3 -5 June saw the NEC in Birmingham play host to the UK Games Expo. For anyone unfamiliar with it, the Expo is the UK gaming event, playing host to national championships for many games, allowing emerging designers to show their creations to new audiences, giving us a sneak-peek at new creations from more established brands, offering a bring-and-buy for your mistaken purchases from last year, and generally being choc-full of all the things a gamer could want. The event was running for its tenth year, and for the first time, it had graduated from the hotels to one of the actual exhibition halls itself. Today I just wanted to offer a few thoughts on my experiences there.
My Way In
This was my 3rd UKGE. I first went in 2009, when it was still a comparatively new event, to play in a couple of tournaments (Command and Colours Ancients, and Memoir ’44 – I finished second in one of them, although I can no longer recall which). There was then a long hiatus before last year, when I went back on the Friday and Sunday for the Dice Masters tournament, missing out on the top 8 in the Nationals thanks to my own inability to remember what energy-type one of my cards was (for anyone interested, my opponent had Venom fielded, who gave all my non-fist characters -2A -2D. Forgetting that Black Widow is fist energy, and thus unaffected, I thought that she had between 0 and 1 defence, which led to her getting repeatedly KO-ed before she could do anything)
Having previously always been a paying customer, this year was a bit different, as I was going to be working the weekend, doing game demonstration. This meant I had to be there for pretty-much the entirety of the 3 days, but also meant that I didn’t have to pay to park/get in, and got fed, which are all definite bonuses.
I started doing games demonstration last autumn, and notched up a handful of days’ experience, mostly in high-street shops, trying to attract the attention of focused passers-by with nothing more than a tin of Dobble. This time, at a convention, would be a little different: for one thing, you’d hope that people at Games Expo would be a bit more sold on the concept of games to begin with. There were also about 60 of us, rather than the typical 2 or 3, and we were demoing a wide range of games, mostly with much longer play-times.
I was on the “gateway” section – games which the powers-that-be felt every gamer should have tried at least once. It contained a fair mixture, from a very fiddly, heavy Euro game in Peurto Rico, down to the very quick and simple, like 6 Nimmt. I had played most before (Stone Age, Jamaica and Tsuro were the only ones which had never crossed my radar, and Tsuro was very quick to pick up), although I found myself stationed in the corner with St Petersburg and Puerto Rico for most of the weekend, as nobody else on the team knew St Petersburg, and our Peurto Rico ‘expert’ was nabbed by the FFG team, to demo a Star Wars game.
The Gateway games section is definitely an interesting place to work. For one thing, you get a lot of “Hmm, I think I’ve already played all of these before” to which the response is probably a polite version of “that’s the point!” – I considered telling people they weren’t allowed to try any other games until they’d completed the gateway section, but wasn’t sure whether they’d appreciate the humour or not. It’s also difficult to know how to respond to negative views on the game “Huh, Puerto Rico was kind of fiddly, shame they couldn’t have made it a bit more streamlined” (they have: it’s called San Juan!”) Overall, it was actually kind of fun.
The Dangers of Crowds
As anyone who read last week’s article will know, large gatherings of gamers (or, indeed, any other type of people) are necessarily my thing. At 25,000 visits from 12,500 unique attendees, UKGE was always going to be pushing the limits.
I signed up to do this weekend many months back (I think it was late 2015), and my feelings about it had fluctuated over time. Having had a very difficult week last week health-wise, I’d spent a lot of the time dreading the whole experience, feeling that I’d left it too late to pull out, and generally getting in a bit of a state over the whole thing.
Friday didn’t start much better in this respect. The first hour or so was very quiet, which typically leaves the demo-er with two options: either stand around doing nothing, or approach people and invite them to play the games – simple enough in theory, but an activity with a fairly low success rate – “Maybe later, I just want to have a wander round first” was the standard answer. Not ideal for someone already on the verge of a panic attack. I think I spent most of the first few hours trying to remember whether I had extra anxiety medication with me, or whether I’d left it in the car.
Thankfully, things picked up, and by lunch-time we were busy, meaning that I spent most of my time explaining games, rather than just hovering awkwardly. I checked some games into the Bring & Buy on my lunch break, had a first glance at some of the stands, and was generally feeling a lot better.
By the end of Friday, I was already fairly shattered, and sufficiently emotionally and physically exhausted to be completely flattened by the next unexpected twist.
