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Historicon, or There and Back Again a “No Holds Barred” Review

Well, back down to earth with a bump after something of a whirlwind visit to Historicon.  I have to say that my experience was somewhat different to the mental image that had been provided by years of anecdotes from those attending which was largely made up as follows:

  1. The biggest wargames show on earth
  2. The biggest waist sizes of any wargamers on earth
  3. The biggest array of games being played round the clock
  4. The smelliest convention on earth fuelled by large numbers of people sleeping in their cars for four days in 100 degree plus heat
  5. The worst beer on earth
  6. The worst food on earth

So, you can tell why I was looking forward to it with some degree of trepidation!

Having arrived on the Wednesday my host, Englishman in New York (State), Jon Davenport and I left early on Thursday morning.  Jon had worked out an itinerary which would enable us to do a tour of the battlefield of Brandywine in the morning and then visit “Chew’s House” on the battlefield of Germantown around lunchtime before heading to Valley Forge and the luxury Scanticon Hotel.  The Brandywine visitors centre provided a cheap car tour guide for about $2 and this, accompanied by some of Jon’s books, gave  us with a very entertaining few hours hopping in and out of the car and following the course of the action.  I must hold my hands up here and admit that I am a great fan of walking battlefields, if you want to understand what happened and why this almost always provides the key.  And Brandywine was no different.

I must admit to feeling pretty jaded after the flight, I have done a lot of north-south travel in my time, but east-west really knocked the stuffing out of me (both ways, hence the lateness of this report) but this was the perfect antidote to jet lag.  The tour was well constructed in that it followed not just the geography of the battle, but also the course of the action ending with the climax of the fight.  As a result we somewhat ran over-schedule but it was probably the best $2 you could spend.

Chew’s House, or Cliveden to give its proper name, was a rather splendid colonial mansion set in what is now a suburb of Philadelphia.  In truth it is rather run down now and in need of some restoration, but the history was writ large to see with bullet holes and damaged stonework where the Rebel cannon attempted to dislodge the red-coated defenders.  The “director of education” himself very kindly showed us round, apparently few Brits visit, other than those in red coats, so he took the time to show us a few bits and pieces not on the regular tour.

It is worth mentioning that whilst the United States is a young nation they do take care to preserve the history that they have.  Within reasonable drive of Historicon one can find a good number of AWI related sites all of which make an excellent match for a wargames convention.  A little forward planning coupled with some preparatory reading can open up some great opportunities.  I found some excellent actions that would suit Sharp Practice down to the ground.

As a result of our detour we arrived at Historicon just before 15.00 and checked in to the Scanticon.  The convention centre incorporated both the Scanticon and the Raddison hotels and it must be said that of the two the Raddison looked rather better.  The main convention part of Historicon was situated in the ground and subterranean areas of the Scanticon, whilst the accommodation was on the floors above.  Without doubt the hotel had seen better days; indeed the next really good day it sees will be when the bulldozers arrive to knock it down.  The pseudo-opulence of 1970s architecture is looking tired in the extreme.  In truth the hotel offered good standards of cleanliness but it wasn’t a particularly nice place to be.  Apparently the Raddison was much more swish, indeed I heard nothing but good reports from those lucky enough to have stayed there.  That said, I can sleep on a washing line so I wasn’t bothered.

What I did find odd was that the neither hotel had its own restaurant or bar, both shared several food franchises which provided a pretty basic level of catering, albeit with Hobson’s choice and limited opening hours meant that there was no lounge area where you could simply chill out and get a coffee in between activities.  Breakfast was provided by a reasonable buffet which worked out at about $15 for a decent plate of scram.  This included bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs and fried potatoes in a help-your-self format, or a chef was available to cook omelettes of your choice.  Coffee, fruit juice, tea or water were included in the price.  I could not knock this, and tended to not bother with lunch after a decent feed in the morning.  The sausages were actually really good, especially with a large helping of the English mustard that I had smuggled in.

For dinner we had a choice of Chumley’s “Sports Bar” or the Blue Grotto “Italian” restaurant.  The latter looked about as Italian as Ho Chi Mihn so we tended to use Chumleys, albeit being somewhat nonplussed by the bizarre sports on offer.  The menu there was pretty varied, but burgers, pasta, pizza is probably the best description.  The burgers were very good indeed, and the beer kept coming thanks to the attentive staff.  On the last evening we splashed out and hit the King of Prussia Mall for a decent steak at Mortons.  This was not so much a steak as part of a cow.  And it was excellent.  In all of these establishments the food and drink was probably a few percentage points more than you’d pay in the UK, but then again the portions were larger so the value for money factor is very similar.  Interestingly I ended up drinking bottled beer as I was not overly keen on the draught which tasted as though it had been passed by the management.

