Last weekend, I spent two fantastic days at the UK Games Expo at the Birmingham NEC. Having done many a Comic Con over the years, I thought I had an idea of what to expect – how wrong I was. The scale of UKGE is impressive, and the organisation of such an event is incredible. The Expo was split across Hall 1 and 2 of the Exhibition Halls at the NEC. Most of this space was devoted to traders and developers, with plenty of opportunities to play test or interact with some tantalising new (and old) titles. A large part of Hall 2 was devoted to Tournament play, with Fantasy Flight Games hosting the European Championships of X Wing Miniatures and a Star Wars Destiny tournament (both of which I spent a small fortune on expanding my collection this weekend). The free play areas were always bustling with gamers – the confidence of the experienced gamers mixed with those concentrating on new rule books, getting to grips with new worlds. The atmosphere was electric. A quick stroll past the Viking and Orc encampment (who’d have thought they’d mix so well?), led to the Hilton, who were hosting most of the RPG sessions and seminars.
Needless to say, before I could immerse myself in the Expo, I had to navigate the surrounding roads – far too recent for my ancient Sat Nav to comprehend. Having gone 30 miles out of our way (yes, I’m serious), we made our way to the Holiday Inn Birmingham Airport and took advantage of their excellent complimentary shuttle to the Airport, which is a short walk to the NEC.
We arrived at the Expo early Friday afternoon. We had been warned that the crowds on Saturday would likely be tough to navigate, so I was glad to wander with ease around the Halls on Friday. There was no entry queue, nor any queues to collect tickets and passes.
It took me all of five minutes to make my first purchase of the trip. Having spotted the Backspindle Games table, I was drawn to a Mexican wrestling game called ‘Luchador!’. Backspindle are the company behind the awesome Discworld title, ‘The Clacks’, which I was bought whilst directing a theatre adaption of Going Postal (on which the game is based). It’s quickly become a favourite, having been played on many drunken evenings around our table. Simple, yet challenging – and not so heavy on Discworld lore that it scares off the casual player. In fact, it’s one of the few we’ve been able to play successfully with the in-laws. But I’ll give a full review of The Clacks another day.
As luck would have it, the designer of Luchador had stopped by the booth and was able to sign a copy for me, which was a result. First blood to Backspindle! 36 hours to go…
Having surveyed the Hall, we were drawn to the Bring and Buy. With no real intention of buying much, we queued a reasonable 20 minutes (queues on Saturday were unreal) with a wish list of games that we didn’t expect to see. How naive we were. For those unfamiliar, the Bring and Buy is like a massive board game jumble sale. Sellers register their items, check them in and they’re added to the pile. Sellers then check back in over the course of the weekend to see how much they’ve earned. It’s Expo eBay, basically.
We were really pleased to see wish list item ‘Thud’ for sale (another Discworld title) for a reasonable price, considering it’s out of print. We tried it out later in the bar and it’s gorgeous. Again, review to follow!
With time ticking on, we made our way to our first show of the night. Ian Livingstone reading Deathtrap Dungeon. The contestant was John Robertson (from the hilarious ‘Dark Room’ fringe show). After giving us an insight in to how they met (“Hello, I’m Ian. I invented the thing you’re parodying”), we spent 2 hours trying to lure Robertson to his death. The room was packed and really warm, but it didn’t put the crowd off. At one point, Livingstone pulled out a harmonica and Roberston sang an impromptu blues song about his visit to the borehole. Both were completely captivating and laugh out loud hysterical.
The Hilton’s bar was a highlight of the weekend. Every seat taken by gamers, each with a pint and a game in front of them. A couple of oblivious hotel guests looked totally bewildered by it, but there was a buzz throughout the building that was infectious. We finished the night off with a trip to see old friends Jollyboat (who we’ve shared a fringe platform with on the odd occasion) and John Robertson getting his revenge on Ian Livingstone in ‘The Dark Room’ – which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you’re in Edinburgh this summer, sell your soul for a ticket.
Our taxi brought us back to the Holiday Inn at 1am. In reception, a group played Magic the Gathering and a few board games were set up in the bar!
An early start on Saturday for the busiest day of the Expo. The crowds were bustling and I was glad to have had the opportunity to peruse at my own pace the day before. I stopped by Ian Livingstone’s table to shake the hand of the man who started my love of fantasy way back when and stopped for a chat at the Black Hack and Cthulhu Hack booths (The Black Hack being our current game of choice at Lunchtime Lairs – Wednesdays 12-2 at JustPlay Liverpool)
In the afternoon, we had a game booked at the Hilton. Although I’ve dabbled on and off over the years, I’m still relatively inexperienced playing RPG’s and only ever with friends. Lunchtime Lairs was my means to break the ice and jump in head first and I was determined to have a similar experience at UKGE. So I had found a Level 1 Dungeons and Dragons 5E campaign that seemed suitable.
‘Against the Grain’ was written and DM’d by Simon Rice, who was a brilliant and welcoming DM. The campaign saw 4 adventurers investigate a missing farmer and the mysterious mist that had descended upon the area, leading people astray. We were fortunate to play with such a great group – each of whom embraced their pre gens from the very start. There was no clichéd wariness, this motley crew were very soon squabbling comically, much to Simon’s amusement. There was a great use of tarot cards, drawn randomly by the adventurers in an encounter with an insane cannibal clairvoyant, which helped determine some random encounters for each player. It was excellent.
By the time we wrapped up, it was now near 8pm on Saturday. We headed back to the bar, bought a few pints and played a few card games that we’d picked up that morning before jumping the shuttle bus back and heading to bed.
I would have loved to have added a third day to the trip but I don’t think my wallet could take any more!
So, a week later I’m still mulling over a brilliant Expo. There’s still a lot of games to play (and review), but there’s nothing quite like having so much enthusiasm in one place.
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David Griffiths is a writer, producer and director from Liverpool. His novels, ‘A Christmas Cthulhu’ and ‘Bearquake’ are available from Amazon. As a sports journalist, his ice hockey show, Drop The Puck, has been broadcast across the UK’s local TV networks for five years. His sports documentary, ‘Dragons Fire’ is available on YouTube. His latest feature film, ‘Saving Grace’ is currently in post production. Follow him on Twitter @daveygriff82