Japji Khalsa is the founder and executive producer of KublaCon, the largest board game convention in the Western United States. KublaCon celebrates its 16th year with over 800 events in tabletop games, role playing games, live action role playing games, and miniature games. Run by a dedicated staff of 60 volunteers at the Hyatt Hotel in Burlingame, California, KublaCon is expected to eclipse 3000 attendees this year, a giant increase from the 800 people who attended the first KublaCon in 2001. I chatted with Japji via telephone a week before Kublacon 16 while he was on tour with Jimmy Buffet in Austin, Texas. Japji has been in stage production for 40 years, including 12 years with Jimmy Buffet. This wealth of production experience is what Japji brings to KublaCon to make it a premier gaming destination in the West.


Why did you get involved in organizing conventions?


It’s all about the fun. I have been doing conventions for 22 years. I love standing in the hotel atrium [at KublaCon] seeing 100 to 200 people playing games and thinking to myself “Wow, those people are having fun.” I love it when people pull me aside and let me know “Thank you for all your work. I am having the best time with my family.”


How did KublaCon start?


Originally, it started as a different convention. I started ManaFest many years ago which was mainly a CCG [Collectible Card Game] convention, but we wanted to change our focus. People kept thinking of us as only as a CCG con. We needed to rebrand ourselves and our convention was in July. At the time there was another convention during the Memorial Day weekend called GameCon which was having some problems. KublaCon became a merger of those two conventions.


What is the story behind the name?


As I mentioned, we wanted to rebrand. I’m not sure what inspired us. We wanted to make sure we got a good web address! We put out 100 different names. KublaCon really rolled off the tongue. It’s tied to a poem of “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem references Kubla Khan’s fighting fortress, a mighty pleasure dome high in the mountains.


Also, it’s nice to have a warrior as a mascot who suggests power, strength and mythological connection.



KublaCon is famous for its game design contest. How did it start?
It came from a suggestion from my friend, Anthony Gallela. His roots are in game production and in helping to organize the Gamma Trade show [in Las Vegas]. Since we were game designers ourselves, it made sense to nurture new game designers. We said “Let’s do this game design contest. We’re good at giving feedback.”


So, you’re a game designer too?


Yes, Dwarven Dig, co-designed with Anthony Gallela who was my partner at KublaCon at the time. We said: “Let’s make a game together. Dwarves digging into a mountain.” This goes back 15 years ago. The European invasion was just starting. Every European release was a cool new thing. For us Americans to design a Euro-style board game was a big deal. Our game was finally released in 2004 and arrived the day of the KublaCon show [that year].


How have the demographics of your attendees changed over time?


A great question. In the early days, it was a lot of men. Now, women are more willing to engage in gaming and men are more willing to include them. We have a higher ratio of women than any other convention. Our mascot has been a woman several times. A good part of our staff is women. KublaCon is helping to drive the increase of women in gaming. Becky Thomas and RPG workshops [at KublaCon] are teaching girls to play games. In terms of the age range of our attendees, we have also expanded with a teen room. Our age demographics have definitely expanded.


Why should people attend game conventions?


I work in show business. I tour with a rock band and work behind a stage. I see 15,000 to 25,000 people at a time. People are coming for the shared experience. There’s nothing like a festival. That has been part of our shared human experience. A rock concert is a perfect example. People come to be with friends. I am open to all variations of shared group experiences. You may meet new people.


You could even play the exact same game with the same three people that you might always play with at home, but you’ll come away with a completely different experience. People go home feeling enlivened.


Do you have any tips for new designers attending KublaCon?


Put your game into the KublaCon game contest. We do it to help people make better games. We grade it. We judge it. We give you feedback on it and the people giving feedback are long-time veterans, James Ernest, and Anthony Gallela. We have had winners go onto to do well. People have taken our advice. It’s important for people to play your game who have never seen the pieces. And it’s important to let them read the rules themselves and figure out your design. Play with as many different people as you can. Put it on the table in the open gaming area of the convention and see what happens.


Do you have any tips for new publishers attending KublaCon?


Most new publishers start their careers on Kickstarter. From my experience on Dwarven Dig, we learned the value of a really good editor. Put an editor on your project even if it is your own game. For design, it’s not what you add to a game, it’s what you take away from it. You need to streamline your game to make it a better. We are often too close to our games.


Why are board games booming? Can it really keep growing at this pace?


Geekdom has become hip. It’s OK to be smart. It’s OK to wear a shirt with gaming emblems on it. It’s OK to strut your stuff as a gamer. Families are realizing how awesome games are. It gets them away from iPad screens. People see the value in human interaction. I think the growth is just starting. People are starting to get an awareness of how invasive social media is in our lives. There are studies of restaurants about how table turnover rate is way slower. People are on their phones, not really getting down to business of ordering food. I saw a picture of a baseball dugout of every player on their phone. There is now a retraction from this.



