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TRAINS AND CHIT: A CON REPORT IN EIGHT CHAPTERS Part 1 of 2 (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I. Innocents Abroad

Mary and I have never really travelled much. For a long time, we simply didn't have enough money to go much of anywhere or do much of anything. I did get a better job eventually, which gave us some more breathing room, and introduced me to the hitherto alien concept of getting paid time off. We began to make modest plans for three- and four-day weekends, but it seemed like every time we were going to make good on those plans, the day of or the day before something would happen. A hike we had planned for my birthday was called off when the park was infested with a swarm of mosquitoes. We had planned to drive down to a civil war battlefield when a freak heat wave made that untenable. We missed the asparagus festival one year because the festival had decided to reschedule but neglected to update their website.

But just as often, the day would come and one or both of us just wouldn't feel like actually doing the thing we had been talking about for weeks and sometimes months. We started to suspect that the two of us, at heart, were homebodies. Not necessarily in a literal sense: especially after Hollandspiele became a full-time endeavor, and our commute consisted of walking from one room of our house into another, we will sometimes be eager for a change of scenery, and so will run errands and look for things to do and places to visit in the afternoon. But we don't stray too far from that base of operations, and are only really comfortable in intimate and familiar geography.

But we work in an industry that revolves around conventions held in far-flung locations, and it is the industry standard that we go to them. Now, we've achieved some pretty phenomenal growth - including, crucially, being able to make board games full-time - often by pointedly not following the industry standard, so it remains to be seen how much of an impact attending conventions might have for us. We have had some sales and made new customers due to our games being brought to conventions attended by our printing partner Blue Panther. And we know there are plenty of gamers who still haven't heard of us, or who have heard of us but are still on the fence, and it might be that attending conventions will greatly increase our customer base. Or it might only result in a very incremental increase, in which case it will still afford us the opportunity to meet designers, developers, and fellow publishers, and to compare notes, share ideas, and learn from each other. All that still remains to be seen, and I think at the end of this year we'll have a much better idea of what all we'll get out of attending conventions, how many we should attend, and which ones make sense for us.

There was lurking behind all this the larger question however of what it would feel like to be hundreds of miles away from home for several days; after all, even before "hey, we should try maybe going to some cons" became a thing, we had spent all of two nights away from home in the last fifteen years. Well, now we’ve found out, and the answer, or, more properly, answers, plural, are complicated.

A few months back, we received an invite to a private gaming weekend event planned for March called Trains and Chit, organized by Marcus Butterly and Travis Hill, to be held in the former's home in the Dallas area. As you can probably guess given the name, it was dedicated to train games and wargames, two types of games that are of course right up my alley. Of all the people who attended, we had previously only met Travis in person, but we knew many of the names from BGG and twitter, and had interacted with them in that capacity.

It took us a little while to shift from "maybe" to "yes". True to form, it seemed like little obstacles kept popping up on our end that might prevent us from going, and it seemed safer on our end not to commit until we were sure we would actually be going. Marcus was extremely patient, helpful, and generous, and finally got us off the fence. We were still a little worried however that the day before or the day of, something would happen that would call the whole thing off, and there we'd be after all that, flaking out on such kind, wonderful people.

II. The Joys of Air Travel

This was not only the first time Mary and I had taken a plane together, but also the first time that either of us had been on a plane in a good long while. My only previous experience was a trip down to Florida with an aunt while I was still counting my years on this planet in single digits. Mary's was even further back. We knew that things had changed considerably in the last twenty years or so, but I don't think either of us were really prepared for the experience of going through security.

It wasn't so much that the waiting in line was exceptionally long (it wasn't), or that they were exceptionally invasive (they weren't, though an agent did cop a feel of Mary's ankle, and only her ankle, for no discernable reason). It was that the agents seemed to expect that we knew how the whole process worked - what went in which bin, what their various pieces of jargon meant - and were extremely irritable and short-tempered as we bumbled around and asked for clarification. We're not sure how universal that particular experience is, though I should note that going through security at Dallas Love for our return trip, the agents seemed much friendlier and more willing to help (though one of them did feel up Mary's other ankle, and only her ankle, again for no discernable reason).

