How to Run a Great Convention Game

I love game conventions. The atmosphere, the excitement, the buzz in the air, the dealers’ room, the flea market, the sights, the sounds, the smells (OK, not the smells so much), and of course, the games.

Over the years that I have attended conventions, I have played, run, and observed countless games. Unfortunately, I have experienced many more bad games than good ones (which probably is one reason why a good game is so memorable). Happily, I’ve learned from all those mistakes, both my own and others’. The purpose of this essay is to share those lessons. Whether you are a rookie game referee or an old hand, I hope you will find something insightful and useful here.

My philosophy in a nutshell is this: people who come to a convention and show up at your game have paid money to be there, and they deserve to get something worthwhile in exchange. Giving them a boring, unbalanced, or poorly designed game is no different from selling them a broken-down car. It’s a rip-off!

These are my 20 tips for setting up a game that will excite the players and keep observers interested on the sidelines.

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.

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.

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.

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 approach.
  • 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 time.
  • 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.

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 complicated rules.

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.

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).

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 table.

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.

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 play.

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.

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.

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 command structure.
  • 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 monster game.

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 assessment.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pause Occasionally to Explain What Is 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.

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.


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.

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!

Posted in: Conventions, How To, Rules

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