Monday, September 26, 2016

Painted Models - Hunters

During the Summer I typically have the opportunity for a Work-Cation trip to New England. This is a two week period of time where my wife, mother-in-law, and kids get to go to the beach and I settle myself out on the porch and work. One of the high points of this week is the relaxation and an increased chance to paint. This, along with Christmas, is typically my highest level of yearly productivity for painting miniatures.

This year I brought a number of things with me including my entire hunters set. These were already primed and I had been waiting to paint them before playing them. I'd stumbled around trying to figure out a good scheme for them for a while. I thought I wanted a fall theme but was having trouble picturing the right combination in my head. Thanks to "The Art of Wargaming" on facebook, I found the scheme that fit the picture in my head. While I certainly do not compare to their level of painting, I am pretty happy with my table top quality Hunters.

Overall I'm happy with the way the team looks, and I particularly like how they look when all together. Here's a group shot of the whole team.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Improving "The Best 4 days in Gaming" with Geek Nation Tours

This year my family and I attended Gencon 2016 with Geek Nation Tours. Yesterday I wrote about my background with Geek Nation Tours and the Head Geek Teras. I also talked about why we (my family and I) chose Geek Nation Tours for our Gencon 2016 trip and how the lead up to the convention was improved being part of the tour. I also talked about the madness that was our trip to Gencon, starting nearly a week before the actual convention. I want to talk about and review the actual Gencon experience through the filter of being part of the Geek Nation Tour experience. As you can tell from the title, I certainly have a favorable view on GNT and what they bring to the table for this type of event.

Arrival - Tuesday before Gencon 2016

We set out from Chicago mid-morning on Tuesday, stopping at the Albanese Candy Factory for some gummy bears and then grabbing lunch before arriving at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis mid-afternoon.  We knew our tour guide, Alex, would be at the hotel but were not sure how many people were showing up early and what the schedule was. We unpacked our car onto a bellhop cart then left it with the Valet, heading into the hotel to get checked in. Alex was easy to spot, camping out right as we entered the hotel and easy to find. He was familiar with us as part of the tour once we introduced ourselves and was as cheery as I've experience Teras to be each time we've run into each other. Although Teras was not going to be leading this tour, Alex made the matching first impression and things were off to a good start. He even knew our specific details and mentioned he'd already checked on our cot, which we were unsure we'd be able to get with our room. The tour guide knowing those types of little details is a very personal touch, and just overall a nice thing to encounter.

Just prior to heading to the desk to check in, Alex mentioned there would be an informal dinner and get-together that evening with the other tour arrivals, and asked if we thought we'd be attending. I nodded, mentioning that we'd be trying to locate friends who were in town early, but might be dropping by, I wasn't sure. Following that I headed out to check into the hotel and get up to our room. Even though we were on a tour, Marriott was very accommodating and added a note to my file as a Marriott Gold Member, giving us Concierge lounge access due to my hotel status.

Pre-Gencon Gaming

There is a gaming group in Indianapolis known as the Kentucky Fried Gamers. Each year they coordinate a pre-gencon gaming day on the Wednesday before Gencon for their club. Geek Nation Tours has partnered with them for a couple years now and gotten tour participants access to the gaming. This is a really fun set of games, with a great group of gamers, in two fantastic venues. We chose to take part in a "still in development" role-playing game known as Playthings, being run for us at Scotty's Brew Pub downtown Indianapolis. Although the traditional drinking spot for the 501st Storm Troooper brigade, there were no Storm troopers in attendance on Wednesday. We (my wife, daughter, and I) did have a fantastic time playing in a private session of Playthings. It was a lot of fun as we got a chance to role-play living toys (i.e. Toy Story) with the game developer.

