How To Survive A Gaming Convention

I think I’ve finally got it. I just returned from PAX East and I’m not even particularly tired, though I feel general fatigue setting in, so maybe there will be a delayed effect. This is different from years past, when the convention completely drained the life out of me. Last year I didn’t even attend Sunday because I was so tired. But this year was a delight. In terms of games played, it has completely eclipsed all prior conventions. I met great people, talked with designers, tried some unpublished games, and ate way too many taco salads.

Note that every person is going to be different, and your priorities for conventions are going to be different than mine. Generally, my goals going in are to play as many great board games as I can and not burn out. If you’re going to PAX East to, say, do as much League of Legends stuff as you can, then your PAX is going to be much different than mine. That said, here’s how I managed my PAX.

(Enjoy some pictures of the games I enjoyed at PAX East)

1. Arrive Early or Late

PAX East, and I’m sure other large gaming conventions, has a people congestion problem. Namely, everyone wants to walk in the doors right when it opens–go figure. The worst problem generated with this is traffic. Of course, that can be avoided if you take public transportation instead of driving. So I suppose that’s my number one tip: take public transportation. Though I suppose the general rule still applies.

You should either come before the crowds to get ahead in the lines, or you should wait until 11:30 or 12 to avoid the lines altogether. Arriving at 10 is simply a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I did it this year and it’s my biggest regret. I planned to arrive at about 10:30, but with traffic, parking, and line messes I didn’t get in until 11:30. When I peeked outside at 12 there was no more line. And honestly, because PAX East is now a 4 day convention, arriving late one of the days isn’t a big deal at all. There’s still a TON of time for gaming.

2. Bring Snacks

Another ‘do what I say, not what I do’ situation here. I didn’t bring snacks this year and I definitely regret it. I should have done what I did at some of the smaller cons earlier this year and bought a box of granola bars before the event. Then it’s a simple matter of stuffing a couple of them in my pocket each day and eating that for lunch instead of overpriced convention food. Granted, the food at PAX East isn’t as expensive as food you’d find at, say, a sporting event, but you’re looking at $15 for a meal and a drink. A couple of $1 granola bars is a fine replacement, and healthier.

3. The Non-Bag Line Is Magic

No joke, everyone at PAX East brings a bag. This makes the bag line in the morning extremely long, because more people are in it, and because it takes longer to check bags. So don’t bring a bag and actually get in quickly. You’ll want to bring certain essentials like a portable phone charger and snacks, but I was able to stuff everything I needed into my pockets. For those who wear women’s pants that have no pockets–I’m deeply sorry. Wear a jacket and stuff those pockets!

4. Pace Your Expo Time

I’m not the most introverted person on earth, though I’m certainly not extroverted, but the Expo hall completely drains all the life out of me. It’s an impressive display at PAX East, with large displays from big and small companies alike. Board games have even invaded what was a video game only space just a few years ago. There are all kinds of cool surprises to find in there. I demoed a game about walking around a trippy dreamscape of moving shapes. You just…walked around. The indie megabooth is always neat, because you’re frequently seeing one-person projects with the creator right there. But it gets seriously crowded, especially during Friday and Saturday. Don’t get stuck in the middle of the Expo hall during those times! All you’ll do is stand in line for hours and get confused in the middle of a mass of bodies.

What I did this year was spend Thursday afternoon wandering the Expo hall, and I never returned. I got enough out of it and didn’t look back. Fortunately the tabletop section of PAX East is less hectic than the Expo hall, but even if you’re there for the video games, try to split up your Expo hall time with other events. Wander around the side rooms and you’ll probably find something interesting to you. But don’t let yourself burn out among the throngs.

5. Don’t Commit

Looking over the schedule before going to a convention is both fun and anxiety-prone. How are you supposed to fit in all of these activities into the little time you have? You’ve got to prioritize. If there are any events you absolutely want to go to, make sure you put a buffer of time around them and realize that everything else during that time is off-limits, no matter how much you want to go to that other thing.

Put everything else on your schedule (there’s a handy app for the PAX Events) and when they come up, attend if you’ve got nothing better to do. Last week I was usually playing a game and found that more interesting than whatever popped up on the scheduler. But don’t make the mistake of filling up your schedule with must-see events. If you do that you’re going to burn out, and then the convention feels like a series of obligations you put yourself in, rather than fun.

6. Only The Best Talks

After a few PAXes I’ve found that the talks are often overrated. I only go to them now if the subject matter really interests me, I know the presenters are great, or if I have nothing better to do. Nearly all of them are recorded on the various PAX Twitch channels, or the channels of whoever is doing the presentation, and a lot of people don’t seem to be particularly good at organizing a good panel discussion. They’re often rushed for time too.

7. Chat With Creators

Honestly this is one of the coolest parts of a convention. Sure it’s a media event for large companies and there are a lot of stores trying to sell wares. But there’s a purity in going up to a booth, seeing a cool game, and then realizing that the person who created that game is putting themselves out there in a public space to share their creation. Often they won’t be particularly good games, but talking with them is so encouraging, because they’ve actually done it–they’ve finished a passion project. For someone who only has ideas, that’s such a treat. I’m sure my first game won’t be particularly good, but maybe someday I’ll be in that spot, showing off my creation.

Above all you need to relax at a convention. You’re not going to miss something critically important. You’re not going to find anything world-shattering right around the corner. You’re going to be overwhelmed, there are going to be too many people, and maybe there will be a bit of a smell (or so I’ve been told–I don’t get bothered by smells easily). But find something fun, do it, and then find something else. Relax and have a good time!


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1 thought on “How To Survive A Gaming Convention”

  1. Very good tips! Especially the one about not committing. There are always great things one didn’t expect, and the only way to see them is not to rush from one commitment to another.

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