Thoughts on Cincinnati Game Con

by Al Macintyre
(5184 Normandy Court,
Evansville Indiana

- an open letter (ca. 1995) to Cincinnati Game Con fans from Al Macintyre

Many years ago I was active in Cincinnati Gaming, and was involved in the formation of games conventions in Cincinnati, along with many other enthusiasts. The organizational structure evolved into a confederation of clubs & other institutions, which we formalized into an interlocking pair of non-profit corporations & I was instrumental in getting that accomplished also, although Chad Warwick & Merle Scott Robinson deserve more credit than I. However, thanks perhaps to my 15 years of volunteer work in a variety of roles in Cincinnati Gaming from the mid 1960's through the late 1970's and a wee bit of the 1980's, many volunteers who have risen up the ranks since I left may look to me as someone whose advice is sought by them in achieving success equivalent to that which the organizations had when I was part of the team. On my occasional visits to Cincinnati, I often encounter individuals who are on the sidelines of the organizations that are struggling to continue a grand tradition, and when I was at Origins 86, I ran into a whole bunch more individuals closer to the center of Cincinnati Adventure Gamers. I tentatively plan to attend Origins 97 which will be held at the same site in Columbus & I suggest that there might be an interest in asking Andon for a meeting room where we could hold a reunion of former volunteers with Ohio area cons. At many other cons there has been an area set aside where clubs can set up tables that illustrate the nature of their activities, with copies of newsletters, fliers, etc., and formal meeting times set aside for different groups to host meetings of various kinds, from orientation aimed at new members, discuss cooperative efforts between clubs, and a get-together of individuals who have corresponded by snail mail or e-mail but seldom actually met.

At the random meetings in Cincinnati, Origins, and e-mail, it is evident to me that Cincinnati has as many gaming groups as it ever did, but they are more fragmented than ever, and most volunteers are very pessimistic about dreams of grand conventions or other gaming activities that require unity, so perhaps the focus should be on helping a bigger dream, like keeping Origins in Ohio, by helping out even more, such as charter buses and more inexpensive lodging, with transportation shuttle between such sites ant the con. Out of that joint effort to help more of the Cincinnati Gaming community & other regional communities enjoy Origins and contribute to its health, one could hope that there would be an outgrowth of a spirit of renewal of what is practical back home, and greater willingness for others to work together. To that end, Origins should be encouraged to sponsor Leadership Seminars, aimed at teaching volunteers what is necessary to run successful tournaments and other activities essential to a healthy local club & larger organization.

The folks I have talked with, who claim that today's organization has lost the institutional memory of how to accomplish things, or the joint will to carry them out, may not have been representative of the total group of individuals who seek to organize cons in Cincinnati, so take my input in context with your view of what's desirable today and why the organization has difficulties and what can be done about it.

(1) Y'all should check out SF Convention Register c/o Erwin S. Strauss Box 3343 Fairfax VA 22038.
(WARNING: The SF Convention Register ceased publication in 1996 and is now superseded by Con-Temporal, a similar, bimonthly convention-listing zine, from Texas; for more information see the fanzine and convention listings, elsewhere on this Web site. The current e-mail address for S. Mitchell Merritt, the editor of Con-Temporal, is -GS)

His data on approx. 700-1500 cons scheduled over a period of about two years into the future is published quarterly with the data sorted for easy look-up by a variety of criteria. Look up by the geographical area - state, city & get the name of the convention and the date that it starts. Large cities like Chicago & Atlanta will have a dozen or score of listings. Smaller communities will have only one or two. Once you have the con name and starting date, look up the detail portion of the calendar to get the specifics on that con - big name people who will be there, cost of admission, where it is being held, emphasis of activities, etc. This process will identify some dates that it is really dumb to hold a con because another city, not too far away, is holding another con with very similar interests, quite close in terms of weekends. People who live in the region, who cannot afford to attend many cons in close proximity time wise, or are not interested in attending multiple on the same topics, or can only attend one or two cons per year, will have to choose between yours and the competition. This will cut into your attendance. This conflict can be avoided if several volunteers are subscribing to this publication & have it handy when selecting dates. True, this publication is mainly science fiction, not gaming, but most role playing & card games cross that boundary.

(2) Hobby shops should contact Mr Strauss ... about his other publications, which include several "How to run a con" publications, primarily aimed at the Science Fiction World, but much of the content is directly relevant to other kinds of cons. (NOTE: See above -GS) If this publication was sold at hobby shops, the sales volume would probably be low, but many people interested in having a better local con could then see what's necessary to accomplish one, raising the community awareness of what's realistic.

(3) Web pages are appearing all over. Perhaps some organization (such as Ral Partha) might be willing to host an on-line discussion (such as on a local University service) of what old timers want in a local or regional organization & what it takes for one to fly. Then some enterprising volunteer could download portions of the discussion into a periodic newsletter sold at the hobby shops to interested gamers who are not on-line. I'd be willing to write articles, with no demand for financial compensation, if you told me the subject matter you want me to write on, provided there was an understanding that the whole thing was being operated in a non- profit manner, and that if ever my input was included in some publication of the University Press or other publisher into something sold commercially, then I would get a share of the royalties. I imagine that other old timers would be willing to contribute under similar understandings.

