Life sometimes feels remarkably like a worker placement game. Undoubtedly I am not the first to say it, nor do I think I will be the last, but it is true none the less. In a good worker placement, one of the challenges is that there is always more that you need to do than you have resources. In a game, it creates a kind of joyful anxiety and mental validation of the games’ design credentials. It’s making you think and identify the critical path to success. In life, it is just stressful. For us, the mix of year-end school and extracurricular activities, a couple of jobs that have required more attention than usual, and other unexpected challenges that come as random as a dice rolls have kept us on our heels and off the game table more than we would’ve liked as of late. On May 14th though, we had a break from the chaos and a chance to retrieve all our workers from the board. Geekway to the West was upon us.
In its eleventh year, Geekway to the West is held in St. Louis, Missouri and touts itself as, “Four Days of Peace, Love, and Board Games!” It has seen continued growth and popularity year after year, this year exceeding 1300 attendees, selling out in advance of the convention, and expanding into several more banquet halls to ensure enough space.
Being my second year and still the only convention I have attended, my perspective was not one of a grizzled veteran of the convention lifestyle, but one of a guy that had a great time his first year (read: From Gwarkoni-Con to Geekway to the West) and hoped to experience more of the same. More importantly, it was of a family that really needed a break from reality. I would be solo Thursday and part of Friday, my kids still had a couple of days of school and my wife couldn’t get off work, but the plan was to all join up Friday night and stay at the hotel for the weekend.
Day One, Thursday
The first day is something I have enjoyed quite a lot both years. Not only does the buzz and excitement build as attendees trickle in throughout the day, but the crowds overall are still pretty manageable and elbow room and game availability is ample (both of which turned out to be a non-issue throughout the weekend due to the expanded gaming space and large library of games). It was just before 9:00 a.m. when I showed up. Though a small line, registration was a breeze and I shuffled over to get my random, free game. Geekway and Miniature Market teamed up to offer a free game to all online registrants. The game selection was vast and varied, as well as a very kind gesture. If you registered early this year, it was only $35.00 for all 4 days and included the free game. My draw was Sky Traders from Fantasy Flight Games. Grabbing my loot, I headed back over to the main entrance and then it hit me, event paralysis. Too many options and potentially not enough coffee. There I was with a badge around my neck and a game under my arm, standing still as the options and activities spun around me. There were events lined up all weekend, Play and win (you log each time you play a game and on Sunday, they draw a name for some lucky attendee to take the game home), a vast game library, vendors, demo’s, or snacks. Fortunately, I was joined by fellow Gwarkonian and blogger, Kevin Smith (Melvin Smif’s Geekery). We laughed about not knowing what to do next, as he was in the same predicament, and finally decided to check out the Play and Win room.
This year, Geekway had 50 plus individual titles in the Play and Win area, with multiple copies of each. They also made a couple logistical changes in that they had a separate room for Play and Win, with part of the room designated for the popular games to remain set up. I was dubious about that decision at first, thinking that there would be open spaces that could be used for other games, but that wasn’t the case at all. It ended up, in my opinion, working out very well. You also weren’t confined to just the Play and Win room. You could check the games out and play them wherever you like.
Kevin and I decided on Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. Grabbing a copy and settling down at a table, we start to unpack the game. Doing a look-about, I immediately recognized the two folks that my oldest daughter and I met at last years convention. Our experience with them was pivotal in our positive conceptions around the convention. They were deep in a game of Tajemnicze Domostwo, so I didn’t want to bug them, but I made a mental note to say hello later on.
We followed their suit for our next game, playing Tajemnicze Domostwo (The English version, releasing later this year, will be titled Mysterium), which was also my favorite of the weekend, a sentiment that seemed to echo that of most attendees. The feeling I had when we were done exemplified my experience at Geekway as well as my fondness of the hobby. Kevin and I had looked for another game when he met up with a group that were going to play Tajemnicze Domostwo. They welcomed us to join them and off we went down to the main game area. Along the way I ran into Steve, another Gwarkonian, and he joined our party. Finding a spot, we all nestled down and began unpacking the game. It was then that Steve gave me a nudge, leaned in and said, “Does anyone know how to read Polish?” This was an obstacle not insurmountable, but challenging none the less. Out came the smart phones and it was a mad dash to BoardGameGeek to download the translated rules. It was slow going due to reception, and Kevin soon disappeared. He came back the hero, bringing along someone who knew how to play and was happy to teach us (the organizers also printed English versions of the rules for each copy of the game).
It speaks volumes about gamers and Geekway, which produces such a positive community environment for people to take part, when someone is willing to stop what they are doing to spend a chunk of their time, helping people they have never met, learn a game. Teaching a game is no easy task, and teaching one to strangers whom you have no experience to build context, makes it that much more difficult. The openness with which fellow gamers will give up their time to help another open the door to a new experience is in direct contradiction to our current, “I got mine, you get yours” culture. At any point during Geekway to the West, you could look around and find similar instances. Strangers talking to each other, helping out, being together and in the moment.
Tajemnicze Domostwo is the kind of game that, like a really good record, validates why I continue to seek out new games and music. It’s a continual search for that fleeting feeling, that moment when it’s over and you are just knocked out by the experience. Whatever it was may not be perfect, but a quality existed (be it a game mechanic or guitar sound) that grabbed you and took you on that ride.
