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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, October 31, 2005

Pros & Cons: It’s All About the Meeple

Pros & Cons will be a (sporadically released) series on my con-going experiences, and I am using the term “con” very loosely here. My main exposure has been Portland’s local con, Game Storm, which is more traditional along the lines of Origins (albeit with less vendor presence, and much fewer skimpy costumes). I have also attended all three Oasis of Fun (OoF) get-togethers in Atlanta. OoF is a private invitational with about 80 attendees or so; I managed to get in as the first OoF was open to all subscribers of the Nigglybits mailing list, of which I was a member at the time. I will also be attending the inaugural BGG.CON this week in Dallas.

Whether the event is as tightly organized as the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC), consists of pure open gaming like OoF, or something in between, the one line that inevitably shows up in reports (usually preceded with the meta-cliché “I know this is a cliché, but…”) is “It’s all about the people”. While good hygiene is not to be taken for granted, what’s being talked about here is much more than that. It’s about getting together with like-minded people and establishing friendships, and the positive feelings that come with being part of an international community with a unique bond. Now, reader, if you think that this all sounds kinda hokey, I’m here to tell you: You’re not alone.

Being a severe introvert (hosting other personality quirks), I always struggle with the social element at cons. At Game Storm, I do not know most of the attendees and often find myself playing with less experienced players who are getting an early impression of the types of games that I enjoy. So, I take on a quiet, friendly, bland persona, and let the other players at the table take center stage. At OoF, I let my hair down occasionally, but am reminded all too often that my gaming persona - nurtured for several years within the Rip City Gamers - is something that needs to be warmed up to by others; “to know me is to love me” does not work when you’ve only got four days together.

It will be interesting to see how BGG.CON pans out. As originally defined by the planners, it shares the same open structure as the various invitational events, but several folks, who I assume to be uncomfortable with the format due to inexperience, are establishing a timetable to ensure they play specific games. This could get kind of awkward in a couple of ways. First, players who aren’t scheduling games in advance could get frustrated when they walk up to play a game only to be told “Are you signed up? Sorry…”. It is not always easy to find an opening to get into a game at these events (more on that below), and this just compounds the problem. Second, because other events are not scheduled, players signed up for a game may get “stuck” in another game, and will have to figure out how to resolve the conflict.

The one advantage BGG.CON does have over other similar events is that, socially, it is starting out on a mostly blank slate. One of my favorite all-time blog entries is Mark Johnson’s candid reflection on his 2004 Gathering of Friends experience (you can find the post on page 63 in the archive of his old journal). He describes the feeling of not really fitting into the scene, primarily due to the cliquish groupings; he writes about “a combination of an ever-widening circle [of friends] and a bunch of overlapping circles […] I guess I think of myself as being on the edge of a circle or two.” These circles are usually established in previous events (such as Gathering of Friends), and are even sometimes regional in nature (e.g., OoF has a large Atlanta contingent). It seems that the majority of BGG.CON attendees are outside the DFW area, and, while there are BGG members who are relative celebrities recognizable by their usernames and avatars, I am guessing that there is a significant “reset” when you are actually face-to-face and the constraints of online communication melt away.

So, if you are a fellow introvert somewhat anxious about BGG.CON, here are some tips on how to get through:

Be assertive. A lot of attendees at these types of events avoid excessive mingling. Generally, they find a small group of folks they are comfortable with (it could be similar tastes in games, or just compatible personalities), and play multiple games with them. As such, I find it rare that someone stands up and yells “Who wants in on a game of [title]?”, even if there is one or more open seats at the table. If you are wanting to play a game, and you see something interesting being set up, ask if there is room for one more.

Do not base your expectations on playing specific titles. Given the above, the odds of finding openings in every game that you were hoping to play are pretty low. If you decide to not join in on the scheduling, it could end up pretty random what you will end up playing. If you finish a game with 3 other folks and you feel like the compatibility is there, recommend that someone else in the group pick a game that he really wants to play. Eventually, someone will ask you to choose, and you will find willing opponents to play a game you really want to play. Note that, using this system, you will likely have to stick with a favorite game you know the rules to, unless you are lucky enough to find someone at the table who already knows the new game you wanted to try out.

