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ConsimWorld Expo 2009: Wargaming Valhalla

posted Aug 18, 2012, 11:54 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 19, 2012, 12:12 AM ]
Originally posted: June 6, 2009

It's a good thing that I took pictures and made notes while I was at ConsimWorld Expo last week, because otherwise all I would recall of it now is an endless cycle of gaming, eating and abbreviated nights of sleep, with games and conversations and trips to Fatburger blurring into each other. Not that that's a bad thing, of course. At some point during the convention (I'm not sure exactly when) someone (I don't recall exactly who) raised the idea of creating a retirement community for wargamers, the point being that we could spend our days doing what we were doing here in Tempe, without having to break camp and go home. If there is a wargamer's vision of Valhalla or the Fields of Elysium, surely it looks a lot like CSW Expo and the ballroom of the Tempe Mission Palms.

If there was one person who could be trusted to be the Odin of such a Valhalla, it is CSW Expo organizer John Kranz, although I'm not sure that he would want to put up with a lot of cranky old gamers as our eternal activities director. In fact, we should all be grateful that he and his family (who did so much of the scut work for the convention, along with Brian and Tori Blad) put up with us for a week.

Traveling in company with Down in Flames (Classic) honcho Mike Lam, I got to see CSW Expo from the very beginning to the functional end. We pulled into town early Tuesday afternoon, probably aided by the fact that I was driving fast enough to get bagged for speeding by the San Bernardino County authorities. We arrived well before the convention was officially scheduled to open at 4:30, but already there was a healthy crowd gathered in the lobby outside the ballroom. Even with five whole days of gaming ahead of us, a lot of people had no desire to arrive fashionably late.

At 2:30, the hotel staff opened the ballroom so that we could begin setting up, revealing a huge space filled with heavy wooden conference tables and comfy office chairs, configured to meet the exact needs of those who had declared an intent to set up and run monster games. After having spent a weekend

Setting up, Tuesday afternoon. The initial deployment before the storm.

gaming on folding furniture at GMT Weekend West, I have to admit that I was deeply impressed by the sight — and by the venue as a whole. The Tempe Mission Palms is a well-kept resort hotel that possesses a pleasing mix of modern cleanliness and Spanish colonial
grandeur, and wandering around it gives you the feeling of being a Castilian grandee appointed by the King to serve as an Executive Vice President in that U.S. Airways office building just off of Mill Avenue.

I spent the rest of the afternoon mostly wandering around and spectating as various monster games were set up; Rob Vaughn and Tom Kaufman would not arrive to set up The Three Days of Gettysburg until early evening, so my big event of the con had yet to get under way. Fortunately, Todd Davis arrived with a huge cartload of games for the flea market, which gave me plenty to occupy my attention while I was waiting, and I wound up buying two Commands & Colors: Ancients expansions and an ASL starter kit from him right away just because the price was right.

In fact, flea market activity was very intense this year compared to past years, and John Kranz was clearly overwhelmed by the response, adding side tables ad hoc as people came in with more and more games for sale. Some speculated that a lot of people needed to raise money in the teeth of the current recession, but I wonder if disenchantment with eBay as a selling venue and a cosmic alignment of spring-cleaners were at work, too. All I know is that I came home with more games and rather less cash than I'd originally

The flea market was set up in side-tables along one wall of the ballroom. I think this pic dates from Wednesday afternoon, and two more tables behind the water cooler in the background also filled up over the next couple of days. There were still two more tables, both behind me and thus not pictured. They filled up on Tuesday night.

intended, and even then I didn't make an offer on everything that interested me.

Our 3DoG game got underway around mid-evening, and I will describe it at much greater length in a subsequent post. We kept at it from Tuesday night until late Friday afternoon, so the epic struggle between Blue and Gray at the Pennsylvania crossroads dominated my attention for the rest of the week, although I managed to sneak in some Down in Flames during our dinner breaks, and after 3DoG adjourned for the night. In between, publishers who came to show off their wares had a chance to do so, both in the dealer's room and in seminars (Joel Toppen also gave a seminar on the basics of using VASSAL). I remember having a brief conversation with Gene Billingsley, in which we both sheepishly admitted to not making much progress on fixing the rules for Fields of Fire. But mostly, it was about twirling the d10s and pushing cardboard.

