What is your favorite convention?
That’s a common question in the gaming world, names bandied about as if comparing your favorite movies or restaurants. Yet just like movie genres, it’s not always that easy to perfectly compare one to another. Is an action movie better than a period drama, a sci-fi thriller more engaging than a quirky comedy? Each have admiration from one fan base or another, but it makes it difficult to compare them all on equal footing.
The same holds true for board gaming conventions. In general, your favorite con will be entirely depends on what you hope to get out of it.
If you want to explore a convention that encompasses the totality of the board gaming industry, shows a fantastic cross-section of new games, and has a myriad of panels, copious scheduled game sessions, and pretty much anything else gaming-related you can think of, Gen Con has your number. If you want to see the latest and greatest from Europe and points beyond, often full of quirky imports alongside meaty strategy games, there’s the refinement of Essen. And if you like ease of access and affordability, nothing can compete with a convention in your own backyard.
However, if you seek primarily to catch up with friends from around the country – or make new ones – then BGG Con is the convention of choice. Not only can I say this confidently and without hesitation, but I do so even after having been there a single time. It’s that apparent.
Yes, BGG Con 2015 was our first foray into the five-day Texas gaming marathon. It’s long been on our radar of conventions to check out, but due to scheduling, cost, and pesky life obligations, it’s taken until now to finally make the trip down to the highly exotic locale known as the Dallas airport complex.
Like most, I had reservations about trying a new convention halfway across the country, both because I was attending the con alone and arriving a full day after the start of the festivities. What would BGG be like? Is it as good as people claimed? Would I be able to find things to do? I wondered about all this as I boarded my flight from Boston, open-minded but cautious about what awaited me. While many good things have been perennially said about the caliber of the attendees and the relaxed atmosphere the convention exudes, I still wasn’t quite sure what sort of experience awaited me.
It’s always a little risky (not to mention costly) to try new venues outside of those you can drive to, and having a mismatched convention experience can sour your enjoyment quickly. The last thing anyone wants is to have the build-up and anticipation of a convention devolve into a negative experience. Gen Con, for instance, can easily become overwhelming for many of the more introverted amongst us, as the sheer scope of the convention and volume of attendees can a bit much at times for anyone, let alone those who have issues with crowds.
Thankfully, most of these fears were quickly dispelled, and by the end I’d come to realize it was certainly the kind of convention for me. It’s not without some faults (no convention is), but if your goal is to socialize on a national scale, few pull it off like BGG. Venturing to a new local certainly paid off for me, but I can also see how it may not be ideal for everyone. To that end, I thought it’d be useful to share what I felt were the good, bad, and mixed parts of BGG Con from a first-time attendee.
The Game’s The Thing: Like you’d expect, a BoardGameGeek convention is all about playing games. Yes, there are vendors and exhibitors, but ultimately it’s all about gaming and sharing that with others. You aren’t pressured to do anything or buy anything there. Some cons focus on doing playtests or are trying to sell you something. Here, it’s all about them games.
The Ability to Play Said Games: It’s almost ironic to say, but many game conventions are terrible at being able to actually sit down and play games, be it because of space, noise, lack of a game library, or simply because that’s not the convention’s focus. BGG has this down to a science, thanks to three big factors.
First, everybody’s badge and every library game box is barcoded, making checking games in and out of their massive shared library incredibly easy. Second, between the use of a table flag system signaling to others you’re in need of players for your game – or someone to teach it – you can (usually) find someone to join a game you need bodies for, or you can join a game yourself. This even includes recent Essen releases. Third is that it has a lot of gaming space. From a grand ballroom to dozens of smaller tables scattered throughout the hotel, there is rarely a shortage of table space.
The hall can be a little noisy at peak times, but it’s a fair tradeoff for being able to play all manner of games and have people present looking to share in that same experience. We have a couple conventions in the New England area with Unity and TotalCon that do similar things on a smaller scale, so we’re a little spoiled, but for scope and access to games new and old, it’s hard to compete with BGG.
I certainly played a fair share of games while there but not nearly as many as I originally planned to because of…
Socializing: If all you want to do is show up and park yourself in a chair for five days to play games, you won’t be disappointed. Many people do exactly that, and that’s perfectly fine. However, BGG is also a fantastic convention for meeting new people and making new acquaintances. Whether it’s in the vendor areas, over a beer, or participating in a mutually enjoyable game, it’s nearly impossible to leave the convention without making a new friend or two. BGG really tries to make it possible for anyone to find like-minded gamers to play with without it ever feeling forced.