It really does not matter if it is Ral Partha sponsoring this on University of Cincinnati resources, or Strategy Gaming Society on a college net in New England, or Metro Detroit Gamers on some Internet Service Provider, or the Canadian Fandom RSN hosted by Garth in Vancouver. What matters is that someone get it started, make it generally available to con fans in many communities, through both the internet, and periodic downloads to a newsletter sold in Hobby Shops.

Ask accounting staff of recent cons to open their books and contribute financial statements that show: The purpose of this discussion is not to reach a consensus to help future con planners, but to bring up enthusiasm for what is practical and publicly share the scale of money and volunteers necessary to achieve various goals.

Beyond the consequences of opening the books on money flow and levels of volunteer support needed, there are policy issues behind additional sub-topics, some specific to Cincinnati, and some that apply to many communities of gamers.

Is it time to disband Cincinnati Adventure Gamers (the confederation of clubs and other institutions whose function is to jointly sponsor & support games conventions) and think a new structure tailored to today's realities and the desires of the latest group of volunteers struggling with an infrastructure based on a former situation that no longer reflects Cincinnati hobby power politics.

Are there enough people who want the same goals and are willing and able to work together on them to be successful?

Should the cons be non-profit, for profit, for charity? There are advantages & disadvantages with each philosophy.

Do you want a diversity of game types with attendance around 150, 500, 5000? Do you want one big con a year and several smaller, easier to organize, mini-cons? Would you prefer to lay the groundwork so that an Origins could be in Cincinnati in 5-10 years?

Do you want an opponent contact service so that anyone who buys a game at any store in the metropolitan area knows about suburban mini-cons held on a monthly schedule planned years in advance?

You can learn from other groups and their cons. SF holds an annual con, in different cities around the country, on the subject of how to run a con. It is listed in the SF Con Register (subscription data given earlier) which I haven't subscribed to for a while & do not have a handy copy. Next time this con is in your area, organize a car pool of GMs and other volunteers to check it out. Ask them to write up what they learned & place it on the Web page I proposed above. In advance of this trip, start a fund of donations at one of the hobby shops intended as a dual goal.

(a) A periodic reward to GM or other unpaid volunteer who made a great contribution towards the success of local cons or other on- going activities. If the award is in the form of gift certificates, then the hobby shop, or Ral Partha, or whoever's certificates are used should have some kind of partial matching funds, unless it is a joint venture by the local game simulations business community.

(b) partially compensate the expenses of the locals who went to the con-running educational conference and afterwards reported back in the manner I suggested or some equivalent way so that interested con fans would get some benefit from their feedback.

A related topic is "what does it cost" to go to a major con like Origins or Gen Con & can those costs be lowered in a group effort with or without the support of a local game simulations business community, and is it to the benefit of local hobby shops to encourage such efforts? If there is the sense that this invites competition from the dealers that happen to be there, or undermines the ability of locals to spend money at the local hobby shops, then there is a conflict, so perhaps any effort by local stores to sponsor a charter bus to a major con needs to limit participation to good customers, defined as those who have spent in excess of some reasonable sum of money buying stuff at that store within some period of recent months. This need not be backed by a hobby shop. Consider school buses. They are usually drafted by the athletic department, but other school extra-curricular activities, like PBS competition for the best all around academic team, or chess tournaments, or other intellectual pursuits in theory should have equal access to this resource, so a general games club at any educational institution ought to be able to access resources to reduce the cost of going to some out-of-town activity, that is no less educational than an athletic competition.

When I went to Origins, I spent $400.00 in air fare. I stayed at the Hyatt, with some buddies from Cincinnati. I bought stuff at exhibitors. There was con entrance & events. The food vendors were a bit high priced. It adds up. Was it worth it? Oh yes, but who can afford to go? Total cost is reduced if a joint expedition is organized to share travel expenses. Think tournaments in which prize is expense paid trip to Gen Con or Origins. The publisher of the game in which the tournament is held might be willing to contribute part of the prize.

Here's what I said in an e-mail to Walter Grube, who identified himself to me as Vice President of CAG:

Subj: Re: !olleh
Date: 96-07-17 15:25:58 EDT
From: MacWheel99

Walter P. Grube = grubewp@ucunix.san.uc.EDU

In a message dated 96-07-17 09:34:11 EDT, you write:

>first pointed question: we at CAG (I'm vice-president) are still >struggling to get Fall-Cons going, after two mediocre turnouts previous >years.

If you are asking me about Fall-Con for this year, then CAG has forgotten everything you need to know to run a convention - you are now at the point that your national & regional advertising should be ENDING, because of lead times between data to publications & them into hands of readers & them have time to react & decide. Now is the time you should be planning Fall-Con & Winter 1997 & Spring 1998. Leaving plans to the last few months guarantees a disaster. This is related to the efforts I was involved in 15 years ago to produce "How to run a con" ideas newsletter, which I dropped when I saw that there was an abundance of such publications from SF fandom & 90% of the content was relevant to gaming. SF fandom also runs an annual con for con organizers in which all the seminars & presentations are about con-running facets. Chad Warwick tried to organize something like that on the local level - a series of seminars in advance of the con for volunteers on how to avoid mistakes that were common at all cons, but he did not get a lot of popular support. CAG & CinciCons have been around so long that we should not have to be having this kind of conversation. At one time there was a committee to place a bid to host Origins in Cincinnati. How the mighty have fallen.

