California, Here I Come (and went) -- The Gateway Convention '09
Jason Matthews
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Several months ago, I got a very nice email from the estimable Eric Burgess asking me if I would consider coming out to Los Angeles to be a guest at one of the Strategicon events. Well, that was an easy question. California is my home state, and I grew up in suburban Los Angeles. In fact, I had kind of grown up going to Strategicon events down by LAX. Pathetically, I even took a bus once to a game convention there. Don't believe the song, somebody walks in LA -- geeky college kids without wheels.

Anyway, after some haggling about which event, we decided on the Gateway Convention this Labor Day, and this Geeklist is a commemoration of the event.

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1. Board Game: California Dreams [Average Rating:5.33 Unranked]
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As I mentioned, I grew up in Los Angeles, but its been a long time since I've been home for something other than a wedding or a funeral. This was a nice excuse. So, I took the family. That meant we spent several days in advance of the convention hanging out in my old stomping grounds.
 
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2. Board Game: Hollywood Lives [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
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We brought along our Au Pair so she could see the other coast during her year in the United States. Naturally, she wanted to see Hollywood. Everyone wants to see Hollywood. From my youth, I remember this being an enormous disappointment. The last time I was down there, the El Capitan had just reopened, and that was nice, but in general it was still seedy and not exactly an interesting destination.

But, we got to LAX kind of early. I didn't think our rooms would be ready, so we decided to take a quick excursion. Much to my surprise, they have really cleaned up Hollywood. It was a perfectly reasonable tourist destination. There were lots of impersonators who would charge you a buck or two to have your picture taken with them. My son was particularly excited to see Spider Man in both a traditional and black costume.

Our Au Pair took one of the tours of the stars homes and was in seventh heaven. We went over to the El Capitan to catch a movie in that beautiful venue. Terrifically, they had a pipe organ concert going as part of the pre-show. Then, after the movie, they had a free play area for the kids. It was expensive for a film, but pretty reasonable for a full blown Hollywood experience, and gave the kids a nice impression of the area.

Of course we went over to the Mann's Chinese and found R2D2, C3P0 and Darth Vader's feet. We also looked around the walk of fame a bit, and the high end, open air mall right there. Yes, its touristy, but its Hollywood. You've got to kind of go with it.
 
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3. Board Game: Wildfire [Average Rating:7.50 Unranked]
Jason Matthews
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One unpleasant note, California was on fire AGAIN. It used to be that this was a seasonal issue, but it seems that with rising temperature and increased development, some segment of California is always burning. The huge billowing clowds of smoke were visible all the way down in Anaheim. Of course, we could see them clearly in Hollywood. Our hearts go out to all the folks who lost homes and of course, to the brave fire fighters. Several have already died this year in the line of duty.
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4. Board Game: The Disneyland Game [Average Rating:4.96 Unranked]
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OK, no surprise, we have two small children, so we were bound to pay tribute to the Mouse. Growing up as a Californian, I continue to be a chauvinist for the original Disneyland. Nothing about this trip dissuaded me from that point of view.

They had a "buy 3 days and get 5 days" ticket deal going. That may be an illustration of the aenimic economy in California. We spent most of our time at the Magic Kingdom, but we also headed over to California Disney as well.

Overall, it was a great experience. Since most of California is already in school, crowds were light the whole time we were there. Also, somewhat oddly, my children were tall enough to ride almost everything at Disneyland, though they are prohibited from many, many rides at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg and Hershey Park in PA. I can't imagine that Disney is less worried about safety, but it certainly was a difference.

Also nice was that California Disney has added several attractions since the last time I was there. The first time we went, it was a bit of a let down (though the food remains better there than the Magic Kingdom). They have obviously gotten the message, and when the renovation is done, I think this will be rather a nice park to visit. My only complaint is that it closed very early most of the time we were there. With a 6PM closing and a 10AM opening, it was hard to get in a meaningful nap for our son and still see everything.
 
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5. Board Game: At the Beach [Average Rating:6.00 Unranked]
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What visit to California would be complete without a little time at the beach? Well, ours wouldn't have been.

We went to Santa Monica Pier. It is perhaps best known as the place where the Ferris wheel rolled off the end of the pier in the Spielberg flick, 1941. It has a bit of the classic California feel to it, and contrasts nicely with the boardwalk style beaches of the East Coast.

