There’s no such thing as a one size fits all gaming convention. Just as there are a litany of gaming genres, subgenres, and individual player preferences as to what you like to spend your time on – not to mention the equally varied list of individual motivations for attending such an event to begin with – conventions mean massively different things to different people.
Maybe your focus is on sitting down and playing games for days on end when you might not be able to otherwise at home. Or using it as an excuse to bring home a batch of lively new geek couture. (Also bottled moss – don’t ask.) Or hanging out with friends who live hundreds of miles away. Or seeing what the latest and greatest games are from around the industry.
All of these are going to be the primary motivations to someone; there is no wrong answer to the question of why you want to attend a gaming convention. In that way it’s like watching a movie: there is a film out there for everyone to be content with, regardless of whether it’s Citizen Kane or the latest Transformers. So long as you get the experience out of a convention that you desired by attending in the first place, then by all means consider that convention trip a success.
The trick becomes finding the convention that suits you best.
I wondered where exactly Origins would fall within the convention spectrum as I prepared to leave for the airport and visit the glorious land of central Ohio. While the Origins Game Fair has been around for over 40 years, and a staple of Columbus since 1996, I’ve never made the trip out there until this year.
Or at least I tried to. I must have pissed off some malevolent force recently, as given the absurd level of airline issues encountered getting to and from the city, it seems as if someone was conspiring against my efforts to attend the convention at all. But that’s another story.
The bigger reason though is that traditionally we at the CR always had to make a choice for cost and logistical reasons between Gen Con or Origins as our summer destination convention, and from our vantage Gen Con always won rather easily. For the volume of industry announcements, game debuts, and critical mass of all things cardboard, there simply is nothing quite like Gen Con.
Yet we also knew that quite a few people eschew Indianapolis for Columbus, and we were really curious as to why. So this year we were determined to find out. Although each of us were only able to attend for three days each (Erin going Wednesday through Friday and myself Friday through Sunday), thanks to our combined efforts we were able to test drive the convention for the first time.
And so, as I’ve done a few times before, I offer up a brief account of my first time attending a new con. I won’t go into detail on every little thing I did or game seen, but I thought it’d be useful as an outsider to hear the thoughts of an Origins Newcomer. The good, the bad, the indifferent. So here goes.
Games Abounds: When you want to see new games unveiled as a spectacle, you simply can’t top Gen Con for the fervor and excitement involved. Likewise, with a smaller more people-centric convention like BGGCon, the focus is less on the games being debuted than it is about the people you’re playing with. Sure there are vendors and exhibitors there, but that’s ultimately not the major focus. In this sense, Origins is a bit unique in that you can seemingly have your cake and eat it too. It’s large enough that there’s plenty of new games being debuted for you to look at and purchase, but it’s not so exhibition-focused that you don’t have the time or space to sit down and actually play them afterwards.
Even though you can see the entirety of the Origins expo hall in an afternoon, there was plenty of news tidbits, demos, and games on display that certainly caught my attention for one reason or another. I’m not going to provide the exhaustive list as we’d be here all day otherwise, but here are some of the notable things that caught my attention:
Betrayal At Baldur’s Gate by Avalon Hill – Aside from being an easier title to say, this new iteration of Betrayal at House on the Hill had a handful of demos going on during Origins. I got to look in on one, and I think for those who enjoy the Betrayal line, they’ll be happy with what comes out. It keeps the same story-driven vibe but seems to flesh out some of the mechanics a bit more.
Century: Spice Road by Plan B Games and Codenames Duet by CGE – There’s a bit of a debate over which the biggest hit of Origins was this year, as it really seems to be a tossup between the two. (Barenpark was up there too.) On the one hand, Century Road sold out of its small allotment of games for sale very quickly, but the demo table was perpetually full. And with good reason: it looks and plays quite well for a lightweight 30 minute game.