>What advice do you have for the struggling convention organizers that we >are...?

1. Do not screw up the non-profit status unless you plan to replace it with a structure that reflects how Cincinnati Gaming has evolved to need a new structure, or the decision of the group is to disband the non-profit organization according to the governmental regulations for discontinuing non-profit. The reason I say this, is I heard words spoken by various people at O96 about CAG officers having lost track of paperwork regarding filings with the state - you know you are supposed to file stuff ANNUALLY with the state & if you continue operations without going by the book, the state can & probably will back-tax you as if you had never had any non-profit privileges. That has happened to other non-profit gaming groups in Ohio, such as the Ohio Chess Federation. It was for that kind of reason I proposed (my memory is that I was overruled) a constitutional requirement to have CAG books audited annually by a volunteer member outside the regular officers, who has some expertise in the area of non-profit accounting & legal filings. If you do not know what I am talking about, ask Chad Warwick, or Marc Rubin, or whoever is the CAG legal advisor these days, to give CAG officers a briefing on the obligations of non-profit i.e. the government has granted special privileges. What exactly are those special privileges & what must the recipient do to avoid losing them?

2. There needs to be discussion among volunteers & attendees & past participants as to what you are trying to accomplish & why attendance has been less than you had hoped for. What is the competition offering? How long ago has it been since a CAG sponsored con has conducted a survey of former attendees, or folks at hobby shops & campaign game groups - do you support in principle the idea that we should continue to have games conventions in the Cincinnati area? - what changes would you most like to see in the Cinci area game con efforts? In the very early days of Cinci Cons we did this kind of thing & used the feedback to restructure focus & marketing - a lot of feedback was asking for stuff we were already doing, from which we concluded that advertising needed to be more explicit. However the survey concept fell into disfavor in later years when there was disagreement between many volunteers as to the function of feedback. When you collect feedback from multiple sources, like GMs, exhibitors, etc. is it evaluated together or a bunch of people report on what other people said, including same people so you don't get a clear picture?

3. Among the CAG volunteers, what proportion of them have exposure to other cons comparable in size & scope to what CAG now desires? You can learn a lot from other cons, including those that are not gaming in focus - like science fiction, computer, other hobbies. There should be regular efforts to organize joint expeditions to other cons, so that the participants can then discuss what they liked & want more of locally. At one time we tried to organize (it fell through, but perhaps it is worth a retry from time to time) a charter bus to major regional cons like GenCon & MetroDetroit, in which instead of packing in the travelers like sardines, some seat rows would be replaced by GM tables to help organize games in transit. You might look at Amtrak schedules - I believe that traveling by train is more comfortable than traveling by bus & I know that they have deals where they can add one passenger car for a group traveling together on discount rate. Where does the passenger service from Cinci connect to? What major game cons are held there? Look into pricing for a group trip & investigate whether there are enough people from your area interested in that to justify such an expedition.

4. You might reconsider the names of the cons. When I was at O96, Lou Zocchi was asking me about who to contact to get a copy of the CinciCon mailing list, which at one time was close to 10,000 names & addresses of gamers in the Tri State Area. Notice he referred to the group as CinciCon, a name that was dropped when the philosophy of the group shifted. I told him that there had been a constant turn-over of volunteers with different ideas on how the club's assets should be used & kept fresh, for example we have a lot of area colleges in which addresses of gamers turn into mail returns because the gamers might not be in the same dorm room each year, or keep same apartment open during months back home, but we still had the home addresses of those gamers & I felt it highly unlikely that mom & pop would move, so when no longer able to forward school address, include gamer c/o family home in an annual mailing about CAG activities, with mailing list clean-up policies geared to zip codes of college areas with different rules than in greater suburbia. I was over-ruled. Gamer has moved to college, so purge address of old home. College kids seldom file change-of-address with post office so this guarantees that in a few years they will be gone from our mailing list. Then there were volunteers for whom which computer system we were moving the club records to was more important than maintaining the integrity of the records, and each season of con volunteers repeated this performance. The years of close ties of cons to hobby shops also means that any deal to provide a copy of the mailing list to some exhibitor from outside the immediate area is perceived in the eyes of many volunteers as back-stabbing the local hobby shops. So in the days when the mailing list was still many thousands of names & the deal was - we send Zocchi copy of our mailing list & he matches with his & says "Oh, they sent 4,000 names & addresses (or whatever the number came to) of gamers that we did not have before, so we will send, in payment, 4,000 names & addresses of gamers from our mailing list in their region of the country, which were not on the total set they sent us." I just could not get consensus of officers to go for a deal like this. If you are interested in this kind of deal today - you can reach Lou Zocchi at Gamescience 1512 - 30th Avenue Gulfport MS 39501-2787 (800)476-0600 fax# (601) 863-0323 (I might have transcribed some digit wrong from his small print catalog). If, as I suspect, shifting priorities have trashed the mailing list, and you want to start over - this guy has mailing lists of gamers in like 100,000 or more nationwide, for sale - you will want to get pricing from him & in what medium it is available, so you can download into whatever computer system(s) now being used by CAG volunteers.

