As the largest convention in the United Kingdom and one of the biggest across Europe, the UK Gaming Expo (UKGE) has earned its spot as a world-class board game convention. If you’re anywhere in Europe, UKGE and Essen are the two biggies alongside any number of smaller, regionally-focused conventions.
I went to UKGE last year as a volunteer, but I ended up wandering the halls without much of a plan. This year, I booked appointments, had a list of booths to stop by, and made it a point to try and network with specific people.
This post is split up into three major sections: my experiences at UKGE, my thoughts about UKGE, and tips if you go to UKGE next year.
(Read a scenario, then come up with a way to solve it with cards from your hand. Cool game.)
Getting in and arriving is perhaps the smoothest time I’ve ever seen at any convention, period.
UKGE is held at the National Exhibition Centre (the NEC) in Birmingham, England, and this building is directly connected to the Birmingham Airport. Exit the airport’s baggage area, walk through the airport (picking up some currency or other needs along the way), then board the free shuttle train connecting the airport to the NEC. Once across, there’s a major train station and bus stops (look for the signs and head down the escalators to street level) — head straight and follow the crowds in.
In other words, you can literally step off the plane and be at the convention (clearing customs, getting bags, and so on) in less than half an hour. Amazing.
The perpetually-dragon-themed guide offers a ton of info (and ads from booths) on what to expect. This year’s guide noted the show now uses 35 times more space than they did during the first UKGE in 2007. Halls 1 and 2 are the main exhibitions and booths, and where you’re likely to spend most of your time. Hall 3a was for the Bring’n’Buy event (an organized yard-sale-like event), a number of tournaments, and open gaming space. The NEC’s Toute Suite is the main hall for performances and events, while other events were held in the PIaza Suites. (The guide notes a Viking Village and Chow Street in other facilities nearby, though I never found myself heading there.)
The open gaming areas were surprisingly full, even hours after the trade halls closed.
At the risk of sounding like a cliche, there really is something for everyone. Thousands of seats in the open gaming areas, cosplay stuff, children’s RPG’s, live shows, a number of seminars, and (for designers), a number of events in the publisher-designer track. A Shop&Drop lets you store stuff so you’re not carrying it all with you, a playtesters zone lets you try some new indie games on the bleeding edge of the gaming world, and a Pack&Post ships games back home if you can’t fit them in your luggage.
With two large halls to meander through, you’d be forgiven for not seeing everything even over three full days. In re-reading the guide or chatting in the Facebook groups about game design, I’ve come across more than one person, game, or event I wished I could’ve enjoyed, but don’t remember seeing…
It was great to see the diversity of humans come out to UKGE — it’s just a guess, but 30-40% of the crowd were women, and kids were seen everywhere across the convention. Plenty of nerdy shirts to go around, but also a fair number of people dressed in costumes. Games are for everyone, pure and simple.
I have to give a shoutout to the Tabletop ID program, which added a fun dimension to all the walking around. In a nutshell, participating booths had an A3-sized poster with a coin-sized NFC sticker. Download the app, scan the sticker with your phone as you might a transit card, answer some questions, and get entries into a raffle drawing. It was one part a demonstration of new tech and one part a cool way of winning stuff (and before you ask, if your phone’s been made in the last 5 years, chances are near 100% it has an NFC chip and is compatible).
No event of this size runs flawlessly, and I’m hoping someone out there will take some thoughts into consideration.
The Bring’n’Buy event is in need of some reworking. On one level, it’s an extremely popular element of the con, and raises money for charity. On the other hand, it could have easily taken up twice the amount of room (dozens of square meters in the hall just behind the walled-off area sat empty and unused the entire convention).
Also, while I understand the need for security (and only being allowed to bring in an empty bag), the Bring’n’Buy is in a different hall and about as far away from the Shop&Drop as you can get. There’s more than enough room to run a second Shop&Drop right by the entrance and make that whole situation much more convenient.
Looking at the guide’s descriptions of the Chow Street made me realize I should’ve checked this area out. It was located in the Hilton Hotel area, more than 600 meters away from the hall 1 entrance, however, and I barely saw any mention of it outside of the guide.
For being such a huge event, I couldn’t tell you which games were officially released to the world at UKGE. Essen is known for this, and I’m rather surprised that no one (or virtually no one) made the choice to have their world release here.
I do love the huge versions of games — this version of the original Pandemic is perhaps 6 times the typical game.
Tips if you go to UKGE next year
- Have a plan. Yeah, I know, Captain Obvious here. Whatever you’re here to do, see, enjoy, and try, having a plan / list helps you ensure you get to it. The official UKGE website has plenty of info on it, and the guide is made available online before the con. Here’s the page to see who’s exhibiting.
- Arrive early on your first day. Whether you’ve booked your tickets or need to buy them, they’re not mailed out or sent out electronically. You’ll need to get into one of the queues to convert your order into the appropriate paper card (get the lanyards on your way into the halls). Since
- Games can sell out early — get the ones you want ASAP. More than a few gamers were heard complaining the game they wanted was sold out.
- Bring a reusable water bottle. Gotta stay hydrated, of course, and the entrance of both halls has a place to fill up. The bathrooms also work, but for some mysterious reason, one sink will have very hot water and the next will be cold…
- If you arrive early enough, use one of the cloakrooms just outside the halls to store a bag. I needed this on Sunday (after checking out of the Airbnb). 1 pound per item is both cheaper than the place inside and more conveniently located.
Have fun! Whatever your cup of tea (such as posing within a dragon’s mouth trying desperately to escape), conventions like this aim to be a safe space for everyone to enjoy.
If you’re a game designer:
- There are two places to print stuff if needed. One’s a print shop by the bus stops, while the other is a machine in the corridor between the hall 1 and hall 2 entrance. Sadly, the print shop keeps pretty limited hours and won’t always be open when you need them to be.
- Use the UKGE website to apply for the seminars / events ahead of time. The Publishers-Designers track had a ton of interesting stuff… but some of it, like the speed dating and networking events, were invite only.
- Finally, pose with the sheep. It’s kind of a classic at the Catan booth.
Did you go to the UKGE? Did you wish you could go? Comments are open.