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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mr. Manners, or Running A Retreat

First off, I'd like to ask for a little help from the readership of this blog. Now that we've drawn you all in with a little controversy (hehehe), it would be nice it you gave us some ideas for topics. Because I do my session reports on another blog (and that mail is then copied to our gaming group), I'm not going to do that here unless there is some other topic of interest that it ties in with, but just about anything else is (and should be) fair game.

So, on to today's topic. Many of you undoubtedly know that Chris is one of the owners of Sunriver Games, a small independent publisher that put out Havoc in time for the 2005 Essen fair. Many of you may not know that one of the inspirations for the name of the company was the Sunriver Resort in Central Oregon where I host a bi-annual gaming retreat for the Rip City Gamers and occasional guests. We've been doing this since 1999 with only a single retreat called because of lack of participation, and I'm gearing up for the next one in the coming weeks.

Hosting has been an interesting experience, with the group slowly evolving along with my hosting style, and the house as well. There have been challenges as well, as we all stay at my family's vacation home. It's pretty easy when there are seven of us, but we're looking at eleven to thirteen this time out, and that can get a little crowded (although I'm a big fan of "the more the merrier"). As such, I'd like to give my thoughts on what makes a gaming retreat of this sort successful, with the hope that some of you can take my experience and create your own memories.

First off, you need to have the right space for the right people. Our house has four bedrooms, able to sleep five adults or four couples (one room has two twin beds that we can convert to a king if necessary). Since we typically have only one or two couples at most, that means perhaps seven people can sleep in actual beds, with the rest on one of the two couches, inflatable mattresses, or the floor, and all in the great room area. In a worst case scenario with eleven people and no couples, that means four people on the floor. One year I slept under the dining room table, and I hadn't even been drinking! When we first began holding the retreat, we even had one less bedroom suite before we built out over the garage, so things were even tighter.

As you can imagine, the retreat is not about sleep, especially for those in the great room. People can get a bit cranky being that close together for a couple of days, so if you have personalities that tend to rub each other the wrong way, give them beds to sleep in to delay the eventual meltdown. I originally slept on the floor most of the time, but have decided that it's my house, dammit, and I get a bed. If we have three couples and one guy brings his son, they will all get bedrooms and I will sleep on the floor for the first time in a few years, which I'm actually delighted by. It means that we've got a lot of people coming!

Another potential sore spot is the kitchen. While our kitchen isn't tiny, it also isn't huge, and the fridge and counterspace are completely overwhelmed with food and drinks in no time at all. Fortunately, I managed to get an extra fridge to put in the garage for drinks, and that should help out quite a bit with this many people. While we have a full set of dishes, glasses, cooking utensils, etc, with that many people the dishwasher is in almost constant use, so we started using plastic "kegger" cups with people's names taped to them and paper plates to try to minimize dirty dishes, and it's been a good choice. We might be filling up the landfill faster, but we save salmon in the process. We also coordinate with common consumables, such as pop, OJ, milk, etc, so that everyone doesn't bring a half gallon of 2% milk that we have to find a place for.

Of course, people still use silverware, mugs, bowls, etc, and we still have some work to do in the area of keeping the sink area clean. There have been retreats when I noticed that female attendees (who for some strange reason find the idea of 72 hours of constant gaming to be A Bit Too Much) are the ones doing the dishes, and if it isn't them it's been me and one or two others who have a lower threshold for mess. This year, with so many people coming, it will be critical to require everyone to clean up as they go, washing any cooking utensils and putting dishes in the dishwasher immediately after eating, as well as cleaning up any counterspace they've used as they go. I've found that people want to be good guests, and a request up front helps quite a bit, along with the occasional reminder. It is hard when a long game is going to do this, especially when you're eating as you play, but it does help to keep everyone sane.

As I live in a state with a strong desire to recycle, we have a few bins for paper and returnables, but these are quickly overwhelmed with that many people. A great solution for the bottles/cans is to set up a large cardboard box in a corner with a trash bag liner and have people throw their empties there. Smaller bins work for paper, metal, glass, and other recycleables. Not everyone is as anal about this as I am, so again a little reminder is a good idea. The point is to a) get everyone involved in contributing their energy so that the host doesn't have to do it all, and b) take care of it as it comes up so nothing backs up in the more used areas of the house. When we leave, I just stuff these things in the car, we dump the returnables at the local store, and off we go.

