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HBG interviews Smogcon 2013 in the UK

This is Kuen-Kuen reporting for HBG from the UK!

Some time ago, I heard about a growing gaming convention in the UK called Smogcon. Its second year is starting tomorrow from Friday through Sunday (Feb 15 to 17) in Cardiff, Wales.

I was fortunate enough to get the chance to sit down with Jon Webb and Norbert Brunhuber, two of the organisers of the event, to gather some of their thoughts, experiences, and expectations of running Smogcon.

Jon and Norbert Interview
Interviewing Jon and Norbert


Here Be Geeks: Jon, Norbert, tell me a little bit about yourselves.


Jon Webb: So I’m a visual effects artist these days, working in film. Gaming and painting is really what I do. I spend a lot of time painting, and painting commission work for other people too. I’m also a big board gamer, card gamer, play all sorts of games. Lots of handheld consoles as well; big fan of the Gameboy. That’s about it these days, to be honest. Not the most exciting person.

Norbert Brunhuber: That sounds a lot more than me!

I work at a communications agency in the medical field. I try to paint more when I have spare time, but lately I’ve just been travelling around a lot. In Europe and America, trying to take advantage of meeting more people in the gaming community.

HBG: What factions do you play?

JW: Cryx.

NB: I play Circle now. I used to play Khador, so I have both armies, but I play Circle.

HBG: When did you first get the idea for Smogcon?

JW: So we went over for TempleCon in 2010, and that was when I first met Norbert. Norbert and Stubbs did a lot of preamble with us for the show I used to be a part of, Boosted Damage. So once we were over there, we were shut in to a certain Mr. Sam Sedghi, which is a name familiar to some. And when we got back to the UK he just was like, “Oh, you guys should totally do a convention,” and we were like “Oh whatever, Sam. Don’t be stupid.” And then I was like “No maybe we should”.

And so I started cooking up this thing, and originally it was codenamed “ConJonCon” since it was the Conrad and Jon convention. Conrad’s kind of played an advisory role and a supporter. And yeah so it got to the stage where it was either we do this or it never happens, and I put my foot down and said “No, we’re going to do this”.

Smogcon 2013
So Smogcon 2012 was the first, which was last year, and it all came together quite quickly. It was a weird serendipity with Norbert coming over to the UK and Tom Hutchins kind of reappearing.

So we’ve got these kinds of “pods” I call it. Norbert’s taken a more active role in the comp[etition] pod this year. We’ve got Phil taking care of the roleplaying, and he’s done a phenomenal job. I’m really excited for what he’s gonna be doing. And I’ve already got his plans for [year three] because we’re looking to grow the con, and his plans for next year are even better.

So with Phil, Norbert, and some of the other guys, my vision was always to get the guys who had a specific field and a specific expertise. So for example I got Jamie Perkins involved because he’d been involved with setting up the ETC. And they’re no longer involved with that. I also got Tim to look after the casual side, Smogpit. It’s a case of pooling the various people that I kind of knew were big in the community.

Norbert, Conrad, and Tom working at Smogcon 2012
Norbert, Conrad, and Tom at Smogcon 2012

In the end we kind of just went for it, really. It’s amazing how it almost didn’t happen. A bit of hard work, a bit of planning, a bit of luck, and a bit of just playing it by ear. And we got away with it. Now we’re back for year two and it’s pretty much the same story.

NB: Tom will take the painting.

JW: And I’ll look smug and do nothing. [laughs]
NB: Actually Jon doesn’t attend these things.

JW: That’s true.

NB: Although there’s a really flamboyant guy there called Captain Johnny Bones.

JW: A reputably gay pirate, Captain Johnny Bones. I dunno where this came from.

NB: Sailing the seas of cheese.

JW: That’s the one. I dunno if Johnny Bones is gonna be there this year.

NB: Whaaaaaaat?

JW: I don’t know. We’ll see.

Smogcon 2012 photo

HBG: What’s your take on Smogcon, Norbert?

NB: It’s the first North American style, almost 24-hour, 3-day convention in the UK, ever.

