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Is it a con? A festival? Both? Whatever you call it, it’s amazing.

Located in Hobro, Denmark (pronounced closer to ‘hobo’ – the ‘r’ is silent, but the ‘b’ has a slight explosion of air) and held annually since 1992, Fastaval’s 5 days of scenarios and board games is the biggest event in Denmark was much more fun than expected.

(Note: the original post has UPDATED factual elements and ADDED some additional notes throughout the post.) 

Fastaval is old – it started as a RPG community that started meeting annually in 1986. Board games have been around since the beginning, but they only started receiving awards and doing game jams about 10 years ago. RPG and LARPing community are still larger sections than the board gaming side of things.

Before arriving, I personally perceived it as a con – but as I learned more about it and saw it first-hand, I realized I’d need to go into more detail than I usually do on posts like these to really paint the picture and set the record straight.

‘Stellar Scramble’ by Mark Elsdon and Søren Brandborg – after seeing these two, I realized I needed to come correct and up my prototypes for next time. We’ll come back to that…

A brief introduction, or why I spent a day traveling to Denmark

Every year, Fastaval runs a contest to find ‘scenarios’ (RPG’s / LARP’s) and board games to show off at the event. The submission deadline is  traditionally late August, several months before the Easter-weekend event. Chosen games / designers get played by players and judges, and you’ll receive feedback along with the potential for being awarded a golden penguin called an Otto.

Out of 90 entries, my game Transylvanian Lottery was chosen as one of 22 games, and I was invited to join the Fastaval in-person. (Anyone can come, of course – just register and make your way to Denmark… but if selected, it’s a wonderful opportunity to play your game amidst lots of players.)

‘White Buffalo’ by Morten Blaabjerg – one of the nicest looking prototypes I’ve seen in a long time.

What I knew about the con / event primarily came from the official website and the Facebook group set up for the selected designers (though I later learned Shut Up and Sit Down were guests of honor in 2019 and did a podcast episode about it afterwards). I learned some more after getting the chance to stay in an Airbnb with several other Danish designers.

OK, but why the heck is it held at a gym? And in a little town in the middle of nowhere instead of Copenhagen?

There’s a bit of history here, but also a bit of Danish pragmatism. The gym is not an expensive conference center, but also more practically, Hobro is the city of a role playing school, and that energy comes through the event in many aspects.

As one organizer I spoke with said, “volunteering is in the Danish DNA”. During registration, you are required to choose an area in which to volunteer at the con, and everyone has a part to play. One great way of connecting is the Fastaval for Internationals group on Facebook, and there was a Facebook group for the selected designers to coordinate play tests, request editing or translation services, and so on.

What else makes it different?

The non-commercial ethos is seen throughout the space. While you’ll have food and drink to pay for, only one ‘booth’ was actually selling games (and as a pro-tip, you’ll want to look for the flags on the boxes – some are in English, but some aren’t). You could make trades, win games, or give games away, but there are no publishers to pitch and only one set of professional-level talks that I was aware of.

Irreverence has found its way into plenty of aspects of the con space, from the Golden Plunger award (given to the volunteer who helped the most) to the Dirt Buster crew (seen LARPing as constantly drinking cleaners in construction-style garb to heavy metal music – when they enter the room, you’ll know it). Volunteering and the community spirit aren’t just buzzwords – they’re vital to the continuation of the event. Both the volunteers and long time Fastaval goers make up the institutional memory, but every year is a reset with a brand new cast of characters. Some are around for years, even decades, but more than a bit seems to be reinvented every year.

My four-word description of Fastaval: Intelligent weirdness, embraced enthusiastically

The hallway near the bar has a free-play skiing machine – and nothing makes it feel more realistic than having friends creating sound effects and light shows…

Fastaval is to a ‘normal’ board game convention as a superhero movie is to a Woody Allen movie. It’s made fairly clear that the contest is about bringing a fun, weird, and perhaps experimental game to the table. Whether it can be published or commercialized is beside the point. It’s all about the players and their tastes for new experiences, and this is perhaps more evident in the scenarios. They enjoy weird, innovative games where the focus is in making a great experience people will talk about.

