Rising from the Ashes: Historicon 2016

By Bill Gray 20 Jul 2016 0

Boots and saddles were heard in the old Confederacy last week as the Fredericksburg, VA Expo and Convention Center once again played host to Historicon, the must-attend Mecca for historical miniatures gaming in North America. From July 14th – 17, some 2450 gamers renewed old friendships, shopped, gamed and generally had a blast. This year the theme was Cavalry – Mounted Warfare through the Ages, and one foot inside the main ball room exposed a huge Charge of the Light Brigade layout that gave testimony to that fact.

I’ve covered Historicon before for wargamer.com, as well as its two smaller sister conventions, 'Cold Wars' in March and 'Fall In' in November. Taking a cue from our recent discussion, I thought I might try and provide a wider perspective. Britain and the US have often been described as two countries separated by a common language, and in many respects the same can be said for tabletop wargaming. The two countries approach the subject differently, and I thought it might be interesting to explore this further. So grab a glass of your favorite libation and let’s begin.

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Historicon is the premier convention of its type in North America and is sponsored each July by the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS, or HMGS East due to its location vis a vis other Chapters). Now in Fredericksburg, but like Cold Wars and Fall In, Historicon used to call the Lancaster Host Resort in Lancaster, PA home, and it was there it gained its reputation. Called the “Mother of ALL wargaming conventions” by Amy Gamerman of the Wall Street Journal, as many as 4000 attendees would often show up for this yearly pilgrimage.

However, several years ago an abortive and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to move the con to larger facilities in the Baltimore, MD Inner Harbor area caused HMGS to lose its slot at the Host which was quickly filled by other customers. Biting the bullet the HMGS Board finally settled on Fredericksburg as home and attendance has dropped - but not because of a decline in the hobby. The Lancaster location was nearly smack in the middle of HMGS’ population demographic along the I-95 corridor, and only two to three hours max from the urban behemoths of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Moving the convention about two hours south of DC was simply too much for many gamers and vendors to drive and it showed. Attendance has now stabilized at around 2500, and as anticipated, attendance at the two smaller shows has increased to fill the void. For example, Fall In attendance has increased 15 % and overall the annual count remains 6000 + with a moderate increase each year.

I’ve never been to a British show, but I have lots of friends who have, primarily due my role as an officer and Webmaster for the UK based Pike & Shot Society. Those lads often come to the colonies for Historicon and we talk, swap stories. If there is one major difference it seems to be that UK events are primarily trade shows - run for the vendors by the vendors. Historicon, however, is run by the gamers for the gamers. While Historicon has an excellent dealer turnout, and this year saw a substantial increase from 52 to 66 merchants. But the vendors are there to support the gamers, and not the other way around. Thus, as in the UK, retailers do close up shop at a decent hour around 6:00 pm, but the convention center remains hopping with games that often last into the wee hours of the next morning (Something that Strategy UK is doing -ED). One of my British colleagues thought UK and US miniature painting to be pretty equal in quality, while the UK terrain was better (I agree). No one stood a snowball’s chance in Hell as regards to matching the stamina of the typical American gamer though.

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The vendors’ area has a myriad of different types of merchants supporting the hobby, from figures, to paint, to rules, to terrain and everything in between. There are also some vendor types that seem to be unique to US tabletop gaming, and Historicon in particular. An example of this would be Belle & Blade Video, purveyors of military related DVDs on damn near everything. This includes current films, older hard to find classics – think Plummer and Steiger in Waterloo – and BBC documentaries. Their big speciality, however, is foreign films, particularly from Poland and Russia. These are huge productions of huge battles and include such films as 1612, Stalingrad, the Battle for Warsaw, Japan’s Yamato, Denmark’s 1864 or Korea’s the Admiral, Raging Tide. And next aisle over is By Fire & Sword: Historical Wargame, complete with high end rules and miniatures. So why are they noteworthy? Because they fly to Historicon from Poland (yes, that Poland, as in the EU Poland) every year where gaming is very popular.

Unlike what I hear from the UK, a good 95% of non-tourney games at Historicon and most US events are participation games, NOT demos. By this I mean that the games are presented for all attendees to sign up and play, instead of being played for an audience. The convention does have several separate smaller rooms reserved for formally organized clubs, but even here all games are participatory. Sure there is always the recruiting side of the equation, but the theory seems to be that the best way to enlist new members is to sit them down and play a game under the keen eye of a club gamemaster. I’m independent, but several clubbers are good friends of mine, so the two games I normally host were adopted by the Carnage and Glory fan club.

