How To Run A Great Convention Game
These tips were posted by Jon Davis to our Facebook group. Introduction by Jon:
Here are twenty tips for running a great convention game and they will appear, one a day, until complete.
I did not write these tips, but found them many years ago. It's good to take a look at them before preparing
for the convention in March.
Any comments or discussion is welcome.
- 1. Deliver a game, not a lecture.
The people who gather at your table came to play a game. If they wanted to hear a lecture, chances are
they would be sitting in a seminar room. I have been bored nearly to distraction by nitwits who wasted a
half-hour or more of precious playing time with a rambling, half-baked soliloquy of misinformation. A good
game requires some introduction, but keep it to a minimum.
Four or five minutes of introduction and background per hour of scheduled game time is a good rule-of-
thumb maximum. If you need more time than that to explain what's going on and get things organized, then
the situation is too complicated for the time allotted.
- 2. Start on Time
This is obvious, but it is a rule that gets broken a lot, for two reasons.
The first is that judges just arrive late. That's rude. Arrive on time. And remember, "on time" may mean
45 minutes or an hour before your game starts, if it takes that long to set up.
The second is that judges arrive unorganized. They can't remember which box the village is in, they have
to unpack the terrain box completely before doing anything else because the items needed first are in the
bottom, or the boxes with the figures are all unlabeled and no one knows where the lancers are.
Here's how to avoid disorganization. Set up the game at home. Keep track of how long it takes. Then pack
it away in your traveling boxes, starting with the items you set up last and working your way back to the
beginning. That way, the items you need first will be at the tops of the boxes, and vice versa. The
military calls it "hot packing." Then, when you set up at the show, whatever you need next will be the
next thing in the box.
- 3. Be realistic about how much time the game needs.
Few things at a game convention are more annoying or more disappointing than spending six hours
maneuvering and skirmishing only to have the allotted time run out just as the two main bodies are about
to come into contact. Then the referee passes his hairy eyeball over the table and announces, "It looks to
me like the guys in blue would have won. Congratulations, blue team!"
Most players would much rather have the game end an hour early in a clear victory, rather than run the
full time and end with a judgement call.
The more players you put in the game, the longer it will take. A game that you playtested in four hours
with two friends will take much longer when played by six strangers. Do not assume that you can push them
along, either. Convention games get played at a leisurely pace. There are interruptions to answer
questions, players disappear to get drinks right before their turns or wander off for a quick peek at the
game next door. Err on the side of allowing too much time.
- 4.Treat scenario design seriously.
This is big, possibly the biggest item on the list.
When preparing for a game session, it is best to think about what you are doing not in terms of creating a
scenario, but of designing a game. It is very easy to fall into this trap: "I know that the rules I'm
using are good, so if I come up with an equally good Order of Battle and table layout, everything else
will fall into place."
Unfortunately, it just is not true. A good OB and good terrain analysis are only the beginning. You must
turn those OBs and maps into an exciting game. Many things need to be considered, such as:
- Movement rates vis-à-vis the distance troops need to travel. Can reinforcements arrive at the battle area
in time to make a difference? If troops need to exit the battlefield in order to win, how long will it
take them to reach the table edge under expected conditions? If there is a time limit to get from point A
to point B, how much can the moving force be delayed and still beat the deadline? How many turns will it
take the opposing forces to move from their start positions into contact? Sometimes it is best to set up
the battle with troops not in their historical starting positions, but in their positions just before the
real fighting began. This both saves time and prevents unwanted, screwy things from happening during the
- The number of figures in play needs to be manageable. There are many obvious reasons for this, but here is
one that's not so obvious. In many battles, victory will go to the side that has the last reserve. If so
many figures are in play that each side has a huge reserve, the end will be a long time coming. The game
needs to be tense, with the outcome uncertain for as long as possible. Ideally, you want everyone to feel
that they are on the verge of collapse almost all the time. Every move should be an act of desperation to
stave off defeat. That is possible only when you give players not quite enough figures to do everything;
give the defenders not quite enough figures to defend adequately, and give the attackers not quite enough
figures to attack properly. When everyone feels stretched to the breaking point, they are having a good
- Armies need room to maneuver on the flanks and/or in the backfield. Lining the table with figures from one
side to the other might impress people with the size of your figure collection, but it won't impress them
with your ability to design a game. Such a setup limits players to simply charging straight ahead and
hoping that the enemy across the table is weak. There is no decision-making, very little tension, and
hardly any fun. Likewise, armies need enough room in their backfields to rout, recover, reorganize, and
move back into the fight. If the battle line is too close to the table edge, units will rout off the table
and be lost prematurely.
- If you want to have a multi-player game, then avoid certain types of scenarios (i.e., river crossings).
Any game where all the activity focuses down on a single point will leave one player with all the fun
activity and everyone else watching in idle envy.