5. When you go to cons in other communities, do you leave fliers for your con on the freebee table? There was one at O96. Did CAG leave a pile of fliers there about Cons in Cinci & replenish it periodically? There is an SF con annually in Cincy also with such a table. Do the gamers place fliers there about CAG's con? Does FallCon have such a table? Do you make an effort to find out who is leaving Cinci area to attend cons in Dayton Ohio, Indianapolis, Louisville, Detroit etc. & ask them to take a stack of fliers to the freebee tables there? Do you place ads in gaming publications like AH General to reach out to an audience of people who play the kinds of games that are run in Cinci? Do you send write-ups of game activities that were held, with pictures of winners & what they won, to various gaming publications for free publicity for next year, in which the dates of next year are included.

6. What kind of publicity is conducted at the stores, that sell gaming products, that are not in the small group that have provided close support over the years? There have been several attitudes over the years. One says - "We are not interested in appealing to the customers of stores when those stores are in competition with stores that have helped our group, because some of those stores will want to advertise at our con, and that would hurt the stores that help us the most." The biggest growth in CinciCon attendance was when we put fliers in ALL area hobby shops, regardless of historical support, reaching out to gamers who did not know there was an organized effort to hold a game con in Cinci. Prior to this effort, in the early 70's, Cinci cons were jointly run by approx half a dozen gaming groups that I had reached through Operation Contact & half of those, on the average, knew of one other. After the year of publicity in ALL retail outlets for games, that would give us permission to do so, we had approx thirty groups that met regularly in the area & wanted to host an event, and many others that wanted to participate in the con. We did a survey of store shelves - what is their stock & concluded that the number of people buying the games in the area is astronomical compared to the number involved in our con efforts. How can we reach out to that audience? Then at the con we held at UC, I think it was 1973, Mike Shore contacted us & I think our mutual relationship was to the great benefit of Boardwalk Hobby Shop, the cons, and the gaming community. But I do not believe it is healthy for a volunteer-run con to be so closely linked to hobby shop assistance that we feel that we cannot reach out to the customers of the competition.

Al Macintyre = MacWheel99

P.S. I sent some e-mail on the topic of mistakes made at Origins, and included Andon in my recipients. They were not pleased with my characterizations & more e-mail followed. I will send you copies of this - perhaps CAG volunteers can learn something from this view from behind some scenes. The selling of tickets for individual events is a neat concept for matching with numbers of players desired, but it is not perfect & needs a great support structure. Some events, like miniatures, are so flexible in numbers of participants that a different structure sometimes makes more sense.

I do not have Lonnie Barnett's address, but several contacts have identified him to me as being someone who is active in organizing events for future cons in Cincinnati, so here is a letter I sent via Rich Smethurst - I do not know if it ever reached Lonnie.

How can we diplomatically discuss a flawed structure?

At one time I toyed with the idea of developing a board game in which the object is for all the players to mutually design a convention. At the beginning, you would draw cards or roll dice to find out your relevant abilities.

(When you interact with institutions like post office bulk mail, or facilities to be rented, do the odds favor screwing something up? When you communicate with GMs & other people who run events, do the odds favor smooth cooperation or alienation? Can you keep the fiscal books of an organization efficiently with minimum of work load, or are you likely to get in trouble for violating some law about non-profit organizations? Are you good at recruiting more volunteers or? Do you have a personality that, through no fault of your own, other people get very annoyed with you? Are you skilled at running a particular kind of event? Is your age below that for which institutions, like hotels & places that rent stuff, are going to take you seriously? Are you a heavy beer drinker who thinks there ought to be easy access to it at the con?)

(NOTE: This essentially duplicates the concept of the SMOFCon Game, a game introduced at a SMOFCon, specifically modeling the process of bidding for and running a World Science Fiction Convention. See the annotated bibliography of conrunning resources elsewhere this issue. -GS)

Then a similar mechanism would select the volunteer function you become the enthusiastic person who tries to do that job, with the odds favoring a mismatch between your role and your abilities. While the end of the game is the convention with points to various people based on whether it at least broke even & whose events were successful, there would be objectives like Emperor of China, in which your prowess depends on sabotaging the other guys, or usurping their position after they have done most of the work, so you can get credit for their contributions. Obviously in this board game people would be doing stuff that I found defeated the very purposes for having clubs conventions etc. but I wanted some mechanism to communicate to the rank & file & future volunteers that we need to re-think what we are trying to accomplish & the need to weed out the folks with bad attitudes, just like very early on in my Cincinnati gaming experience I designed Detours & Downtown, which was rigged against the common mentality that the rules of the road are filled with loopholes that it is a gamer's obligation to find & exploit.

(Detours & Downtown was a game we played commuting to conventions in other cities. Ostensibly it was structured so someone in the back seat of a car pool could moderate with a minimum of papers to shuffle & write on, and toss dice inside a closed container, while the players, including the vehicle's driver could fully participate & not need any papers or writing. In the game, you are a driver of a car pool to a convention in another city, in which you are trying to get there with a minimum of travel hours. You may spend a turn before leaving trying to rent a radar detector, CB radio, and other tools to outwit speed traps. After many years of many people enjoying the game, it finally dawned on someone that I had rigged the odds so that the fastest way to reach the destination alive & out of jail, was not to exceed the speed limit.

