Now that the dust has settled on this year’s UK Games Expo and the bulk of articles about it have already been published, it’s time for me to join the fray and add my review of the greatest gaming event in the UK calendar.
2017 was my second year of attending the UK Games Expo and, once again, it was held in the NEC Birmingham – only this year it was bigger than ever before, occupying two halls instead of just the one. Over the weekend of 2nd – 4th June, over 16,000 visitors attended the NEC representing an increase of almost 30% over last year’s equally-massive event. I attended on the Saturday with my girlfriend, which is always the busiest day of the convention. Unfortunately, Sunday had been ruled out at an early stage in making arrangements; a trip to the nearby Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory had to be offered to “persuade” her to come along.
The NEC is the perfect venue for this event, year after year. It is easy to get to, well laid-out and has ample amenities on site (except for free cash machines) to cope with the big crowds. There’s also a pleasant outside area between the NEC and the Hilton Metropole Hotel, where this year a street-food festival had also been set up. I’m a die-hard Londoner, but I have to admit that I prefer going to the NEC over somewhere like Olympia down here. The main hall at this year’s event was much the same as last year’s, although I felt it was much better laid out than before. The second hall was dedicated to tournament games, which definitely took some of the pressure off from the main arena and made the whole event feel less crowded and more airy – even on the busiest day of the Expo.
When I arrived, predictably, I was sucked into the Games Lore stall like dust to a Dyson. Once again, they occupied the space immediately to the left of the entrance and were crowded with people three-deep all day. Bringing internet prices to the physical world, people were practically showering them with money right from the off. I tried to get near for a browse, but it proved difficult with the throngs around them. This forced me to wander off in search of other retailers and, within minutes of my arrival, Travelling Man had found a way to relieve me of £65 for a copy of the fantastic Unfair (no. 2 on my list of things to see) and the 2014 Spiele Des Jahres Award-winning Camel Up with its expansion. This wasn’t one of my expected purchases, but at £24 for the game and Super Cup add-on, I couldn’t resist.
On our travels, we got pulled into a demonstration game of a fast-paced party game called Corks which was fun, if a little basic. When your “components” amount to a few cards and four corks, you’re not going to be troubling Fantasy Flight games with your creation but it was fun while it lasted. The essential premise of the game is to grab coloured corks as quickly as you can once a set of cards has been completed by one player, which leads to a madcap grabbing session at the end of the game as there is always one fewer cork than there are players, and players without a cork are eliminated. The woman demonstrating it managed to scratch my hand quite painfully with her diamond ring as she grabbed a cork from underneath me, which added a new dimension to board games I had never felt before. Perhaps players of Colt Express or Cash & Guns could try shooting each other for real?
The next game we were pulled into was Temp Worker Assassins. The concept was novel and quite fun, being a game in which temporary workers are trying to kill their full-time colleagues in order to create permanent vacancies at a company, but I didn’t really grasp the fantasy genre of the game. It was a little clunky in places and dragged on too long for my liking, being quite repetitive in nature, but the artwork was good and we had a couple of laughs playing it. I was after something bigger, though, and soon we found our way to the stunning Big Potato Games Menagerie, where the team at BPG had outdone themselves.
Big Potato are a recent successful British start-up company whose party games are now finding their way into mainstream retail and I own several of their products. The Games Menagerie was debuting The Chameleon, a word-association game in which one player has to pretend that they are in on the team, when in reality they have no clue what they are talking about. The players then have to guess which of them is the Chameleon. We played a few rounds and it was good fun. No doubt this will be a solid new release that will do well in the run-up to Christmas this year. But for me, the real highlight of the Big Potato Games stall was KLASK, a special guest game they were hosting (not one they’re publishing) which plays like a magnetic game of Foosball with obstacles on the pitch. Players try and score by knocking a ball into their opponent’s goal, but control their pieces with a magnetic wand held underneath the table. It was fast, furious and great fun.
After some more retail therapy resulted in my bags becoming even heavier, I took advantage of the excellent Drop & Shop service being offered by Leisure Games. For a £3 all-day charge, I had a huge crate all to myself out the back where I could safely stash all of my purchases and add to them throughout the day. It saved my arms from a 10-hour workout and was well worth the modest cost. We then made our way to test the latest incarnation of Codenames, known as Duet, which is a co-operative two-player version of the smash hit game from last year. Duet plays basically the same as every other version of Codenames you’ve ever known, but this time has been specially adapted for two players. It works much better than the base game for two. Both players are looking at a grid which is mostly the same (a few squares are different on each), and each player takes turns at both guessing words and setting clues for their partner. It wasn’t available to purchase at the UKGE, but should be out by the end of next month. It’s on my must-buy list. The cheesy picture above was taken because we were trying to win a free copy by posting on Instagram. I think you can tell by the look on the face of the guy from CGE with us that he knew already we hadn’t won.
