As a child I always loved board games. I have fond memories of playing games such as Sorry, Pac-Man and Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs. I remember the games of Frustration, creating elation when I sent my Mum home, when she was so close to victory or despair when she did the same to me.
I was then introduced to the role-playing world with M.E.R.P (Middle-Earth Role-Playing and Dungeons and Dragons. The natural progression was then to pick up my sword and enter the war strewn worlds of Warhammer. After spending many a merry year killing and maiming, the group of friends I played with “grew up” and moved on with their lives. I put away the dice and games, like an old warrior who puts away his weapons, knowing maybe one day they might be needed again.
In the last couple of years, I started noticing strange new games appearing, and heard rumours that boardgames were going through a renaissance and so I decided to find out what was going on. I was shocked to see the change, in the themes, types and variety of new games available. I started to buy games, (some are still shrink wrapped-I know it's wrong) and have joined a couple of groups, and have enjoyed gaming immensely.
This year I decided to go to my first UK Games Expo. It fell fortunately in a half-term holiday, and I was able to stay one night. After hearing about some of the problems of last years show, from the excellent Gameburst podcast, I wasn't sure what to expect, but was encouraged to hear that they had expanded into the NEC, rather than just using the Hilton hotel. The organizers had put trade into the NEC, along with the ‘bring and buy’ area, while the competitor events and evening festivities were held in the Hilton. I booked a hotel that was close (The Arden-recommended even if it is a short walk away from the NEC) and away I went.
I arrived on the Friday with the day starting on a positive; a two day parking pass for the cost of one-bargain!
It was the first time that I had been to the NEC, and it was a very pleasant place. It features a large lake, surrounded by hotels, numerous shops and places to eat.
I picked up my ticket, which was quick and efficient, however despite this efficiency the queues on Saturday looked long, and there was a wait.
I received a lanyard along with a very nice 64 page booklet, that had interesting articles, including one on the history of the Expo, but most importantly it featured a map, which is a must for any event.
There were quite a few people about, and I just wandered around, taking in the sights and orienteering myself. this was fairly easy, with the walkways being named and in a grid fashion.
I then made a beeline to the famous ‘bring and buy’ area. This is where people bring their own board games to sell at the Expo, with the Expo charging 10% of the sale price, which is given to one of the Expo’s chosen charities.
The line was short, but even this early the area was full with people searching for a bargain, or hunting for that game that had eluded them, before going out of print. I saw many games that I would have liked, but made a rookie mistake by not bringing enough cash, since that was the only method of making a purchase. So the only game that I could afford was The Great Fire of London 1666, a game I had been interested in due to my love of history.
I also learned that the area where new games are checked in and placed on shelves, was really busy with people just waiting, causing road blocks for others who just wanted to browse. Of course I joined in,and added to the crush.It was fun seeing a lot of classic games, I wanted but missed out due to no cash (next time Heroquest and Space Crusade you'll be mine!).
After a spot of lunch, which was surprisingly good, when compared to meals at venues, I wandered around, looking at stalls, watching games being demoed, and just enjoying the atmosphere. Despite there being a lot of people, there was room to walk around freely, and at no point on the Friday did it feel cramped.
I was then able to play one of the most popular board games-Ticket to Ride. This was the 10th Anniversary edition, which comes with a larger board, and more detailed train models. This edition was lavish and the board when compared to the standard edition was beautiful. I hadn't had a chance to play Ticket to Ride, but had heard so many good things about the game, so I wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass.
The game lived up to the hype and I thoroughly enjoyed the game. The premise is a simple one, in which you have to complete routes across USA. However this does hide a deeper strategy game, that is fun for all the family. I would recommend the game, and personally the 10th Anniversary edition is the one to go for.
I wandered across to the Hilton. Here the organisers had set up food trucks in the car park, so people were able to get the energy to continue their gaming. In addition to the tournaments which were taking place at the hotel, people could play their own games, or rent them from Thirsty Meeples.
I made an early start on the Saturday, but not as early as the horde of people that were waiting to pick up their tickets. Saturday looked it was going to be busy, and so it proved. I headed towards the ‘bring and buy’ section, this time armed with cash. The queue to get in was huge and stretched around the corner into part of the hall that wasn’t used, however it moved quickly. Soon I was in the hustle and bustle of eager hunters. I managed to pick up a few games that I wanted, all in excellent condition, with some even unplayed. I did notice that the games in the bring and buy section were overall in brilliant condition, which suggested that boardgamers treat their games with care, and don't attempt to sell mistreated products to others.