The kids were in seventh heaven as they enjoyed playing outside the context of Disney guard rails. I showed them my pattented method for catching sand crabs -- a source of endless fascination.

It was a perfect California beach day, made more so by the light crowds and refreshing breeze.
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6. Board Game: Convention [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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By Friday it was time to end our meanderings around the City of Angels, and head over to the convention. A couple of impressions. First, what a difference a decade or two makes. When I left Strategicon, there were a few wargamers and micro armor. That was basically the extent of the "strategy game" element of the convention. Boardgames had been on the decline for years, and roleplaying was still ruling the roost.

Things are rather different now. Euro Gaming was definitely the focus of the convention. It was a really robust scene. There were tons of pick up games going at all times. There were GIRLS -- yes, actual females -- in wide attendance. It was also one of the most ethnically diverse gaming events I have ever been to. That was really awesome. California is a very diverse place of course, more so than anywhere else I've been in the United States. But most of the gaming events I have attended until now could be confused for a Republican party event -- which is to say, there are a lot more old white guys than anything else. Gateway was different, and it was a difference I enjoyed encountering.

The other segments of the hobby were well represented too. There were some very nice miniatures events put on. It was a much more ecclectic assortment as well -- everything from 40K to American Revolution, and lots in between.

They had a very nice console/computer area. The Rockband tournament seemed particularly popular.

Of course, there were RPG's still going, and some steampunk LARP'ing to be found. Somewhat disturbingly, when I explained LARP'ing to my children, they decided they do it everyday.

There must have been some CCG's being played as well, but I must confess I didn't bump into them.
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7. Board Game: Friends [Average Rating:4.07 Overall Rank:15093]
Jason Matthews
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A bit to my surprise, I encountered a lot of friends at the convention. My home club, the DC Gamers, has bannished a few of our members to the West Coast and it was really nice to reunite with them. I also had met some West Coast gamers at BGG.Con and Gulf Games. I was very happy to get to see some of them on their home turf.

There were also some gaming friends that had only been in "electronic form" until this convention. So it was great to put a face to Geekbadge etc.

Strangest of all, I bumped into an old high school buddy who was demoing Sea of Blood. Unfortunately, since we were both demoing, it was hard to hang out, but we exchanged information and this was a great surprise.

Naturally, it was also really nice to make several new friends. We hope to see some of you out here on the East Coast.
 
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8. Board Game: Founding Fathers [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:1015]
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Well, this game is one of the reasons they invited me out. I started demoing it on Friday night, and pretty much didn't stop until I left the convention. There was a terrific amount of interest. Whenever I got my board out to explain, I almost always had to start up a second set of five players on Christian's copy of the game. The interest was very gratifying and I appreciate all of the feedback. As I mentioned to the folks who played, we are still tweaking this game a bit, so your insights and suggestions were greatly appreciated.

I was particularly happy to meet Phil Eklund at one demo. Phil and I share an obvious interest in obscure history, so I have been a fan of his work. Also joining Phil, was his son and newly-minted designer John Douglass. John recently had Erosion published by Sierra Madre games. With that accomplishment, I happily pass the crown of obscure gaming themes to Mr. Douglass. He is our new king.
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9. Board Game Publisher: Rio Grande Games
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One of the really neat events at the convention was the Rio Grande game design competition. I always love to see new games designs. It never ceases to amaze me how fantastic some of the prototypes look. Regrettably, I was too busy with my own demos to get beyond the explanation stage of several of the offerings. However, there were obviously a lot of great designs being played (one even based on 1960, so that HAD to be great). I am sure Jay will appreciate the excellent submissions, and I wish all the designers good luck in the competition.
 
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10. Board Game: Campaign Manager 2008 [Average Rating:6.68 Overall Rank:1227]
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This was the other game I was there to demonstrate. Josh Cappel, the artist from 1960, is working on the graphic design now. So, this design is pretty much sewn up. Again though, my thanks to everyone who stopped by to give it a try. It was getting good buzz at the convention and folks seemed to enjoy it.