The plane itself was far smaller and far more cramped than we were expecting, with three small seats on either side of the narrow aisle. How small were these seats? Well, I'm not exactly broad-shouldered or anything, but there was barely enough room for my torso, and none for my arms. I alternated between locking arms with Mary and folding my arms against my chest. Mostly I spent the trip with my hands around my head, pitched forward, elbows resting on the tray: immediately from lift-off, there was a tremendous amount of pressure in my noggin that, by the end of the flight, turned into a full-fledged and debilitating migraine. I used to get migraines frequently - it happens less often these days - and so medication is never far from reach at home. I'll give you three guesses what we forgot to pack with us, and the first two don't count.

It didn't help that we were in the second-to-last row, and that one of the guys in the last row knew everything about everything, and was imparting this information to his friends. Now, almost everything that guy knew about everything was completely wrong, with almost no basis in reality, but that did not stop him. The only consolation was that the engines drowned out most of it, so we were only subjected to mercifully brief snippets.

By the time we neared Dallas, I was in a miserable state, my head pounding, my ears well and truly popped, and my body aching, while Mary was doing fine. Then the landing came, which was exceptionally turbulent, and in the space of five minutes did everything to Mary that the preceding two hours had done to me. The both of us stumbled from the plane, exhausted, saddle-sore, disoriented, and in considerable pain.

Marcus would be our ride, and he was waiting for us outside the secure area of the airport. Now it was a matter of finding where that was, and that was an adventure - for very specific, very mundane definitions of the word "adventure" - in and of itself. We did eventually meet Marcus and get out of the airport.

III. I Shouldn't Have Worn Pants

The first thing I noticed about Marcus is that he was wearing shorts. Given the eighty degree temperature and humidity, that made sense, but it highlighted for me how woefully unprepared we were for the Texas weather. When we left Michigan, the temperature had been in the high twenties. We knew that Texas would be hotter - we even knew that it would be fifty-some degrees hotter, as Mary naturally had the foresight to check the weather before we left. We understood it intellectually, had told ourselves "Yes, it's going to be hotter in Texas, better pack the short-sleeved shirts", but that didn't diminish the visceral shock of "Boy, it's warm here, maybe we should have brought shorts instead of pants?"

Marcus took us to a Tex-Mex restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking the lake. There was a voluminous breeze, gusty enough to steal some of our chips (much to the delight of the large black birds that strutted about the area), which provided some relief from the heat for us Michiganders while being a little too chilly for the Texan. Still, we had apparently come to Texas during one of the two or three weeks that the weather is really tolerable. ("This is tolerable?")

Besides comparing notes on the weather, and talking about board games (of course), we discussed more mundane (yet simultaneously interesting) things like work, water rights, municipal tax structure, and the cost of land. Apparently in Texas the land is relatively expensive but construction is cheap, so it's common for folks to buy the land and have houses built to their specifications. Marcus and his wife designed their home themselves, and as we would find out the next day, it was appealingly modern and open, lots of light spilling in, plenty of space.

You could fit our whole house in one of their rooms. As I sit here in our living room typing these words about a week later, I am hedged in on all sides: the end-table to the left of me, the printer to the right sitting on the long, low table that also houses our Hollandspiele games, while immediately in front of me is a stack of empty cardboard boxes we'll be using to transport to the AAUW some of the books we've culled from a collection of over two thousand. From here I can see the small table in our dining room on which I do the "fun" part of my job - playing games - and where we record our podcast, both of those activities being dependent on my ability to keep the table clear of groceries, bottles, and miscellaneous spill-over. Next to the dining room is the kitchen, which has approximately two-and-a-half square feet of useable counter space. It's not I think that we're messy people, or that we have an inordinate amount of stuff, but rather that we don't have enough room for the stuff we have in our cramped, dark domicile.

So, compared to our place, the Butterly residence with its open rooms, large tables, long stretches of counter-space both indoors and out - well, it was positively opulent, and I will admit that much like the weather, I just couldn't get over how much room they had. There was plenty of space for entertaining, which made sense because Marcus and his wife had designed their home with that purpose in mind.

Marcus was an exemplary host who took those duties seriously. He played fewer games than the rest of us, and put off the game he really had his heart set on - Time Agent - while ensuring that everyone who wanted to get in on a game managed to do so. He frequently taught train games to newbies, hovering nearby to answer questions about the rules in-between trips to his kitchen or barbeque to prepare dinner. The job of a great host is to make sure their guests are enjoying themselves, to shine the spotlight on them instead of on oneself, and Marcus did this ably, nimbly, and attentively. It is sometimes a thankless task, and so Mary and I want to take this opportunity to thank him.

