I have lived in three of the four Kingdoms of the Known World that are principles of Gulf Wars. I began in the SCA when Gleann Abhann was a principality of Meridies, and returned almost 6 years ago after Gleann Abhann had become a kingdom. Thus, my large war experiences will always be compared to the annual war hosted on her lands.
Kings Arrow Ranch, where Gulf Wars is held, is about 250 acres, while Copper’s Lake Campground, where Pennsic is held, is about 800 acres. The scope of the difference is not noticeably 3x larger until you walk from the Bog to the far corner of the Serengeti. Much of the land is hidden beyond parking and the other side of the Battlefield and I never made it past the Serengeti or the Battlefield. While the population density is much higher at Pennsic, it felt more planned and thus more functional in many ways. The classroom area was large, and not many classes happened outside this area*, so taking classes back to back was possible (theoretically; I only attended one round table class). It did seem like merchants had overgrown their original planned space though, as they were broken up into two distinct areas separated by the main road. Gulf Wars has an organic growth feel, and classes are located from one end of the site to the other, but merchants have been kept in the same general location (pushing camping further out). I don’t know what Gulf Wars would do if it had the number of merchants as Pennsic does though – there was so much shopping!
Now, let’s talk money. Gulf Wars costs $91 for a week, and you can save $6 for reserving early and another $5 for being an SCA member, for a total cost of $80. Pennsic costs $205 for TWO weeks, and you can save $10 for reserving early and $25 for being an SCA member, for a total cost of $170 or $85 per week. If you only attend for War Week (the 2nd week of Pennsic that is battle focused), you only save $40, so the total for a week is $130 or $50 more than Gulf Wars. So much of Pennic’s cost structure is based on services provided by the campground. The sanitation, towing, food vendors, etc., are campground employees and it shows! The port-a-lets were services 2 or 3 times a day (I think the trucks just made laps) and towing happened quickly and efficiently (no one parked in camp for long!). The water was consistent (even if iron heavy) and there are laundry services available. The camp store on site had a great variety of produce, treats (ice cream!), necessities and SCA items. For produce and propane, I didn’t notice a mark up at all. Ice was $5 for a 22 lb bag, where as Gulf Wars is $2.50 for a 10 lb bag, so less of a mark-up. The only thing that was outrageous were the “stupid tax” items, e.g. electric tape was $7/roll. I was also really impressed with the hired EMTs stationed on site – they had a special golf cart and could be on the field in mere minutes! If there is one thing that Gulf Wars needs work on, it is the infrastructure of sanitation and water, hands down.
Since all these services are contracted, it means less SCAdians have to man those departments, and less volunteers are needed to run the event. A member of our camp volunteered 3 hours at heraldry point, and when asking if he needed to document his time, was cheerfully told that volunteer time isn’t tracked like it is for Gulf Wars. It seems like most volunteers were volunteering in their interest areas, like the gentle from my camp, and as such, there isnt a large push for needed volunteers to do errands and chores. This made it feel more like a vacation with my hobby, even though I had multiple responsibilities during war, rather than working during my vacation the way that I sometimes feel at Gulf Wars. I wonder if the local SCAdians feel the same way, though, as I was a guest and naturally wouldn’t be a primary worker for Pennsic. I’d also love to know more about the profit share between the principle kingdoms though, as volunteer hours has been a primary way of divvying up the profits for many years at Gulf Wars.
Rumor has it that less than half of the attendees of Pennsic are SCA members. I find this a bit shocking actually, especially since the discount for Pennsic alone pays for more than half of an annual SCA membership. If you attend 3-4 more events, your membership has paid for itself. Of course, there are the Tuchuks. They are easily identified both on and off the field, and the few interactions I had with them were good. I asked a few questions (not about their group, but about combat hacks) and got enthusiastic answers. A Chieftain who came through Combat Archery inspection point was a huge flirt, but no more so than some SCA Knights (and sometimes even less so, bc he never crossed the line from flirting to lewd). I even invited a Tuchuk combat archer back to Gulf Wars during the after battle inspections, since she had had a bad travel experience during Gulfnado.** As for the fantasy attendees, I only saw one woman in fairy wings and passed one guy in horns. This isn’t outside the norm for Gulf Wars either, though. There are some more fringe players wear more fantasy based items and have been increasingly themed parties in the last few years (Super Hero parties are a current trend). What Pennsic does have is a metric shit ton of Pirates. I’ve actually had conversations in the recent past where folks have bemoaned the lack of corsets and dancers as the SCA moves closer to historical accuracy. Pennsic is your place to get this nostalgia fix! Naked fire dancers and corsets galore.
When you boil down both Wars the differences come from culture. Pennsic is a true competition, and the points are tallied and announced and *recorded* year after year. This leads to less of a communal feel in some ways, and the evening activities reflect this in a way. There are really only parties in the group camps, and many are open and hospitable, but only on the days that they are open for hosting. This has lead to some amazing things done for encampments though, especially since there are no permanent structures on site. Each encampment puts on its best face, both SCAdian and other, and lends to a magical campground overall. House Bardicci is one such place (srsly – google “House Bardicci Pennsic” – you will not be disappointed; so many more amazing photos than mine) and the Hoity Toity party was one of my most magical moments of war. I love that being retinue allowed me entrance, but I love even more that had I not had a connection, an offering of food, drink or entertainment would have served as entry.
Gulf Wars is “A War with No Enemies.” The war points are awarded, but never counted, and each year the war is declared a tie. There are multiple communal areas for socializing, including a permanent medieval inn, The Green Dragon. There is a communal party at the fort on Friday as well as the principle kingdoms socials. There are definitely some smaller camp parties, but outside of a few large ones (Shadow Legion and Nova’s block party) they are typically themed for niche participates. From an outsiders point of view, many of the camps bleed together, and there is no way to tell where to go for things outside of the big published activities, as many activities are done on unwritten custom. There are no formal communication structures to call out items of importance each day so you tend to plan your schedule based on the advanced published schedule instead of daily, like many do at Pennsic. Gulf Wars has a family feel though, so there are more folks volunteering to help those who need it, and most everyone is willing to answer questions that anyone asks. Be careful though – many will answer more than you asked and talk your ear off!
In the end, I absolutely had a fantastic time. The cost was a bit uncomfortable for a week, but the services were worth the value. I don’t have the vacation time to attend Pennsic every year, but it was a nice reprieve on a year that I couldn’t travel internationally due to budget constraints (Pennsic was still cheaper than going abroad!). I could see this becoming part of the occasional out of kingdom big war, for sure.
*Classes did take place outside of the PennU block, but it seems like they were less than 30% of the available classes.
**Gulf Wars 25 was shut down on Fri afternoon due to destruction from straight line winds that passed through on Thurs evening.