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It's hot in here. An interview with AireCon founder Mark Cooke

One of the joys of board gaming, for me at least, is going along to conventions. There's something wonderfully uplifting about walking into a place and seeing masses of people looking at/demoing/playing board games. It makes me feel included; among friends. Last year, whilst attending Dragonmeet in London, I entered a competition to win a brand new copy of Terraforming Mars, the big hotness of 2016. This was being run by the organisers of AireCon who were there drumming up support for their own convention, held annually in Harrogate. You can imagine my disappointment delight when I found out I'd won second prize: a free ticket to AireCon 2017.

AireCon logo

I can't honestly remember if I'd heard of it before, but I certainly hadn't been intending to go. And now I had a free ticket. I guess this proves that marketing works because my wife and I booked the hotel and off we went. Spending £150 + spending money to make use of a free ticket worth about £20...you know it makes sense.

This year's AireCon will again be held at the Harrogate Convention Centre on Friday 9th - Sunday 11th March and we'll be there. It's a fast-growing convention with a good number of exhibitors, bring and buy, organised play etc. It also has a very large area for open gaming allowing friends new and old to get a game together. If you're available that weekend then I would encourage you to come along as it's sure to be a great experience.

And now, here's my interview with founder Mark Cooke.

Question: Tell us a bit about you. What do you outside the world of board games?

Answer: Not a lot in recent months! We welcomed the arrival of our first child just after UKGE last year, so things have been pretty full on adapting since then. Day to day I work for a debt counselling charity, helping people who have found themselves with unmanageable debt. When we get the chance we enjoy walking in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside and are fans of travelling, and try and visit somewhere new each time we go abroad.

Q: When did you get into modern board games?

A: Probably about five years ago. I had always been into games, and had grown up with family games nights, and when I was younger I used to play a lot of Warhammer 40K and Necromunda and a few RPGs too. As for modern board gaming I was on a weekend away with some guys, and they introduced me to games such as Catan and Carcassonne. I really enjoyed them and fell head deep into the hobby. I watched a lot of the Dice Tower stuff and all of the Tabletop and Gamenight! episodes, and a few months later attended my first UKGE!

Q: Why did you hold the first AireCon?

A: Because my wife was on a weekend long hen do! I decided to hold a small event at my house with a group of friends and came up with the name AireCon! It was a great fun weekend, and a lot of the DNA of what AireCon is came from that: there were three open gaming tables, we played some large social games, some people stayed over and even had some events!

Q: What made you decide to build on this and create a a public event?

A: In between deciding to hold that first event at my house and it actually happening I went to UKGE (I think it was the third one I attended). I had such a brilliant time and shortly after getting back said to my friend, Ben, that we should make AireCon a proper thing. He had been having similar thoughts, so we decided to make a go of it, and a few months later we held AireCon 2 as an open public event in Bradford.

Q: Who helps you run the event? What duties do they perform?

A: As with all of these things, we get so much support and couldn't do it without a lot of help! Ben and I mainly head it up, also Nabil and Rick from Travelling Man. Ann does a sterling job overseeing our AireCrew, the army of volunteers that give up their time to serve during the event. John runs our RPG Zone and my mum is also on hand to help out. This next year we have a huge amount of volunteers, nearly fifty, that are serving at different points across the weekend, giving up valuable gaming time to help make sure others have a fab time!

Q: What’s new this year at AireCon?

A: For the most part we are building on what people already know and love about AireCon. We are moving into an even bigger hall, about three times the size; we have increased our open gaming area in line with expected attendance; we've massively increased the area given over to RPGs and our Family Zone run by Imagination Gaming; we're running more fun events, such as a competitive Tabletop Escape Game and a mega-NMBR9 event. We've also taken control of the catering; it was one thing we weren't too happy about last year, but had to use the contracted caterers. This year we're bringing in food vans and an independent bar serving craft beers and other tasty drinks. For the first time ever we're hosting a special guest: Rodney Smith from Watch It Played will be flying over just to come to AireCon. It'll be his first time in the UK, so most of the time he'll just be there to play games and perhaps teach a few, but he'll also be involved in a live podcast, giving tips on teaching games, and teaching some of the mega games.

Q: What are you most excited about?

A: For me the most exciting thing is seeing new friendships being formed. I love the social aspect of the hobby, whilst recognising that a lot of people struggle in large groups. We do a lot to help people find their way into games and meet others. Seeing strangers get together and having a blast gives me such a buzz and is always the thing that we talk about after it's all done. We'll always gear AireCon around making it welcoming, accessible and fun.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve experienced planning for AireCon?

A: The biggest challenges when running an event like this is trying to fit in everything that needs to be done around our normal jobs. We all absolutely love running AireCon, but we do volunteer our time to make it happen, so it can be tough sometimes finding time to make sure everything gets done. I wake up in the night sometimes wondering whether I've ordered enough tables!

Q: Why should people come along, particularly if they’re not local to Harrogate?

A: AireCon has become known for having a relaxed vibe and friendly attendees and it's a great size to see if attending conventions is something you'd enjoy. Whether you just want to sit in the same seat and play games all weekend, or whether you want to get involved in loads of events, demo upcoming games or do some shopping it has it all! If you're coming alone, as a group or with your family, whether you've been in the hobby for years or have never played a game before, we've tried to cater for everyone and make sure there's a seat for everyone at the table. It also helps that we're set in the beautiful spa town of Harrogate, a really lovely place to visit, so even outside of the convention there's plenty to do and see.

Q: What are your long term ambitions for AireCon?

A: We'd like to see it continue to grow, but not to the detriment of the atmosphere and reputation we've built as a relaxed and friendly convention. Thankfully the Harrogate Convention Centre has plenty of space for us to grow into, but if we ever feel like we're compromising the core values of why we created AireCon, we'd take the foot off the pedal a bit.

Q: What five games are your absolute favourites?

A: Always a hard question, as it often depends on the people and situations I find myself in! I'd say, assuming the right group: Euphoria, The Resistance, T.I.M.E Stories, Ticket to Ride and Brew Crafters.

Q: What experience do you have with RPGs?

A: I used to play some when I was younger, I especially remember one called Cyberpunk 2020. Since then I've not really had much experience, but quite like the idea of some of them, especially interested in Numenera. However, I think with my new expanded family, I'm not sure can afford the time currently!

Q: How would you recommend someone like me, who’s never really played an RPG, to get into it? Particularly if there aren’t any particular friends who already play/GM.

A: If I find myself with time, I'd certainly be looking to get back into them again. If you've never tried one before, I'd suggest starting with some short 'one-shot' adventures. We'll be running some at AireCon; just head over to the Paizo RPG Marquee and speak to the experienced GMs there. They're bound to find something that appeals to you. Similar things are run at UKGE and other conventions, so definitely worth an hour or two of your time. There's also a really healthy network of local RPG groups; chances are if you have an FLGS or a board game group near you, there will be someone there that can help you find one.

Thank you for your time Mark and I look forward to seeing you in Harrogate in just a few weeks.

Tickets are still available.