Wednesday, 29 June 2016

UK Games Expo 2016

For the third year in a row, I've had the good luck to spend a weekend in Birmingham. To most people, that wouldn't necessarily qualify as good luck, but then I do choose to do this on the one weekend in the year when it is the UK Games Expo - one of the biggest geek events in the UK, and the self-proclaimed "largest Hobby Games Convention in the UK."

The event has obviously been growing year-on-year, and 2016 marked the first time that the Expo felt the need to expand into the NEC, taking over Hall 1 for the duration. Given that one of my concerns on the previous two trips was how little room to move there often was in the various trade halls, this seemed like a good call.

Making use of the hall at the NEC allowed the space at the Hilton next door to be used for a variety of organised play, as well as providing a free play area in the evenings after the trade hall had closed. Given this allowed the Expo to host what I believe to be the largest X-Wing event on record, at over 400 players, I think we can say this was a success.

Overall, I'd say the same about the big trade hall - while it looked busy until late Sunday afternoon, you could move around most sections much easier than you'd been able to in the hotel, and the larger area allowed for some interesting stand designs - take a bow Wotan Games, for their converted double decker bus.

I'd say there were still a couple of areas to work on. Firstly, the bring and buy - given the size of the queues I saw for it on the Saturday, some sort of divider to fence the queue off from passing traffic would be an idea, as would be making the corridor in front of it that bit wider - it was one of the few areas where it was still tricky to get through at times.

The other thing I'm hoping the team behind the Expo reconsider is having a seminar room in the main hall, and holding them all in the hotel next year. Initially, I thought it might work, as there would be minimal disruption getting to a seminar, and I'd planned on attending two of them over the weekend1. While I went to the first one I planned, the level of background noise from the hall - and the ever-intrusive tannoy announcement - made it a less than enjoyable experience.

Looking into the seminar "room" - no doors, no ceiling, no sound-proofing. Back in the hotel for 2017, please!
From talking to four of the panel over the weekend, it was even worse for them, as they couldn't hear each other speak, let alone take questions from the audience effectively. At least the audience had the benefit of the speakers to hear the panel. I even felt sorry for the staff member they had managing the sound system, and she kept apologising to the panel during the seminar.

Now I've got my main concerns out of the way, time to take a look at some things I enjoyed, or tried, or bought at the show.

Dark Souls

My soul, it is dark...
Having backed the ridiculously successful Kickstarter earlier in the year, I was hoping to get a demo of the game while at Expo. Unfortunately, every time I passed the Steamforged Games stand, people were queuing at least two deep around the demo area they had set up, so that didn't happen. On the other hand, I did manage to sidle my way into a position to watch about half of one of the demo games, so at least I got a feel for it.

Given that I know some aspects of the game are still in development, I would say that it looks good - if rather difficult - thus far. I like the concept of using the nodes in place of a standard grid for movement, even if it does mean you can't reuse the tiles easily for other games2. It does look very difficult, though I'm told by friends who have played the computer games that this fits with that experience - at the point I stopped watching the demo, I couldn't see how the two PCs were going to be able to take down the boss.

The AI deck to manage the Big Bad means that the single-player mode should play well, and the fact that each boss comes with more action cards that you'll use in a given game should add to the replayability. I liked the choice between blocking and dodging as a defensive option, and how this will allow further distinction between physically strong characters and agile characters. I am curious as to what the two mental stats will be used for, though - I think they were referred to as Faith and Intelligence,

To top it off, as with the Guild Ball3 sculpts, the renders of the models look excellent, which is always a bonus with a board game.

Dark Deeds

My deeds, they are dark...
In the month leading up to Games Expo, I'd discussed a video of game one of the owners of my LGS had been watching. It turned out that this was a video from AdeptiCon, showing a game called Dark Deeds. Aside from a passing mention that the rules had been developed by Andy Chambers, and that resolution had seemed to involve a single roll of a d124 per turn, he didn't seem that taken with the game. Assuming this meant it would be stocked, I didn't think anything more of it.

Whilst wandering around the show on the Saturday, I chanced upon the Games & Gears stand, and found to my pleasant surprise that the guys behind the Dark Deeds game were also the guys I'd teamed up with at the Warmahordes European Team Challenge at Maelstrom Games back in 2010, Sam and Andres. After chatting with one of the guys - and being given a free brush as a sample - I promised to return for a demo during the weekend.