I should point out that for a cheaper and more “on the job” catering option the main gaming hall had food available up to around 21.00.  I used the facilities to buy bottled water and cannot pretend to have eaten there, but plenty of people were tucking in to what looked like the type of food you’d eat if you had dinner at the High Chaparral.  I’m sure it would fill a gap, but I valued my arteries too much to try it.  I am told that canned beer was available up to 21.00 as well, but by that time in the evening I was well away from the delights of any gaming table.

I note that, typically, I have strayed onto beer and catering before the real wargaming stuff.  What of the show I hear you cry.  Well, for me the venue was interesting.  Whilst the largest area of the convention was under the Scanticon, with the game table area on one floor and the flea market (Wally’s basement or some such name) and the traders area all on the other, the show actually sprawled across hundreds (thousands?) of yards of underground passages linking all sorts of rooms filled with games and lectures in a vaguely random manner.  I am sure there was a system in place, but the layout meant that the venue did not have a truly central hub from which all the other bits radiated.  This caused some navigation issues for more than one gamer and meant that some really good games were stuck off on a limb.  I found one of the best games, a refight of Ligny run by Nigel Marsh, only by accident on the Saturday evening, and I am sure that many people didn’t find it at all, placed as it was by the rather less than salubrious Ice Night Club.  There must have been other gems that never saw the light of day, but this one struck me as its presentation stood head and shoulders above much of the other stuff and in the UK would have been given pride of place at pretty much any show.

This leads me on nicely to the games.  My guess is that the organisation of the gaming space must be a colossal headache for the organisers.  Whereas at a UK show a table would be allocated to one game for the duration of the one or two day event, here each table was allocated to a game for a period of only a few hours at a time.  So were I to stroll round the gaming hall in the morning I may find  an Ancients game on a table, at lunchtime the same table might have a WWII game, and in the evening it we could be living long and prospering with space weirdos.  To give some idea of scale, the programme for the show was 100 pages long, beautifully produced in a very slick Letter size format.  The man who scheduled all that really does deserve a medal, but I bet he won’t get one.  Running such a gig is, I am sure, a thankless task!

I was very lucky that two games had been laid on for me to umpire.  Bob and Rob Beattie and Tom McKinney very kindly bought along their figures and terrain for a Very British Civil War game set in St Albans in 1938 for the Friday afternoon.  On Saturday Tom Ballou brought along his Berezina river crossing game which I had wanted to play ever since he first posted some photos on the Yahoo Group six or so years ago.  Both games were a joy to play, not least because it was a great opportunity to meet up with chaps that I have known for years but never actually met.  I was struck that for all of our national differences were are all united by a love of our hobby that transcends artificial boundaries.  It really was great to see you all there.

What really surprised me about Historicon was that far from being a slug-fest of game after game you can actually manage your own time to suit you.  In fact I only took part in the two games mentioned and did one lecture in the War College which was a great addition to the show.  We had a few drinks with Lardy friends on the Friday night and other than that just spent a relaxing time chatting with friends.  I can honestly say that the welcome I received was second to none.  I was very flattered that people made the effort to just stop me as I wandered around and just said hello and how much they enjoyed the rules.  I am most grateful to you all for your kind words.

Talking of which, I cannot thank Jon Davenport and his family enough for the warmth and generosity of their hospitality.  Jon was the perfect host, selflessly going out of his way to ensure that my alcohol to blood ratio never approached dangerously low levels.  My thanks to him for that.

So, how did it measure up to my somewhat odd expectations.

