I knew that table top gaming had seen something of a renaissance in the last few years but it has taken a trip to the UK Games Expo this weekend to drive home to me what that really means in terms of community, and in terms of the quality and sheer quantity of games available. I’ve kept an eye out on the most popular new games since starting a local games club, but I might as well have been living underground for all the things I’ve missed. The fact that an Expo of this size, variety, accessibility and quality exists in our country is something we should all be proud of. The fact I would never have even heard of it had a friend of mine not received an advert with her latest games purchase is a damned crime.
I was only able to stay for a day, so there’s no way I’ll be able to cover every aspect of the event. What I’ll give you here is an overview: a first impression from the perspective of a family man, and a relative newbie to gaming. First up is the location: The Hilton Metropole at the N.E.C. in Birmingham. What a corker. The signposting for the N.E.C. is clear as day from the motorway; it’s a hop, skip and a jump from the Birmingham International railway station; and of course that means the airport is right by it for international visitors and exhibitors. Signage from the car-parks could have been better, but we just followed the stream of people and found our way without any difficulty. The queues were well managed, the organisation like clockwork and the atmosphere was one of total friendliness and inclusivity.
Day tickets were £12 a head, which I didn’t find excessive. It would have been £25 for a full three day pass – which might make people on a budget think twice, especially when adding in some kind of accommodation – but trust me, it’s worth it. Got family members under 10 years old? They get in for free. This is the kind of thinking that really makes an event for me. Instead of milking the devout few, it opens things right up for new gamers to come into the fold and generally breeds a more family friendly environment. There were children of all ages kicking around the event, and the admiration on their faces spoke well for the future of the hobby. More on the family side of things shortly. The trade rooms were massive, the food and rest areas easy to access, and the on-site staff uniformly friendly and enthusiastic.
While we waited for our friends to arrive, we checked out the family room. This space was near to the entrance, toilets and refreshments, and was of a goodly size. There must have been around a hundred tables set up, each featuring a different game for people to try out. A stack of other games was available on the side as well, and people could swap what was on their table for anything else that came available whenever they fancied. Walking around the room were a number of gamers whose role was to make sure everyone was having fun, explain how each game worked when people looked a little stuck, make recommendations based on what people enjoyed, and just generally keep the games circulating. They were amazing. I could have spent the whole day in that one room if I didn’t have money burning a hole in my wallet…
Once our friends arrived we decided it was time for a spot of lunch before hitting the trade halls. Food wagons and a bar had been set up outside – so the fine, sunny weather was a stroke of luck. Prices were pretty steep, but that’s all par for the course on the convention circuit. Next time I’ll take a packed lunch. We were entertained by cosplayers while we queued. I hadn’t expected to see any at a gaming convention, but it seems to be encouraged for atmosphere as much as anything. Always seems to put a smile on people’s faces, and that’s never a bad thing. After lunch we had a general wander past the bring-and-buy sale (hard-core collectors and bargain-hunters from what I could tell) and the championships (not my cup of tea) and hit the trade halls.
Oh. My. God.
I always get overwhelmed at conventions – by the noise, by the crowds, by the humidity – but this was a different experience. For all that there were thousands of visitors I never felt that wave of claustrophobia. The halls were big. Not Warehouse big, but high ceilinged and spacious. And boy, were they full of treasures! I wanted to swim in it. I was Charlie in the chocolate factory: wide-eyed and grinning like a loon. In total, I counted four main rooms containing various businesses: from big games designers to one-man-band outfits. There were previews and beta tests, best-sellers and indies, specialist scenery builders and raucous party gamers extolling the virtue of the holy chicken. Don’t ask. Some were set out on stalls, loads of others occupied play-testing tables – and time and time again it struck home just what a valuable thing that was.
Gaming is not a cheap hobby. When a single game can cost from £30 to £70 you need to know that what you’re buying is right for you. You can check things out on YouTube, sure, you can go by recommendation from sites like ours too, but at the end of the day you’ll only know the value of a game when you come to play it. If you’re lucky, you live near a games cafe. They’re becoming more popular. You may have a games club nearby, but they’re not always inclusive. If you want to experience new games, if you want to test the waters and try before you buy, you can’t do better than the UK Games Expo. My God, I barely scratched the surface of all the things I wanted to try out: there were roleplaying session for adults (and also for kids), pre-release games like Discworld Clacks which were available to try out on site, seminars, music, entertainment shows, the UK Games Expo awards and just so many people I would love to have had time to talk to.
That cash burning a hole in my pocket? It didn’t all go. With all the gaming I squeezed in, I’ve got a fair idea of titles I want to pick up in the future, but I didn’t once feel pressurised into buying. One lady sold me a game on the strength of her enthusiasm, a fella convinced me his chicken-based religion was worth investing in when it’s released next month, and an atmospheric card game was snatched up on the strong recommendation of a friend. Other than that, my cash went on fuel for the car and fuel for my belly. I had a good laugh with my friends, spent some quality time with my family and had my eyes ripped open to all the amazing possibilities of gaming. Time and money, well spent. Next year promises be even bigger, split across two venues to accommodate all the action. Dates are already set for 3rd to 5th June 2016, so stick it in your diary and join me there. I might just do the whole weekend.
GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak
GS Rating: 4.5/5
You can keep informed about the Games Expo on Twitter, Facebook or at their website. Are you a regular at the UK Games Expo? How did this year compare to previous years? What did you most enjoy this year and how can they improve it next year? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.