Also my particular thanks to David, who is a big 1960 fan, and really enjoyed this game too. He was kind enough to bring me a coffee mug with an excellent quote from JFK on it.
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11. Board Game Publisher: GMT Games
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I also had the privilege of meeting a gaming legend -- Rodger MacGowan.

I don't know why it hadn't occured to me before the trip, but GMT is a California company. So Rodger was there.

He was kind enough to treat me to coffee and we talked a bit about business. He was very generous with his time and shared a lot of old war stories about Avalon Hill, Hobby Japan and the founding of GMT. It was a history lesson in the hobby I won't forget.

Rodger is a very charming guy, and the chance to talk with him would have made the trip all by itself.
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12. Board Game: Confucius [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:2013]
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Oh, almost forgot. I did manage to pick up one game in the dealer area (which was well-stocked and well-attended). I wanted to nab Endeavor too, but a couple of folks beat me to the punch.
 
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13. Board Game: 1960: The Making of the President [Average Rating:7.59 Overall Rank:157]
Jason Matthews
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OK, another event that the Strategicon folks asked me to do was a couple of "play with the designer" finals for their pertinent tournaments. I suppose they are under the misapprehension that I play my games with any particular skill.

Well, my opponent Rick put that myth firmly to rest. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed our game and our conversations before and after.
 
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14. Board Game: Twilight Struggle [Average Rating:8.34 Overall Rank:4]
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As Rick is a CDG shark of sorts, we also played together in the final round of the TS tournament. I regained a little of the dignity lost in the 1960 match. Yes, all of the cards broke my way, and I got to play the Soviets (I bid 4 VPs). But still, had I blown this too, I suspect Rick would have wondered if I was actually a capable game DESIGNER, much less player.

A quick word about tournaments. Strategicon has a fair number of them. They are not as large or central to the focus of the event as say WBC. But still good competition is to be found there, and it makes for a reasonable alternative to schlepping to Pennsylvania for those on the other side of the country.
 
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15. Board Game: España 1936 [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:1710]
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In the midst of all the demoing, I was able to take advantage of one excellent feature of the Convention -- Wargame bootcamp. At the con they had several newish, and well-regarded titles laid out for folks to learn, and they provided teachers of great skill and patience.

There were at least a half dozen wargames there that they were teaching that are sitting on my shelf. I could only afford time for one, but it was an excellent one.

My thanks to Tim for demonstrating this gem on the Spanish Civil War. It was relatively fast playing, but also quite intense. The design is very smooth and clean on the outside, but you can see the genius of the designer when you open the hood and look at the care given to elements like counter strength and unit mix. This is a very clever game.
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16. Board Game: Los Angeles Scene [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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It was time to go home. But I left Los Angeles with a new appreaciation for the gaming scene there. There is certainly a multiplicity of gaming clubs and a lot of quality gamers. They are left a bit in the lurch by being so distant from the hobby hotspots in the Midwest and East Coast. However, they seem to be getting along just fine without us, thank you.

The separation also produces an interesting effect. California gaming has its own group dynamic. I remembered this a bit when leaving LA to go to law school. The things we were playing out in Los Angeles were not popular in Illinois and vice versa. That's not to say you couldn't find a game of Dominion at Gateway, but rather there are some regional differences in taste and the emphasis may be a bit different. For instance, I was approached by several gamers at Gateway who liked 1960 better than Twilight Struggle. For me, that was kind of a novel experience. While most of us have been salivating over Conflict of Heroes in these parts, it seems relatively unknown in LA circles. So, the internet notwithstanding, distance and geography do still have impacts on regional tastes.

It is refreshing to know that the gaming community is not one big illustration of group think, and local gaming can take on a local flavor.
 
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17. Board Game: Gracias [Average Rating:5.56 Overall Rank:12059]
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My sincere appreciation to Heather, Davi, Eric and all the convention staff for making me feel so welcome. The LA area is fortunate to have quarterly events like Gateway to serve as a rallying point for the hobby. Attendance seemed very healthy to me, and there was a real energy to the convention.

Also, again. my thanks to the folks who stopped by to try Founding Fathers or Campaign Manager. Christian and I both really appreacite it. It was great getting to talk to fans of our other games as well.

In short, I had a great visit to the Golden State. I look forward to an excuse to return soon.
 
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