This year marks the 50th annual Gen Con, held this year in Indianapolis, Indiana. What was a small gathering of friends at Gary Gygax’s house in 1967 has grown to become the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the U.S., attracting more than 60,000 people and hundreds of new games every year. For the uninitiated it can be pretty overwhelming, so here are our tips for having fun at "the best four days in gaming."
Just like at any other big fan convention, if you’re attending Gen Con make sure to bring the sort of stuff that keeps you healthy. That includes plenty of water, high-protein snacks and and an assortment of whatever pills, creams and salves are necessary to keep you upright over long periods of time. You’re not invincible so make it a priority to take care of yourself first.
I also strongly recommend grabbing some hand sanitizer. Tabletop games are physical things, and you’re going to be touching and awful lot of tokens and pawns. Try a thematic receptacle from the good folks at Crimson Chain Leatherworks.
Next, toss a spare battery pack for your electronics into your bag. Outlets are at a premium in the Indianapolis Convention Center, and once you leave your hotel room there’s little guarantee finding power again until later that evening.
The convention center is attached to a few hotels downtown via a series of air-conditioned skybridges and the like, but if you’re coming from further out be aware that there’s not a whole lot of shade along the way. If you’re planning a longer day toss a few personal care items and a clean shirt into your bag. It might make those sitting next to you at the table more comfortable when the afternoon rolls around.
Your inventory contains 10 days rations, 50 feet of hempen rope and some hand sanitizer.
It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up some "generic tickets" on your way in. Gen Con has thousands of individual play events hosted by either game companies themselves or dedicated fans. In order to get a guaranteed seat at the table you should have bought those tickets months ago, but rest assured there’s almost always someone who doesn’t show up. In those cases you can take their seat for a few generic tickets.
To search for games you might want to play, grab a program at the door or head to the Gen Con website and do a search on the Event Finder. Better yer, check out the official FAQ well in advance of next year.
Oh, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring your favorite set of dice either. They’re bound to come in handy at some point.
Finally, if you’re going with a group of any size it’s easy to lose track of each other. Cell phone reception can be spotty inside the convention center and the WiFi is unreliable at best. Over the last few years I’ve taken to organizing and communicating with my friends using the Google Hangouts app, but something like Slack or Discord would work just as well. Anything that allows for asynchronous communication will be extremely useful.
The Vendor Hall is the centerpiece of every Gen Con and is my favorite part of every convention. This year it’s bigger than ever and features hundreds of booths from the big names like Paizo, Mayfair and Fantasy Flight as well as the little mom-and-pop developers you’ve likely never heard of.
But it’s an absolute circus. Last year the turnstile attendance was just shy of 200,000 people, so if you’re even the slightest bit claustrophobic, my recommendation is to avoid Thursday morning when the gates open and Saturday afternoon when it’s the busiest.
Never split the party... unless you have the right app.
Here’s how to make the most of your time on the floor.
First, know where you’re going. Each booth has a number, and banners on the ceiling helpfully divide the show floor into sections. The Gen Con program has a physical map, but there’s also a downloadable PDF that you’ll want to toss in your DropBox right away. If you have a good data connection, there’s even a new interactive version with a built-in search feature.
If there’s a hot new game somewhere on the floor that you simply must have it’s likely that there aren’t enough copies to go around. Line up inside the convention center before the doors open (10 a.m.) and walk to that booth briskly and with purpose. Get ready to stand in line for an hour or more. Sometimes vendors will restrict sales to 50 or 100 copies of a game every day, and sometimes they won’t. Happy hunting, and know that whatever you can’t find on the floor will most likely be available at your friendly local game store or on Amazon in the weeks and months to come.
If you plan to do some serious shopping, bring some reusable grocery bags. It will keep you from carrying a tower of board games through a crowded convention center.
Work the edges of the floor where there’s more room, and divide it into sections to make sure you see it all.
Most of the bigger booths will have a few tables set up to play their latest games, as well as helpful game masters there to teach you. However, this is not an invitation to sit down and play the full game, even though most will let you.
If you’re trying out a game on the floor at Gen Con it shouldn’t take you more than 20-30 minutes. Ever.
Bottom line is to play quickly and then move on. And be kind to your game master. Many are employees, but most are just volunteers. For them it’s a pretty long convention.
Also, no one’s judging you during a demo so it’s not the time to hem and haw endlessly over your next turn. Just make a decision, roll the dice and hand play to the next person at the table to keep things moving along. Doing things wrong or making a bad decision during a demo will sometimes even help you learn a game better.
Game demos are also not private. Expect to have other attendees gathered around you and looking over your shoulder while you play, and do your best to quietly share with them what you’ve learned about the game so far when it’s not your turn.
In recent years the business community around Indianapolis has embraced Gen Con in remarkable ways. It’s my ninth straight year attending, and I can’t remember a time when there’s been more to see or do surrounding the convention itself. Here’s a few tips on how to spend your free time.
Breakfast is surprisingly difficult to find in downtown Indianapolis, so if you’re staying in a hotel with a restaurant or continental breakfast option make good use of it. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to go for a drive outside of downtown to grab a bite. Things don’t get hopping until around 10 or 11 a.m. anyway, so there’s plenty of time to fill the tank.
Lunch, on the other hand, is pretty easy to come by. My favorite option is just east of the convention center on Georgia Street, where food trucks from all over Indiana set up shop for the week. The food is consistently good, and with multiple lines there’s rarely a long wait so you can get back to the action inside the hall.
If you’re looking for good sit-down options, you can’t beat the RAM or Scotty’s Brewhouse. Both go all out for Gen Con, including themed menus. Also consider Eater’s guide to the hottest restaurants in Indianapolis. Of course, to avoid long wait times head out at non-peak times.
If you’re looking for entertainment, there’s a couple of great options. The most unique to Gen Con is True Dungeon, a cavernous live-action dungeon crawl. Gather your party and venture through an elaborate series of puzzles, but beware that it’s easy to get hooked. I’ve seen participants dump a lot of money into items and gear from year to year, but everyone I’ve talked to raves about it.
Battletech isn’t dead, and a whole bunch of vintage mech pods show up at every Gen Con for ad-hoc and organized multiplayer carnage. For a few generic tickets you can have a go at blowing up your friends and loved ones from inside one of these beautifully maintained systems.
Cosplay is highly regionalized, mainly because it’s hard to travel with delicate costumes. Gen Con’s cosplay community is incredible and not to be missed. A parade starts at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday and snakes its way through the convention center for an hour or so, while the contest itself is scheduled for later that same day.
If you’ve got tips, links or are a game master looking to fill out your table please leave a note below. Good luck, and see you in Indy!