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UKGE 2018

[Games and gaming are international phenomenons and people all around the world will gather to share their passion about them and the fun they have. GenCon and Origins in the United States and Essen in Germany are only a few of the sites that draw gamers each year. In this article, Selwyn Ward shares an eyewitness account of the United Kingdom Game Expo held this year at Birmingham, England.]

UKGE 2018

by Selwyn Ward

 

From very humble beginnings in a hotel suite a little over a decade ago, the UK Games Expo (UKGE) has grown pretty much exponentially. Though some of the show’s events continue to be hosted at the Hilton Hotel, UKGE is now mainly accommodated in the cavernous halls of the neighbouring National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham.

It has to be said, Birmingham in England’s industrial West Midlands is not one of Britain’s most exotic locations. But then, to be fair, outside of October’s International Spieltage, Essen is hardly at the beating heart of Germany and few would rank GenCon’s Indianapolis as the USA’s top city. Also, Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre isn’t the most luxurious venue. The “piazza” area outside the main halls has been refurbished but the halls themselves are showing their age (it’s >40 years since they opened). That said, the location of UK Games Expo has the convenience of accessibility: the NEC is quite literally attached to the Birmingham International railway station; making it a ride of just 10 minutes into Birmingham’s city centre and only around 80 minutes from the centre of London.

UKGE is a show that has grown by a staggering 30% or more every year. This year saw total attendance over the three days of more than 39,000, with around 21,700 unique visitors. The number of exhibitors has also grown, up this year to more than 375. Like the visitors, Expo attracts an eclectic mix of exhibitors from the large big name international games publishers to specialist retailers to budding designers previewing their new games in advance of a Kickstarter launch

For many of the visitors the great attraction of UK Games Expo is not the “shop till you drop” experience but the opportunity to meet up with other gamers and sit down to play games. The show organizers are to be commended not just for recognizing this but for going the extra mile in accommodating the demand.

UK Games Expo isn’t just a showcase and marketplace for board games. Key to its success in attracting visitors in ever greater numbers every year is its sustained focus on games playing rather than merely marketing and selling. Though still dwarfed by Essen Spiel, UK Games Expo scores over Essen and many other shows because it offers such extensive facilities for actually playing games. Various official national and international board and card game tournaments are run as part of the Expo programme but, on top of this, UKGE also offers acres of table space for “open gaming”. In the past, this has been limited to a large hall within the Hilton but this year, the open gaming space was massively expanded with the addition of a good proportion of one of the main NEC halls.

                        Martin Wallace directing play of his game “Lincoln”

UKGE is still very much a UK domestic show but its growth has meant it is increasingly attracting visitors from elsewhere in Europe and even from the USA. It has still yet to achieve the calendar status of GenCon or Essen Spiel as the place to launch new board games although, with Expo’s year-on-year growth, it is surely only a matter of time before publishers realize the merit in specifically targeting games for June release at UKGE. The show issues a host of best game awards but these lack the status and impact of Germany’s Spiel des Jahres, not least because of the proliferation of award categories (there were two awards in each of 15 separate categories this year, including “Best New Accessory” and “Best New Expansion”). It doesn’t help either that the word “new” is interpreted rather loosely resulting, this year, in Stronghold’s Great Western Trail (featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Gamers Alliance Report) being judged 2018’s “Best New Euro-style Board Game”, even though this game was published way back in Autumn 2016.

Less controversial was the induction this year of Martin Wallace into the UK Games Expo “Hall of Fame”: an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of a veteran games designer. Martin was also in evidence at the PSC booth, demonstrating prototypes of his new game Lincoln, which funded recently on Kickstarter.

The magic of minis remains undimmed, it seems. A lot of the games attracting the biggest crowds were titles featuring quantities of plastic figures. Mythic Games were showing off some of the micro minis from their Time of Legends: Joan of Arc game, currently in production after a highly successful ($2 million plus) Kickstarter. They were also previewing prototypes of their new game Solomon Kane, based on the Robert E. Howard character. The minis for this game are of regular size and displayed impressive detail: the storytelling game play too looked interesting.

Another mini-heavy game attracting a lot of attention at the show was Grimlord Games’ Village Attacks. This is now about to deliver to its Kickstarter backers.

When it was first released, Brain Games’ Ice Cool (featured in the Spring 2017 GA Report) was a huge hit. Inevitably it has spawned a sequel, playable both as a standalone game while also designed to be combined with the original Ice Cool for a mega penguin-based dexterity game. The publishers must be kicking themselves: had it been released at UKGE, it would have sold in huge numbers.

Previews of unreleased games aside, the nearest thing that could be found to games newly released at UKGE were titles of upcoming games where the publishers brought over just a handful of copies. Each of the retailers at the show had a tiny allocation of copies of Plan B Games’ much anticipated follow-up to Century Spice Road but these were quickly snapped up; certainly before I could get to try it or show it off on Board’s Eye View (www.boardseyeview.net).

The growing popularity of the UK Games Expo has priced me out of the hotels at the NEC site but I’ve already instead booked an apartment in the centre of Birmingham for next June’s show. If you too fancy visiting the show next year, the dates for your diary are 31 May – 2 June 2019. See you there! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Selwyn Ward


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