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Building Relationships at Gen Con and Beyond: An Interview with Love Thy Nerd

I recently sat down again with the Chief Nerds of LTN to follow up with them about their trip to Gen Con, and find out what’s next for the organization.

Madeline Turnipseed: In the last interview we talked about all the things that Love Thy Nerd wanted to accomplish at Gen Con. How did those things go?

Chris Gwaltney (Chief Executive Nerd): Looking through that list, we did it! We did all the things that we said we were going to do. We feel really great about what we were able to accomplish, the stories that we have, and the relationships that we built. All of us are coming from a very specific context as it relates to conventions. We’re used to being tethered to a booth for the whole show.

Matt Warmbier (Chief Outreach Nerd): For the first day, it was hard not having a home base. We’re used to going out on the floor for an hour and then coming back and being in this booth. But we just refocused and remembered why we’re there. If I wanted to go sit down and play a game with someone for six hours, I could do that and build real relationships there, and that’s what some of us did. Not just having a passing conversation but now having a real relationship. We’ve made friends and we can continue to build those relationships online.

Chris: What we were used to before was 2,000 to 3,000 fifteen- to thirty-second interactions. This trip was fifty to maybe one hundred much longer, much deeper interactions.

Drew Dixon (Chief Content Nerd): We haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing a booth someday because there is something valuable about that type of approach. That’s a ton of seeds to plant. We’re still figuring out the best way to love people and serve them in these spaces.

Madeline: In your time of listening and observing at Gen Con, what needs did you see?

April-Lyn Caouette (Chief Local Outreach Nerd): Some things I expected to see and confirmed:

Gen Con has a lot of people who are there specifically to play games with people, make new friendships, and meet up with old friends who they met at previous conventions. People are actively excited to make new friends and have you walk up to them and be like, “Can I join in on that game?”

Once you start listening to people, they tell you their stories. “Board games saved my life. I was super depressed and divorced and didn’t have any friends. I went to this game store and they told me about this Gen Con thing. Now I do it every year and these are some of my best friends.”

People who are volunteering as demo-ers work really really long hours and don’t get to eat all day. People who, by the end of the last day, are super super grumpy and having trouble interacting in a civil way when people irritate them, and who need to be treated with kindness and patience.

The other thing that I noticed is that it is surprisingly hard to stay focused on observation because there are so many things competing for your attention at a convention like Gen Con. Lots of shiny things, lots of cool things to check out. That’s one of the things I’m going to come up with a strategy for going forward: being present.

The LTN team playing Scythe the night before Gen Con

Matt: I think that it’s okay to be a fan of the stuff there though, because that makes you a real person. “Hey, I see that this game is here. I sure was excited about this game. It’s shiny and bright and new.” You can have a connection with another person who’s been looking forward to that game and more. It’s kind of like a foot in the door.

Chris: There’s a need for teaching people how to play games. I bring up these two Twilight Imperium games I played, but both times it was all new players and me. All of them were overly appreciative that I took the time to teach them a game. Maybe it’s because of the length of that game and the depth of it. A convention is the time where they could do something like that. Otherwise, their lives are too busy. I think us taking the time to sit down for that long and teach people a game is loving. I think Gen Con has a really cool event structure where we could host multiple events over the course of those four days and just teach people how to play games. I’m really excited about that.

I got evangelized at one point. I walked out of the convention hall and into the lobby and there’s this guy out there haranguing people. He had this pre-planned script of, “Hey, where are you going when you die? Do you think you have a soul?” This typical Ken Ham or Kirk Cameron, their man-on-the-street sort of stuff that they do. For one, it was super annoying, but it also kind of reinvigorated me about what we’re doing and the approach we’re trying to take. I know I’m not the only person he went up to and did that with. How many people did he re-enforce negative stereotypes to about Christians or about Jesus? We get to be there and hopefully redeem some of that.

Madeline: Did you get to share LTN with him?

Chris: I certainly tried. I’m wearing our shirt, so I’m like, “Hey man, look at the shirt!” He’d look at it and go, “Oh, cool,” and go back to his script. I handed him one of the cards that we had, and, “Oh, cool,” then put it in his pocket and went right back to his scripted thing. It was so bizarre.

