Gaming Convention Preparation Tips – Ask the Bellhop

Today I want to take some time to talk about gaming convention preparations and share some of my tips and tricks for game con prep.

The Origins Gaming Conventions, in Columbus Ohio, one of the biggest tabletop gaming conventions in North America is just under one week away. Coming up about a month later is Queen City Conquest in Buffalo New York.

These are both cons I will be attending and right now I’m in the middle of prepping for both. I figured this is the perfect time to talk about some of what I do to prep for a con.

The short answer:

A random shot of the dealer hall at Origins Games Fair

Register early, shop around for accommodations, have portable food and drink with you, don’t forget your meds, and don’t overbook yourself.

Always remember that you are attending this game convention to explore your hobby and have fun. While conventions can be overwhelming and exhausting be sure to leave time and room for rest and to enjoy yourself.

That’s the quick and dirty version. Below I’m going to go into more details on these items and mention a few other things.

The long answer:

I’m going to start off with my background with convention going.

I fully admit I’m no long term expert here but I have attended a handful of cons and those cons have greatly varied in their size and content. Before attending each of these cons I did a lot of research into maximizing my experience and read and listened to a lot of different people convention tips.

Over the last few years of attending cons, I think I’ve picked up some good suggestions that I feel are worth sharing. I know many of you have probably been attending cons far longer than I have but maybe I will come up with something you didn’t think of. If I do miss something, please let me know by commenting here or emailing me.

My tabletop gaming convention history:

Way back in the 80s and very early 90s there used to be a gaming convention here in Windsor called The Windsor Gamesfest. It was held at the University of Windsor and put on by a small university club called the Windsor Gaming Society.

This was a small local con that had hundreds of attendees and not thousands. While it had industry guests they tended to be local, and local for here meant designers from Detroit. So we got Richard Tucholka and the Palladium people. Back during the Windsor Gamefest days, I tried my hand at running a few con games but mostly all we cared about was the vendor room. Unfortunately, that con didn’t last long due to mismanagement and there hasn’t been a local con since the 90s.

Me at Origins 2014It wasn’t until 2014 that I attended another real con. In 2014 both Deanna and I attended The Origins Games Fair and, for the most part, we loved it. Origins was nothing like the Windsor Gamesfest. It was huge! There were gamers everywhere. There was so much to see that even after being there for four days there is stuff we missed. I remember being there on Sunday and taking a wrong turn and finding an entire hall filled with thousands of gamers and tables that we somehow had not seen all weekend.

The biggest thing that hit me about being at Origins is that it felt like home. I was surrounded by people, but they were my people. They were gamers. Everyone I met and talked to had something in common with me; we all loved games enough to spend a small fortune to travel to this place to play together. I loved this feeling. It’s this feeling that keeps me coming back and makes me want to attend more and more gaming conventions.

My badge from Origins 2016Based on how good a time we had in 2014 we knew we had to come back but it just wasn’t in the budget in 2015. Cons are not cheap. We did manage to make it back to Origins in 2016. That was an even better experience than our first trip. We were much more comfortable this time around. We spent way more time doing game demos and got way more gaming in overall.

Sadly due to a medical emergency with my parents, we paid for and didn’t attend origins in 2017. Which leads me to an early tip: be sure to watch for what is refundable and what is not and how long you have to cancel. For us, the emergency was last minute and while we were able to recoup the cost of the convention we could not get a refund on our rooms.

In 2018 we branched out and hit two new cons. I felt much more comfortable being at conventions and with myself that year, and 2018 was the year when I met all the Misdirected Mark, Gnome Stew, Encoded Design (GEM) people. People I now consider friends. Visiting those friends is now a big part of why I continue to attend conventions.

Early that year, we hit Breakout Con in Toronto. I will just say that it’s still one of the most diverse welcoming and social cons I’ve attended and that’s not giving any credit to the awesome gaming and panels. This was one of my personal best convention experienced yet. It was at this convention that Sean Gilgore convinced me I had to attend Queen City Conquest. This is the local con for all those GEM people I mentioned earlier. All three of us, Sean, Deanna and I, attended QCC in 2018 and it was also a great experience. It’s a much smaller con, closer to that Windsor gamefest than say Origins, but still big enough that there was lots to do and people to meet.

