Con report: Tableltop Gaming Live 2018 (plus KeyForge preview)

I spent last Saturday at London’s wonderful Alexandra Palace courtesy of Tabletop Gaming, London’s first proper board, miniatures and role-playing game convention. I had no expectations going in, but did it meet them…?

I can only speak about the Saturday, but the event seemed pretty poorly attended. That said, there was a steady stream of people and the vendors I spoke to (publisher, distributor and retailer) were pleasantly surprised at the level of footfall: they generally said it was never busy, but those attending were enthusiastic – the demo table were always full as I walked around, which was really encouraging to see.

this was, of course, a first run for the con – and hopefully they will have learned plenty from it (I was unreliably tipped off that they fully intend to run it again next year). Because in a lot of ways the reason the event ran so smoothly was because of the low numbers attending. If it had been heaving, this could have been a very different report – more on which below. And remember – I’m only taking from a board gaming perspective; I have no idea how things went for the minis/RPG guys.

What Tabletop Gaming Live got right

With its place in the calendar less than a month before the world’s most important board game show, Essen Spiel, it was important the show made something of its closeness to so many new releases.

Some of the better planned releases are already hitting the market so were on sale, but there were also demo copies of titles including The River, Coimbra, Kingdomino: Age of Giants Forbidden Sky, KeyForge (more on which below) and many more. As mentioned above, the tables for these were always busy and retailers were doing good business.

The open gaming and tournament areas were really big, which was great to see. I think they’d have coped if there had been five times as many people attending, and it’s nice to see another convention that understands that – more than retail therapy – gamers want to game. There was a good bar which was a bit of an annoying walk away, but served great beer (in plastic beakers, and overpriced, but hey – it’s a convention).

Another important factor is friendliness and once again, Tabletop Gaming Live came up trumps. Everyone I spoke to or asked questions of was friendly, from people selling the tickets to the security teams. All in all it was a smooth, enjoyable day of gaming. It’s just a shame that so many people I spoke to in the hobby, or on the fringes of it, had absolutely no idea it was going on.

…and what can be improved in 2019

While there was lots of open gaming space, the game library was pretty much non-existent: it consisted of a weird couple of tables being run (if that’s the right word) on a trust basis – there were maybe 30 games. London has several board game cafes and I’d be amazed if one of them wouldn’t have been happy to step up to the plate and run this.

There seemed to be loads of people attending with young kids, yet there was very little provision for families. Sure, some of the distributors (especially Coiledspring) had children’s games set up but there wasn’t a dedicated family area – something this kind of convention is crying out for, and that the UK Games Expo in Birmingham has done so well in the past few years. It’s the life blood and future of the hobby, after all.

Also, while it was great to see some new titles, there should’ve been a lot more copies available. And while there were some good publishers there, most had small booths with very little space. Having seen the stall rates – and compared them to UK Games Expo – it was clearly a little bit pricey for an experimental con. Surely you should reward early adopters? I’d have loved to have seem small publishers with enough space to have demo tables up for their games on their booths, but those who weren’t priced out of attending at all had very stripped-back setups.

Finally, they only got away with plopping the seminar area into the main open gaming area because (again) of the low numbers. It’s not as if Ally Pally hasn’t got smaller side rooms (I wandered into several by accident as I was exploring), so I can only presume they’ll utilise one of those in future. And despite the low attendance, at lunchtime the food queues were pretty miserable – I dare to think what they would’ve been like if more people had shown up. So lots to be learned, but that’s as to be expected – and overall it was a very positive experience.

Mini review: KeyForge – Call of the Archons

One of the hot new titles I got to try out was KeyForge, the upcoming release from Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield and publisher Fantasy Flight Games.

While not a kind of game I gravitate towards (two player fantasy battle card games), I was fascinated by the design principals at work here so was eager to find out more.

Essentially you’re in the same rough ballpark as Magic: play creature and various effect cards from your hand to try and defeat your opponent. However, there’s no mana: instead you choose to activate one of your three factions (there are seven in total, but only three in each player’s card deck), then play any card of that type from your hand and/or activate any you already have in front of you.

But more importantly this is not a TCG or a CCG – this is a ‘unique deck game’. The game’s core card set has around 350 different cards across the seven factions, and each deck you buy will have 12 cards from three of those factions for a total of 36 (plus a character card). Some of these may be duplicates, so you may not see 36 unique cards, but the key is that every deck you buy is a unique combination of those cards. Your character card will have a unique name and image, created from a huge combination of elements, which will also be printed on every card in your deck. So, of anything, this is actually anti CCG. Your deck is what it is.

All the cards feel powerful, which is satisfying. Each feels strong in its own way, and you’re constantly being surprised by what you see being played against you.

Sure, this will wear thin after you’ve played versus same deck a few times, but when they retail at ¬£10, it’s still going to be a way smaller investment than a game such as Magic. And it brings things back to player skill rather than who could afford to buy/copy the best deck.

Or does it? Despite fancy algorithms, some decks are simply going to be better suited to beat others. While this novelty will play well with people who enjoy larger gaming groups, tournaments and the like, it may struggle to find traction with those who prefer to play in a small, low spending group or a single friend or partner. And while the cards are many are varied, this is mechanically a very simple combat game: and if we know Garfield, and FFG, that 350-card set won’t stay that small for long.

But this is a fascinating development in game creation. Designers have long been using computer simulations to help test outliers by recreating hundreds or thousands of test games, but this takes things to the next level: algorithms creating reasonably balanced decks from a dizzying array of options. There’s meant to be another on the way more reminiscent of a euro game: some kind of hybrid between Friese’s 504 and a legacy game. Whether this will be an evolutionary step, or a hideous beast best left in a test tube, is anyone’s guess – but I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

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