Little Men, Big Games: Running Minis Games at Conventions

A convention game of the Battle of Borodino I played in 2010.

I started playing miniatures wargames in the early 80s. I got into them as an outgrowth of my roleplaying hobby via the AD&D Battlesystem rules. I had started collecting miniatures for use in my AD&D game and was transfixed by the idea of fighting big battles on the tabletop with armies of toy soldiers. Over the years I have played many different games, from fantasy and scifi to ancients and World War 2. For many years I only played games with my friends but in 1989 I went to my first GenCon and that changed. There I experienced my first big convention games and I have played many more since.

At first I was impressed by the sheer spectacle of the big con game. When you see thousands of painted miniatures on a huge table covered with lovingly detailed terrain, it is a thing of beauty. Too many times, however, the spell created by the big battle was broken once the game actually started. While many game masters succeeded in putting on a great spectacle, too many failed to deliver a fun game. After seeing some of the same problems in convention miniatures games for over 20 years, I decided to write this article and offer some advice to prospective GMs. I hope my fellow miniatures game enthusiasts find it of use.

Design and Playtest

When I was about 12 years old, I “designed” my first wargame scenario. I tried to recreate the Battle of Kursk using Avalon Hill’s classic Squad Leader boardgame (I know, I know; I was 12). In practice this meant setting up four boards and filling them with as many German and Russian tanks as I could. My brother and I tried to play it and of course it was too big and unwieldy to finish. My attempt was a failure but it taught me an important lesson. Designing a good scenario takes more thought that just using everything you have and yet this is a trap many big games fall into.

You want your game to be playable in the allotted time and ideally there should be a decisive result at the end of the game. Before you put every painted unit you can muster onto the table, ask yourself what you really need to make the scenario work. Are you adding more units because the game demands it or because you think it’ll look impressive? Remember that you are not building a diorama here. This is a game that’s your players will be dedicating 4-8 hours of their valuable con time to, so you want to show them a good time.

Now it may not be apparent to you when a game is too big and when it’s just right. That’s what playtesting is for. I have played many con games that clearly were never playtested at all. You should try to find time to run at least one and ideally several playtests of your scenario. It’s also helpful if you test with a similar number of players as you’ll have in the final game. The more players there are in a game the longer each turn will take due to kibitzing, rules questions, and so on, so you’ll get a more realistic result with the correct number of participants. I have seen several GMs shocked when their games did not come close to finishing. They had playtested, but with two players who knew the rules quite well. A con game is a different beast than a home game.

When you run a playtest, there are four key questions you are trying to answer. First, and most importantly, was the game fun for everyone? Second, were all the players engaged in the game from start to finish? Third, did all sides have a reasonable chance of victory? Fourth, was a decisive result achieved in the scenario in the allotted time? If the answer to any of these questions is no, modify the scenario and try another test game if you can.

Prep Work

I will assume for the sake of this article that you have sufficient miniatures and terrain to put on the scenario you’ve designed. So other than playtesting, what else do you need to prepare before the convention?

One oft overlooked detail is writing up an event description for the convention. This is your chance to sell the game to prospective players. You want to describe your scenario and note its interesting or unique features. You should clearly indicate the game’s genre or historical period, the rules set you are using (including edition, if there are several), the length of the session, and the number of players you can accommodate. If you welcome players new to the game, you should note that as well.

Next you should prepare handouts for the players. Most games have some kind of quick reference sheet with key rules and tables. You should have one of these for each player. If you are using house or special rules, prepare copies of those as well. You also want to have a sheet for each player that details his command. This will allow the player to see his forces at a glance and have needed stats at hand. Laminating this reference material is a nice touch but not required.

You should also pack up whatever other accessories the players will need, and bring enough so they don’t have to fight over them. Don’t assume they are going to have anything, even a pencil. Depending on the game, you may need various polyhedral dice, templates (turning, blast, etc.), wound markers, cotton balls, activation tokens, measuring sticks, or playing cards. Packing a spare copy of the rules is also a good idea. Industrious players may want to look at the rules during downtime and you want to keep yours at hand.

Starting the Game

At last the big day arrives and game time approaches. You should find out from the convention organizers when your table will be open for you to begin set up. Some conventions have limited table space, so don’t assume you’re going to have hours to get the game ready. You do want to give yourself as much time as possible to get everything set up, so arrive at your location as early as you can. You don’t want to waste valuable play time finishing something you could have done beforehand.