Geek Nation Tours events/dinners

One of the really great parts of Geek Nation Tours is the nightly dinners they host for the tour group. Each dinner at Gencon was scheduled with a pre-dinner gaming time, followed by the dinner itself, followed by more gaming. These events not only provided a fantastic and reliable gathering point for the end of the day but also a quieter spot for gaming with friends. These dedicated gaming spots are particularly hard to find at Gencon, with the post-convention evenings filling up every available spot (table, couch, chair, and even floor) in the hotels surrounding the convention.This year GNT set up an opening and closing dinners in the JW Marriott hotel bar/lounge restaurant, a dinner at the local Brazilian steak hour Fogo De Chao, and 2 dinners at the in-hotel Italian restaurant.  Each of these nights also featured speakers from gaming companies (CMON, Osprey, Mantic, Steamforged, etc) and open gaming with tour provided games.

Of particular note was the opening and closing dinners. The opening dinner featured a couple of benefits to tour participants which really set it apart. First, GNT tour guide Alex went and collected everyone's tickets and badges for us, saving tour participants from standing in the long Gencon lines to pick these up. All our necessary Gencon entry paperwork (badges and tickets) was delivered to us at dinner, along with a set of Geek Nation Tours branded T-Shirts, Bowling Shirts, and Yoga pants for the women. Then, over dinner, tour participants were treated to short introductions and presentations from industry insiders such as Ronnie Renton, owner of Mantic Games, talking about new releases and the hosts of podcasts such as the D6 Generation and the Nerd Herders. Following dinner, GNT had the podcasts hosts split off to smaller groups for dedicated role-playing sessions for the tour participants. This was used as a mixer for the tour, giving everyone a chance to be introduced to the other attendees. Likewise, the end of tour closing dinner was attended by the founders of Steamforged games, who gave insight into their first Gencon experience along with talking about their upcoming releases and a number of spoilers for Guild Ball, Dark Souls, and a new paint line.

Throughout Gencon these nightly dinners were a fantastic place to meet back up with the tour participants each night. This was also a great fall-back for dinner plans should something go wrong or plans be lacking, along with a comfortable and quiet(er) environment to grab some games. Each night the dinners were attended by different personalities from within the game industry who spoke about their experiences (Dave Taylor) or talked about what their companies were releasing (Osprey, CMON) along with giving demo's of their games. The more intimate dinner environment provided ample opportunity to connect with these company reps and "industry insiders" on a personal level for each of the tour participants.

"Save me GNT!!!"

We had one experience at Gencon 2016 where Geek Nation Tours really shined, although through no undue effort nor expectations of their own. A group of friend had pulled together some last minute plans to grab dinner at the RAM restaurant, a venue famous at Gencon for completely redecorating their venue and reprinting their menu in tribute to Privateer Press Warmachine. This is a notoriously difficult reservation to get during Gencon, with very long waiting time for a table. Our group had called ahead and had a reservation for 10, and we headed out to check in and eat. The whole group was excited, including my 17 year old daughter and one of our friends teenage niece. Upon arriving we were told that we'd have an hour wait despite our reservation, and we settled into 2 separate tables in the bar area (away from the actual bar). Our group was showing up and finding each other over a period of 20 minutes, with the first group including the teenage niece grabbing the first tables. My wife, daughter, 2 friends, and I were with the second portion of the group, getting there 5 minutes later. When we arrived the waitress had already taken the first set of drink and appetizer orders. We settled into the tables and as we began to order, my daughter was singled out by the waitress and told she could not sit with us and would need to leave the bar due to being under age. Despite being a fair distance from the actual bar, and despite other clearly underage people at the next table (and elsewhere in the bar), we decided (irritably) that we'd step outside of the bar area to wait for our table. My wife, daughter, 2 friends, and I stepped outside to wait.

After a long wait our names were called and we were led to our table. The restaurant was understandably packed, but we'd had a reservation and things were looking up. The hostess proceeded to lead us to a table with 6 chairs around it. This confused us, as our reservation was for 10. On inquiring (not me, the person who had made the reservation) why the table was only set for 6 we were told that we could squeeze 2 more seats in to make it for 8. We repeated the question on how squeezing 8 people was supposed to accommodate 10 guests, per our reservation, to be told by the hostess and the just arriving waitress that we'd have to squeeze further to make everyone fit. We were also told that if that was not sufficient for us we'd have to wait at least an additional hour for them to put together another table. As our group grew increasingly frustrated we were confronted by the waitress asking why we we couldn't just wait another hour and go back to our tables in the bar (which we'd already vacated and had been grabbed by other patrons waiting).

