The Grandaddy of all wargame conventions
One of the most popular websites for wargamers is ConsimWorld.com, or CSW for short. It's main attraction is its forums. It has discussion threads on just about any wargame ever published as well as many that are still under development. It's special claim to fame is that the CSW forums are frequented by wargame designers, developers and publishers, as well as by experienced players. This makes it the best place to go for questions on rules about wargames. Most wargames are complex enough that no matter how much work goes into them, there always seem to be questions that arise when you play them, even with experienced wargamers. At CSW you can ask a question and usually get the "official" answer from the designer or developer within a day or two. Reading over the thread for the game that you are currently playing, you can often find subtle points that you had missed contained in the questions and answers from other gamers. CSW is also a good source of information about soon-to-be-released games. You can even get involved in the playtesting for new games. Although people are used to free websites, serious wargamers are willing to pay an annual subscription fee to get access to the CSW forums.
Every year CSW sponsors ConsimWorld Expo. Although there are other big gaming conventions (Origins, World Boardgaming Championships, etc.) CSW Expo is probably the largest and most important convention devoted entirely to wargaming. It is also known as MonsterCon because of its emphasis on monster games. Typical wargames can take from three to twenty hours to play, have ten or twenty page rulebooks, and have several hundred units represented in the game. To most people, these seem like incredibly complex games that take a very long time to play. But wargamers talk affectionately about "monster games". To a wargamer a monster game is one that takes a very long time to play, has very complex rules, or has a lot of components. Often it has all three. So a monster game like Battle for Normandy (a popular game at the last two CSW Expos) has five mapsheets (each about 22"x34"), about two thousand counters to represent all of the units involved at the battalion level, and can take up to a hundred hours to play. Now that is a monster game to a wargamer!
Although monster games are loved by all serious wargamers, it is always tough to find the space, time and opponents who are committed to play through a monster. This is where MonsterCon comes in. It is a venue where there is lots of room, and serious wargamers are gathered for an entire week to play wargames day and night. So there are some pretty big games at CSW Expo.
This June I made the drive down to the Phoenix area for Consimworld Expo. It was my second time attending the event. Last year CSW Expo was my first ever wargaming convention. Since then I have also attended two GMT weekends. Although I have wargaming buddies in Boise, it seems that most of them have conflicts with work and family that severely impact their time for wargaming. So I have found that wargaming conventions are an excellent way to find wargaming opponents and to make new friends who share my esoteric hobby.
My original plan was to break up the long drive down to Tempe by doing some hiking on the way down and the way back. I thought it would be a good time of year to try to climb Humphreys Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona, near Flagstaf. And maybe on the way back I could stop for a hike in Zion National Park or the Escalante. But things didn't work out. We had a major project in process - the entire inside of our house was being repainted. Even though we had a professional painter working on it, I still had to spend a lot of time moving things from room to room to clear the space he needed to work. In fact up to the very last minute, I thought I wouldn't be able to go. But I finally did get away, although I didn't have any extra time for hiking. I drove to Cedar City the first day, stayed overnight, and then drove on the next day to Tempe.
CSW Expo is held at the Tempe Mission Palms, a very nice hotel in Tempe about a block from the Arizona State University campus. It's a nice venue for the event. The location is good too. In downtown Tempe there are loads of eating establishments of every kind within easy walking distance. But it is a bit pricey to stay there. Even with the convention rate it was $125 per night. But since I had my own car I could stay offsite. I got a good rate at the Ramada about two miles away on Apache Blvd - only $45 per night. I hate to admit that I got the AARP rate.
I got to Tempe Sunday afternoon the day before the convention started. It was 105 degrees. Quite a change from the cool spring that we were having in Boise. After checking in (and unloading my three boxes of games that I had brought with me) I decided to head down to the hotel to check things out. I had seen the evening before on the forums that the main gaming area would be open a day ahead of time for setup because there hadn't been an event at the hotel the previous week. Last year I had gotten a surprise. On the first day the convention was scheduled to open at 4 pm. I arrived about 4:15 figuring I would be one of the first people there. Instead I found the whole gaming hall filled and most of the monster games well along towards being setup. Noob. My mistake was to forget that when a game takes a hundred hours to play and has thousands of counters, it takes a long time just to get it set up. So people did not waste time.
The other thing I had learned from my first Con was to arrange games ahead of time. Most of the wargamers at the convention were friendly and approachable. But many of them had already commited much of their time to playing a particular monster game, or playing against people that they knew from previous conventions. So sometimes it was tough to find an available opponent for a game that I knew. But this year I had used the forums and email to contact a number of people ahead of time and had at least one game scheduled in advance for every day of the convention.