HBG: What do you mean by “North American style”?

NB: In the UK, they hadn’t had before three-day [conventions]. Or certainly they didn’t have a system like you do in the States, where you have nothing but different types of tournaments, casual gaming, and painting over the course of multiple days. My understanding is that at best you had like two-day events, which is really just one tournament spread over two days.

So to have the whole idea of three days of all kinds of different gaming, leading up to a qualifier, leading up to an invitational at the end was unknown. So no one has made any secret that Jon basically admired the TempleCon model, which was the model for most other tournament conventions in the States in itself. But he took that model and essentially whole-sale translated it over. The only difference is that TempleCon has other gaming systems and the whole cosplay element to it. He just stripped out all the Warmachine-specific stuff, but otherwise basically tries to emulate TempleCon here [in the UK].

JW: And we have tradeshows here. And we have the specific, one tournament, one focused thing. But I thought there was no point doing what’s already there. You’re just watering down what we’ve already got. So by going early in the year and doing it in such an American setup it really puts us on the map as something really different. And people have responded to it really well.

HBG: Norbert, you refer to the UK as “they”. Do you still see yourself living here as an American abroad?

NB: I won’t presume anything. [laughs] It’s only been a year.

JW: He’s slowly going native. There’s a twang in the accent and the odd turn of speech a year ago he didn’t have, so we are slowly converting him to the side of righteousness.

[both laugh]

HBG: You mention that you first started thinking about Smogcon at GenCon. Do you ever communicate with, say, the three main guys that organize TempleCon, or any of the other conventions?

JW: Not directly. I wholesale stole what I saw there and kind of went for it. I kind of exchanged a few emails with Ross Thompson who works for Cool Mini, and he was supposed to come over but couldn’t make it. A lot of it is kind of having my eyes opened at GenCon and saw what I needed to see there.

I do kind of speak to Hacksaw about other [topics unrelated to Templecon]. As a Press Ganger. And catch up with him at GenCon last year. But not in terms of actually planning stuff. Norbert obviously has American expertise. But I kind of just made it up as I went along based on what I knew I wanted.

NB: So you experienced for yourself first hand, and you surrounded yourself with people who are capable. So it happened. Those, I think, are the two key things.

JW: Yeah definitely.

NB: And you’re an organized person to being with.

JW: Yeah it’s all about the Blue Folder of Doom. It’s kind of the secret to Smogcon.

Smogcon 2012 photo

JW: We were planning Smogcon Two a week after Smogcon One, so it’s been a year in the making. Smogcon Three is already being planned as well. Everything is kind of set up ahead of time, so nothing, almost nothing, is decided on the day. So all the tournaments are rolled up, the timings are rolled up, I’ve printed sheets for everything, and it all get put in a folder. So basically anyone can do it. You just hand them the folder, and say “This is the Hardcore for today” and everything’s there. And they’re good to go. So it eliminates any kind of… on-the-minute thinking.

NB: So yeah [speaking of Hardcore], Smogcon this year is going to be the first time an official Privateer Press Hardcore is being run outside the United States.

JW: With official Privateer Press Hardcore prizes. And the other thing is that we’re trying to make it as “Privateer” as we can. It’s a shame we couldn’t do the P3 with the painting [competition]. So we’ve got Golden Thrall instead, which is my blatant rip-off of that. I’ve taken part in two P3s, I really enjoy the format. It’s a really good system. But we’ve got Steamroller coins. We’ve got the Hardcore prizes. There’s a lot of that official Privateer “lot”. Hopefully next year we’re actually going to make it an official Privateer Masters as well. That’d be really good and it really “legitimizes” Smogcon. So it’s important, really.

2012 prize pool
2012 prize pool

NB: Plus, casual gaming on an organized scale was unknown in the UK before this. And really attracted a whole crowd of people, which only enhances the growth of the game in the country.

JW: And that’s something for year three we’re going to push really hard. A lot of people. More space. Maybe look at the prizes. A lot of people are starting to actually discover they don’t want to go to the conventions and play hardcore competitive tournaments. A lot of people just want to go, chill out, and play a few games with friends. We played in the Iron Arena in 2010, and thought it seemed like a really good idea, not that hard to emulate. It actually encourages a whole group of people who otherwise wouldn’t come to an event. So that’s really key.