Matt: We were also able to observe a lot of the designers and developers. They’ve been going to shows all year long and they’re not having real interactions with people. It’s just, “Answer this question about your game. Tell me about your game.” For us, it’s “How was your move? How is your family? How is your son’s game he’s making?” To have real conversations with these folks means so much more.

Chris: Even Drew running around interviewing. The kinds of questions that he’s asking are different from the normal interviews these guys are used to. Some of them told Drew that’s been really refreshing.

Madeline: PAX has Enforcers, Gen Con has the Event Team, nearly all cons have built-in ways that people can already help cons run better. Is that an option for LTN?

Matt: Yes, but I’m not sure we know exactly what that means yet. We’ve looked at leading demos for different companies, and I think that would be a really good way for us to hang out with different companies, whether it’s video games when we hit those up or board games at tabletop conventions. It’d be tough to be a missionary though, to be able to say, “Hey, we’re here to tell you Jesus loves you, but I can’t really say that ‘cause I’m working right now.” I think it’s still an option but we don’t have it set in stone yet.

Madeline: Yeah, in the Event Team Policies for Gen Con it says that if you’re here as Event Team, you can’t be pushing any other agenda. Just strictly be a good volunteer.

Bubba Stallcup (Chief Community Nerd): I don’t even necessarily think the point was for us to proselytize if we did get in there. We’re not necessarily just stopping everyone and saying, “Hey, I just want you to know that Jesus loves you.” We are the light, you know? That doesn’t mean that we have to stop and get everybody’s attention so that they know the thing that we’re trying to tell them. We are trying to build relationships, and in that, reputation. If the best thing that somebody knows about us after leaving the convention is that we weren’t complete jerks, I feel like we’ve done a great service. Not just to LTN, but to the nerd community. Allowing people to see that, yes, we’re faith-based, we’re Christian, but we’re not dirtbags about it. And if we were to move into those positions where we’re doing demos or whatever, we can let the people on the inside—the other demo-ers and developers—know, “Hey, this is what I’m a part of. This is why I’m here.”

Madeline: At Gen Con did you get any new ideas for LTN Local?

April-Lyn: Gen Con did give me new people that I connected with who are doing things in their local area. I think that’s going to be a large part of what Local is, connecting the people who are doing things in their area to other people. Either to give them new ideas or hook them up with a gaming group in their area. One thing that I’m looking into is getting better at demoing games by doing it locally.

Bubba: We’re starting a local game night at our church. One thing it helped me realize is that LTN is a recognizable brand. We were all wearing our t-shirts. Several of us have worn them at church and out and about. People are drawn to it. They like that idea. It resonates with them. It helped me understand that we can be locally sourced but also nationally or internationally branded so we can keep pushing people back to Love Thy Nerd, even if we do local things.

It was also good to go to the Hasbro and the HABA USA booths. It opened my eyes to a bunch of stuff that I didn’t know those companies had. I’m always racking my brain for games I can play with kids. Now I have a whole laundry list of games that I could play at a family game night, that a six-year-old all the way down to a four-year-old can play at the same time.

Drew: One of the things that Gen Con did for me, with regard to local stuff, is that I left excited to do my own local game night. Being around our team, around people like April-Lyn that do this all the time, was really encouraging to me and made me want to go home and finally make it happen.

April-Lyn: I also took away a renewed interest in storytelling and role-playing games. While we were there Drew and I demoed this really cool game called Before There Were Stars that was a hybrid storytelling/board game. Unlike playing a board game, playing a storytelling game or an RPG offers you a lot more opportunities for sharing story—real life stuff that you don’t get when you’re staring at a board. That’s something that I’m excited to experiment with and try to fit into my ministry.

Madeline: Drew, did you have any new ideas for content for LTN?

Drew: There is a need and an opportunity for Love Thy Nerd to do a lot more board game coverage. Playing board games is a naturally community building thing. We want to build good, meaningful community.

Going and interviewing game designers at Gen Con in the way that we do, we built some good relationships there. I think that they felt affirmed and appreciative of the way that we talked to them on multiple levels. We’re not going to be that website that shies away from building relationships with designers and I think that worked well.

Madeline: Kate, you weren’t at Gen Con, but I’m sure you were getting spammed by stuff from everyone who was. Did you have any new insights for social?

