The cards and dice may hold magical powers, but you won't find these games in Vegas.
Forget blackjack and craps: Enthusiasts will gather for epic battles of games with names like Netrunner and Mice & Mystics when GnomeCon returns to Savannah, April 19-21 at the Coastal Georgia Center.
Last year, the sci-fi and fantasy gaming convention brought more than 350 attendees together for rounds of collectible card and role-playing games, comic book trading and wizardly communion. Even more are expected this time around as the gameplay expands like the Shards of Alara (please refer to your Magic: The Gathering manual) and moves closer to the action.
"We have a great location in the heart of Savannah and will be offering so much more than ever before," says GnomeCon founder Heidi Schweier, an avid gamer herself.
Board games are enjoying a sweet revival in the last few years, with gaming companies reporting a 6 percent increase while other toys are down 3 percent. "European-style" games that involve a complex story line and role play are also on the rise, perhaps because folks are rediscovering that rolling an eight-sided die with a roomful of other people can be a whole lot more fun than the lonely click of a mouse.
"People are starting to grow tired of spending all of their time online," says game designer Robert Burke. "Virtual communities are great, but they can never compete with physical communities.
"Board games offer a fantastic way for people to get together and be social, provide a catalyst for developing new friendships, and provide a lot of opportunity for banter and fun."
The Charlotte, N.C.-based Burke will speak at GnomeCon about his new game, Battle of Souls, an adult-themed fight between Heaven and Hell that he created with the help of a Kickstarter fund. He's also a great fit for the convention's focus on bringing younger gamers into the fold since he dreamed up Cartoona, an endless extravaganza of mismatched creatures, as well as a frolicking family-friendly creation about — what else? — gnomes.
Gnomes: The Great Sweeping of Ammowan is a fantasy scavenger hunt for all ages, inspired by Dutchman Wil Huygen's beautifully-illustrated 1977 book. After his kids went wild over some tiny hats and footprints they "discovered" in their forested backyard, Burke developed his idea further.
"Over time I began to create a background story and would leave notes from the gnomes and the vignettes that were left in the woods became larger and more detailed," he recalls.
"My kids loved this so much and it created such great quality time that I decided to put it all in a book so that other families could experience what we were lucky enough to discover."
Little gnomes enjoy free admission at GnomeCon with a grown-up as well as a host of age-appropriate activities, including a "Paint Your Own Gnome" craft project.
GnomeCon also offers much in the adult realm, including an appearance by award-winning game designer Richard Launius, the creator of cult favorite Arkham Horror and the best-selling Defenders of the Realm. Steampunk novelist Winfield H. Strock III (Adventures Above the Aether, The Pollinators) and horror writer James A. Moore (Serenity Falls ) will also speak on panels, interspersed with highbrow hilarity from local comedian Phil Keeling and Savannah's own improv troupe, The Odd Lot.
Back by popular demand is Professor Fear's Trivia Show, a raucous Q&A for the geek set. Categories test the audience's knowledge of Star Trek, Star Wars and Dr. Who as well as obscure topics like "YouTube nerds" and "boobs and beefcake."
Self-described as a "dork clown," Professor Fear is the alter ego of Todd Hanson, "a mild-mannered graphic designer" living in Atlanta. Hanson says Professor Fear is not inspired by the evil Marvel Comics mad scientist but as his own Mr. Hyde.
"He's crass, he drinks Clorox martinis and he'll tell you how feels about anything with no filter," laughs Hanson (in Dr. Jekyll mode) over the phone from his day job at a conservative newspaper in Fayetteville.
Hanson knows GnomeCon's creators from his SCAD days, and his geeky expertise on everything from science fiction's golden age to pulp horror made him a perfect host.
"I thought, 'What if Alice Cooper or Rob Zombie put on a trivia show?'" he says of his inspiration.
Competitive geeks can win prizes that include comic books, miniature gaming figures and other "nerd stuff," though the Professor warns, "there's no way anyone can study for this."
Hanson embraces "geek culture" and believes that GnomeCon is an excellent way for gamers to come out from the dungeon and into the mainstream.
Can we expect GnomeCon to keep rejuvenating like a Magic artificer each year to serve the Southeast's avid gaming community?
"Very much so," says Hanson. "It's run by accountants."
When: Fri. April 19 - Sun April 21; check schedule for times
Where: Coastal Georgia Center, 305 Fahm St.
Cost: $40 for three-day pass