Establish meta-goals. You may be wondering why I go to these events at all! Well, there are several benefits I get out of it that are not tied to specific games. I get to test my abilities against a new set of opponents, hopefully with increased challenge. I get to experience a strategy game where the groupthink differs from my local crew’s, which brings new insight. As I wrote in September, I enjoy seeing how folks brought together from different groups resolve ambiguities (such as establishing restrictions on sharing information in Shadows Over Camelot). And, of course, I like to sample games I have never played before; at BGG.CON, there will undoubtedly be enough copies of – and interest in – all the hottest new games (Caylus, etc.) that you will get a shot at some subset of these over the weekend.

Give yourself plenty of “alone” time. At most cons, I usually go out for meals all by myself; this takes me away from the pressure of social interactions for a while, and leads to a less stressful weekend. I also give myself breaks between long periods of gaming to go for a walk and listen to music. All attendees run the risk of exhausting themselves by Sunday morning; while others use socializing for their downtime, those who are focused primarily on the games themselves are most at risk of burning out.

I am sure that we all have a great time in Dallas this week. Afterwards, I will likely tell my friends, “It’s all about the games.”


  • At 5:33 AM, Anonymous Mikko Saari said…

    I find it curious when people schedule normal-length games like Antike or Caylus. In Finnish cons, the scheduled games tend to be longer games; just last weekend at Helcon, scheduled games included Indonesia, Antiquity, Republic of Rome, Die Macher and Arkham Horror. These are games that are likely played just once during the con and need a competent teacher. Shorter stuff, you can just pick up and play.

    If I were to participate at BGG.CON, I'd probably try to get into a long game or two (might run something like Indonesia myself), and then just go with the flow rest of the time.

  • At 10:39 AM, Blogger Mark Johnson said…

    Great post, Dave. I ran over here to post a comment even before I read to the part where you quoted MY blog from years ago!

    I'm taking a little different approach. I'll be attending BGG.con with some friends, and may end up spending a lot of time with them. In one way that makes little sense--these are people I get to play games with regularly, so why not mix it up a bit more? Well, it all depends on the larger group, right? Maybe I will, maybe I won't. This time, though (unlike GoF), I have a backup plan. (Unless those friends desert me!)

    What's making it a bit different this time is that I've got some podcast listeners that want to meet ME. Which is an unusual situation, to say the least!

    What I hope, most of all, is that I can really just relax and talk to people as much as play games. Sounds so simple, but for some of us it isn't that easy. Kind of like you mentioned, I get along great with people I have a month or more to get to know. Then my intro/extro switch flips and I become the loud one. But there isn't that kind of time in a long weekend.

    If nothing else, I'll be back in the land of barbecue. :-)

  • At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Susan Rozmiarek said…

    Hey Dave, it'll be good to finally meet you! Ed and I, along with our older son Kevin, will be there from late Friday evening through Sunday.

  • At 1:24 PM, Blogger Jeff Coon said…

    Interesting post, Dave. I tend to be introverted in social situations myself, and don't wish to be hampered by the restrictions of scheduling games in advance.

    I've had some trepidations about how this will affect my experience at BGG.CON. "Be assertive" is some great advice, though it's easier said than done.

  • At 9:22 AM, Blogger Chris Brooks said…

    Great post Dave. Your comments about "taking a break" are spot on - that was key to our sanity at Essen. Just getting some fresh air and sunlight can do wonders for your energy/stamina.

    Mikko: the reason I scheduled Antike is primarily so that I can work around my booth schedule for Sunriver Games. Also, given it will be a first play for most people it may take 3+ hours to teach and learn.

  • At 2:12 PM, Anonymous tpancoast said…

    It's funny. I'm a bit of an introvert as well, but I have less problem speaking up when I know I have a common interest with everyone around me. It helps that i have been going to cons for years and before I started going to gaming cons, I was going to Fantasy/SciFi cons where everyone else was guaranteed to be as weird or weirder than me.

  • At 11:31 PM, Blogger dave said…

    ""Be assertive" is some great advice, though it's easier said than done."

    It's hard when you're the person trying to round up other people for a game *you* are proposing to play. It requires initiative, some social grease, and, if you aren't successful, you start questioning whether they are refusing the game or the gamer. That's why I suggest trying to get into games other people are organizing. There's an easy entry point, and it's rare that someone will turn down someone else wanting to play the game.


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