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 its ninth year. The event takes place on Jan. 14 and 15, with a kick-off event (the delightfully-named “So You Meet in a Tavern”) at Mason’s Brewing Company on Jan. 13.
This year’s event’s official title is “SnowCon IX: The Fellowship of the Con.” 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. 12 - $25 for a Saturday pass, $15 for Sunday and $40 for the weekend. Passes will also be available onsite during the event; $30 for Saturday, $20 for Sunday and $45 for the weekend. In addition, SnowCon offers day-only Observer passes at half-price for those unsure if they want to participate; 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.
Gibran Graham and Monique Bouchard are co-organizers of Snowcon, having been driving forces behind the event since its inception back in 2009.
“The event has really grown in the past few years,” said Graham. “We started at the Black Bear Inn in Orono, but we moved to the Cross Center three years ago; that was a big leap and size of space and potential growth and with anything that's been going on and you move to a different place, you know there's you got kind of feel it out. I think that we worked out some of our own organizational snags with how we run the event in a different space [and have gotten a] good response from a lot of attendees that come every year.”
That increase in space has also led to growth in terms of attendees – the numbers just keep going up.
“We’ve seen a lot of newer people in the last couple of years,” Graham said. “Our pre-registration for this year has been great and we’ve been seeing a lot of new names alongside all of the old friends and people that we generally consider family at this point.”
A lot of these people come from the Bangor area and Maine in general, but there are plenty of SnowCon attendees who come from much farther afield. Some come from all over New England to take part, others make their way south from Canada. This year’s con will see people coming from at least as far as Arizona. So while SnowCon is very much a locally-focused creature, it definitely carries a wider appeal among game lovers.
So what about those games? What exactly can a newcomer to SnowCon expect? A lot of like-minded folks excited to play whatever and whenever, according to Bouchard.
“SnowCon has a reputation of having gamers who are serious, but also aiming to have fun,” she said. “The type of personalities we have at SnowCon are diverse and adventurous. A lot of these people aren’t necessarily married to one particular game; they really have a spirit of ‘Well, I want to try that new thing so let’s try it!’ People will sit down with their favorite game and show others how to play and then learn how to play someone else’s favorite game and so on.”
SnowCon might not put up a huge number in terms of gross attendance, but in terms of hours spent, it certainly measures up to some of the bigger events we see in the region.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like you’re at camp,” said Bouchard. “You’re in this place with all of these people who love the same things you love and you’re just invested in all of it – the camaraderie, the game playing, the vendors, all of it.”
That unique attitude has proven particularly helpful to the many game designers who have brought their products to SnowCon over the years. These individuals and companies arrive looking to test their games, to see what works and what doesn’t – and this convention has a strong reputation in that arena as well.
“These folks come here to put their game in front of an audience,” said Graham. “They play test their games and get a chance to work out the kinks while also promoting their campaigns or their Kickstarters that are soon to be launched; they can gauge interest in advance.”
“It’s really cool to have the chance to be in on the ground floor for something like that,” Bouchard added. “Something like “Rowboat” (a card game tested at one of the first SnowCons) went on to be very popular after we were the creators’ very first convention.”
As you might imagine, making something like SnowCon happen year after year isn’t the easiest task. There’s a lot of planning that goes into pulling off an event of this scale, but while Graham and Bouchard (and many other volunteers) admit that it’s hard work, they also make it clear that it’s something that they love.
“It’s all volunteer-driven,” said Bouchard. “It’s not like anyone is drawing any kind of salary to make this happen. There are no fabulous perks – I think we get a T-shirt out of it. It’s very much a labor of love.”
“A labor of love and community,” added Graham.
Bouchard and Graham are far from the only ones who are volunteering their time to build a SnowCon. Lest we forget, these games aren’t always designed to run themselves – someone has to be in charge. That’s a big reason why SnowCon offers early registration for gamers who are looking to run a game, whether it’s a role-playing campaign or a strategy board game that takes hours to play.
“Our game masters are all volunteers as well,” said Graham. “These are people who paid to be here and they’re doing this as a way to contribute to this wonderful community that we’ve built together.”
