Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It Came From GenCon: 2012 Edition

Gen Con: Best Four Days in Gaming

Well, that was an interesting week. After knowing I would be rushed at work for a short four day workweek, I ended up with stomach flu mid-week along with the rest of the family. Thankfully it was only a 24-48 hour type of bug, but I've had enough vomit-inducing illnesses this year. No more, please. I'll spare the details of Wednesday and Thursday, but I was happy to be ready to eat real food again when I hit the road for GenCon on Friday morning. A bit of rain in Ohio, but once I hit Indiana, it was sunny and beautiful all the way to Indianapolis.

Got to the convention center and had to struggle to find parking, eventually settling on the football stadium south of the convention center. A short trip to registration later, and I had everything I needed to work the Exhibit Hall and run my seminar on IP Law and Game Design. Of course, there's a little hitch on the sheet they hand you with the badges. No flyers or playbills or the like allowed. Of course having printed up another 300 or so just like at Origins Game Fair, I was hoping these would not go completely to waste. Thankfully the GM Booth assured me I could hand them out with my business card to exhibitors I was carrying on a conversation with, but just not unsolicited to random people (fine, didn't really care to do that anyway in all honesty).

So crisis averted, I went into the hall. Since my co-presenter was not in Indy yet, I went to go get another Star Trek autograph. I already got my first from Wil Wheaton at Origins, and he was there again alongside one of the actors from Hunger Games and Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek TOS. I never thought I'd get the opportunity to get a TOS autograph, so despite having to pay a little cash for it, I'm happy to have gotten the autograph. Couldn't get a bumper for This Week in Trek though, which was a little disappointing. Nichelle was very nice though, and commented that her son Kyle would have been named Kira had he turned out to be a daughter. That's a cool coincidence. After hearing the prices you have to pay at places like the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas for similar autographs ($80 for Scoot Bakula? C'mon dude!), I'll pay the small amount and have a little memento for me and the girls.

The poor guy from Hunger Games (he played the Head Gamekeeper with the kickass beard, I forget his name) couldn't get people to come to him, while Wheaton had a mega line and Nichols had only a slightly smaller line. I'd say he would have a better future if his character did not die in the first movie of the trilogy! Anyway, such is life. Sean was going to be a little while longer, so I called my old co-presenter Adam who had arranged for a game for me to join after lunch. I ended up hitting Steak and Shake with him and his father, who I had amazingly never met before then. The apple does not fall far from the tree with these two, as his father is even more of a serious business geek than Adam is. Anyway, pleasant lunch company for sure.

We then went back to the convention center where we played a game called Artemis, which is a spaceship bridge simulator. Basically you have five touchscreen panel stations for various roles such as engineering, helm, communications, science, etc. A large screen TV is placed on one wall and someone acts as captain for the other five players at the stations. Adam was the only one who had played before, so he took the role as captain. It was the first time I got to play with the old group Adam organized for Pathfinder since that game dropped (Kevin, Nina, etc.) and we had a good time.

In our first half hour, we downed a mission that required tracking down and destroying about 17 enemy ships while providing assistance to various space stations and ships in a small sector of space. I can only really report on the engineering station, since that is what I was doing. You get about 8 to 10 sliders that can be cranked between 0% and about 300% output for various systems of the ship (examples: warp drive, impulse, front shields, rear shields, torpedoes, phasers, maneuverability, sensors). The higher you crank the energy, the better the output at the other stations, but the more heat generated and the more energy depleted. So you basically starve the systems you can afford to and overclock systems when you need them, like shields in battle. I don't know whether it was the incompetence of Adam's other Artemis team or my own conservative engineering nature, but apparently I did twice as good a job of being energy efficient and allowing the ship to go on long runs without having to dock back at the stations for more energy.

The heat management game is kind of like healing in Warcraft, as you have limited coolant resources you have to apply to the 8-10 systems to cool or slow the heating of systems before they overheat and get damaged. It was not always easy, but I think I only damaged one system in a sustained battle over the entire hour we played with overheating. The biggest problem came when our tactical person shot a nuke right in front of us and helm couldn't get away fast enough. Our whole rear end of the ship was heavily damaged and we had to spend like 4-5 minutes real time sending repair crews to fix the ship. Other than that, engineering was only a moderate challenge at the level we played at. It is an interesting game, to be sure, and would not have been nearly as possible or fun without the modern technology of touch screens and such. Maybe we are not so far away from that future as we think.

Then I met up with Sean and hit the floor with him for about 3 hours. We got through over half the Exhibit Hall and really had some positive conversations. Met a couple of clients I had developed from last year's trips to GenCon and Origins, so that was nice to see those business contacts again. Snagged a good amount of business cards, saw a lot of decent game designs. And a few that were not quite as bad as Box O' Rocks from Origins, but not necessarily well thought-out or in my interest. I am always fascinated by developers that try to mix education or have an educational/research story behind the game designs. These included a card game developed by a broker for teaching investors how to not make stupid mistakes in the real world investment marketplace, and a game design game where you are given certain factors and have to develop a game mechanic that best fits the criteria. Of course lots of spots are dead to us as retailers, resellers, magic card dealers, and really big fish like Upper Deck and Mayfair Games are not who we can really market to at these events. Perhaps eventually or if we go to the GenCon Trade Day in coming years, but right now those are not our real market.