IV. Birds That Never Sleep

But before we set foot in the Butterly residence, we had to check in at our hotel. I don't have a lot of experience with hotels, but I'd guess it was a lower-to-mid range place, nothing swanky but not a dump either. It quite possibly had more television stations than we do at home, including our once-beloved Food Network and Animal Planet (once our cable provider dropped those channels from our service, we spent a lot less time watching television, perhaps for the better). It had a fitness room, which we never used and never saw anyone else use either.

Breakfast was provided each morning: rubbery, lukewarm eggs, some kind of meat (bacon on Friday, sausage on the weekend), teeny-tiny baby muffins and danishes, bananas and cold cereal. There was some kind of batter dispenser next to an iron that made waffles in the shape of Texas, but neither of us felt adventurous enough to make a go of it during our stay. Not exactly gourmet eating, but it was more-or-less what I expected hotel food to be like. (Mary had hoped for better.)

As for our room itself: it was fine, I suppose, though of course it wasn't our room. There was a king-sized bed, much larger than our queen at home, and it probably had a better mattress, but it wasn't our mattress. At home, Claws will often curl up between my ankles, and I felt his absence acutely; without fourteen-odd pounds of furball to encircle with my feet, I didn't quite know what to do with my legs, tossing and turning frequently. For her part, Mary often has to contend at home with Monster, who sleeps in her lap when Mary is on her back, or perches on her hip when Mary is on her side. Neither is particularly good for Mary's back or hip, respectively, and bow-legging myself so that Claws has somewhere to sleep isn't exactly great for my gait: we endure much in the service of our fuzzy masters.

Mary slept worse than I did. She's always been an exceptionally light sleeper, and even the quietest noise will disturb her. At home, we're only a couple of blocks from a rumbling train that sometimes runs after midnight, and we have neighbors who on rare (and sometimes not-so-rare) occasions will argue in the middle of the night, in addition to using power tools to effect home repairs.

Before we continue, I'm going to digress quite a bit and tell a story that doesn't seem to have anything to do with any of this - but trust me, there is a point and we'll get there.

Years ago I went with my uncle to help him and some of his buddies build a cabin in northern Michigan. I was incidentally precisely the wrong sort of person to bring along on this sort of thing, with my knowledge of tools being limited to telling the difference between a Phillips and a flathead, and my legendary clumsiness being on par with the only Michigander to hold the office of President. On the first night, we slept on the ground floor of this unfinished and unfurnished cabin and, when the call of nature came, we would walk over to where the windows would eventually be installed and do our manly business.

On the second night, we slept on the top floor, which was only connected to the ground floor via a ladder, since we had not built stairs. Prior to turning in, my uncle and his compatriots had gotten fabulously drunk. So drunk that in the middle of the night, my uncle urgently needed to relieve himself, and so got up to go over to one of the windows. So drunk, in fact, that he completely forgot that he was on the second floor. He walked right off and fell straight down, landing on his foot with a tremendous crash and shrill, high-pitched, profanity-laden screams of pain that woke up everyone in the group, except for me.

I slept through the whole thing like a baby. I am possessed of a happy talent to fall asleep quickly and soundly (though I will admit that in the last year or two my sleep has frequently been interrupted and not as restful as it was in my youth). So while it wasn't our room and wasn't our bed, I could make due much better than Mary, who, as I said, is a very light sleeper. It doesn't help her much that I snore and sometimes rather loudly.  At home, I can sometimes go downstairs when this happens, hopefully affording Mary a few moments of rest. That wasn't an option in the hotel room.

Even if I hadn't snored while in Dallas, there was noise enough to keep us both awake - yes, even me, the guy who rip-van-winkled through the cabin story. The hotel was situated next to two very busy interstates. You would think that the cars would slow down come night-time, but no, there was a surprising amount of traffic going to and from suburban Dallas in the wee hours. And just outside our window, several large and talkative black birds were holding court. Even more-so than the cars, one would expect them to quiet down during the night or, if they were nocturnal, at least they would sleep during the day. But, again, no: I don't think the birds ever stopped talking the entire time we were there. Afternoon, evening, the dead of night, the crack of dawn, endlessly they squawked and squeaked and cawed and crowed, each of them a sable-feathered Dutch Schultz.

2 comments

  • Thanks for all the nice words Tom. And thank you and Mary for making the trip to Texas … y’all made the weekend very special! I cant wait for Part 2.

    Marcus Butterly

  • Mid-eighties? Tempe at the end of June is 100+ and counting! Looking forward very much to meeting you and Mary at CSWExpo!

    Brian Train

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