Top 10 Highlights and Lessons Learned from Gen Con 2015

3 August 2015 | 53 Comments

Last week, 61,423 people converged onto Indianapolis to attend Gen Con, a massive gaming convention. I was one of them.

I’ve attended three Gen Cons in a row, and this one was by far my favorite (I’ll explain why below). The first year, I basically just wandered around the exhibition hall for three days (recap here). The second year, I purchased a few tables in TMG’s conference room to demo our games in a loose, informal manner (recap here).

This year, I tried something similar but different. I reserved a conference room in the Marriott Downtown, which connects directly with the convention center (it’s not to be confused with the confusingly named JW Marriott, which is 2 blocks away).

We scheduled back-to-back ticketed events on the 5 big round tables in the room (an “event” at Gen Con can be a lot of things. For us it was either learning to play one of our games, playtesting a game/expansion, or playing one of our games). I had a total of about 10 ambassadors and my business partner help out with the events. At night we hosted open game nights.

The following list is a compilation of my experiences and things I’d like to do differently next year. Like I said, I had a great time and consider Gen Con 2015 very successful for Stonemaier Games. But what’s good for me and my company is probably different than you and your company–this isn’t a list of guidelines for you to follow, but you might learn something from my experience at the convention.

1. Sunshine Is Good. Above and beyond everything that was great about having our own conference room in the same hotel where we were staying was the fact that three of the four sides of the room were floor-to-ceiling windows. We had indirect sunlight all day long, in stark contrast to the interior of the convention center. Next year: Finding a similar room–if not the same one–next year will be my highest priority.

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mid-day in our conference room

2. Food, Water, Bathroom Breaks, and Sleep Are Good. My previous experiences at Gen Con were probably similar to many others in that you completely disrupt your body’s regular schedule so you can see and do as much as possible. This year I wanted to try something different. I arranged in advance for the hotel to deliver lunch to us at 12:00 every day–we didn’t have to go out searching for it. Similarly, I blocked at 6:00-8:00 for dinner, which worked out great as long as we cut off our 4:00-6:00 events at 6:00. We had water fully stocked in the room at all times, and the bathroom was 30 seconds away. We went to bed at 11:00 every night and didn’t have events until 10:00 the following morning. While none of us slept particularly well (we had 2 rooms for 8 people), it could have been a lot worse with the wrong schedule. Next year: We kind of had to haggle our way into the Marriott’s breakfast passes, and I don’t want to do that again. We’ll arrange for that in advance. Also, when it’s 12:00 or 6:00, our events will immediately end and we’ll go get food. Last, I’d like to get more hotel rooms so people can sleep properly.

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Yannis sleeping in his closet/nest

3. Ticketed Events Are Good: Gen Con convinced me to have ticketed events this year, something I was wary about. Couldn’t I just have 1 event all day that says, “Come play our games whenever you want!”? But they were right. The event format is really good for attendees, as they have a lot of things they want to see or do. It adds structure to what could be chaos. Also, as I’ve learned, tickets are how you prove to Gen Con that people actually showed up to your events. Without that proof, you can’t really justify to them that they should sell you event space next year. Next year: We didn’t charge for tickets this year, which was probably our one mistake. I felt odd charging people for hanging out with us, so we had all $0 tickets. But at Gen Con, people have no problem with the standard $2 tickets, so much so that they might as well be $0. The reason I’d charge next year is that it might be a little extra nudge to get people to actually show up for the event they signed up for. We never really had a problem filling our events, but there were a number of people who didn’t show up.

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Adam teaching Euphoria

 

4. Leaving Time for Impromptu Chats Is Good. I kind of lucked into this one, especially with the back-to-back events. My favorite thing about Gen Con is the people. I’m a pretty high introvert, but I absolutely love the gaming community. So it’s great to see my media contacts, backers, and convention friends, even if we’re just chatting for a few minutes. We had set media times in the schedule for 30-minute chats, but a lot of my interactions with random people happened between events, while I was running Scythe playtests, or during the open game nights. Next year: I don’t think I would change much, other than to make sure that the type of events I run are those that give me the freedom to chat with random people for a few minutes at a time.

