Nerd Cons in Brum: UK Games Expo 2017

I have ineffably fond memories of last year’s UK Games Expo… if only because it was part of the tail-end of 2016 before Britain lost its fucking mind and fell for complete and utter bullshit. Right, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can get onto the actual convention.

As far as I can recall, there are two things I’ve never done at the Expo: booked in the full three days, and done a full day of roleplaying. The reasons were mostly logistical (it’s a good 40-60 minutes from my place to the NEC by train), but after using up some annual leave and 20 minutes on Trivago, I managed to get a three-day ticket and two nights at the Yardley Travelodge, a mere 20 minutes by bus to my destination.Fridays at the Expo are for three things – roleplaying one-shots in the Metropole, shopping in the Trade Hall or tournaments in Hall 3/the Metropole again. I’m not good enough for any tournies, and even I don’t need to burn a hole in my wallet that quickly, so I chose Friday as my full day of roleplaying. And yes, I am aware that there were panels and events going on inbetween that stuff, but good luck attending those on top of all the other stuff.

I arrive outside the NEC, laden with third-hand sci-fi and fantasy novels for the Bring & Buy. Unfortunaetly for me, the Trade Hall where the Bring & Buy resides isn’t open to the public for another two hours, so I just get my tickets and head to the Metropole bar for some water, because it’s stupidly warm. I found some of my board gaming buddies there, and we talked a bit about how lovely Tom Vasel is. As great as it was to catch up with them, I had a schedule to keep.

My first one-shot was Simple Superheroes, a supers game that got Kickstarted over two years ago. Our table was fortunate enough to have creator Joshua Kitz himself running the session; Joshua is a lovely, bouncy guy and he was able to explain the ins and outs of the system very clearly and concisely, and I can confirm that the system is indeed very straightforward in a way that abstracts all kinds of superpowers very well, from jetpacks to laser-speed to being on fire all the time. Go on, it’s technically free.

Having inhaled a chip butty from one of the many delicious street food vendors by the NEC’s man-made lake soon after the Simple Superheroes game ended, I made my way back to the Hilton Metropole for my second game, an all-Hobbit adventure using (a slightly simplified version of) The One Ring. The game was a delight, as all the players got into the spirit of being Hobbit adventurers… which was of course a deliberate ploy on the part of the GM, and good on her for being so canny.

My stomach leads me once again to a street food vendor – this time, it is a somewhat hipsterish cheese toastie van. I soon finish a mozzarella, fire-roasted red pepper & pesto toastie, which is so delicious I decide they can be as hipstery as they like. Appetite and honour both satisfied, I head off to my final game: 28 Trains Later, run in the I Love The Corps system by my friend and Kickstarter darling Christopher Dean. Professional courtesy prevents me from disclosing the full nature of the adventure, so I’ll just say this: if you can play it, do so.

My stomach and desire to roleplay sated for one day, I make my way home… a task slightly hampered by the fact that I have no idea where the bus stop I need to go to is. Several hotel staff try to help me, but in the end I just get a taxi. Arriving back at the hotel, I indulge in my favourite activity associated with hotel rooms; watching Channel 4 comedy shows until I fall asleep.

Saturday is the big day of the Expo, as is the way of most weekend conventions. As such, just walking from one end of the convention hall was kind of a pain and queuing for anything was largely pointless; the Bring & Buy was stupidly long, and my hopes of seeing The Dice Tower’s Top Ten were dashed the instant I saw how long the line was – said line was also three people wide in some parts.

That really only left shopping, so I decided to take a look round the trade hall for some bargains. Thing was… there didn’t seem to be much. Sure, there were quite a lot of copies of Dobble going for around £10, but vendors seemed to actually want to make a profit this year, the selfish gits. Even A1 Comics & Toys didn’t have a great selection, with more emphasis on Munchkin colouring books and show-accurate Power Rangers weapons than on stuff I’d actually want to buy. Still, a Fiasco playset anthology and a few fun little party games (that I pretend I’ll review but never will) weren’t a bad haul.

That said, I did go a little nuts on Saturday. Oh, I promised myself I’d only buy small games, but you try walking away from Click Clack Lumberjack at £10. I did eventually go back to buying small games… trouble is I ended up buying so many small games that it almost ended up taking up as much room in my bag as if I’d spent it all on a few regular-sized games, with no real savings unless you count getting more games a huge advantage.