Ideas for Cincinnati Games Conventions

When I talked to Rich & he described some of Lonnie's plans & hopes, I passed on a couple of things he might mention to Lonnie, on my behalf, although my thoughts may well be ancient history to Lonnie. As I understood it, there is a desire to exit the burden of pre-registration, using sign-up at regional hobby shops to generate demand for events then trigger relevant marketing back to those individuals and sites, also seeking special events to attract a good audience, and various other traditional objectives of any convention. He also wanted to increase Saturday activities and hours, lowering Friday & Sunday in such a way as to achieve financial savings in the rental of meeting facilities outside of Saturday's load.

From my perspective, what I sought in con events, was stuff that was impractical at the regular gaming club meetings, that would draw people to conventions, and at the same time was not a great burden to organize, or be very restricted in the exact number of participants for it to work.

(I have been involved in art shows at science fiction conventions. This is an event which is very popular, can bring in enough money to cover all its expenses, but it has a high cost in paperwork requirements and minimum staffing - a small art show is generally impractical, so the only way a con can do a successful one, is have a large number of volunteers who have learned the craft at other cons, then your first art show invites works from hundreds of artists, has a staffing level of 2-3 people almost 24 hours, with peaks during set-up take-down and auction, and person-in-charge good references with the community of people who have run these things at other cons. There are many other events that share this high overhead for them to work, so the community of volunteers needs to be very enthusiastic for them "to fly.")

First two considerations

These two were in reaction to the amount of data that was communicated to Al via Rich, in casual conversation. Some current Cincy Games Con activists might want to stimulate further writings from Al, in some other areas, or try to shut off this spigot. Duplicate Tournament Scoring

At one time we had big board game tournaments, and other cons were experimenting with small action miniatures tournaments, that had much of the flavor of some board games. One problem was that to have decent prizes you had to have a big draw, so either your tournament was nothing much more than what goes on at a regular club meeting, or 150-250 competitors in which to get a winner via single or double elimination meant they had to spend the entire weekend doing nothing but the tournament, while we volunteers wanted attendees to be able to participate in a diversity of activities & interact with each other, instead of the role gamers, miniatures enthusiasts, etc. all off in their own private worlds for the entire con. Also in single and double elimination you need to start off with a number of competitors that is a power of two like 32 or 128, and actual sign-ups seldom are that cooperative.

In the duplicate system, you select a board game that has a high point spread in victory conditions. The first one I played this way was Operation Olympic, the US invasion of Japan at end of WW II. In the first round, players are matched up somewhat arbitrarily & you end up with the scores that everyone got, which could reflect a strong player against a weak one, or 2 weak against each other. Now you can rank everyone according to who got the best score playing as the Americans & who got the best score playing as the Japanese, and place those two playing each other, except the roles are reversed, and 2nd best against each other & so forth. After the second round there is a prize handed out to whoever got the best score as Americans & whoever got best score as Japanese. Some of these games are fast enough you can play both sides & average the score, but this whole approach of ranking who got the best score playing a particular side means that in two rounds you can select winners, any even number of people can participate, and in a normal convention there is time to have several tournaments run this way.

The first time I played in a miniatures tournament with this system, it was a WW II naval game whose rules worked for 3-5 ships on a side. We were given our objectives in secret, then the score was based on how well we performed according to those objectives. The objectives in the early scenarios were contrary to the typical gamer motivation to rush in there bang bang maximize hits. In each round, only the top 2-3 scorers per side got to advance to the next round. Miniatures is more difficult to organize a tournament this way, because of the high ratio between judges and players per confrontation.

In duplicate scoring, we are playing a traditional game to win, but also to get a better score than other players in the same situation as we are in, and by selecting games with high point spreads between best & worst results, the convention is able to get ultimate winners with many less competitive rounds than other scoring systems, plus it is a system that intuitively many gamers understand, and thus are unlikely to give the organizers a hard time about alleged unfairness, which often happens in role playing tournaments because of the perceived subjective nature of how the best players are selected, and the increased role of random chance.

Invitational Miniatures Engagement

Falmouth Fantasy conventions are traditionally run this way; the games convention in Elkhart Indiana used to be this way; Marc Rubin once ran a Napoleonic miniatures weekend with this system; the year that a Cincinnati Games Convention ran the 7 days in May game, the organizers of that event ran it by this system, without consulting the organizers of event sign-up, which led to a lot of bad feelings that could have been avoided. So long as your advance advertising spells out the framework of such events, so that no attendee feels cheated, this sort of event can become a wonderful centerpiece to re-occur at many future conventions. The common problem, at games conventions that this is intended to offset, is that many gamers play with rather sophisticated rules that take quite some time to explain & learn, while at a convention if you are going to let people sign up for an event in a game they have never played before, the rules system must be rather simplistic - you need a mixture of complexities of events - stuff suitable for beginners, stuff challenging for long time players, stuff for an audience that will be "turnedon" to a type of gaming they never experienced before, and a lot of this needs to be structured so that there will be a big audience of spectators, whose presence and talking will not impair the entertainment value to the participants in whatever they are watching.