So I decided to head down Sunday evening to check things out, even though the convention wasn't even supposed to start until 4 pm the next day. Sure enough, about fifteen guys were already there getting their games set up. I was just staring at all of the big impressive games. I must have looked lost. One guy came up to me and said "Hi, I'm Pat. Are you looking for someone?" I thought, Pat? Nah! Couldn't be. The guy I was supposed to meet the next day to play against was named Pat. But it turned out, yes, it was Pat Mulvihill. He was a wargamer from Oceanside, California. His group was starting their monster game late - Tuesday - so we had arranged to play a game on Monday. We were playing Karelia 44, a brand new game that had just come out a few weeks before. It is the newest game in the Standard Combat Series from Multiman Publishing. It is on the last great Soviet offensive against the Finns on the East Front in WWII that attempted to knock them out of the war. Pat and I chatted for a while and even ended up moving up our start time for the next day.
We began our game at nine the next morning. I took the Finns. Neither of us had played the game before but Pat had a lot of experience with other games in the series. This was my first so I was learning. I usually like to play defense when I am new to a game. It's not that defense is easier - it's actually usually harder. But if you are playing offense and don't know what you are doing, it can often be a very boring game. You don't know what to do, so nothing happens. But if you are on defense and don't know what you are doing, things still happen! Usually bad things, and they happen to you. But at least it isn't a boring game. So I think playing the defensive side is the best way to learn a new game.
It was a fun game. The Finns are totally outnumbered. They can't stop the Russians, they can only slow them down. But the game mechanic that creates tension are "boss points". After a while Stalin loses patience with the Russian commander if he doesn't move fast enough against the Finns and sacks him. So my goal was to hold out long enough that my opponent Pat fell out of favor and got sent to the gulag. Didn't happen though. I thought that I put up a pretty good fight, but in this game Stalin showed lots of patience and eventually Pat's Russian hordes overwhelmed my valiant Finnish defenders. Ok, in that universe Finland ended up as an Eastern Bloc country after WWII. I tried my best. It was a fun game though. Now I need to find someone to play against in Boise so I can try again.
Next day I had arranged to meet someone to play Labyrinth. This is a strategic game about the Global War On Terror. I had seen a playtest copy of the game last year at CSW Expo and gotten a demo from the developer. The game came out in November of last year and is already sold out. My son Tim and I had a particular interest in this game and had played it a couple of times during his visit in March. Today I played Steve Bauer, a software project manager who lived in the Phoenix area. I took the Jihadists. I didn't put up much of a fight and Steve won a sudden death victory. Another wargamer, Geoff Hurn, sat in and watched our game. He was very interested in Labyrinth as well. After the first game I gave my seat to Geoff and let him square off against Steve. I took the opportunity for a long lunch and a visit to the vendor area.
Several wargame publishers were at the convention. There was a special room set up for them to show their games. Most offered some sort of convention discount to encourage people to buy on the spot. It was a good chance to talk to the publishers about their current and future games. Many of them are one-man shops who do it more for fun than for making money. One of the highlights of the vendor area was Totaler Krieg. Decision Games had copies of their brand new version of the game. This was the third version of a European-theatre level strategic game of WWII that had been in development for over five years. I knew it was supposed to come out some time this year but seeing actual shrink-wrapped boxes of the game at the convention was a surprise. Apparently Decision Games had a few cases of the games air shipped to them in time to bring to the convention. What could I do? I ended up getting the special convention combo of Totaler Krieg (European theatre) and Dai Senso (Pacific theatre). The two games can even be linked to cover all of WWII, just in case one monster game at a time isn't enough for you. They were expensive enough that they would have to go into Sandy's "stash" when I got home. I wouldn't get them until some future birthday or Christmas or other special event. (NOTE: As of time of writing this, I did get Totaler Krief for Father's Day. So I am hoping to get a chance to play it soon.)
I went back to the gaming hall and got to play Labyrinth against Geoff Hurn. He is retired from the US Coast Guard and lives in the Phoenix area. I played the Jihadists again and once again went down to defeat. 0-3 after two days of gaming. Fun games but I was beginning to get a bit of an inferiority complex. At least I had my Totaler Krieg and Dai Senso games.
I did get my revenge though. After two straight losses I spent time late at night back at the hotel reading up on the web about Labyrinth strategy. I also talked to some other experienced gamers during the week. Later I challenged both Steve and Geoff to rematches and was able to win against both of them as the Jihadists. So I came away with an even record for the Con and a lot more knowledge about the game.