Clean up is a bit of a pain. Because my entire family uses the house (my brother, my sister, their kids, another sister's kids, business associates, friends, etc - we don't rent the place), I like to leave it pretty much spotless if possible. We do have a cleaning service that comes in and vaccuums, cleans bathrooms, etc, but it still takes some time to get the place closed up. One of the biggest pains is laundry - with five beds and three point five baths, there are a lot of sheets and towels that can be used in just a couple of days. With ten people, it takes about four cycles, and when two are all towels that means about an hour per cycle. Not good if you want to get home that night and home is a four-hour drive away. One solution has been to do the laundry the evening before and have people use a sleeping bag on top of the remade bed. Another has been to have people bring their own towels (brilliant!). At worst, they can throw them in the dryer before packing them for home. A huge time saver!

What I haven't been so good at is figuring out how to divvy up the closing activities so that everyone can help out. I've tried to make checklists, but the simple fact is that I'm very fussy in this regard and just end up doing most of the work myself. One time, I even sent people home and spent the rest of the day closing up without any help, but it took hours and exhausted me. Regardless, many hands make quick work, and I think that this problem simply requires me to calm down, come up with a set of related tasks for a given person to do, then hand them out to the people who stay to the bitter end (we usually go to Monday afternoon, and not everyone stays).

Obviously, not everyone has a space like this to use, but you can just as easily rent a house for a weekend. If you do, I recommend you look for a place that will accommodate your group well. In addition to the sleeping situation, it is critical to be sure you will have enough large flat surfaces (also known as "tables") to play the games on. Our remodel included a breakfast nook, so we have a good sized dining table with butterfly leaves that extend it out so that two regular sized games (not World of Warcraft!) will fit, as well as a smaller table in the nook that also is nice for late night gaming away from the great room. Card tables are fine, but be sure to get one that is sturdy. One year, we set up a game of History of the World on a card table in the corner, and people would take their turns between other games. We almost finished it, and it wasn't a good fit for us, but it's worth trying out.

Another factor is a place to put the games people bring. I'm sure Chris has put up pictures of the massive FLGS-scaled selection that we've had show up from time to time. I used to bring the majority, but now I limit myself to three storage boxes (the plastic kind with locking lids), and we still get something like 60 games. We have several good spaces for this, including a rail that separates the loft from the living/dining area. Boxes are fine, but there is something about this kind of quantity spread out on flat surfaces that is really awe-inspiring. I also recommend that people compare what games they plan to bring, this usually allows me to bring the things I want to see played. In fact, I'm starting that process in the next couple of days, and I'll be very interested to see what people want to play this time out.

One of the big gripes that people have made over the past eight years is that Sunriver is a) a four-hour car ride away from Portland where we all live, and b) requires a trip over the Cascade Mountains. Dave and I had a very exciting year driving through a blizzard with ice freezing on my wiper blades before I remembered that the defroster was a Good Thing. With snow on Mt. Hood, the trip can go from 3 hours with no traffic up to 6 or even more. Needless to say, with a weekend crowd that plans to be in the house for something less than 48 hours, that can be a pain. We've shifted from having our fall gathering from November to October, and pushed the spring gathering from April into May to accomodate the weather. Still, it's a long way to go. Still, one of my favorite parts of the weekend is the drive in (usually with Dave, who has attempted to destroy my eardrums on more than one occasion) and our "recap" on the way home. Carpooling is a great chance to get to know other members of the group beyond our common gaming interest, and it's a great way to build community. Plus, we can only really handle perhaps six cars in the driveway of the house, and that's it for parking within two miles of the house. Buddy up, people!

This has been a very long post, not that that's unusual for me, but I'll try to wrap it up even though there are other elements that help make the retreat fun: the occasional tournament (not such a big hit with our group, but still a possibility), video games in the loft, including the always popular Hot Babe Beach Volleyball (hint: wireless controllers ROCK), an iPod connection to the stereo so we can groan at everyone's musical taste, wireless broadband internet access (very popular, people often bring their laptops) along with a computer/printer if we need to download rules/errata, and of course the grill.

