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GenCon 2011: The Rise and Fall of Cardhalla

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Taking those first steps into the Indiana Convention Center during GenCon, I always get the feeling I'll need a second pair of eyeballs just to observe it all. I'd probably fit right in.

My eyes were immediately grabbed on Friday by Cardhalla, a competition to build the strongest standing card castle held in the convention center's lobby.

Builders at work on their own private Cardhalla.
  • Builders at work on their own private Cardhalla. Photos by Sara Baldwin.

Each year GenCon attendees of all ages spend hours constructing these architectural feats from donated cards, only to have them destroyed in the “Fall of Cardhalla” by a mass of coin-hurling nerds. This year's Cardhalla was the largest yet.

Some contestants choose to build the basic framework ahead of time. A model of Big Ben, built by the maker of last year’s pagoda, took 40 hours to build, five minutes to assemble and even less time to destroy.

The first two throws for the Fall of Cardhalla, which took place Saturday night, were auctioned off for charity. This year’s first throw went for $1,300 (up from $600 last year), and the second one for $450. The change that was thrown amassed to $1200. Both the throws and coin money went to School on Wheels, an organization that gives educational aid and school supplies to underprivileged children.

The clean-up afterwards was finished in just a little over 30 minutes.

“We have an army of slave labor — I mean volunteer workers,” said one volunteer.

Of course, laborers don't have to be forced to help out — anyone who helps clean up can keep whatever cards they want.

Rather than allowing his hand-crafted fire-breathing dragon to be destroyed by ruthless coin tossers, one artist, Juan Martinez, is selling it in the GenCon Auction, the largest game auction in the world. Martinez sold his 2010 card castle, modeled after a scorpion, for $150 and a twinkie. No joke.

At GenCons board game auction.
  • At GenCon's board game auction.

Jeffrey Hammerlund, GenCon’s Auction Organizer since 2007 and a gamer since the '60s, saw me photographing and made it his personal duty to show me around. He informed me that last year they raised $27,000 auctioning off anything and everything that relates to the gaming world. Hammerlund said he even auctioned off a hug from his niece, a “goth model” for $35 last year.

“We’re going to sell another one from her this year,” he said.

Jeffrey Hammerlund stands among donated items to be auctioned.
  • Jeffrey Hammerlund stands among donated items to be auctioned.

GenCon provides 96 hours of activity without halt. There's never an unscheduled moment during the 4-day convention, and gamers could subsist on concession foods for the whole weekend without ceasing their play. But for those who feel the need to unstrap their Rock Band guitar and get some real grub, nearby restaurants like the RAM provide a special GenCon menu.

With returning appetizer items such as the “Pyre Troll Tenders” (wings), “Battle Mage BBQ Quesadilla” and “Retribution Nachos”, the RAM is a great place to grab a beer (I tried the Primal Porter: delicious) and sit down for some grub without leaving the comfort of the gamer world.

Jeff VanVlymen chats with other gamers inside of The RAM.
  • Jeff VanVlymen chats with other gamers inside of The RAM.

This is where I met Jeff VanVlymen, resident of Greenwood and GenCon veteran, who was kind enough to offer me a seat at his table in the crowded bar section. VanVlymen has been coming to GenCon since its earlier days in Lake Geneva, when the crowd was much smaller and less diverse.

“I used to go when it was 2,000 guys and one woman the size of a house who was more popular than Pamela Anderson," VanVlymen joked.

As Cosplay, an Anime and Manga-inspired of costumed performance art, has become more popular, more and more females have started showing up for GenCon, according to VanVlymen. However, he says that the gaming convention remains the “mecca of geekdom."

“The city loves this convention because it has the largest number of people and the fewest arrests, “ VanVlymen said. “People are here to have fun, and that’s what makes GenCon different than most conventions.”

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