Once the players arrive, you should identify yourself and the game to make sure everyone is in the right spot. When you are ready to begin, introduce the scenario, tell the players the basics of the set up, and hand out the reference material. If you have inexperienced players, you should give them a brief overview of the rules and run through the turn sequence. You should also let everyone know up front any house or special rules. That’s not the sort of thing you want to spring on people mid-game. Lastly, you need to divide the players amongst the various sides. You should try to accommodate the players if you can. Let friends play together (or against each other!) if that’s what they want.

Commands and Deployment

At this point you need to give each player a command. You should have put these together while designing the scenario. The last thing you want to do is let the players divide up the forces themselves. That’s just asking for chaos right at the start of the game and you don’t have time to waste. The commands should be fairly balanced. Don’t give one player all the elite troops and another the peasant conscripts. I also strongly encourage you to make sure that each command includes at least one unit on the board and near the enemy at the start of the game. In a similar vein, you should think carefully before leaving any troops off the board in reserve. I say these things because one truism about big convention games is that turns can take a long time. If you give a player a command that starts off the board and his troops won’t begin to show up until turn 2 at earliest, for example, that player may be doing nothing for an hour or more. This is not fun. You want all the players engaged in the battle and interested in the results from start to finish.

Some GMs like to hand out commands and then let the players deploy their own forces. Again, I urge caution. If you deploy the various commands in their starting positions, play can start quickly and this greatly increases the odds of the game finishing. If you let the players do it, they’ll have to confab and then all the minis you set out will get picked up and re-deployed. I’ve been in games in which we didn’t start actually playing until an hour and half into the session. I think it’s better to maximize the play time by having the game ready to go when the players show up.

Running the Game

Now at last the game can get underway. Your job during the session is part referee and part traffic director. You need to keep the came going, which means clearly announcing turns and phases so players know what they are supposed to be doing. In the early turns you should make sure that players are handling the basics like movement and formations correctly. I suggest that you oversee all of the actual combat if you can, so it’s done properly and you know how the battle is proceeding.

During a game, you will have to answer many rules questions. You want to be fair but you should also be decisive. Many rules lawyers will try to argue with you and this just bogs things down. Remember that it’s your game and you are perfectly within your rights to make a ruling and end the discussion. You don’t want to waste 10 minutes pulling out rulebooks and referencing minutiae while the other players stare into space. Make a ruling and go, go, go.

As I’m sure is clear, running a convention game can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I suggest recruiting one or more assistant game masters if you’re going to have more than six players. I’ve been at games with 16 players and one GM and it’s just too much for one person to handle. An assistant game master can answer common rules questions, help resolve combats on one side of the board when you’re doing something else on the other, and so on. Sometimes a group of friends will put on a game together. This is great, but I do suggest that one person take on the roll of lead GM. It’s good to have a final arbiter in such situations. I have been in games in which all the players watched the GMs argue amongst themselves and it isn’t pretty.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, when play time is running out, a clear victor will have emerged. As a player it’s a drag to put four or six hours into a game and have a total stalemate as the result. Better a hard fought loss than feeling like the entire battle was pointless. One of your jobs as the GM is to decide when the battle is over. The clock will eventually do this for you, but it is often obvious before time that one side has lost. Don’t feel that people have to be rolling dice up to the very last second. Sometimes the best thing to do is call the game. That way you aren’t making players who have clearly lost fight it out to the bitter end. Most players don’t mind an extra half an hour at the trade stands anyway.

When the battle is done, thank everyone for playing. If there’s time, ask them for feedback on the game. You may want to run the same scenario at a different con and feedback from the players is useful for fine tuning. Even if you never run that particularly scenario again, you will certainly learn lessons that will help you put on even better games in the future.

Let’s Have a War

I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from playing or running convention miniatures games. I have played many enjoyable games over the years and look forward to many more in the future. Putting on a big con game is a lot of work, but it can also be quite rewarding. With a little forethought and a dose of common sense, your battle can be both a great spectacle and a great game. So get planning and muster your forces. Let’s have a war…on the tabletop.

Copyright 2010 Chris Pramas

Originally published on LiveJournal on June 7, 2010. Later published in Wargames Illustrated, Issue #279.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.