At this point my wife, daughter, and I were disgusted with being treated fairly badly. I understand they had no need of our patronage, being filled to capacity during Gencon. This type of behavior by restaurant staff was frankly despicable, and we will not return in the future to that establishment. We all realized at this point that we had a very good alternative, although we could not invite our friends along. We (my wife, daughter, and I) could retire to the Geek Nation Tours dinner at the hotel Italian restaurant, and be welcomed as valued guests into a friendly environment where we were not squeezing and people actually wanted us around. We decided to leave the restaurant and catch up with our friends later that night for a more enjoyable gaming experience.

As expected, the Geek Nation Tours dinner was fantastic. The food was good and we enjoyed ourselves far more with the service than we would have in the over crowded RAM and the simply rude and entitled wait staff. This stark contrast in dinners was something that really stands out as an unintended plus to the GNT planning and group as a whole.

That personal touch

Geek Nation Tours really added a personal touch to the whole Gencon Tour, demonstrating their dedication to making sure everyone on the tour enjoyed themselves and didn't miss anything. Tuesday evening following our arrival we (my family and I) were hustling and bustling getting situated and trying to figure out who was in town. As I know a lot of people in the game industry this was a hectic time trying to track down who was in town, who wasn't, and where everyone was. During this time I received a couple text messages from a number I didn't recognize, all of which were asking where I was and if I was going to make it out to dinner. At the time I disregarded those messages while trying to get my own coordination completed. It was only later that I realized, reading through these pings and check-in's, that the messages were from Alex, our tour guide. He was concerned that he'd seen us check in, then we'd disappeared and had not joined him and the other early tour participants for dinner and games. This is one of those things that becomes incredibly touching when you stop to think about it, as it was unsolicited and completely unexpected.

My wife talks about some of the ways our tour guide Alex really improved the overall Gencon experience personally for her. Following our arrival on Tuesday through the end of the tour on Monday, Alex made a point of greeting her by name whenever they ran into each other. He recognized her each time they passed and made a point of stopping to chat and check in with her. This may seem like a small thing, but when you consider Gencon had over 60-thousand unique attendees and the Geek Nation Tour had 20 or more participants, this is impressive. Alex spotted her not only in the hotel hallway and common areas, but also in the very crowded Gencon vendor and gaming halls, then made a point and time to chat with her about how her day and convention was going. This personal touch was the type of attention she really enjoys, adding a touch of brightness with each encounter.

Tour participants and guide

I would not feel this review was complete if I didn't take time to talk about the tour participants and our tour guide Alex.  I have to admit up front that while I have a bit of a public persona due to hosting a couple different podcast (Gamers Lounge, Guild Ball Tonight, Hobby Sofa), I'm not exactly what people would call a "joiner". My wife tends to be the friendlier person when it comes to making connections and such. Add to that my typical convention experience (Gencon and Adepticon) has me running around meeting up with different groups and friends throughout the convention. I'm rarely lacking in activities and this found us (me more than my wife and daughter) ducking out of some of the GNT dinners and events to catch up with other friends during the convention.

Even considering all of this, my wife made some friends and all of the tour participants were particularly welcoming. On our first night we greeted a couple who were looking fairly "new" and just a touch lost, inviting them to join us for a demo of an unreleased game I'd gotten my hands on. (Shadow Games by Steamforged Games). Throughout the convention my wife and daughter met up with that couple during the other dinners and both wives have built a bit of a connection following the tour.

The other important part of talking about people on our tour is Alex, our GNT Tour Guide. Alex was fantastic as not only a tour guide but also as a person to drink and game with. He appears well connected in within the gaming industry as a whole, and it was interesting to see him connected to many of the same gaming industry connections I have. We had a very enjoyable time chatting about various topics throughout the tour, and it was only at the very end of the tour he realized I was the host of a podcast he listened to. Perhaps only other podcasts hosts fully understand this, but it's sometimes refreshing to be a bit "incognito" and unrecognized for a time, as often being a recognized host can color (positively and negatively) peoples reactions to you. Alex (as mentioned above and here) was a champion throughout the tour, which would not have been as enjoyable or excellent without him.