I knew quite a bit of people attending already, so I spent a lot of time catching up and building rapport with them. Dare I say it, but seeing many of those people in person and sitting around chatting may have been even more fun for me than the games themselves.
The Size: At 2,800 people, BGG Con 2015 had a banner attendance number this year. For a gaming convention that isn’t an expo or a trade show, that’s quite a few people to show up simply for the love of gaming. So it’s large, but it’s not unwieldy. Most of the convention exists on the bottom two levels of the hotel, and once you get your bearings it’s very easy to navigate around.
The People: Practically everyone at BGG is there for the same reason. Even for the number of people present, there’s a level of camaraderie there that’s hard to replicate. Most people attend a game convention for the love of the hobby, but there’s nothing like being stranded in the middle of nowhere for five days to let people get to know each other better via gaming itself. I made more new connections at my first BGG than I have the four or five previously attended conventions combined. And we go to Gen Con.
Food: I’m happy to report that the list of purely negative things were few and far between, but none are as poor as the selection of food options at BGG Con. The hotel the convention uses is at the airport itself, which is super convenient for flying in and out, but it’s terrible for access to dining and shopping options.
What food the hotel does offer is limited to a moderately overpriced restaurant or highly overpriced finger foods. Going offsite for more affordable options via a car or provided shuttles are available options if you’re willing to venture outside the airport – and I recommend going offsite at least once for a change of pace – but repeatedly doing it eats up valuable time. Getting lunch or dinner easily turns into a two hour exercise. So, fair warning on all that.
I suggest either bringing some non-perishables or finding a market on the first day. Next time I also plan on taking advantage of local places that deliver – something several of us didn’t think about until near the end of the convention.
Second Day Swag: I’m never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when it comes in the form of free games. However, I was disappointed in the post Day One swag options. One of the cool things about BGG Con is that distributors offer up a handful of notable games as gifts to attendees. In exchange for putting up with long opening day registration lines, people were privy to some nice game titles to choose from. By Day Two – when I showed up – all of that was gone. They don’t have to offer anything, so I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I was a little bummed seeing all the photos of what people ended up with prior to me arriving and then seeing my options at what was left. It was…disappointing. If that’s important to you, I suggest planning for the full five days. If that’s not possible, then curb your expectations. Lesson learned there.
Cost: If attending a convention involves air travel or hotel stays, it’s rarely going to be cheap. BGG Con is no different. Unless you’re native to Dallas, you are going to spend hundreds of dollars to hang out in an airport-adjacent ballroom for five days and play board games. You’ll have to decide for yourself if a games-only con fits in your budget. For me, it was an easy choice, but your mileage may vary.
Kids: One notable thing about BGG Con I wasn’t aware of is that it’s not a family-style convention. Kids are very rare there, as the convention is aimed at adult gamers and children under 12 aren’t permitted. You may or may not see that as an issue when deciding if BGG is for you. If it is, you may instead consider their family-friendly convention in May called BGG Spring.
Miscellany: BGG Con may be 85% gaming-centric, but it does have a few recurring events that could be worthwhile to check out while there, including an annual gaming charity, end of convention raffles, and a smattering of panels or screenings that give you some additional options and round out the convention slightly.
The Solo Factor: This is probably the hardest aspect to admit, but going solo to BGG Con is a mixed bag. Although almost every stranger I met at BGG Con was cordial and friendly, and the atmosphere itself is inviting for strangers to have pickup games together, attending alone has the potential to go either way. Many attendees come as couples or groups, for instance, or will be meeting friends once they arrive. Many even go so far as to share rooms to offset costs. On the one hand, being a solo adventurer allows you to move about easily from area to area, game to game, group to group. It allows you to interact with and meet all sorts of people.
On the other hand, even if most of those interactions are positive, there’s no guarantee all of them will be. Moreover, some folks will be more focused on playing games than on meeting new people and are more inclined to game with the people they know more than with strangers. This can be frustrating for a solo attendee. If such a group is tight-knit or cliquish, it makes it even more difficult for someone there by themselves to join in. Thankfully I didn’t experience a lot of that personally, but I regrettably did observe it several times. Alas, such is to be expected with that many gamers in one area. As is often said, gamers are not a homogeneous group.
And so it came to pass, the CR’s first trip to BGG Con. For me, it had the ideal mix of what I enjoy in a convention. It allowed me to play games in a relaxed atmosphere, make new friends, and build upon those that I’ve made over the last few years. Even at just a single time through it surprised me how well it suited my tastes. No convention is perfect for every person, but this has already become a personal favorite. BGG Con proved to be my kind of movie genre, and you can count on me going back.