Con report: UK Games Expo 2016

UK Games Expo logo 2016UK Games Expo, as always, grew this year. Its 10th annual event welcomed more than 12,000 unique visitors over the weekend, with a total attendance of more than 25,000 gamers in all.

It was also the first time it had used the actual NEC space, splitting the vendors (shops, publishers and more) from the majority of the gaming space (which was still over at the NEC Hilton hotel). A risk, for sure, but a necessary one with the growing numbers. So how did the weekend pan out?

Overall, from what I saw and the opinions I gathered, it was an overwhelming success. While Saturday was clearly the busiest day with more than 10,000 attendees, Friday saw close to 7,000 and Sunday more than 7,700 – a fantastic showing. The NEC retail area always seemed at least busy (if rarely packed – which was a good thing) and the open gaming areas were always rammed (if anything, more space would’ve been good to spread the inevitable gamer fug…).

Some weren’t keen on the separation of gaming and game buying, but none I spoke to could suggest a workable compromise (answer in comments if you have one – I’m sure the committee would like to hear it!). And while some feared the ‘Essenisation’ this split seems to suggest long-term, the fact three large hotels are within a very short walk of the NEC – and three more are within 15 minutes by foot – would suggest proximity will never be as much of an issue as it is in Germany (not that I mind it there, personally).

UK Games Expo: Five real winners

Guilds of LondonI’m not going to talk about the Awards they ran; their public voted nonsense, much as you get at some other conventions. Instead I’m going to mention a few of the obvious winners from the weekend in terms of buzz:

  • Guilds of London: Tony Boydell’s ‘new’ game certainly (and deservedly) won this year’s buzz award. Tasty Minstrel Games got 200 copies to the show, leading to people running straight to the stand when the doors opened. They sold out comfortably, with the game hitting number two on the Board Game Geek ‘hotness’ list over the weekend.
  • Pegasus: Last year German publisher Pegasus Spiel dipped its toe in the water with a small table; this year it probably had the largest publisher space of them all – and it worked. They sold out of the SdJ recommended Animals on Board and children’s game Yeti, with its area full throughout. Speaking to them during the event it was clear UK Games Expo is now firmly on the event calendar.
  • Codenames: Another game you couldn’t escape was the brilliant SdJ nominee (and my tip for the win), Codenames. Czech Games Edition (CGE) has also been a supporter of the Expo and again used the event to highlight upcoming Essen releases – including the upcoming picture version of Codenames. The prototype cards certainly lit social media alight, so a great feather in Expo’s cap.
  • Brain Games: But it’s not all about the big publishers. Brain Games used Expo to introduce its fun new penguin flicking game, Ice Cool, to the world – as well as pushing filler card game Game of Trains – and both were big hits. I saw Ice Cool being played everywhere, and personally I fell in love with both games. Reviews of both will follow in the next month or so.
  • Imhotep: The announcement of the SdJ winners just a few weeks prior to Expo is clearly working wonders, because Imhotep (another nominee) also sold out for Kosmos – who it was also great to see having a stand at Expo. It was great to get to play it and although I wasn’t a fan I’m clearly in the minority as the demo tables were full throughout; until they ran out of copies!

ice cool

But there were plenty more. Mayfair Games seems to continue to do well from its headline sponsorship of the event, alongside Queen, Haba, Mage Company and the rest.

But the general public also did well on sales, as well as spend. Queues for the bring and buy area went around the block all weekend and everyone I spoke to had managed to sell most of what they’d brought – or had arranged successful trades via Board Game Geek.

My Expo gaming highlights

CrisisI doubt there were many people who played less games than me over the weekend – which is pretty pathetic when you think I arrived a day early and left a day late. But Expo for me is about wearing three hats: punter, designer and journalist.

That means I spend more time walking and talking (and drinking) than I do playing, but that doesn’t bother me at all – it’s a privilege to meet some of the industry’s real heavyweights at this kind of event, so why play games when I can really learn something? I can game all year around: I can only meet publishers and designers a few times a year.

