Welcome to Gen Con: the largest tabletop game convention in North America by both attendance and the number of events. At Gen Con 2019, over 70,000 people attended with a similarly impressive crowd of 50,000 in 2022. Derek and I are still relatively new to the scene as we met fellow board gamers who have been attending Gen Con for 10-20 years! About eight years ago, we first played Ticket to Ride and began our journey of scouting out deals from the used games sections of bookstores and curating a collection that we share with friends, family, and each other on our nightly duo board game evenings.
This would be our first major board game convention other than a much smaller one in South Bend, Indiana that we went to in 2017 called Griff Con hosted by the Griffon Bookstore. This year Indy was celebrating Gen Con 55, representing the fifty-five years since the first Gen Con was held at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin when Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, founded the Lake Geneva Wargames Convention. Gen Con was moved to various locations in Wisconsin including Milwaukee from the 1980’s until 2003 when Indianapolis offered a more accessible and central location for the masses with the convention center, stadium, and multiple hotels nearby. We knew that Gen Con was big, but we had no idea what to truly expect until we were there.
Since Gen Con events tend to sell out, we bought our passes months in advance when they first went on sale. Derek researched several games when selecting tickets for board game demos to build up our schedule. The downtown hotels were a little pricey so we booked the Hampton Inn in Lebanon that was 30 minutes away and pre-scheduled a parking garage with ParkWhiz that was a half mile from the convention center. We also reserved our cat sitter for the 4-day weekend so that Sprout would be taken care of while we were away. While Indy is only 2 ½ hours away from Valparaiso, we drove down the night before so we could arrive early on Day 1.
The first day was a whirlwind of activity. Upon arrival, we followed the crowds to the Vaccination Verification Station where we had to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination cards for a yellow wristband to attend the Gen Con events. Mask-wearing was also required for all Gen Con spaces. Not knowing what to expect, we set a pretty full schedule of board game demos to attend. Our first impressions were overwhelming excitement for the booths and events and the sheer number of people all here to play board games. I packed a light backpack with water bottles and a printed out map from the Gen Con program so that I could mark up where we wanted to go and carry it with me, referring often to the map and our board game wish list.
Our first event was a demo of Uwe Rosenberg’s New York Zoo presented by Capstone Games. We found the booth in what seemed like the main hall of the Indiana Convention Center. It was an immense warehouse space lined with rows of wooden tables covered in brightly colored paper featuring the publishers on banners in front of their booths. Sections of the hall were hosting tournaments of D&D, train games, and role-playing miniature games. We tore off our pre-registered tickets and handed them to the game instructors while finding a spot at one of their games already set up at the table to await our opponents. A lovely older couple named Robert and Liz from Alabama joined our table. Shortly after the clock struck 8:00 am, our game master reviewed the rules and mechanics of New York Zoo before letting us take it away.
In the days leading up to Gen Con, Derek and I watched YouTube tutorials of all the games we were scheduled to play so that we would be more familiar with them and be able to enjoy playing instead of trying to understand the specifics of each game onsite. We were delighted by the pure pleasure of getting to play a new game all the way through with other skilled board gamers. New York Zoo was a race for each person to complete their zoo by building animal enclosures shaped like tetris pieces and breeding cute wildlife meeples to raise their offspring and acquire new zoo attractions. It was a puzzle-like game that I loved playing and almost won by a few pieces but was outmatched by Robert’s mastermind tile-laying. Later we found New York Zoo like a gem in a haystack at the Gen Con consignment shop that was played only once before and sold for half the retail cost.
The board game consignment shop was Derek’s space for exploration. Every time we walked past the entrance we would judge the length and wait time of the line. Each large bag was checked at the door and people inched along, combing through the stacks of used games that lowered in price daily. Derek got pretty good at searching for games on his wish list but after my second loop through the shop, I couldn’t handle the confines of the space anymore with my claustrophobic tendencies and preferred to sit on the live auction side of the room watching rare finds sell in bidding wars while Derek took his time discovering board game treasures.
We were given large #GenConHaul bags made of a durable plastic that protected the games we purchased in the light rain outside while looking for lunch at the Block Party where Georgia Street was blocked off as a pedestrian space for food trucks. There were a lot of food options but we had to get the timing right for the lines at non-peak times as well as gauge the prices and healthy alternatives. On our first day we each tried a box of stir-fried vegetables with noodles at Island Noodles and had beans, rice, and cajun fries for dinner from Chef Dan’s. A couple days in, we ventured out into the downtown area for meals because the food truck items were a little overpriced and we had a palate for something lighter. Block Party felt like a festival within itself and we sat to eat just about anywhere we could find while people-watching fellow gamers milling about with fantastic costumes for the cosplay contest.
We navigated all over the block our first day from the consignment shop to the Block Party, from buying more water to finding a restroom, and from demos in the main hall to the plethora of board game vendors in Exhibit Hall. Each day we averaged about 18-20,000 steps or 8-9 miles of walking! Exhibit Hall was an unbelievable sight to behold. It was a maze of booths with vibrant backdrops and rows of vendors into the distance. Attention-getting banners hung from the ceilings and stacks of board games were arranged like pizza boxes out for delivery. As we roamed the aisles we were amazed by the variety of vendors from dice stands, kilts and costumes, artwork and books, video game displays, board game suitcases, and lots and lots of board games. Multiple companies had their games layed out to demo so we could just as easily sit down and learn a new game than register for a ticketed game demonstration.
What made the Exhibit Hall unique was the opportunity to buy new games with Gen Con deals that we couldn’t find at home because they hadn’t been stocked in local shops. We also saw some celebrities that we follow in the board game world including YouTubers Ruel Gaviola, Board Game Geek‘s Game Night cast, and Monique & Naveen’s Before You Play. We also met Brent Beck, also known as “Grandpa Beck,” the designer of Cover Your A$$ests from Grandpa Beck’s Games when we bought his game. We were a little shy and starstruck around the other celebrities as we didn’t want to bother them with selfies when they were here to make connections and learn new board games for their YouTube channels. The voice actors for Disney’s Max and Goofy were signing autographs and taking selfies, but for a hefty toll. Derek and I could have honestly spent hours in Exhibit Hall but it was also a little crowded so we pre-planned our route for the booths we really wanted to visit on our map so we could make a beeline for them while making a few pit stops along the way to learn new games.
The first day wrapped up with our ticketed playthrough demos for Paris: Eifel, Juicy Fruits, Cover Your A$$ests, Cover Your Kingdom, and Catch the Moon where we enjoyed trying out the games with new friends at 3-4 players each. We were exhausted, yet thrilled with the first day of our Gen Con experience while eagerly looking forward to using our passes for the Board Game Library and AEG’s Big Game Night the next day. Gen Con was so much more than we ever expected and we were only just scratching the surface. We could hardly fall asleep that night as we recapped all our favorite games at our hotel delighting in the Gen Con magic.