Like vendors, the number of games was up this year. Events Directors Bill Rutherford and Tim Browne did some counting and found that 503 games actually were presented, as opposed to 496 last year. HMGS policy only allows 10% of these events to be non-historical. As such, some familiar fantasy/sci-fi events were on station to include Gnome Wars and All Quiet on the Martian Front. This latter game can best be described as the BBC mockumentary The Great Martian War reproduced on the tabletop, and is always popular. Otherwise, the big three of World War II, Napoleonic and American Civil War were once again the winners using most games by category, though a quick count by yours truly seems to indicate the Little Corsican and his minions may well have dethroned Patton and Rommel this year.

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The convention also has a robust tournament schedule, honchoed by Missouri's never aging and ubiquitous Scott Holder. Contests included North American Society for Ancient and Medieval Wargaming Ancients, Bolt Action, By Fire and Sword, Warhammer Ancients, Lord of the Rings, SAGA, Wargods, and of course the monolithic Flames of War World War II Late War National Tournament. What caught my eye was the number of younger gamers at these events, particularly at the Flames of War tables. Indeed, at the first table I stopped by, one gent who was under 30 was being hard-pressed by his opponent who was only 14. Warhammer fantasy and Warhammer 40K are consistently absent from the tourney program, and this year was no different.

Other events sponsored by HMGS include the Hobby University, where kids, newbies and even experienced Grognards can take classes on painting or terrain preparation, or sign up for the Iron Paintbrush speed painting competition. Things like color mixing or horse painting are often on the program. Likewise, the Chapter also sponsors its own “War College” lecture program covering a variety of military history and gaming subjects. There were16 presentations this time around, such as a discussion on American Civil War Cavalry by Dr John Bonin of the US Army War College, while Britain’s Terry Brighten enlightened everyone on the Charge of the Light Brigade, Crimean style. All this, and the possibility of having your event awarded a PELA (pour encourage les autres) statue, will cost you only $ 30 for the entire weekend if you're an HMGS member, $50 if you're not. A bargain either way.

I hosted two games this year, both inspired by the 1866 Seven Weeks War battle of Skalitz which pitted Prussian Needle Guns against Austrian bayonet powered ferocity. The system is the second (and last) expansion module to my own, highly successful (no really it is) Age of Eagles Napoleonic rules, which are based on Rich Hasenauer’s Fire & Fury. The module will be totally digital and cover European warfare from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution through to the 1914 Guns of August. Working title is Age of Valor. My games were thus both advertisements and playtests, and I was quite pleased with the results. The Prussians won both times as they should, quite handily on the first battle, but with a bit of tough going on the second. In a remarkable display of coincidence, the first game lasted exactly as long in game time as the historical battle in real time. Further, the ending casualty counts were within two dozen of historical numbers for both sides.

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Otherwise I rekindled friendships, stayed up too late and ate (Drunk? This feels like it should be 'drunk'- ED) too much. And as usual I went over budget in the vendors’ hall. Did I forget to mention there is also a flea market? I usually pick up one or two items in several categories even though I rarely need them. Since this is a cottage industry; one never knows when an item might disappear completely. I found a French book on the Ottoman Army prior to 1912 by Leon Lamouche, which will help immensely with the Balkan Wars chapter of my new module (score!). Outside the tabletop world, I grabbed the last boardgame in die Weltkrieg series from Decision Games, and even a couple of dark blue convention T-shirts for me and the Mrs. I rarely ever do this, but this year the design was a very pleasant Victorian theme featuring British lancers at Balaklava so I made an exception. All in all I spent no more than . . . well, I’m sure I can pay it off before Historicon '17.

Change is afoot, however, as next year’s convention will be the last in Fredericksburg. Rumors are already abound about moving back to the heartland, some indicating the Poconos, others Edison, NJ. Regardless, unless Historicon moves to the dark side of the moon, I’ll be there. OK, even if it does, I’ll still try to make it. Until then there is Fall In to prepare for with its theme of Poland at War: from Duchy to Republic. Did I mention I love Winged Hussars? No? Well let me tell you, I love Winged Hussars... (Ok Bill, we get it - ED)

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