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A decade of dice – SnowCon X

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A decade of dice – SnowCon X (edge photo by Kevin Bennett)

BANGOR – Game enthusiasts from all over the region are poised to descend on Bangor. The Cross Insurance Center is playing host to SnowCon, the locally-born gaming convention that is marking ten years. The event takes place on Jan. 13 and 14, with a kick-off event (the delightfully-named “So You Meet in a Tavern” – this year’s gathering is a “Pirate vs. Ninja Trivia Party,” which sounds like a hoot) at Mason’s Brewing Company on Jan. 12.

Games will be played at the CIC starting at 8 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, with things wrapping up at 11 p.m. on Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday.

Gaming passes are available online through Jan. 11 - $30 for a Saturday pass, $20 for Sunday and $45 for the weekend. Passes will also be available onsite during the event; $35 for Saturday, $25 for Sunday and $50 for the weekend. In addition, SnowCon offers day-only Observer passes for just $10 for those unsure if they want to participate; those passes can be upgraded to Gaming passes at any time. Kids under 12 get in free with a paid adult, and SnowCon also features what they call a “Family Cap,” meaning that no family will be charged for more than four passes, regardless of size. Finally, SnowCon offers free admission on Sunday to full-time educators and current military personnel.

For the uninitiated, SnowCon is an annual celebration of all things gaming. It is devoted to the enjoyment of games of all stripes. Role-playing games, board games, card games, you name it – if you like playing games, then SnowCon has got something for you.

Building something that lasts for a decade – particularly a volunteer-driven cultural event like this one – is no small feat. Gibran Graham, Monique and Drew Bouchard have been key figures in bringing Snowcon to life every year. There’s a lot of sweat equity invested on all their parts, but one gets the impression that they’d do it all again and more besides. Passion is what keeps something like Snowcon alive and thriving for 10 years – and this group has passion to spare.

Here, in their own words (along with a few from a special guest), are some thoughts on Snowcon – how it all came about, what the last 10 years have meant and what we might see in the years to come.

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TME: How does it feel to have built something that has lasted such a long time and become such an eagerly anticipated part of the area’s cultural scene?

Gibran: SnowCon launching into its tenth year and continually growing its audience has a lot to do with the strong and welcoming gaming community that we have in this area. It feels great to be a part of that and fun watch how diverse it becomes every year.

Monique: It’s funny: it feels like new every year and so it’s actually kind of amazing when I sit down and think that we’re about to kick off the tenth one. What feels most amazing is that we have an event - but we made a community. SnowCon feels more like that to me. Sometimes it even feels like a family.

Drew: I think it’s nice that we’ve built something that people want, find valuable and want to enjoy. 

TME: What made you want to create an event like SnowCon?

Gibran: There had been nothing like it in this region and a lack of gaming events altogether in the area for some time. SnowCon originally popped out of Monique’s head and heart and it’s been a great journey successfully bringing it to life for the past 10 years.

Monique: It keeps coming down to community for me. I had friends who played this role-playing game called “Deadlands” and I never had time to play it. I was musing that I wished I could just rent a place and invite everyone to play a pile of games during a day so I could finally play everything I wanted to while hanging out with all our friends. It was suggested that maybe it could be bigger than just our friends, and so we gave it a try. [And] a lot of people came who I didn’t know at all. Clearly, we’d tapped into something that our community needed. Of course, I didn’t get play Deadlands until SnowCon Six because I was, well, running SnowCon.

Drew: Originally, we wanted to share games we liked with our friends so we could game with them. The irony of this is that we don’t usually get to game with them at our own convention because we’re running the convention. 

TME: When you started, did you think you’d still be doing this 10 years later?

Monique:  Ten years was kind of a fantasy for me. Like, oooooo ten years - that’s a legacy! I don’t know that I expected that we’d survive this long, and yet, here we are doing the thing again. As Drew said, “more people kept coming so we just kept doing it.” 

I’ve also watched bigger, fancier things come - and then they’ve gone. I feel like we’re “the little convention that could” in that we were fortunate to not only have SnowCon as an event but also in the community that it’s brought together. I think we’re Maine’s longest-running event that’s purely focused on social, person-to-person, tabletop gaming. 

