How To Win At Gen Con

Whether you’re a D&D veteran or just interested in gawking at the cosplayers, conquering the country’s largest gathering of gamers needn’t come down to a roll of the dice. Here, an insider guide to the fun at the Indiana Convention Center August 2–5.

Illustration by John Kenzie

While it once conjured up images of basement-dwelling, Mountain Dew–swilling stereotypes, board gaming has evolved into a mainstream pastime. Andrew Luck, Mila Kunis, and Woody Harrelson have all confessed fondness for the hit game Catan, for example—although, as far as we know, never together. And for four days in August, Indy becomes the center of the gaming universe. At Gen Con, more than 500 exhibitors show off their wares, including hundreds of new titles ranging from Scrabble-esque word games to complex strategy competitions whose rulebooks would make Neil deGrasse Tyson’s head spin. Tens of thousands of attendees compete at games new and old. All the while, the Convention Center corridors swarm with a mash-up menagerie of costumed characters (Deadpool, meet Zelda. Zelda … Deadpool).

But not everyone approaches Gen Con the same way. Move ahead one space to learn what you’ve been missing, regardless of your gaming experience.

Level 1 — The Gawker

Attributes: Keeps distance, judgmental, not adventurous
Carrying: Phone/camera, binocular

There are thousands of Gen Con attendees in jeans, T-shirts, and other civilian garb. But it’s only natural that eyes are drawn to the wizards and goblins. Relax. It’s OK to gawk at them on Capitol Avenue. Just be respectful.

Do: Check out the costume parade, which begins at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Non–badge holders can stake out a spot in the halls of the Convention Center and witness the parade, but can’t attend the actual contest, which starts an hour later.

Don’t: Judge the low-rent nature of some of the costumes. Not everyone has a big budget or the time commitment to make a masterpiece. These are folks having fun.

Do: Remember that cosplayers aren’t hired by Gen Con, and aren’t obligated to pose for your photo. Feel free to ask, though. Most will happily comply.

Don’t: Get creepy. Yes, some of the outfits are skimpy. That doesn’t mean you have permission to put your arm around that hottie half-elf.

Do: Be aware of circumstances. Cosplayers have to eat, too, and if they are in the midst of a meal or seem in a hurry, back off. And the bathroom is not a place to ask questions—even if you’re wondering how that Ewok is going to reach the urinal.

Level 2 — The First-Time Attendee

Attributes: Curious, clueless, overwhelmed
Carrying: Map, rolling backpack

Start: Prepare for a long registration line at the Convention Center. Bonus points for non-cliché small talk. (Avoid, “So, you grok here often?”)

Escape: Escape rooms, which have sprouted all over the country, have popped up at Gen Con (in the Embassy Suites) as well.

Bid: The auction in the Convention Center features new and used games along with geek gear. Bargain-hunters and collectors abound, all battling for obscurities. (An original Fireball Island, anyone?)

Play: Open gaming in publisher-specific rooms happens all over the Convention Center. Bonus: Reps help explain the rules.

Shop: The Exhibit Hall in the Convention Center features more than 500 game companies, most offering free demos. The lines are for the hot new games like the revitalized Monsterpocalypse.

Create: At Gen Con, SPA stands for Supplemental Activities, such as the free crafting that goes on at the Embassy Suites.

Collect: At the Art Show and Authors’ Avenue in the Exhibit Hall, you can buy fantasy paintings and sci-fi literature.

Experiment: First Exposure Playtest Hall at the Convention Center features in-the-works games led by their creators. Warning: This can be a time suck if you get trapped in a game that isn’t quite up to snuff.

Watch: Film festival and anime events include the 2018 Ovid Awards—Gen Con’s version of the Oscars.

Learn: The Writer’s Symposium at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown includes “Writing Convincing Monsters” and “Sports in Speculative Fiction.”

Explore: The game True Dungeon offers a two-hour interactive experience. It’s like a live D&D game in a walk-through environment at Lucas Oil Stadium featuring animatronic creatures.

Connect: At the Meetups in Crowne Plaza, conventioneers can get away from the chaos of the game rooms. Because how else is a single shy mage supposed to meet a half-orc thief?

Quest: For those who feel paper, pencil, and dice aren’t quite enough, Gen Con also includes a live-action role-playing space at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown.

Eat: Food trucks mob Georgia Street to supplement the packed downtown restaurants.

Do Not Enter: Trade Day on August 1 at the JW Marriott is for store owners and manufacturers only. This is where the pros learn from each other in seminars.