Of course the World Magic Cup was also going on, and I got a chance to see those festivities right around the time the Exhibit Hall was closing. I don't know if splitting World Championships into this team event and an individual event is the right move, but it does make for something interesting to track as the weekend goes along. Hopefully the event stays with GenCon. With Legacy and Vintage Championships also being held, the price from dealers on staples such as dual lands was atrocious and ridiculous. I'd like to be a Storm and Elves player at all times, but those duals and Grim Tutors for Storm are just killer.

Friday night I went to the hotel and checked myself in, then went immediately to Todd's house (from the No High Scores podcast). Abner was also there and the three of us spent the evening playing a game of Road to Enlightenment, the first game released by Abner's new company Conquistador Games. I'll post more thorough thoughts for a BGG review that I will parallel here later, but the short description is that you have a country you are controlling and a deck of historical figures that have various abilities and statistics in categories like military, politics, art, science, income, catholicism, anti-catholicism. Depending on what country you are, you will have access to attack some nearby territories and will either be fighting for the catholic cause or the anti-catholic cause.

The game is a balancing act of developing and using your deck of cards, buying new cards as you use and remove other cards, and trying to stay relevant in various tracks. One track is on the board, where you can try to hold one or two extra territories for one victory point each while defending your own territories from invasion, which loses you two VP's. Being top on the art or science track gets you 3 VP's and being second gets you 1 VP, while the winner of the catholic vs. anti-catholic battle gets 2 VP's (each country on that side). Thus, the game usually is won by about 8-10 VP's at most, and you can really swing up and down on the VP scale from turn to turn. Sometimes a census in a particular field is held and you can take part to try and move up the art, science, catholic/AC scale quickly. It's a terrible metric ton to keep track of, and the preparation phase of each turn can be very slow, but the game has some slick interactions and gameplay that you really start to see through an entire game play.

It truly is a good design, and the little nuances like the assignment of statistics and abilities on the luminary cards that actually fit the actual historical figures very well makes for a highly deep and entertaining game. I cannot believe this highly complex "boardgamer's boardgame" type of design is the first thing Dirk came up with to release for his company, but I think it does have a market and will hopefully do well. Without Abner to explain the game, I think my experience would not have been nearly as good, but he knows how to teach a game and especially this one. We ended up deciding the game on the final turn, as I blew a three point lead and almost won the game for Abner in a three-way point tie at 6 VP before my last action was foiled by Todd so he won the anti-catholic battle. That two points swing him up to 8 VP and us down to 4 VP's. Solid design and fun to play, would love to again but probably going to be tough as I'm not buying it given my group of local players. They can't handle Railways right now, let alone this level.

Speaking of Railways, I snuck in a tournament qualifier round of Railways at 8 AM the next morning. I also did this to make sure I got a premium parking spot close to the hotel where we were presenting, to keep our projector and booklets close to the site they needed delivered. I had always stunk at these Railways events thanks to the original Eastern U.S. map being the map of choice and everyone usually having more experience at it than me, who plays the smaller boards more. However, two of the four players in my first round were actually less experienced than me so that made it easy for me to go one-on-one with the other expert. He raced out to a lead with the southern major line and I reeled him back in slowly building from New York across to Chicago and then to Kansas City for the Western Link. I built that Western Link on the last turn to go up the 20 points for the biggest major line, and that was just enough as I came from behind to win by 5. That qualified me for the tournament final for the first time, which was nice to finally do. A quick call to Kelley and the guy I was supposed to meet after the Exhibit Hall closed, and I was cleared to play in the final at 9 PM.

We then worked the hall most of the day. Our only break was to meet with one of the other two guys who signed up for the AIE meetup (my old wow guild and group of frogpants podcast listener friends) and grab lunch at Steak and Shake. Chris was a cool guy and he lives up west of Dayton, so we might see him again around the gaming table. It was his first ever GenCon and he reports that he had a good time, even though he is far more of a video gamer than a board gamer. Chris is definitely another cool person in AIE, and it was nice to finally meet one in person. Had some pretty in depth discussions in the Exhibit Hall as we walked around promoting the event, and I will be surprised if a couple of those interested parties do not give us a call to discuss patent or trademark work. It's shocking how many companies don't at least put a TM on their game names and company names. It's free, and easy, and puts opposing parties on some level of notice. Makes for a great starter to the conversation though.