Gibran: When we started, we had no idea what we were doing. Some would say we still don’t. Ha! The first few years we were always focused on the single upcoming event, hoping to pull it together the best we could. It wasn’t long though that we started saying things like “Here’s an idea for next year,” or “What do you want to do for SnowCon 10?”

Drew: I don’t think I ever thought that far ahead. We did it once and we just kept doing it and more people kept coming so we kept doing it.

TME: What are some ways that SnowCon has grown and evolved in the 10 years since you first started?

Gibran: Our audience grows every year, and not just in total number. Today we see more younger players and families than ever and are also quite proud of the male/female player ratio and equitable it is. We are also excited to see SnowCon becoming a place for new game developers to demand and playlets their games in front of new audiences. This year we have a dozen game designers joining us in Demo Alley.

Monique:  In the beginning we tried to do some things that we thought were “expected” at Cons. Featured guests, authors, workshops, movies, and other special programming never seemed to take off because people just wanted to play games. We quickly realized that we could offer a very pure experience that was really focused on the goal: people playing games together across a table. That’s what people want so that’s what SnowCon does.

Our audience has grown sometimes literally -- we have families whose kids have been at SnowCon for years and who are running games themselves now. I love hearing feedback about how friendly SnowCon is, how open people are to new things, how welcoming our attendees are, how helpful everyone is. But again, it’s community, right? We had folks come all the way from Arizona, regular convention professionals, and they told us it was the friendliest convention with the nicest people they’d ever encountered. I think they’re right. 

Drew: For one, we’ve gotten much bigger than when we started. So much so that we had to move from our original location at the Black Bear Inn to the Cross Insurance Center. We’ve also developed a consistent fan base who keep coming back year after year. 

(Note: At this point, Jesse – Monique and Drew’s son – joined in the conversation, a young man who has literally grown up with Snowcon.)

Jesse:  It’s certainly gotten more space and more people, definitely. More families have come and now they’re all playing games together. Our game library has expanded … and I’m not under the game library table any more. 

Monique: When we had the first SnowCon, Jesse was an infant - just over six months old - and he spent most of the first SnowCon under the game library in his car seat basket asleep.

TME: Are there any specific highlights from previous years that really stand out for you?

Gibran: The highlights every year are the faces of joy that I see in the gaming hall. From people enjoying the games they are playing, to meeting up with other players they see each year, to new attendees that are discovery new games and the fact that there are other people just like them that can enjoy playing games all weekend long.

Drew: Adding Iron GM Local to our schedule. It allowed us a way of closely interacting with another convention, TotalConfusion (TotalCon), which has been a great friend to us, expanding the gaming community and introducing local people to another good regional gaming con that’s more than 30 years old now.

Monique:  I love our “So You Meet in a Tavern” Friday mixer. I always had a great time doing “nerdprov” and loved watching people laugh. It’s still an event that everyone gets a kick out of, though it’s been a lot of things from improv to karaoke to trivia, it’s always been a great way to start the weekend with friends and the SnowCon community. Having Sax Carr help me create that “nerdprov” experience for both the audience and the “volunteer GMs” was fantastic.

I do get a swell of pride for game designers who have come to SnowCon. We’ve seen the Rowboat card game make Games Magazine’s top 100 games list --and we were their first gaming convention with product. Quest for the Antidote has gotten lots of recent praise and that game was beta tested at SnowCon in 2013! Mission to Planet Hex came last year with a game printed on paper and now I can buy the game --and have the pleasure to know that my own personal feedback is reflected in a slight redesign of the cards. That’s really cool, you know, to have helped refine gameplay of something that will bring so many people pleasure and fun! 

Jesse: Having a good time with my friends I don’t usually get to see, playing the giant version of a laser robot game when the people are the game pieces, and when Flip Florey made us a life-size balloon Jabba the Hut for SnowCon IX. 

TME: What’s the timeline when it comes to putting together this event? I assume things ramp up as you get closer to the actual date, but is this something that is on your respective radars year-round? What’s that process like?

