A Few Thoughts on Wargaming Conventions, Past and Present
A Little Convention HistoryBPA WBC Tournament Plaque
For those adult readers who are comparatively new to conflict simulations, the idea of wargaming conventions might seem a little quaint; nonetheless, the “back-story” of the WBC Convention is, I think, rather interesting. This year’s gaming marathon in Lancaster, for instance, actually traces its beginnings back two decades to the old ‘Avaloncon’ Conventions which were first inaugurated by TAHGC, in 1991. Ironically, had it not been for Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and the rise of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), ‘Avaloncon’ and its successor, the WBC Convention, would probably never even have come into being. The reason for this is simple: the first Avaloncon Convention was, from its inception, intended to serve two different but related goals. First, it was seen by its primary architect, Don Greenwood, as a (somewhat risky) way to reinvigorate Avalon Hill’s sagging product sales; second, and probably just as importantly, Greenwood saw the new convention as a long overdue response to the vocal protests of those historical gamers (like myself) who were becoming increasingly dismayed by certain unfortunate but increasingly powerful new currents within the hobby. In the end, Avaloncon failed to salvage Avalon Hill’s long-term financial fortunes, but it did meet its second goal surprisingly well. Moreover, given the trends within the hobby at the close of the 80s, Don Greenwood’s brainchild probably arrived just in time. By 1991, popular interest in historical wargames was clearly waning; and not just because of the threat that computer games represented to the future of the traditional board game market, but also because of the mushrooming interest among hobby enthusiasts in a radically new type of immersive social game: the “role-playing” fantasy experience. The result of all this was that, by the time of Avaloncon I, a major schism had developed within the regular (non-computer oriented) gaming community: a split between players who considered themselves to be historical gamers, and those who described themselves as “role-playing” enthusiasts. And nowhere was this widening divide more evident than at two of the gaming hobby’s most important annual get-togethers, ‘Gen Con’ and ‘Origins’.
Gen Con had been started by Gary Gygax and friends in 1968, and Origins had been launched — ironically, with substantial support from TAHGC — seven years later, in 1975. For those who are unfamiliar with gaming’s early history, this pair of hobby gatherings almost immediately became two of the biggest (in terms of total attendance) annual gaming conventions in the United States, and they remain so to this day. [For example, attendance at Origins currently averages about 15,000 paying visitors per year, and Gen Con annually draws a whopping 27,000 attendees.] However, as these conventions continued to grow during the 1970s and 80s, and as new events were added to their respective schedules, they both gradually morphed from traditional wargaming conventions into showcases for computer-based simulations, “miniatures” and “role playing” games. This had the inevitable effect of pushing regular historical games, and their actual play at these convention venues, more and more into the background. Needless-to-say, for those of us with a preference for traditional conflict simulations, this change in emphasis was not greeted with enthusiasm. On the contrary, it seemed to represent, as one of my long-time gaming friends observed: “the triumph of TSR and Gygax and Arneson’s DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (1974) over Avalon Hill, SPI and our favorite traditional wargames.” At the time, it appeared that he was absolutely correct, and that, in this struggle between fantasy geeks and history geeks for the future of what was rapidly becoming a relatively narrow hobby niche, the fantasy geeks were clearly winning; at least at Gen Con and Origins. Clearly, traditional wargamers had reached a point where they were ready for a “back to the basics” type of convention; one in which the emphasis was not on vendors, but on players; and a convention in which the attendees did not look like a group of contestants from “Let’s Make A Deal” intermixed with a mob of sword-wielding refugees from a “Star Trek” convention. Instead, what the hobby grognards like me and my friends wanted, more than anything else, was a convention that focused exclusively on old-fashioned conflict simulations and, just as importantly, on a convention that emphasized lots of tournament action. In the end, it fell to Don Greenwood and Avalon Hill to give it to us.
Mark Guttfreund attended the first Avaloncon, and here plays Bert Schoose, Afrika Korps, at WBC 2008
The very first Avaloncon was held in the summer of 1991, at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. There were only about 500 attendees, and 91 of them were there to play ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER (1985). I was there too, but I had made the trek from Arizona to Pennsylvania to Game Master (GM) and compete in the inaugural AFRIKA KORPS (1964) tournament. My memories of that first convention are, even after the passage of two decades, still amazingly vivid. I remember, for example, that the rooms were small and a little drab, and that the motel’s staff — never having hosted a horde of noticeably-eccentric wargamers before — looked perpetually harried and nonplussed. I also remember that the bar was small and dark and seldom busy, and that the main gaming area got so warm during the day that the doors and windows had to be opened to get a little air circulation into the long, surprisingly noisy room. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the daily migrations by bands of hungry gamers to and from the nearby MacDonald’s restaurant. I can’t be sure, but based on my own consumption of fast food during my first stay in Camp Hill, I’m pretty sure that the always bustling “Golden Arches” turned in a record-breaking weekend of sales receipts. And I remember the many players that I first met at Avaloncon I; a number of whom became then, and are still my friends, today. Finally, I should note that, despite the fact that I had recently won the Avalon Hill AFRIKA KORPS Postal Tournament, I went down to ignominious defeat in my very first tournament match of the same game at Camp Hill. In fact, I didn’t even come close to winning a tournament plaque at this particular convention. Nonetheless, although this first Avaloncon was only about three days long, it was well-run (certainly better than the all-around fiasco that was Origins I) and reasonably well-attended. So, in spite of a few minor disappointments, I personally felt that the new convention had been well worth the trip, and as I packed up at the end of my stay in Camp Hill, I was already eagerly looking forward to Avaloncon II.
Avalon Hill continued to put on Avaloncon every year through 1998. Unfortunately, the struggling game publisher finally succumbed to its many financial woes and passed from the scene shortly after the last convention, which by this time had moved to Hunt Valley, Maryland. Enter the Boardgame Players Association and Don Greenwood. Unwilling to see his creation fade away, the tireless (and stubborn) Greenwood set to work to organize a seamless transition from the last Avaloncon in 1998, to the first WBC Convention in 1999. The change-over went off without a hitch, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, the World Boardgaming Championships offer nine continuous days of tournament and open gaming in over 100 different titles and, in spite of the current economic downturn, the convention still manages to draw approximately 2,000 dedicated players from all over the world. Don Greenwood’s brainchild has gotten bigger as more activities and events have been added to the convention schedule during the last twenty years, but the WBC’s emphasis on competitive play has not changed. For this reason, it is still, in my opinion, the best all-around wargaming convention put on by anybody, anywhere.
ConclusionIn the end, of course, my opinion is not the one that counts; in point of fact, virtually every player will have his own preferences when it comes to what makes for an enjoyable tournament convention. Therefore, to help my readers decide for themselves whether the WBC Convention is right for them, a link has been provided for those who would like to learn more about the Boardgame Players Association or about the World Boardgaming Championships Convention. Information about virtually aspect of this year’s WBC Convention — from advice on travel arrangements, to help with finding economical lodging, to a detailed calendar of convention events, and even to recommendations for fun family activities in the Lancaster area — can all be found by visiting the BPA website.
ONE , TWO and THREE) aimed at helping prospective convention attendees prepare for their first trip to BPA’s annual wargaming marathon in Lancaster. So, for any readers who are relatively recent visitors to this blog and who are also seriously contemplating making the trek to rural Pennsylvania this year, I invite you to revisit those old posts for advice on how to make your trip as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. And for any of my readers who do make the trip this year, I can confidently predict that, whether you follow any of my advice or not, you will still have a fabulous time.