  • Crisis: It’s always nice to get a test of an upcoming game and this new title from LudiCreations was right in my wheel house: good theme (a sci-fi take on the current Greek economic situation); worker placement and engine building; tight and competitive and with an interesting twist on old mechanisms. It also looks gorgeous, while using the ‘series of actions, all at the end of the turn’ mechanism used by Caylus (but not that many other games).
  • Ice Cool: When it comes to overused themes, flicking penguins is on pretty safe ground. This ingenious designs sees you build a penguin school (stay with me…) out of the game box – and a bunch more boxes that slide inside it. You then flick your penguin (not a euphemism) through doors in these boxes to score points – while one of you is instead trying to hit the other penguins. It’s a lot more fun than I’m making it sound – and you can learn some cool trick shots after a few plays.
  • Ominoes: The new offering from Yay Games looks and sounds way too simple to be any good – but is a hell of a lot of fun. On your turn you simply roll one dice, move one dice and then place the dice you rolled. Yes, there’s plenty of luck involved; but the game takes 15 minutes and gets all kinds of table talk and laughter going from the start. And you can teach it to anyone – so what’s not to like?
  • Game of Trains: This is another from Brain Games, but is a little less original on the theme front – although in its defence, the theme is totally meaningless and pasted on. This is a purely abstract filler card game, but the train ‘theme’ does at least result in beautiful artwork – and the gameplay is super smart. Easy to teach, but fiendishly clever with a definite second level of complexity emerging after a few plays.

Expect longer posts on each of these games in the coming weeks – I’ll link them from here once they go live.

Final thoughts

OminoesOf course it wasn’t 100% positive. The Hilton will always be an odd maze of a hotel with ridiculous bar prices: £5.70 for a ropey pint of Guinness, in case there is anyone I haven’t moaned to about that yet…

The press event was a bit of a shambles (trying to tell people they couldn’t leave after they’d gone in due to ‘security reasons’ (read: lack of planning); and there were a few truly dreadful games masquerading as finished products.

But these were small things in an overwhelmingly excellent event. It’s not easy to keep changing an event year-on-year, persistently having to grow and morph while trying to deal with suggestions and complaints. The organisers of the UK Games Expo should be applauded – as should their seemingly terminally patient staff who worked tirelessly throughout the weekend to keep things running smoothly.

And then there’s all the things that aren’t really for me: the really well attended tournaments (more than 400 people entered the X-Wing tournament – the biggest ever), some brilliant cosplay (and some awesome remote control daleks), a host of seminars, panels and workshops with some top names in the industry.

The dates for next year are June 2-4, so you’ve got no excuse not to go if you book it in now – see you there!

2 thoughts on “Con report: UK Games Expo 2016

  1. Apart from my own stuff, I only played:
    – Andrew Dennison’s redesign contest entry
    – A prototype from Marta, winner of last year’s redesign competition
    – Lonely Bears – small-run printed game on a stand near us
    – 4 Elements, hand-crafted flicking game on a stand near us

    (all after-hours of course)

    Speaking of the redesign contest, it’s a shame that it’s suffered abuse and – speaking to Alan Paull – there’s no way for it to really be repeated at this point. It was a great thing while it lasted.

    I’d definitely prefer NEC to host everything, including the open gaming and tournaments. But that’s just not logistically/financially viable, sadly.

    As you say, the Hilton is very close but it is running out of space.

  2. UKGE has become one of my favorite conventions (right up there with my US favorite Tennessee Game Days in Nashville, Tennessee).

    Highlights for me were hanging out with the Cambridge design crew (especially my boys, Chris and Trevor), being introduced to some awesome games (Ice Cool, Game of Trains, and Ominoes especially), and just meeting up with some of my favorite publishers.

    Also, HUGE thanks as always to the UK playtest crew. They do amazing work.

    As an aside, what’s the drama with the redesign contest? I’m only vaguely familiar with it, but I’ve heard a couple of times that it had a tough time.

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