After a much-needed escape from lockdown, the rest of the Zatu team and I were finally able to stretch our legs and enjoy our first expo in nearly 18 months! UKGE is easily the biggest expo in the UK. With restrictions as they were, along with some teams pulling out, we saw a bit of downsizing, but there was still plenty to see and plenty of board gamers having a great time.
As for ourselves at Zatu, as exhausting as managing the hustle and bustle of our busy stand was, demoing a great range of games hardly felt like work at all. Of course, we most certainly took the chance to explore the other great games on offer too. Check out our brilliant experiences below!
The main game I was demoing this year was MicroMacro: Crime City. This Spiel des Jahres winner of 2021 sees players investigating a sprawling map of a black and white city that is heaving with crime. Like a story-driven Where's Wally, you need to hunt out elements such as murder weapons, motives and routes of escape. In a hive of activity like this, it's a fun challenge with 16 cases of various difficulty levels. That said, after demoing the same intro level around two dozen times, I was keen to peel away from stand; the other levels were great though.
Elsewhere at the expo, I was finally able to get my name on the list for a game of Blood on the Clocktower. I've wanted to give this one whirl for my past three expos, but it had successfully evaded me with a combination of phenomenal popularity and limited timeslots. Not this time. This hidden role game is mediated by a dungeon master-type player, who selects the roles in play and dishes out clues to the relevant players. This means the difficulty can be tweaked on the fly to make the game as nail biting as possible. Nevertheless, we managed to solve it in around 40 minutes, partly down to a brutal error of the opposing team of villainous players. As quick as it was, I am so very keen to give this one another go - perhaps at my next expo?
The last game I want to mention isn't quite out yet, but is fully funded on Kickstarter and well on its way by the end of the year. Hogs of War: The Miniatures Game is a new take on the PlayStation IP, following plenty of success with Hogs of War: The Card Game. This turn-based skirmish game boasts a solid range of miniatures, including a Lord Flashog mini, as a tribute to the late Rik Mayall who voiced the original console game. The game also boasts a tech tree, fun weapons and base building, involving tetris-like puzzling to optimise your use of land. Whether you're previously a fan of IP or not, this is one to keep your eye on.
Last weekend wasn’t just the UK Games Expo, but it was also my first expo ever! Having been with Zatu for a relatively short time it was a great opportunity to get to know my fellow bloggers and represent the company out in the wild. After only a minor hiccup involving a couple of return trips to the car to collect things, it was time to begin.
Kicking off the expo on Friday was a whirlwind of bustling halls and busy stands. After last year’s expo was sadly cancelled, people were eager to see games being demoed in person again, and so we were kept busy playing MicroMacro: Crime City and Bandido. Tom had his work cut out for him with people queuing up to see a demo copy of Big Potato’s up-and-coming release What Next.
After a long and busy day, it was back to the hotel for some shut eye before the real fun began on Saturday. With the arrival of the weekend came a swathe of new expo-goers eager to see what we had, and I was kept busy on the tills as products were flying off the shelves. As yet another busy day came to a close, the other bloggers and I grabbed a copy of Whistle Stop from the library and headed to the open play area to give it a go. After so many months in lockdown it was amazing to be back amongst fellow lovers of board games in such a relaxed and welcoming environment. After this we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a game of Herd Mentality with the rest of the Zatu crew before bed. Sunday saw the expo begin to gently wind down and the crowd began to thin. As the end drew in it was sad to have to say goodbye to such a great crowd after such a stellar weekend, but you best believe I’ve caught the expo bug, and will be back for more next year!
The lion’s share of my time at UKGE was on the Zatu stand demoing What Next? This pre-release from Big Potato is a bit of a hybrid – part-party game, part choose-your-own-adventure. It’s a co-op experience where players take turns picking which forked path they wish to take. As the adventure progresses, some plots lead to various mini-games. Here lies the real heart of the experience. There’s a mixture of flicking, timed challenges, and dexterity battles. It was a joy to see so many delighted faces (albeit, behind masks) having fun playing this. What Next? appealed to me because I approached the demo akin to being a Dungeon Master in a role-playing game!