On the other hand there’s Codenames Duet, which was in demo mode only. Duet is a co-op two-player version of Codenames, and its concise-yet-familiar nature solidifies what we all wanted the two-player version the original Codenames to be. What’s more, you can easily mix the cards into the base game for even more variety.
It’s a tough call, honestly. Both seem to have staying power and should do well for their respective audiences. So I’m going to cop out and declare it a tie. In either case, both are due out at Gen Con.
Crabs! by Daily Magic Games – This is a goofy lightweight game about crab hunting that caught my attention back during Essen season and found out it’s going to be published in the US by Daily Magic. Yay crabs! Wait…
Deep: Enemy Frontier by Leder Games – Definitely still a work in progress, but the brains behind the highly original Vast – in addition to offering up a standalone sequel to that title – is moving into space. In another highly asynchronous game, this time you’re factions trying to carve up a dying empire. Not a ton of detail just yet, but I’m intrigued by the concept alone. Usually it’s all about building up or maintaining an empire. Not too many revel in their collapse. Oh the times we live in…
Ex Libris by Renegade Games – One of my favorite things at conventions is checking out prototypes at night, and Origins was no exception. My favorite by far though is this one, an upcoming title by Renegade. In this light worker placement / tableau builder, each player is trying to build up their town’s library, which you must do not just by laying down cards adjacently, but also alphabetically. Otherwise, you score no points. With a nice amount of puzzle-y decision-making and lots of tongue-in-cheek artwork, be sure to bookmark this one when it debuts in a few months. It has the chance to do really well.
Flamme Rouge by Stronghold Games – A fan favorite at BGGCon last year, Flamme Rouge will make its US debut at Gen Con, which has me excited. And it’s good. Which I didn’t think I’d ever say about a bike racing game. And no, the namesake doesn’t bias me on that. Much.
The Hunt For the Ring by Ares Games – Ares, the same publisher as the epic War of the Ring series, is offering up a smaller scale experience that has me intrigued. It’s One v All game where one player is Frodo trying to escape the Nazgul and the rest are, well, the Nazgul. It’s played it two stages, and when one is completed you flip the board over. The catch is that the mechanics to each side are quite different, even if the goal remains the same. I’ve been excited about this one for a while and was able to get a runthrough on it at Origins. That excitement has not abated. Soon! It’s due out (hopefully) for Gen Con.
Lazer Ryderz and Fate of the Elder Gods by Greater Than Games – Although neither were on sale at Origins, they did have final version of these two titles on display. The former is a vector-based racing game with the most 80s of 80s flavor going, while the latter is a Lovecraftian jaunt where you play as the cultists competing over which elder god to summon. Both are due out soon, and from what I’ve seen, the wait is going to be well worth it.
Lisboa by Eagle-Gryphon Games – Vital Lacerda is known for making heavy games with a detailed thematic underpinning to them, and his latest title, which made a soft launch at Origins, is no exception. Based around the rebuilding of Vital’s hometown of Lisbon, Portgual around the turn of the 19th century, not only is this one another alluring brain burner by this designer, but it looks fantastic in person as well.
Side note: I also got to sit down and interview Vital in person, which was a highlight of my convention. You can expect that out sometime next week, followed by Lisboa at Gen Con.
Rhino Hero: Super Battle by HABA Games – It’s a supped up Rhino Hero! This time each person is their own superhero and you’re forced to move up and down the buildings you’re stacking up. There will be a small allotment at Gen Con with a full release beyond that.
Sentient by Renegade Games – My one regret in all of my Origins shopping was to not grab Sentient when I had the chance. It’s coming, don’t worry about that. But I definitely enjoyed this game on all parts. It’s a lightweight but cerebral robotic programming game that has a lot of little decisions to make that adds up to some nice puzzle-solving strategy.
Fun fact: the announcement for the game went out on April 1st, complete with vague description of the game. I, like some, thought it may have been an April Fool’s prank. It wasn’t, clearly, but I did find out at Origins that Renegade worded it intentionally vague to trip people like me up. The rascals.