The company paying us to do the demonstrations was feeding us for the weekend, and putting us up in hotel rooms on site. Shared rooms. If you think about it, this is blindingly obvious: most hotel rooms are not designed for single-occupancy, and the cost of putting everyone by themselves would be astronomical. However, it was an obvious event that I had completely failed to plan for: I’d established by process of elimination that I would not be sharing with either of the two guys I knew beforehand, and (mentally) collapsed: I told the line manager I’d drive home each night instead (it’s just under an hour door-to-door in good traffic), then spent an hour hanging around in a state of general despair, feeling angry at myself for my inability to cope with the situation and, waiting to get my parking validated.
Come 6.30, parking got sorted, and I was also given the standard allowance of meal vouchers. Knowing that the rest of my family would already have eaten, I grabbed a bite to eat from the vans, chatted to people for a bit, and generally felt a whole lot better. One of the most annoying things about suffering chronic depression and anxiety, is failing to spot the difference between an attack of a diagnosed condition, and just really needing some food. I hung around for another couple of hours, played some games, then drove home, ready to collapse into bed.
By Saturday, the whole experience was a lot more familiar, and I had a decent rhythm going. Apart from a few minor issues (including one rule for Puerto Rico which we were teaching wrong all weekend), I felt comfortable with the games I was supposed to be explaining and it turned out that the other demo-ers were human after all, and easy to hang around with outside of working hours to chat and game.
Visions of Things Unseen
Aside from getting paid to go to Expo, there are other benefits to doing work for the UK’s main game distributor. After a stern series of warnings (may be paraphrasing, but in my head it was somewhere along-the-lines of “return this in perfect condition, or be shot at dawn”) a friend managed to borrow a preview copy of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu for the Saturday evening. This won’t be released for another month or so and, aside from the dozen copies being raffled over the weekend, is basically the only one in the UK right now, so this was a big deal.
After much wandering round and round the hotel (about an hour all-told) trying to find a table not already filled by gamers, we finally tracked down a place to set up, and embarked on our mission to seal the Gates before all of the Old Ones could awake and Cthulhu could destroy the world. It’s not an exaggeration for this to be called a Pandemic Game, and there are lots of similarities to spot (“oh so cultists are disease cubes then…”), but based on our one play-through this does feel like they’ve done a really good job of producing a game that’s different enough to be worth bothering with.
The mechanic for trading cards is less irritating than original Pandemic, Awakening an Old One is more interesting and involved than simply suffering an outbreak, and the way that characters can go insane, with their abilities changed by the experience feels very thematic. Fittingly, I was the only one to actually go insane on the night (my character, not her controller), but we managed to eke out a last-gasp win. All-in-all, good fun, and I look forward to playing it (or reviewing it: hint, hint Dan or Nigel if you’re reading this…) when it’s released properly.
The Show Must Go On
When I wasn’t working, I did manage to spend a few hours looking round the show itself. I managed to meet up with some people I’d only ever communicated with online before (although between my phone being useless and me driving back to Nottingham each night, we didn’t get any gaming sessions in together) and it’s always nice to be able to put names to faces. I managed to sell some of the dead wood (well, card and plastic) from my games collection at the bring and buy, which cleared some shelf-space at home – more on that in June’s Gaming Challenges update. I also had a chance to briefly sample a few new games coming from independent designers. Dungeon Crawlers seem to be all the rage at the moment, and I took a punt on Side Quest, and made a mental note to keep an eye out for Legends Untold. Again, I think Dungeon Crawling needs an article of its own sometime soon.
In the end, for a weekend that looked like it was going to kick off with a complete breakdown, I actually had quite a good time. I’m definitely glad that I’d booked the Monday off work to recover, and for that reason alone, I couldn’t do this sort of thing every weekend. The rest of the team I worked with were definitely a major part of this, all friendly, open, helpful folk. Hopefully in future years, with a bit more advance-planning, and the fact that I’ve met a lot of people now, I’d manage to actually stay over and get the full 3-day Expo experience.
I wouldn’t say that it was a perfect con by any stretch of the imagination. The signposting at the NEC is terrible, there was a disappointing lack of bins, and at £12 per day just for parking, I’d have to seriously consider whether I could afford to go to something like this if I were paying my own costs. Probably the biggest pain was the difficulty of finding some free space in the evening for gaming. Overall though, I think UKGE is a great thing, with a good mix between familiar games and new, between just trying things out and playing at the highest level – it’s a slight shame that the tournaments take far too long for anyone to really do that AND get a deep experience of the show, but that’s just the reality of life. Expo does a great job with what it has to work with. Long may it continue, and I’ll probably see some of you there in 2017…