It started out as a bunch of wargamers. They’d been to Origins and envied the robust consim scene in Columbus. One of them had a party room in his condo that had big enough tables.
Thus in late 2004 was born the Toronto Area Boardgame Society–TABS, for short, modelled consciously on Columbus’ CABS. They put a website up and lo and behold! a couple of dozen grognards gathered for the first CondoCon. A quarterly schedule was ambitiously announced.
Here are some photos from one of the early CondoCons. As you can see the games on the tables are primarily wargames, but El Grande and Tigris and Euphrates hit the tables, too. There are even some kids. But the overall impression is very nerd, very guy, very white. (Full disclosure: I fall into all three categories.)
By early 2006 and CondoCon VI fifty people were turning up; TABS was already outgrowing the condo scene and began to look for larger digs.
That’s where I enter the story. I found and joined TABS that summer, and the big news was that CondoCon was going to move to a church basement. I still remember slowly descending the stairs into a large room filled with “my people”. I was in heaven. By the fall of 2007 CondoCon had been rechristened TABSCon. Along with the quarterly Cons, weekly events were held at game stores now defunct: Two-Headed Dragon in North York and Dueling Grounds on Roncesvalles.
Meanwhile, Pandemonium, which had been the primary Toronto tabletop gaming Con, was in the process of unravelling for reasons I am not privy to. I never attended it, but it occupies a fond place in many an elder geek’s heart. Some of us at TABS looked around and wondered if TABS could occupy that ecological niche. (Spoiler: It took ten years, but it happened.)
As the TABS network expanded the focus began to shift away from wargames. Some of the newcomers (including myself) still loved them, but the time and table space needed to play them were no longer feasible, and we’d gravitated toward Eurogames and the like. Other couldn’t tell a ZOC from zirconium and couldn’t care less.
TABSCon outgrew first one then two church venues before finding its latest home at the Dawes Rd Legion. Consims like Here I Stand and Twilight Struggle still hit the tables regularly, along with good-ol’ hex-and-counter monsters, but Euros began to dominate. The demographic began to skew younger, hipper, and more diverse, all to the good. Attendance was now consistently over 200. It was time for TABS to make its play.
The inaugural Breakout was held in March of 2016 at the Holiday Inn Yorkdale. For the first time since 2007, Toronto had a multi-day con devoted entirely to tabletop gaming. It succeeded to such an extent that a mere two years later, Breakout moved downtown to the Sheraton Centre and, based on my experience this year, is quite possibly poised to join the ranks of major tabletop conventions.
I don’t have the exact numbers, but I know Saturday was sold out, and certainly the main gaming hall was packed by 11 am, with well over 200 gamers there alone. Then you had the RPGers in a separate hall, almost as numerous. Then you had the Fantasy Flight Canadian Nationals for Netrunner, L5R, X-Wing, and more. There may not have been a vendor hall à la Origins, but about a dozen vendors were strung out along the corridors and in the major halls enticing the passersby with their gamer-related wares.
What really struck me this year was how many ways the Breakout organizers have attempted to make the event more inclusive. Everything from the cover of the program (with its array of gamers of all types enjoying a particularly triumphant moment) to the painstaking instructions around the use of X-Cards and other safety tools, to the diverse members of the various panels, all of it set a tone of respect and tolerance.
For me, I wandered the halls and rooms and felt so proud of my friends who had put together this event. I felt proud at how the hobby has grown to attract and encompass folks of all kinds, leaving the Big Bang Theory stereotypes behind.
But I also confess to feeling a little lost and overwhelmed. The energy of the event is almost more than I can handle. Table after table of people huddled around their games, trying to block out the constant background chatter. I keep wanting to get up and look around, insatiably curious about the games I’m missing out on. Who has the latest hotness? (There were several games of Rising Sun going on at any given time.)
I used to play eight or nine games at a TABSCon. But my stamina ain’t what it used to be. This year I managed one play of Bruges and then I was done. I need to figure out a way to carve out a manageable space for myself next year–like the way I used to sit in the front corner of exam halls when I was at university, so I didn’t have to look up and see a sea of downturned heads at their desks.
The days when I knew almost everyone at the Con are now long gone. Some of the old hands were there, many of them volunteering their time to help out at the registration tables or events. But I am older now, more gunshy about sitting down at a table with complete strangers. So it’s a relief to see a familiar face, sometimes for the first time in months or years. When that happens I just want to sit down and catch up, talk about life, real life. But usually they’re rushing off to play something, or look for a game. They don’t want to waste valuable Con time just talking. And of course they’re right. Cons are for playing.