On Friday afternoon, I sat down with Chad and Kai Jensen for a rematch at Through

the Ages, with John Foley as our fourth. Once again, Chad schooled me pretty well, although I dare say that I did a better job of holding my own than I did when we played at GMT Weekend West and think I could do better given a third opportunity. It's a thoroughly

Schooled again at Through the Ages. L to r: Kai Jensen, Chad Jensen, John Foley. Obviously, my absence from the table is not noticed. :-)

amusing game, and I'm seriously thinking of picking up a copy and introducing it to my other gamer friends. In any event, gaming with the Jensens late in the day led to them treating me to dinner at Gordon Biersch; I still have no idea what I did to deserve it, but I'm always grateful for free food and good company.

Since our 3DoG group had reached the point of exhaustion, I spent almost all of Saturday in the Down in Flames area, which took up several tables in one corner of the room and a whole lot of wall space. Having flown only a mission here and there, I never

 had a shot at the Aces Campaign, which was won this year by Greg Smith. But I did take part in a giddy late-night experiment, driven mostly by Greg and Mark Yoshikawa, to playtest

Mike Lam’s Down in Flames campaign started right after breakfast each morning and missions ran until 1 or 2 a.m. Mike was usually the last one out of the ballroom each night. This year’s tournament winner, Greg Smith, is seated facing the camera at the left end of the table.

the heck out of the Bf 110C, the twin-engine light bomber that the Luftwaffe converted into an interceptor. In Down in Flames, it has the distinction of being the only fighter with a rear gunner, so that it can fire 1 burst even when being tailed. We pitted it against British P-40s and early-model Hurricanes in a variety of situations and, true to history, found it moderately useful as an
interceptor, but largely useless as a dogfighter. However, I did gain the distinction of actually scoring a kill against Chris LeFevre using the rear gunner. Chris didn't seem terribly amused by this, but I think he was just getting sleepy; we were all goofy from the lateness of the hour and five straight days of gaming. So if you ever hear Greg and Mark refer to me as the Master of the Ass-Gun, for goodness sake, don't misunderstand their meaning....

Earlier that night, though, I did duck out to see the auction, which was preceded by the final match of the Strike Force One tournament. It was quite an ingenious move, using SPI's old ultra-simple introductory wargame as a tournament game that would generate some buzz without sucking up too much time from everyone else’s normal course of monster gaming. I came in just in time to see the last couple of turns, by which point it had acquired the hushed, excited air of a championship chess match, with Alan Emrich providing play-by-play. Rick Young won the match and the first prize of $1,000 worth of games, which he promptly sold rather than haul it all back to North Carolina. 

Seeing Alan Emrich behind the auctioneer's podium again held a certain nostalgia

value for me; I remember the wonderful circus atmosphere when Alan, Hawkeye, Nick Cascone and Alphonso Smith used to run the auctions at the Strategicon conventions in L.A. under the Alchemy Auctions name, and it was good to see him in fine form. I went in vowing that I wouldn't spend any more money on games, and yet I couldn't resist mixing it up over a punched copy of La Bataille

Alan Emrich works the crowd at the auction. Apparently, the excitement has caused Todd Davis’ hair to fluoresce.

d'Albuera Espagnol
, which I won for $11. My only disappointment was that Alan didn't open with the old Alchemy Auctions joke about how caveat emptor means 'the cave is empty' in English.

After flying a few more missions on Sunday morning, Mike and I packed up his Down in Flames materials and left; somewhat to my surprise, we were not the last ones out of the room. 

But of course, there was  so much more to CSW Expo 2009 than just the stuff in which I stuck my grubby fingers. There were many ambitious monster gamers other than our 3DoG group, and dozens upon dozens of cardboard battles and skirmishes took place, of which I could tell you next to nothing. Another game of 3DoG set up next to ours, although they gave up before finishing the First Day of the battle. A game of River of Death started up on Thursday, but I don't think they

Wellington’s Victory, early in the battle. I don’t know if they made it all the way through to the end of the game, but later in the week it looked like the Prussians had been on-map long enough to make themselves felt.

got any farther into Chickamauga than we did into Gettysburg. Another group had The Gamers' take on Gettysburg, This Hallowed Ground, set up. I saw multiple games of Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov going at the same time, which surely qualifies as something that you will see only at CSW Expo/Monster Con. SPI's classic old Waterloo monster Wellington's Victory raged on at a table nearby ours; I recall Rob and Tom watching for a while and then noting that the French were winning because the group were using house rules to reduce the effectiveness of skirmishers, which would favor the attackers in that game. I saw a couple of other vintage SPI games, War in the East and Invasion: America set up, as well.