After all these games, we headed outside for some fresh air and to try some of the “street food” on offer. Personally, I hate the phrase “street food” (it always reminds me of “pavement pizza”, which isn’t quite what they have in mind, I’m sure) and I’m sure that burgers and hot dogs aren’t generally considered particularly “urban” in nature, but it’s the in-vogue thing at the moment. The burgers we had were tasty and predictably overpriced, but the surroundings of the NEC and bright sunshine made up for it. While we were outside, we were surrounded by a large group of Dr Who enthusiasts, all dressed as different doctors from the neighbouring Cult TV & Movie fan exhibition that was going on in the hall next door to the UKGE. Birmingham was full of geek this particular weekend. I imagine putting us all together would have been like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters
After lunch, I sought out Gloom of Kilforth which had caught my eye ever since last month’s edition of Tabletop Gaming magazine. Purporting to be an RPG in a box (similar, in some ways, to Gloomhaven), GoK is an independent venture by Tristan Hall and is a thing of beauty to look at. Each player creates a fantasy character, then ventures out into the realm of Kilforth, completing adventures, telling their own saga, growing more powerful, and looting ever-greater treasure until a final showdown with The Ancients, rather like the “boss fight” found at the end of every fantasy adventure ever. One of the joys of attending something like the UKGE is being able to speak directly to the designers themselves. I was pleased to find that Tristan’s motivation for making GoK was that he liked killing and looting things. After ooh-ing and aah-ing for a few minutes, pacing past his stall a couple of times, I relented and bought a copy. Each card in the game is an individual work of art (no duplicates), which Tristan also explained was a learning curve for him; commissioning over 300 pieces of artwork had cost him a fortune and led to all sorts of delays with the game’s publication, but the end result is stunning.
We wandered around the Expo some more, in awe of the sheer range of stalls and games on offer. Every major publisher in the world was present, but it’s nice to see a very strong mix of independent companies and developers also being present. I managed to see a game of Gladiatores – one of the games I’d wanted to hunt down at the Expo after seeing previews of it. Amazingly, the designer hadn’t brought any copies with him to sell, and he was kicking himself about it when I spoke to him. The game puts you in the position of running a gladiator training school, then sending your fighters off into the arena for fame and glory. I was impressed at the production values for an independent first-time publisher and I’m really looking forward to this one coming out later in the year.
I spent most of the rest of the day browsing games, talking about games and seeing what was coming up in various designers’ calendars for the rest of the year. By the end of the day, I could barely carry my haul from the UKGE and my credit card was practically blocked by NatWest towards the end. It was nice to see the majority of retailers accepting card payments this year (last year it was pretty much only Games Lore and a couple of other big retailers), but it was bad for my bank balance overall. I picked up copies of Galaxy Trucker, 7 Wonders Duel, Codinca, Codenames and everything else you can see in the picture below.
My last post listed ten things that I was looking forward to playing or buying and, within reason, I got through most of my list. I bought Statecraft without playing it first, though the price point meant that I was put off buying any of the expansions at this time. There was no information on the upcoming expansion for Star Wars: Rebellion over at the Fantasy Flight stand, and I didn’t get to attend any of the seminars, purely because I was having so much fun browsing and playtesting. We did manage to play games into the very late hours back at the hotel with Alex and Tim from Big Red Barrel until the bar staff closed up around us, and it was nice to avoid the huge crowds at the Hilton Metropole. It was even busier there this year on account of other events being hosted at the hotel.
UK Games Expo 2017 proved itself once again to not only be the most important event in the UK gaming calendar, but up there with the biggest fairs in the world. The organisation this year was spot-on, with smooth ticketing and entry, plenty of space to accommodate the large crowds and a huge range of exhibitors. I love the diversity of the event, where independent developers get to rub shoulders with the major names, and the combination of playing games with the world’s largest store at the same time. If you haven’t visited before, you’re missing out. Next year’s event has already been announced for the same weekend again at the NEC and hotel places are already selling fast at the Hilton. Next year, I’ll be attending as one of the Big Red Barrel team (more work, less play!) but I already can’t wait.
Below is a small selection of images that I took to give you an idea of what the event looked like on the day. Happy gaming!