Review by Stephen Mingo
The 2020 UK Games Expo became “virtually expo” with thanks to our arch-enemy, the coronavirus. A lot of us were pining for that one weekend a year where we can become the full time nerd we always knew we were. Whilst we still got our fix online, for the most part, the anticipation is high for 2021’s convention. The virtual weekend has come and gone and I felt now would be a good time to lift some spirits and lighten that long wait by reminiscing of my first Expo experience back in 2017. If you’ve never been to one, read on to find out why you should.
Arriving at the NEC in Birmingham, I make my way down to Hall 1 where I am about to attend my first ever board game convention – The U.K Games Expo. The first clue that I’m in the right place is when a perfectly detailed cosplay of Sailor Moon walks right past me clutching a brand new copy of the Dark Souls board game, heading in the opposite direction toward the on-site Hilton Hotel. It’s 10am on Sunday, the last of the three days of the packed out event, and I’m brimming with excitement about what could possibly be in store for me.
I’ve been a fan of board games for longer than I can remember, with my earliest tabletop memory being a game of Monopoly in a cold static caravan in the midst of a torrential Cornish rain storm. These days I’m into slightly more complex things like Gloomhaven, Codenames, Munchkin and Wingspan. In the past few years I’ve become the co-organiser of a successful weekly gaming group in Devon, as well as a Dungeons & Dragons DM… But I’ve never attended anything like this before. The nerd in me was ready to come out and play. Without fear of judgement, and completely by myself, I was unleashed to revel in the delights of board games, cosplay, exhibitions and maximum level geekery.
As I claim my ticket, my lanyard and a free copy of the luxuriously glossy 102 page programme, I am practically vibrating with excitement. I high-five an attendant wearing a giant foam ‘Dobble’ hand on the way in, and subsequently bump in to a fully armoured Uruk-Hai warrior who later tries to claim my head in the name of Saruman during a photo op. My senses are completely overwhelmed as I reach for my camera to start recording for my YouTube channel. I instantly regret only booking for 1 day as my eyes scan the enormous hall set before me and I try to process it all. It’s also the same weekend as Collectormania in Hall 5 directly opposite (hence the over-abundance of cosplayers perhaps), and I try to contain my excitement as I am aware that Stargate’s Dr. Daniel Jackson is in that very room signing autographs. This is truly the Disney World of nerdism.
I decide to start walking around, any direction is fine. It’s not long before I experience a number of eyebrow raising moments; an enormous Dropzone Commander space ship model on display, an actual double-decker bus designed specifically for playing board games in and what appears to be a wall covered in hundreds of board games for sale. I then hear an announcement in an echoing voice say, “Ladies and Gentleman the Viking combat display is about to take place outside by the lake. That’s the Viking combat display, outside by the lake.” Vikings? I’m speechless.
The day before this I had seen on Twitter that the people behind one of my favourite running apps, Zombie’s Run, would be demoing their upcoming board game. So, I set about finding them as a starting point and promptly put my name down to play a half hour session, my first game of the day. I then met the game’s designer, he was standing right there, I even shook his hand and everything. What amazes me throughout the day is that these enormously popular games are, for the most part, being explained by the actual people who made them. They don’t send staff to do the job for them, they are passionate and care about their creation enough to explain it to you face to face. At this point, I’m grinning like an idiot as I finish evading the zombie hordes and set off to wander around the NEC.
Look at all those Dark Souls board games for sale, I say to myself. Later that day I met up with a couple of friends, and we went on to try out a few more board games, one was great and one not so good – such is the nature of the experimental play-testing section of the Expo. Some of the highlights of my day included; haggling some amazing bargains on brand new board games, picking up a Guards Against Insanity expansion for a fiver (normally £14 on Amazon), making some new friends, meeting some amazing and talented cosplayers including a jaw-dropping Elven Princess type character and of course, seeing lots of cool new games on display.
This was my first time experiencing something like this and it certainly won’t be my last. After I’d made my way home, and talked my wife’s ear off about the things I’d seen, I flicked through the programme in a bit more detail. It was there I realised I’d missed out on open gaming on the Friday and Saturday “until late”, live entertainment, seminars and workshops, a massive Pokemon tournament and there was also John Robertson’s The Dark Room live action video game comedy show. I dropped the book in disgust, not with the Expo but with myself for not planning ahead and missing out on SO MUCH COOL STUFF.
As I sit here silently in my living room and finish writing up my experience, I make a vow to myself: I’m definitely going next year, for the full three days this time, and I’m going to try my hardest to bring a cosplay outfit too. I then read online that the U.K Games Expo has grown in popularity so much so that it is now the third most popular tabletop gaming convention in the world after Gen-Con (U.S.A) and Essen (Essen, obviously).
The Golden Age of Geekery has arrived my friends. And It. Is. Beautiful.