Mrs Meeple and I had the opportunity to attend the Glasgow Games Festival last weekend. This is an event of open gaming held in the convivial surroundings of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For both of us, this was the first time we’d attended a gaming convention since the mixed-bag that was the UK Game Expo 2017. It’s a much smaller, much more intimate affair. And you know what? We both enjoyed the hell out of it.
One of the weirdest things about doing a site like Meeple Like Us is that apparently we qualify as ‘press’. I know that tabletop gaming is served by what is primarily a small, hobbyist ecosystem of enthusiast bloggers and the expectations of audience in such circumstances tend to be modest. Even so, I don’t really think of this site as part of the nascent board game media scene. This is for me the same thing it was at the start – a series of research annotations that only occasionally intersects with the new and novel. Certainly though we had press passes for UKGE and will be seeking them out for future events – I mean, it’s better to have them and not need them than etc etc. I mention this not because we attended the Glasgow Games Festival in a press capacity, because we didn’t. I mention it because I have no idea what it means to be press. As such, all I can write here is a series of personal reflections. I don’t quite know how to work these events in a way that means I can legitimately ‘report’ on what happened. As is usually the case I spent most of the day wandering around in amiable confusion.
The first thing that struck me about GGF is how different it feels to UKGE. The difference here is obviously in terms of scale – UKGE had tens of thousands of people that visited it over the course of its three-day schedule. I don’t know how many people were at GGF but I suspect it couldn’t have been more than five hundred or so. UKGE had hundreds of exhibitors and a dozen vendors. GGF had a half dozen of the former and only one of the latter. UKGE was an energetic chaos of events and talks and competitions. GGF is primarily about arranging your own entertainment from the resources provided. It’s all much more about playing and enjoying games, and comparatively very little about the extravagant spectacle of pomp and circumstance. GGF is much more sedate and as a result feels much more welcoming.
In fact, it was so sedate at the start of the day that I honestly though the whole thing was likely to be just a bit sad for everyone involved, ourselves included. We arrived later than I had intended, and managed to make our way through the doors at a touch before noon. The hall opens at ten, so really I had expected to see the event in full swing. What I saw though was rows of unused tables arranged behind the exhibitor rows. It didn’t look like a promising start, but as soon as we were through the door we bumped into Bez Shahriari who gave us an enthusiastic greeting and got us instantly drawing cats for the wall display arrayed behind her stand. At the UKGE it’s possible to feel very isolated even when surrounded by thousands of people. Right from the first step we took across the threshold, GGF feels noticeably friendlier. The more modest scale of the event means that people have time to talk. You don’t wave at each other across an impassable chasm of people – you can actually meet up and say ‘hi’.
Having said that, this marks the second event in a row that I’ve singularly failed to say hello to Keith McLennan of Cardboard and Coffee Games. The Glasgow Games Festival might be a calmer affair than UKGE but it’s far from quiet – every time we were free he was busy, and every time he was free we were busy. Similarly with Mark McKinnon of Dream Big Games – we had to settle for a wave of acknowledgement there. We didn’t manage to check in with Medusa Games, or Bad Cat Games, or Floating Worlds Design. I meant to properly browse the offerings from Red Dice Games but never quite got around to it. We got to exchange a few words with Richard of the We’re Not Wizards podcast, but made up for that by missing Ian McAllister of the Giant Brain website and the team from the Unlucky Frog Gaming podcast. We did have dinner with Nigel and Sarah and Zoey Kennington of One Free Elephant, but they are as they say ‘friends of the show’. We know them of old from other, equally geeky shared pastimes.
Really all of this is to say that it’s wonderful to see the richness and vibrancy of the tabletop gaming scene in Scotland. Only a portion of it was at the Glasgow Games Festival, but enough to show that this is an exciting time to be part of the hobby in this part of the world.