“When we say ‘GM,’ we’re talking about all kinds of games,” Bouchard added. “Role-playing games or board games, we use the term for everybody. For them, it’s an opportunity to share something that they’re passionate about. It’s a chance to share that thing you love; anyone who has spent a Christmas morning with a game that no one else wanted to play can really understand the value of being around a bunch of people who just want to play games.”
Ultimately, as many as a third of attendees wind up leading the charge on at least one game. It’s the sort of thing that happens with an inclusive and collaborative community.
Now before you start to think that SnowCon is a strictly regimented experience, let’s be clear – while there are definitely blocks of time devoted to some specific games, the reality is that there are scores of people all looking to do something different. And thanks to a substantial game library, there are plenty of chances to just play … whatever. You might be signed up for one thing, only to discover a new game that you’re dying to try or an old one that you remember fondly.
In terms of the breakdown between RPGs and board games, it varies from year to year. And while the initial take is that RPGs will be the more plentiful this year, there’s no doubt that the dynamic could shift significantly depending on what particular games happen to capture the imaginations of attendees.
And speaking of RPGs, one of the more entertaining aspects of SnowCon is what’s called “Iron GM.” This competition pits some of the area’s best game masters against each other in a test of skills. It’s actually a wide-scale event that culminates in the crowning of a national champion; SnowCon serves as a qualifier for a regional competition.
“Iron GM Local has been a beloved part of SnowCon,” said Bouchard. “Our winner goes to the Iron GM Regional competition at a convention in Massachusetts in February. Basically, you get three different topics – a monster, an emotion and a piece of geography or something similar – and you have one hour to create a game using only that information. Players get one sentence to guide them in their character development and then away they go.
“The players are given a rubric to judge the quality of the game,” she continued. “The GM with the highest score moves on to the next level.”
(Note: Local GM Chris Pierce has a particularly strong Iron GM game; he was crowned the national champion back in 2014 and has placed highly in a number of other years.)
But really, it all comes back to creating that community. Bouchard and Graham and all of the other people who devote their time and energy to making SnowCon happen – they do this because it’s a chance to share something that they love.
“It has been nine years that we’ve been doing this,” said Graham. “We’ve watched people who were at the first SnowCons start their own families and now we’re seeing them become a part of our larger family.
“It’s all been a sort of happy accident,” he continued. “We wound up with a convention that is big enough for you to be able to do just about whatever you want, but small enough that you don’t feel lost the way you might at some of the really big events.”
“And we’re very proud of the equitable blend of male and female attendees,” said Bouchard. “We’re very proud that we have a culture that is fairly balanced. Based on some of the feedback we’ve gotten from other people, that isn’t universally true.”
“We’re very inclusive at SnowCon,” Graham added. “It is welcoming both to people who are experienced players as well as the novices. The experienced players at the convention are always looking to help and to evangelize games; they want to everyone to have as good a time as they’re having.”
“It’s not just for people who are already heavy gamers,” Bouchard said. “It’s also for the person who maybe used to play D&D in high school or college and thinks it might be fun to try it again. And maybe that person sits down for a few hours and has a fun nostalgia trip and realizes that it isn’t for them. But maybe that interest is rekindled, and if it is, well – they’re surrounded by people who will be happy to help. Maybe even people to play with going forward.”
Trying to list all of the gaming opportunities taking place at SnowCon over the weekend would be a fool’s errand. Suffice it to say that if there’s a game you want to play, you’ll probably find other folks looking to play – or at least willing to give your favorite a try.
Passion for the things that we love is almost always an admirable quality. It certainly is in this case; Bouchard and Graham make it clear with every word that they are thrilled with what SnowCon has become and hope only that it continues to grow in the years to come.
As a wise man once said, game recognizes game. And one thing is for certain – SnowCon’s got game.
(The end of this interview was spent playing a couple of rounds of a resource-driven board game called Takenoko that revolved around gardening and pandas. You cultivate gardens that grow bamboo that the panda eats, but you have to irrigate and there’s a die that controls the weather and it was a bunch of nonsense that was nevertheless a delight. Show up at SnowCon and ask nicely and I’ll almost guarantee that Gibran will happily teach you how to play. For more information about the convention and its offerings, visit snowconmaine.com or look for SnowCon on Facebook.)