Nerd Cons in Brum: UK Games Expo 2016

I make my way out of Birmingham International Airport, having just touched down after a few hours flying from Malaga. After stopping for a mediocre egg mayonnaise sandwich from Spar, I make my way to the NEC via the airport’s Air-Rail Link. Making my way down the escalator and past an overpriced Wetherspoons, I catch sight of those three little words that always set my heart aflutter…

UK

Games

Expo.

Thing is, I’m doing this on a Friday, but I’ve only bought the weekend pass. Still, it’s not like my house is going anywhere – I’ve got time to wander past the NEC’s Hall 1 (the new site for the Expo’s trade hall) and through the Hilton Metropole. Me? Why, I’m just a traveller, passing through. My name? I’m Jones, one of the Jones boys…

Of course, the thing about going to the Expo on a Friday is that you need to have something planned, like a roleplaying session, a tournament, or even a seminar or two. When you haven’t even got a ticket for entry, there’s not much you can do, other than wander round the Metropole, looking in on other people having fun… but that was enough for me.

One bizarre thing happened to me during my walkabout that day; when passing the hotel bar, I happened to overhear an American gentleman deep in conversation with what I presume was another exhibitor. My curiosity was piqued, and I decided to eavesdrop as stealthily as I could (I sat at a table behind the American gentleman, and hoped he wouldn’t notice. Solid Snake I am not.)

The gentleman in question turned out to be a bigwig for Mayfair Games (one of the Expo’s sponsors since 2012) and he was discussing their latest Star Trek game, Five Year Mission. He also mentioned that Mayfair had bought out Twilight Creations, renowned for the Zombies!!! miniatures game.

There was no way I could leak this tidbit (my phone is a fossil) but I like the fact that I’d gained this fact purely by chance. Mollified by the vagaries of fate, I collected my tickets (and a lanyard to put them in) and went home to get an early night – I was going to be very busy tomorrow… with any luck.


In contrast to Friday, I knew exactly what had to be done first thing on Saturday morning – go to the Bring & Buy, and drop off all the games I didn’t want any more. Nothing wrong with any of them, I just never got to play any of them. Well, Fair Means Or Foul does have a needlessly convoluted – there’s a whole paragraph about how to choose what colour playing pieces you use!

Now, getting those games to the Bring & Buy wasn’t exactly easy, especially when you consider that there were six of them (and some DC Comics trade paperback I threw in to make up the numbers), and the fact that they included the Star Trek and Star Wars VHS board games, neither of which are exactly compact. Still, two sturdy carrier bags and a suitcase managed to transport them in relatively decent nick.

Of course, there was one other stumbling block: the massive queue. It took at least 10 minutes to get to the end of the line (not helped by my standing next to a man who apparently had a limited understanding of personal space) and in spite of being given a plethora of rubber bands to contain the games’ contents, very few of them seemed to fit. Still, I got them sorted eventually, and did my usual wander-round the convention hall buying two games from Andy Hopwood, as I’d forgotten to get one last year.

Moving all the trade stands to the NEC really has changed the dynamic of the Expo; last year, The Metropole was a bustling hive of activity… this year, there were times walking through the corridors where you could hardly tell there was a convention on at all. Still, at least we no longer have the traffic jams of Expos past, so I suppose I mustn’t grumble too much.

You may recall that I mentioned that I had bought more than one ticket. I’d only bought a ticket to one event this year (for the first time ever, none of the RPG sessions on offer really appealed to me, which I find rather depressing). That even was none other than The Dark Room, which I raved about last year. This meant I would miss The Dice Tower’s first ever UK convention panel, but sacrifices must be made.

There’s little to say about this year’s show, other than it was demented genius in a comparatively different way to last year’s show. One added surprise was my meeting up with two good friends of mine in the audience, purely by chance. We hung out for a while, and we considered going to the Bring & Buy (as customers, this time) but when they saw the queue (twice as long as the registration queue), they decided to get ice cream instead. Can’t say I blame them.

However, I’m a sucker for a bargain, so I stuck it out in the queue. Fortunately, I had the Expo programme to read, which seemed a little thicker than last year, probably due to the detailed history of the Expo’s first 10 years. As for the Bring & Buy itself, it was its usual bewildering mix of decent bargains, absurd price gouging and utter dross. I got Medieval Academy for £19, which isn’t too bad.

I caught up with my friends again, purely by chance (again), but had to leave them again as they had tickets for something called “Starship Bridge Simulator” with another mutual friend. I amused myself by strolling around Hall 1 again, eventually sitting in on Tom Vasel’s Q&A panel with various games designers, including Eric M Lang. Fairly interesting stuff all round, but I can’t pretend I was.