Board Games can be heavy and bulky, especially when you have a few, so I was glad to discover that the Expo offered a place you could store your games for a small fee and collect them later.
If you are videogamer then you can't have failed to hear about Dark Souls, the game that is hard but fair, but will still laugh at your pathetic attempts (certainly mine) to beat it. There is now a Dark Souls boardgame that was one of the most successfully funded games on Kickstarter, and was being demoed at the show. I have to admit, having a vested interest, since I did back the game.
The section of the game that was being shown was a boss fight. Like the video game it looked very difficult. The boss had its own movement deck and so it attacked in the directions the cards dictated, when drawn. As such a player would be able to predict the movements of the boss, however when the boss lost half of its damage new stronger cards were inserted into the deck, and the deck was reshuffled. This feature made the boss devastating and unpredictable. The players also had to balance their stamina and health bar, since running out of either would result in death.Talking to people, the boss had only been defeated a few times, so the challenge is there and for Dark Souls fans this should be one to relish,
One new game that I played was Pandemic Cthulhu, despite me having never played the original which I own. Pandemic is a massive success in the industry, and this version has you trying to stop Cthulhu, entering the world. Each player has a role, and you have to work together to close the four warp gates, while cultists spawn all over the board, like the virus in the original. To close the gates you need to collect enough clue cards of the same colour, and get to that colour gates. Shoggoth’s (big demons) will also spawn and if they are drawn into a gate, one of the 10 Cthulhu cards on the board will be revealed, making things harder for the players. If all cards are revealed then the game is lost. In addition if there are no more cultists to spawn the game is lost.
Your characters have different special abilities, and can perform a variety of actions, such as swapping cards with other players or killing cultists . each character also have have sanity points. These can be lost either through travelling through a warp gate or fighting the Shoggoths. Once all points are lost, the character is considered insane, however you are still in the game, but not able to perform as many actions.
The game mechanics are very good, and with the possibility of things going wrong at the start (a greater demon spawned right on a warpgate at the start of the game), it can be a real challenge. However despite losing I had a lot of fun with the game, and look forward to playing it again.
Part of the Expo was devoted to new game ideas, where people can play new prototype games. One I played was a cryptic card game. It was a basic game where you had to decipher the clue on the card and you won the card. The game had potential, but I have a dislike for cryptic clue games, where I have to flounder by myself, so did not enjoy the game.
Another game that I had the pleasure to play was Bear Valley from Stronghold games. You along with the other players are lost in the woods trying to get to the escape camp. All the characters have a weakness, which makes it harder to escape. e.g. my character refused to enter caves due to a fear of the dark, so was unable to travel across cave tiles.
It had a Carcassonne feel to it where you randomly selected tiles, and had to match these up to the tiles already placed. The more tiles you took, the greater the chance you were going to be lost, which ended your go. Other hazards were water and bears, so safe routes were long in the creation. I did enjoy the game, while the theme to me had meaning to me, since I have have had close encounters with bears in the woods.
I chatted to the makers of Table Top Magazine. They were really friendly and nice people, who talked about their future plans such as possibly going bi-monthly. They also had recently gone on sale in Tesco, due to the chairman of Tesco loving boardgames. The magazine is brilliantly written, and needs the support of board gamers, to justify the faith shown by Tesco and WhSmith. So shameless plug-go buy it!
There were also talks and shows going on such as The Dark Room hosted by John Robertson, however this was fully booked, but I hear it was a highlight. Tom Vasel and Sam Healey from The Dice Tower hosted a couple of shows. Queues were long for the first one, but those who failed to get into the first chat were guaranteed tickets for the second which was good of the organisers.
A couple of criticisms about the talks, were that there should have been a stage, which would allow people people at the back to see what was happening. In addition the NEC announcer did drown out the speakers, so it was difficult to hear people speaking.
So with that my time at the UK Games Expo ended. It was an awesome experience. The show was well organised, with a variety of things to do. The use of the NEC pleased the people that I spoke to, and the separation of retail from tournaments worked extremely well. People were extremely friendly and always willing to talk, and even though the Saturday was busier, you were able to wander around fairly easy.
A personal disappointment was that I only stayed a couple of days, so next year I will try and stay for the whole Expo.