The Grindhouse Arena: Coming to a Convention Near You?


Back in 2011 I found myself doodling on a piece of paper in a boring sales meeting. I came up with the start of an idea for a set piece D&D battle arena. This thing quickly gained traction in my head, and about a year later the Grindhouse Arena was born. I first unleashed this thing on the world at Gamicon, Iowa's longest-running tabletop gaming convention.

I knew almost immediately this thing was going to be a hit. I mean, where else could you sit down and play in a moving 3D battle arena of complete carnage and mayhem? It's definitely unique. The arena was actually just painted plywood, with handles that turned the rings to simulate "constant" movement of the rings as the grand melee progresses.

When a player wants to join in, I point them to the display of available gladiator miniatures and tell them to pick one. Every one is a pre-painted D&D mini, and each is a completely unique 5th level D&D character. What you see is what you get. If the mini is wearing plate mail and holding a sword and shield, plan on playing a tank. Or if they're wielding a staff, it's a safe bet (but not guaranteed!) they're probably a spellcaster. Players don't find out any info until after they've selected their mini, at which point I'll hand them their character sheet and they discover what they picked.

The name of the game is King/Queen of the Mountain. Whichever gladiator holds the top of the central tower for the longest will be crowned the Grand Champion. The player will win an actual trophy, and there are prizes for top gladiators in five categories.

The thing I most love about this monstrosity is that I built this entire arena as a way for players who have never even rolled a d20 before to sit down and try out Dungeons & Dragons. A complete neophyte can sit down and play with very little coaching needed.

The other beauty of this thing is that after the dust settles, essentially all I have to do to prepare it for the next convention is sort out all the cards and reprint the used gladiator character sheets to put them back into the rotation. The grand champion gladiator is retired and not used again - if I accidentally built a broken PC (and I have, once or twice) then they only get to exploit that error once. I've added new gladiators here and there over the years, but generally my regular players just come to revel in the carnage.


I always knew I could do this thing better.

Ten years ago, I had my first meeting with a couple of my players and their engineer friend, and we had the very first discussion of what Grindhouse 2.0 might eventually look like. It took a full ten years to get there, but it's finally happened. This is the new, improved Grindhouse Arena.
It's constructed of laser-cut and etched black acrylic.

The rings are now motorized, and rather than "simulating" constant movement, players press a button atop the central tower to indicate the end of their turn and all rings move one space. We figured out how to incorporate a mechanic for constant ring movement in a turn-based game!

I just ran the new arena for the first time at Gamicon Arsenic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This was the 25th time I've hosted this event. (I only run it at conventions). It was an overwhelmingly smash success.


It took ten years, but it would have taken me three times that if I'd tried to do it by myself. There are a LOT of people I have to thank for helping me bring this dream pet project to life.

First and foremost, Brad was the engineer who really designed this thing and drew it up. He also had the excellent idea of mounting Lego tires on the motors under the deck, the soft rubber gripping the underside of the rings to make them turn. It worked brilliantly. He also figured out how to fit it all together so it'd stay put; there are a LOT of die-tapped bolts in this thing, and he constructed the entire arena in his grain-bin work shop. I owe you big, brother.

Sarah and David were the two at that initial meeting who helped me start down this insane path. Bill was my confidante, co-conspirator, playtester, and co-GM in the early days. He helped me figure out quickly what worked and what didn't. Rick designed that wonderful gear-toothed G logo. Mark, Mike, and Ben were instrumental in helping me figure out the electronics. The awesome community of Arduino controller users helped me figure out exactly how to marry up that controller with sixteen stepper motors. Samuel was the freelance coding master who cranked out exactly what I needed in about six hours. The great folks at AlphaGraphics in North Liberty, Iowa took a 4x8 sheet of 3/8" black acrylic and carved it into... this. They did great.

And finally, I have to tip my hat to the merry jackholes over at Happy Jack's RPG Network. Their discussions on hosting events at gaming conventions encouraged me to give it a try myself, and without their call for RPG players to step up and run convention games I doubt I'd have ever worked up the courage to do it myself. They're at least partially responsible for this insane mess.

But now? Now that I've got it built, I already have a few ideas of how I want to improve it next. We're gonna 3D print new solid-piece walls so I can set up and tear down faster.


I'm planning to bring this beast to more conventions across the Midwest. Last year it was seen at Gamehole Con. I'm going to try hard to get back there again this year. Gen Con is out, sadly, but I WILL get there eventually. I'll always bring it to Gamicon every February. (It's my local-ish convention, close enough I can drive home and sleep in my own bed every night of the con. Bonus.)

Thank you to all who have helped me make this thing happen, and thanks to all my Grindhouse Gladiators who have come back year after year to murder the crap out of each other time and time again.

I do this for you.

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That's a neat idea, and visually striking - always important for a con game. Well done.

Out of curiosity, did you ever play the old board game 4th Dimension? Used a vaguely similar "bullseye" playing field for what was essentially an extremely far-out chess variant. TSR thought enough of it they acquired the rights and published it way back in the 70s, and looking at your layout immediately reminded me of it. That's one that deserves a modern re-make IMO, although it's easy enough to kitbash your own copy.

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