This spending spree does mean that I’m already sort of burnt out on shopping, which isn’t great when you’re barely halfway through a con. Fortunately, one of my friends has a spare ticket for a Werewolf: The Forsaken game (he bought it for his uncle, but real life intervened) so I now have plans for the afternoon. Amusingly enough, the woman running the Werewolf game is the same one who ran yesterday’s One Ring game. We played it very carefully, encountered some messed up shit then fucked up every NPC we didn’t like. I am assured that is perfectly natural for a Werewolf game.

I’d had some rather good pizza by the lake for lunch, so I decided to have even more street food by one of the vans outside the hotel – y’know, just to switch things up. One mildly unreasonable queue later, and I receive an astonishingly good burrito. I decide to eat it on the patch of grass behind and lo and behold there are some of the friends I met up with last Expo, almost exactly where they were when I met them a year ago. The last stupid, shameful year melts away, and I plonk myself next to them.

We shared stories about what we’d done so far (when I showed my current haul, their response “You bought all that in one day?!” – not a great sign) and after we’d all eaten dinner, we decided to head to one of the Open Gaming areas in the Metropole, in the vain hope we could find a table. We were, of course, mistaken and had to play Dobble on the floor. We managed to get through all five mini games until finally a spot opened up and we leapt on it like starving vultures.

We were able to play some rather heavier stuff; Dragon Parade (a Knizia game that is, of course, a maths puzzle, but fortunately this one was more fun than other maths puzzles of his that I’ve played) and Pandemic C’thulhu, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. I had good times with good people who I consider good friends, and who could ask for more out of life? However, time marhes ever on, and I had to finally admit I was dead tired, and get a taxi back to my hotel.

Sunday is always the quietest day of the Expo – most of the big stuff happened the day before, so you’re pretty much free to mill around. I think they even dropped the sci-fi quiz from the panel schedule, which is a shame as I always enjoyed that. Still, that just left more free time to have another shufti round the trade hall. I deposited off yesterday’s haul at the Shop & Drop, and actually managed to get into the Bring & Buy.

There I quickly scoured the wares for any halfway decent bargains, and was soon rewarded with shelves of microgames like Buccaneer Bones and Clown Standoff. Thrilled at finally finding some deals worth writing home about, I made my way to the till and made my escape before I could further tempted. I then remembered that Andy Hopwood, a good friend who I haven’t seen nearly enough of lately, was doing a demo for Daring Dustbunnies, his latest game and future Kickstarter smash hit.

I hadn’t gotten to play many games outside of last night, so I decided now was as good a time as any to renew old acquaintances. I managed to get in on a demo run by Andy himself, with a mutual friend who I know from various local meetups and a slightly bemused couple who Andy more or less press-ganged into joining in. There are plenty of other places that describe the game far better than I ever could, so all I shall say is that it has “future gateway classic” written all over it.

Later on, I realised that yet another friend of mine was right next to me. The reason I didn’t immediately recognise her was because she was dressed as Maleficent, so I think I might be let off this once. She was only there for Sunday, and was on the hunt for a copy of Dobble. We tried to find one, but got roped into a demo game of something called Mangaka with what I can only describe as Teutonic politeness. The best way to describe it is “Channel A, but with drawing and not as fun”. Our hunt spoiled, we headed over to the Metropole, to meet up with another friend for a little tradition of ours.

In his second book of Institutes, Quintialian stated that “familiarity breeds contempt”. That’s as maybe, but in all fairness he never saw The Dark Room. It defies description, yet it is now so familiar to me that it’s like the Expo equivalent of snuggling up on a comfy sofa… except the sofa is surrounded on fire and instead of listening to Classic FM or Radio 2 there’s just GWAR and Lordi. Fortunately, it’s the two Lordi songs that I really like, and those songs GWAR did for The A.V. Club, so that’s not too bad.

The main reason I always go to The Dark Room on a Sunday afternoon is that I always want to end the Expo on a high note. I don’t know what it is, but the whole thing always seems to have a bit of an anti-climax when it’s winding down. Things being as they are, I collected my stuff from the Shop & Drop, got the money from the Bring & Buy for my own contributions, picked up Dobble for my friend and… well, I just left.

I always hate seeing the circus pack up for another year.


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