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me learning Santorini from Corey Young

 

5. Gen Con Is Great for Playtesting. I wasn’t sure if people would sign up for our playtesting events for the Euphoria expansion, Between Two Cities expansions, or for Scythe, but I shouldn’t have worried. All of our playtesting events sold out. I actually spent most of my afternoons running Scythe playtests. Finding ways to get players into the game within 5 minutes was a great challenge and an asset as I work on a quick-start guide for the rulebook. Next year: If we have a marquee upcoming game like Scythe again, I’d probably do it exactly the same!

podcasters, bloggers, and video reviewers playtesting Scythe on our media night
podcasters, bloggers, and video reviewers playtesting Scythe on our media night

6. Ambassadors and Volunteers Are Amazing. The Stonemaier Games room at Gen Con would not be possible without our ambassadors. Katy, Adam, Josh, Gabby, Matthew, Steven, Nersi, Miles, and Carl were all incredibly helpful, and others (Scot, Barry, Scott, and Manny come to mind) also stepped up at the right time and place. I felt it was my responsibility to treat the ambassadors well, so we took care of a lot of meals, as well as rooms and badges for the “full-time” ambassadors. Next year: Gen Con offers free GM badges to any volunteer who helps out for a certain amount of time. We discovered that system in time to get those badges, but next year we’ll try to do it early enough so we can have the GM badges mailed to us (though pickup wasn’t bad–barely any lines for GM badges). I also might assign an ambassador “greeter” at all times to greet people and show them our various games/products (set up around the room). Our ambassadors did this anyway, so maybe I don’t need to assign the task.

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Alan, Josh, Adam. and Katy

7. Open Game Nights Are Great! One of the odd things about Gen Con is that even though it’s the “best four days of gaming,” it’s actually pretty easy to go the entire time without playing any (or many) games. So I wanted to create a space and time to do that with our open game nights, where any game could be played, not just ours. They were ticketed events, but anyone could walk in and play. Thursday night was kind of slow, with about 20 people in attendance. Friday grew to 30-40, and Saturday was so packed that we had to overflow onto two big tables outside the room. Part of this was correlated to convention attendees, but we also saw that many repeat attendees from night to night. It was a safe, welcoming place for people. I’m sure there are many others like it at Gen Con, but it was particularly important to me, as being welcoming is a key part of our brand. A lot of people attend Gen Con by themselves, so I think it’s helpful to give them a place where they always feel welcome and where strangers can become friends. Next year: I really just wish we had more room for Friday and Saturday. Perhaps I could reserve the tables outside of the room for next year.

open game night
open game night

8. People Want to Learn Games. This is probably my number 1 takeaway from the event system. In the spirit of what I described in #7, I created a number of daytime events geared around simply playing our games. In Gen Con’s event system, you can select if players should know the game or not, and I inputted that players should come knowing how to play the games. However, that was rarely the case. Most people had not played the games they signed up for–they wanted to learn. Next year: Keep the open game nights, but ditch the “free play” sessions during the day, replacing them with 30-minute demos and/or full teaching games. I would provide teaching guides to the ambassadors to make sure key points are covered before playing a round or two. I could also add an ongoing tournament of 1 or 2 of our games, as “tournament” is pretty clear to people that they need to know how to play.

Matthew teaching Between Two Cities.
Matthew teaching Between Two Cities.