Then it was time to set up for the presentation, as our co-worker Jim had arrived in Indianapolis. He's not used to consumer-based events, as he usually speaks at trade shows where you don't need to buy a badge to give a presentation, and the audiences are much bigger and more professionals, less consumers. Although his addition made our presentation go much more slowly, it was a nice addition for this one time at GenCon. We really had all bases covered with his licensing expertise and Sean and I covering the IP protection side thoroughly. Despite not leaving as much time for questions, the crowd of about 40 (up from 8 last year) was interactive and had plenty of good questions. Of course I think the questions about RPG designs and accessories were about to drive Jim crazy, and he left almost immediately after our presentation was over, but it was still a productive seminar. Possible clients equals kudos at work and kudos from the game design community for doing a bit of public service. It's full of win (and a free badge and gas for the Indy trip is also a nice side benefit).

Saturday night Kelley and the girls had come up to go to the zoo in Indianapolis and so they picked me up for dinner downtown. We found a little pizza joint near the fountain roundabout in the center of downtown. There was a motorcycle rally right at that spot, which made traffic crazy and the crowd an interesting mix of normal weekend families, lots of bikers, and lots of nerds. Great people watching. The girls dropped me off for my tournament final and went back to the hotel to swim. The way Railways tournament finals work is that you have two games going and you have to win one of the two games and take a higher percentage of the board points (e.g., win bigger comparatively than the other winner) over the other table winner.

Our game was four players and this time I was out of the running early. I built 10 hex tiles the entire game, as I built from DC to Boston in little links and that was it. Everywhere I could expand was not worth it, as I had plenty of cubes to deliver in the northeast by burning 2 New Industry cards and 3 City Growth cards up there where nobody else could get them. Unfortunately, this game and the weekend of games according to my opponents proved that playing with all the major lines available at the beginning of the game (like you do in all other versions of Railways) horribly breaks the game and makes no other strategy truly viable. They are just too powerful, and only two sets of them can be had. So every game probably comes down to somebody claiming the southern major line on the first turn and someone else claiming Baltimore to Toledo and Chicago to New York in the first 3-4 turns. Nothing else can keep up, as the Northeast gets drained to fast and the board position of the two players with major lines locks all other players from profitable territories. Railways of the World has been broken, and while there's ways to fix it, that's not a good thing. Ah well, every game cannot be as flawless as chess.

A late night of smoothie shakes with Kelley in the hotel room capped a solid Saturday, and then we got a little late start on Saturday thanks to the girls needing baths and the usual slowness of our family. We did get to the convention center before 11, but I had neglected to get a ticket for Kelley and so we had to wait in THE LONGEST FUCKING REGISTRATION LINE I'VE EVER SEEN. It was seriously almost an hour of waiting in line, which got Kelley pissed at me, as if I weren't already mad at myself. Of course I had no idea it would be anywhere near that bad on a Sunday. But I was determined to not let it ruin the day. We got into the Exhibit Hall and got going.

Paige played a couple rounds of Catan Junior and seems to be pretty close to grasping the concepts of the game, which means we went ahead and used our Mayfair coupon to buy it at a very reasonable $15. The version for younger ones called Kids of Catan is fun, but very oversimplified and Catan Junior might be the first real jump for Paige into more engaging game play. We then bought a Fistful of Penguins from the same company that did Last Call and Claim It, and a puzzle game called Camelot Junior that Paige can use for homeschooling as well as fun puzzle time. She really seemed to enjoy that demo the guy ran for her of Camelot Jr., although we couldn't take the game home due to them being sold out. Kelley made her usual stop at a dice vendor and grabbed a bunch of math-type dice to use for homeschool activities. I love that we can incorporate that stuff into Paige's learning, and remember doing similar things with not-so-special dice when I was a little kid.

Walking around the exhibit hall, Paige was fascinated my miniatures and the big castle-like display booths at a couple of places. Kira was mostly just fussy, although we solved it with bribes this year: nachos and a sticky bun from the concession stand. It will definitely be fun to continue watching these two grow and probably come to love doing the Exhibit Hall with us. While Kira napped for a bit, Kelley and I demoed a couple of games, one of which I had demoed with Sean the previous day. It is a bit like Chinese Checkers and I forget the name, but we bought it. Reminds me a little of chess and lot of Claim It, in that it is a good strategy game for 2 players but accommodates up to 4 nicely. Nabbed a couple of T-shirts as well, although I was hoping for more (darn you vendors for running out of the most popular size...hah!).

We finished up right around 4 PM and headed out to the outskirts of town for a big meal since Kelley and I had only had a couple of chips all day. We stopped at Mongolian BBQ and enjoyed a feast of stir fry with the girls, capped by a big apple cobbler ice cream concoction. Was a great capper to the weekend in Indianapolis. Despite the more crowded nature of GenCon and the registration gaffe, I think Kelley enjoyed herself and so we may likely continue taking the girls to the bigger of the two conventions.

And already on Monday evening, we were engaged by a prospective client who wants us to send a C&D letter to try and stop some trademark infringement. We didn't even talk to this company, but they received our flyer from another exhibitor who had talked to us during the convention. So it appears the trip was successful as a business venture as well as a fun venture.

Now it's time to catch up on sleep and enjoy some of these new games, as soon as we get through the Yo Gabba Gabba hell...I mean birthday party...next weekend. Looking forward to doing it all again in 2013.

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