I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found my Happy Place, and it is Gen Con, each and every year. As the years have gone by and playing games in person has gotten more difficult, especially in the post-COVID era, the time playing live games with friends is ever more valuable.
Nothing stays the same, and in going to Gen Con for over 15 or so years now, it has gone through its own transformations as a convention, but also for me personally. We used to go down mainly for Star Wars Miniatures tournaments, but I was always dazzled by the Dealer Hall, especially the “opening crush,” as I call it. Then, I ran Epic Duels events for a couple of years and that was my focus. I was single back then and living in Chicago so we could drive down on Wednesday and return late Sunday night, and we would. We would among the first to get things going on Wednesday afternoon, and we still are.
Then I moved to the East Coast and it became all about seeing my friends from Chicago, but also shortened my trips a bit. Now I’m back in Chicago, but some friends have moved away and as stated, gaming has become increasingly rare. I’m no longer single so I can’t quite span the full time that I used to. I’m also running the Terraforming Mars tournament so instead of sharing a hotel room with a bunch of friends, I now share one with a bunch of strangers who are helping staff booths and events, and my days are eaten up by the tournament, though less and less so, more on that later. The group has changed some, adding some, losing others. Stalwart Timmerb has gone for 17 straight years, with Docmogs at 14 straight and 16 out of 17. Tim even has his skins on the wall.
If you’ve gone to Gen Con and played games, chances are you’ve seen us, maybe even played games with us. This year, most notably, Matt, the designer of Fearsome Wilderness and the other blogger on this site, has made the trip along with other friends 2 straight years now, and Xcrudo’s younger brother, Little Crudo, is also becoming an increasingly regular attendee.
Otherwise, we had a reduced crew this year, with regulars like Arik and Chris not making it. Xcrudo and I haven’t made it every year, but along with Tim and Deri, the 4 of us are the core group of the Chicago 1570 gamer’s club that makes the Gen Con trip every year and we will continue to do so. If you want to make the trip, we’ll be there and we’ll play games with you.
And play games, we did. It seems like this was some of the most games-with-friends Gen Con I’ve had, rivaled only by last year. It’s a different thing now with the Star Wars Miniatures tournaments wound down and nothing to replace it. Event sign-ups had a managed, staggered entry this year, and some events sold out faster than some of my friends’ time slots allowed them to act on, so the group in total had more free time than I’ve probably ever seen. I’m the one tied down now with my Terraforming Mars Tournament, but less and less since I’m getting help now.
Wednesday and Thursday
Wednesdays at Gen Con are typically the best day of the year. We — Timmerb and I in recent years — generally hit the road around noon, and by the time we take the 3-hour drive and add an hour for the change to Eastern Time Zone and find parking and get to our hotel, it’s 4-5pm in the afternoon. Xcrudo is usually getting there around the same time, in fact sometimes I ride with him. Somehow, some way, we’d always, always commandeer a table in one of the main hotel playing halls or rooms, even in the years where it got contentious, like the year we had to give up our table to Jamie Stegmeier. The one year we didn’t get a table, we brought our own and used that. If you’re into gaming, the world is never more your oyster than it is that Wednesday night at Gen Con. You just arrived, just seeing old friends, a glorious amount of anticipation but also an immediate crowd to do what we’re here on this planet to do, and that’s play board games. You get to play free of worry or responsibility or even fear of missing out on the convention, because the convention hasn’t quite started yet. You play games under the warm glow of knowing that you’re going to play even more games.
Then, Thursday mornings, I love the opening crush of the Dealer Hall:
First thing Thursday, I’ve demo’d Firefly Adventures, or picked up Unmatched, or pitched a game to a publisher, or played the Return of Dark Tower. Everyone is there with their A game, fresh and ready and excited to sell to you in a way that they’re not on Friday or Saturday. I only get to enjoy a couple of hours — enough for hitting a few key booths and getting in a single demo — before I have to get ready to run the Terraforming Mars tournament.
What Was New This Year
The crowd size. Just from my perspective, it wasn’t quite at peak Gen Con 2019, pre-COVID level, but it was a much bigger crowd than last year’s reduced one. Personally, I’d like it if it stayed right about where it was this year — a good, lively crowd, but not so much that you can’t move or can’t breathe. I walked every square foot of the dealer hall and had a good time throughout.
For whatever reason, I personally didn’t demo many new new games. As I’ll state again, there just wasn’t as much that grabbed me this year. Maybe I’ve seen it all but it seems like I’m seeing more recycling of prior hit titles into new packages than ever before, whether its USAopoly or an Ascension board game or another sequel to another game. This year didn’t wow me like the show sometimes does. Just to be clear, I don’t need to be wowed to have a blast at Gen Con. I’m wowed just playing great games with friends, and it was more about that, but it wasn’t exactly new stuff.
