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During the award ceremony towards the end of the ceremony, one of the organizers for the UK Gaming Expo (UKGE) thanked the crowd for their help in keeping people safe, and for participating in the “first show in the world to come back” post-pandemic. Cue round of applause. I looked around the space to see virtually everyone social distancing and wearing masks. Three days of walking around, playtesting, playing, having fun, seeing lots of people I’ve only talked to in the virtual space…
Time to backtrack from the classic in media res opening.
After a virtual con in 2020, some uncertainty on whether the event would be allowed to take place, and many changes to the rules and guidelines, UKGE 2021 took place in the real world from July 30th – August 1st, 2021. At UKGE 2019 I had a ton of appointments scheduled to meet publishers in advance. This year…? No appointments and no obligations, which meant I had plenty of time to explore and drift through the two halls used.
An entire hall was used to ensure the crowds could socially distance whilst waiting to redeem their online tickets/codes for badges.
Deckchairs on the Titanic – the ship’s not sinking, it’s the Titanic! Earn tips and rearrange deckchairs. A very cool extra-large version was nearby.
I am quite happy to return to the Real-World Con Experience, partially because I’ve had the privilege to meet some amazing people in the various online playtesting groups, and partially because I’ve been looking forward to pitching some of my games that have seen massive improvements over the last year…
Drags 2 Riches – a deck builder about being a drag queen / king. Not pictured but the next booth is Library Labyrinth, a co-op game about using female literary characters to keep the world safe from the creatures and characters found in the library.
13: Unlucky for some – a roll-and-move game involving a chipboard labyrinth where specific segments might fall out underneath you at random.
Escape Room Advent Calendars, anyone? Not available (yet), but a couple of demo versions were around.
It wouldn’t be a con without at least one¬†extra-large version of a popular game. If you enjoy Pandemic (the game), it’s always a fun experience to try your hand at the huge version. Seen nearby but not pictured: Catan XXL and Tsuro XXL.
Go on, get a selfie with your favorite Dalek.
Well, this is awkward. Just on display, not open as a demo, and still a very cool concept to see duplicated. Bear in mind, of course, that it’s not unusual to see multiple games / designs that run with the same concept.
When time to eat, the open gaming hall had a few options. While expensive, it was very convenient and pretty tasty.
Not pictured nearby was another food truck simply called ‘The Bar’. Plenty of room to social distance, both around the food trucks and the rest of the area.
The famous Bez herself teaching one of her games to the crowd. She held a competition every afternoon at 2pm, briefly teaching one of her games and playing it for some prizes – always a fun time.
One of the games we played with Bez – Wee Whimsical Creatures. It’s a party game wherein one player secretly looks at a number, then makes the sound that creature makes. Everyone else then holds up fingers equal to their guess – if you’re right, you score a point.
If you’re ready for a bit of a brain burner, Dean Morris’ Road to Borobudur was found alongside many other games in the Playtest UK zone.
For those that still have coffee tables and need to adorn them with something beautiful AND educational, Senet Magazine FTW. Gorgeous, timeless, and well-written.
My obligatory pose with the Catan sheep. Sorry, not trading.
Something new from Naylor Games – Boardgames: the Board Game: the Card Game. It’s a card game about making a board game. Silly fun, and a very simple game to boot.
After the trading floor officially closed, I met up with some of the Virtual Playtesting community in the open gaming area. A little bit of VPT IRL, anyone? Got my game Underwater Basket Weaving: The Game to the table – good times.
The Resort – basically a big mall a short walk from the con / NEC. Plenty more food options, including a Five Guys that really hit the spot.
Another game found in the Playtest UK zone – Exodus, by Alina Potemska. Easily one of the most gorgeous and lovingly-made prototypes I’ve ever seen.
A parting shot of one booth’s selection. Yes, that is a Bob Ross game called ‘Happy Little Accidents’.

Purchases

Being a nomad, I’m rarely in a position to buy a lot of games… but I’m always on the lookout for deals:
  • Zatu had a bag of orange and black meeples (their brand colors) for a couple of pounds.
  • One booth had some clearance games – I picked up a couple of copies of ‘Travel the World’ board games for a pound apiece because they were the ‘super scabby editions’… The boxes aren’t important, personally, since I’m mainly just buying them for the square tiles and other bits inside.
  • A ‘reject’ neoprene mat for a few pounds from Custom Patriot – will probably end up being a desk topper / mousepad.
  • A snap-up mat / place to roll dice for a few pounds. Perfect for holding bits or rolling dice.

What worked well

I want to start this section by mentioning how safe I felt. Yes, there’s a global pandemic, yes I’m vaccinated, and yes I was wearing a mask when I wasn’t eating or drinking. If we had talked a few months back, the thought of handling stuff like cards and dice many times around the same table as other gamers was the sort of thing that gave me pause.
Not a problem here. The vast majority of people were wearing masks. Aisles were wide (allowing for plenty of social distancing). The vast majority of tables had hand sanitizer, and more could be found scattered through the exhibition hall at literally hundreds of places… and of course, you could always bring your own. It became part of the setup ritual to squirt a little gel on your hands as someone’s explaining the rules.
That fewer booths were present meant people could easily do their initial ‘walk-around’, then return to more of the booths that interested them. There were few ‘big’ publishers around, which created lots of opportunities for indie publishers able to show off their own games and build buzz for their Kickstarter campaigns.

What didn’t work as well

As a designer, I was really looking forward to pitching publishers. While seeing people is amazing and playtesting IRL is great, meeting publishers is / has been a primary reason for going. I knew going in that there wouldn’t be as many publishers to pitch as there had been in previous years, and I accepted it. I did get some pitching in, of course, and it was great to see what’s on offer around the con.
The Hilton hotel and bar, commonly considered the best place to hang out and connect afterwards, was closed. Not sure where everyone moved off to afterwards, but the open gaming area stayed pretty busy even hours after the trading floor closed.

Final thoughts

It’s Tuesday afternoon as I type this – nearly two days after the con ended – and my throat and feet are still not quite 100%. Between the social distancing and ever-present sanitizing gel, I (and I suspect most) have avoided the ‘con crud’… but having to speak through masks means you’re speaking louder than you usually might at a con… As for the feet, I looked at my shoes shortly after returning home on Sunday and realized it has some holes in the heels… Time for a new pair of shoes…

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