UK Games Expo Retrospective – The Musings of a Major Gaming Convention newbie

UKGE Retrospective 2018

For the past three years, I have been meaning to attend the UK Games Expo (UKGE), but for various reasons I have been unable to do so. When the stars seemingly aligned earlier this year and it looked like I would have the chance to attend, I decided to jump at the chance and order a couple of Friday and Saturday tickets for myself and my girlfriend.

The buzz that surrounds UKGE online is enormous. At times, you can’t go more than five minutes before another post appears talking about the next big thing, what games were companies showcasing etc. In past years I just had to grin and bare it as people would talk of their amazing experiences – not this time!

Forward Planning

Leading up to this year's event, particularly in the final fortnight, I scoured the web for any details on new releases/demos/deals that would be available at the expo. Many hours were spent reading through the official site, BoardGameGeek Geeklists and articles, hundreds of posts on the “Board Game Trading and Chat UK” Facebook group, and various online blogs.

I didn’t want to head in to the event completely oblivious, as I was anticipating a hectic weekend. My past experiences to game conventions were confined to that of SorCon, a small gathering in Basildon, Essex, earlier this year. This was pleasant and enjoyable enough, but I wasn’t so foolish in expecting such a laid back few days. The majority of my spare time and lunch hours in the week leading up to UKGE involved me formulating an itinerary, printing annotated maps of the convention halls, and working out which games I would focus on playing and/or buying.

We had arranged to stay in Coventry for the weekend, convenient as we could reside at our accommodation of an evening, and travel between there and the Expo each day rather easily. The car was packed, and the journey to the Midlands a long one. We settled in for the evening, knowing we had an early start on Friday; we did however play a few games of Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle (one of Amy's favourite games) to whet our appetite for the days ahead.

UKGE 2018 - Entering the Expo

Friday at UKGE

Friday morning, and despite awaking early, like my young self on Christmas Days gone by, we didn’t arrive at the NEC until near 10am. This was due to taking a rather unfortunate detour onto the M6 – good going me!! The anticipation was palpable as we arrived at the East Car Park, finding a space near the back, and walking the 10 or so minutes to the Convention Centre, numerous bags in tow.

We were met with a rather large queue forming to collect tickets. For such an established convention, I can’t for the life of me understand why the option to have passes mailed-out prior to the event weren’t offered.  I for one would have happily paid a little extra to not have to stand in line for 45 minutes.

Despite the various delays and setbacks, we finally made it into the expo proper. One thing you don’t quite appreciate having never experienced the Expo is just how loud and busy it can get, and this was just the first day! It was pointed out to me by a fellow gaming friend that up until this year, the Expo had been confined to the one hall. It certainly needed to expand, given some 20,000 were expected to walk through the doors across the three days.

There were banners and stalls in all directions, enticing you to visit the ‘bigger’ named stands. I/we were not about to be waylaid, and we set about walking briskly up the stairs to Hall Two. I wanted to get around to a few stalls here first, as I had felt that if anything was going to run out of stock early, it may be those there, as the stands and stock was decidedly limited compared to those in Hall One

We headed straight for the likes of Oink Games and Fanboy 3 to pick up some smaller games, including, Troika, Startups, and the flavour of the month online Four Against Darkness.

One good thing about UKGE is the number of lesser known publishers showcasing their wares, with some titles that are either in early design, or not currently available to the mass market. We noticed a colourful display for the game Towers of the Sun from Quality Beast. The production values on this little-known title were quite impressive, and we settled in for our first play-test. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, staying to the very end. I’m hoping to keep tabs on this, as it is not due to be on Kickstarter until sometime in 2019.

Our next stop was to get our first few purchases over to the Shop and Drop: A handy facility where expo-goers could hire storage space to leave their bags securely as they went about their business. To my utter surprise, this was already fully booked out by 10:30am… I can’t help but think that demand was greatly underestimated. We therefore had to carry a number of bags around for the entire day – the blisters on my fingers are testament to the struggle we endured.

I was never overly interested in the Bring and Buy, not just as a seller, but as a buyer. The thought of queuing again to seemingly grapple for the biggest bargain didn’t appeal to me (still doesn’t in all honesty). Strangely, I received a message from a good friend who asked if I wanted him to pick up one of my grail games, Bruges, which was available there. I knew I’d be paying a slight premium, and there was a distinct possibility that components would be missing. However, I was willing to play the lottery on this occasion. I suppose this is one of the major attractions for a lot of gamers over the weekend, each to their own.

Following a brief rest at the benches close to Z-Man Games, we split up into smaller groups to explore the main hall (Hall One). I had planned to work through my list of games I was hoping to buy on the first day, as I’d already heard rumour that Century: Eastern Wonders had already sold out across the convention. We snaked up and down the named streets dissecting the stands, stopping off every now and then to marvel at games being demoed to the masses.

