Top 10 Highlights and Lessons Learned from Gen Con 2017

22 August 2017

Just 2 weeks before Gen Con, my business partner, Alan, badly broke his ankle playing ultimate frisbee.

As I reflect on this year’s convention, it’s still hard to tell how this act of fate impacted our approach to Gen Con (Alan is currently recovering from surgery and will be fine). Sure, it was just me in the 55+ meetings I ran, but most of the participants didn’t know the difference, as they’ve always dealt with me in the past.

This Gen Con highlights list is going to be all over the place. My previous list about preparing for a convention will be much more useful to you. These are roughly in chronological order.

  1. Sneak Peek of the Exhibit Hall: I’ve never had an exhibitor badge before, so it was a real treat to walk through the massive exhibit hall while it was being set up (thanks to Paul and Christopher from Greater Than Games for steering me in the right direction). Even though people were very busy, it was a great time to briefly meet or say hi to other people I admire in the industry, like Nathan and Molly at Pandasaurus Games. The photo below is of Meeplesource setting up the booth we shared. More on that in a second.

2. Special Product Partners: While we sell to distributors and retailers around the world, we have special agreements with a few companies that help us sell products we couldn’t otherwise sell. Chad and Marlene of Top Shelf Gamer are pictured below–they sell our realistic resource tokens (among many other specialty tokens and accessories). Meeplesource sells our promos (along with a lot of other stuff), and we “shared” a booth with them to sell some of our bigger products. I say “shared” because they ran the booth from start to finish–I wasn’t involved at all. They did a fantastic job representing Stonemaier in the exhibit hall.

3. My Favorite Game’s Designer: I had the spectacularly good fortune of hanging out with Ted Alspach of Bezier Games. Ted happens to be the designer of my favorite game, The Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and he even spent the time to teach me how to play his new game, The Palace of Mad King Ludwig. Because I spent the rest of my convention in meetings and mingling, this was the only new-to-me game I was able to play.

4. My Little Scythe: On Wednesday night I heard from Hoby Chou, co-designer of an unofficial, just-for-fun Scythe spinoff called My Little Scythe. Hoby had originally planned to be at Gen Con all 4 days and attend our game nights, but he had to leave before the convention even began. Fortunately he caught me right before I was going to bed, and I dashed down to the lobby to meet him and see the beautiful prototype of My Little Scythe. After following the story of this game for months now, this meeting was particularly special for me.

5. 55 meetings in 4 days: If you look at my camera, you’ll see a sharp dropoff of photos once Thursday began, because it really was a matter of back-to-back meetings every half hour (and into dinner and sometimes lunch) from then on. Here is the meeting room I used. There were actually several other meeting rooms in the Hyatt that went unused. I rented mine directly from the Hyatt, and I’d recommend the same to anyone else who wants a quiet space for private meetings that isn’t far from the convention center.

The one thing I’d change next year is to have a visible clock on the wall in the room to help both me and the person I’m meeting with see that their time is running out, just to make sure they can respect the time of the next person. I found this to be tough to do without a clock (a phone didn’t have the same impact).

6. Distributors, Retailers, and International Partners: The majority of my meetings were with people in these categories. I found it incredibly helpful to get face time with these people, as the vast majority of my interactions are over e-mail. The photos below show a few of the people at Matagot, Surfin’ Meeple, and Feuerland with whom I work. Here’s one new thing I learned from each of these categories:

  • International partners (publishers in other countries) actually prefer language-dependent games, as it means that someone in France can’t just buy the English version of the game and download the French rules.
  • It seems to really help distributors understand and get excited about games you can share with them. Perhaps this seems obvious to you, but I can now see the difference between me sharing the highlights of Charterstone or The Wind Gambit with a distributor versus me just sending them a sell sheet.
  • Some retailers show game trailer videos in their stores if you can provide the WAV file for them.

The one thing I wonder is, are these meetings necessary every year? I certainly don’t think it would hurt to meet with international partners once a year (and many of them I just genuinely enjoy hanging out with), but I do think there’s a big dropoff in value between the first meeting and the second meeting.

7. Game Pitches: Last year we had a ton of game pitches, but I think those meeting slots filled up with other people before the designers had their chance. As a result, we had 10 game pitches. It really seemed to help that game designers signed up for these meetings via Setmore instead of the Gen Con event system, because it meant they had to read our submission guidelines in detail instead of just the title of the event. As a result, there was only 1 game pitched to me that wasn’t even close to our wheelhouse. The rest were quite solid.

I didn’t take photos of pitches, so here’s a photo of Jabba the Hutt instead.

