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June 12, 2012
This is not a “convention report” per se, as I had no interest in the banquets and awards, nor in the special guests, nor (with few exceptions) in new games and announcements about games. The featured guests were media people--film and TV--rather than game people, though Wil Wheaton does a boardgame videocast (which I have not seen). The others were Felicia Day and Adrienne Wilkinson. There were only two game design guests of honor (Rob Schwalb and Jeff Tidball), quite a departure from days past, one artist (Sandra L. Garrity), and one author guest (Aaron Allston, formerly a D&D writer). SF author Timothy Zahn was scheduled to be around as well. In years past Reiner Knizia, Richard Garfield, and Jim Dunnigan have been guests of honor, but if people of such stature in game design were present I did not see or hear of them.
The convention has moved from late June-early July to early June. I heard this was to avoid a clash with GenCon, when they move to earlier in the summer. But the result, so close to the end of the K12 school year, was that a lot of people evidently could not make it. Next year Origins will be on 12-16 June.
I was surprised at how few people I saw in the game-playing rooms. Further, there was a time when most tabletop game manufacturers came to Origins, but not now. Wizards, Fantasy Flight, GMT, Columbia, and smaller outfits like Avalanche weren’t around. There’s a lot more room in the exhibit hall than I remember from, say 2005. I think the entire convention this year would fit into the exhibit hall used at GenCon.
I like the system used at WBC and PrezCon, where you pay your entry fee (about the same as Origins) and you can play any game or attend any event. But those are boardgame conventions. At GenCon, as I vaguely recall from my one visit, the seminars were free to attendees, but some tournaments and RPG events may have cost additional fees. At Origins there are many more additional fees, and they get extreme with a fee for the wargame room, a fee for the boardgame room (though there is also open gaming), fees for so many seminars even though there’s plenty of room for listeners, and so on. The exhibition hall and art show are free, fortunately, and that helps bring in the people paying the one-day $10 fee. (The line for the one-day pass was very long on Saturday morning.)
I don’t go to conventions to play games, that’s something I can do much nearer home. I like to attend relevant seminars and panel discussions, but this year there were fewer than usual (and half a dozen of those were cancelled because of a family emergency for the speaker). For the past seven years at Origins (excluding 2009, when I didn’t attend) I’ve given free seminars about game design for beginners. This comes partly from my inclination to teach, and partly (more recently) from a desire to publicize my game design book that’s due to be published late this summer.
There was also a scheduling problem as many seminars that were supposed to be free were listed in the program at $2, and others were listed at $2 more than intended. Only my Friday seminar had the $2 price, and some others that were repeated on the weekend were free then, but $2 on the weekdays. It was as though someone had done a global addition of $2 to seminars up through 9AM Saturday. In past years the master event list was sent to people who had submitted events, but this year it was not. By the time I thought to check, I was able to find it online and then have the error removed, and this was reflected in the computer so that people who registered for the Friday talk were not charged, but at that point the schedule book probably had gone to the printers and could not be corrected.
When a person or group offers to do a seminar (or any other event such as a tournament or RPG session) they choose their time and day without knowing what else might be scheduled. Scheduling is very important for the seminars, with late Saturday morning evidently being the best time, and Sunday morning the least. There are also many more people at the con on the weekend than on weekdays. This year I was able to schedule two hour blocks to allow for lots of questions and discussion, in previous years I’ve usually been restricted to one hour blocks. (This may also reflect the small number of seminars altogether, there were more time slots available.)
I was up in the seminar area a lot, and monitored attendance as I did so, to help me figure out the best times for the future. Most seminars had about a dozen or fewer listeners. The most-attended seminar I saw was mine at 11AM Saturday about “Starting a Game Design,” with 28 people. I was surprised at this because by chance, at the same time, a game designers panel discussion was scheduled in the very next room, including some well-known designers who make a living in game design. The count there was 23. You might hope that Origins would catch such scheduling conflicts and give one or the other the chance to move to a non-conflicting time, but not this year.
Later Saturday afternoon I attended talks by James Ernest (formerly of CheapAss games) and Kenneth Hite (RPGs), both excellent speakers, but with only a dozen listeners.
Ernest talked about themes in games. He much prefers games with themes, disliking those with “themes” added on after design. As I put it to him in a comment he agreed with, I prefer that a play I make in a game has a clear analog with reality, rather than simply being a move in a game–unless the game is out-and-out abstract.
