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I haven’t wanted to admit it to myself today but I haven’t really enjoyed my time at the UK Games Expo.
Don’t get me wrong, the first day I was here was fascinating – an array of sights and sounds and colours and activities that gave everything a vaguely otherworldly aura of beckoningly seductive promise. I thoroughly enjoyed that part – looking into what seemed like a vast hall of endless choices, with everything new and interesting and with options branching out and branching away in ever broadening variety. From the press event onwards, there was always something new to see. Sometimes, those things were genuinely astounding
And sometimes they were the comparatively mundane but excitingly dedicated cosplayers that made reality bend slightly every time they hove into view. There’s nothing quite as disorienting as stepping aside to let an Uruk-Hai warrior pass on his way to the bathrooms. I think I managed to keep my head in the right mindset though, and as far as I recall I didn’t try to entice Garrus into weird alien sex through the suggestive promise of heavy weapon calibration.
If I had a plan for our first day at the UKGE it was to get the lay of the land, map out the events and games we most wanted to sample, and then use Saturday and Sunday to actually sit down and enjoy the rich array of excitement laid on before us. I wanted to sample from this ludic buffet like a pleasingly well-provisioned gourmand. Actually, that’s too tame an explanation of what I wanted. Truth be told, I wanted to gorge myself on fun until I burst like Mr Creosote from Monty Pythons Meaning of Life.
At the moment, I’m sitting in the sterile refectory area of our Holiday Inn. It’s four PM. I left the convention centre an hour ago. I have a packet of weird kettle chips and a bottle of Pepsi Max on the table beside me. Mrs Meeple is upstairs, trying to catch some sleep to make up for that which we lost to motorway traffic during the night. I’m by myself here. I’m not playing any games. This is the absolute opposite of what I wanted from today. And yet all I can think is ‘I wish I had left that infernal crucible a bit earlier’. I’m going back tomorrow, but for now – oh God, I am so glad I’m not there.
Oh dear, this is all sounding very negative. Let me back up a bit.
Some people are energised by crowds. Some people can feel the electricity of society run through them like an alternating current. I have never been one of those people. I like quiet. I am not gregarious. I’m a textbook introvert – and a hard-core introvert at that. I enjoy the company of people in smaller numbers. In large numbers they can very rapidly overwhelm my psychic energy stores. Yesterday at the UKGE the crowds managed to walk the tight line between ‘energising’ and ‘exhausting’. Today, that balance shifted.
I spoke to a very nice woman demonstrating for Esdevium, and she said that they were told to expect 12,000 people at the Birmingham NEC on Saturday. Twelve thousand people in a convention centre space that could comfortably support perhaps half of that. The morning was fine – very busy, but no so busy that you couldn’t make progress and try things out. In the afternoon, that changed dramatically.
The problem with a convention that is about people getting together and playing games is that it takes space. Selling games takes space. Showing demos of games takes space. And there is only a certain amount of space available around those spaces. UKGE is crowded. My god, is it crowded. It is a massive, unrequited success and my experience of the convention is that very success runs the real risk of ruining it. The demand for novelty and recreation far, far outstrips the supply.
The result today has been that my UKGE experience consists of 10% playing games and talking to people, 20% shuffling around the mass of bodies hoping to get to where I want to go, and a good 70% staring wistfully at the tables full of people enjoying the games I’d really like to try out myself. We spent far, far more time orbiting the convention hall looking for a game available to play than we did actually playing games.
We drove all the way from Scotland to attend UKGE and not play games. I could have stayed home and not played games just as easily and it would have been considerably less stressful. I could have taken a frustratingly slow amble around my house before arriving back at a shelf full of games I’m not playing. The only meaningful difference between that and my time at UKGE is that it would be quieter, the drinks would be cheaper, and I wouldn’t need to walk 20 minutes to get to my car.
The good news in all of this is that I never really felt at any point like any of the exhibitors were hurting for attention. At no point did I feel like anyone really needed any pity from passing trade. Everyone seemed rushed off their feet including some people that I specifically made an effort to try to see. That can only be a good thing for the hobby. Even the playtest sections, full of untried and untested concepts, were filled to bursting with eager participants.