8. Media: Another 10 or so meetings were with members of the board gaming media who wanted to talk about our upcoming games. I found this to be a really helpful way to hone my 2-minute summary of a game. The one thing I might do differently next year is pitch first to someone I know (rather than to the first media meeting) to smooth out any bumps. The photo below shows the wonderful Alex from Gin and Tonic Films.

9. Game Nights: It’s become an annual tradition for Stonemaier to host an open game night for anyone (particularly Stonemaier fans) to bring any game they want and play it with friends and strangers. A lot of our games hit the tables, but a variety of other old and new games from other publishers were played as well. We had 10 tables in convention center room 121.

My role at these game nights was to play host (or “bride,” as one friend said). I spent all 3 hours walking around to each table and around the room, chatting with and greeting people, some of whom stopped by just to see me (which was quite flattering). It was awesome to put faces to many of the names of people I’ve seen on BGG and various Facebook groups over the last year.

While having volunteers at these open game nights wasn’t necessary, it was helpful to have them collect tickets (that’s how we prove to Gen Con that people actually showed up) and to open the doors (I was always in a rush to get there in time from my dinner meetings).

One other important note that may resonate with other creators who have great fans: Gen Con is a fantastic way to remember that you are not famous. I spend a lot of time engaging online with people who know me or my company, but at Gen Con, no one knows who I am. Even some people who attended my game night had no idea. This is incredibly important for my ego and self-perception.

10. Breakfast: I think I discovered a breakfast hack that may help others like me who need to eat breakfast every day but don’t have time to wait in line at Starbucks for 20 minutes. When I woke up on Thursday morning, I ordered blueberry pancakes from room service. I’ve never ordered room service before, and it was incredibly expensive. However, I only ate 1 out of the 3 pancakes, and I happened to have a zip-lock bag. So I put the leftover pancakes in the bag and kept the fork. I ate those pancakes for breakfast on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning as well. This turned an overly decadent and expensive breakfast problem into a cost- and time-effective solution.

That was my Gen Con! The word I would use for it is “productive.” How would you describe yours?

30 Comments on “Top 10 Highlights and Lessons Learned from Gen Con 2017

  1. I think productive is a good word to describe my Gen Con as well.

    We were able to meet with the manufacturers that we are thinking about using for our first game and with reviewers to get them their review copies and we had over 70 people play our game in the first exposure playtest hall and events we had.

    It was nice to wind down and play a game and hang out every night at the Stonemaier game night Jamey. Thank you for hosting a game night at Gen Con, it was nice to see a few people I met at design day and Geekway to the West.

    1. I’m glad you had a productive Gen Con! That sounds like a great way to expose your game to a lot of people before your Kickstarter for End of the Trail. Thanks for stopping by the game nights!

  2. Re: food/eating at GenCon.

    I have what I call the 3 block rule. IF you can make it 3 blocks beyond the convention center (and hence beyond the center block of hotels) you find normal lines for waiting at Starbucks and getting a table at a restaurant. There is a particular Starbucks I like that is, relatively close to GenCon, yet when I go there is me, maybe 4 other GenCon attendees and the rest are normal downtown Indy workers.

    But I like to go outside, so I enjoy my 10 min walk back and forth, and at worst spend the same amount of time in the fresh air as I would standing in line.

    1. In terms of breakfast, I found subway in the Hyatt to be able to get food in the morning in under 10 minutes. I’d get a footlong non breakfast sandwich, and then have jerky and a granola bar for lunch.

      Also Harry and Izzys did not have a line the time I went, or times we looked in that direction, and its a block away.

      I’m curious if you were able to get to the Sushi place this year Jamey, the one at the end of Georgia street. I know its sometimes crowded, and your incredibly busy, but also know you like Japanese food.

      Glad to hear you had a great Gen con. I had fun pushing my brother around with in a wheelchair with his fractured ankle getting to and from the exhibit hall and events. Much more low key this year for me then normally.

    2. Nick: I like that method! I did something similar to it with a short walk to Panera last year, but it took a lot longer than 10 minutes.

      Sean: I saw that Subway in the Hyatt this year and made a mental note of it, though it didn’t occur to me that it might work for breakfast. That’s good to know. As for the Japanese place, if you’re talking about Mikado, I did indeed go there. :) And you’re a good brother for pushing around your brother!

  3. Re breakfast, I often travel with (or buy upon arrival) a bag of granola, vanilla flavored protein powder, and a bowl-like tupperware container. Saves so much time and energy in the morning not to have to think about how to get myself fed. But everyone should have the experience of ordering room service — it feels so decadent!

    1. Elizabeth: That’s brilliant! I’ve tried breakfast bars in the past (like granola bars), and they’ve worked okay, but I’m so used to eating oatmeal in the morning that they’re not quite the same. I hadn’t thought about using something like protein powder to create the same effect.