An invitational is a game event in which you cannot join it by showing up at the event and signing up on the day of the event. There is advance communications between the participants. You sign up long before the event is scheduled. The leaders of each side are selected long in advance, perhaps via tiny tournaments sponsored by hobby shops, so that each side's top leadership is selected by someone who won some run-off competition sponsored by a group of clubs or a hobby shop or an institution like Ral Partha. Or perhaps the convention organizers will go to well known individuals in the community and ask "Will you please lead side-X in the convention's invitational for whatever topic of miniatures it will be on?" It now becomes public knowledge in the gaming community, and convention newsletter to regional contacts, what rules will be used & who is the commander in chief of each side & how many recruit positions need to be filled by ordinary gamers. People write in asking to be on whichever side, describing their qualifications to have a high position, or whatever type of unit they want to command. They may be sent a written test in the mail to find out how well they know the rules & the era & the trade-offs, on which basis there is a selection of who will command what troops & who their second-in-command is in case of a no-show at the convention. Then there is a lot of correspondence back & forth on each side among the people whose requests to participate were accepted, for one side or another or assistant judgeship or some other special roles, so that when the convention rolls around, each side has a clear strategy they plan to follow, some system of secret hand signals, dummy press-releases to be issued if some objective is successfully obtained, etc. The participants in the invitational are inside a roped off-area, playing by some schedule that gives them regular breaks, when they go off for additional strategy sessions, during which time the official observers, who are not on either side, but were selected for their knowledge of the game system and gift of gab, use pointers at various places on the game board to discuss how recent events went off, what schemes worked, what misfired, like the real news media talks like they know what is going on. These official observers might include folks from hobby shops who talk about what it costs for a club to get started in this period - point to various units & quote typical pricing, praise the paint jobs. The observers have multiple agendas known to the con organizers and gaming community, working hand-in-hand with arrangements to hand out prizes to some of the participants on the basis of spectacularly successful actions.

For each con, after this gets started, you try to get one invitational in a different miniatures period, and advertise a year in advance how this is structured. The convention also publishes, in a newsletter to the regional contacts, after each con, what the statistics were on sign-ups vs. spaces, and on no-shows, so that future year efforts and other regional cons can judge whether there is sufficient enthusiasm for this format to justify more than one invitational, in different periods, at the same convention.

Lost history hurts productivity

It is in the nature of clubs & conventions that there will be a lot of turn-over with new blood & new ideas, but sometimes it is not obvious to the next bunch of people why things are done in a certain way, and they try to improve or correct stuff, and then there are problems that the way was originally designed to avoid, and latest staff re-learn lessons that were learned many times in the past. I believe that when a group of volunteers try something new, and they learn something about how you can or cannot deal with some challenge, there needs to be a write-up, or essay on the topic, addressed to future volunteers working in the same medium, and arrangements by a local hobby shop so interested people can buy a package of reprints of many such essays, to help them improve on the group designs.

Hi Tech at con site

Often people see that there is a horrific work load to accomplish some mundane tasks & give a lot of thought to how to reduce the burden, using technology that is exciting to those people, while still performing essentially the same structure. If the work load is excessive then perhaps there are flaws in the implementation of whatever it is we are trying to accomplish, and the whole process should be re-thought. Many schemes are appropriate to the challenges of a particular scale of operations, and as the size of the con & the diversity of activities fluctuates, the methods of managing things ought to evolve for the sake of efficiency. Many of us find enjoyment in volunteer work because it appeals to the same kind of thinking that is used when designing a game or a scenario, in this case we are designing a convention, or a structure within it, and seeking some methodology to test that it works satisfactorily, like in software development. To a certain extent, top leadership of a convention needs to encourage this enthusiasm, provided there is some way to scientifically measure performance of the ultimate service that is the reason for being, so that no schemes get in the way of the end goals. If schemes are killed because someone thinks they are a dumb idea, the promoters might think they did not get a fair hearing, and you lose potential volunteers. At the same time, you don't want endless talk talk about this idea or that idea.

I have discussed with con volunteers in other cities, the issue of potential uses of computers and other consumer electronics to simplify tasks of con management & there was a great interest in supporting reasonable experiments. A common sentiment = "If you see anything at any other con in any hobby area, that could work for us, we'd love to financially recompense them for a copy of their creation." The rise of Portable Computing means that some ideas may be coming more practical. If the PC is truly portable, you can test the applications before the con, equipment's owner has decent con security to prevent curiosity seekers from messing with it, then this opens the door to a myriad of schemes that were impractical when home computers were cumbersome & risky to move & took an eternity to get set up working satisfactorily, and no 2 people had anything similar, so only one person could operate it.

There's a lot of high tech that can simplify the task of volunteers, but distinctions need to be made between: what is practical when the volunteers have lots of time to experiment, when getting ready for the con, and what must work right on the day of the con, when volunteers & their time is in critical supply; also there is the issue of multiple people working together efficiently and high tech is in the equation - some people have no problem getting a mailing list from one PC to another, uploading text that was written on a different kind of word processor, even between IBM PC clone & Apple Macintosh world, and surfing the Internet, while other volunteers have problems in which dependency on some high tech that we cannot get to work satisfactorily can & has in the past had severe impact on the success of the entire endeavor.

I had a boss, when I worked at Willis Music, who often said "When you get a machine to do a job that used to be done by hand, you still need to teach people how to do it the old way because machines break down, when you are least prepared for it. Proper care & feeding of machines is more training-intensive than the by hand method, and you end up paying the machine operator more than the manual laborer, so there is a necessity to carefully figure out in advance if the volume through the labor-saving machine truly will save the company money in the long run." This thinking is very applicable to a con, in which the time duration that any technology will be used by the organization will be much shorter than in a business - instead of years of daily operation, any gadgetry will be used very intermittently for only part of the time that the volunteers who think it is a good idea are with the group. There is limited talent for limited time period, Where should they be doing what activities to give the community maximum value & at the same time have minimum risk of key role unstaffed or vital personnel burned out.