As I felt the panel, I was ambushed by my good friend Christopher Dean, who for some reason tried to entice me into a demo session of his soon-to-be-Kickstarted sci-fi survival horror RPG I Love The Corps. Nothing inherently wrong with that, you might think, except that he did so by singing a parody of “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?”, retitled to “Do You Wanna Do A Roleplay?”. He’s like that, is our Chris.

In any case, the trade hall was slowly emptying out, and I went with the flow. In doing so, I bumped into yet another gamer friend, Anton, who mentioned he was going to take advantage of one of the Open Gaming spaces in The Metropole. I had planned to go home, but said I’d probably see him there. After scouring the now-packed rooms, I eventully caught up with him again.

Realising that finding a table would be fruitless at that point in time, we made our way to the Food Festival outside, where I was introduced to Anton’s current gaming group. I was too cheap to buy anything myself, but I’m assured that the street food offered was more or less worth it (I eventually bought a J2O and a chocolate ice cream cone – the ice cream was nice, but the cone was a cheap affair that caved in slightly when I held it).

A board gaming friend of mine passed by with his newborn daughter, who was lovely until she started crying. Anton was almost uncharacteristically sweet to her, but not even his loving embrace could halt her hot, angry tears. Child and father eventually left, and the rest of us sat on the grass behind the food stalls, and idly discussed our purchases of the day, as well as weighty, intellectual matters.

We collectively decided to try the Open Gaming rooms again, and after almost deciding to game on the floor(!) we eventually claimed a table of our own through sheer pluck. The problem was then what game we should play, and after a trip by some of our merry band they came back with 221b Baker Street: The Master Detective Game.

For those not familiar with the game, it’s a roll-and-move from 1975 where you essentially try and find clues to one of 40 pastiches. The actual clues are quite ingenious, but the method in which you find them (rolling a d6 and making your way to various locations in Old London Town) is tedious as hell. As another of our group said when we were done: “The instructions should read ‘Read the rules, put the game away, play something good instead’.”

Our next game, I Hate This Game! was an amusing card game that reminded me of Munchkin i.e. we all had fun playing it, but once you’ve read all the good jokes, there’s no point playing it again. Perhaps my curmudgeonliness was down to the fact that I hadn’t eaten for about eight hours. In any case, we had to return the game by 10pm, so when we finished around 9:40 I made my excuses and caught one of the last trains home, exhausted but happy.


Sunday morning was an interesting time, simply because it turned out that I’d gotten two blisters and a badly scraped big toe on my left foot from wearing my sandals improperly. Still, a couple of plasters and changing to my old trainers was good enough to get me to the train station to endure the hell that is a Sunday service. While waiting for the train, I watched a seagull harass two crows, one of whom started shit with an even smaller bird.

After a train journey mostly spent sitting next to a girl with what I believe is known by some as a “productive cough”, I finally made my way to Hall 1, having already missed the first 20 minutes of one of the Expo’s true highlights: the Sunday quiz. Guest star Colin Baker (the 6th Doctor, for those who don’t know) squared off against John Robertson (he of The Dark Room) in utter anarchy, culminating in an arm-wrestle with a man dressed as the 3rd Doctor). I’m not making this up.

With that glorious madness still ringing in my ears, I decided not to break the habit of a lifetime and ambled round the convention, spending some time with the lovely people known collectively as the International Charity Cosplayers and taking in all the fabulous bargains – maybe I just haven’t noticed before, but there seemed to be a lot more reductions on all the stalls than in previous years.

One stall that rarely needs to reduce its prices is A1 Comics & Toys, a mainstay of the Expo (which, curiously, I only found on Sunday, even though I swear I walked all over Hall 1 on Sunday. Weird.) famed for their absurdly low prices. This year I bought a sci-fi novels, a fantasy anthology, one RPG anthology, a Savage Worlds sourcebook and a family dice game about making pizza – the whole thing should’ve been £7.85, but they only charged me £7. Nice one, guys.

There were many other bargains that I got, including an Expo-exclusive edition of Tabletop Gaming #5 for £5; I’ll try to cover the rest of my haul later on in the year, so look out for that. But for now, I’ll mention the Dice Tower Q&A, where Vasel and Sam Healey answered questions from the audience. One surprising (and rather sad) thing that came out was how neither of them have enough time to play many games these days.

But something Tom said at Sunday’s Q&A struck home with me: he liked the Expo, for the simple reason that, unlike Essen or GenCon, although it’s a big convention you could wander round and talk to people (echoey tannoy notwithstanding). The Expo is now one of the biggest tabletop gaming conventions, but it’s not too big, what with The Atlantic on one side and The Channel on the other… and that’s no bad thing. And you know what? I agree.

Once the panel over, I decided there wasn’t much more I wanted to do at the Expo, and things were winding down anyway, so I decided to just leave before the Expo closed down properly. I never can stand to see it all get packed away.

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