Sidereal Confluence by Wizkids – Apparently this was a much talked about game at The Gathering, but there’s been very little traction about it since. I didn’t even know of its existence till I stumbled on it at the Wizkids booth, and yet I walked away quite happy they picked this title up. In a nutshell, it’s a lengthy simultaneous trading and negotiation game for 4-9 players where each person is trying to fuel their economy and colonize planets. Essentially it’s Eclipse without the combat. While I didn’t get to play a full version there, I definitely intend to try to soon.
This War of Mine by Ares Games – Somehow I missed the announcement that Ares has inked a deal to bring all of European publisher Galakta’s titles over to the States, including the newest one TWOM, which had much success on Kickstarter. I saw this at PAX East 2016 and I have to say the finished version looks just as forlorn and depressing as its source material. I’m interested in trying the full version though. Alas, I have to wait till Gen Con.
The Ability to Play Games: Even for its size, being the second largest board game convention in the US (at the moment – we’ll see what Unplugged does), Origins is surprisingly laid-back in a lot of ways, with as much focus on playing games as looking at them. So there are ample opportunities to pull something out, sit down at a spare table, and play. I regrettably didn’t get to play nearly as many games as I had planned, but with only 2.5 days to work with, my time was pretty limited if I wanted to see everything. As a result, most of my playthroughs and demos were on the lighter side. But if you lean towards the heavier, fear not: Origins is more than capable of accommodating you as well.
Socializing: Whether you’re going to meet up with friends or bringing along your own group, there are plenty of ways to interact with people at Origins. From copious events, to a gaming library (albeit one you have to pay for), to sitting down for demos without the need for a two hour wait, you have amply opportunity to play with friends. Well, that or just skip the gaming parts all together and socialize with people you rarely get to see in person. Which is what often happens to me. As much as I love gaming, seeing people I interact with in person at most once or twice a year is my primary motivation for attending cons at this point. And I will say that Origins makes bumping into them much easier over its larger Indiana-based cousin. Even in my truncated attendance I got to hang out with so many excellent people in such a short amount of time that it made the whole trip worthwhile.
That said, this isn’t a hotel ballroom. Origins is plenty big enough to lose track of people, so beyond spur of the moment excursions, anything else requires a bit more planning than BGG or your typical local con.
The Size: At just about 17,000 attendees, Origins had its largest year ever, with a 10% rise over the previous years (an industry standard at this point). This is definitely good news for a convention that actually saw a drop both in attendance and exhibitors a few years back. It appears to be rebounding though, which is good news all around. Origins definitely seems to be making efforts to right past mistakes, and the attendee increases on both the business and pleasure sides of the hobby indicates that they’re moving in the right direction. I see now why it makes for an appealing locale for a lot of people: you can experience the energy of new games on display while still being casual enough that you never really feel overwhelmed. It’s large but has plenty of room to grow, which for many other conventions of late, has started becoming a problem.
Food: Food is one of the things that every convention – gaming or otherwise – always has to contend with. I love BGG Con’s cozy nature, but getting anything besides overpriced hotel food is often a challenge. I also love Gen Con’s centralized location in downtown Indy, but its size and scope often makes getting food difficult. Sure there’s plenty of local establishments, but there’s also a lot of people thinking the same thing. From an eating standpoint, Origins is easily the best of the bunch. With plenty of areas within walking distance (including the excellent North Market), as well as several food options within the convention complex – all with little wait time – Origins wins this contest easily.
Organization: While I don’t have a long list of overtly negative things to say about Origins, the one that stands out to me most is that it’s not always the most organized. From initial registration, to an outdated event tracking system, to sometimes just being unable to find your way to various locations, Origins could be a lot better about finding specific rooms or events. The expo hall portion is laid out fine, but even though the majority of the convention center is one long carpeted causeway, I found myself turned around on more than one occasion when trying to locate specific areas. Better signage by the convention and a more useful event system by Origins itself would both be welcomed for the future.