Level 3 — The FamilyAttributes: Multitasking, exhausted, game-face wearing
Carrying: Snacks, diaper bag, stroller

  1. Hang out at Cardhalla.
    That’s the card tower collectively made by anyone who feels like joining the construction crew. The tradition began in 1999 when free card packs were handed out—and many got ditched. A tower was built with the invitation to others to add to it. Now, thousands of cards are donated, hundreds of people participate, and a charity event is held for the right to destroy the work at the end of the convention.
  2. Hit the family fun pavillion.
    This spot inside the Exhibit Hall includes family-friendly games from dozens of publishers along with staff to teach them.
  3. Explore the training grounds.
    Designed for kids 4-12, this area also has space for crawlers and toddlers.
  4. Paint miniatures.
    Sign up for a painting session with a free figure and learn quickly that your kid is more detail-oriented than you.
  5. Watch the LEGO robo rally.
    Giant robots. Would-be savvy programmers. You don’t have to live in a brick-loving house to enjoy this annual biggie-sized game.
  6. Have your tyke’s face painted.
    Like every fair and festival, Gen Con has face painters. The difference is that here, they’ll turn your kid into the Heath Ledger Joker.
  7. Collect pins and other giveaways.
    Many of the booths in the Exhibit Hall offer promotional items, which is a nice distraction while you work your way through the aisles. Be aware of which dealers are giving them away and which are selling them.
  8. Enjoy the roving entertainers.
    For some, these musicians and trivia contest hosts are hall-cluttering distractions. For others, they are a key—and free—pleasure.
  9. Know when done is done.
    We all have our limits. No one benefits if you keep plowing ahead beyond your kid’s breaking point.

Level 4 — The Gamer
Attributes: Determined, prepared, intense
Carrying: 20-sided dice, granola bars

By day, Troy Maynard is a solutions architect at Salesforce. At Gen Con, he’s a Viking chieftain, ready to battle unicorns or perform wedding ceremonies, as needed. Here, in his own words, is Maynard’s story:

From about age 10, I remember ordering Dungeons & Dragons stuff from a catalog, and there was always this full-page ad for Gen Con in the back. It was in Wisconsin at that time [the conference moved here in 2003], and I never thought I would be able to attend.

I gamed through high school, but then in college, I realized it was kind of an unpopular thing to do—so I ended up choosing women and beer over gaming. (I learned later that I had chosen poorly.)

As my first marriage was going south, I started looking around to find myself and I remembered how much I enjoyed gaming. I was shocked to find out that Gen Con had moved here to Indianapolis. So I started going and never looked back. It was nice to be somewhere I fit in. Back in the day, a lot of gamers felt ostracized, but at Gen Con, geekiness is the norm.

After a few years, I started running Dungeons & Dragons games myself. And there’s a benefit to that. If you get enough gamer hours—if you run a game for eight people for four hours, that’s 32 gamer hours times four days—you can get your badge for free. I really found my niche here, though, last year when I was contacted by Gen Con. They were looking for events to commemorate the 50th anniversary, and I had talked to them about possibly performing Viking wedding ceremonies at the convention—I’m an ordained minister.

About the Viking thing: Early in my life, I kept my hair short because I thought I might need to be ready for a job interview at any moment. But five or six years ago, I realized I had gotten to a place in my career where I knew I wouldn’t be doing cold interviews very often. So, with my wife’s encouragement, I stopped cutting my hair and beard. The longer it got, the more people started referring to me as a Viking. So I decided to embrace that.

I enjoy Norse mythology, and one of my cousins did some genealogy research and found out we are descendants of Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, who took over part of France. So I’m literally a Viking. But I don’t wear helmets with horns—actual Vikings didn’t have horned helmets. You have to draw the line somewhere.

I was worried about whether the weddings at Gen Con would be popular or not, but the event ended up selling out. We had 15 couples individually and then 30 couples for a group wedding. Some showed up in costume. The vows included things like “I solemnly swear to protect our Padawans from the dark side.” On presenting the ring, they repeated, “It’s too dangerous to go alone. Take this.”

There was one couple that had a wedding planned on the canal during Gen Con, but their officiant got food poisoning. A friend of a friend emailed me Saturday afternoon about it. I jumped in the car with my drinking horn and fur-lined cape, and drove down there and performed the ceremony an hour later. She had a paper bouquet made out of cuttings from an old copy of a Harry Potter book, and a Doctor Who wedding dress. It was perfect.

Level 5 — The CosplayerAttributes: Creative, blissful, attention-seeking
Carrying: Wand, wings, sewing kit

As a Hamilton County probation officer, Jim Thatcher knows a few things about bad guys. So perhaps his hobby—creating Star Wars costumes—comes naturally. Here’s how he made his latest, Captain Rex.

The helmet is made out of resin, and the visor and teeth needed to be cut out with a Dremel tool.