Enjoying a beer at the big bar on 2 at Origins.Deanna and I did make it back to Origins last year and at this point, the con had changed for us. We now had con friends. People we have met previous years and at other cons that we got to meet up with and hang out with again. 2018 Origins was a much more social con for me. While I had a great time gaming and getting to try new stuff, the con shifted to be even more about the people. The same goes for Breakout con 2019 which we attended back in March.

For me, a game convention is just as much about the games I play as the people I play them with, and the downtime spent with friends is just as valuable to me as the time walking the vendor hall and playing games.

So now that you have heard my con resume lets get on with some con prep tips.

Registering for a game convention and finding a place to stay:

Register for the con early. Book your room early. Do these things way in advance of the con. This can be as much as a year in advance.

The line up for Breakout Con. Some game conventions do sell out. Even GenCon sold out one year. More importantly, rooms sell out, quickly, sometimes ridiculously quickly. The other advantage pre-registration often has is letting you skip the lines once you get to the con. The registration lines at Origins can take hours to navigate and pre-registration can reduce this to minutes.

Once it gets closer to the con, watch for when event registration opens up and sign up for events as early as possible. Even if the con doesn’t sell out and you are able to get a great room, it’ going to suck if you can’t actually get into any of the games or events you want to attend. Many cons have a VIP badge you can buy and, depending on your budget, these are often worth it just to be sure to get into the games you want to play.

VIP badges are worth looking into for other reasons as well. Most VIP badges give you access to a private locked or watched room where you can store your stuff. These rooms are also often a quiet place that’s great to get away from the hustle and bustle. For me though the biggest thing is letting me bring stuff to the con and not have to carry it around the exhibit halls or have a place to put things I’ve bought without having to head back to my hotel.

The Royal York in ToronotSpeaking of hotels. Be sure to shop around. Just because the con is offering a con rate at a local or attached hotel, that doesn’t mean it’s the best deal. We’ve found that there are often cheaper rooms right in those same hotels! It’s worth checking online and calling the hotel to find out. Expedia.com is your friend. We have saved a small fortune through them. While booking hotels be sure to get the parking rates. Parking rates are all over the place and we have sometimes found that what looks like a great room rate is offset by a ridiculous parking fee.

There are many advantages to staying on site, and this may offset the additional cost. By being on site you can easily access your room, meaning you can keep games you want to play there until you want to play them and you can easily pack up and store any purchases made throughout the day. Having a room on site also means a short trip home if you decide to make a long night of it, something that can happen with con after parties. Depending on the city you are in you may not be comfortable walking to an off site hotel at night.

All that said, you can often save a significant amount of money by staying off site. Check google maps and see if there are other local hotels. For Origins, in particular, there are a ton of hotels that are within one block of the convention center. Some of these are even connected to it via skywalks, and most are significantly cheaper than staying in the Hyatt. The further away you get from the convention center the cheaper your rates usually are and it’s often worth the cost of taking an Uber, or driving to the con and paying for parking just for a lower room rate. Carpooling is also a great option.

Now, this is something I haven’t personally tried but I know a lot of con goers are turning to using Air B&B for their accommodations. This seems like something worth looking into.

Set a con schedule for yourself but don’t overbook:

My Queen City Conquest ScheduleIt’s important to plan ahead. Before the con even starts you should have a good idea of what you want out of your con experience. Are you attending to meet up with old friends and play that once a year game of Twilight Imperium? Are you there to demo as many new games as possible? Are you just trying to level up your Dungeons & Dragons Adventures League characters as much as possible before that big Epic? Make sure you plan and schedule the things you most want to do. But be sure to leave space for other things.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make at cons is to over book themselves. I get it, getting out to a con is a big deal, most of them are only once a year, this may be your only chance to get some gaming in and you don’t want to waste any of that precious gaming time. Getting in lots of gaming is great, but be sure to leave some time for yourself. Some time to step away from the table and catch your breath. To take a break, get some food and drink and relax.

