Guest Post: A Game Designer's Guide to Gaming Conventions

By Matthew O'Malley

In January 2013, I attended my first gaming convention: Unpub 3. After attending eight cons in 2013, Unpub 4 brings me full circle, and it seems like a good time to review a year of cons from a game designer’s perspective.

Let me preface this list by saying that attendance at cons isn’t necessarily required for game designers, but I’ve found the experience to be invaluable. Not only can you playtest your games and perhaps get some other designers’ and publishers’ opinions, but you’ll also get a chance to see the current state of the industry, which will alter your perspective on the gaming hobby for the better. I highly encourage attendance at a local con at the very least.

Unpub - Magnolia, DE - January

Unpub focuses exclusively on playtesting unpublished games, and I’m grateful it was my introduction to gaming cons. Playtesters, fellow designers, and publishers provide thoughtful and supportive critiques to improve every game in attendance. I brought Knot Dice to Unpub 3, had a great time showing it around, and got a lot of good feedback about the best market for the game. (Knot Dice is currently being reviewed by a publisher.)

In 2014 at Unpub 4, the publishers showed a lot of class when sharing how they work together for the industry as a whole. If one publisher sees a good game that just isn’t the right fit for his line, he suggests it to another publisher–most of them know one another. There’s plenty of room for them all to grow as the market grows, rather than competing for a limited market.

TL;DR: I can’t recommend Unpub highly enough. It’s a must-attend for designers.

PAX East - Boston, MA - March

PAX East is one of the extremely large Penny Arcade conventions, and the majority of events focus on video gamers. That said, there is a very large tabletop player contingent (I’d guess a thousand) and a fair number of tabletop publishers showing their wares.

If you’re near Boston, I’d recommend attending just to see what else is going on in the industry, and to see what cross-fertilization is going on between the video and tabletop industries. Of course there are a huge number of players there, and some tabletop publishers have representation to meet with designers if you set something up ahead of time, but I didn’t see much playtesting of unpublished games in 2013 (but see the summary below).

I have not attended PAX Prime, but I suspect that it is very similar to PAX East in focus. There is a PAX Dev event for game designers, held just prior to PAX Prime, but from what I could tell from the PAX Dev event listing the audience is almost exclusively video game designers.

TL;DR: PAX East is great for playing and discovering some new video and tabletop games, but there wasn’t much tabletop playtesting action in 2013. HOWEVER, Unpub (see above) just announced they will be at PAX East in 2014, so I look forward to finding out how it goes.

Game Days - Timonium, MD - May

Game Days is a small event run by the Games Club of Maryland, which is a very well-run local organization in my home state. The focus is really just hanging out and playing games, though I saw a couple of playtests (I first played Canterbury there).

Gen Con - Indianapolis, IN - August

Gen Con is the granddaddy of the U.S. gaming cons, and is a teeming mass of games and humanity (50,000 strong). The exhibit hall was awe-inspiring, and the free-play area was pretty much the same. There were plenty of board games, card games, party games, role-playing games, and miniatures games. But I saw hardly any video games, which surprised me.

It seemed to me that Gen Con was primarily directed toward consumers, so the publishers were more focused on sales than on meeting designers, and players were more interested in games that were already published. However, Double Exposure ran the First Exposure Playtest Hall, which I heard was slightly expensive but a great value to get a bunch of good playtests in. Individual designers also ran some spur-of-the-moment playtests in the free play area, with varying degrees of success.

James Mathe ran a Designer / Publisher Speed Dating event, which I heard was a valuable experience for designers, though exhausting for both sides. I don’t know if any games were signed as a result, and I didn’t do it myself since I didn’t have a game ready to pitch–but it seemed like a great way to show your game to a whole bunch of prospective publishers.

TL;DR: Gen Con is a spectacle. Great if you’re published; otherwise I’d focus on Unpub, Protospiel, and Metatopia.

TCEP - Sterling, VA - August

TCEP is a small event that seems to be purely for playing published board/card games and LARPs. I had a good time, but didn’t see any games in development.

Congress of Gamers - Rockville, MD - September

Congress of Gamers is a slightly larger local gaming con, with a larger-than-expected unpublished games presence. Unpub (see above) had a room of playtesting games for several days. The ratio of unpublished to published games was higher here than any con I attended other than the unpublished-only cons.