He cut the visor lens to shape and installed it with glue. “I used hot glue because it can easily be removed should I need to switch
the lens in the future,” he says.

Thatcher installed two computer cooling fans attached to a USB power bank to keep the visor defogged. He added a microphone and speaker, and gave the whole costume a mist of gray spray paint to make it look grimier.

Thatcher started with a components kit from “What I got was basically a box filled with white molded plastic fresh off of a Vacuform table,” he says. It took weeks to trim the excess plastic off of the 59 pieces. “During my test fit, I had to cut the forearms down about a half an inch to give my wrists better range of motion.”

Once the gluing was completed, the seams needed to be filled. “This is probably the longest part of the build because it took several applications of Bondo putty and a lot of sanding to get a seamless look,” Thatcher says. More sanding, primer, and white paint followed. It was then weathered using sandpaper and diluted black acrylic paint to simulate dirt.

Level 6 — The DeveloperAttributes: Ambitious, entrepreneurial, focused
Carrying: Game prototype, credit card swiper

Gen Con isn’t just for players. It’s also for game designers. The gathering offers a make-or-break opportunity to show their work and try to stand out in a $10 billion market. Not surprisingly, three of the best makers reside right here in Indiana.

Jordan and Mandy Goddard
The games of Carmel couple Jordan and Mandy Goddard are easier to carry around than most. At the 2016 Gen Con, they introduced a blockbuster called Lotus, a small-box card game that has already gone through multiple reprints. The idea was sparked when the pair noted that when you hold a standard hand of cards, they tend to be fanned so that the corner of each card can be seen, like petals on a flower. They created a prototype, took it to the 2015 Gen Con looking for a publisher, and found a match with Renegade Games. By the time the next Gen Con rolled around, Lotus was ready for sale.

The Goddards have another game launching in time for Gen Con this year. Deathnote is a spin-off of the popular Japanese anime series of the same name. With that in the hands of publishers, they’re focused on spinning Lotus into a series of games, one for each season. Winter, if play-testing goes well, will be next. “We’re not sure if it’s going to fly yet,” Mandy says, “but I’d love to see four of them lined up on a shelf.”

Nick Little
Search out the Indie Cards and Games booth and you’ll find one of the region’s busiest—and most laid-back—game developers, Nick Little.

Before turning to designing, Little sported a résumé that didn’t seem particularly promising. A Ball State dropout, he once ran a local poker room that was eventually shut down by the police and resulted in a plea deal, 40 hours of community service, and a $400 fine. But after he started focusing his energy on creating legal fun, success came fast. His first hit was Heroes Wanted, a superhero board game. It became the flagship for a new venture, Action Phase Games, which made an even bigger splash with Ninja Camp, a Kung Fu Panda-ish, fast-paced card game. That one was topped by Kodama, a gorgeous, contemplative card game.

At a convention, he found himself demonstrating his work next to the owner of Indie Boards and Cards, an Oakland-based company. Casual chat between demos turned into an interview, and before the convention was over, discussion of a buyout began. Now Action Phase is a part of IBC, with Little—still based in Indianapolis—serving as director of development and production.

At Gen Con this year, he’ll push a new game, Exodus, a dystopia-set adventure in which one team attempts to escape while the other tries to track them down. The catch: Players don’t know who’s on which team.

Something convention attendees may not realize? “Gen Con is even more chaotic when you’re a vendor,” says Little. “That’s 100 percent true.”

Isaac Childres
Musicians yearn to climb the Billboard charts. Actors covet Oscars. For game designers, the equivalent is Board Game Geek’s rankings. Only seven games have occupied the top spot since the rankings began in 2000. Looking for Monopoly? It’s ranked at a mere 15,527. Scrabble? 1,519. What’s at the top? A game you’ve probably never heard of called Gloomhaven, created by Lafayette’s Isaac Childres.

With a suggested retail price of $140 and weighing in at a hefty 21 pounds, Gloomhaven is the hottest thing going for hardcore board-game hobbyists, who backed it to the tune of almost $400,000 on Kickstarter, sight unseen. “I couldn’t have manufactured it on my own,” says Childres, who spent eight months developing the game before he ran out of money and turned to the online fund-raising site.

Falling into the game category of “dungeon crawl”—that is, involving creatures encountering fantasy dangers as they explore unknown terrain—Gloomhaven builds on ideas developed in other games while adding just enough unique twists to make it fresh. For instance, you won’t find dice anywhere in the box. “I’m usually against randomness,” Childres says. Instead, Gloomhaven uses customizable decks of cards to create a world that reacts to players’ choices, rather than just leads them through a set scenario.

Thanks to the huge success of Gloomhaven, Childres is a hot commodity in the game-design world. Expect the announcement of his new game at Gen Con this year to attract a crowd.