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"Hope for the best and plan for the worst": The challenges facing tabletop gaming conventions after lockdown

Big tabletop events are likely to return this year, but they might look very different.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th 2020, the Game Manufacturers Association was hosting its annual trade expo in Reno, Nevada. While they didn’t understand the scope of the crisis yet, the leaders of the nonprofit quickly realised that their annual consumer event, Origins Game Fair, wasn’t going to happen in June. In April, they pushed the event back to October, but then cancelled the event altogether two months later. A year on, GAMA executive director John Stacy is hoping the event will finally return on September 30th 2021.

“There are a few people who say, ‘You can’t do this. It’s not safe yet,’” Stacy says. “But you’ve got to start planning for the future because these shows take a year to plan. There are a lot of moving parts in this train.”

The world’s biggest tabletop conventions are all dealing with the same challenges as vaccinations put the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight. Event organisers, game publishers and players are all eager to return to some sense of normalcy, but the uncertainty surrounding when social distancing guidelines will end and people will feel safe returning to crowded convention halls makes planning these events more complicated than ever.

“Everyone’s taking a ‘wait and see’ approach,” Stacy says. “You’ve got to hope for the best and plan for the worst.”

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Stacy is part of a group of event organisers - that also includes representatives of Gen Con, the UK Games Expo, Gamehole Con and Lucca Comics & Games - which has been meeting every two to three weeks on Zoom since last summer to discuss best practices for a return to in-person shows. Most have delayed opening ticket sales or postponed their shows to later in the year in the hopes of having more clarity about what sort of government regulations they’ll be under in terms of capacity, masking and social distancing. (Gen Con did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article, but pushed its 2021 event from August to September, when it will be running a mix of in-person and online activities.)

“For the moment at least, we’re planning on the assumption that we should be able to do something and hopefully it will be as close to normal as possible, but we’re also putting in place steps in case we have to limit things,” says UKGE director Richard Denning.

We’re planning on the assumption that we should be able to do something and hopefully it will be as close to normal as possible.

UKGE is set to run July 30th to August 1st, starting after the proposed June 21st end to all social distancing requirements in the UK. Denning is planning to have some precautions still in place, such as wider aisles on the convention floor. The show will be smaller than normal because the organisers were only able to secure two of the usual three halls in Birmingham's NEC when it was postponed to 2021, and the nearby Hilton Hotel typically used to host roleplaying games is closed for renovations. Denning also expects most exhibitors that aren’t based in the UK will be skipping the event.

“We’d got to about 425-450 exhibitors in 2019,” he says. “I suspect it may only be a couple hundred or something [this year], but that would still be comparable to what it was in about 2016. It will be smaller but still not tiny, if it runs.”

Gen Con 2019 drew a record 70,000 visitors, according to its organisers. Last year's lack of an in-person event marked the first time the tabletop convention was cancelled in its 50-year history. Image: Gen Con

A representative for Essen Spiel said it was still too early to comment on plans for the event, which is currently scheduled for October. While PAX Unplugged - which is run by Dicebreaker’s parent company ReedPop - is scheduled to take place December 10th to 12th in Philadelphia, ReedPop global gaming event director Kyle Marsden-Kish emphasised that the event might still be cancelled or scaled down.

“These are speculative dates we’re putting out there so that the industry and the community can have something to look forward to and also plan to, but by no means are we saying we’re definitely running at 100%,” he says. “We still are looking at the COVID situation and safety guidelines. We won’t actually run a physical event unless we feel it’s safe for all different parties and environments.”

We’ve looked into gloves or actually doubling up or quadrupling up all the pieces in the game so everyone has a mirror board. There’s a lot of spitballing right now.

ReedPop is considering a variety of ways to make the event safe, including rapid COVID tests onsite, temperature checks, mask requirements and a passport programme showing evidence that you’ve been vaccinated or had a recent negative test. But social distancing requirements can prove particularly challenging for the intimacy required for many tabletop games.