Talking of D&D, it was a pleasure chatting to the folks over at the Loke BattleMats stand. They specialise in dry-wipe ring-binder encounter maps. Each double-page spread has awe-inspiring scenes overlaid in a 1x1-inch grid. I’ve got their Big Book of Battle Mats, but their duo-pack range blew me away. You can sit two books side-by-side and create modular settings (all 24x24 inches). The drop-down views are vague enough so as not to pigeonhole you into building a specific encounter. At the same time, they don’t hold back on letting your imagination soar. It means you’ll always be able to find a combination of pages that suits the scene you have in mind. If you’re DMing a D&D campaign, then these books are a lifesaver…
Elsewhere, catching a demo of Robin Hood by Kosmos Games was a highlight. This is a co-op campaign-style game, set in and around Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, of course. Various parts of the board flip, changing (and driving) the narrative and your strategy.
Last of all, no trip to the NEC is complete without sitting down – ahhh, my poor feet! – in the Open Gaming Hall. I sampled both Letter Press and Whistle Stop from the Games Library. Letter Press is like a card-drafting version of Scrabble. Whistle Stop is a pick-up-and-deliver, tile-placement, route-building game. Getting to play this with the fellow Zatu team felt like ticking off an item on my bucket list!
The UKGE has been and gone and I spent the entirety of it doing what I love: talking board games! It was quite surreal to experience again but a delight nonetheless. What made it better was being able to spend time and chat with some of the other awesome Zatu blogging crew. Who better to be passionate about gaming with than some more passionate gamers, right?
Over the course of the weekend, I got to demo a fair few games to the good folk of the general public. MicroMacro: Crime City was one that was new to me, but instantly caught my eye with its ease of access and wonderfully designed system. You get a case to crack and a clue to go off of. There’s a lot of criminals in this town, but it’s a great theme based on an awesome mechanic. I love the fact that you can trace any character’s movements back to see what they’ve been doing across the map. (Spoiler alert: they’ve probably been doing crime.)
I also had the chance to demo What Next, an awesome choose your own adventure by Big Potato Games which blew my socks off! To say we only experienced one of the adventures, I never saw the same adventure twice! Finally I got to show the world Red Rising, a game I adore! The synergies built up by players in their hand management for scoring made for a real tactical game, but its ease of access was so prevalent. Folk with no experience were rocking up over 200 points, and we didn’t even play a full game!
Overall, I was really impressed with the systems the good people of the UKGE had in place to ensure everyone was safe. Moreover, the consideration of everyone to maintain distancing where possible and wear a mask was awesome. It was a superb weekend of gaming made better by the fantastic gaming community. Roll on next year!
Well, we’re all back from UKGE ’21. It was a very fun experience, even if it wasn’t as big as it has been in recent years. This was the first year that I’ve volunteered on a stand, and it was interesting to see things from the other side of the table. I had the chance to demo some great games to people who came by the Zatu stand. But most of all, this weekend made me remember why I enjoy this hobby so much, the people.
So, lifting the curtain about how things work around here, all of the bloggers get access to a slack channel where we can all chat and discuss everything boardgame related. I’ve only been here for 18 months or so, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know a lot of these people and what makes them tick. There are some definite personalities. I’m sure some people think of me as “That one who doesn’t really like Stonemaier games”, (The joke is on them, I finally managed to play Red Rising at the expo and it was fantastic).
In this last year and a bit, my gaming time has been decimated. I’ve gone from playing several times a week, to once a month if I’m lucky. That has left a huge social hole that I’ve found very hard to fill. The people around here at Zatu have been invaluable to me and have helped keep me sane. Finally meeting a real person rather than an avatar was a great experience.
We all got on and we ended up playing games late into the night back at the hotel with a big part of that being me underestimating how long a game of Whistle Stop takes. Sorry, guys! It just reminded me that over the years this hobby has been a great way for me to meet some fantastic people. Going into expo I was excited to get a chance to try some upcoming games, the expansion to Excavation Earth and the theme park themed sequel of sorts to Dice Hospital were definite highlights. But mostly I left that hall in the NEC being excited to just sit around a table with my friends with a drink, some card friendly snacks and to spend some time pushing cubes around a board.