and a lack of companies bringing their A-game.  I love playing games with friends most of all, and I love my tournament, but I also really love the dealer hall.  It didn’t quite provide the excitement and adrenaline of past years, not for me at least.  I wanted to buy either of these games for my 3yo daughter:

But of course, they didn’t have any in stock.  It was that kind of dealer hall this year.  You could buy some old games if you wanted to, but new ones were hard to come by.

The Tournament

This is now the third year I ran a for Terraforming Mars, following when I met Stephen Buonocore, head of Stronghold Games, at the 2018 Toy Fair and asked him to back a Gen Con tournament.  It’s a lot of work but it’s becoming my favorite thing, and has become a little more fun now that I allow myself to play in it.  The mask made it a challenge to speak out the instructions but I had a mic and belt-mounted amplifier to overcome it.

I mentioned up front, the pure joy of Gen Con.  After a year away, on Thursday at 1pm, I announced the start of the Terraforming Mars Gen Con tournament, and the crowd of 30 or so players around me cheered!  Joy.  The favorite game of many of the players there, and a chance to compete in a legitimate tournament run by myself through Double Exposure.

While many other events failed to sell their usual amount of spots this year, we doubled the size of the tournament this year from 64 to 128 and sold out all of our spots.  This pretty much tripled the number of headaches, starting with only getting 4 games when I needed 8 because I lost my old 4 games in a flood during the summer of 2020.  So, I was counting on 2 friends, and one couple from last year’s tourney, to bring their sets to add to mine.  Unlike past years, at least I had an assistant, Patrick, to help me work through the headaches.  Most importantly, Patrick likes Epic Duels, more on that in another post on games.   In past years, tables were pushed together into really long tables, and more total tables were crammed into the convention hall.  This year, everything was more spaced out.

We kicked it off Thursday at 1pm (below) that was actually probably the smoothest one.  All 3 friends — I was hoping for 2 out of 3 to tell you the truth — came through and I had enough materials.

Friday at 9am, I think this is the second consecutive year I didn’t take a picture of that one.  No cold brew makes me grumpy, plus, I actually played in one of the games so I was more occupied than normal.  To my shock and mild embarrassment, I won my 4-player qualifier, getting lucky with Tharsus Republic Corporation and some Prelude cards that let me put down Trees, forming a really strong plant strategy to start the game, which complements Tharsus’ city-building strategy so well that nobody could beat it.  Everyone saw what I was doing and saw me steadily progressing, there was nothing sneaky or special about it, but in the end, I had the most points.

By the end of the full session, around noon, we found that there was a duplicate in one of the 8 sets.  Players started showing up early for the Friday at 1pm session, and I basically enlist all of them to count the cards in each and every set.  We finally get 7 sets together, but the 8th — my personal set that I’m using for this tournament, has 2 sets of cards that somehow got combined.  I have an extra set, you see, in case anything is missing.  So we spend like 20-30 minutes getting that sorted.  I sit everyone down.  I check and find that… the players on my set have recombined the 2 sets, again.  We spend another 20-30 minutes getting that sorted.

Saturday at 9am — Final qualifier.  Patrick did the heavy lifting to get this going.

From there we had the quarter finals.  Peter and Kimmy brought their A-Game, plus they’re the ones who brought the extra Terraforming Mars game!  I use standard playing cards to seat all the players, and wouldn’t you know I drew the Ace of Spades?  I even played some Lemmy through my mic and speaker.

I got appropriately bounced, but so did last Gen Con’s champ, Pat, and so did Kimmy, but Peter advanced to the semis along with Arik from our crew.  We’re finally down to 16 players.

The finals.  All 4 of these players from left to right, Frank, Ben, Josh and Henry are all really, really good.  I was told Josh, holding the box, totally cleaned up his semi-final, blowing away the other players but he ended up in second place, and Frank on the left was third.

As you can see, we have a new champion, Henry from Columbus OH!

So on the one hand, I gave up over 20 hours to run this tournament.  That’s more hours than I spent sleeping over 4 nights.  Those aren’t just 20 hours, but they’re 20 of the most precious hours every year.  At the same time, the joy.  The same people are showing up enthusiastically to play every year now, and I’m getting to recognize them.  It’s like, you don’t know these people but they go to Gen Con and they like Terraforming Mars, and that’s enough reason to be happy to see them return a year later.  Besides, getting each session off the ground is intense, but once it gets going I can play games, even sneak off to the dealer hall for a bit, something I was a little more able to do last year than this year.  One day, a woman taught me Onitama, and on Saturday, I was even able to get in on a demo of Battle Stations, and it was one of the very best Gen Con experiences I had.  I’ll talk about the game itself in another post, but down in my corner of the table, the 3-4 of us total strangers joked and laughed like old friends playing board games at convention.

It was a uniquely Gen Con experience, where people are awesome and games are awesome and people playing games is crazy delicious.

So I want to keep this going.  I’d like some help with it in order to reduce my time commitment, but the show must go on.  Hopefully with cold brew next time.

The Games

Ethnos was a hit with our group.

I’ll cover these in a separate post, but these were the main thing this year.  There was simply less going on, and that meant more focus on game time with friends, more than I’ve ever had before.  Heck, I used to barely see Tim and Deri all week while they were playing Star Wars Minis, only getting some games in late at night here or there.  Now I’m the one tied up with my Terraforming Mars Tournament, but I’m still done by 4-5pm and ready to go, only constraint being I’m the one who has to wake up early to run games at 9am, and do it without cold brew because the line is too long.  On the plus side, I consumed less alcohol than I typically do, not much in fact, and I noticed that it was easier to bounce back in the early morning.

But we got a ton of games in, some old, a few new, many new to me.  In many ways, it was a return to the old games of past Gen Cons, games we didn’t have time to really explore in the past 2-3 years like Viral and Scythe.  I actually missed out on some of the new ones that my group played, and I’m a bit disappointed by that, but you simply can’t be everywhere at Gen Con at once, a sad but real constraint.  One thing that was nice was the 3am stop time just sort of made it a routine:  Game every night until 3am, wake up at 8 and be at the tournament with the materials by 9am, and the routine helped offset the lack of cold brew.

We, the People

Our crew was 8 strong this year, including Matt, the designer of Fearsome Wilderness, plus 2 new additions, and I suspect both will return.  I stayed in a hotel separate from them, arranged by Double Exposure — at least I get something for my time (though I honestly think about just spending the money so I can stay with my friends which would be a little more fun).  The dudes in my room were all great, one was running Unmatched tournaments and knew about Epic Duels.

The people that showed up for the tournament were all awesome.  The woman who taught me Onitama was awesome.  The people who I demo’d the Battle Stations game with, were all awesome.  We had a party and joke fest while we demo’d, like we were all old friends.

I kind of mentioned this before, but it was good to see everyone who showed up at Gen Con this year.  Gamers are the best.  Gen Con people are super nice.  We have a reputation as being super nice, one of the nicest of the many conventions that visits Indianapolis throughout the year.  Servers want the Gen Con weekends, because we are known to be good tippers.

Yes, it’s we.  We are the ones who returned this year, even when it was one-third capacity.  We are the ones who return every year.  We are the ones who run tournaments and win others.  We are Gen Con.  See you next year.

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