“We’ve looked into different plexiglass dividers to actually divide the tables,” Marsden-Kish adds. “If you’re playing pen-and-paper [roleplaying] games, it’s pretty easy. You just segregate everybody and then they can use their own dice. When it comes to pieces, we’ve looked into gloves or actually doubling up or quadrupling up all the pieces in the game so everyone has a mirror board. There’s a lot of spitballing right now.”

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Stacy says GAMA has been discussing distributing disposable gloves and masks, limiting how many people can sit at tables, and deploying sanitising crews around the convention, but adds that he’s still fielding questions from exhibitors about how they can safely conduct demonstrations involving pieces that are too fragile to be cleaned with disinfectant. Denning confirms he’s already cancelled UK Games Expo’s popular Bring & Buy used game sale because it would be impossible to socially distance, and is waiting to hear about what restrictions will be in place before deciding what other events can run.

“What we’ve said all along is that we will follow the public health guidance and regulations,” he says. “We’d like to run things like the Carcassonne and Catan championships that we run each year, but clearly those are close games and it’s difficult to imagine that working in a distanced event.”

Marsden-Kish says ReedPop is looking at making social distancing easier by using a registration system that could allow convention-goers to make appointments for demos, tournaments and even spots in line at booths and get pinged on a digital platform so they know when to arrive.

“We’ve had this technology in different iterations for a few years at the more digital PAXes,” he says. “A lot of the time [the challenge is] getting the exhibitors to adopt them versus wanting to use their own. We’re trying to consolidate and onboard as well as giving the message that we’re all here for the industry and the community so let’s try to make it the best, safest experience possible.”

UK Games Expo 2019
UK Games Expo plans to return to Birmingham's NEC in 2021, but in fewer halls than previous years and without additional space in the nearby Hilton hotel. | Image credit: UK Games Expo via Facebook

The organisers are also appraising the role of digital activities in their plans after mixed results running virtual conventions. Germany’s Essen Spiel held its first digital convention, Spiel.Digital, in October 2020, gathering more than 400 exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of players. Meanwhile, the success of Gen Con Online over the summer led the event organisers to push for more engagement with attendees year-round via Discord and Twitch.

If I want to go to an event in Seattle, I can login and watch it online. That’s a big change.

GAMA wound up cancelling the virtual version of Origins it had planned for last June following public backlash over its lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. This year’s event will be a hybrid show. Events such as a cosplay contest and awards ceremony will be broadcast online, with streaming pods set up throughout the convention centre to avoid the spacing issues that would come from its normal theatre setting. The event’s online platform will also share interviews with publishers and game designers conducted on the show floor.

“We’re very excited about this hybrid approach,” Stacy says. “With these hybrid shows, we can have conventions everywhere. If I want to go to an event in Seattle, I can login and watch it online. That’s a big change.”

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While Denning says the UKGE might put together an online awards ceremony and some streaming content if the physical show is cancelled, he’s not planning to reprise the Virtually Expo held last year because he was disappointed with the number of people who were willing to engage in digital games or demonstrations with strangers.

“Having done it last year, I think it was still the right thing to do,” he says. “I think having had a year without anything would have been a shame. I think with the possibility of physical shows returning, we’re not terribly keen to do a virtual show.”

With the possibility of physical shows returning, we’re not terribly keen to do a virtual show.

Marsden-Kish says PAX Unplugged is also looking into having events recorded so they can be watched in onsite viewing rooms or from home to help with social distancing requirements and avoid leaving out people who might still not feel comfortable attending an in-person convention. But he hopes that the vaccine rollout will allow gamers to return to playing in person.

“I would like to think there’s some pent up demand for this,” he said. “Being in my house for the past year, I would love to go see a whole bunch of people, as long as it’s safe, and enjoy that community, and be with PAX, and roll some dice with our friends.”

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