Though there is no theme in Dominion, Ernest still enjoys playing the game. I’m more extreme. When it first came out I watched a game and saw that there was virtually no interaction amongst the players, a puzzle-contest. People have told me that with certain cards there’s a lot more interaction, but it is still mostly about people individually solving the puzzle of the game, and I don’t care for that at all. As for the lack of a real theme, Earnest says the theme was added after the game was finished, and in the end they took the medieval clipart they’d been using just to use something, and created the theme from it (which is what I would call an atmosphere, because it has no effect on gameplay or game design).
Hite talked about getting the heart of a genre right in an RPG. It’s the story the genre tells that’s important, he says. For example, at the heart of Noir is Sam Spade being beaten up or otherwise thwarted (as in, the police try to stop his investigation), yet from this he learns more information that ultimately lets him solve the mystery.
I asked if Hite was familiar enough with Steampunk to say what the story is in that (to me) obscure genre. He pointed out that it’s now more an aesthetic than a genre, the goggles and leather and glass and so forth (and corsets for women?). Yet he then made an erudite comparison, saying that just as fairy stories helped Victorians reconcile with what was a pretty ugly past (and where the real fairy stories were “don’t go out on the moor at night or they’ll eat you), steampunk helps people reconcile with technology. Modern technology is a “black box” to most people, but most people can understand that hot steam expands and can move things, and feel comfortable with the steam engines and “clockwork” of Steampunk. Steampunk helps people come to terms with technology. A remarkable answer.
I don’t look for new games at conventions, so I can’t say anything about such with a couple exceptions. I did see two games that caught my eye, published by Catalyst Labs, who are known for miniatures, not boardgames. Hibernia, played on a map of Ireland although it could be played as well on any map with the addition of a color scheme, is a bloodless wargame. Using a color scheme on the map, plus the roll of a color die, four or fewer players expand throughout Ireland. The designer explained it, and my comment was “clever”. It felt like a traditional Eurogame, if only because it is a clever game and is not a model of any reality. I first noticed it because I have a prototype “Hibernia” game, about actual Irish history (such as we know) in the Dark Ages; I’ll have to add a subtitle to it.
Another Catalyst game is Balance of Power. Though ostensibly about the Napoleonic world, it is even more abstract than Diplomacy, with a traditionally Euroish feel to it. There is no uncertainty other than the intentions of other players. With turn-based play, the other source of uncertainty in Diplomacy, from simultaneous movement, does not exist. Nor is there the significant tactical aspect to it that counterbalances the strategic in Diplomacy. “. . . Players carefully create and move Kings, Generals and Bankers as they capture territories and expand their empires.” Bankers? In Napoleonic Europe? At first glance it appears that Prussia and Austria are “stuck in the middle” between England, France, Russia, and Turkey. It may be clever--because of the apparent strategic imbalance I reserve comment--but it is not a model of any reality. The game does allow secret negotiation, making it more like Diplomacy than games that only allow over-the-table negotiation. And I’m told it’s a much shorter game than Diplomacy.
In both of these games, maneuver is very limited, and there are not many choices at a given time, as befits traditionally Euroish games. Boardgames tend to be games of maneuver, but do not need to be.
To go back to the convention as a whole, one publisher, who sells via Internet and conventions only with few exceptions, remarked that the retail game distribution system is broken. He pointed out that even at the convention many people now scan the codes on games with their smartphones, then look for cheaper prices online, before deciding to buy. Game shops are struggling or non-existent, suffering from competition with Internet sellers who sometimes go to extremes (as one US-based seller who offers Dragon Rage for $59, much less than the 50 euro list price dewspite the cost of shipping games from Europe to the USA). Someone told me about an area of 600,000 people, part of a larger city, with not a single game shop. I live near a sprawling 230th largest metropolitan area in the US, 300,000+ people with a high proportion of young people, where there are just two tabletop game shops, only one of which offers many boardgames.
When I walk into the Columbus Convention Center for Origins I always think initially, “why have I bothered to come here?” (it’s a thousand mile trip). I actually skipped 2009. Yet as in the past, I found some interesting people to talk with, though I missed one I wanted to meet. People seem to like my talks, and this year on the spur of the moment I even recruited some to playtest a couple of my games. I don’t know whether I’ll be back next year, it depends on how things go in the publishing world and on circumstances in general. For most gamers, I have to suggest that GenCon is a much more interesting convention. If it were an equal distance from where I live, I’d go to GenCon every year and frequently skip Origins.