This year was an epic GenCon experience, and it’s proving to be nearly impossible for me to logically parse out and wrap my head around. I don’t want to drag the topic out, but this year held a ton of meaning for GDC due to the concentration of the team in attendance and how we went about pulling it all together.

With that in mind, here’s my best shot at a comprehensive post-‘Con wrap up:

Doing It Right – Travel and Accommodations

In years past, the GenCon experience starts when the badges go on sale and the official Housing Block – the rooms that GenCon, LLC contractually blocks out with Visit Indy to sell at a discounted rate to attendees – opens for business. Usually, this is a total nightmare. You have tens of thousands of people logging on to the website, trying to book downtown rooms within walking distance to the Indy Convention Center all at once before they fill up. If you’re lucky, you have something at the JW Marriot or the Sheraton City Center booked for $250 or so a night per person, which is quite a bit cheaper than normal room rates.

From there, it’s trying to figure out the optimal time to nail down a flight – for me anyway, that’s planning a departure that works with my schedule, driving an hour to Hartford (Connecticut), securing long-term parking, trying not to check bags, hoping nothing gets screwed up, taxis once I land, and so on. By the end of it all, I’m in for about $500, and I’m on a schedule – which I absolutely hate when I’m on vacation. It places a finite window around GenCon, which is officially open from Thursday morning until Sunday afternoon – and often that window is predicated by a flight in on Thursday morning and out sometime on Sunday. It’s more like “The Best 3-Odd Days In Gaming” by the end of it all.

This year, I’m convinced that I finally cracked the code.

  • Step one – Book a house on AirBNB

I took on my usual role of ‘Overly-Concerned Trip Planner’ and started the ball rolling a half-year in advance. Before long, I had nine people together who each paid in about $150 total, and we had secured an entire house for the duration of the stay – Wednesday through Sunday. That’s an extra day (or day and a half, realistically) for a total cost of nearly half of one downtown room for one night per person.

  • Step two – Travel plans

 This year, we drove. It seems insane – New England to Indianapolis and back in a car. Straight there on Tuesday, straight back on Sunday afternoon-Monday morning. In reality, it’s a 14-hour one-way drive that you get to share with three other good friends – the fabled road trip, which is absolutely never a bad idea. Good times, good sights, good conversations…you just can’t beat it. You don’t need to worry so much about packing for a flight, so space limitations are a little easier (and if you feel like bringing dumb things home that would be problematic on a flight – like, say, a sword for example – it’s no big deal.) It also has the side effect of lengthening the trip a bit. We all (well, Dave and I, since Mr. P was off for summer vacation and Asa was between jobs) took a full week off from work, left on Tuesday morning, and rolled back in the following Monday. Now, we’re talking “The Best Six-Plus Days In Gaming.” And the cost? We each kicked in about $65 in gas, plus a $25 share of a hotel Tuesday night. Usual total cost for travel/accommodations – Roughly $1300. This year – $240. Seriously – start planning now. All of you. You won’t regret it.

AWESOME DISCOVERY #1 – Uber

The house was about a 1.5 miles out from the Convention Center – just a bit farther than reasonable walking distance. Parking is roughly $20-$30 a day downtown, assuming you get into a lot. (Meters and parking tickets end up a bit more expensive.) Dave clued us in to Uber. Download the app to your phone, punch in your destination, and a car shows up at your doorstep. Jam in as many people as can fit, enjoy an 8-minute car ride with a driver that is likely pretty cool, interesting and willing to talk (compare to a typical taxi driver), and get deposited in front of the convention center literally twelve minutes from the moment you decide to leave the house. For about $7. Oh, and this year, going to the Wednesday Sun King Brewing Company official GenCon kick-off party got you a wristband with a code for one free Uber ride, so factor that in too. Simply amazing.

Doing it Right – Non-Magic Gaming

Do yourself a favor – take off the Magic blinders and play some games. You won’t be sorry. I always threaten to do this, and then end up buying tickets to play in three different Commander events, a few random special Sealed flights, and a ton of sit-and-go 2-Headed-Giant drafts. By the end of the convention, I’ve done nothing but pay to play Magic, netting a pile of Core Set cards and missing out on nearly everything else – usually even including pick-up Commander games.

This year was different. Again, I’ll credit Dave, as he was a huge proponent of wandering around and demoing games, although something about having a house full of people seemed to also create random groupings of people willing to just have fun with whatever was in front of us at any given moment. Man, did we play all sorts of stuff this year. It was a blast.

