Convention Report: Fall In 201920 Nov 2019 1
I have just returned home from the 2019 HMGS Fall In historical miniatures wargaming convention in its new home at the Valley Forge (PA) Casino Resort, or VFCR for short. The event ran from Thursday night 14th November til noon on Sunday 17th November, and usually hosts between 1500 and 2000 of the faithful for shopping, gaming, history, and sizzling conversation. It’s the smallest and junior of the HMGS big three conventions, and the good news is that despite the new location, attendance was up 7.5 % according to the HMGS President.
The weird news, for my sanity at least, is that I would have bet cash money the convention saw a dramatic drop of feet coming through the door. I’ll explain why later, but let’s get started on the many other aspects of what IMHO was one of the best-run HMGS conventions in a proverbial month of Sundays.
The New Digs
While HMGS provided all of its regular attractions such as the Hobby University for learning the tricks of the trade, the annual Toys for Tots auction, and the War College for mind expanding seminars, without a doubt the real star this time was the venue itself. The VFCR is not really a single site, but a complex of three separate buildings connected via a tunnel through the center structure. On one end is the Radisson Hotel tower which has a good 10 plus floors of accommodations, but also underneath the first floor lobby a lower level chock full of ballrooms, meeting rooms and speciality areas such as the Vault karaoke theater. At the other end is the Casino Tower, a building similar to the Radisson but with two levels under the ground floor mezzanine (look it up; I had to), the first housing a new casino plus food court featuring a 24/7 Dunkin’ Donuts (brilliant!), plus an uber upscale restaurant. Underneath that was a level with more ball and meeting rooms while joining the two was the single floor Event Center. This final segment holds the tunnel, more ball and meeting rooms, plus large theaters and conference halls, such as the one playing host to Appelbaum Childhood Ed Training during our toy soldier festivities. And FWIW, if my Samsung Gear is correct, it’s about 459 steps, or just under a quarter mile, between the two towers.
HMGS used the VFCR many moons ago for a single year for a single convention, but that’s ancient history. The facility I stayed at this past weekend was ultra-modern in design, exceptionally well maintained and run by a staff where the words 'professional' and the RHAs motto of 'Ubique' immediately come to mind. Everyone was immensely helpful, with suited management more than willing to take the role of servers and bussers when the Radisson’s restaurant seemed overwhelmed by the HMGS onslaught. The Tavern was obviously a little pricey being restaurant fare, but the food was excellent with beef Stroganoff soup and chocolate lava cake to die for. I sat at the bar for most meals, and the jovial banter of the mixologists was worth any price of attendance. Besides, HMGS provided 10% meal discount coupons to everyone via swag bags (a much better option IMHO) and the casino food court countered that with 15% off if you were a vet. Rooms were spacious, refurbed and parking was plentiful. Personal facilities were numerous and always clean, with not a single piece of plumbing out of order the entire weekend. Given the HMGS demographic of 85% male, 5% female and 10% Sus Scrofa, that was damn impressive.
The layout of the place was its most unique characteristic, in both a good and bad way. The VFCR is YUGE, and it seems obvious in terms of tables and rooms, HMGS got hold of way more than it needed for even 4000 people plus Historicons. But this meant gaming areas were spacious with extra tables for equipment and plenty of space between those holding the actual toys. Lighting was excellent and heating was never an issue, as was loading since the elevators were fast and never had a breakdown.
Conversely, the large dispersed nature of the site made navigation confusing and often demanded a fairly good hike. I directed (thank you US Army map reading and orienteering) at least three groups to a different level in the other tower as they simply could not find the games they signed up for. In all our other sites the gaming, food and retail areas are in close proximity, so having to search for anything is pretty easy. This also means trips to the vendor hall, shopping and back aren’t ¾ mile, a significant point given the average HMGSer BMI. Seriously, there were two certified EMTs on location during convention hours, so obviously someone took notice. Finally for me as a writer, the dispersed nature of the site made it very difficult to estimate things like attendance, particularly since the VFCR had other events going on simultaneously and a casino drawing in non-gamers as well.
Note to HMGS – provide a detailed map on the Website prior to start next year.
Yet overall, I think the good outweighed the bad. Despite initial reservations, I was quite pleased with the facilities, made even better by a very exceptional HMGS volunteer staff. I’ve often considered Convention Director Dan Murawski’s management style to be a little too 'fly by the seat of your pants' for me, but give credit where credit is due. Bad news travels fast in HMGS land, and I heard nary a peep outside an inaccurate PEL entry. The staff was efficient, helpful and all processes seemed to work without incident, to include the dreaded self-registration stations, which always had a volunteer nearby to help. Seriously, this was one well run convention and both the site and convention staff were big reasons why.
In the Trenches
Now, remember I said I thought the con was under attended? The first inkling I got of this was when the vendor hall opened at noon Friday. I NEVER show up to get in the door at opening. Given there is normally a huge line forming at least 30 minutes prior and a sometimes outside location, I figure sashaying down around half past noon is just fine. Not this time. I wanted inside the door as quickly as possible to grab a copy of some new Napoleonic rules (sorry deRuyter, you gotta be fast) before they sold out. Yet when I got there about 10, I was the only one waiting to get in. When the flag dropped, I doubt if there were a dozen people behind me waiting as well. This didn’t strike me as odd until later.