It’s not that I didn’t get to see or do anything at the convention, of course. If you orbit the convention centre for long enough you’ll eventually find an opportunity to do something just as a sheer result of inexorable probability. It’s just that the whole thing has been a good distance from the shameless orgy of gaming that I had hoped for.
We spoke to Nigel and Sarah Kennington from One Free Elephant during the press event, discussing their games Ore-Some and Carcosa. In the interests of disclosure, we already knew them before this event. They are, as the mafia might say, friends of ours. Mrs Meeple backed Ore-Some on Kickstarter (and we’ll get around to talking about it on the blog just as soon as we’ve played it) and I wanted to give Carcosa a try at some point during the expo but demand for play slots there was intense. Carcosa seems on the face of it to be a kind of Cthulhu Carcassonne but there’s a lot more to it than that. How much more, I don’t know yet but certainly enough to pique my interest.
Of most interest at the press event was Century: Spice Road (which I bought literally as soon as the expo opened to the general public), the Splendor expansions (which I wanted to try during the expo but, you know), and Pandemic Legacy Season Two (or at least, the box). We spoke to Cool Mini or Not about the Godfather game from Eric Lang – I’m not sure it’ll end up being my cup of tea but it was obviously intensely popular during the course of the day. Thematically enough you’d need to literally kill someone to get a go on it at the moment. I suspect Mr. Lang has another crowd-pleaser on his hands judging by the demand for play sessions.
We also got a chance to talk about Codenames Duet with Czech Games This site has a somewhat textured relationship with the various instalments in the Codenames franchise. I suspect this particular title isn’t going to sway us into the broader fold. For those that like Codenames, it’s almost certainly going to be a winner. For the rest of us that remain politely baffled by the enduring popularity of the game, that bafflement is projected to continue without interruption.
Part of our Friday was broken up by the Books and Boardgames panel. I stepped in to cover an absence by a panel member rather than being a particular relevant choice to talk about the topic. It was I think an interesting discussion about the various ways in which gaming could be incorporated into public spaces and some of the barriers that stand in the way. David Wright will be putting up an audio recording of the session, which was between myself, Darren Edwards and Chris Standley. Check it out, maybe!
As I say, mostly the Friday was an exercise in seeing what was out there rather than actually participating much but we did a chance to play the oversized version of Colt Express with a couple of people we’d arranged to meet at the convention. So many of the accessibility issues that we outlined in our teardown of that game would be solved by the over-sized version being made available at retail. I suspect though the associated cost might perhaps be too large to realistically bear for anyone other than real life robber rail barons. We also tried out Ominoes – worth playing, but not a title I felt compelled to buy. It’s a kind of madcap cross between connect-four and craps, but it just didn’t really grab me all that much.
Perhaps the most useful thing we did during the day was meet up with the designers of a game called Tranquil Vale and spend half an hour or so talking through accessibility of their design. Really, that was probably the highlight of the Expo so far because it’s the kind of meaningfully helpful thing that we can do while wandering around. It was extremely gratifying to see how seriously they took accessibility in the design process. They showed Mrs Meeple and myself a couple of iterations of the design that showed how they were adapting the aesthetics and theme around design for disability. I made some suggestions. Mrs Meeple made some suggestions. They made some suggestions of their own. That was grand.
Oh, and then we saw Shut Up and Sit Down do their live podcast where they talked about the games that they had tried during the expo. I suspect getting access to play sessions is a good deal easier for an outlet that can almost single handedly convert a game from an obscure triviality into a meaningful hit through little more than alchemical charisma. Apparently First Martians is good, but all I can say is that I hope the copy I eventually get doesn’t come surrounded by quite so many people. Barenpark is apparently fun, but as soon as they mentioned it I knew my getting to see it was not on the menu any more. SU&SD were as charming and entertaining as ever, although it was a shame that Paul Dean is apparently imprisoned in Canada and unable to leave. Also, where is Brendan? Is he okay?
On Saturday we played a game of Wreck and Ruin, which is a Mad Max style smash ‘em up set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of ramming big-rigs and drive-by shootings. It’s yet to go to Kickstarter, but I genuinely enjoyed the session we had and I’ll be watching its progress with interest. Lots of accessibility issues, but few that aren’t relatively easily fixable. Feel free to hit me up for suggestions, Mark!
