On Friday 29th May my wife and I attended the UK Games Expo at the NEC Hilton Metropole. This was the first boardgame convention either of us visited and it proved to be an enjoyable experience. The Expo was a 3-day event and hosted a wide range of gaming competitions, as well as the trade stands you would expect. The venue was not brilliant; good because you stayed on-site but the Expo was spread over a warren of rooms and difficult to navigate around. In terms of size, I think it compares to the Colours wargame show rather than the mega Salute show.
We initially focussed on the trade rooms. The main traders all seemed to have the same range of games for sale, which was disappointing, and therefore we tended to gravitate around the smaller traders who were promoting unique products and new games. Elaine was most impressed by a games storage box stand (www.basicallywooden.co.uk) and I think friends may receive some of these products as presents in the next year. Compared to a wargame show there was more focus on demonstration games and I think it is vital to participate in these games to get the most from the show. The participation games cover all types from ‘classic’, established games to newly published products. The beauty of these participations is that they do not consume a large amount of time; you can play a couple of rounds in 30 minutes and then move on. In comparison, at wargame shows I tend to avoid participations because they take too long and try to cover too many things. You really simply just want to get a feel for the period, rules, game flow etc. Resolving a battle or game scenario is not the important factor.
My wife, Elaine, was the first to play a new game. She was drawn into a 3 player game of ‘Sopio’ (www.sopiocards.com) , so whilst she was occupied I browsed trade stands for 30 minutes before returning. I made my first purchase; ‘Kingsburg’, which is game I have long desired. Meanwhile, Elaine was most impressed by ‘Sopio’ and bought a couple of card decks, which demonstrates the power of organising a good participation session. I have yet to play the game so cannot comment on it, but I’m sure we will play it at our next gaming session. We next moved on and played a few games of Crokinole. This game has always attracted me but I have never bought the game because a decent board is often priced in three figures! The stand we played at (www.smallcube.be) was selling good quality boards for only £65; I was tempted but resisted. Maybe I will order a board online. I think Elaine also enjoyed the game; there is a high degree of skill in flicking the counters, and it is most frustrating to repeatedly miss ‘easy’ shots!
The next game I tried was based around Cornish smuggling. The theme was good but I was not hooked by the mechanics; it felt a bit disjointed with too much going on. Finally we both played a new kickstarter game; ‘Barking up the Wrong Tree’ (www.ragnarbrothers.co.uk). This is a fun game where different breeds of dogs claim ‘possession’ of different tree species (presumably by scent marking). A simple game with attractive graphics, and all hell breaks loose if you opt to put a cat in a tree! We played a number of rounds and really enjoyed it; Elaine is even thinking of backing the game. We continued to explore the trade stands and one of the more memorable games was a balancing game using credit cards, which I wish we had bought. There was a small wargaming contingent of traders mainly selling terrain and FoW products (I think there was a FoW competition at the Expo), plus a few niche, fantasy figure manufacturers whose names I cannot remember.
By now we were knackered, so we decided to finish the afternoon by visiting the Bring & Buy room. Here I think wargame shows could learn a lot. It was well organised and the punters moved through smoothly with little elbowing. I suppose it helps that most games are in square boxes and can be stacked easily on shelves, which reduced the space requirement. Best was the fact that all items had a printed ticket with a clear price and bar-code stuck to them. You simply picked what you wanted, had them scanned at the exit and paid up. Unlike a wargame show Bring & Buy, there was very little ‘junk’, but as a result there were fewer bargains with most larger games selling for only £5-£10 less than retail. In fact I saw a second-hand copy of ‘Kingsburg’ priced at £5 less than I had paid for my new copy (sod’s law!). We did buy a copy of the ‘Ticket to Ride 1912 Europa’ expansion. Our afternoon was finished after 4 hours of browsing. We returned to our room with the booty, and then got some dinner.
After dinner we went to the open-gaming hall. Here were over 500 tables set up and games could be rented from Thirsty Meeples for a small deposit. Finding a spare table was difficult, which I suppose shows that there must have been over a thousand gamers all busy playing almost every game you could imagine. I rented a copy of ‘Sewer Pirats’, a game I recently bought for a bargain price (£8). I had previously read the rules but I had yet to play. Elaine and I sat down and played two enjoyable games, with honours even. At this point I will comment on the boardgame delegates at the Expo. The mix is similar to that found at a wargame show, certainly there are more women (which is great) and the age profile is younger (less grey beards). Wearing T-shirts with heavy metal/fantasy/gothic logos is almost mandatory. I found the level of obesity disturbing (and I’m not talking about just being a bit chubby); sitting around playing boardgames is clearly not good for the waistline, and I think boardgamers need to get out more! Wargamers suffer a similar problem but nowhere near the same degree! On the positive side, I found the delegates to be much more friendly compared to wargamers. When you are sitting playing a game, people will come and talk to you, ask about the game, and ask to sit and watch a round or two! They will comment and offer advice about other games which may be of interest or have a similar mechanic. If you stop to observe a game the players will engage with you, but not in the intense way many wargamers often employ, and ask you to join in the next game if you want, but not in a ‘pushy’ way. All-in-all we had a very enjoyable evening, which was helped by consuming a decent quantity of beer.
The UK Games Expo is a 3-day event but we only attended the first day because we had other plans for the Saturday, which included getting home in time for the FA Cup final (I’m a passionate Arsenal fan). I think the Saturday and Sunday sessions are more crowded and this was certainly reflected by the car parking, which was filling up fast when we departed in the morning. We both really enjoyed the event and plan to return next year, when the organisers will expand into a proper NEC hall. I think for us this will remain a single day excursion rather than a multiday experience because we are not into competitive gaming.