Cold Wars 2020 Convention Report – COVID-19 Edition

From 12th through 15th March 2020, I had the unique experience of attending what many are calling “the last wargames convention on earth”, for this year anyway. Seriously, ever wonder what will happen if one hosts a gaming convention and nobody turns up? Well, in Lancaster, PA the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS) came close to finding out at their annual Cold Wars Convention, all thanks to a germ called COVID 19. Here is what it was like.

By the numbers

OK, this after action report is going to be a lot different than what I’ve written before, so if you want to experience the convention in a normal year, check out last year’s article also penned by yours truly. You’ll quickly begin to realize why this year may have been a lot of things, but normal wasn’t one of them.

The 2019 edition listed 1850 attendees, of which normally about 40% walk in the door with the other 60% pre-registering. This year the number of pre-registrations stood at around 1350, but only 639 were processed into the convention according to one HMGS staffer, with an estimated total attendance of 800 – 850 as of Saturday. Likewise, one overachieving attendee actually did a manual headcount of gamers gaming on Saturday night, normally the busiest time at any HMGS con, and came up with a number of 328. Admittedly this did not include 19 at the bar, but it did include only nine people in the tournament room. Another reported seeing only two games in the Distlefink, which did lose half its space to the Wally’s Basement flea market. However, this was still 6:30 pm Saturday evening. These are not official counts to be sure, but you get the picture.

And as the number of people on station dropped, so did the number of games registered to play. Again, if we look at last year, and not including tournament and other miscellaneous play, there were 321 games scheduled out in all categories. I suspect that number would be pretty close to this year’s as well, but regardless, there was a huge amount of cancellations. Assuming I enumerated correctly (gotta love fingers, you can always count on them), there were 32 game cancellations on Friday, 31 on Saturday and one on Sunday. Obviously, that does not include set up and ready to go games cancelled because no one showed up.

It was pretty much the same in the Dealer’s Hall, a separate building from the rest of the hotel, although newly renovated with much easier access than previously. I did not take the time to count who was there and who was not, but the convention program listed 47 merchants, about the same as last year. Nevertheless, when one walked in the door you could not help but notice the big gaping empty space in the center of an awfully big room where lots of vendors used to be. One reason concerned a vendor in the act of unpacking who received a phone call from home advising him a tree just fell on his house (no kidding, you cannot make this up). As for the rest of the no-shows, yes, it was COVID19 related.

I was, however, surprised at the specifics as to why people bailed, though all were under the general Corona umbrella. In fact, people that felt healthy tended to show up. Those who stayed back tended to be folks in high-risk categories, such as the elderly or those burdened with significant ongoing health problems. When your doctor tells you not only ‘no’ but ‘Hell no’, one tends to listen, and given the ‘greying of the hobby’ is a real issue, this can have quite an impact. The second big reason people stayed away was that while they felt healthy, they had people back home in said high-risk categories. The gamer could well be part of the 86 % who don’t even have to go to a hospital over this bug, but their 92-year-old dad living with them might not be so lucky. And then finally we had the WTMI – Way Too Much Information – syndrome. As if the Almighty had planned this in advance almost to the day, as soon as Cold Wars opened its doors on Thursday, the media began what seemed like hourly reports of mass quarantines, meeting bans, event cancellations and the like. Indeed, other conventions, like Adepticon for example, seemed to be dropping like flies. In retrospect, this was a good thing, but the way it nurtured a ‘better part of valor’ decision making process was fascinating.

To play or not to play (not to mention buy), that is the question

I attended, of course, and in some respects got lucky. I hosted two games on the 1675 pike and shot battle of Turckheim from another of Louis XIV’s war of the week series. My first game Friday night was a bust because although all eight game tickets were gone, only two people showed up and I needed a minimum of four to play. Fortunately, I was able to cobble, beg, borrow and steal five gamers for my game the next morning and the exercise went well. It was yet another battle in yet another Franco-Dutch War, this time in snow covered winter with France’s illustrious Marshal Turenne taking on Holland’s Holy Roman Empire and Prussian allies. The French triumphed and did so in a manner that precisely matched the tactics of the original engagement. Also, I was also able to induct yet another unlucky soul into the Order of the Pink Pansy, and award him the coveted pink die. How could I not? Indeed how could anyone ignore this Frenchman’s  acumen and skill in rolling four “2’s” in a row on an average die, thus stopping his own Gendarmerie, the finest cavalry on the planet, from moving at a most critical time in the battle. Cue snickering now.

