We infiltrate New England’s largest tabletop game convention, where I think something snapped in our friend Jim
I’ve mentioned before that we have a usual game night every other week with another family. This family consists of my wife’s friend, Wendy, her husband, Jim, and their two teenaged children, Oliver and Jack. Jack (13) plays in our D&D campaign and Oliver (16) occasionally pops out for some food, but usually pretends that we don’t exist.
Wendy was instrumental in helping set up this website, as she ran a very successful knitting blog, “Knit 1 Heart Too”. Jim is a high-tech genius who has made some really cool gadgets for our Game Night.
Apparently, Jim is a closet board game geek. He got weirdly excited when we mentioned going to our first board game convention. So much so that he took charge of the operation, getting the details, buying the tickets, etc.
The convention was Total Confusion 33, or Total CON 33 for short. They had a great tagline, Carpe Diem, which they spelled Carpe DM, although I didn’t see anyone grabbing any Dungeon Masters while I was there. Maybe that was more a late-night activity.
The convention was held over a balmy weekend in late February at the lovely Best Western Royal Plaza Hotel in Marlborough, MA. That’s not sarcasm; it was a really nice hotel. But I can’t imagine what the regular business persons and travelers thought as the lobby was overrun with hundreds of gamers, many with elaborate beards and cloaks. And that’s just the women. I’m kidding; the 10 women there were very lovely, and mostly beardless.
As we entered the lobby, we saw that there was a large Pathfinder role-playing group in full swing. Over a dozen tables were set up, each with 4 – 8 players, presumably slaying damsels and rescuing dragons. Or something like that. It was hard to tell because all the tables were very chill. There was no one yelling vile curses at the heroes, no cheers when an epic foe was vanquished, it was very quiet. Maybe that was a condition to allow them to play in the lobby, or maybe they were all playing homage to “A Quiet Place” and any PC who makes a sound is killed. I never found out and there was no one to ask.
This was my only real issue with the convention, I didn’t know how any of the convention worked. I didn’t know how any of the events worked. I didn’t know what any of the events were. I didn’t know how or even if I needed to sign up for any events.
I didn’t find the Convention Program helpful either. First off, they read like washing machine parts diagram. Are they all this complicated? I just got frustrated trying to figure it out. On the plus side, I got a huge chuckle that the convention rules specifically state that you must take showers. Couldn’t learn how to sign up for an event, but at least I know how to bathe. Winning.
I’m sure that if I spoke up and asked, then somebody would have helped me, but I didn’t even know what or who to ask. When we checked in and got our badges, I think they thought that we knew what we were doing. But we didn’t, and thus spent much of the convention just wandering around. You could say that I spent most of the convention in Total Confusion. Ha, now I get it.
As all good conventions should start, Thursday night had a Flea Market. Unfortunately, despite Jim’s enthusiasm, his lack of ability to tell time made us 45 minutes late. I wish that we had got there when it started. The tables were still packed with mostly decent copies of a lot of good games for sale and at really good prices. But I’m sure the selection would have been even better if we had been on time.
Still, we got some pretty good swag, for pretty low cash, although both our wives claimed, correctly, that we spent too much. I have mentioned before that one of my biggest gaming regrets is that I had given away my entire D&D collection. Now I had the chance to rebuild. Mwah Ha Ha.
First, I snagged a copy of every edition Player’s Handbook and DMs Guide. Except for 3rd edition. I could’ve sworn I had one; it was in my hand, where’d I put it? Oh well. I also grabbed a bunch of 2nd edition “The Complete ‘_____’ Handbooks” which are great guides to playing races and classes. Everything was bought at 50-75% off original price which is far better than the 200-500% price that eBay is trying to sell for. Sweet.
I also bought a few new games; Betrayal at House on the Hill, Snake Oil, Medici, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf / Daybreak; reviews forthcoming. The game I was most excited about getting though was Axis and Allies. I consider this the granddaddy of the modern uber-games like Twilight Imperium or Gloomhaven with a ton of pieces, different player actions and abilities based on individual roles, and a huge board to play on. The game was in good condition and selling for only $20. A good copy on eBay will cost over $80. Total steal.