One of the special things about CSW Expo occurred while playing Labyrinth. During one of the games a question came up about how to interpret one of the event cards. Normally this would be tough to resolve but we knew that the developer of the game, Joel Toeppen, was at the Con. He's a good guy who is always quick to answer questions through the CSW forums. So we found where he was playing and asked him if we could interrupt his game. He was happy to answer our question and five minutes later we were back at our game with an official rules clarification. It's not often that you can do that. It was as close as you can get in real life to the famous scene from Annie Hall with Marshall McLuhan.
Next day I was scheduled to play Normandy 44 with someone that I knew from the past two GMT weekends. But my opponent was down with the flu so I had an open morning. I spent a lot of time at the Flea Market Tables. They are another special part of the convention. Lots of people bring in old wargames from their collections to sell. It's possible to find some great old wargames for reasonable prices. Since wargames are such a specialty item they typically have very small print runs. Lots of great games were published in the past but are now long out of print. It's possible to find mint copies of these games at the Flea Market Tables at Cons like this one. Throughout the week as people arrived they would bring their games to the Flea Market. Any time someone brought a new stack of games, anyone not currently deep in their game would jump up and rush over to check out the new stuff. During the course of the week I did buy a couple of magazine games and a ziplock game. Great deals and all out of print.
A game of Successors was forming and was looking for a fourth player, so I jumped in. I've played the game a lot but hadn't played for a while. It's a game about the wars fought to find a successor after the death of Alexander the Great. I had Ptolemy and a wimpy general. One of the other players attacked me in Egypt (and got lucky and won the battle). That ticked me off, so he and I spent the rest of the game bashing our heads against each other. Meanwhile the two guys who controlled Perdiccas and Antipater actually played the game to see who would get to bury the body in Pella and win. It wasn't me. But another fun game and a chance to meet some new gamers. A fun note was that we played on an oversized board that one of the guys had printed from some artwork that he got from the web. Very cool.
Several evenings I played Epic Ancients II. One of the guys that I had met the year before was Paul Arena, a professor in classics at ASU. He even taught a course in great battles of the ancient world. He used the game C&C Ancients to illustrate his course. Students were required to play various battles and then write a report on their learnings from the game. This year he had several of his best student/players coming in to challenge a team of players from the Expo. Kind of college students vs. the old farts. Often later in the evening some of the monster games would break up and people would play lighter games for a few hours (lots of stuff like Rise of the Luftwaffe and Battlestar Galactica). So we were able to get recruits for our Epic Ancients games. We played a couple of evenings, fighting several battles from the Second Punic War like Cannae and Zama. I know C&C pretty well so I was on the winning side every time but one, and that was a very close loss. I enjoyed playing with Paul because he had a tremendous knowledge of ancient topics. He has read most of the ancient sources in the original so he could answer my steady stream of questions while we played. All wargamers play partly because of their love of history so this was a lot of fun for me. And I won most of the games too!
The next day I had arranged a game of Hannibal. It was time to fight the Second Punic War at a strategic level instead of fighting battles at the tactical level. This is an old game but a great classic. I was excited to find someone who was interested in playing. My opponent was Gary Andrews. He was an experienced wargamer from Brooklyn, New York (which you could have figured out after listening to him for about five seconds - his accent was a dead giveaway). Since he was from the east coast this was his first CSW Expo. But not long after we started I learned that he was a very experienced player at Hannibal. He had played Hannibal in the World Boardgame Championships several times and had come in as high as third. He had also written an article on strategy for Hannibal for the website The Boardgaming Life. Oh, oh. I was playing a ringer!
But Gary was a great guy and we had a terrific game. I played the Romans and managed to totally stop Hannibal's move into Italy. But in the meantime Hasdrubal was giving me fits in Sicily. I've played Hannibal a lot but Gary was really a master of tactics in what I always thought of as a strategic game. The war seesawed back and forth. The game ended with provinces equal, so Carthage won. An excellent game, well fought, even if I was on the losing side.
During our game Gary mentioned that he had heard that Mark Simonitch, the designer of Hannibal, was at the convention. I said that yes, I had seen him around (I knew him from GMT weekends). Gary asked me to point him out so that he could meet him, since he had been playing Hannibal for many years and loved the game. So I showed him who he was and Gary went over and introduced himself. Another one of the cool things about a convention like CSW Expo.
Next day I was scheduled to play Normandy 44. This game was released last year by GMT and is Mark Simonitch's (of Hannibal fame) latest design. It is a regimental-level game of the D-Day invasion. It is moderate complexity, a good example of the state-of-the-art in a traditional hex-and-counter wargames. It has a short scenario that covers the first week of the invasion that can be played in one session. It takes six to eight hours. It also has a campaign game that covers the entire month long campaign in Normandy, which takes multiple sessions. At the GMT weekend I had been beaten twice as the Germans by Tim Wilcox. I had asked for a rematch at CSW Expo but Tim was committed to a monster East Front game. But he mentioned that his son Trevor would be there and was looking for opponents. So Trevor and I squared off in a match. The game was tense. I did very well on the flanks, gaining two VP hexes from the American paratroopers and all three from the British. But my center was left very weak and was on the point of completely breaking. In the end my center held, and I came away with a victory. Normandy 44 is a great game. Tough to decide whether Breakout Normandy or Normandy 44 is my favorite game of D-Day.