Why? Because I was too interested in spending my shekels before another churl got what I wanted. I used an about to expire Kia VISA gift card (for answering a recall notice) to grab the Bataille Empire rules, while my 40% discount Old Glory Army card allowed me to finish up my 10 mm pike and shot collection. After buying some new Thirty Years War flags from the Dayton Painting Consortium, it was off to Wally's Basement flea market next day to finally spend that crisp hundred-dollar bill I’ve been carrying around for at least six cons. There I got two shrink wrapped Compass Games I’ve been looking for, tactical World War II fare on the Spanish Civil War (a las Barracadas!) and the fall of France (la Bataille de France 1940). This cost me $75.00 for both as a package deal. As a comparison, the two games together sell for $155.00 retail, so a trip to Wally’s is always a smart idea.
Admittedly, and assuming my schematic math is correct, the number of vendors was down this year, 48 to 42, but not for any malicious reason other than life got in the way. Some proprietors are just getting too far along in years, others make too much money online and at least one, Doug Kline and his Battlefield Terrain Concepts, simply had real, “put food on the table” employment responsibilities that preempted his appearance. That’s a shame for both him and me because given the number of shekels I spend at his booth every con; I’m sure putting his kids through college is easier.
Finally as for games, I wasn’t able to get an accurate count before press time, but there were likely less as well for both regular and tournament contests, the latter boasting Flames of War (Hammer) and Art de la Guerre as particularly popular. I can tell you that the convention program had 39 pages listing non-tourney events and with an average of 10 per page, so that’s around 400 or so. By comparison, the 2018 program had 45 pages worth of events, thus it would seem fewer games were scheduled. Nevertheless, don’t take this as an HMGS “ex Cathedra” count. In general, the big three again seemed to be World War II, the American Civil War and Napoleonics, but there were other historical eras of note and some absolutely awesome mega-games. In the latter category were fantastic set ups on Gordon at Khartoum and the siege and sack of Carthage by the Romans.
I was supposed to host two games but only one came off, and that’s what triggered my – evidently erroneous – concern about low attendance. My games again were pike and shot, this time on the 1674 battle of Seneffe between the Dutch with allies against Louis XIV, using the Twilight of the Sun King/Divine Right rules in 10 mm. And again, all of my games were in the Carnage & Glory club room, where the lads have adopted me as both a kindred spirit and a necessary evil to help fill their tables. It's also nice to be in a room where there are five to six GMs consistently running museum quality games with players on waiting lists convention after convention, because somebody might even notice me. Hell, the first night of the con these same GMs picked up at least two PELA (Pour encourager les Autres) awards from HMGS. My game also had its full complement of six players, so I was eager to continue the battle with a new set of budding Prince of Orange and Conde’s next morning.
Which was nobody. Zilch. Nada. Nyet. Nein. Fuhgeddaboudit. I tried two games this time because a lot of folks bugged me to sponsor more than one per small convention. So, at first, this sorta proved my point. Except everybody in the same room had the same experience, all day. In a room full of GMs who sponsor standing room only games every single convention (based on a core cadre of gamers who come to every show to play as many C&G games as possible), five of these same or similar games had not a single person show up. Two or three more had only a single participant in games made for eight, to the point where several GMs shut down their own offerings so one of them could proceed with the minimum number of players. This happens to everyone once and awhile, but not to these guys, and not all at once from one con to the next. In a post-game pow-wow we figured it had to be low attendance for the convention overall, especially since other GMs who normally have way more players than available spots experienced likewise. Also, several vendors I follow for research purposes reported very low sales (remember me standing at the door waiting to get in?), so it made sense. Did that mean we were hosting too many games at too many conventions, and give the enormous prep time involved, should start pulling back?
Then we hear John talk about a 7.5 % increase, and given the man is about as straight a shooter as I know, I believe him. OK, so maybe the personality of the typical gamer is changing vice the numbers. We don’t know, but I think we are all gonna give it one more shot at Cold Wars next year to insure this wasn’t a perfect storm anomaly. Stand by.
Well, that was distressing, the first of a troika. For me number two was stepping on and smashing a pristine piece of terrain I bought, while number three was missing my scheduled YouTube interview. Where I thought we were gonna meet up was not where they went, but fortunately the friendly folks from Little Wars TV were gracious enough to reschedule for Cold Wars 2020. Yes, I know my legions of followers are heartbroken they won’t be able to put a face and voice to literary genius, but God speed faithful soldier, it will be worth it (ahem).
Regardless, I had a super time, playing games, shopping, and meeting up with old friends, not to mention new ones. By this I mean none other than deRuyter66, whose pithy and profound prose often graces the hallowed halls of this Website’s forums. Truly, a bad day of wargaming always beats a great day of work and Fall In 19 was a really good three days of wargaming.
So, to those who stayed away because you remember times past at Valley Forge, you really owe it to yourself to visit next year. Things have changed dramatically for the better and even the distances involved have benefits, at least according to my cardiologist. He urged me to walk and walk and walk and I did. He also told me to always take the stairs and I did. OK, only when going down, but let’s not split hairs.
Click here for 175 photos from the convention, courtesy of the author.