Kate Kadowaki (Chief Social Media Nerd): Definitely. Gen Con was a great experiment in sharing what we’re doing and what we want to do. We tried to expand on the relationships that we made at the convention through social media. It came down to: these guys played a game, they loved the game—how can we show love to this particular person that they met at the booth? We’ll tell our friends and our community about this game, what we liked about it, and give a shout out to this awesome designer that we met. That’s building community, not just with our nerdy friends, but also connecting them to these designers and expanding the community in that way.

It wasn’t just posting photos of games that we liked and being like, “Hey this game is awesome!” There was some of that, but then there was also the chance that these guys got to talk to these designers and ask them questions and become friends. It was really cool to see and we got a really good response on socials because of it. The designers were like, “Hey, Love Thy Nerd! These guys were fun and they wrote this thing about us,” or, “they liked our game.”

Teaching Twilight Imperium

Madeline: It’s more than just a tag. You have an actual relationship behind it.

Chris: This was our first convention as an organization and as a ministry. We’re walking up to some of these people totally cold. To get the number of review copies we did, or the amount of conversations we were able to have, the people really into what we are doing, or the love we were seeing on social media, that was astounding. The convention is inundated with people that are press, that have a podcast, that have a website they’re trying to start, or that have a blog. These developers have to be inundated with requests from people.

Kate: The variety of the content we were able to get from Gen Con was awesome too. We got videos, we got photos, and we got close-ups of all the figures in the games. Then there was Drew doing in-depth interviews, asking questions that maybe these designers haven’t been asked before. I think there’s something really exciting about that, being able to share that answer. The feedback that we’ve gotten from people who’ve been on the podcast or that we’ve written an article about has been awesome. Really humbling and mind-blowing.

Madeline: In the first interview we talked a lot about building relationships. Thus far, at least through the official channels, everything I’ve heard has been about interactions with developers and designers. Did you build relationships with any nerds who weren’t at Gen Con presenting a product?

Chris: Yes, but we don’t want anyone who we made a relationship with to feel like a project or a notch on our Bible, so we aren’t going to share every detail. We’re friends with these people. We want to preserve those relationships. But I can tell you some things.

I spent fourteen hours of a twenty-four hour period playing Twilight Imperium with seven different people. That’s a lot of time to spend with the same people, but [because of that] I was able to build some deeper relationships with them and still be connected with them over Facebook. One of the guys told me, “Hey if you’re ever in Austin, come by. You have a place to stay.” All we did was play a game together. Everyone I played with asked, “Why are you doing this?” or “Why are you punishing yourself teaching this game?” Little did they know that was not punishing for me at all, because I love it. I got to tell them [about Love Thy Nerd] and they were really complementary and said, “Oh, that’s really cool. We’ll check out the community.”

One of our team members met a couple that felt comfortable enough with him to share that they had both kind of lost their faith because of some gnarly things that had happened in their lives. As they were talking, he felt like he wanted to pray for them, which he said was not something he’s ever done before and he felt weird even asking, but they were open to that. They came and hung out with us later on during the con.

Another team member did a Star Wars Destiny tournament all day one day, and several times during the tournament he found himself in a situation where he could have made a really skeevy decision. Being a man of integrity, a man of Jesus, he chose to do the right thing. People noticed that and called him out on it. “You could have easily made off with this card that’s worth $200, but you didn’t. You returned it to the person. That’s really amazing.”

Another guy we met is a youth pastor at a rural church. He said he feels like an outsider even in his own church because of his nerdiness. He’s super into D&D but said he can’t really tell certain people in his church and faith community about that because it might affect his employment status. He hung out with us all weekend and got to be himself. He got to talk about D&D and all manner of nerdy things without feeling like he had to keep looking over his shoulder. That reminded me again that, for some reason, in 2018, that is still a thing. There are a lot of Christians—and Christian leaders, even—out there that are feeling that isolation.

Bubba: The general broad answer is, yeah we did make relationships with vanilla nerds. Some were very deep, some were surface level. We had the dice to hand out. Matt was the best at handing out those dice. He handed out more than anybody—

Matt: Combined.