  1.  Is it the biggest show on earth?  I am not sure.  In a way Salute seems bigger, but then everyone is in the same place so that may well be a trick of the light.  It is certainly the much longer so if it desires such an accolade then I am happy for it to stand.
  2. Biggest waist sizes?  Well, I was constantly being told that for a Fat Lardy I was just not fat enough to qualify for that title.  I allow the reader to draw his own conclusions…
  3. Biggest array of games?  Without doubt, big ones, small ones, some as big as yer ‘ead.  What really struck me was how much fun people were having.  I did hear stories on TMP post the event about pedants messing up a couple of games with small minded bickering, but I did not see anything like that myself.
  4. Smelliest convention of earth?  I was, frankly, disappointed here.  I REALLY wanted to see some vile slime monsters but none appeared.  I did detect a bit of a whiff passing through one room, but nothing compared to the hype that I had been promised.
  5. Worst beer?  Some very odd IPA concoctions with way too much in the way of hops for an Englishman to stand.  It seems that the brewers are heading into a niche of specialist brews for the ale drinking purist rather than producing a generally popular quaffable session beer.  I suspect that this is because our American chums do not have the rich cultural heritage of drinking ten pints a night, however you may be certain that on my return to the UK the first thing I did was wander down to my local in the village and pour a goodly amount of cooking lager down my neck.  So, not the worst beer, just different from the stuff I normally swill.   Quantity has a quality all of its own.
  6. Worst food?  No, not at all.  The burgers at Chumleys were very respectable, and Mortons was top drawer.  If I am honest and even the McDonalds that I grabbed at JFK on my way home was enjoyable.

In short, it was fun.  Like nothing else on earth maybe, but fun.

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8 Responses

  1. Henry Hyde says:

    Great write-up, Rich. Sounds like you had a great time, beer notwithstanding!

  2. FreddBloggs says:

    So all done, Historiconned out and ready to get ‘In the Buff’ out before the Autumn then?

  3. Neat over view of the con. I’ve only ever been to one American con and that was GenCon, but like you I was pleasantly entertained and found everything rather good. Maybe us Brits have that whole stiff upper lip thing going for us? Anyway, nice to read your report and all.

  4. Chris Stoesen says:

    Will you be posting the notes from your War Games College presentation for those of us not able to attend?

  5. Tom says:

    It was great meeting you at last, and you ran an excellent game. The space at the VFCC is an issue, with the “Club” games being isolated off from the main room.

    I was part of Nigel’s C&G team, there where a number of very nicely presented game, but as you say being shunted off the club rooms is virtual doom for picking up random players, and general sight seeing. If you ever get a chance to cross the pond again, hopefully we will have a better site, the host is also run down, but the layout of the gaming spaces are all reasonably close to one another, so its trivial to do a loop of the game areas and take in the games.

    However the main room can not compete with the main room at VFCC for comfort and reasonable sound suppression. It gets hot, steamy and stinky pretty fast.

    As for size, why Rich, you fit right in. How did it feel to be able to say “Feeling Svelte at Historicon”?

    As for beer your a savage. Embrace the hops, and yes, I can not pound down 10 beers a night, so I go for quality for quantity.

    I’m sorry I missed your lecture, maybe you could do it as a podcast with slides?

  6. Gary Keep says:

    Hi Richard

    HAving attended Historicon in 2010 I agree with many of your comments, I also think it is bigger than salute, but what I enjoy about the “Conventions” they have in the USA is that many rule writers,game designers and authors of historical books attend the show, and have some interesting points to make and of course are open to questions on how they formulated their rule sets and justifying their reasons for certain aspects of their parameters specified in theirs rules.
    I would love to see something like this in the UK, perhaps organised by the Norringham circuit , however I think the attention span of some gamers is very short.
    But heres hoping.

  7. Steven Popper says:

    Richard,

    Thanks for coming over the Pond and bestowing upon us a “touch of lard in the night.” I had the pleasure of playing a BUF commander in your St. Albans. It is a sad commentary on the parochial nature of my U.S. education that until then I had not even been aware that there had even been a civil war in Britain in 1938.

    On the subject of food, that has always been an issue at Historicon. But in the Valley Forge venue the problem of ensuring one’s logistical tail has grown to alarming proportions. In Lancaster, once you knew the ropes, the local dining could be arranged to your advantage. At the VFCC all one can do is to try to diminish the size of the disaster. It is my earnest hope that when Historicon finally comes to rest in some more salubrious venue, you will find your next visit rather more satisfying from the gustatory perspective.

    Thanks once again.

    Steven

  8. Simon Gaudin says:

    Glad your back, & had a corking time but Cooking larger really Richard I am going to have to take you to the Coopers in Burton & force ten pints of session ale down your neck or I will fall on my CAMRA Badge in shame.

    As For conventions Beer & lard II is on as is its overflow Mini Beer & Pretzels on the sunday.

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