Wednesday, May 25, 2011

WBC West 2011 - Wrap Up

Chuck and I began WBC West back in 2003 (I think) after sitting on a tarmac for a few hours in Baltimore waiting for weather delays to clear out on the way home from the real WBC in 2002. While we were waiting, Chuck said that perhaps we'd have just as much fun going to Sunriver for a few days and wargaming there, and WBC West was born. It was a pretty sparsely attended affair for the first couple of years, with no more than two to four people present, and only four full days. Eventually it grew to a full week, and this year for the first time we had eight gamers present and ready to go the first full day of the event (albeit by the evening), where normally we will have four or five by that time at most.

These kinds of numbers present us with some logistical issues, mainly where the hell everyone sleeps. You can fit seven people (more if there are SOs present) if people are willing to take couches in my family's place, so with eleven we had to rent an additional house, which was subsidized by Chuck and myself. Ken has a place out there too, but I am loathe to ask someone for the use of their house as it tends to make me look like an asshole and puts them in the position of feeling obligated to attend even if things go horribly horribly wrong (in my case, my nephew Alex can always take over hosting for me if necessary). However, this year Ken, who has a new job, really wasn't able to participate, but he did come out and work from his house but we had already rented a second house and he had some friends stopping by anyway to stay one or two nights. Next year, Ken thinks he can commit to being present and putting up a few people (and having a few games run at his house as well, more on that later).

Amazingly, we were able to find space for ten people to game through the entire week. At one point we had one game in the nook, two on the long dining table, one on a card table adjacent, and another on a corner table in the loft. Kind of crazy, but it's nice to have everyone in the same space. If there was a problem, it was in keeping the kitchen clean. That requires a certain amount of leadership on my part, and I just never got around to making a formal announcement so my bad there, although I suspect I have a higher level of cleanliness than most other people when it comes to kitchens.

Here's the thing - If even two more people come next year than this year, we will be able to sleep everyone in a bed (probably), but we won't have enough space to fit everyone on a table. If we break up the group into two spaces for gaming, that means that the "satellite" group has to move to a house that doesn't have their drinks, their lunch, their snacks and their stuff present, and there is a chance that they will have that house all to themselves, which in most people's minds didn't seem to be a good thing.

Here's a breakdown of the sorts of things that I got from people regarding what they value about the retreat and what they'd like to see in the future:

o Longer games, up to four or five days (or even the entire week) in some cases. That means finding committed space that we don't need the rest of the week, which includes the lighter evening games. Like last year, we did have one two-day game run, but it was in the nook and with Chuck and Mike (Ardennes '44). At the same time, not everyone wants a longer game.

o Fun atmosphere. For most, that means a certain number of people in a given space to lend more of a party vibe.

o Well stocked house. Drinks, snacks, extra dice, gaming supplies such as dice towers and poster frames or plexi. At a rental, all of these things must be brought in from the central location. You could include tunage in this list.

o Comfortable sleeping quarters. People don't mind sharing a room for a week, but they do want a bed that doesn't include someone grinding coffee beans in your ear in the morning because there's no wall between you and the grinder.

Interestingly, I had the people who wanted longer games also suggesting that we limit participation, which I felt was a false dichotomy. If you want to play a game for four or five days, you really are going to need a dedicated space, something that we can't really do in my house. There were suggestions to set up tables in bedrooms, but then all you've done is make the supplies handy, and that can be managed relatively easily by simply remembering to take supplies with you when you play at a satellite house. I think we could even set up webcams between the two houses, as most places have wi-fi, and keep the vibe going. Better to have the long game set up at a satellite location so that the core house can host evening games, and more people makes it easier to justify the satellite location.

My personal philosophy is one of inclusion - I really don't want to be in a position where I have to decide if one person can't go because there's an odd number, or because we're tight on tables. Those are very solvable problems and the thought of denying someone some of our WBC West goodness just doesn't sit right with me at an elemental level. If anything, I'd like to see this grow a bit over time - keep it invite only, so it's only people who fit into the general group gestalt (which I see as the biggest asset of WBC West), but expand it over time. The fact that Alex and his friend Dan came out and played a ton of games that were new to them (especially Dan, who took to wargaming like me to bourbon) was worth any extra pain that having extra people might have caused, and it didn't cause much.

In fact, there are several people who I'd have loved to have seen at this retreat who were unable to attend for personal or work reasons. I could see this group getting up to 15 or 16 gamers easily without going outside of wargamers I already know and play against. At that point, we're probably talking my house, Ken's house, and maybe one more for a few nights, depending upon when people come out, and probably gaming in two if not three houses. I think the more likely number is 12 gamers, which would have come close to taking every bed we had in the two houses we did have.

One thing that I noticed this year was that it was harder for people to get scheduled up quite as well as in the past, but there were two issues present in this case. One was Doug and Mimi being out of town for a month up to about two weeks before the retreat, making it hard to nail him down for what games he'd play when. The other was Dan's unfamiliarity with the pool of games, meaning that he had to rely on others to choose games to play. That worked out, but it required a little prodding. I don't think either of these was a huge issue or one that will carry over if there are more people involved, and the newer players understand well why we need to schedule games ahead of time, at least those we play during the day. The fact remains that when you add people into an event, the complexity both stays constant (the "startup" costs) and goes up exponentially (the "support" costs). To my mind, the startup costs have been taken care of and we have an effective process for everything from games played to providing dinner. The trick will be in determining the support costs in the face of uncertain but almost certainly increasing attendance numbers. Those who came earlier this year had a great time and I suspect will make every attempt to continue to do so, and those who came later will make an effort to come earlier.