9. It’s Okay Not to Sell Stuff. I spent $7,000 on Gen Con (conference room, lodging, food, transportation, rental car, cat sitter, etc), and I didn’t sell a single thing (you can only sell inventory out of a booth). As the inquisitive folks at Happy Mitten Games asked me, why were we even there? I’ve mulled over that answer, and I think it’s this: We were there to be Stonemaier Games. By that I mean we wanted a presence at Gen Con, but we wanted the presence to fit who we are as a company. Teaching games, sharing our passion for all board games (not just our own), connecting with people and making friends, and exposing people to our future games with people long before their release date is what we’re all about. Now, all of those things can be done at a booth in the exhibit hall, but the pace and crowds of that room aren’t a good fit for us. Next year: All of that said, I think we could have given people the opportunity to buy our products online after playing them. We had a few promos, but we could have had printed discount code cards linked to each product to hand out to people after each event. Also, I’d like to work with some of our friends at Meeplesource (who had our coins this year) and Greater Than Games (which serves as our distribution broker) to have some of our products in stock in the exhibition hall. Not to push, just to have.

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Nersi teaching Tuscany

10. The Banner Was Eye-Catching. Friend and ambassador Katy created the design for a big banner that we placed right outside of our conference room. From what we heard, it helped people find the room (it was centrally located, but Gen Con in general is information overload), and it made me feel like Stonemaier was more official. We bought ours from Vispronet.com. Next year: If we make another banner, we might put a #stonemaier hashtag on it so we can find photos of our room that people tweet.

Brian Henk playtesting
Brian Henk playtesting

Bonus for Game Designers: We had 4 pitch sessions every morning where designers could sign up for a 30-minute slot to pitch their game to us (conventions are a great time for us to hear pitches). We saw some really neat games–so much creativity. I did notice one mistake (in my opinion) that almost every designer made with their prototype, and I wanted to mention it here in case it helps.

The mistake is that almost every game we saw had cards with several lines of text, and these cards were placed face-up on the table. In-hand cards with lots of text is fine, but as soon as they’re placed on the table and they require other players to read them, the text isn’t effective at all (Magic is the exception to this rule, just like Magic is the exception to every rule). I know they’re just prototypes, but this has a huge impact on the play experience.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix that allows you to keep the text. In almost all of these games, other players need to read the text on some cards, not all cards. So it’s only the cards that other players need to read from across the table that need to have the text replaced with icons. If you’re unable to do that, at the very least, add a bold icon on those cards that identifies them as cards that other players need to know so they can focus on those cards and ignore the rest.

***

How was your Gen Con experience? What did you learn that others should know?

 

53 Comments on “Top 10 Highlights and Lessons Learned from Gen Con 2015

  1. It is really interesting hearing your thoughts about your gencon experience. Everything that I hear from you, and about Stonemaier Games, just makes me want to hear more. Very excited for Scythe, it looks great!

  2. Good to hear you had great time on the GenCon :)

    I was a bit surprise reading that you didn’t take stuff for sell with you. Though it might be for a couple of reasons that you would also need to get a booth as I trust without that you are not permitted to sell games. For this reason having the promo codes sounds like a brilliant solution particularly that after the gamers learn a game and will get a discount for it they will be very keen to acquire it.

    As for the text and cards, sadly having icons is not always possible. Thus, I always insist that, even on prototypes, everyone should always place an image to limit space for the text and to force yourself to write more concisely.

    All the Best :)

  3. I was one of those people with the $2 generics, as the tickets for your events sold out very quickly. Still, my family was able to find open spots to play. My kids were made welcome and other players at the table had no trouble collaborating with them in a game of Between Two Cities. My kids are still talking about “Jamey’s Room” and the great experiences they had. Thanks for making that happen.

    The room was comfortable, and much calmer compared to the dealer hall, but had the benefit of being a short walking distance away. (We managed to demo a few games at the hall, but the atmosphere was louder and less conducive to playing and learning.)

    The open gaming night was a highlight for me. Josh happily taught a group of newbies how to play a non-Stonemaier game, and as a result I purchased the game at the dealer hall the day after. It is great to see you and your team celebrating gaming in general.

    I really like your idea of 30-minute demos and full teaching games. That would be a great opportunity to create new customers and future ambassadors.