After parties are a great way to network at conventions.Specifically, regarding food and drink, be sure to include meals in your schedule. I’ve now seen a few different cons that leave no time between scheduled games. In these cases make sure you skip a session or find some way to fit food in. That could mean brown bagging it or carrying some protein bars and fruit in your haversack. Most people running games are going to fully understand if you need to grab a quick bite while they are explaining the rules or everyone is making characters. I’m getting ahead of myself though, more about food later.

While having your weekend all scheduled out can be good I think it’s worth leaving open spots and plenty of them. There are a ton of things that happen at conventions off the books. There are meet ups, dinners, pick up games, random events that occur out in the hallways, people you run into you didn’t expect to see and things to do you never even considered when planning. Some of my best con experiences have been during these unscheduled, unexpected events. Make sure you have some time to take advantages of these happy accidents.

Personally, I like to schedule no more than three things in one day. That could be two RPG sessions and attending one panel, or it could be playing demo games for three hours in the exhibit hall, playing a scheduled full board game event and then hitting up a podcast get together after hours. In between these scheduled events, I do all kinds of things. Most of it is going to be socializing with other gamers and pick up games. Other times I’m just going to wander the vendor hall and maybe do some shopping. If I actually can’t find someone to hang out with then I will check out things like the open board game rooms or Games on Demand.

The amazing roleplaying room at Breakout Con in Toronto. A great convention for roleplayers.I think Games on Demand is worth mentioning. Every con I’ve attended has had some form of this. Now Games on Demand is a formal thing where independent game designers and publishers hook people up with RPGs to play. Often these games are run by the writers of the games themselves. You just show up to the proper room and say you want to play and they hook you up with a game that is starting soon. It’s an awesome system and I know people who attend cons and spend the entire weekend at Games of Demand.

Even at cons that don’t have a formal Games on Demand room, there’s usually something like it. At Breakout Con right when you walk into the RPG room there are sheets and sheets of paper listing all of the games scheduled for that day looking for players. QCC had something similar. Both also had volunteers on hand to help you pick a game that’s right for you. Similarly most cons now a day have a board game library you can borrow games from. These are also often staffed by volunteers who will help you pick out the right game or match you up with other players looking to start a game.

Both of these are great resources for filling the gaps in your schedule.

Food and drinks at a game con:

I have to admit that when I’m out of town on a trip, for anything, not just a game convention, I’m all about the food.

The biggest hidden gem of the Origins gaming convention is the North Market across the street from the convention center.Food at a con can be a real mixed bag. Some cons like Origins are surrounded by amazing food. There’s the North Market not even a block away, amazing restaurants and pubs just across the street from the convention center and all you have to do is start walking up North High Street and you will find countless great places to eat. While I haven’t actually tried them, the food trucks at GenCon are legendary. Then there are other cons, cons that aren’t located in a busy downtown, where your only nearby options are convention center food or a college cafeteria.

My biggest tip here is to find out what your options are before even getting to the con. I use sites like Zomato, Tripadvisor and Yelp to look for places to eat while at cons. In general, you want to try to eat off site. The problem with eating on site is usually a combination of not so great food and paying for convenience. You can often save a significant amount of money just by stepping out the convention center doors and crossing a street.

If you really want to save money, bring your own food. This is something you should be doing, in part, even if you do plan to “eat out” for every meal. While you could pack a full meal or some sandwiches, I strongly recommend having small portable high energy snacks on hand. Protein bars, granola bars, trail mix, fruit and vegetables. At the last two cons I attended I carried around a box of Kind Bars and I was surprised how often I would get the munchies between and even in the middle of games. Just be sure to ask if you are playing a game if anyone minds if you snack.

Game Convention Night Life - it's not just about the games.

It’s far too easy to get distracted and miss or consider skipping over a full meal. That’s when your sack of portable food can be a lifesaver. I personally also carry extra and if I’m at a table and someone complains they have been too busy gaming and couldn’t eat I’ll offer up something from my stash.

