UK Games Expo 2023 – Convention Report
Over the first weekend of June 2023 the NEC in Birmingham, UK played host to the UK Games Expo once again, and it was fantastic. I attended before in 2021 and 2022 (you can read about them here and here respectively), and just as I did those two times, I was there with my Press hat on. As such, this year I’m going to break this report into two sections. First up is my take on the show as a whole; what it was like, who was there, what could you do. After that is a more personal take, where I’ll talk about how it was for me, and what I did.
UKGE: The Convention
I suspected this year would be a big one, and I was right. Unique attendees went up to 32K this year from 25K last year. That’s an insane number of people, all descending on three halls to buy, sell, talk about, and play games. If it sounds like that number of people would make things very busy, then you’re right. At times certain areas of the halls were absolutely rammed with people. I’m thinking of places like the main thoroughfare between halls one and two, just past the top of the stairs. A combination of a lot of people, retailers with a lot of browsers taking up aisle space, and people walking around with enormous board game backpacks didn’t help.
Seriously folks, If you’re wearing one of these, remember that when you turn side-on to traffic to dig through bargains, you turn into a heavy, swinging saloon door. For the second year in a row, I saw a kid obliterated by a bag. Not good times for them.
Other than those minor gripes, the rest of the show was pretty awesome. There was such a good buzz around the place all of the time, right from the time the doors opened at 9am on Friday. I visited my friend at the Ravensburger stand and asked about the big queue that had already formed, only to find out it was for Lorcana, the new Disney CCG. Mark my words, Lorcana is going to be HUGE. To put that statement into context, I understand that the queue was hours long at times, and this was a queue just to play the game. You couldn’t buy it, it hasn’t been released yet. Disney, in true Disney fashion, is going to make an absolute killing with Lorcana.
One of the things I love to see at board game conventions is how welcoming a hobby it is. UKGE, despite its size, still manages to keep that feeling alive. I saw people of all ages, genders, races, and abilities all over the halls the entire time, and all having a good time. People in wheelchairs were given space to move through the aisles, even when it was crowded.
My favourite moment from the weekend was on the first morning of the expo. I stayed near the airport, which is a short monorail ride away, followed by a walk over the concourse between the railway station and the NEC. For the whole of my journey, I was surrounded by people from all walks of life who were chatting and visibly excited. Seeing grown men dressed in all manner of geeky clothes as excited as kids on Christmas morning was a timely reminder of just how important events like these are. Opportunities to be this way dwindle as the years go by when we become responsible adults. Being able to relax, let down your receding hairline, and just be yourself is heaven-sent.
I was especially pleased to see this on the display boards on the walk over from the train station. It’s exactly the sort of message we should all support. Well done, NEC.
All of the things the UKGE is known for were present. The Bring and Buy was huge again, and so were the queues, both to check games in and to get in and browse. I know some people go to conventions especially for the bring and buys, and that’s great, just make sure you take the time to see the rest of the show.
The open gaming area was kitted out in its usual yellow livery courtesy of Game Toppers play mats, and once again there was plenty of space to just sit and play games, whether that’s with old friends or new ones. I like the way the food trucks are in the corner of hall three, where open gaming is. It means you can grab a bite to eat and a drink while you take some respite from the craziness of the main show floor. One word of advice I’d give to everyone attending is to make sure you take a water bottle with you. It gets very hot in there, and the NEC has free refill stations. Just don’t be a dummy and leave your bottle – which you brought especially – in your car in the car park. I’d hate to be that person, right?
There was a huge range of vendors, from the wall-of-games retailers like Chaos Cards, Games Lore, Firestorm Cards, and others, right down to the one-man bands making jewellery and accessories. As tempting as it is to just blow all your money on the latest hotness, I urge you to walk around and look. Really look. Talk to the people behind their stands, because there’s some great stuff waiting to be discovered. I found a stand selling prints of gorgeous hand-drawn anime-inspired posters which made for a great gift for my son.
