Nerd Cons in Brum: UK Games Expo 2015

The UK Games Expo hasn’t been around that long; it only started in 2007, making it a mere babe-in-arms compared to, say, the Origins Game Fair (1975) or the Essen International Spieltage (1982). However, it’s definitely one of the fastest-growing gaming conventions around, as shown by the necessity of the Expo to move from the Clarendon Suites to the Hilton Metropole back in 2013. I know the Clarendon wasn’t to everyone’s tastes (the chairman of my local roleplaying group refused to even entertain the notion of attending when they were held there, but became very interested when I mentioned they were now being held at the Metropole) but I rather liked the old place – the Masonic paraphernalia lent an odd atmosphere to any RPG or Living Dungeon (later Living Munchkin) sessions I attended, and the layout was a lot simpler than The Metropole… anybody who tells you they never got lost at the last two Expos is a liar.

There is certainly a lot more room in the Expo now, but for every new vendor that has room to sell their latest games, there are attendees to fill just as much space. Saturdays are always busiest at most weekend conventions, but things were pretty absurd at the Expo this year; my current GM at the aforementioned roleplaying club tried to get in a game of Ticket To Ride with some friends using the Expo’s Board Games Library… only to return it after finding there was no room to play it. I remember hearing that the staff at the Metropole were sceptical that there’s be more than 1,500 visitors when they first got the contract to host the Expo. Overall attendance that year was about 6,000 people.

Fortunately for me, I managed to play a few board games by hanging round the Playtest UK area; Turistico, a game about sending tourists around London that bears more than a few resemblances to Ticket to Ride (the designers admitted they were big fans of the series) but had enough differences to be an homage than a rip-off, and Expeditions, a nice family-friendly “push your luck” tile game. Playtesting at the Expo can be a fun way to spend an hour, and it helps budding games designers to iron out the wrinkles.

As for already-published games, there were quite a few on offer; Gregory Carslaw was on Hopwood Games’ table, demoing the long-awaited 404: Law Not Found and his recent Kickstarter success Wizard’s Academy – both are excellent games for which I have had the honour of playtesting late in development, and can heartily recommend.

Backspindle Games had another Discworld game, The Clacks, to go with their growing repertoire which looks like a very engrossing abstract game. I was tempted to buy a copy, but I decided to get Guards! Guards! for £30, and signed by the creators. What can I say? I’m a sucker for  a licensed game. It was precisely my predilection for licensed games that made me quite excited when I learned of Ergo Sum Games’ upcoming Dan Dare: Adventures in Space. I’m probably one of the few people under a certain age who appreciates Frank Hampson’s space-age hero, so I was keen to learn more… unfortunately, the most I got was a rather generic blurb from one of their leaflets (the vendors were busy demoing New Earth, a very cool-looking post-apocalyptic strategy game). According to their website, it’s still in development. As much as I love Col. Dare, I’ll need to know more about the game before I pay £55 for a copy.

One unexpected gem of the Expo for me was finding a game called Nexus, published by Nexus Games. No, don’t bother trying to find it on Board Game Geek – it’s a self-published game made by a sweet little old lady, who very kindly played a quick game with me, and invited me round for tea if I was ever in her part of the world. I ask you, what could I do except buy a copy?

A mainstay of the Expo is the Bring & Buy. It’s a simple enough concept; you bring any board games or RPG books that you want to get rid of, give them what you think is a reasonable price, and then at the end of the Expo you either get 90% of the money (the rest goes to charity) or you take your white elephants home with you… or you just leave them there to be sold next year, except you won’t get any money. It’s a wonderful idea, marred by two factors: 1) queuing can take half an hour, if not longer. 2) some people are apparently incapable of realising that people want a bargain from the Bring & Buy, and charge what they want other people to pay, instead of what other people are willing to pay. If the vendors in the trade halls are charging less money for brand-new games than you want for the same game, only you’ve already unwrapped it, guess who’s getting my money?

You may have noticed that I haven’t talked much about roleplaying games. While I normally try to get into at least RPG session at the Expo, I was unable to indulge myself this year, owing to my being late in booking anything this year and the one session I did book being cancelled on account of the GM pulling out days before the Expo. However, I did manage to attend a seminar on licensed RPGs (I told you I liked them…) by Monica Valentinelli of Margaret Weiss Productions and Matt M McElroy, designer for Vampire: The Masquerade. It was a highly informative talk, mostly about the difficulties in liaising with companies that own the right to IPs in lots of different ways, and how a company never really “loses” a license.

The other seminar I managed to go to, along with some friends who I’d either bumped on Saturday or were first-time comers to the Expo, was The Dark Room. It is ineffably funny, and John Robertson is able to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, whipping one and all into a frenzy of glee. Nothing I say can do justice to how wonderful it is, so just go and see if it’s playing anywhere near you.

It’s interesting that I’ve just said that something is indescribable, given that I’ve not really talked a lot about what the Expo is. I guess that’s because the Expo is in itself ineffable; there’s an atmosphere about the place that’s hard to pin down, but it is surrounds everyone there, binding them together. It says “It’s okay if you’re weird, because guess what? So is everyone else here. Go on, take a look around if you don’t believe me”. It’s a place where my favourite moments are being invited to tea by an old lady, and shouting myself hoarse because a creepy Australian with flouncy hair told me to. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I’m glad it exists.

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