Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Donna Prior
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Donna Prior, the executive director of OrcaCon and the Organized Play Manager at Catan Studio. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Hello Donna! Let’s start by talking about some of your favorite games to play. Do you prefer board games or role playing games? What are some of your all-time favorite games? Any new-to-you favorites you've played recently?
Hello! Whilst I am a RPG lover at heart, I tend to get more time to play board games. I quite like them equally for different reasons. My all-time favorite games are D&D 5th Ed Forgotten Realms setting, Skull, Shadow Hunters, Splendor, Mille Bornes, Small World, Dragon Age RPG, Call of Cthulhu, Magic: The Gathering. As far as lately, I've been playing a lot of Tak, Valeria: Card Kingdoms, and Vye, as we're competing in the Mox Gauntlet Charity Board Game tournament. Those are the games we're playing, so I have pretty much just played those lately. I quite like Tak.
You are the executive director of OrcaCon, a regional convention held in Bellevue, Washington. How did this convention get started? How did it grow to the point it is today?
I've always wanted to run my own tabletop convention! I was at Dragonflight with my husband and his friends from school. They get together once a year to play games together. I was sitting with Steve Hobbs (who's a State Senator and on our board now), and we were losing at 7 Wonders. Neither of us play it, so when we get together each year, we always forget how to play. He and the friends always reminisce about this older con, which has been gone for some years. They attended it every year when they were young, and the con was located much closer to where they grew up, versus Seattle. He said, "I wish someone would create a con in Snohomish County." I said, "Okay, I will". And we started planning it that day. We grabbed some friends, made a plan for a show 1.5 years out, so we'd have plenty of time. Worked with the Tourism Board to book a hotel, and then ran a successful Kickstarter. We expected 300-400 people and had just under 800 folks show for year 1. Even better, 11% of our attendees had never been to a game store or convention, so we were totally hitting an untapped market of people who REALLY wanted a welcoming and inclusive show. Year 2 was another KS and just under 1000 folks. Year 3 we didn't have a KS at all and pulled out just over 1200 folks. We even had to move venues at the last minute, bringing us to Bellevue, WA. We adore our new hotel and the staff. We may have to look at capping attendance or move to a larger venue for 2020.
OrcaCon is promoted as "an inclusive, diversity-focused games convention," and you have spoken at numerous conventions about diversity, harassment, and accessibility. What do you do as OrcaCon's executive director to make sure it is able to meet its goals of inclusion and diversity?
The first thing I did was gather volunteers who believed in our core mission statement. The next thing I did was pull together an excellent anti-harassment/anti-racism policy, with additional policies for accessibility and our Quiet Room. These are on top of our regular policies. Next up, was inviting marginalized folks to be Guests of Honor and Special Guests. We also ordered Pronoun Ribbons for our badges, and put together a great volunteer orientation program. We try to make sure there are lots of food options for accessibility, and have a scholarship program so everyone can play games with us. The Food Trucks for year 3 was an amazing example for accessibility, too, as we were able to offer vegan, Halah, GF, vegetarian options. Moving into the larger space was great, too, because we were able to give a lot more space in between tables and aisles for wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices, along with making space for Service Animals.
Do you have any advice for other local game groups looking to start a regional convention? Anything to avoid?
My advice? Yes. Get on board with another convention as a volunteer. Volunteer at lots and lots of different types of shows. Volunteer for Walk-a-thons, Volunteer at Pride. Volunteer at any convention or event you can, to gain heaps of experience. And then, read this. Understand that you're gonna need to raise about 20k for a small event. That there are many costs you don't think about outside of renting the space. Programs, badge printer, marketing supplies, blue tape... just lots and lots of supplies and printing you didn't think you'd need. Plus, you'll need to figure out the best ticketing program and scheduling program for your needs. That will cost quite a bit, too.