- Special rules spice things up. Every situation is different. Game rules are designed with the "standard
situation" in mind. Try to incorporate at least one or two nonstandard elements or random events into each
battle. It keeps the players on their toes and gives them something to think (or worry) about.
- 5. Use simple rules.
It is unlikely that everyone in your game will be familiar with the rules you are using, even if it is a
common, popular set of rules. If the rules are complex, the game slows down. Simple rules still have to be
taught to the people who don't know them, but hey, they're simple!
If you must use complex rules, then hide them as much as possible from the players. Here's how: When a
player tells you what he wants to accomplish, instead of explaining how the rules restrict him, tell him
what to do. For example, you (the referee) ask a player what he wants his units to do. He says, "I want my
tanks to get into a hull-down position on this hill where they can fire down the length of the bridge."
Instead of explaining all the game rules that are involved in making that happen, you simply tell the
player what to do: "The tanks need to be parked on the military crest, so you'll need to move up to this
contour. When you get there, roll a die and show it to me and I'll tell you whether you found a hull-down
position." Now the player is concerned only with measuring and moving figures, not with a lot of
I have actually used this method for introducing complete rookies to Advanced Squad Leader with
miniatures. All the players need to do is formulate a plan and explain it to me. Then, each turn, I tell
them what to do in order to get closer to completing that plan. You aren't making decisions for them,
you're just acting as an interface between their orders and the game rules.
- 6. Use rules that have a name.
This is a personal rule, but it's a good one. I tend to avoid convention events that list "home rules" as
the rules used. I have been burned too many times by people foisting their notes and half-baked ideas off
as rules. If you want people to come to your event, and you want to use your own rules, then polish them
up so they are presentable and give them a name. They will still be home rules, but they will make a much
better initial impression. I once wrote up a very brief set of skirmish rules for the 30 Years War two
days before a convention, but they were listed in the program as "One-Page Skirmish." At the game, I had
copies to hand out to all the players. No one knew those rules had not even existed when the program book
was printed (until now).
- 7. Give the players everything they need to play.
This means two things. The first is obvious: bring along some rulers and dice, because players might not
have their own.
But it also means, do as much prep work as possible ahead of time to eliminate work during the game.
Here's an example of what I mean, again using ASL (this same situation applies to many rules). ASL rates
tank guns by their caliber and barrel length. When a tank fires, you first look up its gun type, then look
up that gun type on a table, then factor in various modifiers that are found on another table. That's a
lot of steps, and the tables are confusing by themselves. Before running an ASL game with tanks, I convert
the generic gunnery table into a specific table for each type of tank. Instead of handing the player a
roster sheet that lists the type of gun mounted on his tank and a copy of the gun tables, I hand him a
roster sheet that has a customized gun table showing only the final numbers that apply to his tank's gun.
All the modifiers for model variations, ammo types, etc., are already worked into each table. All the
player needs to do is measure the range, look it up on the table, and roll the dice. He never sees the raw
Here's a second example. When I run an ASL game set in North Africa where blowing dust is a problem, the
rules call for rolling a third die, dividing by two, and rounding down. Instead, I make up "dust dice"
numbered 0-1-1-2-2-3 (normal dice with some pips painted out, then lightly spray painted a dust color to
set them apart from the other dice). Players roll a dust die along with the other dice and add it up just
like everything else; no special thought required.
And a third, and final, example. The "One-Page Skirmish" rules mentioned earlier divide figures into
novices, trained soldiers, and veterans. Each type rolls a different die when shooting or fighting: d8 for
novices, d10 for trained, and d12 for veterans. To make things simpler for the players, I paint a dot of
color on the back of each figure's base to indicate its experience: green for novices, blue for trained,
and red for veterans. Then I make sure that all my d8s are green, all the d10s blue, and all the d12s red.
In the heat of the game (and the whole idea is to make things move as fast as possible), all a player
needs to do is glance at the dot on the figure's base and grab a die of the same color.
Those simple measures take a few hours to prepare ahead of time, but they save a tremendous amount of time
during play. I don't have to explain the tank firing charts or the visibility reduction rules a dozen
times during the game, and I don't have players constantly referring to roster sheets and then asking
which is the d10. I've hidden the rule from the players and allowed them to see only its effect.
- 8. Keep the table neat.
The easiest thing you can do to improve your game's presentation is to insist that players keep the
table neat, and then do the same yourself. When specifying a table size on the event registration form,
ask for a table that's slightly larger than your playing area. A six- to twelve-inch empty shelf all
around the terrain is ideal. Ask players to keep all the roster sheets, charts, rulers, dice, and drinks
in that dead space. The only things that belong on the terrain are figures and game markers that are in
- 9. Give every player a significant command.
I once saw a game where the players commanding the reserve were reading paperbacks to avoid boredom,
and that was two hours into the game. Once every 20 minutes or so, they got to push their units another 12
inches down the road. They had no reason to be there.