 Thoughts and Review

 Every single encounter I have with Geek Nation Tours increases my overall appreciation for what they do and how great they are. After taking part in 2 tours and one off-tour event I can honestly say that one of my first considerations for trips is GNT. I say trips, not just conventions, because my daughter and I have looked at going with GNT to New Zealand for their Hobbit tour. During Gencon a number of our friends took notice of our experience (specifically the RAM dinner) along with one or two sneaking into some of the after-dinner gaming and access to industry insiders. They were all as impressed as I was, and asked a lot of questions about cost and how it works. Cost is not going to be fixed for each person and each tour, but I will say that my total trip for the three of us with GNT ran around $5K. We felt that this was well worth the money we spent when considering everything included.

I look forward to future tours with GNT, and highly recommend them to anyone looking to make a trip. Even if you're not typically considering going with a tour group, look at the GNT packages and you may find one that fits your needs!!!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pre-Gencon 2016 with Geek Nation Tours

This year my family and I decided to take the trip to Gencon 2016. This is not an insignificant undertaking, trekking 3 of us nearly 600 miles across the country for a 7 day visit to one of the largest game conventions in the world. Of course we decided to make things a bit more complicated in a couple ways. First, we realized the week before Gencon my 17 year old daughter got an unexpected week off. This opened up the opportunity to leave for our drive earlier than expected, allowing me to attend a Guild Ball tournament the Saturday before the event. I checked my hotel points (thank you work travel) and realized we had enough to cover a couple contingencies. We subsequently decided to add an additional 2 day excursion to Chicago onto my trip to play Guild Ball due to my daughter having never been there and Chicago being one of my wife and I favorite cities in the US. This resulted in a 9 hour drive to Indianapolis, an all day Guild Ball tournament, a 3.5 hour drive to Chicago, 2 days of sightseeing, then a 3.5 hour drive to Indianapolis to check into Gencon. Gencon runs Tuesday until Sunday for us, then a 9 hour drive back home on Monday.

Let's talk a little about Gencon tickets and lodging. The Gencon experience begins in January of the year prior to attending for most people. This is when the initial badges go on sale along with Gencon housing opening up and becoming available. Attendees who wish to stay anywhere approximately close to the convention center have approximately 5 minutes to get online on the specified day and log into the system to wait in a digital queue hoping to get a hotel room. This is an absolute nightmare, and I don't actually know anyone who ends up getting decent rooms out of this. Most of the attendees I know pay very high prices for rooms which are typically a couple blocks away from the center. Months later this exercise begins again to grab up event tickets for events you want to participate in. Make sure you know the time and date to jump online to get lucky on some placement in a digital queue and hope the 1K or more people ahead of you int he queue don't buy up the event tickets you want.

All of this is not to say Gencon is not an excellent experience. There are some specific frustrations that build up which are typically alleviated once you attend this monstrous event. Once we experience Gencon and return home it's the joy of the actually long weekend gaming that we remember, not the frustration in the beginning. 2016 was different however, we found a way to improve the overall experience. Geek Nation Tours.

My background with Geek Nation Tours

I've been somewhat familiar with Geek Nation Tours for many years, initially encountering Teras (the Head Geek) when he started advertising a geek focused tour company at Adepticon. He is an incredibly nice guy, even for the notoriously pleasant Canadians, and we spent time talking about podcasting and 40K. At the time I thought the idea of his venture was cool but was not convinced it was for me. My Adepticon trips are well covered on the lodging, travel, and activities front so I didn't see the need for a tour company.

