“How To” is a series on tips and tricks for attending conventions all over the country. If you have a tip for us or a convention you’d like to see covered, please comment below!
GenCon has become a far different animal since its origins as the wargame brainchild of Gary Gygax back in 1968 – growing from Lake Geneva to Milwaukee to Indianapolis, it’s now become the longest running and largest gaming convention in the country. Encompassing a truly dizzying array of gaming – board, pen and paper, larp, video, you name it! – The Best Four Days in Gaming™ is a gamer nerd’s dream! This year, GenCon will be held August 2-5 at the Indianapolis Convention Center (100 S Capitol Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46225) and spilling over into Lucas Oil Stadium. You may be asking yourself, “why post about how to attend GenCon in January if the event isn’t until August?” Because it’s a hugely popular event and to maximize your enjoyment of it, you need to start planning now. For general convention information and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.gencon.com/.
Getting to Indianapolis
The closest airport is Indianapolis International Airport, with plenty of taxi and shuttle options, just try to get there Wednesday night or earlier Thursday, before traffic gets really serious. You can also fly into Chicago, where flights are often much cheaper, but then you have the remaining 200mi or so to drive.
Getting Around Indianapolis
With tens of thousands of people descending on Indianapolis, getting around during GenCon is a challenge. Your best bet is to just keep to the pavement: avoid having to drive/ride to the convention center if at all possible, and if you do, get into downtown early so that you can find parking. Parking is hard to come by after about midday Friday and Saturday, and many hotels will hold parking only for guests. Rideshare companies operate in Indianapolis, but surge prices will be high the whole weekend and cars might not be readily available during busy times, so plan accordingly.
There is a fantastic pedway connecting the convention center, mall, and several adjacent hotels and other buildings, so you can get around with relative ease while avoiding the summer heat. It can be a little difficult to navigate, so get yourself a map!
Remember what I said about getting around in Indy? Getting a hotel close to the convention center will make life a lot easier! There are several hotels that connect (directly or indirectly) to the convention center, which are obviously the most desirable options. They are also the hardest to get. GenCon does a lottery every year (February 11 this year) for spots in line to reserve hotel rooms in the GenCon blocks. If you’ve friended people through GenCon’s website, unfriend them temporarily and have everyone try for housing individually. This way, everyone gets a separate lottery number, increasing the chances of getting a good spot. Otherwise, you’re all lumped into one lottery number. Be sure to get a badge in a timely fashion in order to be in the lottery!
If you don’t get a room through the official lottery (which is likely), try to book elsewhere right away. There are more options just outside Indy, and you can drive/ride in each day (note the caveats in the Getting Around section above). It’s also worth checking AirBNB, especially if you have a large group. Once the lottery is over, keep an eye on GenCon online forums– people will often drop rooms in the months between the lottery and the con, so you can snap them up if you’re quick enough!
Badges & Event Registration
Badge registration for 2018 opens January 14. Last year, GenCon topped 60,000 individual attendees, with all badges selling out before the convention, so be sure to get on it!
In addition to having access to the event and its seemingly endless halls of game demos, vendors, cosplay, and random gaming, a badge allows you to register for ticketed events. Being one of the premier gaming events in the country, GenCon hosts some of the best events around, from advance screenings to larps written by professional screenwriters to table top games run by their creators. Needless to say, there are a lot of people trying to get in on these events, and often a very limited number of spaces, so you need to strategize.
There is an extensive list of events – peruse GenCon’s online event planner well before event registration opens May 6, 2018 to decide which ones you want to do. Note the time and event number, as some events have multiple occurrences. Checking GenCon forums and consulting veteran attendees is a good way to find out more information about events. There are descriptions on the website, but it’s helpful to know, for example, how different groups run their games. Keep track of your schedule as you select events: it’s easy to overestimate how many you’ll actually have time (and energy) for. Events might be located a mile apart, or you may need a break in between, and the registration system won’t let you book overlapping events.
Once you have your event list, gather your posse. Round up everyone you know who’s going to GenCon and friend them because the event lottery assigns each individual a place in line while allowing you to buy tickets for the whole group – more people maximizes the chances for getting the events you want. But this part’s a little weird: you friend them using their registration email address, they do the same, and then you each accept a request from the other. The system won’t recognize you as “friends” until you both accept your reciprocal requests.
Once that’s done, have everyone share what events they want and put those events on everyone’s wishlists before registration opens. Then make a date for the morning of registration. Set eight alarms. Cover your room in post-its. Whatever it takes. The second event registration opens, have everyone submit their wishlists. This will put each list in the system’s queue and allow you to buy tickets for available events once processed. Each person can buy a ticket for themselves, each friend, and a plus one.