The Dealer Hall
I mean, last year I posted this tower:
And this year, I’ve got an even bigger one:
Kind of going along with what I said about not being wowed this year, the demo of the Pathfinder game with the tower was fun but nothing mind blowing for someone who has been through an entire Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game campaign.
What struck me this year more than any other is… all the games. There are so many great, great games. So many great strategy games. So many great light card games. So many great role playing games, each with its own lore. So many great miniatures games, each with its own system and set of custom, beautiful miniatures. I feel like the time of the explosion of new games, that 2010-2019 era of Kickstarter, just might be past us. There will always be room for great new games but there are already so many great games in each niche.
I only get a couple of hours to experience the hall before I have to kick off the Terraforming Mars tournament.
Big change for me is the help I’m getting. Last year, Patrick did a great job. This year, I got double the help with 2018 champ Kris Morris and his wife Taylar, another tournament participant and avid player herself. I enjoy running the tournament, getting a lot of repeat players over the years and having created a new Gen Con touchpoint for myself, but it’s also been a big sacrifice of some of the most precious time I have each year, so I’ve been looking to cut down on it. I think we’re at a good place now with 3 organizers to cover what is now 20+ hours of tournament.
It’s a great, friendly, but competitive tournament that pulls in a lot of the best players of the game. Here we are Thursday afternoon kicking it off with the first qualifier:
There was a spot open so I jumped in and got my butt totally kicked. I won my qualifier last year but I’m really not good at this game — you have to know all the cards, and what combos with what for what strategy, if you want to go anywhere in this tournament.
Best as I can remember there were games played Thursday night, I think that’s when we played Western Legends.
Friday and Saturday
And then we continued with the tournament Friday morning. I used to have 9am events but we’d always get a bunch of no-shows, so I moved the morning events to 10am, and I think we did a little better.
Friday afternoon usually fills out pretty well:
At this point, we’re into Friday night. I’ve been able to make some trips to the Dealer Hall, demo a few games, play some games with friends. I think most trips, there are grueling late nights into 4am and then a recovery night somewhere in there, but I think this trip we played every night pretty consistently pretty late, just never so late like past 3am until closer to the end. That’s the way to do it.
Saturday is such a busy day, and it goes by so quickly. We start at 10am and go until 9pm or so. I’m very grateful to have help.
We start with the final qualifier on Saturday morning:
We then move right into the quarter finals. The 32 qualifier winners from Round 1 advance to round 2 with 8 games, first and second place advances. Then we go to the semi-finals of 16 players, 4 games, only first place winners advance.
And the finally a final of 4 players. It’s tough to get to this point: You had to win your first game, usually a 4-player game, outright, then finish first or second among all those winners in another 4-player game, then win a third game, again 4-player, outright. All of these guys are champs in my opinion, and to the right is Kris himself, the 2018 champ.
And as we start the finals, I’m sad to realize that Gen Con is coming to an end. These guys have basically had Terraforming Mars be the focus of their day and of much of their entire Gen Con experience, and it will come down to one last game. My group and I will play one more round of games tonight, and that’s it. Sunday is a day of departures, some very early.
Well into Saturday night now, Dan from Seattle is our winner of a trophy and a generous $300 spending card at Indy Game Studios.
In many ways I think the tournament is just hitting its stride. We’ll have another event next year.
Saturday night, we squatted in a hotel conference room with about 20 tables. In the end, we were the only ones left, and I regret not getting that picture. Once again, that’s us. We play it to the end.
I’ll do another post on the games of Gen Con 2022, but despite all the games played, there wasn’t as much I came away impressed with this year. In part, the group ended up relying on me and my games at times, so instead of learning something new to blog about, I was the one teaching my own games, that I’ve already blogged about here, to others. In part, when I did play others’ games, they weren’t necessarily new ones. But there was still a ton of games, more than enough for its own blog post.
One I’ll highlight is Ark Nova, the “build a zoo” game as far as I’m concerned. If I tell you that you build a zoo, there are bunch of ways you could go with it, a bunch of different tones you could pursue, from kiddie and cartoonie all the way to very serious. This one dials it all the way up on very serious. You build competing zoos, build partnerships with foreign zoos and other entities, and gain recognition for your conservation efforts, which ultimately wins you the game. There are layered strategic elements, varying paths to victory, killer card combinations and more. It reminds me a lot of Terraforming Mars actually, in the way that there are cards you have to choose from to develop and execute a strategy. Matt did the best job our game, getting some science going early and getting an engine to reward him for it. I had an impressive collection of reptiles but no real point generator going, and finished second place.
The Miniatures and Set-Ups
One of the things about board game conventions are the set ups, the toys and miniatures that people spend all year getting ready to display, and fight out. There are a lot of miniature conventions but everyone brings out their best for Gen Con:
Some early departures. A quick, final visit of the Dealer Hall, a chance to say some hellos and some good-byes, maybe get a great deal on something. But the magic is over. By noon, a lot of booths have started packing. By 3, they’re kicking you out.
Still, it only ends when we leave.