Avoid: Don't think you can just "make a con" in a couple of months. Sure, there are heaps of pop up events, but if you want to create a sustainable convention, you need to have a business plan and a good team. Have some people on your team who know how to run conventions. As someone who's been on meetup.com since 2002, I can tell you that coordinating that is nothing like coordinating a whole convention. Also, consider finding a mentor. I'll be looking for someone to take over as Con Chair in the future, so this is good training for sure.
You have a number of panels and workshops at OrcaCon. Tell us a bit about them, and who creates the programs for them.
We have some excellent panels! They range from World Building to Writing Diverse Characters, to mapmaking, Technology at the Table, Gaming as an Adult, Editing, and more. You can see this year's program here. I started running all the paneling, and Tanya DePass (#INeedDiverseGames) has come on board to be my Programming Coordinator. We worked it all together this year, and I'm stepping back for 2019. We'll look at the panels together, to make sure they're the content we want, but everything else will be run by Tanya. I am so lucky to have her experience for OrcaCon.
The next OrcaCon -- January 11-13, 2019 -- will be its fourth year. How has it evolved over the years?
The evolution has been great. We started with some good ideas about accessibility, diversity, and inclusion, and we've gotten better every year. We update our policies as needed, we offer more varied content, and have added things to the con experience that people like, such as the Food Trucks and a Family Games Area (new for 2019).
Where would you like to see OrcaCon in future? Do you want to remain a more intimate regional con, or is your goal to grow it into a larger convention?
Pretty much the same as it's been, but better. Tightening up our procedures, making sure everyone is happy. And speaking of happy, we're quite happy for it to stay as an intimate con for now. We all have day jobs, and to grow it further would mean a lot more responsibility and work. We'd rather cap attendance and keep it smaller, so we can offer the accessibility features mentioned above. We could shove more tables in, but we'd lose so much accessibility.
You have a wide variety of industry guests each year at OrcaCon. How do you select who you invite?
Since I work in the games industry, I bring in people I know, or who are recommended to me. Almost everyone is local to the Seattle area, and there are heaps of folks locally who can support the con as a Guest.
What is your favorite convention -- other than OrcaCon, of course -- to attend? Why?
I don't actually go to a lot of shows outside of work because they keep me super busy. As example, I'm off to KublaCon for Memorial Day weekend. I come Monday night, and then I'm off on Tuesday to UK Games Expo. I'm there a week, home a week, and then back on the road to Origins Game Fair. For attending, I quite like Big Bad Con. It's almost exclusively tabletop RPGs. I was a guest one year, and it was a blast. I hope to get back some day. Their mission statement is similar to ours and we do lots of things about inclusivity the same. They offer lots of indie RPGs and Story Games, which are a very unserved part of tabletop games at cons.
In addition to all you do for OrcaCon, you are the Organized Play Manager at Catan Studio. What does that entail? What is your favorite Catan game?
A lot of spreadsheets. I manage the coordination of all the regional National Qualifier at retail shops and conventions where Catan is published in English and the winners of said events. With Asmodee taking on Catan a couple of years ago, I was brought in to revamp the tournament programs for US, Canada, UK, and Australia. Plus, I've launched new programs in Ireland, all in anticipation of the 2018 Catan World Championships in Cologne, Germany. That's my main thing, plus more event coordination and some community management. My favorite Catan game is Rivals for Catan as it's more portable to take and play with a friend over beers in a pub.
Before we finish up, is there anything else you'd like to share with us about yourself? Any other passions, hobbies or interests?
If you're looking for a place to game and feel welcome, we'd love to see you at OrcaCon. Plus, if you'd like to volunteer, we'd love to talk to you! Outside of OrcaCon, my other big passion is cooking and baking. I started a Cookbook Club recently, and am looking to start an online Cookbook Club, too. It's like a book club, except we pick a cook book, everyone makes a dish, and then we get together for a meal! It's super fun. I also have a passion for Springerle, the medieval cookie from Germany. I collect Springerle presses and make various flavors for friends. And that reminds me, I'm behind on baking because of OrcaCon planning and trips out of town. Sorry friends!