Bubba: Anytime he had an interaction with anybody he would hand them one of our cards and one of our dice. Not everyone is cut out for that interaction. It was interesting, we had people approach us. A lot of times we didn’t have to approach other people. As long as two or more of us were together, they saw that we were both wearing the shirt and we were a part of something. People would say, “Love Thy Nerd, what’s that?” Our “uniforms” lent themselves to those kinds of conversations.

If you’d been at Gen Con you could have scored one of these sweet promo cards

Madeline: Thank you for bringing up the dice and the cards! Do you feel they worked the way you wanted? Is there stuff you would change for next time?

Matt: Did they work? Yes, I was able to hand them out. I think that we should have—for Gen Con, at least—done the ribbons that stick underneath the badges. That’s what people give away there and collect. The cards were fun and funny, people got a laugh out of them, but I also think they were too big. We could make fun of ourselves as we gave them away. “Hey, here’s this giant card we’re handing out to you. It’s got a die on the back you can cut out.” Bubba and I eventually started using them as business cards because ours didn’t come in time. Walter of Greenbriar Games took the D&D sheet and filled out as much as possible with funny stuff and gave it back to us. He wanted to have a connection with us and couldn’t find his cards either, so it worked out well.

We will probably not do dice again until we get a booth, if we get a booth. I think it was almost a necessity. We were wanting to give something out so this was the easiest.

Bubba: I have had more success with the dice since I’ve been back home than I did when I was at Gen Con. I picked up a copy of BarBEARian: Battlegrounds from Walter [Barber] and we must have gotten our dice from the same company, because I just take our Love Thy Nerd dice and use them instead of the blue set, and it works perfectly. Every time I play with someone that’s not a part of LTN, they’ve commented on the dice.

Chris: Taking the cards and the dice was probably a carryover from what we had been doing at conventions before. We felt like we needed something to give to people because that’s always been the context in which we interacted with people at conventions. That’s not to say it didn’t go well. We learned from it, and going into the next one I’m sure we’ll do things differently, maybe more effectively.

Madeline: In the first interview Drew talked about colluding with the people who create the art that we love. Building relationships with them is a wonderful goal, and who doesn’t want to influence the people that influence culture? But I can also see that as, “Make friends with famous people.” That’s something I can see as feasible for you because you have pre-existing connections, titles with an organization behind them, and you’ve done this kind of thing before. For people in Love Thy Nerd who are simply nerds, how do they do this kind of thing? What are the opportunities for them on future mission trips?

Bubba: Our developer and designer relationships are very important. They’re not something we do for name-dropping purposes. These are people who have names and faces who we’ve built relationships with. It has nothing to do with us trying to know all the people and do all the things. We’ve asked these people to be looking for the reviews that we’ll be doing on their games, and that we hope to represent them, their company, and their product well. That’s something that we want to do as Love Thy Nerd.

We want people to know that if they come on a mission with us and feel that it might be hard to do what Drew or Matt or myself do, where we go and talk to these designers and developers, that’s okay. I don’t think that’s for everyone. In the same vein, I didn’t go and join the Star Wars Destiny tournament. That would not have gone well. But I can sit down with a developer or a designer and talk to them about the things that are going on in their life and how I appreciate their game and the connections that it’s allowed me to make in order form relationships.

Matt: We told the people that went with us, “Stay in your lane.” Focus on what you’re passionate about. That’s where relationships are going to be built. With us, we’re passionate about meeting developers and designers because we see these people at shows across the country and we’ve seen them for years now. That’s just the next step in building our relationship.

April-Lyn: Going into conventions like this, yeah these people feel like famous people. But this isn’t San Diego Comic Con where you’re standing in line to pay to get autographs. They’re real people standing at their booths trying to sell their game, and they’re probably not making a whole lot of money. Their name might be on it, but board gaming is not generally a very lucrative industry. Most of them have “real” jobs and this is something they’re doing because they’re passionate about it. If you walk up to their booth, they’re real people. You say, “Hey I love your game! Can you tell me about XYZ?” and they want to talk to you about it. It’s not a thing that everyone is going to want to do, but I want to emphasize that this is a thing that you can do. That’s one of the cool things about a convention like Gen Con.

Drew: At Gen Con, maybe a handful of those people are celebrity-ish. If you want to build relationships with designers on our trips, there is a place for that, but there are a lot of other ways to serve. Right now we’re still figuring out what this looks like, and this is the time we want people to come and say, “Here’s what I think I could bring to the table.” Then we’ll have a conversation about how we could utilize that person and their gifts and skill set to build relationships with all kinds of people.