The biggest adjustment will be in terms of learning to anticipate one's own supply needs when using a satellite house. It would be great to have one close by, preferably within 100 feet as the gamer walks, but a shift in mindset will still be necessary. I believe strongly in continuous improvement - examining how effective a system is and deciding what needs fixing and what would augment that system. That means that I take some small risks by trying out new ideas and seeing how they work. While it is still very early, I strongly suspect that next year we will be trying out the idea of satellite houses for not only sleeping, but gaming as well. Having someone take on a long-term game would help in that effort, and I don't think I'll have too much trouble finding people to do that (although it won't be me - I like to play a lot of games against a lot of opponents if possible). Depending on the game, it may even be possible to have people drop in and out of the long game as long as there are two consistent generals playing.

Of course, I'll also want to have more conversations with the stakeholders to get as clear a picture as I can, but in general we have a strong event with a strong set of attendees and I am extremely confident that we can withstand a certain amount of experimentation as we move forward. At the same time, I have no intention of messing with our core values - good games, good people, good fun. That means a continued vetting of people who attend, a commitment to preserving those elements (such as scheduled games during the day) that are working well for us, and being as inclusive as possible - look at what a find Dan has turned out to be! The important thing is about the community, and while there is some risk in having multiple houses with gaming, at the same time you can also look at it as having two houses full of people having a blast as opposed to one house.

If there was one place we fell down, it was in coordinating the evening games. I sent out a list of the games I was bringing, but I don't think people realized that there were a few games that people wanted to play that I *wasn't* bringing, such as Battlestar Galactica. I will take more of an active role in making sure someone brings all of the games people want to play rather than assuming people are checking.

As for the games I played this year, it was a bit surprising to have so many tactical and naval/air games going. I'm usually much more of a CDG player, and the only games I played of that nature was Here I Stand and Labyrinth. No traditional hex and counter games at all, such as A Victory Lost. There are some traditions starting to build up, such as a Fleet game and Burning Blue, and I'd like to see Here I Stand become a staple as well. I'd like to see Manifest Destiny make a return to the evening game table. I'd also like to find a game that we can play in some tournament form, as we've attempted with Maneuver in the past, probably very light and probably in the evenings, although I don't think Maneuver was successful enough to warrant giving another try and I recognize that this is a bit of a reach for this particular group. Maybe a Resident Evil tournament, which seemed to go over well in two plays - not a perfect game by any stretch, but it certainly seemed to evoke the right atmosphere and people enjoyed shooting the hell out of zombies.

As for this particular retreat, I would grade it very highly among already highly graded retreats of the past few years. The sleeping situation was better for everyone, people didn't mind having to walk five minutes to go to the main house and they spent all their time there, and people seemed fresher than in years past. I was also extremely happy to have such a full house so early in the week, with nine people there within 30 hours of opening up the house. For the most part people were relaxed and while a couple of people got frustrated with dice on a handful of occasions, they managed to deal with it before things got *really* uncomfortable. That sort of thing is really about just accepting that it's a game and that the outcome is much less important than the company and giving your head a massive workout. Best of all for me was once again recognizing that the end of the week was not so much something to be grieved over but something to celebrate, that instead of potential I now had more great gaming memories and some new games that I could play.

There is one postscript to the week that I was sort of expecting, although in the end it crept up on me. That realization is that there are several wargaming systems that I've invested heavily in over time (in terms of money and space, not so much in terms of play time) that I have finally accepted are neither games I am going to play or games I particularly want to play. Those systems are Panzer Grenadier, Second World War at Sea, The Great War at Sea, and Great Battles of History. I'd already made a decision to sell and stop collecting anything that was anything other than a strategic treatment of pre-20th Century subjects, and even a lot of the strategic treatments are going bye-bye. Including expansions, that's probably close to 100 games in my collection. It's also virtually everything I own published by Avalanche Press, with a few small-box exceptions. I'm also selling Pax Romana, Rise of Rome/Carthage, The Conquerors: Alexander, and quite a few more. I'll hold on to Successors and Sword of Rome, as well as Hellenes, but Athens and Sparta will go and a few more of the less successful Columbia block games. This will be the largest divestment of wargames I've ever done, something I've struggled with in the past because I didn't want to lose a game that I might end up liking later. This time, however, I've given all of these systems a shot and there is really no reason for me to keep them since I have so many other and better choices. I have several other games on the bubble, including many of the old AH/Smithsonian titles like Midway, and I'll need to do some work to make sure they're all complete (the GBoH games will take the most work, as there are so many C3i scenario counters that have been included in them).

Strangely, pulling all of these games hasn't helped my shelf space as much as I'd have liked, but I think this is a good step for me. The collection has become more of a burden than a joy in the past couple of years, and the acquisitiveness has to collapse at some point. A little discipline is a good thing and while I expect my actual gaming time will be going up, at the same time my collection is going to start to level out. It's still a *lot* of games.

Now if we can just get to the point where they're played using "smart" components, then I'll be a very happy man (and one with much lower moving costs)...

I hope you've enjoyed my navel gazing about what has to be the most challenging and fun weeks of my year. I honestly feel like I've studied for a dissertation defense by the time I get into the actual play, and it takes a couple of days for my brain and body to recover, but what a week it is. Thanks as always to my most marvelous opponents and comrades, without whom this would be me sitting in a room by myself playing solitaire. We make this thing work, and we come out of it better for the experience. In the end, that's the truly important thing. I'm honored to call all of you friends.

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