We also got a chance to talk to Bezier games about Werewords (meh… it’s okay) and New York Slice (which is much better than okay). Werewords is kind of a mash up between One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Twenty Questions and I’m not sure it works particularly well. True, we only had four people to play it and so we didn’t quite get the full experience. Nonetheless it didn’t strike me as being an especially strong premise. Time will tell though.
New York Slice on the other hand is ridiculously simple and yet possessed of an intensely satisfying gameplay mechanic. All you do is work out how you’re going to slice up a cardboard pizza, and then everyone takes one of the slices you’ve set up. You get whatever grimly unsatisfying slice is left over once everyone else has had their pick. It basically gamifies the etiquette of cutting a cake – the person that slices is the last person to pick up a serving. You’re looking to make up sets of numbers, eat pepperoni, and avoid anchovies (because God, anchovies are the worst). It sounds trivial, and yet I enjoyed it a lot. I’m hoping to pick it up tomorrow if I can get anywhere near a goddamn vendor.
Oh, that’s another thing about UKGE – the average price of games seems to be creeping up noticeably over the course of the weekend. I don’t think anyone is changing the prices directly, but as the cheaper options are picked up early in the weekend all that you’re left with on the Saturday are the more expensive choices. I picked up a few bargains on the Friday, but there’s not much incentive to pick up games from the convention on the Saturday if price is the factor. We’ll see about Sunday – I’m hoping the simple logistics of transporting games back to the stores puts a little elasticity in the economics.
We checked out the Spiel nominated Kingdomino too – it’s very simple, but very satisfying. It’s a bit like box of Dominoes had unprotected sex with the Isle of Skye. Wow, that’s a mental image that’s going to stay with me. You’re constructing small kingdoms of terrain to create contiguous spaces peppered with crowns. There’s not much more to it than that, but I did enjoy it considerably more than I expected from the description I’d been given at the press event.
Finally, we tried out of the Game of Thrones reskin of Cosmic Encounter (the Iron Throne). We’ve played Cosmic before. Or rather, we played a game using Cosmic Encounter components We got a vanishingly small number of the actual rules correct. Iron Throne seemed okay but it lacked a lot of the vigour and energy of the original. The restrictions that are newly placed on negotiation really rob it of flexibility. There is though no denying there is a visceral pleasure in having Margery Tyrell absolutely kick the ever-living shit out of Joffrey Baratheon on the battleground of Kings Landing. Seriously, everyone should get to do that at least once in their lives. It’s very cathartic.
That, sadly, is the sum total of what two days of the UK Games Expo have yielded to me, and it’s somewhat disheartening. The will is there, but it seems somewhat uncivil to channel that will into the physical attacks that would have gotten me access to a wider range of gaming experiences. I have not given up hope for a more successful day tomorrow in the time before we begin the long trek back northwards beyond the Wall, Those hopes though are hanging on by the most tenuous grip of the weakest possible fingertips.
Really, it’s probably best to think of this post as a cautionary counter-story of how wonderful people might find the convention experience. The simple fact is that when you throw 12,000 people into a relatively small area with only a comparative handful of gaming spaces there’s going to be some proportion of that visitor pool that end up feeling intensely disappointed by the experience. That’s not to say it’s likely to reflect the majority view (because I don’t know that’s the case) or even a particularly sizeable minority. All I really know is that if Mrs Meeple and I had decided to invite some friends around and play the games we already owned it would have been a noticeably more effective use of our limited time and we would have seen almost as many newly released games.
It’s not that the experience has been terrible so far – it’s just that it’s been dramatically below the par that a cheaper, easier and more convenient arrangement could have comfortably accomplished. I am not going to leave UKGE excited for next year. I’m most likely just going to leave it for the first and last time.
So really, just remember this the next time you are looking at pictures of UKGE, Gencon, Essen, BGGCon or any of the other large gaming conventions. The testimonies of those that are enthusing about the experience might not be fairly reflective of what it’s like for the average attendee. You might feel isolated and left out, or consumed with envy. But at least you’re not making your fifth circuit of an overstuffed and boiling hot convention hall just looking for something to do.