Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fifth Annual UK Game Expo

In early June I was a "featured guest" at the largest tabletop game convention in Britain, the UK Game Expo, in Birmingham England (second largest city in the UK).

The Game Expo is modeled after the big game convention in Essen, Germany in October: the objective is to give ordinary gamers the chance to play games and buy games they enjoy. So while there were lots of exhibitors, much of the space was taken up by tables where people could try out games.

The convention took place in the Clarendon Suites, but it turned out that the Clarendon Suites is a Masonic Temple being rented out for conventions! I think of the Masons as something of the 19th century, but I discovered that they are still going strong, with at least one of their chapters having been founded in the year 2000. The building was very interesting, a three story brick structure with no windows except near the entrance, and lots of half levels and stairs and small rooms, rather labyrinthine: a good place to set a D&D adventure. There were some large halls as well, and these were filled with exhibitors and gamers, among them 150 people playing War Machine. Almost all of the play was boardgames and miniatures, not CCGs or RPGs, though there were RPG publishers among the exhibitors. The seminars/panel discussions took place in the lodge rooms, quite reminiscent of small churches with wooden pews and fonts, and banners along the wall representing the Masonic chapters. There were also lots of display cases full of medals and other Masonic gewgaws. On the walls were the obligatory old-fashioned portrait paintings of their past leaders.

The convention began on Thursday with gaming in the hotel adjacent to the convention building. I arrived on Friday morning and was given a tour of the main building as the exhibitors were setting up. This building was actually open to the public on Saturday and Sunday only.

Organizer Richard Denning (a physician and a novelist as well as a convention organizer) believes they had 2,500 unique individuals and about 4,000 attendances/impressions, up about 10% or so up from last year. With about 60 million people in the UK, this compares favorably with a convention like Origins, which had fewer than 10,700 people last year. Amongst tabletop game conventions only GenCon (27,000) and perhaps the relatively new convention in Chicago, along with Essen itself, appear to have more attendees. Of course, it’s much easier for large numbers of people to get to Birmingham than to Columbus or Indianapolis.

The guys from the UK Gaming Media Network ( had organized the panels and talks, and I talked with them for quite a while, especially Mark Rivera and Michael Fox. They are a group of people bloggers and podcasters who are promoting tabletop games in the UK.

I was surprised at how much people recognized me by name. I lived in England 1976-79 while researching my doctoral dissertation, and played a considerable part in the growth of games in Britain. I wrote for the two well-known British game magazines (White Dwarf is still published) and designed Games Workshop's first published game, Valley of the Four Winds, as well as Britannia which was first published in the UK some years later. The founders of Games Workshop (which is a very large company now), Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, are now two of the big names in video gaming in Britain, having sold Games Workshop and invested the money in video game companies. Steve co-founded Lionhead Studios with Peter Molyneux, Ian is Life President of Eidos. They were going to be featured guests at the Expo but had to go to E3 instead.

I discovered that for many of these people I’m evidently part of their childhood. There was a kind of deference that I rarely see in the US. I was introduced to one gent who said "I met you when I was 10 or 12 years old", which was 30+ years ago. He remembered?! I don't get many experiences like that.

I sat on a panel of role-playing game designers, which was a bit amusing because I’ve never actually designed a standalone role-playing game. But while I lived in Britain I wrote a lot of role-playing game articles, and continued doing that in America for several years until the magazine decided they wanted all rights instead of first world serial rights. I won’t sell all rights.

I watched another panel with tabletop game designers, but it’s just as well I was not on the panel as there were eight people, which makes for an awkward situation in a one-hour time slot. In any case Martin Wallace was one of the panelists and he had lots of interesting things to say. Martin is famous for saying you can’t make a living designing games, which is why he runs a game publishing company. Though I suspect he’s doing quite well now because he is one of those designers who is asked to design games by a variety of institutions. He has been able to quit his job as a teacher and is contemplating migrating to Australia. One of his most telling comments: he’s glad he started decades ago, nowadays it’s particularly hard to get published by an existing publisher.

The publishers and designers in the UK are very much oriented toward Essen and Eurostyle games. The small publishers seem to have better prospects than the small publishers in USA. Whereas at Origins there are always some forlorn-looking booths of people trying to sell one or two games (and getting lost amongst the giants), that forlorn feeling is missing at the game Expo. My hypothesis is that because there are no large publishers in the UK, and the products of the large American publishers cost a lot more because of import fees and shipping costs, the little publishers have found a niche that isn’t really available in North America. The little guys who come to the game Expo can come year after year, as opposed to many of the little guys at Origins who can only come one year.

I met lots of interesting people, for example Chris Bayliss who was running the equivalent of an auction store (I cannot recall the British name for it, unfortunately) with a significant part of the proceeds going to charity. Chris has been a game designer and told me about his worst experience, the game Assassin published late in Avalon Hill's life. Avalon Hill messed it up very badly (it has a 3.8 [sic] rating on Boardgame Geek). He says when people get his original rules it turns out to be not a bad game despite the many physical changes (a board was added, for example).

I had been asked to give an interview to a podcast, and managed to get that in Sunday morning with Paul McClean. As I have already said in the previous post, you can listen to this Yog-Sothoth (Yog Radio) podcast at .
I was in my best form, I have to say, so I think it's worth listening to. My bit is from about :55 minutes to 1:16 (yes, it's a big podcast).

Finally I gave a talk about game design. It was scheduled for 1 PM Sunday, and I told the organizers that at 1 PM Sunday at an American convention most of the people have already left. But this convention was different, and I spoke to a packed room (60-70 people). I've not seen a game design talk better attended even in the USA. Although it was about tabletop design, I got questions about video game design as well, as the majority of tabletop game players are also video game players, and I always refer to both video and tabletop games in my talks. Audio (and slides) of the talk, “Of course you can design a game, but can you design a good one?” are at

Birmingham is a long way from North Carolina, though not so far from my relatives in Cheltenham. Who knows if I'll ever be able to attend this convention again, assuming it stays in Birmingham: it appears to be outgrowing the current building.

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