Pros and “Cons”: The Wide World of Worldwide Board Game Conventions

by Corey Whelen
2 October 2019

In my experience, nothing brings people together quite like a board game. That warm familiar feeling of attacking a shared puzzle and outwitting your friends is delightful, and since the early 2000’s, hobby board games have had astronomical growth as an industry, meaning games are bringing more people together than ever. Nowhere is this more evident than in the industries adjacent to board games- particularly board game conventions, or “cons” as they’re often referred to. Convention season is just firing up, so I thought we’d take a look at some gaming conventions, and maybe help find one for you!

Conventions are always a magical affair- entire conference centres and trade halls devoted to hyper-specific hobbies, passions, and industries. Board game conventions are no different. Publishers big and small line those hallowed halls, pitching the hottest new board game or that little indie sleeper that seems to be largely overlooked. It’s a place where people share their passions, where even the most detached strangers have at least one shared interest to bond over. Everybody becomes your friend just by virtue of being there. There are panels with board game “celebrities”, you might meet your favourite game developer, there are plenty of vendors to browse for new games, there are board game trade meetups, events, shows, and of course, there’s always a big section devoted to tablespace, so that people can actually play games. Many cons provide a well-stocked game library for this exact purpose. Sound perfect, right?

Ward Batty Photo of Board Game Collection
Photo by Ward Batty (http://atlantagamefest.com/gbe.html)

As of this writing, we’re just two days away from SHUX (the Shut Up and Sit Down Expo), which has become Canada’s largest gaming convention in just three short years. Paradoxically, the convention is run by a British board game review channel -Shut Up and Sit Down- that has found an international following with their dry wit and irreverent attitude. Of course, SHUX is absolutely dwarfed by Gen Con, the largest board game convention in North America. With approximately 70,000 people in attendance this year, Gen Con has become a household name for board game fans, and a surprisingly popular vacation destination for geeky guys and gals. Founded by Gary Gygax, nerd icon and legendary co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, the convention has reached staggering heights compared to the 96 people that showed up to Lake Geneva’s Horticultural Hall in 1968. With over fifty years of gaming history under its belt, Gen Con is a reminder that tabletop games have a profound legacy. There have been numerous spin-offs, including Gen Con Australia, European Gen Con, Gen Con Barcelona, and Gen Con UK, but most of these events have since been cancelled or spun off into unique new conventions.

Part of Gen Con’s inability to gain a permanent foothold overseas is due to their decision to focus on the main convention in Indianapolis, but the main reason is probably the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, or the Essen Game Fair, the world’s largest board game convention. The Essen Game Fair is the most attended board game convention in the world and breaks that record almost every year. In 2018, an astonishing 190,000 visitors attended the event, and it’s packed to the brim with wonderful new games, publishers seeking a foothold, and tables to play games at! It’s appropriate that it takes place in  what is largely considered the birthplace of modern board games; Germany is home to Klaus Teuber and his legendary game, Catan, not to mention a host of other prominent developers.  In fact, in 2015, attendees set the world record for the most people playing Catan simultaneously- an astonishing 1040 people played Teuber’s classic.


1.The Essen Game Fair in 2017. Photo by Owen Duffy (click for origin)

There are many reasons to go to attend an international gaming convention, but the number one reason is simply playing games, something that usually doesn’t require much travel or expense. If you’re not interested in spending thousands of dollars to join thousands of people in a sweaty convention hall, there are also TONS of smaller, local cons to surprise and delight, including one near where you live (probably)! Meeple Mountain did a wonderful writeup about conventions this year, aptly named The 2019 and 2020 Guide to Board Game Conventions and it ends with a fairly comprehensive and up-to-date list of board game conventions; Canada alone has 21 listed conventions. Australia has 10, the UK has 71, and the United States has a whopping 324 listed in the 2019-2020 season. Admittedly, some of these cons have a very narrow focus, or they share floor space with a comic convention or an anime expo, but that just means you have more variety to choose from. Want to attend a convention that focuses on tabletop RPGs? Or one exclusively for indie games? Or girl-gamers? Want to try a board game cruise? There’s a world full of cons out there, and one of them is filled with wonderful weirdos like you!

1. The Essen Game Fair in 2017 by Owen Duffy: (https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/11/essen-2017-best-board-games-from-the-biggest-board-game-convention)