Designers and publishers also contributed to the festivities in the ballroom. Dan

Holte had playtests of Battle for Normandy and Supreme Commander going, the latter under the capable guidance of developer Paul Marjoram. I understand that a fly got into the jam in Battle for Normandy, however, when the Allied players misread the supply

Invasion America, SPI’s fine old piece of late-Cold War paranoia. I kind of regret not buying this game when it first came out. Its visuals and production value holds up quite well, even better than most SPI games.

rules and got themselves into a tight spot right after the landings. If not for 3DoG, I would have played Battle for Normandy; if Dan succeeds in making a game of this scale as simple and playable as he intends, he'll have something truly exceptional on his hands.

The Jensens came loaded for Combat Commander, but also brought the current version of Fighting Formations with them. I didn't get the chance to try it out, but I was pleased when Chad told me that he'd been simplifying the mechanics since I tried it out at GMT Weekend. If he can get it to the point where it flows as smoothly as Combat Commander, it will be a heck of a game.

And of course, Red Sash Games caused a bit of a stir with their epic, grand strategic 20+ map treatment of the Russo-Austro-Turkish War of 1735-1739 (was there really such a thing?), Turkenkrieg and Heirs of the Golden Horde. I have to hand it to these guys; it takes real moxie to publish a game of this scale about such an obscure subject. I talked to Ian Weir a bit, and clearly it's a labor of love for them. On that basis alone, I wish them well, although I also

Ian Weir (l) and Ian Schofield (r) of Red Sash Games set up Turkenkrieg and Heirs of the Golden Horde. It’s even more massive than it looks from this angle. 

have to say that I didn't really notice anyone actually playing the game for any length of time.

This was my first time attending CSW Expo, and it won't be my last unless some kind of horrible curse befalls me within the next year; without a doubt it ranks as one of the best convention experiences I've ever had. At about 200 attendees, it's large enough to be stimulating, but small enough to be manageable and intimate. The setting can't be beat, either. The Tempe Mission Palms is a little pricey, but it's a comfortable, luxurious and offers excellent service — my only complaint is that they're a little quick to yank your place setting at the breakfast buffet when you get up for seconds. The immediate neighborhood offers plenty of suitable places to eat immediately at hand, from the Dunkin' Donuts around the corner to sit-down restaurants like Gordon Biersch and Monty's Steakhouse a couple of blocks away. I ate an awful lot at Fatburger, but would actually recommend Silver City Subs for tasty deli sandwiches that you can take back to the gaming table without getting grease all over the mapsheets.

But of course, the real secret of CSW Expo's success is the effort that John Kranz, his family and the Blads put into it, and the affection with which they treat it. John was a gentleman and the consummate host at all times, whether he was handing out door prizes to reward those who showed up for breakfast (I won a “Civil War Battlefields” DVD set, yay!), acknowledging the sponsors who paid for the nightly coffee service, or gently reminding us to pick up after ourselves. The events, like the seminars and the welcoming reception, could seem at the time like unnecessary intrusions on the bacchanal of gaming. But in the end, I think they served a good purpose, creating a subtle sense of community among the attendees — something a little too rare in a niche hobby where fellow gamers can be hard to come by. The positive vibe that I picked up at the CSW Expo is a direct result, I think, of his hard work and attention to detail.

A final note: I noticed that someone had registered for the con under the name Haruhi Suzumiya, even creating a ConSim World profile (female, from Tokyo, Japan) and signing up to play GMT's East Front Series. However, I did not Haruhi in attendance, nor any espers, aliens or time travelers as far as I could tell. Perhaps she chose another reality to invade that week. I wonder if John realizes that someone was yanking his chain by signing up as an anime character, and yanking it fairly hard.