One thing that I loved about the weekend was that for every large online store/games publisher stand, there would be a smaller-lesser known company in-between that was getting a fair amount of welcome attention.

The first day seemed to rush by, and I was soon due over at the ITB Games stand for my 3D Body Scan appointment. I had pre-booked a session, with the promise that a character model would be manufactured and sent out in the next couple of months. Although this was just 10 minutes out of my day, its little things like this that are out of the norm that truly make these events memorable.  I highly recommend anybody taking advantage of this facility should it make a return in the years that follow.

We hadn’t explored everything Hall One had to offer on the Friday. As the trade hall was due to close shortly, we arranged for a group of us to meet over in the Open Gaming area in Hall Two. This was surprisingly empty. I expected that on this occasion, a fair amount of attendees had retired to the Hilton Suites to game. There were ample tables running parallel to one another, all well lit, and close to a bar for refreshments. We stayed until around 10pm before heading back to Coventry, as we knew tomorrow would be another long day.

Saturday at UKGE

Saturday soon arrived. We didn’t repeat the unwanted diversion, which thankfully didn’t transpire. We walked to the NEC just after 10am, which happened to also play host to MCM Collectamania – hundreds of people in cosplay, on a day that was rather warm. It’s a shame that general cosplay is not seen all that often in the board gaming community. A few of our friends had come to Birmingham and dressed as various characters from Scythe, but again, they were part of a minority. Perhaps as the buzz surrounding the hobby enters the mainstream, we will see more of this in future.

Did I say Friday was busy? I certainly wasn’t prepared for what we came into contact with on the Saturday. This was not for the faint-hearted, and was a little overwhelming at times. We had hoped to sit down to more play-testing today, particularly for games I’d heard buzz about, yet this was proving to be extremely difficult. We didn’t get a chance to try out The Villagers from Sinister Fish Games or Dice Hospital and Coral Island from Alley Cat Games, simply because every time we passed their stands, the tables were swamped.

That is my biggest regret across the weekend, as we didn’t want it to just be a shopping trip. We did settle in for a few unknown (to us) games; Darwinning from Dragon Dawn Productions and Sheep and Thief, a release from Pegasus Spiele in 2017.  The latter was a particular hit with us, and we left with a copy to take home.

One thing the Expo seems to suffer from is that it doesn’t tend to have many ‘big exclusives’, these tend to be saved for GenCon and Essen Spiel, which is a shame for us in the UK. We did however get to try out the upcoming Ticket to Ride: New York from Days of Wonder. We weren’t big fans in all honesty, as the game is a little rushed, and is over with before it really gets going (at least with two players).

One thing that conventions do well is showcase family favourites in a whole new light. It was pleasing to see families and young children having a great time playing oversized versions of Rhino Hero: Super Battle, Ice Cool and Ticket to Ride. I’m hoping to see an oversized copy of Twilight Imperium 4 next year – one can only hope!

It’s not often that you can say you get star struck when it comes to board gaming. Whilst wandering Hall One our group bumped into Zee Garcia of Dice Tower Fame, and Richard Ham – more commonly known on the internet as Rahdo (Rahdo Runs Through). It was great to chat to them both at various points in the day, and I thanked them for the good job they do in bringing games to people’s attention.

Some of my overriding memories of the weekend were not so much the games on show, but getting to meet people, both those that I’d interacted with online, and those that we just started chatting to in passing. I’m not an overly outgoing person at the best of times, but I felt at home here, and having people of a similar mind-set certainly helped.

As the evening closed in, we decided to head to the Hilton as a group to play some of our new acquisitions. The suites there were full to the brim, and unfortunately for us, despite finding an empty table, the air conditioning wasn’t on which made it a little unbearable for a good portion of the night. We did however get a few plays in, and spoke with those around us about our respective weekends. Most stories were of a positive nature, and it was nice to see that people were having a great time.

UKGE Retrospective - Zee Garcia and Richard Ham

UKGE 2019

We have already booked our accommodation for UKGE 2019. Much to my surprise, it was Amy that jumped at the chance as soon as the dates were announced on the official Twitter page. We have decided on staying for the full weekend, to give us a chance to experience everything, and not having to rush around each morning. We may look to skip the trade hall on the Saturday, in favour of gaming with others throughout the day, as the gangways were difficult to move through with bags in tow. It is more akin to shopping in the run-up to Christmas.

I’m glad I pre-planned my wants/needs ahead of time; I can’t imagine how disorientating it would have been on that first day without knowing what was where. If I could also give anybody looking to go in future years a small nugget of advice, it would be pack some food and drink to keep you going throughout the day – convention hall food pricing was a little silly, but that was to be expected.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, a fine showcase of the hobby. My first UKGE will not be my last – long may it continue!