My debut visit to the UK Games Expo was a bittersweet occasion – a band-aid to ease the irritation of not being able to visit GenCon 2015. This year my attendance was much more celebratory. Since I am attending GenCon, and returning to Nine Worlds as well, the UKGE marks the start of my convention season, which I’ve been looking forward to all year!
The really exciting thing about the UKGE specifically is being on the frontline of something exploding in popularity. 2016 was the first time the event spread beyond the NEC Hilton Hotel, and into the NEC itself – a godsend to those fearing the massive crowds swarming the sales rooms that were otherwise unavoidable last year. If anything, I’d expect even more of the NEC to be booked out next year. The convention’s own post-action press statement estimates 12500 unique attendees (up 40% from last year), and that it now ranks as the third or fourth biggest “hobby gaming” convention in the world. Given the impenetrability of the term “hobby gaming”, I couldn’t even hazard a guess what first and second (and third?) conventions are.
I wasn’t able to attend the con on Friday, but unlike last year, I booked a hotel room on Friday night so I could get started with Saturday gaming as early as possible. Special mention must go to the Britannia Hotel Birmingham, the place I stayed, which is undoubtedly the worst hotel I have ever booked in my life. Thin walls, rowdy neighbours, dingy lighting, torn wallpaper, damp and chewing-gum-imprinted furniture all made for a normal, mundane, terrible experience – but the creepy painting opposite the bed, of a woman with undead-green skin and cold black eyes watching us sleep, elevated the horror to a supernatural level. We tried taking down the painting, but it was screwed into the wall. So we tried hanging a shirt over it, which was MUCH WORSE, because I was terrified the shirt would fall off and the painting underneath would have moved. I’m so glad I got to stay in this room, because now I can tell stories about it for the rest of my life.
The reflection in the picture is me taking the photo, or possibly the Trapped Spirits of the Damned. Either/or.
Thankfully the actual convention was much more fun, and much less haunted by petrifying horror…
- Since I was training in, the sales hall in the NEC was the first stop between me and the rest of the convention, so I decided to plunge into there first. This was very crowded, but probably less so than last year, when the retailers were crammed into four small rooms in the hotel. It was, however, very noisy, especially when the loudspeaker started up, which was as booming as it was indecipherable. As I made my way round I bumped into a couple of acquaintances, which was nice, and had a chance to try out Ice Cool, a cute little flicky-game with penguins on round bobbly bottoms. I also picked up Downfall from the nice folks at Leisure Games for a decent price (justifying my decision not to back the Kickstarter and get stuck with a squinty PDF version or ruinous shipping charges), and grabbed the Horse Lords of Rohan expansion from Cubicle 7 for The One Ring. It has rules for SEVEN types of horses!
- A trip to the Thirsty Meeples board game library, nestled in the middle of the sales room chaos, turned up a copy of Samurai Spirit to play. In our first game, we lost absolutely horribly. I left my friends puzzling over a much more contemplative rematch whilst I headed over to the seminar room…
- …or rather, not a room, but a sectioned-off space in the same retailer section, with the noise as poorly dampened as you’d expect. Thankfully the electronic sound system made hearing the speakers possible, but the Q&As, with an inaudible audience, were pretty painful. As for the seminars themselves, the first one, regarding the implementation of game mechanics to illustrate theme, was terrible: five old white guys telling a series of bizarrely boring anecdotes, with only the loosest connection to the supposed subject of theme. I walked out twenty minutes in. Thankfully I came back for the following seminar on incorporating video-game-like components into tabletop gaming, hosted by the inimitable Dr Reiner Knizer. Wearing a black suit, black shirt and Rubix cube bow tie, the good doctor said he’d show us magic and then delivered on that promise, with a side order of commercial insight and humour. From what I’ve seen, I’d say the electronification of board games is only just beginning.
- Joining a queue stretching halfway through the hotel, I finally got into the Shut Up and Sit Down live podcast – the second time I’ve had the pleasure, after GenCon two years ago. After laughing through their reviews of the Spiel de Jahres nominees that weren’t Codenames (summary: they preferred Codenames), we partook in a live review of the crowd game “Cat On Yer Head”, which was good, silly, nonsense. I gave it a thumbs up.
- After dinner somewhere a little quieter, I borrowed Escape: The Curse of the Temple from the board games library, now relocated to the Hilton after the NEC’s closure. Because of the noise, I had to listen to the game-integral app using headphones, which was not ideal but functional enough. Mostly I’m delighted that it granted me an opportunity to use this, which I’d heartily recommend to anyone who wants to make their games of Escape about ten times funnier.
- And finally, a late-night return to the best thing about last year’s convention: You Awake To Find Yourself In A Dark Room, John Robertson’s hilarious, live comedy, audience-participation, 80s-text-based-adventure-game send-up. Still solid gold, but this time even sweeter, for being able to introduce it to friends.
I also survived a blurry encounter with the Fighting Uruk-Hai.
After a brief sleep at Bates Motel, I was up bright and early to do the one thing I completely failed to do last year: play in an RPG.
- I’ve played Atlas Reckoning before, but I was delighted to have the chance to play it again (I’d like to link to it, but I think it’s currently in closed beta). Six players, a somewhat challenging rule set, and the tight time-frame of a convention slot made getting into the game’s mechanics a little tricky, but by the end we’d weaved ourselves a splendid little narrative to go with our tactical combat prowess. Just the mechy goodness I needed to psych me up for my first campaign session of CAMELOT Trigger!
- With the RPG finishing at 2, I had a couple of hours to do a quick last run round the convention hall, before dropping into a demo game of Mysterium. I know this game well and love it dearly; hopefully the friends I played with will be sufficiently hooked to play lots of games with me back home.
- After the hall closed at 4, I didn’t really have anything to do… I remembered that last time I’d regretted leaving just before the last RPG stopped, but I didn’t twig that I would need to actually join an RPG in that slot if I wanted to make that time worthwhile. And since the board games library closed with the retailers, and many of my friends had gone home, I was pretty much just chilling and waiting for my train to take me home. Not a bad way to wind down from a con I guess, though an earlier train would have meant an earlier night, which would have been the best rest of all.
Will I go next year? Yes, definitely. Maybe for all three days if I can swing it: I’d have liked to both roleplay more and get more time in the board games library, plus some of the events on Friday were a real shame to miss. Mostly I feel honour-bound to try my hand at GM’ing something. The convention needs more GMs, and the only reason I haven’t volunteered already is because I already don’t have time for all the things I want to do. To make it work, all I have to do is sacrifice some boring real-world time and replace it with roleplay geeking. Which sounds like a win-win!