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GAMES AT THE ALEXANDRIA PALACE

Games at the Alexandria Palace

by Selwyn Ward

 

Despite its regal sounding name, Alexandra Palace was never a royal residence. Located in North London, England, it was originally conceived and built around the time the Civil War was raging between the United States and the Confederacy. It was named after the then Princess of Wales, Alexandra of Denmark, who married Queen Victoria’s eldest son (later Edward VII) in 1863, but it was built with private finance and was always intended as a public venue; indeed, it was referred to, even during its construction, as “The Palace of the People”. Like its South London equivalent, the Crystal Palace, the original building didn’t survive: indeed, it was destroyed by fire only 16 days after its opening. For the industrial Victorians at the zenith of the British Empire, this was but a minor setback: Alexandra Palace was quickly rebuilt and reopened less than four years after it had been razed to the ground

Over the years, Alexandra Palace (“Ally Pally” as it is known locally) has had a chequered history. During the First World War, it served as a refugee camp and later an internment camp for German civilians. Between the wars and into the second half of the 20th Century, it became the BBC’s television centre, from where they produced and transmitted Britain’s first television broadcasts.

Nowadays, Alexandra Palace is primarily known as an event location. It is spacious, and even offers extensive free parking – unusual even way beyond the outskirts of London. It was perhaps an ambitious choice of venue for Tabletop Gaming Live (September 29–30), billed as a major gaming event for the capital.

Britain already hosts other games conventions. We’ve reported previously on the UK Games Expo, held each year in June. It’s a show that has dramatically increased in size and importance year on year, but it is in Birmingham. That’s a central location (it’s in what the Brits refer to as the Midlands, so the clue is in the name) but Birmingham doesn’t have the glamour, appeal or immediate population of London…  There are other London-located games conventions, but these have their heart and origins with particular niches of the hobby (role-playing; war gaming) rather than board gaming. In that sense, therefore, Tabletop Gaming Live is indeed a first.

For those attending, there was a fair amount on offer. As you’d expect, there were booths from publishers and traders variously demonstrating and selling board games. For the competitive, there were tournaments. There was a hall dedicated to war gaming. There were acres of space, tables and chairs for open gaming. And there was a series of panels and talks scheduled across the two days of the show and covering a wide range of themes from the social (gaming and mental health) to the practical (tips for teaching game rules).

The issue that divided visitors was one of scale. The impressive venue and the pre-show hype led many to expect a major convention rivalling the big board game shows around the world. Some of those who arrived with such high expectations went away disappointed. There were fewer than 100 exhibitors, and several of those were on shared booths. Officially, that’s around a third the number of exhibitors at UK Games Expo, though it seemed like rather fewer. To be fair, though, this show wasn’t billed primarily as a games mart. The show promised some new releases, particularly the “official UK launch of Forbidden Sky” but, as those in the US will know, that was a game that had previously been shown and sold at Gen Con nearly two months earlier. There were other games too being shown off as new to the UK. For example, Z-Man games had a single demo copy of the other new Matt Leacock game Pandemic: Fall of Rome, although this meant most of those interested could merely look on rathe than get a chance to play it.

The size of the Alexandra Palace venue meant that it was able to offer ample space for all that was on offer. There were always plenty of tables available for open gaming; there was usually a seat for everyone who wanted to listen to a talk or panel discussion; you didn’t have to machete your way through crowded aisles to move from one booth to the next. To many visitors, these were all very big pluses. The problem for others was that, even by early afternoon, when footfall had increased, Alexandra Palace still looked fairly empty. You curse the crowds when you are having to queue for a table to set up and play your latest board game purchase but, at the other extreme, you feel awkward and self-conscious when you find yourself sitting down at an otherwise empty row of play tables.

The naysayers seemed to be in a minority: most visitors to the show seemed content with their day’s outing and judged it a good first effort. Essen Spiel, Gen Con and even UK Games Expo haven’t, however, been left quaking in either their boots or their booths. – – – – – Selwyn Ward


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