Historicon 2019: Best One Yet?

By Bill Gray 17 Jul 2019 2

If there is one word that will stir up a veritable hornets’ nest in the ranks of the normally docile legions of American historical miniature wargamers, that word is Historicon, the flagship convention for the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS) and the largest event of its type in North America. If the topic comes up because of substantial change to anything associated with the convention, pitchforks may be gathered.

And lo and behold, this was a year of change for Historicon, held 11 – 14 July 2019 at the Lancaster County Convention Center, Lancaster, PA, a new location, and thus the very definition of change. Yet outside one stumble, the show went off fine for most attendees, to the point I think Historicon has found a new, vastly improved, and hopefully permanent home for many years to come. Here is my report...

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"Just the facts, ma'am" 

The meat of the Historicon 2019 story is the new venue, but there are a lot of garnishments that deserve mention as well. The thing to remember about Historicon is that, yes, there are loads of games, about 99.99 % participation, but also other events as well. One of these is the HMGS War College where members of both the wargaming community and academia fuse their efforts to give a series of lectures primarily on the military history behind the games people play. I counted 20 such events this year with such things like “19th Century Kriegspiel: A History of the Technology of Wargaming” by Robert Mosher, a 30 year State Department veteran, or “Eyes on the Yamato: US Intelligence and the Japanese Super Battleship” by John Prados, PhD, Senior Fellow and Project Director with the National Security Archive, George Washington University. Prados also contributed to the convention theme of Jungle Warfare with a lecture called “Perilous Spaces: Jungle Warfare in the South Pacific.”

Complementing the War College is the HMGS Hobby University where new recruits go thru basic training to learn the skills of the toy soldier, and Grognards return for some advanced and refresher training. Run by Director Emeritus and Legion of Honor member Heather Blush, there were – assuming I counted correctly – 84 events which included Tim Peaslee’s theme supporting lesson on Jungle Terrain, Todd Pressley’s presentation on Painting Shields, Bob Chicka on painting German Pea Dot camouflage and a lot more.

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Awards are also part of the show, and generally fall into three areas. The first is the announcement of the newest members of the HMGS Legion of Honor for distinguished service to the hobby, and this year the two new inductees were former Convention Director Frank Preziosa and distinguished wargames rules author Rick Priestly of Black Powder and Hail Caesar fame. This year also saw the Legion present its biannual Jack Scruby Award, the ultimate form of recognition in the hobby. Warlord Games founder John Stallard got the nod, joining ranks with such notables as Duke Seifried and Donald Featherstone. Nevertheless, that was then, and this is now, and for current gamemasters Christin Sciulli continued her administration of the Convention Awards Program. As with similar events there were trophies for Best of Show and Best Theme Game, but unique to HMGS a number of PELA awards. The acronym stands for Pour Encourager Les Autres and rewards GMs for games with top-flight visual presentation and fun rules that serve as encouragement to others. Finally, Wargames Illustrated’s Wayne Bollands was on hand to oversee the HMGS Painting Competition. I don’t have room to mention all the other winners here, but I will say that a game on the Viking siege of Paris absolutely floored me.

And of course there were tournaments, to include the ubiquitous Flames of War (Hammer)/Team Yankee event which evidently was a doubles tourney, thus explaining why British and Italians were taking on the Soviets. Ancient themed contests were in the majority with rules used including DBA, DBM, Art de la Guerre, Warrior, and Triumph. Outside these two large genres were tournaments using Field of Glory Napoleonics, Mortem et Gloriam, By Fire and Sword Polish Renaissance, Warhammer Historical for Chariot Wars, SAGA Dark Ages, Wargods and Middle Earth. A newcomer to the tournament scene was Blood and Plunder, a system set in an age of sail, pirate themed environment. Scott Holder managed the whole thing, now in his 30th year.

Yet the bulk of the festivities again were the non-tournament games, and direct from the Convention Director’s keyboard the breakdown was:

historicon 2019 games

Of those, two Pike & Shot games were events I hosted on the 1677 Franco-Dutch clash at Cassel using TWIGLET rules (pictures here). Both were oversubscribed, ended early and two of my own special awards for memorable play were presented. Called the Order of the Pink Pansy and with a pink 20-sided die as its scepter, the two French infantry commanders in the second contest stepped up to infamous glory. The first received his appointment by being the first player to break one of those 300 damn little pikes I had to glue for the game, the second for losing more French infantry regiments in the second game than were lost by BOTH sides in the first. We also said farewell to a longtime British gamer in our club, off to a new job posting in Spain, but only after proudly continuing his unbroken legacy of losing.

Nevertheless, I felt inspired enough to do what I said I wouldn’t and trotted off to the Wally’s Basement flea market where the good news was I found nothing of interest, and then to the Dealer Hall where the bad news was boy did I ever. There were 69 merchants to choose from and while there was the typical mixture of old and new, there were a couple of significant changes I noted. The first was that several traders were in larger booths than I have seen them in before, a tribute to the space afforded by the new barracks and perhaps the recognition that Historicon traditionally draws a lot of people. In this category notable was Casemate Publishing. I also noticed some vendors who had dropped out of attendance back on station, likely for the same reasons, and here Eureka/AB Miniatures were the lads who yet again grabbed my hard earned shekels. Yes, I fear the downward spiral of my spending has suddenly been reversed, but at least it was on merchandise I absolutely had to have like fleshing out my 10 mm pike and shot collection, more terrain from Battlefield Terrain Concepts (I swear I keep Doug in business), dice, World War I brigade packs in 12 mm (not fast enough Mark) and even a boardgame covering Austria’s final victory over the Russians in World War I from Decision Games, who always show up for this convention.