Teras and I stayed in touch through the years, often catching each other briefly at Adepticon and Gencon. In 2014 I ran into the first challenge I'd had with Adepticon registration, missing out on both the discount room block and logging into the registration late and missing out on events and the VIG registration. Working through my frustration I decided to reach out to Teras and see if he had rooms left. I ended up joining the 2014 Adepticon tour, getting my VIG registration and solo-room for the same price as my basic late registration room cost would have been. In addition I was able to take part in some of the tour activities and dinners which were an absolute blast!!! After missing 2015 I ended up with some oddball plans for Adepticon this year so things did not work out for me to take part in the Geek Nation Tours group. Despite this, Teras had opened up one of his tour events to Adepticon attendees, the Industry dinner, which I was able to attend and really enjoyed.   

Geek Nation Tours @ Gencon 2016

My experiences with Geek Nation Tours left no doubt in my mind that when it came to Gencon I wanted to attend as part of their tour. My wife and I mapped out the budget and set out in late 2015 to make this happen. A basic Geek Nation Tour package for Gencon includes lodging, dinners each night, your Gencon badge, and transfers (taxi/shuttle/etc) from the airport if your flying in. The lodging pricing is set based on a double-occupancy assumption, with an option to pay a bit extra if you want a room to yourself.  This is a well prepared package which Teras and his team has set-up and works for most everyone who travels in. Of course I am a special snowflake and had to muck up the works on this, but isn't that half the fun???

We had 3 people traveling to Gencon together, my Wife, my 17 year old daughter, and myself. We wanted to share a room and planned to drive to Gencon. We also wanted to have all three of us be able to take part in the tour activities, particularly the nightly dinners and gaming. I reached out to Teras and we were able to work out those minor changes to the tour package, doing lodging as double occupancy for my wife and I as full tour members and a discounted tour rate for my daughter as she didn't need lodging costs covered. We came to an agreement on pricing, I gathered up the money and sent it off to him, and we were registered for the Gencon 2016 tour. That's when the real fun began.

Ok, let me first comment on one of the biggest motivators for us to join the tour. Having planned tours for as long as he has, Teras and Geek Nation Tours is able to reserve excellent hotel rooms at the events attended by the tours. At Gencon he has a reserved room block each year for his tour in a hotel adjacent to the convention center. This is incredibly important to both my wife and I as we prefer the convenience of walking straight into the convention from our hotel. This year the rooms were at the connected JW Marriott, with only a short walk across a catwalk (air conditioned no less) to get into the venue. These are some of the toughest rooms to get (and most expensive), and we didn't have to think about it at all. Once we signed up with GNT we knew we'd be at our preferred hotel location.

That special GNT touch

It was after the actual tour registration that we started to experience the true value and benefit to being part of Geek Nation Tours. The first nice touch was an email from Teras containing three badge codes and a  nice set of instructions on how to use them. Our Gencon badges being part of our tour cost, these codes let us log into the Gencon system and add our badges to our accounts. The process was incredibly easy and now we knew we had both badges to attend Gencon and a good hotel room at the event.

Over the next couple months we got fairly regular updates as Teras learned more information about what was going on at Gencon. He made sure to send out reminders to all the tour participants for early reviews of events and other types of activities. He also monitored the coordination an annual practice where GNT and the Kentucky Fried Gamers team up for a day of pre-gencon games. As part of the tour we were given access to this game day on the Wednesday prior to Gencon, and Teras helped us stay abreast of the news and register for those days events.

Along came the dreaded day of trying to register for Gencon events. The week leading up to this day Teras went to extra efforts to set-up a dedicated Facebook group for tour participants along with keeping everyone reminded and up to date on how registration would work. The morning registration would go live the tour facebook page become a general group chat for participants discussing and coordinating events they would want to do together. Everyone on the tour was very friendly and there was an active discussion. Hints and tips for getting desired events were freely shared and then registration went live, with all the tour participants commiserating as our wishlists of event processed. The whole experience became fun opposed to the typical drudgery watching your digital queue number tick down.

Once this was complete we continued to receive regular updates for our tour right up to our arrival in Indianapolis. As this post is getting a bit long I'll split the review up into 2 articles. Come back tomorrow (or go to the next post) for "Improving "The Best 4 days in Gaming" with Geek Nation Tours"