The night of Friday, March 16th, 1990 was a busy one for the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers. On that night, hundreds of people suddenly overran the Hilton. The line at the reservation desk stretched rapidly to the door. The parking lot quickly filled to capacity, along with every empty parking space within a two-block radius. People invaded the hotel from all corners of the United States, and from as far away as Great Britain and Australia. They came carrying briefcases and boxes, suitcases and satchels. They varied in age from twelve to seventy. Most of them did not leave the hotel again until Monday morning. They came for one purpose.
They came to play games.
Presidents’ Day weekend, 1990, marked the thirteenth annual Orccon strategy game convention. Orccon is one of several such gatherings that are organized every year. The convention’s name is derived from the Orcs, a race of mythical creatures invented by British novelist J. R. R. Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings trilogy of books. The convention’s organizers named it after the Orcs because they figure prominently in a popular game based loosely on Tolkien’s works, called Dungeons and Dragons.
The first thing you notice when you walk in the door at Orccon is the registration table, located near the hotel’s lobby. This is where you pay your admission fee, and pick up your name tag and your copy of the all-important convention program. The program includes a list of the convention’s activities, a floor plan of the hotel, and advice such as “please do not overfill the hotel’s elevators, because they do break down!”
For a twenty-dollar fee, a convention attendee may “preregister” for Orccon. This includes admission to each of the four-day convention’s activities. More importantly, you are guaranteed the opportunity to play in four of the more than five hundred game tournaments that take place during the weekend. Although the prizes that are offered to the victors usually do not amount to much more than a cloth ribbon and one’s name in print, the “garners” (as they prefer to be called) take these tournaments very seriously. Competition at Orccon is as stiff as a high-stakes Poker game. Unlike poker, however, no money changes hands during these tournaments. One gets the impression that the level of seriousness among the garners at Orccon could not be higher, even if money were involved.
“Everyone is basically here to have fun,” says convention coordinator Alan Emrich, “but the desire to win is very strong.”
The first day at Orccon was filled with activity, as game merchants set up their wares and the garners themselves searched the hotel to find out where their tournaments were being held. This was when the various local gamers’ clubs began to recruit members, as they usually do, by posting advertisements on the bulletin boards that have been set up near the registration table. The level of excitement was high, as the gamers prepared to almost entirely neglect sleeping and eating for three days of straight gaming.
None of the organizers of Orccon seemed to be able to give a precise estimate of how many different types of games are played at the convention, but the closest figure that could be arrived at was at least a hundred. The games played at Orccon fell into three broad categories: board games, strategic simulation games, and role-playing games.
Board games are the games that most of us grew up playing, such as Monopoly, Risk!, Clue, Backgammon, and, of course, Chess. The Monopoly tournament was a particularly interesting spectacle: the creme de la creme of Monopoly players from across the United states assembled in one room, where they passed “Go,” collected $200, and traded properties until well past midnight. When the tournament was over, all but four players had been eliminated. These four were instructed to return the following day for the final round, from which only one would emerge victorious.
Strategic simulation games are also called “war games,” but the name is generally not used because it brings with it a violent connotation. As one player puts it, “We don’t want people to confuse us with the guys who wear camouflage clothing and run around in the woods shooting paint pellets as each other.” A strategic simulation game usually involves two players. The players assume the roles of the opposing sides in one of history’s famous battles. The games are played on a surface roughly the size of a large chess board, printed with the actual terrain features of the historical battlefield. Each player is assigned a set of cardboard pieces, each of which represents an actual military unit that participated in the battle. A single game can last for several hours, until one player finally manages to outmaneuver her opponent and win.
Strategic simulation games have a certain perverse appeal. They allow a player to play the role of Napoleon at Waterloo, Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, or perhaps even Adolf Hitler at Stalingrad, and test his skills against other players. Some games are designed to favor the side that actually won the battle, making them more historically accurate, while others give both players an equal opportunity to win. One player compared the experience of playing these games to “adult toy soldiers.”
Role-playing games are at the same time the most popular and the least understood games played at Orccon. They are usually not played on a game board. A typical role-playing game –if such a thing exists –involves four to six players, one of whom is designated the “game master.” Each player portrays a different character, like actors following a script. The game master serves the dual purpose of screenwriter and director, creating and controlling the setting in which the characters find themselves. Depending on a particular game’s setting, the players might portray gumshoe detectives in 1930’s San Francisco, settlers in the Wild West, or Cold War spies engaged in international intrigue. There are no actual “winners” or “losers” in a role-playing game. A player’s success is judged by how well her character dealt with the imaginary situation that the game master presented.
Dungeons and Dragons is by far the most widely-known role playing game. It is also the most controversial. The basic setting of Dungeons and Dragons is medieval Europe, with two major differences: mythical creatures such as fairies and unicorns actually exist, and ritualistic practices such as alchemy and witchcraft produce tangible results. Here lies the controversy: some fundamentalist Christian groups insist that Dungeons and Dragons is a threat to the mental health and emotional well-being of American youth. These critics point to the detailed references to witchcraft and black magic contained in the Dungeons and Dragons rule booklets, and claim that young people who play the game will be encouraged to practice such rituals. Advocates of the game point out that such practices were integral elements of medieval life, and the game should therefore address them. They also argue that all role-playing games are designed primarily for an adult audience, and that it is a parent’s responsibility to restrict his child’s undesirable behavior.
Mike Stackpole came to the Orccon convention as a representative of Flying Buffalo Incorporated, an Arizona firm the produces games such as Tunnels and Trolls (a role-playing game akin to Dungeons and Dragons). He vehemently disagrees with those who suggest that Dungeons and Dragons and other such games represent a threat to American youth: “Being calm about such a thing is not easy –the accusations made against role-playing games are often loaded with inaccuracies and emotional statements designed to distort the truth. In the six years that I’ve played role-playing games — and I’ve played in London, Ottawa, and all over the United States — I have yet to see a Black Mass even hinted at in a game.”
Actual game-playing is merely one part of the Orccon convention experience. Out-of-print and hard-to-find games were bought and sold in the exhibitors’ area, informally known as the “dealer’s room.” Several panel discussions, with names like “Gaming Industry News, Trends, and Gossip” and “Teaching History Using Board Games,” were conducted throughout the weekend. High school teacher Gerald Decker conducted this latter seminar. Decker insists that board games and strategic simulation games can be valuable educational tools, if they are used properly. “It is one thing to tell elementary students about the battle of Gettysburg, but if they are allowed to play it out in a game, the subject will hold more interest for them.”
On the morning of Monday, March 19th, 1990, the garners who invaded the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers on Friday night began to go home, one by one. An airline pilot, languishing in the Hilton’s lobby between flights, displayed a puzzled expression after hearing a winner gloat in the next room: “Look, your infantry is almost destroyed, and your cavalry will never be able to make it over those hills in time. Are you ready to surrender?”
The hotel’s busboys swarmed from room to room, cleaning up the weekend’s accumulation of debris. The tournament winners went home confident, and the losers went home hopeful about next time. The weekend’s games belonged to the past.
Until next time, of course.