While board games have a clear path to commercialization beyond the event, the scenarios seemed written specifically for the event and are only rarely commercialized afterwards. (They’re typically experimental and pretty far from the mainstream for RPG’s, as I understand it.) The scenarios are the culmination of the writer’s hard work testing and running the scenario, and that fact was reflected in the applause and ovations for the winners of the various scenario awards. If you’re curious, you can download the scenarios or the rules for the board games from Alexandria.dk from this event or lots of prior events.

This con doesn’t exactly advertise itself very well, especially outside of Denmark, but there’s good reason for that – simply put, it doesn’t need to. Growing too much would cause the Fastaval to outgrow their space, and probably lose the balance and sense of community that’s been so carefully grown over time.

The website is the most outward-facing facet, the place that mentions this is the contest where Magic Maze was discovered, where Fog of Love was presented, where Whirling Witchcraft won the penguin (erm, Otto award) not too long ago.

In truth, there are other facets to that story. Fog of Love was selected, and although it didn’t win, the judges’ feedback helped Jacob evolve his game to the amazing experience we know it as today. You can see Magic Maze’s prototype on the shelf (above) alongside all the other Fastaval prototypes from previous years, though it had a different theme and mechanics at the time.

What about the contest?

I’m told the judges must agree unanimously on the various Otto awards, which leads naturally to some interesting discussions. Each member of jury of judges have read the rules to each game, and every game was played by at least two judges before or during Fastaval itself (a refreshing change from contests that judge the game based on its sell sheet or web page). I’m told that those are the minimums, and that many of the games are played by more than that. The judges are all volunteers, and it’s a different group of people than the people selecting the designs.

Really nice looking prototypes are judged no better or worse than rougher ones, and bigger games were better represented than smaller games (though there are obviously exceptions – Whirling Witchcraft and Magic Maze were both smaller lighter games, for example…). It’s worth noting that the game that won had a nice appearance, but still one I’d describe as a prototype. Make it playable, make it fun.

Other events worth talking about

The Game Rush was a highlight – it’s setup as your classic game jam. Get a box of bits on Wednesday (or Thursday, in my case) and present an up-to-10-minute pitch on Friday night. You had plenty of material to play with and a large room with plenty of room to spread out and try things out.

The theme was ‘cross’, which like any good game jam theme can go a bunch of ways. The box held some hex tiles, dice, a zombie on a standee, and some plastic pieces that snapped together. You could use whichever pieces you liked, but needed to use at least some of them.

I’m really proud of the game I made for it. While the theme is likely to change, the mechanics came together after just a couple of playtests. You have a grid of face-down hex tiles in the middle of the table, and as you drive your car over the tiles, you’ll flip face-down tiles face-up or claim face-up tiles. The tiles have numbers or shapes on them, and at the end of the game, you’ll score the sum of the numbers multiplied by the number of unique shapes… Still a work in progress, naturally, but it came together in 24 hours.

‘Are we about to join a cult?’ AKA the awards party

The celebratory party on Sunday night concludes the official event and starts the celebration for the last time. The official schedule left plenty of time for people to return to where they were staying and change into their elegant evening wear. Ballroom gowns and suits were not uncommon, but there were plenty of people in the same jeans and shirts worn all day.

The event is held in Danish, and an English interpretation service was found on a Discord server. I heard the video crew sometimes made super short (think 10 seconds) videos based on the names of the board games and scenarios that were selected. Often hilarious, they had no connection or consultation with the designers, and was simply a simple micro-skit based on the name. It was another irreverent touch, a unique way to highlight all the board games and scenarios presented without scrolling them by like credits or needing dozens more people coming to the stage. I’m happy to report they did this for both the board games and the scenarios, and they were all hilarious.