    1. Scot: That’s great that your kids had a good time in our conference room! We wanted to welcome people of all ages, shapes, genders, races, religions, sexualities, etc–everyone is welcome with us.

  4. This was my first GenCon. I did not sign up for any events. My thoughts were to wander the hall and play what I could. After a few hours of that we had had enough of the exhibit hall. We decided to check out the upstairs. We stumbled upon the Rio Grande room. Now this was more like the cons I was used to. A room full of friendly people playing games. So while my friends wandered the floor buying everything in sight, I was learning Caylus. This may sound like a wasted opportunity to some, but for me it was fantastic! That room was a little oasis for me and my friends for the rest of the con. If I had looked into events I would have surely tried to get into those at Stonemaier, and next year I will be at those open gaming night.

  5. 1. Your banner was a great idea because it let us know that we had found the right place and I really did think, “Wow look how professional Stonemaier has gotten!”

    2. I wish we had known that your open play nights really were open, we were under the assumption that you had to have signed up to come and we missed that boat by a long shot.

    3. I also agree about the ticket price, we skipped a different event because we didn’t have to pay for it.

    4. How have I gone through life thus far not knowing there was an Euphoria expansion?!?!?!?

    5. I also loved your room. The light and calmness and distance from the hub bub calmed me down and energized me for the rest of the day, so thanks for that and the Pepsi. :)

    6. But seriously, Euphoria expansion, must have details.

    1. Thanks for these notes, Allyson! I’m glad you and Dan were able to stop by.

      The Euphoria expansion is recent news (well, kind of). We’ve been talking about it on our monthly e-newsletter since February, but Gen Con was the first time we showed any element of it to the public.

      I’ll try to be clearer next year about the open game nights. They were open, but we hoped to collect tickets (again, not to make money–I should explain this in the post, but basically, Gen Con decides spaces for next year based on tickets turned in this year. It’s how we prove to them that people actually showed up).

  6. Your setup was lovely. I wish more companies would migrate to that “satellite” approach, like your room and Rio Grande’s. It’s nice to have everything in one centralized space, but Gen Con has just grown far past that being practical.

    Thanks for meeting with me to go over the Treasure Chest design project!

  7. That was a great room for you guys – I hope the Denver room is forevermore the Stonemaier games room at GenCon (until you move into a giant spot in hall H, of course ;).
    If you can hold those tables out front as well – that would be even better, both for the open gaming and getting more ticketed sessions in. There’s no reason not to do the $2, I think – we’ll happily pay it to get a spot at the table and if it helps you recoup a little of the cost, even better. But heck yes – next year make sure you have someone in the merch hall to direct people to buy!
    Given how complex Scythe is, I was super impressed that you were able to set us loose after just a few minutes of prep, and we were able to sort of feel our way through the game with he occasional question. Barry was very helpful w that, too.
    Already looking forward to whatever you’ll have in store next year.

    1. Joshua: Thanks for your input! I’d like to get the Denver room again next year, and some of those tables outside of the room if they’ll let us.

      I was really impressed by how quickly you all caught on to Scythe! I’m trying to use what I learned from teaching the game at Gen Con to create a “quick start” guide in the actual rulebook.

  8. Your satellite room was a fantastic idea, I wish I would have jumped on a few tickets for that. I have only be to Gen Con twice and I very much enjoy the wander and play what I can tactic. A quick question, does your dislike of text on a face up card include cards in a central draft pool or does it only apply to cards in front/across the table from you? I like the mechanic of having options when I draw cards and have been incorporating that into a game that I am working on but these cards would include lines of text.

    1. Tory: Thanks for your question. So are you asking for a game like Ascension, Star Realms, or Dominion? I think text works on Dominion because (a) the most important thing you need to see–the cost–is very clear from across the table and (b) because there are only 10 different cards for the entire game. It works for Ascension and Star Realms because most of the information is shown via icons, and there aren’t too many cards to look at. So it can work within certain parameters.

