Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors for Play On Con; however, I have no financial stake in the company and receive no compensation based on attendance or media coverage. I write about it because I absolutely adore this convention and want to share it with others.
Last weekend marked the ninth annual Play On Con, held in (or near) Birmingham, Alabama. Play On Con (or “POC”) is a family-friendly celebration of gaming, fandom, music, and community. For the last four years, it has been held at the Alabama 4-H Hotel and Convention Center. This location has allowed POC to evolve from a more traditional convention into “Geek Summer Camp”, adding outdoor activities like archery and canoeing to the already impressive array of boardgaming, RPG’s, concerts, game shows, and other interactive activities. For the grown-ups there are also late-light parties and a few other adult-specific activities.
The four days of POC are always a chaotic blur of activity for me, so I’m just going to provide a few high points.
Dice, Cardstock, and a Game About Eating Campers
The POC Open Gaming hall boasts one of the largest libraries of board and card games in the Southeast. This year the library had over 550 games available for attendees to check out and play — 24 hours a day. The entire back wall of this unique gaming space is windowed, allowing players to look out over the beautiful Alabama woods.
In addition to free-form gaming, POC 9 also held tournaments for Sushi Go!, Splendor, and 7 Wonders: Duels, where players competed for prizes, trophies, and bragging rights. The RPG rooms also ran throughout the weekend, with dozens of tables available for Pathfinder Society and Dungeon Crawl Classics players of all experience levels.
POC always has a surprise “hit of the show” that gets checked out of the library an inordinate number of times. This year it was Bears!, a very light “press your luck” dice game. Why? I have no idea, but people seemed to enjoy the heck out of it in between heavier titles such as Orleans and Quadropolis.
Friday night heralded the return of chiptune pop-star Professor Shyguy, who put on his customary blistering, high-energy set. He was preceded by The Green Seed, a local hip-hop band that specializes in songs about every geek topic from D&D to comic books.
On Saturday evening, a brief but powerful storm hit the region, uprooting trees and knocking out power to the area. Unfazed by the sudden lack of electricity, the Costume Contest and Presidential Elections continued via flashlights and cellphones.
In the grand spirit of “The Show Must Go On”, the crowd trekked up the hill to the 4-H Center’s open-air chapel for the nighttime concerts. Equipped with a headlamp and just enough electricity from a backup generator to run the sound equipment (but not the lights), “Piano Man” Sean Hagler began a set that was equal parts soulful and hilarious. As he ended his set with the powerful last line of The Phantom of the Opera’s Music of the Night, the lights suddenly came back on — resulting in a cheer that could likely be heard for miles. It was magical.
With power restored, con favorite Aurelio Voltaire hit the stage, singing songs and telling stories about life, death, sex, and Captain Morgan. Mostly Captain Morgan. Voltaire is a master of infusing dark topics with just enough humor to keep things light, and he was completely on-point this year.
The nearby University of Montevallo has run several panels and “puzzle parties” in previous years to promote their Game Studies and Design program. This year they stepped up their game to present Cthulhu: The Musical, a completely original breakout room where players had 30 minutes to solve a fiendish gauntlet of puzzles to summon an Elder God.
This event was wildly popular, with the (free) tickets disappearing within minutes of becoming available. A highlight of the weekend was during the aforementioned power outage, where the group inside not only continued, but actually completed the room without lights!
The gaming track was rounded out by a continuous series of video game tournaments, ranging from the popular (Smash Bros. and Mario Kart) to the obscure (Ultimate Chicken Horse and Nidhogg). Between tournaments, attendees could take advantage of the various game consoles, PC’s, and even a Dance Dance Revolution platform.
The Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator also ran nearly at capacity throughout the weekend, with crews of intrepid space explorers manning POC’s fully featured starship bridge — complete with custom lighting and sound effects.
That’s to say nothing of the events I missed. I heard amazing stories of Beer Croquet, the Mini-Golf Rave, the Rock Band competition, Iron Bartender, and… and… and…
I’ve been attending conventions for over 25 years now, and there is absolutely nothing like Play On Con. It’s not just the games or the concerts or the incredible array of events for a con this size. The sense of community — even family — shared by long-time attendees and newcomers alike is enough to keep me coming back forever. If this article entices even one of you to join us next year, I’ll consider it work well done.