Metatopia - Morristown, NJ - November

Metatopia is a tightly scheduled designer-focused con run by Double Exposure (which also runs the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con and three other cons in NJ: Dexcon, Dreamation, and Maelstrom). The panels and playtests are all scheduled to let the designers get to as many of the panels as possible, and keep the tables as full as possible with playtests. In addition to making it easy to schedule your own playtests, this scheduling makes it much easier to play other designers’ games, since you can schedule both your playing time and your leading time.

In addition, designers have the option of requesting a high-test, which is a playtest with other designers who will give your game a really good going-over. I was lucky enough to have Jay Treat, Kevin Kulp, Chris Kreuter, and James Ernest for the high-test of Edge of Space, and I found their feedback to be extremely valuable.

TL;DR: Metatopia is also a must-attend for me as a game designer.

BGG.Con - Dallas, TX - November

BGG.Con may be smaller than Gen Con, but it’s just as powerful in its own way. I saw a few party games there, but nary a video game, and hardly any role-playing games. The focus was obviously board and card games. Not only was the games library HUGE, but the free play room was HUGE, the number of players in the free play room was HUGE, and the players’ enthusiasm was HUGE.

On the playtesting front, Unpub took over Proto Alley in 2013, and did a great job keeping playtests on the table in two small orthogonally adjacent rooms. Playtesters wandered in, designers did a good bit of playing each other’s games, and I heard they were hoping to get a larger space for 2014. They also convinced Eric Lang to come in and just sit around chatting with a bunch of designers for several hours, which was a fantastic experience.

James Mathe ran another Designer / Publisher Speed Dating event (see above under Gen Con), which I know resulted in several games being signed after the publishers and designers met up later to get in full plays.

TL;DR: If I had to choose between Gen Con and BGG.Con, I’d choose BGG.Con; but that may be just because I found the crowds at BGG.Con to be more manageable.

Those were the cons I attended in 2013. The three cons I (as a designer) would most like to attend in the future are:

Gathering of Friends - NY - April

This is a private event held by Alan Moon each year, with about 400 attendees. It sounds like an amazing time of playing games and sharing with designers and publishers–if you can get an invite.

Origins Game Fair - Columbus, OH - June

This is definitely on my schedule for 2014. I hear that Origins is more low-key for publishers than Gen Con and allows them more time to sit down and talk to designers, rather than having to focus as much on sales. I think the size (around 11,000 people) should be more to my liking too.

Protospiel - Ann Arbor, MI - July

I believe this is the first designer-focused event, and it seems to have a good audience for playtesting as well as a good publisher presence. I wish it didn’t always conflict with something in my schedule. There are three offshoot Protospiels as well, in Milwaukee (March and September) and Austin (May).

I also would be remiss in not at least mentioning three huge game-related events that happen each year, though I have no personal experience with any of them: the New York Toy Fair, the Chicago Toy & Game Fair, and Essen.

New York Toy Fair - New York City, NY - February

I think the New York Toy Fair is fairly industry-focused, where buyers and publishers of mass-market games and toys come together to make deals. However, I’ve heard that some game designers can schedule meetings with publishers at the event as well.

Essen (Internationale Spieltage SPIEL) - Essen, Germany - October

With 130,000 attendees, Essen seems like an event you would have to attend at least once in your life if you are a game designer. However, with 130,000 attendees, I doubt that I would want to attend more than once. I think it would be invaluable as a publisher, but I think publishers and gamers would be too focused on newly released games to pay attention to newer unpublished games.

Chicago Toy & Game Fair - Chicago, IL - November

I’ve heard the Chicago Toy & Game Fair is more consumer-focused, and anyone can attend, but more for mass-market toys and games than hobby games. There is a separate T&G Con just prior to it, which is billed as an educational experience and publisher-meeting event for mass-market toy and game inventors, but it comes with a pretty hefty price tag.

While I’ve heard of a number of other cons I would love to find out more about (OrcCon in Los Angeles, CA, in February; Dice Tower Con in Orlando, FL, in July; World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA, in August; Euro Quest–which has an Unpub presence–in Pikesville, MD, in November) there just isn’t enough time for them all.

If you know of a great con for game designers, or have anything to correct or add to what I’ve posted here, please get in touch on Twitter @BlackOakGames or via Black Oak Games or tell the fine folks here @CardboardEdison. I look forward to seeing you at a con very soon.