      1. Jamey: Thank you for such a quick reply. Your passion and attention to those around you is one of the main reasons I follow you and why I value your opinions so highly. Keep up the great work. I had always considered icons valuable for the color blind and delineating cards but I didn’t quite realize how much they help in the flow and ease of game play until I read your article and considered the other impacts they have on a game. Thank you again.

  9. Chad here from Top Shelf Gamer. Great post as always. You are always very honest and open with your thoughts. Because of that, I always feel like I get great insights from your writing. Thanks!

    It was great to talk with you again, albeit briefly. I stopped by again Sunday morning but you were busy with some designers describing their game.

    I really enjoyed watching the demo of Scythe. I’m psyched about backing it.

    Keep up the great work, Jamey, and hope to talk to you soon!

  10. Great post. I really appreciated the open game nights, and would gladly have paid (though I think I coughed up a $2 generic ticket for each night) just to have some free play time. It was fun and relaxing. All of your staff/volunteers were friendly and fun to play with. I had a great time learning B2C and the expansion, along with a variety of non-Stonemaier games!

    Regarding #9 – I think the “we’re not selling anything” is a great step in your company becoming not just a board game publisher hawking their products, but a company that really contributes to the community. It’s really great to see, and from what I hear every time I mention that you were on my podcast or that I wrote a guest post here, people really respect you and SG in the industry. That’s something you can’t buy or sell – it’s a quality that not every company has and it really sets you apart from many of the others there at GenCon. So congrats!

    That lunch was quite good, btw. Thanks so much :)

    1. Zack: I’m glad to hear you had a good time in the Stonemaier room! Thanks for hanging out.

      That’s a good point about not selling stuff and instead focusing on what we can give other people. I think the catch to that is that many of those people did actually want to buy our stuff, so in future years I might try to partner with a vendor so people can then go to the exhibit hall to buy the stuff of ours they want to take home.

  11. Sure, that would be great. I saw a lot of developers partnered up with other companies, sharing booths this year. Seems like a great way for each company to capitalize on the interest in the others’ products.

  12. I was lucky enough to have snagged tickets for our group to play the ‘Between Two Cities’ expansion as my brother had kickstarted it and wanted to see it. It was one of my favorite experiences at Gen Con by far, I would be very willing to pay for such a demo in the future as I was confused why it was free.

    Stonemaier is very much on my radar now. Between Two Cities was fantastic and I can’t wait to see what Scythe will bring.

  13. I missed getting tickets and didn’t think there would be availability to drop in. I wish I would have been stubborn. This was my first GENCON – I found the Rio Grand room also and spent three evenings there.

    I suspect I’ll see you in two years when I expect to return. Until then, overwork Morton. We need more on the Euphoria Expansion. I’ve commented on what is ‘out there’ and hope to hear more.

    1. Roger: Next time, you should drop by! Not everyone showed up for the events they showed up for. I’m glad you found the similar (but much bigger, I’m sure) Rio Grande room.

      We’ll release some more information about the Euphoria expansion soon. :)

  14. Thanks so much for your insightful, humble, and interesting post. I just bought Viticulture and Tuscany Prima on Amazon! I am impressed with your company’s philosophy. These will be my first Stonemaier games.

    Derric

  15. Regarding point 3, seeing as though you feel odd charging a fee for a ticket, perhaps for next year you could provide a discount code for people who have purchased the tickets, at the same price of one ticket. That way it will still be $0 per ticket, you get people showing up, win-win! :) Should be implementable as it coincidences with what you plan to do on point 9.

  16. What’s this food and sleep thing you speak of?

    These are some great points (particularly 3-6) and I wholeheartedly agree. By the way, Gen Con will not ship GM badges (it’s their policy that they must be picked up on site). I plan to write a few articles on the League regarding all the various details of Gen Con events as well as information on exhibiting. I have numerous years’ Gen Con experience in different facets to pull from, so I hope it can be a great help and resource to you and many others. (Perhaps after the first few days of our upcoming Kickstarter, I’ll have more time to do so.)