One of the cool things that came out of a relationship with Dice Throne was a friendship with someone who’s a volunteer for them. It wasn’t the “famous” people from Dice Throne that we hung out with the most—it was one of their volunteers.

Chris: Some of these relationships started with Gamechurch, but whether Gamechurch or Love Thy Nerd, it’s not like those are household names. Yes, people see that we’re part of an organization, but I sometimes wonder how much of a difference that makes. We just show a genuine interest in the person. I don’t think we come across as trying to leverage the relationship to propel ourselves into the stratosphere. We just see people as people.

I can give you three of several of the ideas that I have for other ways that people can serve with us. Specific to Gen Con would be their events. Next year at Gen Con I’d love for us to host a dozen events over the course of the weekend. That could be anything from teaching people games to running our own tournament to doing panels about specific topics or issues. Let’s have three different types of LTN event. Here’s the learn-to-play track. Here’s the panels track. Here’s the tournaments one.We talked about volunteering for the event team earlier, they have any number of different kinds of things that suit different people.

Bubba: Right now we’re still in recon and debrief mode. We’re in talks right now and have developed a team to go to PAX Unplugged to help us further understand what we’re doing, with hopefully our first “official” show being PAX South in January 2019.

Like Matt said, “Stay in your lane, missionary.” What’s the thing that you’re good at? Looking at what’s going on at the specific convention, where do you feel you would be the most useful? We’ll help people get there.

April-Lyn decided against punting children out of the way to play giant Tokyo Highway

Madeline: Bubba, Matt, and Drew were on the Free Play Podcast after Gen Con and talked about their Top 3+ games from Gen Con. Can we get a Top 3+ from April-Lyn and Chris?

April-Lyn:

Before There Were Stars – Tell creation stories using constellation cards that you draw. Tell stories about the beginning of the world, the first people, the first hero, and how it all ties together.
Orbis – Cross between Splendor and Unearth. Tile laying, set collection, and symbol matching elements with a pantheon theme.
Nyctophobia – We’ve talked about this a bit in other places, but it’s wonderful and I want to bring it to my game nights. Everyone but one player plays blind, which creates asymmetric play.

Honorable Mention: Tokyo Highway – Japanese game that has been extremely hard to get up until now. Asmodee announced they’ll be publishing it sometime in the next year. There was a giant version of it that I did not get to play.

Chris:

Downforce – Bid on cars and then race them against other players. Players play cards to determine which cars move how quickly. Whichever player makes the most money off the races wins.
Root – Woodland creatures vying for control of the forest. Each faction kind of represents a different genre of tabletop games. From the creators of Vast.
Dragoon – This game is the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen or owned. The components are really nice. The gameplay is such that people who wouldn’t identify themselves as gamers can play and win this game, and even beat me.

Honorable Mention: Twilight Imperium (4th ed.) – I spent fourteen hours during the con playing it, and it’s still amazing.

Madeline: Thank you all for sharing your experiences at Gen Con with us. What is on the horizon for Love Thy Nerd?

Chris: Bubba shared a little bit about this. We’re doing another scouting trip for Love Thy Nerd.

Matt: When we go to PAX Unplugged we’re taking people who are passionate about what we do, but maybe haven’t been on a trip like this before.

Chris: As Matt said, we’re trying to diversify the group. We’re asking people who aren’t just coming from a Gamechurch context, who in some ways have a fresher perspective than what we have. We’re looking for them to lend some expertise, ideas, and feedback. We’re treating this like another recon trip. We have learned some things from Gen Con, so we’re not just going to be starting at square one. We’ll be able to come in with a little bit more of a structure and plan, but still come in pretty open-handed and try out some things. Throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

We want to do PAX South at the end of January and open that up as our first missions trip for anyone to be a part. We’ll want training in place and a fundraising platform ready to go when we launch that. You can partner with us here to help make that happen.

Madeline: I’m excited. Thank you all so much.



Assignment and Contributing Editor
Assignment and Contributing Editor at Love Thy Nerd, Madeline lives in Texas where she takes care of people, plays games, watches, reads, writes, and makes things.

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