The 10 Greatest Things I Saw At My First Gen Con

No. 1: The T-shirt that said “Gaming Makes Me Happy. You, Not So Much”

If you are a gamer, Gen Con is like hitting the sundae buffet on your birthday: It’s one of the few times you are allowed, if not obligated, to put aside your cares, concerns and core humanity to plunge into the goodies with your face.

If you are new to Gen Con—as I was—it’s more like materializing at a bus station during rush hour on some exceedingly distant planet. One minute you’re wandering your hometown on a beautiful Thursday; the next you’re stupidly spinning in circles trying to process an unending flock of orcs, card towers, and paunchy Deadpool cosplayers. It’s like learning what ice cream sundaes are, and then being told to go make yourself one using three million toppings. There is no way to process all of it in one day, so in no particular order, here are 10 things that stuck with me after I returned to my decidedly unmagical and +20 suburban home office.

1. My brain hurts. I have never been a pinball, but I imagine it’s basically like this, only much quieter. Inside Gen Con, one simply careens from place to place like atoms, if those atoms were wearing Han Solo t-shirts that said DAMN RIGHT I SHOT FIRST.

2. I saw two half-dressed elflings, a woman playing the blues on a toy piano, a four-wizard band performing a Gen Con-specific version of “I’ve Been Everywhere” (I am sure the lyrics were hilarious but I could not make out a single one of them. Hell, I can only make out like half of Johnny Cash’s, and he’s using real cities, except “Tulsa”), and a group of a half-dozen gamers walking around with enormous replica D&D dice on their heads. This was in the first 90 seconds. I hope the dice guys got off the escalator OK.

3. These people are less weird than you suspect. They’re also SO MUCH WEIRDER. There are people who look like Dan Fogelberg’s dad, and people who look perfectly equipped to start a functional society six miles under the surface of the Earth. (Attempting to find a friend, I asked my group to look for the middle-aged white guy with the beard, which turned out to be the best joke of the day.)

You definitely want a piece of this.

4. You can make a game out of literally anything. The Networks lets you run a TV station. Tower of Madness is sort of like Kerplunk, but with Cthulhu. Mixtape lets you match songs to situations, like breakups or car wrecks. (The answer to both is “Who Let The Dogs Out.”) New York Pizza lets players craft a pizza the way nature intended. Pantone has a game, you guys—PANTONE. It’s actually a great idea: Players “draw” a picture using swatches of color and others have to guess what they created. My friend Matt purchased a game from the 1970s about building a power grid. Illimat is a card game presented by The Decemberists. If I had to guess which band would “present” a game at Gen Con, my first guess would be The Decemberists. Guesses 2–9,000,000 would also be The Decemberists.

5. This place is crawling with famous folks, and unless you kill a lot of time on the board-game YouTube channels— because of course they have those—you don’t know who they are. This is actually how the day went in general, navigating through the seething epicenter of a subculture that exists entirely in its own realm, like Reddit, or country music. “Inside, these guys are huge celebrities,” my gamer friend Matt told me, “but outside, you know, not a lot of people have heard of these games. You come here and realize how overgrown the economy probably is.” And then you find yourself dropping $30 on Superfight expansion packs for your kids, because in addition to cosplay and kilts, this place is crawling with sweet, sweet commerce.

6. Obviously, this is how all subcultures go. If you’re not a football fan, name three Colts.

7. SPEAKING OF, OH MY GOD THEY HAVE ELECTRIC FOOTBALL. Of all the stops we made on Thursday, none commanded more enthusiasm than Electric Football, which you may remember as the unsafe-looking game in your grandpa’s basement that involved watching miniature 1968 New York Giants violently rattle around an unsustainably wired “field” until someone accidentally vibrated into an end zone or the game burst into flames, or both. Well, it’s back—with less fire danger, probably—and everyone around the bustling demo was talking about the year they first got the game for Christmas. It’s an airplane hangar full of dragons and chain mail, and a major draw is football. Takes all kinds.

Yes, it still plays just as you remember.

8. The used-game swap meet is where it’s at. Wait in line, check your bag, and sift through a half-dozen tables of well-aged bangers like Scotland Yard and Rail Baron and Star Wars Episode I Monopoly, which, as you might guess, is surprisingly affordable. Prices go down the closer you get to Sunday.

9. There are NES games that sell for $1,400, they’re called Little Samson, and a grown adult man I know thought real hard about it. $150. I nearly pulled the trigger on a $20 copy of Paperboy before remembering that my NES has spent the past four years in my attic, where it’s currently 280 degrees. Should probably wipe that thing down before making any secondary purchases.

10. Customized beer. By 4 p.m. we’d made it six hours, according to the thoughtful warning from ParkMobile, and decided that was enough for a first day. Matt and I decamped to one of the local bars welcoming Gen Con, which was all of them, ordered two of Sun King’s Everlasting Gamer (I mean, when in Valhalla, right?), and played Ticket to Ride: New York, a game we’d bought for our kids. Our waitress was a witch, and she was probably a specific kind of witch, but I’m new here. So it’s late afternoon, we’re playing a game in a bar, every person around us is either playing a game or dressed like it, and it felt very much like we were in a town that couldn’t be happier to host this if it installed a giant rotating 20-sided dice atop the Monument. (NOTE: Idea for next year, patent pending, you orcs.)