Last weekend I attended a convention – and it was the best one I’ve experienced so far. Here’s five reasons why I loved it and what I’d like to see in other conventions as a result.
Tabletop Scotland is a new gaming convention held in Perth. I recently attended it as part of my continuing mission to get Magnate playtested all around the country. Though only two days long, it proved the maxim that quality is better than quantity. It’s been my personal favourite so far; it’s organisers got so much so right. So here’s 5 reasons it worked so well and why I am almost certain I’ll be making the 900 mile round trip again.
1 – It has a top-notch playtest zone
I had a great time at playtesting Magnate at Handycon. I always do because it’s wonderful to see new people enjoying the game and it’s so useful to find bugs and opportunities for improvement, even at Magnate’s very advanced stage of development. The organisers there were also really flexible, which is so helpful.
But I have to say, Tabletop Scotland really smashed it. Iain McAllister (aka the Giant Brain on twitter) ran a 1st class operation. There was full info on each game being tested on the website, the programme (with timetable) was regularly tweeted out and even put into plastic stands by the table so passers by could read game descriptions. Iain was quick to correct any issues and the whole playtest area was clearly marked with its own banner. He was, frankly, as well prepared as the proverbial boy scout. Knowing how forgetful creative folk can be, he also had a spare cache of pens, drinking water(!) and even game components! If that weren’t enough, he went round actively recruiting playtesters. As a result, I rarely ever spent anytime sitting around waiting for people to come by, which is impressive for any convention; especially one not about playtesting or with a design focus.
I’m still new to the formal playtesting tour of duty, but would be great to see others do this as well as Iain.
2 – It’s firmly in the “Golidlocks zone”
Tabletop Scotland is the biggest convention I’ve been playtesting at this year. Testament to the quality of its execution and marketing, it actually turned out even bigger than the organisers expected with 1,000+ unique attendees by the end.
That’s still a fraction of the attendees you’d get at UKGE and, of course, microscopic next to Spiel at Essen. But it’s still 2-4x times bigger than the smaller cons I’ve visited this year like Manorcon and Handycon. The smaller ones are brilliant for what they are; they have a deliberate focus on open-gaming and I found everyone at them very friendly. But the increased size here also allowed a balance of elements you’d get at bigger conventions; which I personally really enjoy. You had several places to buy games, demo stands from a few companies with opportunities to try their latest fayre, a game library and enough people around to have some pretty substantial tournaments. Although I couldn’t take part this time, the D&D tournament had a ton of people involved and sounded like a blast.
At the same time it wasn’t so big that it was hard to navigate. Most of the action took place in a single decent sized hall with a few other rooms around the edge. Best of all it’s size meant I kept bumping into people I knew! Unlike at UKGE and Essen – where it can be hard to try to find each other even when you’re looking – I quickly found my twitter pals; turning online friendships into offline ones.
Now, ironically, if it becomes more popular as a result of it’s execution, it will lose some of this. But I reckon even at 3x the size, with some careful planning, it could retain that village feel. I’d really like to attend more mid-sized cons that capture the best of both worlds like this.
3 – The venue is really well located
Until this one, every convention I’ve been to so far was somewhere out of town. Even though UKGE has the whole NEC on the doorstep, you’re still far out of the city centre with it’s shops and restaurants. If you don’t want to eat at the convention’s restaurants (or just need to pick up some non-food items), you’re a bit stuffed. Even if you do, price and choice are a limited. Indeed, last time I was at UKGE, even many of the onsite pubs shut early! At smaller conventions, often being held at out-of-town hotels or campuses, this is an even bigger problem. And if you have a weird diet like me (such as Keto, which is at least self-inflicted in my case) it’s incredibly hard to get by.
Here was another way Tabletop Scotland wins. The Dewars centre,, where the con is held, is less than 10 mins walk from the dead centre of town. Perth isn’t the largest or most cosmopolitan town in the world, but it has everything you want: coffee shops, supermarkets and a fairly wide array of eating establishments. Quite simply this made everything far easier and better. The only challenging aspect of location was that, for a London boy like me it was in Scotland after all. But it’ll always be far from home for someone and I was keen to meet the many excellent folk from Scottish boardgame community I’d befriended online. For it’s primary market, isn’t a bad location at all; being still only an hour or so from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. For comparison that’s still quite a bit closer than UKGE is for me.
Finding town locations is, I suspect a tough one to pull off for organisers because they are no doubt much more expensive. But I would hope that if they are central and close to transport, attendance would increase to compensate somewhat.
4 – It has a great family atmosphere
I found, more than any other convention so far, that Tabletop Scotland had a really great family atmosphere. I saw a lot families with children around than at other conventions, no doubt helped by the organisers clever addition of a Haba games area. Indeed, for the first time, I even had children playtesting Magnate, which was both a fun and incredibly helpful experience. As well as being able to capably thrash their parents at it, it confirmed for me that many children will enjoy the game just as much, if not more, than adults. The look of wonder when they collect the massive amount of money they just made on the sale of a building is also hard to beat. I don’t think this would have happened as easily at other cons simply because there are far fewer families around.
By no means should every con feel like it needs a family focus. Some are about getting adult hobby gamers getting together for days of non-stop, back-to-back games of a sprawling and attention-challenging nature. But in my view, the different ratio of adults/kids here just made it a more diverse crowd and better experience overall. There were still plenty of very obviously hardcore gamer types about but the utterly unbridled appreciation children generally show for toys and games – vs often painfully self-aware or self-censoring adults – just made the whole atmosphere more jolly.
Some more family orientated gaming areas, like the Haba one, would be a good addition for any convention that wants to foster a bit more of this kind of atmosphere.
5 – It’s their first one and it’s this good already
This one deserves it’s own point. When I first booked tickets I had no clue this was the debut convention. With the smart simple title of “Tabletop Scotland” and solid website execution, I just assumed it was the default established convention that had been around for a while. Nothing of my following experience gave me any reason to question this assumption. It was only when I got to the venue and someone behind me in the registration queue casually mentioned that it was the first one that was I disabused of this notion.
The whole event just seemed so well organised. The playtesting arrangements were, as I said above, almost perfect. Ticketing, registration, on-site food, management of space, directions and visibility of staff were all spot-on. I can’t speak to the behind-the-scenes organisation for exhibitors, but I heard nothing bad about this and have to assume they were also pretty slick.
It’s very normal to screw things up the first time you do anything. If more stuff had gone wrong, I’d have been sympathetic given that. But the fact that it didn’t just shows what a good operation they are; and that bodes very well for what they do next. I am not sure what other cons can learn from here more specifically as I don’t know much about the organisers’ preparations themselves. The only thing I can say is how much it proves that careful planning really pays off!