11 July, 2019

Dice Tower Con

The end of an era.
Three years ago, I decided that it might be fun to attend a board game convention. I wasn't sure at first; in my limited experience, most conventions are about socializing, cos-play, attending panels, seeing new things in the industry, and (most disturbingly) not bathing. But the Dice Tower Convention seemed different. There were explicit rules about being nice, bathing every day, etc. It was described as a gaming convention; rather than a bunch of talks by designers and publishers, there was a focus on the open gaming area and a huge library of games. I took a chance, booked a villa, invited several friends and family, and we all had a great time. It had become a tradition since.

The entire trip always had such great parts to it. We'd drive 4-5 hours each day from our home just north of DC, stopping at parks and museums and interesting food places all along the way. Each city we visited had something to offer, and I always looked forward to the hotel at the end of each day, which Katherine painstakingly picked out in order to be perfect for rest and relaxation. (Katherine is very picky with her hotel choices.)

Imagine dozens of moving sculptures like these.
In 2017, we visited the Vollis Simpson  Whirligig Park and Museum in Wilson, North Carolina, where there were still in the process of building this outside park. Junk filled the air in pleasing positions, and the air (which was not moving very fast on its own) was somehow easily causing the parts to twirl and sway in interesting patterns. Katherine was especially excited by it because she loved the installation by this artist in Baltimore, and she found the full representation of his art to be especially impressive. We also visited the following year, after they officially opened; they'd included an indoor museum at that point, but it was too nice to just look outside for us to bother going in.

I was especially impressed by their accessibility,
though parking was a hellscape of anguish.
This year, we visited the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Katherine is a member of a local art museum and this gives her free access for her and a friend (that's me!) to several dozen museums throughout the eastern United States. Nevertheless, the Gibbes made plenty of money from us as their gift shop called out successfully. I really enjoyed their exhibition, but, more importantly, I enjoyed the meta story behind their exhibit choices. The Gibbes has been around for well over a hundred years, and they have an extensive collection of very well done art from local white artists that is, to put it mildly, quite racist. To counter that narrative, the entire top floor is dedicated to black artists; most of the information written on the plaques hanging on the walls have reminders that whites had access to patronage, art training, and free time that blacks did not.

We also always stopped in Myrtle Beach to visit two of Katherine's close friends. And we'd stop in various Mellow Mushroom restaurants along the way to compare decor. And we'd visit Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat salad buffet that doesn't exist anywhere near Maryland, and we'd go to nice restaurants to try out the impossible burger during times when it was difficult to find one. And when we'd finally get to Orlando proper, we'd stay in a villa in the Caribe Royale, with its jacuzzi tub in the master bedroom, a private pool that would let us literally be the only swimmers from 8-9:30 every morning, a full couch and chairs that allowed us to game in comfort on the TV with the Nintendo Switches that everyone brought, and its spacious floor space able to accommodate whatever handicap accessibility requirements we might throw at it.

The Dice Tower Con proper was so good. I could get games with strangers easily, there were table-toppers announcing whenever we needed a teacher for a game, I could be alone whenever it was required due to my introverted nature, everything (including bathrooms) was fully accessible, the game library and hot games sections were extensive and covered whatever we wanted, the exhibitor hall had lots of great games on display, and the parts of the con I had no interest in were in separate rooms so I never had to go there at all.

It wasn't all good, of course. CoolStuffInc had an awesome ding and dent sale in 2017 that brought prices so low that I couldn't help to make several purchases despite my best intentions. But the sale was gone in 2018/19, because (as the head of CSI said in a facebook comment) they were hurting the other exhibitors by discounting so heavily.