HBG: You mentioned that you have quite a crew working to make the convention. Is there anybody else who you would like to highlight?

JW: Rob West, who owns Firestorm Games. He’s the nicest guy if you want good service, good prices, and a genuinely decent bloke, go to Firestorm. We couldn’t have done it without him because he gave us a ready-made venue. Last year he did the bar up in preparation for the event, and this year he’s redone the flooring and sound system. And he is just totally willing to help us out however he can.

Bob Watts of Cerberus. He has been phenomenal with the support he’s given us. We’re giving away prizes we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to give without him. This year I went far further than I intended to, but certainly you have to cover those bases people some people are attracted to events with a lot of prizes.

Stu from TerrainGeek. Every single person who comes to the convention will be given a resin objective marker which is really great.

Micro Arts Studios as well. They have supported us two years in a row.

All of those guys, I couldn’t do it without them. And all the guys that are just at the convention just doing the odd shift here and there as volunteer. We can’t do it all ourselves. It’s the people’s convention.

Painting competition
Painting competition entires

HBG: What difficulties came up last year?

NB: We were all shocked because there were literally no problems!

JW: We were six tickets short of selling out last year as a first year convention. People didn’t really know who we were, but people really enjoyed it. A lot of [the success] came down to Rob. We came in Friday expecting a mad panic to set up, but everything was good to go. So we went to go eat lunch.

And the planning is really important because then it just comes down to dealing with it on the day. Little issues that crop up.

NB: I think the little troubles that we’ve had is that now this year, because of the extra popularity, our manual way of assigning slots to competition play is a little bit primitive.

JW: It’s all done by paper at the moment. It’s not how I’d like to do it. I’d like to automate it. We’re a startup convention, so baby steps.

Again, it’s the popularity thing. We had to say no to people. I had a guy get in touch with me from Dubai who wanted to come along. And I just didn’t have tickets for him. To be sold out is a good problem to have, though. We want to make it bigger. Next year we’re looking at 150 and 200 people hopefully. There will be space, and if people from Singapore want to come along, let me know! We’ll sort that out.

HBG: Other than good organization, what other factors contributed to your success.

JW: Passion. Having a vision and making sure you stick to the plan. Get a Blue Folder of Doom. That’s the thing that makes Smogcon.

NB: Understanding your player base. Make sure you’re putting together events that they’re going to like. Or that they don’t get else.

JW: And that’s kind of why I became a Press Ganger. I wanted to put on stuff that I wanted to do because nobody else was doing it in my area.

Russ Charles single miniature Gold
Russ Charles single miniature Gold

HBG: As you mentioned earlier, Smogcon is a North-American-inspired convention. Is there an element of UK culture that you like to keep at Smogcon?

NB: Beer!

JW: Yes, we love our drinking.

We also did a charity raffle last year, and that was huge. The way the Brits do charity is different, I think is something Norbert has discovered. We did a benefit for cancer research last year. This year we’re doing another raffle with various prizes donated in honor of Leon, who was a Press Ganger, to the British Heart Association. That taps into a very British way of doing things.

 

Speed Painting competition
Speed Painting competition

HBG: What is most different for the con-goers UK?

JW: I think people in the UK are still finding their feet with the casual play. Other than that I think people knew what to expect.

HBG: What did you most want to improve for 2013?

JW: I pushed the painting really hard. And the support as well. We have some really brilliant Golden Daemon painters. I found that people were almost reluctant to go talk to these guys. So we’ve set specific times and lessons to be taught.

Another criticism we got was “not enough prize support”. It’s understandable because people want that. We had to do it on a very tight budget year one. This year there’s a trophy for every event. Steamroller coins for every event and Hardcore medals. £150 prize for the event winner, and £150 for the painting winner.

NB: Speed Painting turned out to be a surprise success. Two speed painting rounds and the winners of each round went into a finals. We had a lot of people who surprised themselves with the quality of paintjob they put out in 60 minutes.