Are other gaming segments like RPGs, miniatures, and CCGs booming?


RPGs are also on the uptick such as D&D 5th edition. People are really engaged in role playing. Every department we have is steady. LARPs [Live Action Role Playing] have a steady following. People come from all over the country for LARPs. It used to be that CCGs overpowered everything, but people have moved away from them and have begun to experience other types of games.



How can hobby game conventions become even more mainstream?


People need to imagine conventions more like a concert or a show. People need to imagine it’s a get together of people. We’ve had success this year in changing our registration. We went with Eventbrite. It’s a ticketing website filled with events of all types: art galleries, shows. We are appealing to an audience who may not have known of the existence of game conventions. Most conventions don’t advertise well. Most advertise to gamers.


These people have no idea these kind of events are out there. On Eventbrite, people can search for events. If they say they like games, conventions might show up in their Eventbrite feed.


How has Kickstarter affected KublaCon?


Kickstarter is a fascinating, but not without risks:, people can lose money, things can be mismanaged and poorly produced. On the other hand, it gives aspiring game designers the ability to get their games into print. Kickstarter has opened people’s eyes into designing games. Kickstarter diversifies the types of games that are out there.
We get many requests from people who want to promote and show their Kickstarter games at KublaCon. We don’t have an area yet, but we plan to have a dedicated area for Kickstarter/New Designer games next year.


What is the role of smaller local cons in the era of super cons like GenCon?


There is a convention here in Austin, Texas, called ChupacabraCon which has maybe 800 people max. Local conventions serve a great purpose. To do a comparison, we are the largest small convention in the country, certainly the largest west of the Mississippi dedicated to games. The large conventions are a particular experience people want. I’ve been to GenCon and Origins. It’s different than a small convention experience. Some people want giant exhibit halls, parties, and release of new games. For other people, coming to KublaCon or Chupacabracon is a way to really connect with people. Local cons offer a more intimate place that is less intimidating. It’s just a question of what people want to experience. Smaller conventions are the feeders to the mega cons, giving new attendees an experience of the gaming community that might give them the desire/confidence to attend a larger event.


Is bigger always better? When is big too big?


In early days of KublaCon growth spurts, my personal take was I don’t want too big of a convention. I want a big convention that’s small and that has the hype, excitement and thrill of a big convention, but done in a small intimate space. I do KublaCon because I like to do it. I don’t want to do one that accommodates 20,000 people. I don’t want to do something as big as GenCon and Origins.


We are hovering around 3000 unique attendees. Because we do wrist bands, we know every wrist band has a human attached to it. We have always had accurate numbers. 3000 is a full convention. If we pushed beyond that, we would have to move to a convention center, or expand the convention to other venues such as the Marriott down the street. I would rather host key events at other hotels and use shuttles. The downside is that some people will be at one hotel or another. But I would look at that model before moving to a convention center.



Have you adopted any ideas from other cons you have attended?


That happens all the time. Our core staff likes to game and go to conventions. Game producers like to make a better event. A specific idea we took from another convention was open gaming flags that you put on a table to show you are looking for gamers. You are helping people find where there may be an open game. That might have come from Origins.


What is your favorite convention to attend?


Besides KublaCon, I love DunDraCon. What’s beautiful about that is that it falls at a time when I can go. It’s an intimate setting. There’s a lot of my friends and KublaCon staff there. I like it. It has a nice feng shui. It has welcoming, easy-to-navigate gaming areas.


What are board gamers missing out or overlooking at KublaCon?


One would be the game design contest. From a business perspective, it’s not a good investment. It’s a limited number of people and it takes a ton of feedback and work. It’s not a high return from a monetary perspective. But nurturing gamers is really important to us. We try to put those game designs more in the face of the general attendees. This last year we decided to bring those [contest] games out to the open gaming area and not in private suites like in past years. There will be places where the attendees can sit down and play these games. Designers want people to read the rules in front of them and try to learn them. You can go play a game that isn’t published and might be published.


Is there anything else you want to share?


Go to GobbleCon and check it out. We wished there was a gaming convention over Thanksgiving weekend and now it’s a reality. It will happen this year on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend at the same hotel. Gobblecon will be primarily open gaming since we have a big game library. This will be the first year. Gobblecon might have more people who go for one day or one night with their family from out of town. We want to make it low key. It may be one of the things they do over the holiday weekend. It’s been posted a little on Facebook and registration is starting to come in.


What are the biggest lessons you have learned from running KublaCon?


Every human being is its own universe. Their reality, their history, and their makeup is different than me. Being aware of that makes you more compassionate, more willing to engage new ideas. It’s good if you can take in new ideas without saying this is how it should be. The final word is compassion, to understand what people want in life.