Last Saturday I attended my first ever games convention, the UK Games Expo. It was sufficiently easy to reach by public transportation to convince me to drag my lazy bum out of the house. But not before 9am, of course. I reached Birmingham International by train at 10am, and after a 10 minute walk through the NEC and a nice park with bluebells and a lake, I was at the hotel hosting the Expo. The armed policeman in the lounge was a bit unsettling and I first thought it was a costumed volunteer. The tickets queue was not too long and moving along, a good sign of efficiency. Having received the Expo programme, I promptly stashed it in my rucksack and asked a volunteer where the Bring & Buy room was. Got the wrong advice, ergo got lost. If I had only looked at the venue map in the programme...
When I finally found the room, I joined the short but slow-moving queue of sellers: everyone's list of games was checked, a ticket assigned to each game, and the seller's fee collected. Very organised. I had brought 5 RPG magazines and 1 game, but some people had literally a suitcase full of games to sell! I then switched to bargain-hunter mode, but reaching the tables with the games on sale proved to be a minor challenge, such was the beehive of people around them. I saw several games I liked but not at the low prices I wished, so I moved on to the packed trade halls.
Right at the entry of the first one was Nick, demoing Forbidden Desert for his mate's games shop. In the second hall I had a chat with an academic from Coventry's Serious Games Institute and I watched a couple play String Railway (I arrived too late to join) in the large demo area. The game didn't seem much fun, so I returned to Nick, just in time to join a new game with 3 strangers. We started with the lowest storm level and indeed managed to win after an hour or so. It was fun, but it pales in comparison with Pandemic, which has a theme (whereas Forbidden Island has a MacGuffin) and far more exciting play.
I next joined Julie, Ian and their friends, who had seized a table and surrounding sofas in the main lounge and made it their HQ for the whole day. Good strategy! Dave and Ben were also there. Dave managed to get a hotel room even though he booked only 2 days before. I was the only one just coming for the day.
It was lunchtime and I was told the three options: the Expo food court, walking back to the NEC for a Subway sandwich, or order some food right there in the Hilton lounge. The food court had a mile long queue, the NEC was far away, the lounge was right there, so I bit the bullet and paid £13 for a salmon and cream cheese sandwich with potato wedges. On hindsight, the cheaper options would likely not have been much slower. I gulped my lunch to make it in time for the seminar on being a self-published author. I was interested in it because as an Open University academic I co-author textbooks, but unfortunately the seminar was not that insightful. Some of the panelists spent a bit too much time IMHO in promoting their own books.
The following seminar was far more interesting but poorly attended. Michael Fox (who was gently heckled by Graham, sitting next to me), Richard Breese and Tony Boydell presented the first UK Expo Hall of Fame awards to David Parlett, Francis Tresham, Don Turnbull, Bruce Quarrie and Gibsons Games, explaining the rationale and telling some interesting background stories. David and Francis attended, and were interviewed by Michael, who asked about the genesis of their games. Unfortunately, Michael decided to keep the room's door open to nudge in more attendees and the incoming noise, added to my partial deafness, meant that I didn't understand half of what the two soft-spoken gentlemen said. Bummer! For the record, all the open door policy achieved was to help passers-by dump their empty bottles into the rubbish bin holding the door open.
I then hopped into the room next door, where play tests were taking place. I spoke to one of the Playtest organisers, Brett Gilbert, winner of game contests like Hippodice, and the author of Devinare, published by Asmodée and recommended by the Spiel des Jahres jury. Quite an achievement! I'll try to join some of their play test meet ups.
Time for another seminar: the launch of the game redesign competition, the objective being to design a game whilst reusing as many components as possible of a given game (it turned out to be Wilderness). The room was absolutely packed, only to hear a maximum of 42 entrants were allowed, in order to keep the jury's workload acceptable. As you can imagine, by the end of the seminar there was a stampede (the British variant, aka queue) to get a registration form and buy the game. As I was there just for curiosity's sake and in case the game components looked inspiring, I preferred to head again to the Bring & Buy room to collect money and unsold goods (two of the magazines) before it closed at 5pm. Far fewer games on the tables and people around them allowed me to have a good last look and, surprise, surprise, there was a copy of the original edition of Rette sich, wer kann (save yourself if you can), a game I had recently read about in one of my 20 year old spielbox issues. Needless to say, the copy costed slightly more than the money earned with the sale. Easy comes, easy goes.
I returned to HQ and got Ian, Dave, Ben and one of Ian's friends to play the game. The story is simple: players are the crew of a sinking ship, escaping in old lifeboats. In each round, players first elect which lifeboat gets a leak, then elect which sailor falls through the leak and drowns, and finally vote for a boat to move towards the safety of nearby islands. All of this preceded by debates to rationally convince your opponents what they should vote for. It's a game of referendums, which of course appeals to the Swiss in me. After the boat's move, one sailor from each boat can try to jump to a better boat, but cunning play can block sailors from jumping off their current boat or from being able to jump into another boat due to lack of free spaces (which means the sailor drowns, oh dear). To sum up, a very interactive, fun game in which you democratically screw each other. Highly educational. Meanwhile I found out the game is still in print (the English version is called Lifeboats), and costs the triple of what I paid for an original (albeit used and slightly damaged) edition.
After a quick game of Zombie Dice, with a tense duel between Ben and one of Ian's friends (who won with 18 points), and between me and Dave for 3rd/4th place, not to mention a pathetic attempt by Ian to end with more than 2 points, it was time to catch the pre-booked train home.
An altogether good experience, with a bit more knowledge gained about the board game world. Everyone was very approachable. It was great to spend some more time with 7 fellow club members and it was nice to see several families and children, although some looked tired by 6pm. Given that the 2014 Expo will be at the same place, here's what I should do better next time:
- buy train tickets well in advance to get a better price
- coordinate with other club members in advance
- make a list of wanted games and their current trade/BGG/eBay prices to spot bargains
- take more games for sale
- arrive earlier (but will it mean spending more time in the ticket queue?) and stay until later
- take a sandwich or have lunch around noon, before the food court queue grows
- spend the first 5 minutes to skim the programme, especially the venue map and the featured games
- be more selective of seminars and sit in the front row
- spend more time trying out new games in the demo, playtest and open gaming areas
- by Damen, on May 29 2013 @ 8:37 pm
A great write up. Is the venue map available beforehand on-line somewhere? That way you can plan your day’s strategy on the train. The Expo sounds like it has evolved considerably since I last went in 2011. Hopefully next year I can make it.
- by mw, on May 29 2013 @ 9:28 pm
Thanks, Damen. There was indeed quite a lot of advance info on the web site, but some details were missing (e.g. which rooms hosted what) and without previous experience it’s difficult to assess what time to apportion to what activity. Forgot to say that the programme also includes some articles (e.g. on game design) that make for a good after-show reading on the train.
- by Ian, on May 31 2013 @ 2:15 pm
My 2 points in Zombie Dice were more than adequate 😊 Great write up.
- by Kevin, on May 6 2014 @ 11:58 pm
Thanks Michel, great write up. Can you recall how much the commission was on the bring and buy. One of our new members is going and it was suggested he could take along our clubs unwanted games for sale or trade. thx
- by mw, on May 7 2014 @ 8:08 am
Kevin, as far as I remember you pay £1 per 10 games you put on sale, and then an extra £1 (or was it 5%?) per game sold. All that commission goes to charity (they said which one, but I forgot meanwhile).