Sunday rolled around, and given we'd made the decision to skip the seminar we were going to see, I prompted my friend to try the Dark Deeds demo out. I was a touch apprehensive of how it would play. Given we experienced a limited demo (with cut-down decks), I can't comment on the full game, but I enjoyed the demo I had. The components are of a good quality, and I loved the use of Mark Gibbons' art on the cards5. The wooden tokens and the playmat for the street were signs of the quality, too.

For those of you unaware of Dark Deeds, the players represent a group of thieves or other ne'er-do-wells looking to make your money mugging local dignitaries whilst avoiding the Town Watch and eluding your nemeses. Each crime you commit increase the locals' suspicion of you, but if you're successful, will also lead you to victory - or gaol, should your luck desert you.

As I mentioned above, I enjoyed the demo of the game, but I do think the price point is too high, even for premium quality components. £42 for 100 cards, plus playmat and tokens, seems a good £7-12 too high, compared to what I've seen in the market at the moment.


Time to get knotted?
Time to switch focus again, this time to a game that I'm sure needs no introduction, but which I hadn't played before the Expo - Tsuro. As a way of taking a break from wandering the show on Sunday, trying an established game seemed like a good idea. We ended up playing three games of Tsuro back-to-back, firstly one-on-one, then twice more with two X-Wing refugees.

The basics are straightforward - you place a tile each turn, and move your marker along the strands to an exit point, trying to avoid crashing into another player or sending yourself off the edge of the board.

For a game with such simple mechanics, it gets surprisingly tactical - each tile you place to move around the board changes  your options for turns down the line, and and unexpected placement from your opponent can leave you crashing out with ease.

I can certainly see why Tsuro has a good reputation as a family game - simple to learn, yet I wouldn't describe it as easy to master. Not a bad price point, either - my LGS shows the original version for sale at £25, while the expanded version (Tsuro of the Seas) is £30.

Playtest Area

One of the bits of the Expo that has been a highlight each year has been the Playtest Area. When you've had enough of shopping, or listening to people's spiel about their new product, you could take the chance to get involved somewhat earlier in the development process. Run by the people by Playtest UK, it gives exposure to up-and-coming games, and allows designers to get structured feedback from a wider audience - and the fact you get entered into a prize draw for joining in for a playtest never hurts.

The last couple of years, I've taken the chance to test multiple games, but this year there was so much to look at on the Saturday that it was only on Sunday afternoon that we got chance to do some testin'. As a result, we were only able to test one game, but I'd like to think we gave the tires a decent kick.

The game in question was using the working title RockGasSun, and was being developed by a guy called Tom6. I believe this was only the third time he'd tested his game, so this was definitely a case of getting in at the ground floor. A tile-based space exploration and development game, Tom was using the tiles and meeples from Carcassonne as the core of his game, with a deck of upgrade cards off to one side.

For a game so early in the development process, RockGasSun played pretty well. There were a couple of minor issues as Tom had made a change to some mechanics following his last test and not updated certain cards in light of it, but we were able to adapt to that on the fly. I'm not entirely sure he expected the attempt at building space's largest asteroid so I only had to deploy one rock miner, but it turned out to be both amusing and effective when combined with upgrades that made my mining more efficient.

I'm certain there'll be more work on it in the meantime, but I'm hoping to see more from this game in the future. Hopefully Tom will be back next year for another round of testing following a year's work, maybe even incorporating some of the ideas we gave him during our testing.

Oathsworn Miniatures

Each year I go to the Expo, I come away having found some new game or line that intrigues me, often at the smaller end of the scale. Last year it was Macrocosm's Digger Corps and Malignancy7, along with the undead astronauts I picked up from them at Triples, while this year it was Oathsworn Miniatures - in particular, their Burrows & Badgers line.

"For the Abbey!" "Wait, Matt, we forgot the license..."
The Burrows & Badgers line, as shown above, looks perfect for your anthropomorphic animal needs, particularly games like Mouse Guard, or anything in a Redwall-esque8 universe. The Badger Mercenary needs special mention, as he seems an awesome sculpt, though one I passed on at the time. I have picked up a few figures to paint up, and will probably do a review on them at some stage.

One quick point about Oathsworn - they seem to be one of the few companies around which has put their money where their mouth is with a "sensibly-garbed female adventurer" range under the Heroines in Sensible Shoes brand. Why am I mentioning this? They're doing a second wave for the range, and it is on Kickstarter now9. Their take on an Owlbear intrigues me.