The Origins Awards: First off, congrats to all of the 2017 Origins winners. I’m glad that these titles got some well deserved recognition and praise. But that’s about as far as my own excitement for those go. The award nomination and vetting process for Origins has been more than a little problematic in the past for a variety of reasons I won’t go into nauseatingly boring detail with here. Let’s just say that between how they determine who qualifies for a category, the categories themselves, and who is doing the voting, it’s been a challenge to restore legitimacy to the Origins awards. And, well, there’s still room for improvement. Most gamers take almost every gaming award with a grain of salt anyway, but still. Origins has the potential to have its prizes be worth some extra gravitas in the industry, much as how the Spiel des Jahres or Golden Geeks are, but it’s not there yet. They’re making solid strides to restore its reputation, so I have hope. In the meantime though, I (and many others) paid little attention to who won what.
Water Water Anywhere:
It’s a minor gripe, but it seems like Columbus has a thing against drinkable water since more often than not the water stations around the convention were completely tapped out. Admittedly this is an issue more on the convention center’s end than Origins itself, but it was a complaint echoed by many that the dispensers were perpetually empty. So either they were just bad about refilling them or someone was leading a herd of invisible camels around.
And honestly, if it were the latter I’d probably be ok with it.
Cost: One of the biggest things I feel Origins has going for it is its accessibility of cost. Transportation to Columbus is about the same as most other major cities, and my own experiences aside, its somewhat localized location in the country makes it fairly easy to reach. Moreover, its closeness to the airport and downtown eateries makes it pretty easy to get around when you need to step outside and see the sunlight for a bit. Even the cost of a 5-day ticket is pretty reasonable at $60-70.
That said, there are two areas for improvement. The first is the nickel-and-dime nature of charging of everything else attached to said ticket, be it generic events, the game library, and so on. Origins charges for practically every event, something even Gen Con doesn’t do.
The other is hotels, which unfortunately is pretty par for the course with conventions. It’s no Gen Con lottery, but you do run into the issue of everyone wanting to be the absolute closest to the convention center possible. So it can be a bit of a rush when hotel blocks open up. Still, Columbus has plenty of options even if they aren’t literally connected to the convention center, and it’s manageable if not ideal.
Miscellany: Origins, like most conventions, has a litany of events to participate in, from RPG sessions to various annual meetups. It’s plenty to keep you busy if you’re looking to augment your time doing things beyond just looking at board games. I regrettably didn’t get to do many of these because of my short time there – including the meetup for Erin’s sister podcast Greatway Games – but the point is that there are plenty of things to do if you so choose. Boredom isn’t usually a huge issue at Origins from what I can see.
Wednesday: Origins is a bit weird on this one, as it runs Wednesday through Sunday. However, the expo hall itself doesn’t open until Thursday, and even half of the main hall is still being set up. I suppose that’s good for badge registration and general hanging out, but for me that sounds a little like wasted opportunity there. Maybe, I dunno, set up a day earlier?
And so it came to pass, the CR’s first trip to Origins. Flight issues aside, I have to admit I’ve quickly come to understand why it is so many people enjoy going to this convention, whether it’s for the casual atmosphere or being able to partake in the expo side of the hobby without being consumed by it. Does Origins have same fanfare as Gen Con or Essen? No, but for most people that makes it even more manageable. (Granted we admit actually liking the fever-pitch atmosphere of Gen Con as a working convention, but Origins, like BGG, is a totally welcomed way to balance that out.)
Indeed, it seems to be the perfect hybrid between cordial small conventions and the bustling throngs of Gen Con attendees. It’s the Goldilocks Effect: not too big, not too small, and it has plenty of things to keep you occupied. We’re pretty happy with our first trip overall, having gotten to see many cool games and cooler people, and we’re seriously considering adding it to our yearly rotation should scheduling allow.
Our only suggestion for others: make sure you give yourself at least four days. Wednesday for now may be skippable, but definitely give yourself enough time otherwise. Three days for us just wasn’t enough.