One thing I strongly recommend is to decide on a level of recreational drug use that you are comfortable with. We aren't heavy drinkers, even by tee-totaller standards, and while there is beer and wine flowing most of the day it isn't anything more than a little social lubrication. Fortunately, there have been no problems with alcohol, and I hope there never are. Also, if anyone smokes in the group other than the occasional cigar, I've never seen it - a good thing as we don't allow smoking in the house. No other drugs are in use, and everyone is very comfortable with that.

And therein lies the true key to a successful retreat: Everyone is comfortable. That means that the host lays down the ground rules and the guests are clear about what they require to have a good time. Having clear and frequent communications among the group (typically through our Yahoo Group) ahead of time saves a ton of trouble later, especially for newcomers, of which we will have a few this time out. If you have a problem while you are there, let your host know and work out a quick solution if necessary. We had one member whose 16-year old son got up at the crack of dusk and stayed up until the sun came out - I think someone flashed garlic at him just to be sure we wouldn't end up with any awkward moments while he was "feeding" - and that was a problem for more than one person. I told the member, and he's going to take care of it this time (plus they get the room with the twin beds). It really is that simple.

As I said at the top of the post, please feel free to suggest topics for us to write on in the comments. I'm sure everyone *loves* hearing about how we overcame dishwasher paralysis, so it's in your own best interest. Thanks!


  • At 9:02 AM, Anonymous KC said…

    Great post Doug. Our Sunriver retreats have been a high point in my gaming life, especially those few games or events that stand out forever in memory. Here's my top 5.

    Number One is Piratenbucht, the game that spawned the semi-random pirate variant and your cool Dread Pirate Roberts idea. Two is Bang! - "Well I'm a deputy too, Sheriff," complete with baffling accents and role playing to the hilt right up to a great finale. Three is Sieben Segal, played umpteen times in a row on the last day, and the christening of Rupert. Four is Evo the year it came out, when we played it two or three times in a row because it really grabbed us. Five oddly enough is us playing Cairo with Jay Schindler there, all of us perhaps more socially lubricated than usual, but perhaps not enough to actually like that game.

    And honorable mention to a famous hot-tub chat that actually started SunRiver Games. You are part of our history, good or bad!


  • At 3:20 PM, Blogger Wes M said…

    One of the things I like about this blog is the variety of interests presented by the team. From Eric’s Wargame and sports-themed interests, to KC’s “the business side,” Chris and Dave’s more general musings, to (finally) Dug’s more verbose ideas. With such a wide range, I fear to offer suggestions, if only that that may constrict the flow of ideas.

    Session reports aren’t necessary, as at least two of the blog contributors post those on their individual blogs. (Though I must admit I read Chris’ more faithfully than Dug’s.) An exception may be convention reports, as I can get to Gamestorm, but I doubt I’ll be seeing GoF, BGG.con, or even an Essen anytime soon.

    However game reviews would be welcome. Now, I know that opinions will vary by reviewer, but an active discussion thread is never a bad thing. (Should I say that in a comment to an entry of Dug’s after the Great Podcasting Debate of ’06?) A discussion on game mechanics could be fun – auction lover’s and hater’s, what makes an area control game an “area control” game, pro’s and con’s on CRT’s …

    Last Thanksgiving, Monica and I used our timeshare to get a place at Eagle Crest in Redmond. We told some friends, and they ended up staying at relative’s condos at Eagle Crest as well. While the variety was lacking, (I only brought one tub of games,) and we had an insular game group, it was a lot of fun. Coordinating something on the scale of the Sunriver outings would be beyond our ken. (Yes, I’m blaming the 9 month old.) Having everyone stay together undoubtedly increases the sense of community at the Sunriver outings, but being able to send our friends away at some point kept us sane, (well, as sane as Sophia, at 5 mo.’s, would let us be.)

    I used to go to Black Butte with a multifamily group over Memorial Day, and everything brought up about logistics is true. Five 2 gallon jugs of 2%, and no ____ (fill in the blank;) overflowing recyclables, and two or three dedicated souls trying to keep pace with the dishes. I heartily give a thumbs-up to the “kegger” cup + sharpie plan. Bringing personal towels is also a great way to cut down on last day laundry.


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