Does size really matter?

by Frances Moritz

Gen Con, having relocated two years ago from Milwaukee to Indianapolis, is easily the largest gaming convention in the United States. It hosts at least 26,000 gamers for four fun-filled days of gaming, filling the Indianapolis Convention Center.

Rock-Con, on the other hand, is a regional gaming convention located in Rockford, Illinois that runs for two and a half days. It fills half of the Wedgbury Indoor Sports Center and is easily the largest gaming convention in, well, Rockford.

A lot that can be said in favor of both large and small gaming conventions. They each hold a different appeal for gamers. Is one size better than the other? Maybe, maybe not... each gamer has their own opinion on that.

The large conventions carry a sticker shock with the admission price, especially once you realize that you're paying additional fees to play in most of the games. Gen Con admission runs around $55, with games and workshops starting at $1.50. Rock-Con boasts an $18 pre-registration rate, $20 at the door, and no game fees.

The price difference is also seen in the hotel costs. Indianapolis, being a major metropolis, has significantly higher hotel rates than Rockford. But those higher hotel rates get you a hotel in walking distance of the convention, with dozens of restaurants and other entertainment to choose from. In contrast, none of the Rock-Con hotels are in walking distance; most are about 5 miles from the convention site, but the base cost is about half of the Indianapolis hotels. The only food you don't need a car for is the Skybox Restaurant at the Sports Center, which is quickly inundated by hungry gamers.

Unquestionably more game selection is available at the larger conventions they have the space and game masters to spare. The game listing for Gen Con's on-site program for 2004 spanned 131 pages (OK, including ads), plus any changes that were posted in the event registration area at the convention. These games are ordered by date, time and game type, and it's still a challenge to find the games you're looking for! Then you need to register for the event you're interested in, or buy generic tickets and hope for an opening. On the other hand, Rock-Con has sign-up sheets just past the on-site registration listing the game times and space available. If you miss the sign-up sheet, but it looks like there's space available, you just walk up to the gamemaster and ask. True, there's less selection to choose from, but it's easy to look around the sports center for something you're interested in.

Game size can be very different based on the convention size; a convention with only a couple hundred people doesn't schedule a fifty-player LARP, or dedicate a large section of a hall to just one collectible card game tournament they have neither the space nor the players. Conversely, introducing yourself to a new game is usually easier at a smaller convention, when you can learn a game in a less daunting environment. Players and game masters tend to be more patient teaching a newbie when there's a shortage of players for the games.

Then there's the exhibit hall. At Gen Con, the twenty-one rows of the exhibit hall alone can be an all-day affair, especially if you stop for some of the demo games. Companies are handing out freebies left and right; some in exchange for your time, some just because you walked by. It's a good idea to carry a near empty bag with you for all the "loot" you'll be handed. But the size of the exhibit hall makes it easy to miss something that might otherwise jump out at you and difficult to find specific items you're looking for; even knowing what company should have it and where their booth is supposed to be. Rock-Con's four row exhibit hall is much easier to navigate and has a surprisingly good selection. One game store booth was even selling Crown Royal bags for a dollar.

More big name guests at the large conventions. Gen Con had six pages on the industry guests alone, and that's not even including their media guests, which fill another three pages. Rock-Con had four or five guests, total. But the interaction with the guests is different at a smaller convention. Walking through the exhibit hall, I noticed Margaret Weis sitting at her table playing a game with several people. John Kovalic was a regular sight in the DorkStock area, playing games, talking to people, or just drawing for someone. One fan, after years of missing him at similar events, bumped into Tom Wham and played one of his unpublished games. While bumping into guests (and several other people in the crowds) is certainly likely at Gen Con, having the opportunity to sit and play a game, or just chat for ages with them is rare. At a small convention, these guests frequently have the time to just sit and enjoy themselves while interacting with the fans.

As I said, both convention sizes have advantages and disadvantages. Do you prefer a crowded convention with pages upon pages of game choices? Or the smaller convention that's more laid back, but has less to choose from? Most people I asked said they prefer the small conventions, but in the end, the choice is up to you.

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