The Keys to Con Games


Microsoft Surface at PAX East. Photo by Kevin Kulp

 I’m not talking about Three Card Monty. I’m talking about those games you play at conventions.

You see, for those of us lucky enough to be going to some of the big game conventions this summer, we’re in the schedule-planning minigame phase. Especially in the case of Origins and GenCon, this involves pouring through gigantic spreadsheets in search of events that leap out as being “must-plays.” This is supplemented by word of mouth (which nowadays for me means Twitter) passing along cool games that I might have otherwise missed.

This year, I find myself in the new position of being a steward to these conventions and being asked for recommendations. A large contingent of players in my D&D group are making their first journey out to GenCon and making sure that the trips really counts. I volunteered to suggest some events to check out… unfortunately, I came up a bit short.

You might be saying now, “But Dave! There are hundreds of games to play at those conventions!” This is true. However, I’ll get this out of the way right now. I’m picky. Nay, I’m downright spoiled about my convention time. I’ve been going to conventions since before I was born and going to gaming rooms since I knew enough to not eat the dice (you roll them first, then eat them.) I’ve seen it all, and I’m much more militant about not spending precious time and money at a convention on a game I’m not going to enjoy. 

So how do I try to mitigate this and only play in the awesome? I narrow my convention game search to the following categories:

Games I Can’t Easily Play Elsewhere Because They’re A Lot of Work

True Dungeon (one of my first suggestions to the GenCon-goers) fits squarely in this category. It’s an experience that I don’t have access to outside of GenCon, that’s put together by a big team, with lots and lots of work put into it.

Ultimate Dungeon Delve (seemingly absent from all the conventions this year) is another one. While this is much less work, it does require a DM trained  to run the event. It also wouldn’t be the same without the competetitve element from playing against other tables, which leads me to…

Games I Can’t Easily Play Elsewhere Because They Need a Critical Mass of People

The Battle Interactive that was run at D&DXP was like this, where the results of what happened en masse at the other tables influenced the game you were playing. The DM Challenge at PAX East was also this way, since I needed DMs to compete against, and players to fill out all the tables. 

Any number of tournaments could fall under this as well. If the Loopin’ Louie World Championship didn’t have the throngs of people it does, it wouldn’t be as important, we might as well just invite a bunch of people over to play.

Games I Can’t Easily Play Elsewhere Because They Require Special Stuff

I no longer own my giant Icehouse pieces, so playing Giant Icetowers at conventions is something I try to fit in when I can. Giant boardgames are becoming more and more part of the big convention experience, and for good reason.

Years and years ago, I played a home-made game, where everyone was a different popculture character. You could play everyone from Spiderman to Conan to Snoopy (as the Flying Ace.) Now, this isn’t a game that could ever be sold due to the array of licensed property used. As a game he brought to conventions, it was perfect.

The same could be said for many unpublished prototypes, like those of you who might get a chance to play Back to the Future before it is published by seeing the fine folks at Looney Labs at a convention. Less important to me, yet still a factor, is playing a game just released. Generally, this is because it’s a game that has gotten hyped up for one reason or another, and either I want to give it a try before investing, or I’ve just been waiting so dang long to play the final copy that I have to get my fix.

Then there’s the ultimate example: playing D&D on the specially made Microsoft Surface. A piece of hardware that costs many thousands of dollars running custom software so it plays D&D? Now that’s a convention game.

Games I Can’t Easily Play Elsewhere Because of Specific People

Not just people who bring specific stuff, but the people who you only get to see because it’s a convention. This includes getting to play a game with the creator, play a game run by an expert game master, a legendary figure, or even just a game played with friends you don’t get to see elsewhere. This one has become increasingly important to me in recent years as my social circle expands across the internet.

Games I Can’t Easily Play Elsewhere

That’s the bottom line. When I play a game at a convention, I want to have a hook that stands out as special and gives me a reason that I need to play this game, here and now at this convention. That’s why I steer away from random D&D games and open Dominion play: the chances for failure is higher, and gives me nothing to distinguish it among the piles of other games in the excel spreadsheets I’m skimming through. 

Remember, I said I’m spoiled, so if it doesn’t have at least some of the elements listed above (the more the better!) I’ll try and find something else… or run one myself.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Excellent advice. You could say I’m a slow learner for many of these things, first because I’m starting my 3rd Con season, but mostly because the last 2 were more focused on networking and working for others (a hard-learned lesson).

    My ultimate desire is to get to play games I really want to play with people I wished I saw more often. Then comes the pleasure of making spontaneous stuff happens with friends (old and new) around such games.

    Drunken D&D and semi-impromptu, late night RPG one shots are what makes the whole experience go from overwhelming to joy-fueled brain explosion.

  2. Due to my military service and multiple deployments I’ve never made it to GenCon. Hopefully this will be the year. Thanks for the advice!
    .-= Jason Dawson´s last blog ..D.B.A.D Episode 2: Setting Party Expectations =-.

  3. I’ve never been to a convention (I’m too af-feared). One day though, one day…

    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Quetsen Sisten, the Loyal Slave – Steal this Background =-.

  4. I’m hoping this year will be my first GenCon, especially as I submitted a bunch of stuff to the Ennies and it’d be awkward if I won something and wasn’t present. I had plenty of fun at PAX even without signing up for a single official event (my impromptu one shot with the newbies was a blast) but I’m hoping to get into some scheduled games at GenCon if there’s still any open when I sign up.

  5. I’ll be at Origins and GenCon myself this year, and looking forward to some great gaming. Excellent advice on finding games to play – hope to see you at the conventions!
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Doom is Approaching! (In more ways than one…) =-.

  6. I’ve only been to one convention, and there were about 100 people. It was fun, but I need to get out more.