Afterwards I had a long talk with Todd Davis. He does a lot of the graphic arts for Compass Games and is a well known character. He dyes his hair blue for wargame conventions and wears hippie-type clothes. On the CSW forums he spells his name backwards. He is the graphic artist for Proud Monster Deluxe, a game scheduled to come out this summer from Compass Games. It is a major revision of Proud Monster, one of the best games published by Command Magazine back in the 1990's. A great East Front game which I have played a couple of times with my son Tim. Todd posted all of the final artwork for Proud Monster Deluxe on the wall: map, counter sheets, box cover art. Since I love Proud Monster and had preordered Proud Monster Deluxe, I went up to Todd and introduced myself. I asked a simple question about the map for PMD. That was enough. He launched into a two hour dissertation that covered PMD, then shifted to the new game on the battle for Hue that Todd is working on with John Hill. It was fascinating.
I also spent a long time in the vendor area talking to Jeffrey Tibbets from Pacific Rim Publishing, a small, one-man publisher. He published a magazine with a wargame back in the nineties which I had subscribed to. It only lasted for four or five issues. So I, like a lot of wargamers, assumed that we would never get the rest of our subscriptions. But Jeffrey mentioned that after getting past some personal problems (long illness and death of his wife) he was working on Counterattack Magazine again. A new issue would be coming out this year. I mentioned that it was good news as I had subscribed many years ago. He asked my name and I told him. He said, "Oh yes, aren't you the guy who lived in Singapore for a while?" Yes, I had corresponded with him about a game order to Singapore while I lived there. I guess he really knows his customers!
He showed me a playtest version of his new game, Wellington's War. It covers the campaign in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. I have gamed that many times with Wellington, a CDG from GMT. This is a block game using a system similar to Hammer of the Scots, my favorite block game from Columbia Games which I have played many times. It sounded really interesting. It is scheduled to come out later this year. Should be good. I just might have to preorder it.
But the best part of the convention was saved for last. On Saturday night was the game auction. It is run by Alan Emrich, a veteran of the wargaming hobby. Even if you aren't interested in wargames you would enjoy the auction. Alan clearly missed his calling as a standup comic. This year it was a tough time for Alan though. He had left during the week when his elderly mother took ill and passed away. But he came back to the convention because "it was where his friends were".
Before the auction, things started off with the final match of the Strike Force One tournament. I have played Strike Force One. It is a very simple game meant to teach wargaming to new players. Seriously, it has four units on one side and three on the other. It takes about five minutes to play - if you are really slow. But Victory Point Games sponsors a tournament at CSW Expo every year. I wasn't too interested since I think the game is way too simple. But then I saw the prizes - a whole table full of wargames! And Pat Mulvihill, my opponent from Karelia 44 on the first day, was in the finals. And he won. He walked away with his arms full of games donated by publishers to support the convention. I think that I am really going to have to practice at Strike Force One this year in preparation for next years convention. How hard can it be? Looks like there are just too many good prizes at stake here. Pat won the tournament. I have to admit that I was a little envious as he left with just about as many wargames as he could carry. But I also won a prize. I was the very first person to register for the convention. Just lucky, I had the CSW site open in a window while I was doing something else. I noticed when the registration went live and was the first to sign up. So I was called to the front and got a prize - a Napoleonic wargame from Hexasim.
Then the auction started. For me it is exciting to have an opportunity to get some real gems of out-of-print games in the auction. But this year there wasn't much in the auction that I was interested in. But it was still a hoot. Alan Emrich is hilarious. The high point of the auction was when a stock certificate for SPI came up. SPI was THE wargaming company back in the eighties and nineties, the "Golden Age" of wargaming. Two guys (one of whom was Alan E.) really went at it to get it. As a collectors item is sold for way more than it was ever worth when it actually was worth shares in a real company. I only bid seriously on one item, a three issue set of Strategy and Tactics that had three games on the Roman Empire from the Trajan series. I didn't get it. But that was ok. I had done alright in the Flea Market and the vendor area.
It was a great week at CSW Expo. I had a blast. I played a lot of wargames. I won some, I lost some. I had a lot of fun. I made a lot of friends. I am looking forward to going back next year.