While my game wasn’t nominated for any of the awards, it did win second place in an audience vote. I KNOW! I was as surprised as you are. People looked like they really enjoyed it as they played, and there was plenty of back-and-forth as people played.

Beyond being an award show, it continued the irreverence of the event with a mixture of serious, funny, and the funny being taken seriously. One minute an award was being given out, the next the Dirt Busters are taking the stage in a solemn pose amidst Gregorian chants the 80’s metal song ‘The Crown and the Ring’ by Manowar (as seen above). The crowd stood up, joining them in the pose in what made me wonder ‘are we about to join a cult?

The truth was we already had – complete with 4 days of initiation into a rabbit hole of board games, scenarios, stories, and insights into the mind of Fastaval goers. At just under 2 hours, the host wrapped up the show by thanking the award winners for keeping their speeches short. It helped them keep the show shorter than their 2 1/2 hour estimate, he joked.

And the winner is… Bastian Borup with his game entitled ‘Wolves on the Hunt’!

With the initiation (and event) complete, it was time to party. You had two choices: the bar (your classic, loud place with a dance floor nearby) and the next-door Oasis (more of a lounge that was also used as an event space). Either way, drink, socialize, and be merry. The dance floor in the bar filled up quickly, and the lines for another beer were never long (at least, until they announced 10 kroner beers, a sweet discount from the usual 25-30 kroner apiece).

Practical considerations for attending

Practical considerations are covered fairly well on the fastaval.dk site, though a few more thoughts come to mind for foreigners.

Most stuff is paid for either in advance, in cash, or through MobilePay, which requires a Danish bank account. ATM’s aren’t necessarily found at every bank, and cash is less common here. Credit cards and debit cards are usually accepted as well, but you’ll want to be aware of your bank’s international fees.

Getting in is most easily done from Aarhus or Aalborg. I flew into Copenhagen, which was a five-hour train / bus ride to Hobro. It’s possible, but it may not be the best option – do your own research. There is a Fastaval bus that leaves from Copenhagen, but you’ll want to ensure its schedule works with yours. If you can catch it, you’ll get to spend even more time with the community.

Public transportation around the city is going to feel a bit lacking, especially in the middle of nowhere Denmark. The dormitory-style sleeping areas and available food options are easily the most convenient, and I stayed at an Airbnb organized by one of the other designers about 2 1/2 kilometers from the Fastaval. You may want to look for a place within walking distance, unless you’re staying with someone with a car.

Once at the Fastaval, understand there are usually opportunities to walk up to play, but for obvious reasons they’ll prefer those that signed up for the game / experience. In general, I was quite happy to have people walk up to play Transylvanian Lottery, especially in the later days since people forgot, might have been tired / hungover, etc.

The main gaming building has the kitchen, kiosk, and the many rooms for role playing and board gaming (though you may only rarely see the other side). The other building across the street and a bit further on has the Oasis, the hall for the awards, and the bar. If you signed up for the dormlike sleeping, it’s also here.

There’s an Aldi a couple kilometers away and a Rema about 850 meters away for groceries, and there is a cafe style area for coffees (20 kroner and up) near the games area. A Kiosk is available for drinks, snacks (15 kroner and up), and the always available toast (grilled sandwiches). You may want to bring your own snacks for the best variety, naturally.

Fastaval is always held during the long Easter weekend, which even in relatively non-religious Denmark meant some stores would have shorter hours.

The next time I go, I’ll be doing a few things differently.

  • Fly into Aalborg or Aarhus – Hobro is about halfway between them. Either of these two cities are significantly closer than Copenhagen (which is about 5 hours away). Billund might also be an option, which is about 3 to 3 1/2 hours by train. I’m told it’s wise to ensure the airport connection works well with public transportation.
  • I’ll be bringing a backpack to hold stuff (snacks, games, water bottle), instead of a smaller manbag)
  • My physical prototypes need to come correct. After 2 years of playtesting in the virtual space, my physical prototyping skills are rusty.

Questions? Did I miss something? Comments are open.

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