In 2018, we signed up for an "escape room" that turned out to be a box attached to a high table that people in wheelchairs could not even see over the side of, making it completely inaccessible. Even with a person unable to participate entirely, there was not enough room around the table (which was pushed into a corner of the room) for everyone present to stand beside it. And the device itself had been broken by an earlier group, so instead of a light going off when we succeeded at a task, the person running the event just announced: "you succeeded!" and would proceed to open a new door that was supposed to have opened automatically once we solved the previous puzzle. To say it was bad is an understatement, but what hurt much more was that it cost us $15/person to do this event. To this day, it stands as the worst paid experience I've ever had, unless you count getting food poisoning once from a restaurant. And yet: the main convention was so good that it didn't ruin anything more than the two hours or so that we spent in that dreadful room.

This year, everything seemed to be falling apart. I wanted a cup to use for drinking tea in my room; but cups did not arrive until Friday, three days into the con. The bag we received when we registered was empty; no map, no guidebook, no free games, no promo cards. The books came the next day and had to be given out while we were playing games. There was an advertiser whose ad wasn't printed in the book. Something bad was going on. The most conspicuous part was that the guidebook for the con had no information whatsoever about next year's convention.

Rumors abounded. While we were swimming, a long time attendee came up to us and conspiratorially whispered all he knew about the situation. Patrick Havert had let his niece run the con this year, and she can't handle it; the hotel is refusing to let us know whether the convention will be held again next year; the alternate hotel that it might be moving to also isn't saying anything; they're going to expand the con to even more attendees and it's going to become like gencon.

On the penultimate day, Tom Vasel, the person behind the eponymous con, gave announcements that did not mention next year at all. The next evening on the final day of the con, as everyone was seemingly leaving, a new rumor started going around: Tom would be doing a live Q&A about next year at 11 am the next morning.

We were packing while the live Q&A started. Years ago, the Haverts had started this con, and had asked Tom for the use of the Dice Tower name to give it more prestige. They signed a contract, and the Haverts ran the entire con while Tom only had to attend, do a few events there, and run the hot games section. It was great for eight years. But in the intervening time, Vasel had started running smaller cons of his own. They weren't nearly as big as the 3000 people at the main Dice Tower Convention, but he still had 1000 or so people at these other cons, and he enjoyed running them and being able to have full input on what would happen there. So, this year, he decided to break with the Haverts as their contract ran out. He was taking back his name and announced a new con: Dice Tower East, to be held on the same July 4 weekend next year, but at a new location: the Florida Hotel. Meanwhile, the Haverts would be starting a new con called Escape Winter, held in November.

This devastated me. The new hotel was atrocious. A big part of the experience for me was the villas, and the new hotel didn't even have a microwave. Only small fridges, and the beds are in the same room as the tv. It's not a resort -- it's a hotel. How can we play video games there? I don't want to invite people into the same room that I sleep in. What if my introverted nature takes over and I need to retreat? To where could I retreat if everything is all in the same room?

And then I noticed several posts by the locals on reddit and boardgamegeek. (You can't find such posts on facebook, because the Haverts are deleting any posts that aren't directly favorable to them in the old dice tower con fb group.) The Florida Hotel is connected to the mall, which apparently is a high crime area. Local people are unwilling to attend solely because of the location's safety issues.

Suffice it to say: I don't think I'll be attending Dice Tower East next year. And since both Katherine and Jon are teachers, going to a con in November is out of the question. A summer convention is required.

And so I sit, confused. What should we do next year? I'm seriously considering not going to a con at all. DTC was special; I don't think we'd get that kind of experience at Origins or any other board game convention. But I could just run one myself. Just for me and my closest friends. I own at least 200 board games. It's not like we'd be lacking games to play. And this way we could rent out a villa that we could really enjoy, with the amenities we truly want. I don't know yet what we're going to do, but I honestly think this might be the best solution for us. Next year, I want to have the experience of traveling, of stopping at fun places, of meeting up with friends in a nice resort, and of playing video games and board games for a week straight. And maybe we can accomplish all of that without having to go a convention at all.

Thank you Dice Tower Con, for giving me three great years. But now I'm now looking forward to what kind of experience I can create for myself.

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