The vendor hall, which is enormous, houses booths set up by every single vendor in attendance. Some, like the Fantasy Flight and Cryptozoic booths, are literally store-sized, while others are just big enough to fit in a dozen people shoulder-to-shoulder. Everyone is trying to sell their games, so everyone runs demos – as a result, you literally can game for free the entire ‘Con. I finally fulfilled my goal of sitting down to play Netrunner, two full years after I braved the Saturday-morning vendor hall frenzy and made the line to buy an advance copy of the game at GenCon 2013. I bumbled my way through being the worst project manager the Jinteki Corporation ever had, and Dave played the ‘runner and kicked my ass – but it was amazing and fun.

I also got to set up shop and play Battletech: Alpha Strike, taking me back to my days of table-top gaming with ‘mech miniatures in my bedroom in middle school. (Although I was at least a little bit saddened when I was given a Mad Cat and forced to wreak havoc on an Atlas, which is my go-to ‘mech. A timely jump jet activation and dual PPC hits to the back of the assault mech scored critical hits on the engine. Boom.)

Mr. P and I tried out WWE Superstar Showdown. I (as The Big Show) choke-slammed the ever-loving crap out of him (as John Cena), and it was hilarious and stupid and totally fun. Dave and I spent a half-hour playing Zombies! – and despite my worst intentions, he escaped my trap, killed off a full heli-pad of brain-munchers, and evacuated the city, leaving me to be eviscerated in the abandoned hospital down the block. Much Ascension was played by all of us; that game always delivers, and Dave was introduced and hooked. I bought a copy of Settlers of Catan to bring home, and we had that going before we even left the CCG hall. And at one point, I wandered by the IELLO booth to see literally the entire rest of the GDC crew playing a huge table-size game of King of New York. It was awesome.

Long story short – as primarily Magic players, it’s easy to go into GenCon with blinders on and miss a whole world of other awesome games. We played some stinkers as well, but even those experiences were pretty fun. You literally can do no wrong in this area…GenCon is all about games, so delve in and enjoy even if you’re not typically a gamer past playing Commander. You’ll be glad you did.

THUMBS DOWN #1 – Star Realms

This game was kind of a breakout hit last year, and I’ve enjoyed playing the mobile app quite a bit ever since. This year, it seemed like the guys running the booth were only interested in giving you a demo if you were already buying the product – yeah, figure that one out.

One guy told us to go to the game hall to play, and we never found the location he pointed us to. One dude refused to do a demo because he was suddenly hungry and wanted to take a break, and then turned to talk shop with the other guys from the company.

I think Dave finally got to try the game, and I think he enjoyed it. I’m not too impressed, though, and the experience made me want to skip buying the game and keep playing it solo on the app. Pretty sure that’s a fail.

Doing it Right – Shopping

Holy shit. Pardon the curse, but that’s the best way I can possibly think to explain the GenCon shopping experience. You will lose hours, and possibly probably even days roaming around the dealer hall. Plan on it, embrace it, and despite my typical conventional wisdom of ‘Just Go With The Flow’, I whole-heartedly recommend planning a shopping agenda. There’s just no way to do it otherwise without missing half a dozen things in the process. My plan this year was three-fold:

-The cards. Since you literally have every Magic card dealer in existence within the space of one big room, there are insane opportunities to pick up cards at awesome prices. I made a list on my iPhone of everything I was after, and then spent hours window-shopping prices across the hall my first day. Then, I came back in small chunks of time over the next few days and crossed things off the list. By the time Sunday rolled around, I had a Stoneforge Mystic and a Sword of Light and Shadow and Sword of Fire and Ice to add to the Gaddock Teeg deck. I grabbed a Pact of Negation and Time Warp for the competitive Grand Arbiter Augustin IV deck. I was *this close* to closing on a Beta Winter Orb for a very reasonable price, and an Alpha Meekstone for an insanely low price. These are the things that go down.

This brings me to two important tips:

  • Negotiate with the dealers! You’re face to face with a pile of cash and they’re there to make money and hopefully not have to carry a few tons of longboxes home. Take advantage of this. I literally did not pay sticker price on a single card all weekend.
  • Damaged/HP/Scratch N’ Dent displays are your friends. This is the bread and butter of a convention center. Did you know that you can buy an English Moat from StarCityGames for under $200? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that involved a really nice English Nether Void for me and a pile of Revised Duals for just about everyone else who went. Dealers can’t sell this stuff reliably online due to potential condition disputes, so face-to-face at conventions are a fantastic way to find some killer deals. For the record, you need to closely examine the Moat to tell it isn’t VG+, and I picked up a Revised Underground Sea two years back for $100 – which I then flipped to a dealer for quite a bit more when he valued it at SP.