Monique: So the first one we did in under three months. Maybe two. I honestly have no idea how we managed it. We were fortunate - Tom Palmer at the Black Bear Inn agreed to let us pay for the space after the Convention; we just had to pay the deposit beforehand. We were certain it would be successful, but it was also a vote of confidence in our plan and I personally have always appreciated that belief and confidence in our idea. It was also just me, Gibran and Drew back then in the beginning, with a bunch of friends who helped (like Jessica Sleeth, who’s smiling face I see at the registration table every year.)

It’s a bit different now - we have a team of volunteer staff. We are consensus-driven and everyone has their own area of work. There are things that we plan. We each have ownership of particular parts. We worry together - do we have enough games, enough registrations, how’s the player/schedule ratio, what’s the game mix? Of course, it nearly always is just fine - but we think about all of that.

But it always comes down like an avalanche in many ways, right before the event. I think that’s just the nature of event-running. 

Drew: After the con happens we usually have a few weeks to decompress and process. We try to debrief and see what worked well and not so well. We’ve been meeting about every other week since early spring to discuss and plan. We have to consider feedback from attendees, we have to come up with a theme, color schemes for web and t shirts, art for the shirts, revamp the materials, game submission forms and that everything has the correct year on it.

(meaningful look at Monique)

Monique: I’m notorious for sending a “final” thing to Gibran only to have him send it back because I’ve left last year’s date, or some part of last year’s date, on something. Someday maybe we’ll hire a designer who has time to proofread her stuff.

Gibran: It’s a true alchemical concoction and schedule. To tell you the process would be like giving you the recipe to our secret sauce. Bwahahaha! Yes, we are in planning discussion throughout the year though things start to heat up when the snow has melted.

TME: I’m fascinated by the idea of the Catan Tournament Qualifier. What does such a tournament entail? And what was the process that you had to go through to procure what I assume is a fairly coveted hosting spot? Also, will there be an Iron GM competition at this year’s Con?

Gibran: The Catan Tournament Qualifier is a spot we had to secure with the game maker. We’re very excited to have a tourney of this caliber, though we have hosted Catan regional pre-qualifiers in the past. With this one, the winner gets a free trip to Origins Game Fair to compete in the National Tournament. And yes, Iron GM is happening again this year.

Monique: I love that we have this thing. It makes us feel connected to the larger convention circuit and honestly, being a regional event for something like this is really cool. Plus, win a trip to Origins? That’s a really, really awesome thing!

Drew:  We’re working on the secret ingredients for [Iron GM] at the moment. For those unfamiliar, we give game masters three story elements that they have to use to create a three-hour role-playing game with on the spot with only one hour to prepare. Most people underestimate the amount of energy and work that it takes to run these games and the amount of creativity required to do that in an hour for a group of gamers who will judge you - it’s incredibly challenging. 

(Note: SnowCon regular Christopher Pierce actually won the Iron GM World Championship back in 2014, so, you know – these folks come to play.)

TME: What about your personal gaming experiences? What was the first game you fell in love with? And what games currently have your attention?

Drew: I’ve enjoyed RPGs since high school. I started off playing D&D with some friends of mine - actually, just yesterday (Sat. Jan 6) we met in Portland to complete the game we started about 25 years ago, with some very extended pauses in between sessions. We won. We’ll probably start a new game in the next year or so.) My personal favorite game is Shadowrun which combines elements of fantasy and futuristic cyberpunk and is the one game I’ve probably run the most for players over the years. 

Jesse: The first one I remember playing is Dice and Dudes. (This is a game that Monique and Drew created themselves that they started playing with Jesse when he was just three years old.) The first one I really remember in detail would be Hero Kids. One of my favorite games is definitely PBL Robots. Because they’re giant mechs, or course, and what’s not to like about a game of giant mechs?

(Note: The creators of PBL Robots are from Portland and have attended SnowCon in recent years.)

Monique: When I was little I’d play games like Chinese Checkers, Word Cubes or Scrabble with my mom. She must have been incredibly patient. I’ve learned what I like in current games - quick and easy-to-play deck games like Fluxx and Dragonwood are fun - games that are lightly competitive but also have a luck element. 