Along with the food, be sure to stay hydrated. In general, this means water. Not pop, not sugary drinks, not juice, but water. I used to be terrible at this, it’s only in the last year that I’ve actually started drinking the amount of water I should be drinking and it’s amazing how much better I feel for it. Most conventions provide water in some way, either through fountains or big jugs scattered throughout the halls. The thing is that most of these are only maintained during regular business hours. I always bring some form of container I can refill and I’m always sure to fill it when it hits about 5pm.

One good tip for meals is that when you finish up a game ask the people you just played with if they would like to go get a bite somewhere. This is a great way to get away from the con for a bit as well as socialize and get to know your fellow gamers.

Digital media is a great way to find out about non-scheduled events:

A big part of cons for me now a days is social media. While I’m at a con, between games (not during games), I’m checking Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Before the con even starts I make sure I am following all of the conventions social media accounts. I also make sure to follow the accounts of companies with games I’m interested in and personal accounts of games masters or moderators I plan on playing with.

Social media is a great place to find out about off the books events at cons. In addition, Slack and Discord have become more and more popular now that Google Plus is dead. I’m a member of multiple servers. Many of these have set up con specific rooms where members can talk to each other and plan things both before and while at the conventions. For example, the Misdirected Mark Slack Channel had a room for Breakout Con, they have one for Origins and already have one for Queen City Conquest. In those rooms I’ve learned what games are being run by my friends, I’ve planned a dinner out on Thursday night of Origins and I made sure that the one Tales from the Loop games that’s being run at Origins is one I’ve already played.

All of these tools are great for finding out what’s going on “right now” when at a con. Looking for a group to go out for dinner with after your last game of the day ends. Post that in the Origins Meetup group. Short one player for your 1pm session of Warhammer? Post something on facebook. Not sure where the Daily Magic Games booth is? I bet if you @ them on twitter they will be happy to let you know how to find them.

One problem with these suggestions is you need to be online. So remember to get your data plan sorted out if you are leaving your home network. Do not plan on the convention having WiFi. While many of the big cons do, so many people are trying to use the network at once that they can become almost useless. Along with your tech be sure to bring ways to charge it. Like WiFi the chance of finding somewhere to plug in can be spotty at best, so it’s better to have some form of portable charger as well as your usual USB cube.

Some final tips for the prospective con goer:

This is turning out to be a rather long article. I think at this point I’m going to just wrap up with a few tips that don’t fit into the categories above.

Pinning was a big thing at Origins last year.

Bags can be important. You want something that will not only carry the games you bring and may buy but also a bottle for water and some snacks (see above). You also don’t want anything too big. While those giant board game backpacks can be great for getting your games to the con, you don’t want to be walking around a busy exhibit hall with one of those on your back, banging into all kinds of people and displays. Do bring some form of bag though, as I’ve noticed many vendors don’t think to bring their own and you need somewhere to put the stuff you will inevitably buy.

Speaking of buying things. Cons are often not the best place to go shopping. Con price inflation can be a thing and most cons are not a great place to get a deal. There are exceptions but unless you must absolutely have the new hotness right when it’s released, you can often save money by waiting to buy that hot new game once you are home. Now things like auctions, stores selling off ding and dent copies of games and people selling and trading used games, can mean there are deals to be found. Research ahead of time to see if those kinds of sales are going to be offered at the con you are attending.

The best part of any game convention are the people.Do not forget your meds! I don’t just mean remember to bring them, but remember to take them and take them at the right time. I’m great at remembering to pack my meds, but I’m terrible for remembering to take the ones I should be taking at lunch, because I often skip lunch at cons (this is where those Kind bars come in). Set reminders. Buy one of those pill boxes with slits for morning, afternoon and dinner. Do whatever you have to do to remember to take your meds.

Along with your meds remember to bring your other medical information. Your heal insurance, health card, list of allergies, medical alert bracelets, etc. The insurance can be especially important if you are traveling away from home.

While I haven’t’ been to a ton of gaming conventions, these are some of the tips and ticks I’ve picked up over the last few years. What are some of your best game con tips?

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