 -Next up: the retail stuff. I identified the stuff I wanted to bring home with me ahead of time, and planned out one quick trip at the end of the ‘Con around the hall to make the retail purchases. BattleTech: Alpha Strike, Netrunner playmats, Settlers of Catan, prerequisite cool dice to add to the collection, a few odd t-shirts, and so on. I find that the plan again is to start with a few trips through to figure out what you want, followed by a single return trip to collect it all. Remember – some things are single-location items (such as games sold only by their publishers at their respective booths), but others, like dice, can be found all around the hall. Do your research!

-Last: the gifts. This year, my list was roughly just for my wife and two kids, but this was arguably the most interesting part of the shopping adventure – I got to shut off the gamer in me and wander around looking things that I rarely pay any attention to. This was literally my last stop on the way out on Sunday, but I ended up with some really fun things. My daughter Josie got her first stuffed dragon (this is part of a tradition I started the year my son was born – that year is always commemorated with a dragon of some sort, so she now has a baby green dragon that she takes to bed every night), and speaking of, Declan got a killer foam sword. For the wife, it was a really nice corset and jewelry. She’s not a gamer at all, but I had no issues finding cool stuff to bring home to her nonetheless, which is exactly the point – there’s absolutely something for everyone.

PRO-TIP: Flowers for your significant other!

It’s super-easy to forget amongst all the awesomeness that your wife is managing two rambunctious children and an entire household for a week alone. Make sure there’s an amazing arrangement arriving sometime during the trip. (Dave, thanks for the reminder!)

Doing it Right – The Food

When I plan for a trip like this, my finances usually end up split up with more than half of my budget going to the food. It may be the stoic in me, but I absolutely love the experience of sharing a meal with a group of friends, and I always plan to do so as often as possible on these trips. Games come and go, but experiences and interactions are what stick with you for years afterward; even if you’re on a budget, try to have at least one group meal at a nice restaurant. The memories are totally worth it.

I won’t get too detailed here, but we made the usual stops at The Ram for lunch, as well as a great dinner at Harry & Izzy’s, where we were seated in the balcony overlooking the GatheringMagic.com crew. (The steak was amazing, and the shrimp cocktail sauce will blow your mind.) Even the food trucks outside the convention center on Georgia Street are consistently amazing, and we found an Indian buffet that rocked. It also turns out that Dave and I are both coffee drinkers, so we downed gallons from all over the place. And I was more than happy to take the entire crew out to our annual group dinner at P.F. Chang’s.

This is just scratching the surface – Mr. P cooked breakfast, Kaka and Pen brought Tim Tams from Australia, and that’s probably still missing tons of awesome experiences we had along the way. Good food and good friends are what make these trips so special. Speaking of…

Doing it Right – The Friends

This year was absolutely amazing. I know that it has already been detailed across the site, but GenCon 2015 wouldn’t be the trip it was without the crew we had assembled. Mr. P and I go back decades, as does our good friend Adam, and we’ve been hanging out with Asa for years as well. But when we stopped to pick up Dave at the Peekskill Metro North station, it was like we’d known him forever too. The same goes for Sean as he arrived on Wednesday morning at our airport hotel, and it was nothing but big hugs for Erik, Kaka and Pen when they arrived at the house.

Throughout the entire week, we all mixed together, hung out in various groups, came and went, hit the convention hall, played games, shared meals, and just had a great time. Thanks go to each one of you – I’m more than happy to count you all as close friends. (Sadly, our good friend Chad had to cancel last minute (something about his wife giving birth or something…) – he was missed very much.)

GenCon is always all about the people. We met (and met up) with a ton of people – the afore-mentioned GatheringMagic crew were all cool guys – Uriah (@CMDRDecks) stayed with Erik at his hotel, and did a hilarious Deck Tech at the house of Mr. P’s Laundromat deck. Bruce Richard (@manaburned) was super-cool to catch up to, as was Andrew Magrini (@A_Magrini) – so sorry I didn’t get to chill with either of you more. It was a pleasure as always seeing John McCollum (Thanks for the incredible Life Counter!), and great meeting new faces – Kyle, Preston, Creed – awesome meeting all of you. Man…I’m already nostalgic here. How many days are there until GenCon 2016?

 -Cass
@GDCCommander