      1. Oh, this is one of my favorite travel hacks, actually! If your room has a coffee maker, you can make instant oatmeal (and ramen!) by just running water, no coffee, through it. You have to bring a bowl but it makes breakfast super easy.

        1. Jasmine, that really is a great idea. I’d brought Instant Breakfast mix but then I had to find Milk. Instant Oatmeal is one step more efficient. Thanks for that!

  4. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites this year and they actually had a continental breakfast so it was easy to grab a bagel or yogurt and coffee, even when we were in a hurry, not to mention being cost efficient since we were effectively already paying for it.

  5. The game nights were great. Definitely one of my favorite parts of GenCon. I’m glad you did them again in spite of not having your usual room.

    Re: Food. I think next year I’m going to take a bunch of Muffins to eat for breakfast in the mornings. They should keep for the duration, and since I no longer need caffeine in the morning it’ll be easier than stopping for food (and cheaper).

    1. Derian: I should have mentioned in the post your excellent use of Slack for the Stonemaier ambassadors! While I wasn’t able to use it much at all (other than seeing alerts on my phone), it seemed like a helpful real-time tool for ambassadors to stay connected at a busy and disconnected time. Thanks for creating the Slack channel for us!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jamie… it sounds exhausting but positive. Something I learned was unfortunately not positive. On Sunday my husband and I checked our bags at the Marriott Downtown where we had been staying since Wednesday. I wasn’t about to miss any of my last day of the con! The idea was that we check out, hit the exhibit hall and see what games that our friends were playing until they threw us out of the Convention Center at 4PM. Much fun was had and we headed back to pick up our bags at 4PM. The hotel staff directed us to where the bags were being stored. To our horror, we watched guests, not just convention folk, but also younger international swim team competitors and other strangers coming and going from the room and exactly one hotel staff member dealing with people’s questions and not able to watch the luggage at all. Sure enough, our bags were located in the middle of the room where the bellhop had dropped them off that morning… and the artwork that we had scrimped and saved to purchase was gone. This included one original piece of signed art and some expensive prints. We were devastated. My step-daughter stayed at the Westin next door and they let nobody into the checked baggage area except bellhops and hotel security. What did I learn? The Marriott’s ridiculous policy about checked baggage means I will never stay there again. To be fair, I should state that the hotel reimbursed our cost on the artwork. But I can’t help but feel that this should have never happened and it ruined my last day of the con!

  7. I would describe my trip to Gen Con as “inspiring”.

    It was my first trip to Gen Con and it was an amazing experience, to see so many people, so passionate about our hobby all in one place was incredible. It was great to have people recognise me and say hello, but it was equally amazing to just be a gamer surrounded by other enthusiasts.

    Like yourself I had a lot of meetings with people from all around the world and that was very productive, but just seeing the joy on thousands of peoples faces from the wealth of games was great.

    Perhaps my favourite part was the range of exhibitors, from the giant booths like fantasy flight to the 1 man stalls showing off their first creation. It was truly inspiring to see so many different stories of success from all around the world, and exciting to be a part of it.

    I had hoped to say hello but our paths never crossed, hopefully next year.

  8. Jamey, I’m curious about your impression of The Palace of Mad King Ludwig? I know that you’re a big fan of Castles, which I’ve played once and really enjoyed. I did a quick demo of Palace at Gen Con with a friend and we walked away thinking that it was a poor sequel. We didn’t care for the change in the game mechanic. What were your thoughts?

  9. […] Lessons Learned I’m a big fan of Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games. His lessons learned from Gen Con is a good read. “Another 10 or so meetings were with members of the board gaming media who wanted to talk about our upcoming games. I found this to be a really helpful way to hone my 2-minute summary of a game.” Source: https://stonemaiergames.com/top-10-highlights-and-lessons-learned-from-gen-con-2017/ […]

  10. This was my first GenCon, and it was a great experience overall. I came down with Fantasy Flight Games to help them demo out a new game coming out soon, Civilization, so I was busy most of the time working. Also I helped out Red Raven Games demo a new game one evening. This is an amazing industry! As I am designing my own game and thinking heavily on the kickstarter route possibly next year, it was one of the most meaningful experiences to see all the companies, the booths, the gamers, the excitement, just being in the heart of it all. I met Panda Game Manufacturing which was a bonus to start a conversation about that process, very cool. I met a few designers and had a few good chats. Ryan Laukat and Andrew Frick from Red Raven Games are amazing people I was able to visit with. I really enjoyed meeting Shem Phillips from Garphill Games, who made the Raiders of the North Sea series. He was helping out with the Weta Workshop booth most of the time as he had a huge hand in their new game GKR, Giant Killer Robots. Very cool guy! And being a deeply huge film buff I am pretty excited to see Weta making games. They have a huge pool of artists to work with who work on motion pictures. Ignacy Trzewiczek had a seminar I was able to make it to about designing games with story. I was so glad I attended this, there were a lot of little golden nuggets especially about play testing your games I needed to hear.

