If you’ve never been to a games convention, I highly recommend it! At its best, it’s like stepping outside the real world into a magical place where everyone shares your love of a particular hobby, and you can spend a few uninterrupted days playing your favourite games with enthusiastic strangers, any or all of whom might be dressed as stormtroopers at the time.
The UK Games Expo advertises itself as the biggest hobby gaming convention in the country, and its tenth event this weekend was an impressive ambassador for the increasingly mainstream pastime. With about 12,500 attendees across the three days according to early figures, the convention dwarfs most other UK cons and is starting to compete on size with some major European and American events.
For the first time this year, the convention trade hall was located in the NEC in Birmingham, and Hall 1 was full of the UK games industry’s finest, selling everything from board, card and roleplaying games, to minis to play them with and specialist gaming tables to play them on. There was a great mix of vendors with loads of people giving demos, as well as a board game lending library and lots of room to play. Despite being packed with goodies, the hall was bright and spacious with wide aisles between the stands, and neither the cosplayers in giant space marine armour nor the people in wheelchairs seemed to be having significant difficulty getting around.
The other big hub of activity was the Hilton Metropole Hotel where most of the open gaming areas and scheduled events could be found, five minutes’ walk from the NEC round Pendigo Lake. The Hilton lobby and the collection of food trucks outside felt like the centre of the community, and despite the high bar prices and the faintly inapposite ‘no games in the bar’ rule, it was a lovely place to hang out and chat at the heart of the hustle and bustle. I would have liked to see some drinking water fountains around the place around the place, especially given how warm some of the gaming rooms were, but it’s a minor niggle.
RPGs were played in conference rooms in the hotel, with eight round tables to a room and seven seats at each table. Things were close together and a bit noisy, though no more so than gaming at a pub, and the games I played in were fantastic. Everyone at the tables looked like they were having a lot of fun. The selection of games is dependent on what GMs want to run and there was some excellent indie fare on offer in amongst the D&D and Pathfinder, but it was a little sparse. Event tickets are booked in advance so you have to be quick on the keyboard to pick up slots in the games you want to play, and some clearer communication about when things went on sale would have been handy for first timers.
Everything at the con had an extremely welcoming, energetic, family-friendly feel, and the volunteer horde were all upbeat and helpful. That said, Expo does lack an anti-harassment policy which can be a deal-breaker for some potential con-goers and vendors, and while there was a good showing of female attendees and volunteers, the featured programming was fairly overwhelmingly white and male – something it would be great to see the Expo team work on for years to come.
So overall, would I recommend Expo to an indie gamer? Yes, absolutely! Whether you’re a first timer or a convention veteran, the UK Games Expo has loads to offer. What’s more, I’d love to see more indie RPGs in the schedule and more indie players signing up for them and helping to bring our subset of this growing hobby to a wider audience. I’m planning to offer to run a game or two next year – how about you?