In another game, the player who commanded the armored gunboat spent three hours waiting for it to arrive.
When it did, it was so powerful that the enemy scattered like cockroaches and the game ended. That poor
sucker had waited three hours for a fifteen minute anticlimax.
Make sure everyone has something to do right off the bat, either commanding figures that begin on the
table or that arrive within the first two turns. Then, split up the reinforcements between all the
players, too, so if someone's on-board force gets wiped out, they still have something to look forward to.
Don't put someone in charge of the baggage mules unless the enemy has some incentive to try looting them.
- 10. Keep everyone busy.
Now that you have given everyone a significant command, you must allow him or her to use it.
This is really a function of the turn sequence. The Sword & the Flame is one of my favorite sets of rules,
but I have learned that it's not a good choice for games with more than six players, and four is an even
better limit. Why? Because in TS&TF, units are activated to move and shoot one at a time. Consequently, at
any given time, only one player is doing anything. Everyone else is watching. If there are lots of
players, someone might wait a long time before getting a chance to do something. For big multi-player
games, rules that allow everyone on a side to act at the same time are best. If you must use a system like
TS&TF for a large game, then consider modifying the rules so more than one player gets to move per card.
- 11. Allow only as many players as you are equipped to handle.
The temptation to run a huge gaming spectacle is strong. The temptation to get as many people as possible
into the game is also strong. Sometimes, you must resist.
You have too many players if any of these points apply:
- The number of units assigned to each player is too few to hold interest. No matter how many figures are
involved, a player should command at least two, and preferably three or more, units. This both gives the
player some flexibility in his own operations and gives him some staying power, should one of those units
meet with unexpected disaster. Avoid the temptation to accommodate more players by subdividing the logical
- You are spending all of your time racing from one end of the table to the other answering questions and
the game is not progressing. Big games need more than one judge. Recruit enough friends to keep things
moving. Make each judge fully responsible for something, whether it is an area of the table, or cavalry
operations, or keeping track of reinforcements and casualties. You won't speed things up at all if
subordinate judges have to get your clearance for all of their decisions.
- Players at one end of the table don't know what is happening at the other end, and don't care. If this is
the case, then the best thing to do is break the game into multiple smaller games, each with its own table
and judge. You could even run them simultaneously and allow some limited capacity for events on one table
to affect another. But it is absolutely true that three small games will run faster and smoother than one
- 12. Make one player on each side the commander-in-chief.
This applies primarily in games with three or more players on a side. An army needs direction from the
top, not just a gaggle of generals each acting independently. One player should be named the commander-in-
chief. It should be someone who wants the job; it should be someone who knows something about the tactics
of the period; and it should be someone who will actually do the job.
The C-in-C's job is to make the final decision about deployment and the battle plan. In practice, most
players will be democratic about this, but if disagreements arise, the C-in-C has the final say. It is the
C-in-C who relays team information to the judge. Once the battle begins, players are free to ignore orders
from their C-in-C, but they should understand that insubordination will enter into the final victory
- 13. Assign victory conditions, and make sure players understand them.
A game will be a lot more fun if players have an objective beyond kicking the enemy's butt. The battle
should have a goal, a reason for being fought. That may be to seize the crossroads, to delay the enemy's
advance, to hold the village, or even to inflict casualties. Players will make better plans, and you will
get a better game, if the operations are oriented toward a realistic goal.
Giving each player (or each subcommand) customized victory conditions helps to clarify the overall
objective, speeds up the deployment and planning stage, and allows individual players to feel that even if
their team lost, at least they achieved their objective. For example, if the team's objective is to clear
a gap through an enemy cordon and link up with the table edge, then one player's objective could be to
prevent the enemy's tanks from reaching the critical point, another could be assigned to guard the supply
trucks and guarantee that they get through the gap, and a third could be charged with running a feint
attack to draw off reserves. If you go to this extent, then you have siphoned off much of the C-in-C's
responsibility, but in complex games that is often necessary to get things up and running in a reasonable
amount of time.
- 14. Limit the potential for stupid mistakes.
History is full of boneheaded generals who threw away battles and their soldiers' lives, but those
incidents don't make very good games. One bonehead can spoil seven people's fun. Your job is making sure
that does not happen.
Whether it is through stupidity, misunderstanding, or mischief, one player always shows up ready to throw
a monkey wrench into your carefully designed scenario. While players need to be allowed freedom of choice,
they have no right to ruin the game with their foolish plans.
Generals don't operate in a vacuum. They have a staff to advise them. As the game ref, you are also the
general's staff. If there are obvious courses of action in the situation at hand, outline them for the
players. If keeping a reserve is crucial under your rules, tell that to the players. If the troops are
exhausted and at the breaking point, be sure the generals are aware. Don't tell them what to do; a good
staff lays out alternatives and lets the general pick a course of action. But do supply them with at least
two or three good alternatives, just in case they can't come up with any of their own.