The day went on with games, friends old and new, and new experiences. I again ran into the folks from last year, said hello, took a photo (which unfortunately turned out like too fuzzy to publish), and thanked them for being so kind. I hope they didn’t think it strange that I made such a fuss, but it was one of those random acts from strangers that stuck with me last year and is the same still; benevolence through recreation. I finished up the day with Euphoria, which I enjoyed, but wasn’t completely sold on at first, as much as intrigued by. That said, it kept sticking in my head throughout the weekend and I ended up taking a copy home, playing again, and really enjoying. It is a beautiful game, just a tad intimidating up front. It was time for me to leave for the day, meet up with Prox – another Gwarkonian (we are all around, you know) – and cap the day off with a Rush concert.
While not a huge Rush fan (let the flaming begin), they have been on my list of bands to see for quite a while. As expected, and guaranteed by every Rush fan I know, the show was superb. The Spirit of Radio is one of my favorite Rush songs and it could be argued, a near perfect song at that. About the power of music and it’s ability, by the inherent virtue of its nature, to overcome the bad things that infiltrate the industry, The Spirit of Radio conveys rather remarkably the theme of the lyrics in the music itself. The song feels as freeing and noble as the lyrics describe music to be. It was during this performance that I realized that Geekway to the West has a similar quality. The convention encapsulates the essence and spirit of hobby gaming and the people that play games. It feels like what it is, that sense of fun, community and interaction. That freeing feeling of inclusion.
“Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive. Plays that song that’s so elusive, and the magic music makes your morning mood”
– RUSH, The Spirit of Radio
Day Two, Friday
Friday began a bit later for me than Thursday, but soon enough I was headlong into gaming. I had the King of Tokyo tournament that afternoon, so I had to budget time accordingly. Geekway had events lined up throughout the weekend, including game design workshops and labs (where attendees can come and play prototype games), a Math Trade, Flea Market, Game Demo’s and tournaments. It would be very easy to schedule up your entire weekend with great events. I was asked to be a judge at the game design contest on Saturday, and had previously committed to the King of Tokyo tournament, so I held off on any other events to ensure I had enough free time to mingle and play. I was nervous about the game tournament as I had not competed in one before and was a bit unsure of the atmosphere. While I enjoy being competitive, for me it all boils down to being a part of the game more than winning, and sometimes the spirit of the competition can be soured by some in their want to win. I figured that King of Tokyo, which still gets regular play with our gaming groups and family, would be a great “first-time” experience and surely couldn’t be taken too seriously. Prox, who was also registered for the tournament, and I showed up and checked in. As I looked around, there were a lot of faces that seemed deep in concentration. were they outlining strategies?
Is this some sort of psych-out tactic that I am unfamiliar with? It was mainly dice-based right? Did I have this whole thing wrong? There was a slew of alternates that signed up, I could surely bolt and no one would notice.
Contrary to my manic, inner-Toby, once we were all assigned tables and began to play, it was really just like any other experience. Lots of laughs, stomping and crushing sound effects, and cheers. All reasons why I still enjoy playing the game. The tournament was composed of four games of six players. Everyone got a couple sets of promo cards and some stickers, and the winner of each game received an entry into the World Championships at Gen-con. Alas, neither of us won. While it would have been nice to see the four winners play for Geekway bragging rights, it was well-organized and quite a lively and exciting first tournament experience. Definitely something I would try again.
My wife and kids showed up soon after and once we got everyone settled in, I gave them the grand tour. Geekway to the West is a family friendly convention and that is a philosophy that really appeals to me. That said, I was a bit nervous about bringing our youngest daughter, who just turned six. There were plenty of families in attendance, which is something that I appreciated seeing, but I was concerned that it would be too much for her. We had some games in our hotel room and some backup plans for the weekend if she grew tired or overwhelmed. It was clear almost immediately that neither of those things would be an issue. The game library has over 1000 games and one of the things I noticed last year, and true again, was the variety of kids games to choose from. I also think it’s worth noting that a good chunk, if not all the games in the library, are owned by organizers or people volunteering their games. Not only is this a kind gesture, but also one of trust. I came across several games that are no longer available or are imported. It says a lot about the donors, who are willing to lend their games for strangers to play, as well as those recipients to respect the property of others. We picked out some games, checked them out and went to the main gaming room for a session of kid-friendly, family games. Animal Upon Animal by Haba was a lot of fun, but a small, cute little card game, rat-a-tat Cat by Gamewright, was the hit of the convention for our youngest daughter. It didn’t hurt that the theme was quite heavy on cats (hence the name) and she is a cat fan, but it was fun enough to play and we probably went through 20 or so rounds before we paused for a late dinner.
As parents, we usually stick pretty close to our bedtime schedule, but found ourselves way past the target when done with dinner and back for a couple more games. As we retired to our hotel room, some masked competitors from the Battling Tops tournament, one of the most popular and extravagant events, requested the aid of our children to help hype up the crowd, much to their surprise and delight (and possible confusion with a small side of terror). Finally back to the room, both kids as well as parents had tired eyes, but before we could start to settle in, the youngest had a request. “Could we play Monopoly Junior?” How could we say no?
Our first night at Geekway to the West as a family, finished out between the beds and on the floor of our hotel room, way past bedtime, playing Monopoly Junior. There wasn’t any work or school. There weren’t any chores or unexpected repairs. There were just tired eyes, rolled dice, and smiles. Peace, Love, and Board Games…
Continued next week in Part 2.