There are two things to bear in mind when submitting wishlists: 1) thousands of people will be doing this at the same time, so it will take a while for your list to process (easily over an hour, so don’t refresh the page – just wait). 2) The GenCon website, even after all these years, is notoriously crappy. It freezes, it glitches, it duplicates tickets for the same people on two different wishlists. Patience is key. Set aside a few hours, have a mimosa, and wait to see which tickets are processed. Once that happens, you have a limited amount of time to purchase, so you’ll need to consult with your posse right away on who got what and who’s buying which ones.
In addition to the events you can’t live without, it’s a good idea to pick up a few generic tickets. Some events require only generics, but they can also get you into big events if there’s enough room. If there’s something you may want to go to, but you’re not sure, get generics, show up, and get in line to try your luck. This is a particularly good idea for things like Sunday morning events, when optimism may overpower realistic expectations of how early we’re actually willing to get up.
When you arrive at the convention, hit up badge pickup right away, as the lines can get long. Bring your ID (the very friendly desk staff will require it and, because of this, you’ll also need to set up your GenCon account under your legal name). You’ll receive your badge, a lanyard, and all the tickets you purchased (which may include your friends’ tickets if you bought them).
Try to imagine what tens of thousands of people converging on a few dozen eateries within the same couple of hours looks like … then bring snacks. Bringing your own food, eating at off times, and planning for meal times are important strategies for surviving the GenCon food situation. Fortunately, there are several food options in close proximity to the convention center.
Within the center itself are several food and drinks stands. The food’s predictably overpriced and middling quality, but the most accessible. My personal favorite are the food trucks that line up along Georgia St. – good variety, average prices for the convenience factor, and some seriously tasty food! The lines, however, can be intense, and you’ll be waiting outside, so plan for that. It’s not unusual to spend up to an hour waiting at some of the more popular trucks, so the earlier you get there, the better. The trucks come in shifts, usually noon-4pm and 5-8pm, but it will vary slightly by vendor.
There are also a number of nearby restaurants in a variety of price ranges. If you head a few blocks from the convention center, you’ll even find some that aren’t packed.
There aren’t a huge number of coffee places in downtown Indianapolis, and many aren’t open in the afternoon or on Sundays or whatever. So the coffee lines are also exceptionally long. If your hotel has a coffee maker or you can stomach instant, it’s not a bad idea. Starbucks will have lines out the door most of the weekend. The coffee place across the street from the convention center and adjacent to the food trucks usually sells iced coffee outside so you can avoid the lines inside.
The convention center and local hotels that host events have plenty, just find them before your event starts! There are maps all over the convention center, as well as help desks, so as long as you can find where you are, you can easily find a nearby restroom. (As far as I’m aware, the convention center and adjoining hotels do not have family or gender neutral restrooms.)
While cosplay is not at the forefront, GenCon attendees hold their own in the realm of costuming. If you really want to test your skills, try the costume contest Saturday afternoon! Be aware, the contest has a limited number of contestant spaces and they are first come, first served. Register before you arrive at the convention, and get to pre-judging first thing Saturday morning (or you will spend your whole day in line).
Leading up to the contest is the costume parade, composed of both contestants and anyone attending the con in costume. It starts midday Saturday and snakes through the entire convention center and outside to conclude (fizzle out, really) as contestants peel off to head backstage. All are welcome to join the parade, and it’s well worth getting a good position in the hallways to watch and photograph!
While walking the halls during the convention, please avoid stopping people in the middle of the hall to take photos: the hallways are crowded enough and this only exacerbates the problem. Step out of the path, or, better yet, go to the costume photo area GenCon kindly provides and see droves of awesome cosplayers!
Note that GenCon does not permit weapons or anything that looks like a real weapon, so costume accordingly!
At the Convention
Some good things to bring along:
Cold hard cash. As with most cons, ATMs charge high fees and are often busy, so it’s best to get cash in advance.
Outlets at the convention center are at a premium, so pocket chargers are helpful!
Hand sanitizer. Pints of it. Because of the nature of a lot of gaming, this is a more hands-on convention than most. Do your part to avoid spreading the Con Plague.
Be sure to bring all the gaming equipment you need (or plan to buy it early on at the event): dice, pens, pencils, reference books, costumes, backpack, etc.
A few final tips: Vendors often do giveaways or a first shot at new games in the vendor hall, so when the hall first opens Thursday morning, it’s a complete zoo. If early access is your jam, get in line before the doors open. Otherwise, avoid it like the plague and go in the early afternoon when its not so (quite) hectic. Game companies demo new games at their booths, so it’s a great opportunity to try before you buy. Just be aware that lines are LONG for popular games, so you will usually have to wait a bit, and will likely only be able to play a short demo to keep things moving.
Wifi is unreliable in the convention center, and depending on your carrier, service can be really spotty in Indy, so make a backup communication plan.
Personal hygiene: good for you, good for everyone. It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be crowded. Please be sure to shower every day, use deodorant, bring a change of shirt, whatever you need to do to keep bacteria (and the resulting odors) under control. Believe me, even if your own personal funk isn’t that bad, once you multiply that by a couple thousand people, things start to get icky.