Last week I attended my first UK Games Expo in Birmingham. Having been spoilt by Essen over the years I’d never considered this a ‘must see’ convention, as it’s a 10th of the size, but this year I made the time to make it happen.
And – spoiler alert – I’m thoroughly glad I did. I had a fantastic time throughout, didn’t get to do half what I should have, but came home with a host of new games, new friends and great memories.
First, the boring (but significant) stuff: The organisers estimated they had 7,000 unique attendees (up 20 per cent on 2014) over the three days, with a total footfall attendance of 14,000 (up 40 per cent, but it was a day longer than last year) – impressive numbers by any standards. And the event is growing too, with 1,000 tables setup in the NEC Hilton for the weekend – that’s a lot of gaming!
As a holidaymaker
However good the Expo itself was, you can’t get away from the fact it’s in one of the blandest, most soulless locations in the UK.
The NEC complex is a built-for-purpose money-grabbing warehouse-come-car park and the hotel I ended up in – The Crowne Plaza – was more of the same. Comfy but sterile, unfriendly and overpriced (£14 for breakfast you say? What if I just want cereal…?).
The Expo itself was held at the NEC Hilton which, while in the same price bracket, does at least have some personality. But what was truly remarkable was how open they were to the event. Throughout the weekend every available table, windowsill and corner had a game being played in it – often accompanied by greasy slabs of cardboard bought from the (really rather good) food trucks outside the hotel. But the staff were polite and patient in the face of what must have felt like some kind of natural disaster aftermath.
As a publisher
With my blogger’s hat on I spoke to representatives from a lot of publishers and retailers over the weekend, from main sponsors Mayfair to one-man-bands with a 10-ft table and one game to sell – and in all honesty I didn’t hear a single dissenting voice.
Of course there were minor quibbles – press events ending just as the main doors opened; the doors opening 30 minutes earlier than expected on one day; some rather unfortunate placements between inappropriate stands etc. But these were always brought up in the context of having a great show overall.
And this year’s publisher list was notably impressive. While many didn’t have their key staff on show, or large stands, you can’t argue with a line up that includes Fantasy Flight, Days of Wonder, Mayfair, Asmodee, Pegasus, Czech Games Edition and Queen Games – alongside the likes of Esdevium and Coiled Spring.
As a gamer
The Expo had set aside tonnes of open gaming space as well as nine board game tournaments, including the official UK championships for Catan, Carcassonne and Mage Wars (plus CCG Yu-Gi-Oh).
While at times near capacity, and tricky to find a large table at times, overall the system worked well.
The Thirsty Meeples game cafe ran the games library and all agreed it was a vast improvement on previous years – although at peak times the selection grew pretty thin. Oddly an insider told me Thirsty Meeples had wanted to bring more games but had been limited to 500, so hopefully next year’s selection will be even better.
People in general were friendly, making for a nice atmosphere. I shared a lot of silly conversations with those gaming on adjacent tables, and chats with people wondering what game I was playing. But it was hot and noisy and I wouldn’t want to play a long thinky game there. Highlights for me included Welcome to the Dungeon, Smash Up, The Game, Hawaii and Red7. I even managed to hold my tongue when a couple of ladies next to us were saying how ‘brilliant’ the Firefly board game was…
As an explorer
I’m afraid this is where my coverage takes a nosedive, as I spent precisely zero time getting out of my comfort zone. I’m going to make a solemn promise that next year I’ll do at least a few sessions of miniatures, war games or role playing games.
Despite my adsence there was a lot of it going on and I heard some fun stories while chilling in the bar, overhearing other tables’ conversations. I know the Cardboard Console podcast guys got their feet wet in the RPG pool a few times, so listen out for their exploits in future episodes.
There were some great cosplay outfits on show too – shame on me for not getting any pics, but I’m sure there will be loads at the Expo site (linked above).
My favourite was definitely a Jawa – mostly because they had a speaker with all the cute sound effects that take me back to being seven years old. Wootini ftw! And there were some impressive remote control Daleks – that voice is still pretty menacing…
As a tester
The Playtest UK area was a definite highlight for me, being filled to capacity pretty much all day Saturday and Sunday with about 15 unpublished games running at a time. I got a few hours of testing in on Saturday afternoon, then helped out as a volunteer for the last few hours of the day.
What I didn’t expect was to have people turning up saying they’d actually sought us out and wanted to ‘help’ – alongside people who would test one game, then come back to us a little while later and ask to test a different one. Rather than trying to reach out to passing traffic to try and get them involved, we were more often telling people they’d have to wait a few minutes for a slot to appear.
It’s hard to know if people realised that many of those testing games there over the weekend were published designers – the UK Expo award winner for Strategic Card and Dice Games this year was Elysium, whose designers spent almost the whole weekend helping organise r testing their games in the area.
Raise a glass to the volunteers – and the organisers
Overall I think it’s impossible to see the 2015 UK Games Expo as anything other than a huge success. There are of course lots of areas for improvement (I’ll certainly be emailing the organisers with my thoughts as a journalist who has visited many such events but has never felt so unsupported) but overall – win.
I think what I found most impressive was either the amazing attitude of everyone involved – especially all the volunteers, who need a massive pat on the back – but also how all this was achieved with ever-changing goal posts.
Every year the Expo has grown a significant amount, reflecting both the word-of-mouth goodwill for the event and the growth in popularity of the hobby games industry.
To be able to both improve and expand on the top line numbers while responding to the mistakes of previous years – while keeping both traders and punters appeased in the middle of it all – is a real achievement.
Bring on 2016
And next year will be even bigger. While I’m not keen on the warehouse that is the NEC I can see the wisdom of moving the retail arm of the Expo into its wide open spaces – but equally note the importance of keeping its heart in the Hilton.
This is going to be a tricky balance to pull off but I think it should work: the trade areas will close as usual at 5pm and gaming in the hotel will go on until you want to go to bed – its just that you’ll have a five-minute walk between the two venues.
I’ve already put the 2016 Expo in my calendar (June 3-5 if you’re interested) – see you there!