A wired convention

The best system I ever saw, integrating computer peripherals & client operations with the day to day, and hour to hour, running the myriad tasks that make any gathering of a mass of people successful, was at COMMON, a convention of people whose jobs are with Midrange computers (bigger than a PC LAN, smaller than a mainframe) that runs for a whole week 8am-6pm with 30 tracks of seminars/day & attendance around 10,000 people. Pre-registrants are issued bar coded name badges & it goes pretty fast, compared to my memories of much smaller volumes at other institutions, but not fast enough for me. COMMON uses an AS/400 which was donated to it by IBM. Obviously the scale of their operations requires infrastructure support that is totally inappropriate to any but the largest hobby conventions, like Origins or the World Science Fiction Con.

(The cheapest AS/400 runs around $40,000.00 retail & typically can be leased over a 3-5 year rental period. The high end of the AS/400 has around 200 processors that individually are several orders of magnitude more powerful than a Pentium.)

Electronic Games appeal to many participants on many levels

The last time I ordered software direct from MPS (1-800-721-GAME), I discovered that they distribute @ $1 each, demos of most of their games. A con could ask a computer store to be both a dealer & furnish a room set aside for demonstration units. In advance of the con, and in consultation with the store about what you have in mind, obtain as many different software demos as you can get from many vendors, run the games off the diskettes they came with, absolute minimum going on hard disk, then use the demos as prizes, with people able to try the demos until some pre-announced time when the diskettes will be yanked for awards. There are people who have not made up their minds about computer acquisitions who would be anxious to make this activity a success. Let it be known that the demos will be delivered a few months before the con, but advance access will be limited to con volunteers and their immediate families. This might tip the balance on some people deciding to volunteer more actively, with the enthusiastic support of their families. You would also need to have some signs explaining what a demo is, and reminding folks that if they decide, after playing the demo, that they really do want to buy the whole game, this demonstration room was set up by such & such a dealer & you can go next door to buy it. A little bit of hype, with this free advertising, means that some computer store's personnel might be willing to do the effort we do not want to burden our con volunteers with.

Video Overhead

Volunteers & officers at past cons, whose names escape me at the moment, at one time suggested that we install large computer monitors above entrance & main open gaming areas, fed by a program running on a PC back of registration, inspired by what is displayed at the airport. Instead of info on aircraft coming & going at which gates & are they on time, our videos would identify games starting soon, color coded by major categories of interest, which are sold- out, how many openings still exist in which events due real soon, which are at risk of cancelation or postponement due to number of no-shows not outweighed by stand-bys. It would also run messages across screen listing prize winners of events recently ended, i.e., create a visual announcement system whose volunteer is able to accept input from any GM or con staffer.

I thought this might be very appealing visually, except that the effort to get it to work would be high compared to the length of time you'd get value from it. Many computer enthusiasts did not realize how much effort is involved in moving your stuff from home - if some attendee carelessly messes up your equipment, would you expect the convention to reimburse you, or does your home insurance cover this sort of risk?

I love MPS's Transport Tycoon game & suggest that it be tried by anyone still interested in this idea of using computers at cons to enhance the flow of information or make the atmosphere better than what was practical at past cons. I gave a copy of this to Dan Reece, but I don't know if he plays it much. (I bought 2 copies of the game - one for my PC & one as a gift - no piracy here. I would have no objections to other Cincinnati friends trying it out.) My thought, relevant to Convention Hype, was that: you start a game running with a big city & lots of urban transport to fuel growth (get something good before the convention & run it from a saved game); kill the messages about other stuff going on in the game & name the city with some title con goers & computer game fans identify with, such as "Cincinnati Gamers", "City of Game Players", or actual name of the Con; stick the monitor over the doorway that is the entrance to high tech area, make sure keyboard inaccessible to casual passers by, cut off the sound, and you've got something visually appealing, constantly changing. (Another game that this might work with is Serf City. The start-up odds could be mucked with to ensure a constant supply of the non-player kingdoms having wars on small frontiers, that will fit on one picture.) I think it is better than a Sim City for this because over several hours, the city's architecture evolves, as structures are torn down & replaced with bigger ones. I sometimes run out of money & leave the game running while I am at work or sleeping, so I know there is more than enough evolution there for this game to run from the beginning to end of a convention, with the City of Gamers growing more sophisticated over the duration of a con weekend, and not running into the end of the game. A volunteer will need to check on the game every 4-5 hours: replace the vehicles which have worn out, in 20-40 game years; adjust positioning and scale of city view to improve overall impact.

Why have high tech at a con for the end users?

Many attendees bring young relatives whose attention span does not often blend well with the mix of events good for that age group, at the times that the older attendee really wants to play in something that is too adult for their companions. Thus there is sometimes a temptation to install an automated baby sitting service for the youngest arrivals. However, setting up PCs & getting them to work right, in a short time span, is a labor-intensive non-trivial task for brainy people whose talents and energies are in hot demand elsewhere at the con. This type of effort does not pay for itself financially or volunteer satisfaction, except when you have someone who loves both the kiddies and the equipment so much that they are willing to put up with a lot more than the casual equipment user who does not realize how much abuse of expensive stuff typically goes on in this environment.