JW: There are rumors that there may be another bonus round for certain people. Some sort of madcap challenge round where you have to paint stupidly.

Smogcon 2012 photo

HBG: Tell me a little bit about the Golden Thrall.

JW: Golden Thrall was cooked up by myself. It’s been going for a year now. My main focus for tournaments was always the painting. And the UK has a fantastic level of painting, and I always felt like we were always fighting over one prize. I just thought it might be nice to spread the love a little bit. To reward and encourage painters. It’s a rip-off of the P3 really. I had a Risen coin sculpted, and you buy a pack of three, paint them gold, silver, and broze, and give them to the best three armies. I’ve got a website where I go upload all the results.

Not everyone can always play fully painted. I think fully painted events is an elitist thing. One of the best things about Privateer is that they’ve said “You do not have to be fully painted to play this game. We just want you to play.” And I agree.

NB: Nothing beats the thrill of the guy who puts together a model that was released at the con and is playing with it. Or they bought in store the day of the tournament.

HBG: So for the Golden Thrall, anyone in the world can order prize kits [from Firestorm Games] and add them to their event.

JW: And all that I ask is that they award them based on merit, and not a public vote. It can happen that a large group shows up at a tournament and all vote for their mate. And the Golden Thrall was not designed to be a mate-off. It’s about in-depth study of the model, and criticism of the paint. And also I ask that people send me photos so that I can put them up on the site. And it promotes your event.

Golden Thrall prize kit
Golden Thrall prize kit

HBG: For far ahead do you guys plans?

JW: Because of the venue, we have to have a really solid plan in place. It certainly dictates a lot.

NB: Here in the UK, unlike the States, they don’t really have convention-style hotels. And so we don’t have a convenient thing to automatically look around for that still suits our vision.

JW: Smogcon is heavily based on Templecon, so we’d definitely love to have that hotel experience where people can stagger out of the convention at two in the morning. Unfortunately we’re also at capacity for Firestorm Games this year at a hundred players. Any more than that and the fire marshals get a bit upset. So we are possibly going to have to leave Firestorm, but that’s the spiritual home of Smogcon.

We’re looking are places that are most convenient for more people. Even though Brits have no trouble travelling to Cardiff. We’re looking at airports so more people from Europe or America can travel over. That would be amazing.

Loosely there’s a five year plan. We’ll go to year five if people keep showing up and see what happens from there.

HBG: What can we expect for 2014?

NB: New venue, more space.

JW: I think we’re going to push for more comp. Sticking with the format we’ve got, but move up to 64 spots per session. Also really push the Smogpit, Golden Thrall, RPG.

Hopefully we can bolt on another game system to encourage more communication. Maybe have some Warmachine players say “Oh, Malifaux is really cool” or the other way around.

NB: Right now we’re already having a demo showcase for Bushido by GCT studios. Not that big because we don’t have enough space. But it’s a win-win for both of us.

seishin_promo_0

HBG: Is there any advice you would pass on to people who are either looking to start up or to grow their own events?

JW: Just have faith, really. So many people told me I couldn’t do this. And I’m kind of stubborn. So that led me to getting the right people and the right team. It’s definitely my baby but it’s grown beyond my control because it’s not just me doing this.

NB: Have reasonable expectations. Work in reasonable chunks.

JW: We set a goal for year one and year two that we hit.

NB: Goals in terms of player count and amount of activity for those players.

JW: Knowing X number of players and Y number of events, will it be successful to fund itself? And planning to grow. You have to ramp up. Because if you can’t grow, you’re dead. But grow in workable amounts. You can’t put on Templecon overnight, but you can put on a really good one or two day event.

We’re gaining on you, Templecon!

Smogcon 2013

If you would like to contact Jon or Norbert, they can be reached at smogcon.wordpress.com and smogcon {at} gmail.com.

Jon Webb can be found as PG_JonWebb on the PP forums.

Norbert Brunhuber can be found as PG_Dr_Norbert on the PP forums.

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