So, first impressions of the success of the event were not strong – the first visual impression is a bit like arriving at the wake of someone that owed people a lot of money. That was very misleading because the Glasgow Games Festival extends over several rooms and you can think of the exhibitor area as a kind of overflow from those situated more conveniently for the games library. Following the corridor through to the next room brings you to a more heavily utilised area where the Serious Gaming is being undertaken. Even here, with all the tables used up, it doesn’t feel over-crowded. It feels like the scale of the event is pleasantly in harmony with the attendance. Both Mrs Meeple and I posted a fair bit on how uncomfortably stressful the crowds can be at UKGE. Pictures from the busier halls at Essen eloquently convinced me I have no desire to ever make the pilgrimage to the spiritual centre of the hobby. Videos of the opening of Gencon likewise fill me less with excitement and more with a sense of dull, uncomprehending horror.
It’s really nice then to find an event that is exactly as large as it needs to be and no larger.
As I say, I don’t really know how to work a convention in a media capacity, so mostly what we did when we were there was play some games. Not many, because we live a good two hours away from the venue and that has a powerfully compressive effect on how long we wanted to linger in the halls. We did though get to play Cottage Garden and Inis. We also got to try Meeple Circus thanks to the kind demonstration of Duncan Cowan. You might remember Duncan from his previous starring role on this blog as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Cottage Garden was underwhelming, and you’ll see a review of that appear on the site in due course. Inis and Meeple Circus were far more entertaining and will see themselves making their way into our game collection as time goes by. As Mrs Meeple said, ‘I like this try before you buy thing’. Usually we buy and often never even try.
The game library may not have had the size and variety and redundancy that you’d see at a larger event, but it had more games in there than we could hope to play and a good fraction I wished we could. There was a copy of Food Chain Magnate there, and were it not for the three hour play-time I would have liked to have tried it just to say I had. There were a couple of copies of Captain Sonar, and while that seems like a perfect convention game it didn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention. There really was no shortage of options, but the problem for us was that it didn’t seem like a good use of the day to play the games we already owned at home and well – that encompasses most of what would be on our ‘would like to try’ list.
I stress again just what a luxury it is to be able to just pick up a game and play it at an event like this. You pay a deposit of £5 for a ticket to the board game library, and whenever you’re done with a game you return it to the desk and get to pick up a different one. It’s that simple to sample from the selection. The open play areas at UKGE were a Mad Max style battleground where groups claimed tables and then would only give them up after a brief and bloody exchange of hostilities. When GGF was filling up, we looked around at rows of filled tables only for one of the event organisers to say ‘There are plenty more tables upstairs if you like’. And there were!
This is a game convention with a ‘post scarcity’ philosophy and that has a powerfully positive effect on the atmosphere of the event. You don’t feel frustrated that you’ve become trapped in an alternate reality where your role is to watch rather than play games. If you want to play games, you can. If you need players, you can put a little flag by your table and indicate so. The people that join you won’t be there out of sheer grudging necessity – they’ll be there because they want to play the game you’ve got on the table. It makes everything easier. It makes everything nicer. Everyone I saw seemed to be having a fine old time.
It’s worth pointing out here that we spent a good hour or so talking to David Wright and Duncan Cowan about their plans for Tabletop Scotland. This is an event in September of next year and I am very excited about it because it seems like it will be in exactly the sweet spot between UKGE and GGF in terms of ambition. Hopefully you’ll hear more about that as time goes by.
I wish I had more to report in terms of upcoming developments and the Scottish gaming scene. We attended this as a kind of ‘day off’ from normal Meeple Like Us activities and as such it was rejuvenating in a way I didn’t quite expect. While we still haven’t made a decision on whether to return to UKGE in 2018, we knew right away we’d be coming back to GGF the next time it’s on. Really in the end that’s about as significant an endorsement I could offer for something like this. The hustle and bustle, rough and tumble of Essen, Gencon and UKGE might not be for everyone. That doesn’t mean you need to opt-out of the convention scene of the hobby – there’s almost certainly an event somewhere that is going to be the right size for you. If you’re near Glasgow the next time the games festival is on, I’d absolutely recommend you come and give it a go.