    So overall, I would call it a perfect and beneficial time that has the potential to guide some big decisions I need to make in the near future about being more involved in this industry. I enjoyed every minute of it! I was busy demoing most of the time otherwise I would have liked to swing by to say hi, and thank you for all the work you have done with games and even great advice I have sifted through over this year on your blogs as well as your book I have purchased. Every piece of advice is like gold to me right now, so I cannot really tell you how glad I was to be a part of GenCon.

    One thing I really enjoy about this industry is that it really brings people together to have enjoyable experiences together. Companies and designers for the most part love talking about games from other companies, and there is a great comradery here. Even long lines waiting to purchase hot games on the first day, people are chilled and cool. There is no pushing and screaming like black Friday shopping. I had a wonderful time demoing games to fun groups of people all day long!

  11. Jer: “One thing I really enjoy about this industry is that it really brings people together to have enjoyable experiences together.” I really like that as well. I’m glad you had such a great time at Gen Con! It sounds like you got to experience it from several different perspectives, which is great. I look forward to playing the new Civilization game!

  12. Jamey, a food tip – if you go one block further away from the convention center than normal (i.e. towards the basketball stadium) you’ll find a street with some good restaurants that are almost always empty. It’s like gamers are so magnetically attached to the convention center that they cannot move more than a certain distance … which weirdly leaves a lot of downtown Indy pretty easy to access without enormous lines. It’s also a good option if you need to take a lunch meeting and want a little bit of privacy without having gamers sitting right next to you while you have a business conversation. Plus, there’s a new game store (Good Games) on that street that’s worth checking out!

  13. I’m looking to transfer into the board game industry from the pharmaceutical industry. My first step has been to support VFI Asia in its Kickstarter fulfillment (including Stonemaier & its partners). This got me an all-expenses paid trip from Los Angeles to my very first Gen Con.

    I showed up with business cards and a rehearsed elevator pitch. I spent all of Thursday talking with companies about what I could do for them. I didn’t even realize that I had skipped lunch until I was kicked out of the convention hall at 6:00pm. Friday through Sunday were less busy for me, but perhaps even more productive, as I was able to have scheduled and more in-depth conversations with key contacts.

    In the end, I’ve jumpstarted my side hustle: I’m working with a small handful of companies to advance their international licensing. I have follow-up discussions with a few more choice companies in the next couple weeks.

    My first Gen Con was very productive and very educational. I can’t wait for next year!

  14. Many thanks for hosting the game nights Jamey. It was good to meet you in person at last. Also good to meet other folk there and play a few games until the early hours.

    I had a great time at my first Gen Con. I’ve attended and exhibited at various conventions in the UK, but this was my first in the US, so I intentionally kept a fairly open schedule with only a few commitments. Glad I did so as this gave me time to wander around and absorb the atmosphere, meet up with various other game designers, talk to manufacturers, play a few demos and get creative inspiration from variety and originality of game on offer.

    Things which worked well for me:
    – I always had a copy of my forthcoming game (KaleidoCards) and business cards with me, which meant I got to do lots of impromptu demos (first of which was on the plane flying to Indianapolis when I realised the person I was sitting next too was also going to Gen Con, next was with my AirBnB host, and others included with random neighbours whilst waiting in long lines). It helps that KaleidoCards is small enough to fit in my pocket and the various games can be explained and played quickly.
    – Staying in an AirBnB which was within walking/cycling distance of the convention centre.
    – Arriving the day beforehand to orientate myself in advance and play some games. Peter from Inside the Box Games and I started playing a preview copy of Sub Terra in the entrance area, and were soon joined by some friendly kickstarter backers who then wanted to try out my games too.
    – Random wandering around the exhibitors hall – I met a publisher who might be interested in one of my previous game designs (note to self: bring along sell sheets for unsigned games just in case, even if not planning to pitch).

    The fact that this was the 50th anniversary of Gen Con was an added bonus – I found the history exhibit very interesting. The biggest bonus for me was being able to combine Gen Con with the Total Eclipse the following day – that was truly awesome.

  15. Jamey, really sad we missed each other. I usually come by your place, but honestly swamped non-stop. I actually still haven’t stopped, as I just found this post’s update in my email as I’m JUST now doing my email-catchup from the con.
    Busy busy. But I love you, I think you’re great, I’m sorry I couldn’t visit.

    Blessings.
    John Wrot!

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