Inspire(d) Fall 2021

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Josh Hertel (far left) with fellow Coulee Con organizers and gamers Mike Haupert and Barb Jones / Photo courtesy Andrea Garvens

Josh Hertel La Crosse, WI BY TALLITHA REESE



Fall 2021 /

he soft thud of rolling dice, the shuffle of cards, the narration of a game master, bringing a group together – these are the sounds of camaraderie in motion, of developing relationships, and the memory-making of tabletop gaming. It was this connection with friends and family that got Josh Hertel, a mathematics and statistics professor at UW-La Crosse, interested in tabletop gaming early on. He grew up playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Battletech, Magic: The Gathering, a variety of board games, and more. “I played fewer games when I went to undergrad, but my interest in board games really grew when I was in graduate school in Normal, Illinois,” he says. “I joined a local board game meetup group and started playing games regularly. I also had the opportunity to attend a local convention called Flatcon, which I really enjoyed.” That experience would prove useful later on, when Josh became one of the organizers and coordinators of Coulee Con, a La Crosse gaming convention focused on building a supportive and inclusive community that brings gamers together. The idea for Coulee Con was first explored in a discussion between Josh and Mike Haupert, one of the coordinators of La Crosse’s local board game meetup group and fellow UW-La Crosse faculty member, while the two were at a tabletop gaming event at the public library. “Our region has a fantastic tabletop gaming community,” says Josh, listing the very active local board game meetup group, several Facebook groups dedicated to different games, several different RPG (role playing game) groups, as well as several local shops where games are played, such as River City Hobbies in La Crosse, PopCon Shop in Onalaska, Gamer’s Sanctum in

Sparta, and Jimmy Jams in Winona, Minnesota. “One challenge I’ve found is that a lot of people love these different tabletop games, but they often only play with a few other folks and sort of form a bubble,” says Josh. “The primary reason we started Coulee Con was to help bring gamers together and celebrate the hobby.” The first Coulee Con was held in 2015 in La Crosse at The Cartwright Center – 250 gamers from across the region came to play. At that time, Josh was the sole coordinator for the show. “It was exciting, exhausting, and a pretty big learning experience,” he says of that first year. “The behind-the-scenes and planning leading up to the show really takes a lot of time. One thing I learned quickly was that I wouldn’t be able to play a lot of games at the convention itself.” Since then, he has learned to delegate responsibility, organize volunteers, and think through the best use of the convention’s space. Coulee Con moved to the La Crosse Center in 2016, has grown to an attendance of more than 700 in recent years, and in 2020, Steven Switalla, an IT business analyst, also became a cocoordinator, working with Josh to share some of the responsibilities. Steven first got involved with the event in 2018 – he was looking for some project management experience during his senior year of college at UW-La Crosse. The plan was just to help with that year’s event, but after graduation, Steven got a job in Winona, Minnesota, and was able to become a regular Coulee Con organizer. The Coulee Con weekend schedule has now settled into a routine: Friday gears toward new gamer events, Saturday features tournaments, and Sunday focuses on family-friendly events. “On Friday, we have several events for new gamers. The community is very welcoming and happy to teach and play games. We are also