Meet the authors

As with many conventions, there are usually a selection of artists and authors around the show, along with the occasional genre-appropriate celebrity - take a bow, Colin Baker. In previous years I've been able to meet - and get books signed by - Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson, while last year I got a copy of the Pax Britannia trilogy signed by Jonathan Green.

This year was no different - the Expo had four fiction authors present, including the returning Jonathan Green, as well as a number of authors of RPGs, gamebooks and other rules sets. Jonathan was a pleasure to speak to on the Sunday afternoon, and seemed to enjoy discussing the Pax Britannia series, how he came to write an Alice in Wonderland adventure gamebook, and just how sharks have become such a large - and vicious - part of pop culture. He was also kind enough to throw in a deck of themed playing cards when I bought the gamebook, which I can't complain about.

Just a little light reading to bring back with me...
Earlier in this post, I mentioned the seminar I attended on the Saturday of Expo. I managed to talk to three of the panel away from the seminar, including Joe Dever, the author behind the Lone Wolf series of adventure gamebooks, and worked with Cubicle 7 on the Lone Wolf Adventure Game. Joe made a point of coming up to me and shaking my hand after the seminar. After wandering around the show for a while, I found myself at the Cubicle 7 stand and was able to have a bit of a chat with him.

What I hadn't realised was how much work had gone into the setting before the first Lone Wolf book was written - seven years of world-building to get to that point. And any series which makes it to 29 books published - plus a RPG in the same setting - must be doing something right. Getting the chance to talk to Joe about his process for a bit was interesting - and it was great to see his reaction as gamers of various ages and nationalities came up to the stand to tell him how much they'd enjoyed his books as they were growing up. I came away with a signed copy of his new book10, and a newfound appreciation for the writing process.

The other pair of authors I got the chance to chat with were Ed Jowett and Johnathan Lewis from Shades of Vengeance - two other survivors of the Saturday seminar experience. Johnathan described himself as an expert in writing villains - including having worked for DC on Green Lantern, when Kyle Rayner was the focus of the book - while Ed had written several games which he was producing under the Era brand.

Both guys were happy to talk, and it was interesting to hear Johnathan's tips on writing a villain - I like the idea of taking character traits from your players, and combining them in a way that they're defeating what they don't like about themselves. I also liked the design of the USB drive for the digital version of Era: The Consortium I picked up11, alongside the small game Era: Lyres. I'm looking forwards to reading the 500 years of history described to me in the former, and possibly running the latter as a filler game for my Monday night group.

Final thoughts

Time to wrap this behemoth up:

  • Do I recommend going to the UK Games Expo next year? Absolutely.
  • Are there things which can be improved? Certainly.
  • Is there enough to see and do if you're not taking part in the organised play? Indeed there is - I'm sure I've missed a whole host of stuff off here, and there were all sorts of games to try out I never got to.
  • Will I see you there? Assuming the zombie apocalypse doesn't start between now and then, you should do.
Now to go spend some time with the new shinies. My precious....

1 - Making Roleplaying Game Design Fit The Theme on Saturday afternoon, and What Use Is Art In Games? on Sunday morning, if you're curious.
2 - With a standard grid, for example, they look like they'd give a very characterful map for Pathfinder.
3 - Speaking of Guild Ball, I did find it weird that Steamforged Games didn't fetch enough of the show-only Flint model with them. While I was able to order him online, it felt a bit odd - as did the fact they hadn't fetched the Season 1 Upgrade cards with them. On the other hand, at least I was able to get the show-only dice set from their stand, while being able to order the figure and cards from their website, which were with me by mid-week.
4 - Truly the red-headed stepchild of the dice world, even more so than the much-maligned d8. Still, at least it won't act as a caltrop if you drop it and forget about it...
5 - And as my compatriot pointed out, being able to play a card titled "Sod Off" to prevent things happening is a very British thing to do.
6 - Who you can find on Twitter as @tomburplebri.
7 - The Digger Corps and the Malignancy in no way resemble old-school Squats and Genestealer Cults respectively, no sir, nuh-huh.
8 - Speaking of which, I only found out while researching elements for this article that Brian Jacques passed away in 2011. A definite shame, as I enjoyed the books when I was in high school.
9 - For given values of now. If you're reading this after July 7th 2016, the campaign has finished...
10 - One thing I didn't realise until checking some points for this piece that there was an 18 year gap between the original releases of books 28 & 29 in the series. I may even get around to doing a comparative look at the roleplaying aspects of Lone Wolf, Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Alice's Nightmare in Wonderland at some point...
11 - That would be the silver business card thing on the above picture, with a flip-out plug to go into the drive.