- 15. Put a muzzle on jerks.
We've all seen it happen. Someone shows up at the game and all he does is complain: the terrain is
wrong for this battle, these rules are awful, there's no way our side can win, this was done much better
at AnalRetentiCon. If it happens to you, take the player to the side and explain that if he is not having
fun, then it would be best for everyone if he finds a different game that is more to his liking. If a
ticket was involved, offer to escort the player back to the registration desk and help him get a refund or
a replacement because the game was not what he expected. Make it clear that if he stays to play, he needs
to be polite and enjoy himself. Don't let one jerk ruin everybody else's fun.
- 16. Plan how you will handle one or two extra players.
It very often happens that when people sign up for your game, one person gets in and his best friend does not. Or someone arrives with a generic ticket and
pleads that this is the one game he really wanted to play and it was filled up.
I hate to turn those people away. To avoid having to, I always arrange my games so that I can handle one or two extra players, if any show up. They won't get
full commands like everyone else, but they will get to play.
Two methods will allow you to do this.
When dividing the commands initially, there always seem to be a few odd troops that do not really belong anywhere. I split them up among all the players on
that side. If an extra player shows up, I reassign those free-floating elements. The original player still has his core command, and the newcomer has
something small to manage.
Alternately, I sometimes bring along a few extra troops in the box that can be added to the mix without altering the balance noticeably: skirmishers, scouts,
and the battered remnants of yesterday's fight work well in this manner.
- 17. Pause occasionally to explain what's happening.
This benefits both players and observers. Add some drama to your descriptions.
Don't make them long, make them interesting.
Also, pause occasionally for officially sanctioned bathroom and refreshment breaks.
Otherwise, people will drift off on their own at inopportune times. Do not leave the
table alone, because having figures wander off on their own can ruin the show for you.
I ask that people who eat during the game refrain from handling greasy food like
pizza because I don't want their cheesy fingerprints all over my miniatures. If everyone
breaks and eats at the same time, you can all wash your hands before returning to
the game. In this regard, don't be afraid to occasionally treat your players like
children; as gamers, we're all a bit childlike anyway.
- 18. Bring everything you need.
I keep a convention box perpetually packed with paper, pencils, dice, rulers, tape, scissors,
index cards, post-it notes, poker chips, magic markers, super glue, and white glue. These are
all the things that I occasionally need at a moment's notice at a show, but otherwise would forget
to bring. With this stuff I can make up signs advertising a pick-up game, repair damaged figures or
terrain, quickly make up rosters or event cards, stick notes to the bottoms of figures,
and generally keep things going when they otherwise might break down.
- 19. Playtest
Good cooks never serve a new dish to company the first time they make it. Good game
moderators should follow the same philosophy. Never run a game for paying customers that
you have not tested beforehand. In your first play-through, you will find all sorts of little
things that detract from enjoyment, and those little things add up. Play the game at home
with your friends, work out the kinks, and then bring it to the show. Judges who do this are
easy to spot; their games are popular, their players are smiling and happy.
- 20. Put on a good show.
Bring nice figures that are correct for your battle. They don't need to be works of art, but unpainted (or dipped) figures belong at home.
Likewise, substituting renaissance knights for confederate cavalry is fine in your basement, but annoying at a convention.
Use attractive terrain. Masking tape makes an OK road, but a much less satisfactory hill. Terrain does not need to be expensive or extensive.
A piece of indoor/outdoor carpeting draped over some books looks just dandy as gently rolling hills. A bare wooden table, however, does
not resemble the desert, even if both are brown. Most people come to a show expecting to see something better.
If you can do that, and follow the previous 19 points, you can't help but put on a good show.
[Postscript from Jerry the Webmaster]: Jon and I tried to find the original author
of these tips, but even the great and mighty Google failed. If you come across this and you're the
original author, please let me know and I will add attribution. But because these didn't seem to
appear to be on the web anywhere outside of Jon's post on Facebook, I wanted to add them to the website
Something I would personally add is the reason why you want to run a good show, and
why it's worth taking the extra effort. Your players are at your event because they chose to spend
their time and money to play your game. They're trusting that it's going to be a good time, better
than any other way they could have spent that time or money. Be worthy of that trust, and don't let
your players down. Whether it's wargames, RPGs, CCGs, board games, or all the other ways we can game, the
best scenarios I've played with always started with that player first focus.
And don't forget to have fun! It's hard to put on a good event, all those hours of planning,
painting, plotting... But watching your players settle into their roles, watching the suprise twist hit as
hard as you wanted it to, and getting a heartfelt thank you after your players remark that it was a crazy fun
session -- that's what makes it worthwhile. Don't forget to enjoy all of that.