UKGE runs tons of events during the days and evenings, but I can’t really comment on them, as I don’t go to them. My time is divided between meetings with publishers, catching up with friends, and playing games. I only wish I had more of it.
…and the unexpected
I was caught by surprise by a few things this year. Firstly by Dungeons & Dragons, who I don’t even remember having a presence before. They had a huge area with really impressive displays and umpteen tables where people could have taster sessions in the RPG phenomenon. I didn’t play myself, but I spoke to others who did, and the feedback was really positive. Friendly, welcoming DMs who knew their audience and helped make RPGs more accessible for newcomers. Kudos, D&D.
Another thing that not only surprised me but also sent waves of nostalgia crashing over me, was Tomy’s stand. We had a Screwball Scramble game when I was a kid, and Tomy were running a Screwball Scramble championship over the weekend.
The biggest surprise of all was one particular serendipitous moment. I was meeting with Mighty Boards, talking about one of their games. The designer of that game just happened to be sitting next to us. While we were talking, somebody I work with – who had made the trip to Birmingham without me knowing – walked past and said hello. The designer of the game who had flown in from Malta, who was sitting next to us, just happened to be an old friend of my work colleague, and they used to work together!
It’s a small world indeed.
My UK Games Expo
It was another whirlwind for me. After picking-up Paul (Grogan, of Gaming Rules!) from his house on the way, I got to my hotel late in the afternoon, and barely had time for a quick freshen-up before I was out the door again. Thursday evenings at UKGE are when the Press get a preview show, when we can go in and talk to the various publishers and designers before the madness of the convention starts the following morning. It was great to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for a year, including Joe and Maddie from Cogito Ergo Meeple, whose Solar 175 I covered here some time back. The rest of the night involved a few overpriced beers and some games with my friends from the Gaming Rules! Slack server, also joined by Branislav and his friend, from the Nithrania Youtube channel.
Friday for me was a mixture of meetings and browsing. I met up with Pandasaurus who were back at the Expo after a long Hiatus, Mighty Boards, Dave from Paverson Games (I covered their game, Distilled, here), Wise Wizard Games, and finally I met with OIa again, from Board&Dice. I really enjoy these meetings. Sometimes it’s just good to put a name to a face, and other times you learn things about really exciting projects and games for the coming year or two. If you run a board game channel, podcast, or blog, I highly recommend making these meetings. It gives you some really valuable insight into the other side of the industry.
I was pretty restrained when it came to shopping this year. I’m lucky in that I got to take a few review copies of games home with me, but even so, I’d normally spend whatever money I take with me. This time though, I didn’t. I treated myself to a copy of Pax Pamir 2nd Edition (I was hoping to bump into Cole Wehrle, the designer, but missed him) and a copy of Next Station: London, but that’s it. I know – check me out. The very model of restraint.
Look mum, I’m famous
On a personal level, I’m very proud of the fact I had a pitch for an article in the expo’s programme accepted, and it was great to see it in print at the show. If you went, and if you have a copy of the programme, you can turn to pages 24 & 25 to read my piece about worker-placement in games.
I’m not a fan of people with egos, or show-offs, but in the same breath, I’m told that there’s nothing wrong in having pride in something you’ve made. Here’s the something I made.
Massive thanks to so many people who make the UKGE what it is. From all of the staff at the NEC, the organisers and volunteers of UKGE itself, through to the friendly staff at the hotel. This is especially true of the people who helped make memories with me. Paul for the company in the car on the way up and the game on Saturday evening. My new friends Branislav and Peter from Slovakia. J P, Becky and the rest of the crew from Who’s Turn Is It Anyway podcast (go listen to it, it’s good, I promise). A very special thanks to my extended Gaming Rules! Slack family – John, John, Mak, Peter, Clare, Ben, Jonny, Graham, Leanne, Mark, and the ever-shy-and-retiring Jill. If I missed you on the list, it’s nothing personal, I just have a memory like a sieve.
I’ll see you all next year, if not before at Gridcon in November.