The flea market label listed the game as complete. I didn’t want to spill the contents all over the table so I wasn’t about to open it and count out over 300 pieces. Imagine my surprise when I got home and found that the game was only missing one piece – the game board. The board! I expected a few tanks or ships to be gone, but not the whole freaking board. How do you miss that?
The next day, I spoke with one of the organizers. I did not expect any sort of refund or return, but I did want them to acknowledge that they marked a game as complete and screwed up. I was told that the guy who ran the flea market would call me the next day. Of course, this never happened. Needless to say, I was disappointed with this. But fear not, for I was able to get just the game board on eBay for $7 (see, sometimes eBay is good) so I still made out okay.
Jim, meanwhile, was like a kid in a candy store. He bought a ton of games, like Ticket to Ride – New York, Noch Mal!, Fungi, and Shotten Totten. He also got a copy of Tunnels & Trolls, which was his first RPG and he was feeling nostalgic.
My favorite thing he got was the reissue of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. I still own my original copy and I’ve been wanting to doing a comparison of the two. All for our readers’ benefit naturally.
I’m tired after spending all my money and I’m off to bed. And a shower. It’s mandatory.
On to Day 2. Driving from home, we arrived after 10am and the convention was in full swing. The Pathfinder groups were still playing in the lobby, and I don’t think that they ever left. Or spoke. Seriously, I never heard any talking coming from the area. It was spooky.
Since we still had no real plan, we just wandered the gaming floor. The Gaming Room was packed with dozens of tables each with some sort of game going on. A few of the larger tables had grandiose games that looked like they would take over four hours to play. There was some kind of Terminator game, a Car Wars game that used Hot Wheels as minis. There was a huge game in the corner, Advanced Squad Leader, that had the same people at it for at least 12 hours. The most impressive one was the group from Dwarven Forge who set up an old school D&D session with a giant castle to play on. It was awesome and cool, but honestly it felt more like a doll house to me, than a D&D game. Sorry.
But most of the tables had just 3-4 people at them playing a more manageable game. There were games of all shapes and sizes, creeds and colors. There were games with hedgehogs, marbles, blocks and ladders. Card games, dice games, some with boards and some without.
But every game was already in progress. How could we get in on a game? A kind volunteer named Chris could tell we were lost and took pity on us. He sat us down at two empty tables. He got the girls started on a game called “The Climbers”. Then he sat down with us boys and personally taught us “Kingdom Builder”.
Did we like the games? Considering that after the event, we immediately purchased a copy of both games, then the answer is yes. The Climbers is a cool building game where you build the tower as you are climbing it. Kingdom Builder was a Game of the Year winner that is kind of like Catan without all the tedious resource management and a changing variety of victory conditions.
The Climber was quicker than Kingdom Builder, so the girls jumped over to pay Potion Explosion, which Diane was keen to play as she was thinking about buying it. The verdict, the game was good, but we didn’t buy it.
After Jim finally crushed us in Kingdom Builder, we didn’t want to play anymore, we wanted to shop! We were like Wilma and Betty from The Flintstones screaming “Charge it!” as we ran to the vendor area. I bought some cool minis that I had not seen anywhere else and a wet erase battle mat. I was tempted to buy a bunch of the old school D&D modules but I showed restraint. Actually, it wasn’t restraint but rather aversion to getting chastised for spending so much money.
After a quick lunch we wandered over to the Role-playing area just to see. A dozen smaller rooms were filled with RPGs of all kinds. We had no desire to sit down for a four-hour session, but again, even if we wanted to, we didn’t know where to begin.
No one asked if we needed help. Some seemed annoyed that I was even standing in the room, even though I wasn’t bothering anyone. I felt like an outsider. Mind you, we were there at 1pm, which was one of the start times for many groups and yet everything seemed to have already begun.
