Search This Blog

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Brief Reflections on Historicon 2017 and game mastering

It has been two weeks since Historicon, and it seems long enough to have digested a few thoughts.  Just for the record, I am not involved in HMGS in any meaningful capacity besides attending Historicon every few years, nor do I have strong opinions about the Fredericksburg versus Lancaster debate.

What I do have are a few observations aimed at game hosts.

My trip was a surprise from my wife and we only had time to spend Saturday at the convention.  I saw some amazing games with beautiful terrain and wonderful figures that were inspiring.  But I did run into one issue that I have run into over the years at many conventions, the execution of the games.

Let me explain.  I played in one game on Saturday during a 4 hour block of time.  I will not say which one, as I am trying to give constructive feedback to game masters in general.  The guy running the game was very friendly and had a beautiful setup.  He hit most of the marks for a good convention game:

  • He was friendly and inviting and engaged all of the players in conversation before the game
  • His terrain was great and had all those little details that make you oooh and ahhh. 
  • His figures were very nicely painted to a higher standard than I can.  
  • He was well organized, with troops for each faction pre-sorted into boxes with a QRS and well written faction briefing for each player.
So far so good, I have seen those item missing in many convention games I have played in.

The fly in the ointment came when we started playing.  The rules were homegrown and not overly complicated, but with 8 players on a large board, play ground to a halt.  The bottom line was, over the four hour period, I got to move my troops 4 times, averaging once an hour.  And, we really did not reach a conclusion.  All in all, pretty to look like, nice group of chaps to talk gaming with, but unsatisfying as a gaming experience.

Here are my recommendations for game masters to avoid this problem:
  • Don't have too many "things" for the player to move and fight with.  
    • In this case, each player had about 2 dozen figures.  Not bad, except in the rules every figure could activate and do something different, unlike in rules like Saga or Lion Rampant where you activate groups of units and they do the same thing.
    • Similar observation with Combat.  It was man to man, not unit to unit, so a LOT of die rolls and modifiers were needed.
    • The rules themselves were pretty straightforward, but I think would have played better if each player had had half the number of figures they did.
  • Keep everyone doing something most of the time
    • As game master, you are the ringmaster, it is critical to keep the tempo going
    • In this game, every turn, players activated one at a time in random order.  Things were dragging terribly until a couple of us at the table took the initiative to activate our troops while action was going on on the other end of the table where there would be no interference, but in order as specified by the rules. 
    • It is critical to either keep the tempo of a game going by having as many players doing stuff at once as practical OR have each player make VERY quick moves in turn.
  • Playtest your scenario at least once!
    • This will help you determine of the subtle interplay of table size, complexity of rules, number of troops, and distances involved will work and give an enjoyable game in the time window you have.

I have run many convention games over the years, some fun and some duds.I understand the amount of time and effort it takes to host a game, the figures, terrain, and planning, with your only reward being the appreciation of your peers.

I hope people read this for what it is intended, as advice on how to make your convention games better by stressing speed of play and keeping your players engaged.

An excellent example I have seen of this being done, in my opinion, really well was at Historicon 2015 where I played in a game run by All the King's Men.  It was the Battle of Camden, and on top of being friendly, well organized, and having great terrain and figures, they kept the game MOVING.  They did this by having multiple game masters, streamlined rules, and constant focus on the tempo of the game.  It was an very enjoyable experience and the game reached a conclusion in about 2 1/2 hours of actual play time.  

Now, I have decided going forward to put my money where my mouth is, every convention I attend from here on out, be it Historicon or a local like Souther Front, I will put on at least one game.  I have the experience and material and it will give my thinking a little more weight than if throw from the peanut gallery.

That is it for my Historicon thoughts and a huge thank you to all who organized, volunteered at, and ran games at the convention, especially my gracious host.  It was fun, even though I did not get to do much and I appreciate the time and effort.  It was fun just communing with you and a great group of fellow gamers shooting the breeze about our wonderful hobby.

What do you think? 


  1. I love alternating and random activation mechanics, but I've come to think that they plain aren't suited to multiplayer games, unless you make it so every player activates a unit, instead of one player doing so.

  2. Interesting read. It can be a challenge to set up a scenario for a convention. I've run a few games and I try to consider the things you noted.

    Another problem I've encountered is that when I play-test the game, it is with my local/regular gaming group. When you get to a convention, you are playing with a bunch of new people. I am often surprised by the actions (or lack of action) by some folks at a convention. I'm not sure if players are unwilling to take risks, unwilling to lose troops, or are just hoping their team mates will soften up the enemy before they rush in and crush the remaining forces.

    I think a second article would be a good idea to address tips for those playing in games at cons might also be helpful and interesting.

    Thanks for sharing.

    A question in regards to running a game...

    I will be running a game in about a month. Do you think it is better to have a scenario end early (maybe 2.5 hours into a 4 hour block) with a clear conclusion or would filling the whole 4 hours (maybe coming up without a winner) be the better option?

    Ideally, filling the time with a clear winner is the best, but that can be hard to work out sometimes.

  3. I’ve sat through a similar game in terms of waiting about, think I may have activated a couple of figures over an hour during a four-player game.

    You’re right, playtesting is key, a game master must be able to observe the flow of a game. The game might look fantastic but if you’re not playing then you’re only really watching a demo game.