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And to top it off, the Little Wars folks were on hand to record everything for their YouTube Channel, as they have been for several cons now. Fortunately, my better half doesn’t watch YouTube. Well I hope she doesn’t, anyway, but for $35 US covering the entire event for HMGS members, what a deal.

HMGS Haupt Kaserne

OK, the entrée. Here are my personal thoughts on the new digs, and since everyone has different needs and expectations, its possible that “your mileage might vary.” A business professor once told me that a rule of thumb in retail is that a customer can have a product cheap, fast or good, and gets to choose two out of three. He also told me that cheap and fast was the American consumer’s default. Get prepared, this is NOT the Lancaster County Convention Center (LCCC) which was completed in 2009 for $178 million with 90,000 square feet of meeting space. Publicly owned, the LCCC is now integrated with the conjoined Marriott Penn Square, a 4.3 star out of five hotel.

When compared with the venerable Lancaster Host Resort, the difference is striking. It’s evident the LCCC is a standalone business, and not a secondary concern for a hotel. Its also evident that the people who run this place are professionals, and going out of their way to assist is part of the mantra that makes you want to return. The LCCC boasted brightly lit rooms and lots of elevators and escalators, rapidly fixed when needed, but then again the entire place was exceptionally well maintained. The facility is also huge, as evidence by the number of toilet facilities in house, something that was always a problem at the Host. They were also continuously cleaned (and given HMGS’ notorious 5% pig demographic, that’s impressive), while ice water dispensers not only came in pairs, but never, ever went empty. After hours, escorted custodial staff cleaned all areas, to include the Dealer Hall. And when I needed help getting my stuff through one of the doors from the parking garage, I had one young lady stop cleaning and damn near break her neck running to help me. The bottom line was that folks working to make the LCCC function properly were always evident, something I cannot say about the Host.

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Pretty much the same for the adjoining Marriott, and although I stayed elsewhere and only frequented their restaurant, I was impressed. The Penn Square Grille was pricy, but like the hotel very upscale with large meal portions and exceptional service, often provided by management who had no problem dropping into the trenches to help. How upscale? Think of pizza topped with duck confit or a breakfast buffet with smoked salmon and quiche. And if you wanted something not included, say eggs over easy vice scrambled, they made it for you with no change in price, sorta making the place a destination you want to frequent even if you are not a hotel guest. Otherwise the Central Lancaster Market and other grub hubs more reasonably priced were nearby. Coffee late at night? Go to the bar and grab a cup for free. And free coffee of the Irish Crème or Vanilla variety was available every morning, as were free hotel umbrellas if it rained.

Parking turned out to be a total non-problem for me, and I, being the cheap bastard I am, stayed in a Days Inn 10 minutes away. Yet I was able to park in the hotel garage every day with no problem, even though on Thursday and Friday I was competing with employees who worked downtown. Yes I got there early, that’s key, but I was able to unload and reload on Sunday more than easily, and did not need to use the HMGS managed loading area (and the volunteers were really on the dime this convention, so Ave! times XXV). Most of the GMs did not use the loading area as well, a good thing since some locals grabbed some of our reserved spaces when they shouldn’t. Otherwise, there was also a parking garage across the street barely a four minute walk away, and other parking places close by as well. And on top of it all, HMGS picked up your parking tab, although in a note to self, I’ll refrain from wearing my orange Cold Wars “Crew” badge holder in the future. Given volunteer shirts were the same color, I was asked to validate parking three times. Regardless, my Samsung Gear says I logged in about 15,000 steps less than I usually do at Historicon, and given the shape my legs are in, I’m happy.

Were there problems? Sure, one in particular that – with due respect to Spiderman Far from Home – I’ll call the HMGS Blip. HMGS was not able to grab all the rooms for this Historicon because of the LCCCs prior commitments, something that should not happen in the future.  This meant no club rooms, and although there was adequate space, the distance between tables was less than desired and the noise was rough, not at all helped by some churl with a bugle whom many wanted to put a contract on. It also meant that everyone had to be packed up and totally out of the two main gaming halls before midnight Saturday, although the program specified you could game until 1:00 am. This was due to another convention starting on Sunday with HMGS management evidently aware and planning for the situation by ensuring no games were scheduled after eight in the evening. Unfortunately other folks were not aware, to include the HMGS volunteer rank and file, and evidently not the gamers and gamemasters. Yes other places to game were available, such as the tables dedicated to board gaming, and yes, HMGS management did go to each and every GM to inform them at about five that afternoon.   But lots of folks did not know this, and as you might imagine, this did not go over well. True, the impact was minimal, but most were nonetheless miffed they had not been informed in advance so they might have prepared. Lesson for today – communications is everything and as one of my former commanders noted, “Bad news is not like wine. It does not get better with age.”

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Furlough

Yet all things considered, Chef de Convention Joby Miller delivered what I believe to be the best planned, best run event in the best facility HMGS has ever had. Comparisons with the Host were unavoidable to be sure, and were not long in coming. The new venue was too cold, too large, the layout too complicated, I got there at eleven in the morning and couldn’t get a place to park at the hotel, one of the hotel staff didn’t say “good morning” to me (not joking on this one). My advice to HMGS is to consider constructive criticism seriously, fix if legitimate, but otherwise chalk a lot of what you hear to what we in the military used to call “personal problems.”

I’ll close by saying I got a preliminary estimate of 2200 attendees from HMGS management, and I am very surprised. Perhaps some folks wanted to see how things worked out before they committed to another, different site. If that’s the case, I look forward to seeing you next year when you occupy one of the extra 110 new rooms going into the Marriott, or one morning at the new breakfast only café being built.  Just be advised that this year you missed one of the best.

NB: Click here for 250 plus more pictures from Historicon 2019.

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