Ideally a VCR, amply supplied with popular shows, will entertain a large mass of the youngest attendees with a low level of volunteer overhead needed to make it work. (Also some adults who may not want to energize their brains a whole lot right now. The placement of the unit needs to be such that it will not clog high traffic areas, while casual arrivals can find it without much trouble.) At cons where I have been a volunteer or officer and this type activity occurs, it is not unusual for adolescent students to aquire videos that cause parents of younger children to complain to con management about unsuitable content. Thus for a con to have a fun time for all with this activity, and avoid dissention, make the person in charge of it someone who in real life is a good parent. (One way you can tell is someone whose children stay out of trouble, they are not divorced yet, and in conversations about future gaming events they say things that are considerate of their mate's needs.) Ask for wholesome entertainment suitable for a wide diversity of age groups.

There are other events whose success or disaster has a close relationship with the life style of volunteers running them. I am generally opposed to con staff serving alcoholic beverages, because the people in charge invariably end up being youths who give the finger to laws about liquor to minors. If the masses demand beer, or something stronger, at a con, I favor transferring the legal distribution responsibility to some outside organization that provides refreshments, an arrangement which demands high capital set-aside & low profit margin compared to doing it yourself, but otherwise liability insurance premiums will bankrupt the con. No con manager wants their creation to become another Tail Hook, but I have been at hobby conventions where the potential for disaster far exceeded Tail Hook, because of things that got out of control due to inappropriateness of matching job assignments with individual volunteer capabilities.

Portable PC vs. Opportunities for a GM to do something unique

Dan Reece used to design games in which a computer moderator enhanced the entertainment for a group of people like at a club, or home basement, but he has become more & more busy with his work and home life, with interests shifting from this sort of thing. He had some experiments in how a computer could add to the spectrum of gaming experiences practical at a convention. His games did not fit into the mold of role playing, miniatures, board games, card games, etc. they were truely another environment of game play.

Al Macintyre used to design games in which the participants were people stuck by duty to outposts like the registration desk or a dealer's table. These are individuals filling roles essential to a convention's success, whose work load is feast & famine with big panic attacks at random unpredictable intervals of being so busy you cannot stand it, and long periods of extreme boredom with nothing to do. Many cons suffer a big turn-over of volunteers willing to play such essential roles, which also adds to the burden of training them to do it right, so great efforts & thought is applied to how to make their life less miserable & more willing to put up with this before saying they have had enough. Sometimes a supervisor of a volunteer function makes sure that refreshments are delivered to places that volunteers cannot leave.

My idea was to run modified play-by-mail environments in which: the rules could be explained in a few minutes between rushes of duties; the paperwork for the players was simple and standardized; it did not take me an eternity, off in a quiet corner, to figure out a turn's results. I quickly visited all players to distribute new turn output; then took a more casual tour catching them all between their respective busy moments, making sure all understood their latest situation and options; then a third go round hustling to get the next move turned in or a statement of "I'm doing nothing this turn." When I showed up at other cons that had the same dealers, they would often ask me wwhat game I plan to run there, enthusiastically telling their neighbors about my little project. This idea is potentially an important part of a con's infrastructure with value on many levels. More than one volunteer could be doing this kind of thing at the same time.

From time to time I have thought back to how I could have done a better job in the very tight framework in which the scheme must work effectively. Are there classes of games that work well in this medium, that could be run off a portable PC, that any experienced moderator at any con could manage, with minimum of training or play-testing before the con & advance set-up at the con?

If I had the equipment, and the time, I'd like to try to run a matrix game variant this way. (I am assuming you know what matrix gaming is - I still have handouts left over from the last time I ran some - ask me for a copy if you'd like a memory refresh of the concept.) The last matrix game I ever ran any place was "Today's Headlines" in which we pick up latest newspaper or a few minutes of CNN, ask "What will happen next in the crises of the day?" and the game explores real world right now possibilities. I am speculating that this could be run on a portable PC with a printer intermittently used, possibly via lap link so printer is busy at the same time as the portable walking around the con.

First loop of turn hand-out last turn headlines & player scores, strategically posting copies of rules to get into this & headlines so far by theatre. Second loop start capturing player speculations, new issue proposals, keyed right into the PC, and showing each what others have contributed, soliciting structured comments. After all active players contacted for any contributions this turn, mid-turn print so-far enough copies to be shared by each room where participants are (e.g. two to be passed around the huckster room) & announce that 10-15 minutes after the last sub-group have got this I'll be starting the last loop to accept input for this turn, and it is now too late to propose new issues for the current round.

I'd use a scoring system that skews the odds scaled to maximum points raised on any one issue, and ratio of pro-con per issue, killing normal upper limit on accepted volume of participants, so I could get random joiners to existing issues. People with persistent high scores could add new issues, with their score cuut in hald each time, to rotate who currently has this opportunity without penalizing the action.

My interest here is proof-of-concept. Will it work any better than the stuff I used to run by hand? Will it fail due to poor choice of game for the medium, my own inadequacy as a GM or designer, equipment not portable or high overhead to get it working on short notice? I would want to be able to try it at a con whose attendees include volunteers at other cons and the con volunteer press, so if it seems workable, other cons will try it for other scenarios of matrix games.

Right now I do not have the equipment or the time to try this.

Al Macintyre
(5184 Normandy Court, Evansville Indiana,