From basement to big time: Gamehole celebrates 10 years

How a state lost its gaming convention, and a group of friends decided to start their own.

From basement to big time: Gamehole celebrates 10 years

Wisconsin is the birth place of Dungeons & Dragons. The game originated in Lake Geneva, as did a convention dedicated to tabletop gaming, Gen Con. When Gen Con moved from Milwaukee to Indianapolis in 2003, it left a hole in the state for tabletop gaming enthusiasts. 

However, a small group of gaming friends would fill that hole. 

Alexander Kammer has played D&D in his basement with friends every week for the past 20 years. They attended gaming conventions like Gen Con, and wanted to bring that experience back to Wisconsin. So, about a decade ago, they devised a plan. The group organized a small convention of their own that would take their favorite parts from other gaming cons. They would name the gathering after the nickname they gave Kammer’s basement where they met and played each week. 

And with that, Gamehole Con was formed. 

Celebrating its 10 year anniversary in 2023, Gamehole has grown almost every year, with the exception of 2020.  Kammer says the convention drew about 450 people its first year at the Sheraton in Madison. Two years later, they moved to Alliant Energy Center, where they have been since. Kammer says Gamehole drew over 5,000 attendees in 2022. This includes badges sold, guests and volunteers. As for this year, he anticipates the total number of attendees will surpass 6,000. 

"As a Dane County local, it’s been astonishing to see the show grow so quickly and strongly, making it possibly the most important regional tabletop gaming convention in the world," says Wisconsin games designer John Kovalic.

“We had no aspirations to make a big show. Still don’t,” says Kammer. “It kinda became one despite us.”

“We built the show we wanted to go to,” says Kammer, who indicated the organizers are more concerned with providing a great customer experience than making money. The conference strives to keep prices low for attendees. He also points to the quality of the participant badges, and the art commissioned for them. “That underlying ethos explains why people dig it,” he says. 

One of the other reasons for Gamehole’s success is it has a reputation as a great convention among game developers. Well known designers of role playing and board games attend each year. Kammer says they have about 70 special guests, and the number is growing. 

“We make it all about celebrating the games,” says Kammer. “We don’t have to invite anyone, they just want to come.”

Look through the Gamehole events catalog, and you’ll see game creators running their games. Kammer points out that special guests have to run at least one game, and make themselves available while they are there. But for most, this isn’t an issue. “Game designers are not celebrities, they’re gamers,” says Kammer. “So they want to game. And they like being around gamers themselves. And Gamehole Con has such awesome attendees, like really good gamers.”

“Alex and his team go all-out to make sure that the guests have a great time,” says games writer and novelist Matt Forbeck, a frequent attendee of Gamehole and special guest. 

Kovalic says it is "one of those conventions known to treat its guests very well indeed: the show strove to make the experience as fun for its guests as it was for the general public."

With Gamehole set up to fill the void left by the departure of Gen Con, it seems likely that most of the attendees would be from the state and the area. However, Kammer says that is not the case. “Especially early, we were really heavy out-of-state as compared to in-state. It was almost 50-50, which was weird.”  He says most of the attendees come from Minnesota and Iowa, and blames the low statewide turnout on a lack of advertising.

“We put some posters in game stores, and that’s about it,” says Kammer. “So it spread by word of mouth.”

As Gamehole Con continues to grow, Kammer says his goal is to deliver the same excellent experience to attendees. The Alliant Energy Center has plans to grow, and Kammer says it will help to keep pace with their rise in attendees. The convention also has plans to utilize more of the buildings on the grounds, whereas now it is mostly held in the exhibition hall. However, he does admit there could come a day where he might need to cap attendance to offer the same level of service, but he hopes it never comes to that. 

“I never want to say no to someone who wants to go to the show,” says Kammer. 

Gamehole Con takes place October 19-22 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, WI. Full weekend or single day badges can be purchased on site. You can find events or check out this year’s special guests.