KublaCon is a gaming convention in Burlingame, CA, and an easy stop for me when it comes to looking for gaming events. It doesn’t focus on any one genre, which means that you will find something for everyone in the massive atrium of the Hyatt Hotel near SFO. This year I dragged two new people who both had a blast, learning new games and playing old games with new people. If you have ever dreamt of shouting “KUBLA!” at the top of your lungs to hear a chorus of voices reply, “CON!” then this might be the con for you.
Nestled in the conference rooms and galleries around the hotel are a number of dedicated gaming rooms. You can find people displaying table top miniature games in one room, RPG events in another, LARPing down one hallway, and boardgames spread out like the unpopular kids in the hallways of a high school, tucked into every table and chair they can find. There are games everywhere, which makes my job as a Competitive Gaming Reporter both impossibly hard and infinitely simple. While you can stumble into a tournament around any corner at any time, it’s hard to find one that people have actually heard of. This year I gave up, and decided to bring you two events that I didn’t realize were played competitively.
Axis and Allies is global domination turn based strategy board game set in 1942. The conflict is World War II, and pits the US, Russia, and the UK against Germany and Japan in an epic struggle of bullets and bombs. The whole world is at war, and you play the role of supreme commander, in charge of marshaling troops, maneuvering armies, and capturing territory. Each territory is worth resources that can be used to build more troops, but only certain cities are valuable to players as victory points. I talked to David Jensen, the tournament organizer and webmaster of www.axisandallies.org, who gave me more information about what was going on.
First of all, the game is huge. Model soldiers and tanks in 5 different colors dot the landscape and threaten each other silently. Piles of play money, representing millions of hours of industrial production, lay on the sides around the board, and reference sheets for the players to keep track of what going on are everywhere. You can tell which sheets are well known, and which are more complicated, based on their location vertically in the pile. Players move their pieces around the table and fight over territory with die rolls to determine the outcome. David said that the game could go on for ten to twelve hours if played out to its entirety.
This tournament doesn’t have that luxury, so a time limit of 5 hours is enforced. David doesn’t use chess timers or turn trackers to make that people don’t stall. For the most part, people work on the honor system to make sure that everyone gets enough time to play. While that’s great for friendly games, we agreed that it could be problematic for competitive environments. Banning and boycotting could be used to punish people who tried to use this tactic to their advantage. This tournament only had 4 players, but David says that there are a lot more players in the Midwest than out here on the west coast. GenCon and Origins both have much larger tournaments, which is understandable with their sizes. Still, if they had 16 players, which would be considered a small event for most other board games, that would be a 20 hour time commitment in the middle of GenCon.
The game is no joke. I learned to play Axis and Allies spin off editions when I was in middle school, but this is pretty tough. The learning curve is steep, and David says that players need to know how to play the game before they show up. While a lot of game events are welcoming to new comers, this one is only inviting to them as spectators. The strangest barrier that I heard about when I was talking to David was the effect of mind games on players. Players can make subtle (or not so subtle) hints about hurrying up, finishing your turn, or being done, so that you can make your opponent feel rushed and forget things. David says that he has seen this done before, and has had it happen to him. His opponent, Hin, agreed that this was a part of the game, and that new players can fall victim to this. This sort of tactic defines the culture of a community, where one type of meta gaming (stalling) is frowned upon, but another (mind games) is allowed and almost respected. You can find these cultural differences in all various clubs and groups, and conventions are a great place to see these.