    Point #9 about not selling stuff is so true. Last year was our first year exhibiting and we were in the same boat — at that time we actually had nothing to sell, yet still chose to get a booth. Ultimately it’s all about marketing and creating awareness; building your audience and brand at every opportunity.

    Also, please reach out to me regarding having your products in the exhibit hall next year. We’d be interested and willing to work with you to do so in our booth. I also have a few tips for running events I’d like to share with you offline.

    1. Food and sleep are great!

      That’s too bad about not shipping GM badges, but at least the line there seems to be very short.

      I’m glad you were happy with your choice to get a booth! I agree that there’s a lot you can get out of Gen Con even if you’re not selling.

      Cool, let’s chat over e-mail when we get a little closer to Gen Con!

  17. Jamey,
    The Stonemaier room was one of the highlights of my trip to Gen Con. Your ambassadors were very helpful in accommodating me into Viticulture and Between Two Cities. I had a great time and enjoyed chatting with you.

    On that subject, how does one become an ambassador for Stonemaier games at Gen Con or other conventions? This is something I may be interested in doing in the future.

    Thanks
    Joe Rakstad (friend of Losch)

  18. I know I’m a little late to comment on this post, but I’d like to thank you for sharing your experiences and lessons, especially the ones that feel counterintuitive. For example, ticketing feels like it would bring down attendance but you make several good points about the value about issuing tickets.

    And that last little tidbit you mentioned for game designers about text on cards is absolute gold. I feel like that idea and topic about symbols vs text, card in hand vs on the table could fill an entire blog post on its own.

  19. Joseph: Thanks for your comment. It was actually helpful for me to revisit this post, as I’m currently scheduling our events for Gen Con 2016.

    As for text on cards, yeah, that’s something I think about all the time. :) I mostly talk about game design on my YouTube channel, though, not here (that’s why you won’t see posts about game design on this blog).

  20. Hey Jamey,

    Just curious if small publishers still have an opportunity to meet distributors/retailers, hand out marketing sheets, etc?

    Also, was it easy to find ambassadors/volunteers to help out? I am a bit hesitant to get a booth because I am an introvert like yourself and might feel a bit overwhelmed hanging out in one specific area.

    Thanks!

    1. “Just curious if small publishers still have an opportunity to meet distributors/retailers, hand out marketing sheets, etc?” –Kind of. Distributors are often there, but they rarely have booths, so you have to know what the people look like. Retailers are often there with booths (some of them, at least), but they’re almost solely focused on selling products. I don’t think that’s the best time to approach them.

      “Was it easy to find ambassadors/volunteers to help out?” –I think it depends on how you’ve cultivated your brand so far. If there are people who are really passionate about your company and games, and they happen to be attending Gen Con, there’s a decent chance they might be willing to help out for a little bit. It’s almost too late to reach out to them since event signup has already happened–many of them may have already filled up their schedule–so you should act quickly.

      1. Thanks Jamey, our main goal is to connect with distributors and retailers rather then running demos and brand awareness (we’re in the party game genre so Gencon might not be the greatest fit). Any recommendations on conventions that are more focused on connecting with retailers/distributors worldwide? I have heard NY toy fair, GAMMA, and PAX might be a better fit, have you attended any of those? Thanks again for the quick response

          1. Thanks a lot Jamey, keep up the awesome work. I learned a lot from your website, which helped us launch 4 successful kickstarter projects!

  21. […] This was my fourth Gen Con, and unlike the other three times, Stonemaier Games didn’t implement any sweeping changes to the methods we used the previous years. We still had a sunshine-filled conference room with plenty of scheduled events. We still hosted open game nights each evening. We still ate well and slept well (most nights). You can read all about those aspects on last year’s blog post. […]

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