Otherwise pickings were slim. I’m usually able to get a lot of images for articles like these because after my game on Saturday morning, there are always lots of things hopping that afternoon and well into the night. Not this time around, though I was able to sit back and enjoy seeing how those new, totally irreverent rules and figures recreating the Armies of Oz (yes, that Oz) battled on the tabletop. Of course, I got pictures and was able to come up with a good 180 images of the con overall, but that’s a lot less than usual, and a lot of them were of my game. But hey, it is my camera – er, phone, ‘phamera’ or something like that.

I also had a bit of luck in the Dealers’ Hall as well. All of the hobby firms I needed to get stuff from were on station and eager to take my heard earned shekels. This included a lot of terrain from Battlefield Terrain Concepts, absolutely critical as I needed the purchase to properly set up my two games for the weekend. I also grabbed some 10 mm figures from Old Glory Corporation and a Helion published book on the Army of the Holy Roman Empire from Casemate Publishing

And while I didn’t buy anything, I did stop by the Phalanx Consortium to check out their supporting line of World War I miniatures for the new Blood and Valor rules which I just recently reviewed. I was correct. These miniatures are 3D printed and are absolutely marvellous, not a trace of circular scaling to be found and very detailed. The lads at the booth told me there will indeed be an Eastern Front addition to the base rules, so there might well be some Russians, Austrians and Italians in my future. Now if they would only consider Blackadder

But the important stuff – how were sales? I will only say that when I trotted over for some last-minute retail therapy 10 am Sunday morning, a good half of the vendors were either packing up or had already packed up to go home. Old Glory Corp had left the night before, believe it or not. By contract this shouldn’t happen without HMGS dispensation, as all vendors are required to stay open until noon on Sunday. However, HMGS dispensation was cheerfully given this time around as an exception to policy, showing exactly why exceptions to policy exist. I was still able to make my last-minute purchase because I had cash not spent at the flea market, but yes, it was that type of convention.

And now the rest of the story…

I would be remiss if I did not mention the other really big news to come out of Cold Wars 2020. The convention’s new home in 2021 will be the Roland E Powell Convention Center in Ocean City, MD running 8th – 11th April 2021. The current venue, aka Wyndham nee Lancaster Host Resort, is really getting in tip top shape, with new everything that actually works and an equally new staff that is not only fully competent but extremely helpful and quite cheerful to boot. None of this “Gawd I wish I wasn’t here” attitude that we’ve all seen before. Yet the actual services provided seem to be getting less and less, to include a single food station where in the past there were many more. The on-site Starbucks doesn’t even take Starbucks cards! Combined with rising costs, it would seem the Wyndham resort priced itself out of the HMGS market, perhaps deliberately so. Thus, we now have Ocean City, and the gnashing of teeth has already started in HMGS land. Pricing should be good in the off season, though I do have concerns that geographically the location might be too far off the uber densely populated I-95 corridor. Yet I do plan to be there nonetheless, as RCI has three resorts in town so I’m thinking making a week of it in a condo.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t send out a HUGE virtual fist bump to Cold Wars Director Heather Blush. Once again, the convention was well organized, well laid out and her staff exceptionally supportive. And while Britain’s Royal Horse Artillery boasts the motto “Ubique” (‘Everywhere’), they got nothing on this young lass. Throughout the entire mess she performed her duties efficiently with grace and aplomb, when I would have shoved someone out of an airlock over Tatooine at the first complaint. Well done.

In closing it has been suggested that “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these HMGS wargamers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Germs are another matter, and the fact that this convention ran just after the Daylight Savings Time switch with a Friday the 13th tucked in did not go unnoticed. So be it, and while I go into Coronavirus defilade as part of a gaming and writing sabbatical, let’s be careful out there. I have spoken, because this is the way.