Did they get here early? Who do I check in with? Is it required to pre-register? Are walk-ins allowed? Do I need to bring my own pre-rolled character? Or is that not allowed? I knew none of these answers and walked away disappointed.
One RPG table did seem really cool though. There were a group of guys playing Top Secret!, and I believe the Game Master was Merle Rasmussen. He created the game back in the ‘80s. It would have been awesome to play a scenario that was run by him.
There were sadly no seminars that I could find for Friday, so we ended up at the Miniature Painting Workshop. Carol, the lady running it, was really sweet. We picked out the mini we liked, for free, and then she set us up with the things needed to paint. It was a nice relaxing break in the middle of the day.
We only had about 2 hours left before we had to go back to the real world, so we checked out the vendor tables and looked to see if there were any other games to hop in on. Again, we kept missing the start of everything. We missed playing Druid Dice, a game that was being play-tested here. We missed a session of Root, which I was curious to at least watch.
We did end up playing a great game called Pocket Sub. And we were taught how to play by the creator of the game, Darrin Horbal. This was the highlight of our day.
I always imagine that game designers are set apart from the game players. It’s not like I ever had Gary Gygax over for tea. But the fact is that they are just regular guys and gals who came up with a cool idea and ran with it. Darrin was friendly, forthcoming, and down-to-earth. It was a pleasure talking to him and playing his game. You can read my review of Pocket Sub if you want to know more about it.
Obviously, we bought the game (only $20) and he signed it for us. This was a very cool way to end our day at Total Con.
So, what are my thoughts on my first convention. Frankly, I’m very conflicted about it. I had fun, and I would definitely do another one, but there were a lot of negatives throughout the convention.
First off, my biggest issue was with the lack of assistance at the convention. There never seemed to be anyone in charge of an area to help those in the area. I couldn’t tell the difference between a coordinator, a volunteer, or a joe-schmo paying attendee like me. The only people who asked if I needed anything were vendors, trying to sell me stuff. When I bothered to ask for help regarding the flea market, I was brushed off and forgotten about. Absolutely, I should have been more proactive in asking for help. But I still felt excluded.
Second, the web site registration and the Program list of events are horribly lacking in helpful information. The program leaves me with more questions than answers. I still don’t know how to get an “event ticket”. Is there a kiosk, a booth, a guy around the corner scalping them? I didn’t even know about the tickets until 5 hours into the day. What is the Chairman of the Board award? If I want to play in the NER thing, whatever that is, do I need to play in every round of everyday? Why aren’t the industry guest events highlighted like they claim to be? What does CCC-Tri or DDAL08 or DCC even mean? Why are the seminars so hard to find in the program? These are special events. Make them looks special! So many issues. Don’t assume that everybody already knows everything you’re talking about.
Granted, I did a lot of things wrong at my first convention. I naively thought that the convention would not be so dense and easy to figure out as I went. I should have had a better plan of what I wanted to do. I wanted to see what would spark my interest, but by the time I saw something I liked, it had already started. I wish that I had stayed at the hotel and not traveled from home for over an hour in traffic. I spent more money than I wanted and had buyer’s regret throughout much of the day.
I wish that we had just played more games. We came here with the intent to find new games to add to our Game Night. We spent so much time looking for a group to play with, that we never realized that we already had a group of 4; Us. We should have just checked out a bunch of games from the free library and played them.
Apparently, I was the only one hung up on all this junk. The girls surprised themselves and had a good time. Jim had a great time. Like I said, this convention unleashed his inner game nerd gene. He is already planning for next year’s convention and is trying to convince us to go to PAX Unplugged in Philly in November. We’ll see Jim, calm down.
All in all, Total CONfusion 33 was crazy, chaotic, frustrating and fun. And next year will be even better! See you in February 2020!
As always, never seize your DM unless he asks for it, and Game On!
I had nothing to offer anybody except my own CONfusion – Jack Kerouac