Monday, 6 June 2016

UKGE 2016

Elaine and I attended our second UKGE event at Birmingham NEC, and this time were accompanied by Val and Chris. Whereas last year the event was held in a warren of rooms within the Hilton hotel, this time the organisers held the main event in Hall 1 of the NEC complex. Generally I think this was a good decision; all the traders and game designers were together, there was more room for the punters, finding stands was clearer and admission easier. On the negative side; the venue is ‘soulless’ (a bit like the Salute wargame show at Excel), and popping back to your hotel room with purchases is not viable. Like last year, visiting on the Friday is great because the crowds are not overwhelming and sitting down to play games is a smooth process. On Saturday the crowds come in and moving around is slow, arduous and getting shoved about is to be expected. I was surprised the organisers did not utilise the full floor space of the hall and there was a large open, unused area near the Bring & Buy. I think they could have spread the trade stands out, allowing better movement (especially on the Saturday), or alternatively significantly increased the Bring & Buy section which always suffers from cramped access. In the evening the gaming activity returns to the Hilton hotel complex, with a number of large rooms set up for open gaming and competitions, but no trade stands. This worked well and I think the organisers need to increase the number of gaming tables available further. I like the long bench type of set up, rather than standard tables, because it encourages different gamers to interact and not just focus on the game they are playing.
We spent all Friday afternoon wandering around looking at various trade stands, and interspersed this with sit downs to play a game or two hired from Thirsty Meeples (who again performed magnificently). Elaine wanted to go to the Ragnar Brothers stand to purchase a copy of the ‘Barking Up the Wrong Tree’ game that we played as a kickstarter last year. Whilst there she also purchased ‘Blooming Gardens’, a horticultural themed game which we played for the first time latter in the day. The aim of the game is to create a garden of various flowers which bloomed over successive months with as many ‘valuable’ species as possible. The theme was great and the cards beautiful. The game played quickly (~30 minutes) and was fun. The strategic aspect of choosing the ‘right’ species was good and playing slugs on opponents flower beds worked. I can see us using this game as a filler game in the future.

As Val, Chris and myself are scientists, we were naturally drawn to trying a kickstarter called ‘Lab Wars’. The theme obviously worked for us and all the equipment required to establish a lab was familiar. The interactions between the lab operatives was also humorous with the post-doc hindering the PI, or the grad student causing mayhem etc. The mechanics of the game felt clunky, the iconography was not clear, and I certainly felt puzzled about what I was actually doing even though the goals (published papers, books and Noble prize) were clear. I think this game requires a lot more work and thought before it is published.

Whilst Val and Chris tried a game involving hamburger production, Elaine and I had a quick game of giant size, wooden ‘Quatro’. This is a simple 4-in-a-row style game with multiple winning type of pieces (light/dark; small/large; hollow/solid; round/square), and the added twist in that your opponent picks the piece that you have to place. We both enjoyed the game and latter bought a travel set from the Bring & Buy stall.

In the evening the four of us sat down to play a couple of games hired from Thirsty Meeples. We started with ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ which is essentially a bluffing game. Players take turns as the  ‘Sheriff’ whilst the others attempt to smuggle valuable contraband goods into the market. Bribes and counter-offers can be freely made, and a ‘poker-face’ is a definite advantage. If the ‘Sheriff’ successfully intercepts contraband goods then he makes money, but if he incorrectly challenges and fails then he loses money. After a couple of rounds the players tally up the goods on their market stall; those with the most for each food category gain bonus points (money), and contraband goods score most money. Surprisingly, I won! Overall, an enjoyable game. It was unusual because I cannot think of any other strong bluffing game in any of our games collections. I suspect that this might be a game my niece, Erin, would enjoy and be good at.

Next we played ‘Chinatown’ (which I think is now out of print). Your role is that of a merchant trying to get adjacent plots within Chinatown and establish businesses of the required size on those plots. Players have a free hand to make deals with others over plots, business chits, money etc., and haggling is fierce! The game was great fun (in fact, I believe it was the best we played during our two days at the show) and Elaine was the eventual winner – a shrewd negotiator! I would love to buy a copy (none to be found on the Bring & Buy stall). I suspect the theme of the game has been taken up and developed by the more recently released ‘Lords of Vegas’ game. I plan to investigate further and may purchase a copy in the future if this is the case.

On the Saturday we re-visited the main trade hall and the crowds were now beginning to come in which made browsing difficult. Therefore we decided to just to sit and play more games. We trialled a game called ‘Carrotia’ with beefed-up rabbits attempting to steal carrots from maze whilst being chased by birds. This game, although fast, did not appeal to any of us. The mechanics were weak, the theme weird, and the art and production values poor.
We next played ‘Machi Koro’; where players are trying to build a town using cards, which they buy and then use dice to activate those cards. Some cards gain you bonuses on other player turns. The player to complete three landmark buildings, wins. This was a surprisingly good game! We all picked the rules up quickly and appreciated what we were doing. Keeping track of your cards was the key, especially as some could be devastating – I particularly liked the tax office, which worked well for me. We all approached the winning line together and Val pipped me to the post for victory. I think this game is on my shopping list for the future. Finally, we ended the show by playing ‘Black Gold’, themed around oil prospecting in the USA. The game took a while to set up and to understand the rules. By the second or third turn we started to understand what we were doing, but time was passing so we abandoned the game halfway through. This is not a reflection of the game itself but rather the fact we were about done with the show.

To conclude, UKGE2016 was an excellent event. All the traders were keen to demonstrate their wares and games. Other gamers were friendly and communicative, happily giving their comments and views concerning the games they were playing. Elaine and I will certainly attend next year.

Finally, on the Sunday Elaine and I played one of the games purchased at the Bring & Buy stand i.e.  ‘Carcassonne, the Castle’ – a specifically designed, stand alone, two player version of Carcassonne.
In many respects the meeples in the game act similar to the normal base game, but the tiles are placed within a constraining castle wall. Also on the castle wall is the scoring track and a number of bonus chits which players can collect and which allow different end-game scoring bonuses. There is more flexibility when placing tiles and the only restrictions are the paths which cannot be blocked or interrupted. From previous posts you will know that I love Carcassonne as a base game and enjoy most of the expansions, but it really is a multi-player game. ‘The Castle’ is brilliant as a two-player game and some of the design features work better than in the original e.g. the ‘farmer’ meeple and the market stalls. I also really like the bonus chits which force the players to consider their scoring options: do you want to score high but miss the chit, or take a low score and collect the chit? So, this is a game I’m really pleased to have bought and I totally recommend it to anyone who likes tile laying games.

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