I think I fell in love with Scrabble - as a board game it’s my first love. However, I really found my place in role playing games. I first played D&D online in MUDs (multi-user-dungeons) and later with my friend Nate Gilbert’s D&D group. I loved role playing games, because they incorporate creativity, theatre, imagination, strategy, and cooperation and because they, in purest form, also involve a bunch of people together, doing something amazing. They create shared stories, narratives, jokes and memories. I’ve had a lot of “remember when we...” stories from games. There is usually laughter and often food. All good things. 

Many people know that I fell in love because of a game as well - Shadowrun is how I met my husband, one of the best storytellers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I’ve been the beneficiary of countless adventures in many realms, eras, and worlds and now it’s something we do as a family. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to live so many fascinating lives around a table with just dice, a pencil, paper, and imagination!

Gibran: Though I played D&D in middle school, I’m more of a board gamer and have always loved playing them. With SnowCon, I have been introduced to so many games over the years, but a couple of my favorites will always be Catan and Talisman.

TME: Creating something that lasts for a decade is something of which anyone would be proud. What sorts of things would you like to see from SnowCon over the next 10 years? Are there any changes – small or large – that you would like to see? And what would be your biggest pie-in-the-sky over-the-top wish for SnowCon going forward?

Gibran: We still have so much more room to grow at the Cross Insurance Center. One day I would love to pack that place to the gills with people rolling dice. Continuing to grow our Demo Alley and host some major tabletop tournaments would be amazing too.

Drew: We continue to look for a really player-friendly game management system, which of course, is a niche item. My wish upon the star would be for every single person who attends to run ONE game. If that happened, we’d have more games than we knew what to do with and nobody would have to run more than one.

Monique:  In the next decade I’d like to see SnowCon grow enough to host more than our annual event, but become a year-round community of gaming and a respected resource for those looking for information about games, gamers, gaming culture and the regional gaming community. 

I’d like to get the word out more --I always meet someone who loves games yet has never heard of us, even after a decade. I want those folks to come and find their tribe! 

I want us to be THE convention for new games in development, a friendly, savvy crowd which can provide earnest, insightful feedback and help make the newest games coming to market even more awesome. I’d like to have our convention be a “go to” and a “must attend” for indie designers who are refining, kickstarting, launching or preparing for larger conventions. And I think that the attendees and game designers would both benefit from this-- and I love that prospect! (And I’d love experienced game developers to come too, to mentor and teach and just play!) 

As for pie-in-the-sky... Ok. I’ll level with you. I dream that a couple famous gamers will come and play some D&D with me. (Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert, and Nathan Fillion, I’m talking to you.)

TME: Finally – is there anything else you think our readers would like to know about SnowCon and/or the people who make it happen?

Drew: It’s really a labor of love. We don’t get paid for any of this (laughs). Any profit goes toward doing more things with SnowCon. 

Gibran: We’re people who like to play games just like you and SnowCon continues to be known for how welcoming our attendees are to new players, young players and closet game players. All of us on the organizing team are dedicated to making sure everyone has a good time and meets a game or other players that they will enjoy sitting with around a table without being screen-dependent.

Monique: This year we’re doing a small project for a group called “Water for Puerto Rico / Agua para Puerto Rico” -- I’ve worked with this group to provide aid: water filters, purification tablets, basic medicine and first aid, etc. After a conversation with our contact in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who delivers all these to rural areas, we recognized that when you don’t have electricity, it can get kind of boring. So we will be having a game drive and sending all the games to Puerto Rico. We’re encouraging decks of cards, easy-to-play classic games like checkers, chess, backgammon (esp. travel sizes), and of course dominos (the lighter weight, the better though!) 

We’ve never done something like this so I’m excited about it. 

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It has been a remarkable decade for SnowCon and the folks who make it happen. For 10 years, Bangor has been lucky enough to play host to this wonderful event.

But really, it all boils down to the love of the game, according to Monique Bouchard.

“SnowCon is for everyone - no matter who you are or what age you are,” she said. “We do this because we love games and we love the people who play them.”

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