For more of our Tabletop Scotland coverage, you can check out Pauline’s diary of the event!
I was expecting Tabletop Scotland to be a good event. I wasn’t really expecting it to suddenly leapfrog to the top of my, admittedly modest, convention hitlist. That’s what happened though. We found an event small enough to be welcoming, yet large enough to be exciting. A programme of events slim enough to be manageable yet broad enough to be experimental. Both Mrs Meeple and I came away from this weekend feeling largely uncritically positive with how good the event had been.
This is the first time Tabletop Scotland has run. I think the team are on to a winner. It’s going to be pretty cool in the future to be able to say we were there at the birth of an institution.
I’m not going to talk too much about what we actually did in this post, save for the seminar – I’m going to leave most of that up to Mrs Meeple. That way we should avoid too much duplication in our posts since we attended together and didn’t much go our separate ways.
The funny thing is, at least for the first day we were there, we didn’t even really get to do much.
We arrived for open doors, where a queue was already snaking its way down from the exit. The only thing we had ‘on’ for that day was our seminar at five o’clock. Theoretically we should have been able to get in a solid schedule of equally solid gaming, especially since there were gaming tables everywhere through the convention centre. This is where the character of Tabletop Scotland really started to shine through though.
I think, proportionally, Mrs Meeple and I know more people at the UKGE than we did at Tabletop Scotland. The UKGE is a much larger event, but it also draws from a much wider catchment area. It’s over two massive halls, and those halls are busy. Too busy, as I have remarked in convention reports from the events. As a result our story of the UKGE is one of repeated near misses.
‘Oh, I’m sorry I missed you when you were at X, I’ll be at Y in ten minutes’.
‘Sorry! We just started at Z…’
It’s like stars in the galaxy – sure, there might be a lot of them but they’re all so far apart and in such varied orbits that they only rarely come into contact. We probably know more people ‘per capita’ but we see few unless we make special arrangements. Having a spontaneous conversation at UKGE is a sign of some spectacular serendipity sprinkling its fairy dust onto your day. Even special arrangements can collapse under the realpolitik intersections of energy, availability and enthusiasm.
It’s not like that at Tabletop Scotland. Proportionally we likely knew fewer people but more importantly we got to see them. We failed to meet up with Ross of More Games Please at the UKGE even though we were part of a Discord group designed to make that happen. And yet, not only did we get to play Suburbia and Chinatown with Ross at Tabletop Scotland, we just happened across him sitting in a chair. Not only did we meet up, we played a game just by bumbling in to each other. Seriously, I can’t overstate how amazing that is. I think there is an optimal density for conventions. If you really pack in everything you can into every square metre, it becomes more logistically efficient but dramatically less socially efficient. There’s a lot of talk about Tabletop Scotland 2019 taking over two halls, and I hope that they retain the same philosophy of facilitating chance encounters by sacrificing optimal usage of the space they have. They could easily have squeezed in a few more rows of gaming tables, or a few more exhibitors. I’m delighted they didn’t. Never once did I feel the tension that often accompanies densely packed crowds and as a result there’s plenty of room for chance encounters. And if it turns out you do need a bit of a breather, well – check out the quiet room.
The Dewars Centre in Perth is where the convention was held, and it was a good choice. It’s a venue that offers room for growth without feeling like only a fraction of it is being used. Parking is incredibly convenient, and while that seems like faint praise it’s amazing how useful that was. At the UKGE, if you arrive early enough to queue for entry what you’ll find is that you park a good 200 metres away from the venue. If you arrive later, you might be 500 metres or more away – a fair trek to and from the car, so you better load up for the day. Your possessions at UKGE are a prison you are trapped within for your entire visit. Do you have a big heavy bag of games you’re bringing? Well, I hope being loaded up like a pack mule doesn’t negatively impact on your enjoyment!
For Tabletop Scotland you can just leave stuff in the car and go get it when you’re ready. I adopted the UKGE technique to begin with, shouldering my Bag o’ Games onto my back and trudging through the centre with all the resignation of a Himalayan Sherpa. Then when I decided that wasn’t actually necessary I just put the bag in the boot of the car, secure in the knowledge that if I wanted anything it was a five-minute job to go collect it. Considering that we arrived with:
- Games to play
- Games for the bring and buy
- A cursed idol that returns to its owner whenever dropped or buried
- Games for the seminar
- Delicious bribes for seminar attendees
- A drum made from a bear skull
- Two video cameras
- A tripod
- Heavy manacles still in place from when we escaped from that prison chain gang
Well – let’s just say there is a major quality of life improvement that comes from convenience of parking. Also, do you know how much parking was? I’m going to tell you how much it was. It was £1. For two days. Do you know how much it is at the UKGE? It’s eleventy billion pounds per day.
Still, you’ll probably want to arrive earlier than later if you come along in 2019 since those parking spaces filled up reasonably quickly. Perth as a city though isn’t a big enough tourist destination that it has gotten into the habit of casual price gouging – just outside our hotel there’s a car park that offers reasonable rates, and even that one is closer than the farthest reaches of the Birmingham NEC parking wastelands.
We spent our first hour basically saying our hellos (and then more time over the course of the day because, again, you get to see people here) and dropping off our thirty or so games at the bring and buy. And wow, that did a brisk trade. At one point, about three or so I chatted a bit to one of the organisers of the event and even he was blown away by just how much they’d raised for charity with the event. They’re Good Folks over at Tabletop Scotland and despite the bring and buy being an obvious drain on time, resources and attention they didn’t take a cut of any of the sales. Instead, 10% of each sale went to charity. Any uncollected deposits for the game library (£10 per card) were also donated to charity. I’m sure they’ll announce the total they raised for PKVAS over the course of the event, but it was certainly more than we’d all have raised if we were each doing a fun run. I mean, gamers on the whole, on average – not an athletic bunch. We play to our strengths and that’s clearly monetising our addiction for unsustainably large game collections.
I had priced our games for the bring and buy to sell, for the most part. The exception was a copy of Cube Quest which is out of print, and I priced that one to discourage resellers. I thought I might sell half of what we brought. In the end Cube Quest and a copy of Speak Out were the only games that didn’t end up going to what are presumably happier homes. Even at the £2 marked down asking price I wasn’t really expecting anyone to want Speak Out. I mean, we had washed the mouth guards and all but still… would you buy a second-hand copy of a game where you put in a plastic mouth-guard and slaver all over it for an hour or so? I didn’t even want to do that with a first-hand copy.
Also, I’m super proud of myself for leaving the convention with many fewer games than which I arrived. I was tempted by a few but held firm. A one in, one out policy for your collection really takes all the fun out of getting new games.
Anyway, I’ve never had the chance to enjoy a bring and buy before because when we drive down to Birmingham we rarely have room in the car for several big bags of hefty games. And if we did have room, well… you may remember our misadventures with our seminar handouts at UKGE 2018. YOU HAD ONE JOB, PAULINE. God knows what would have happened if we were also trying to bring stuff to the bring and buy. You’d probably just find two knifed corpses slumped over an unwanted copy of Magic Maze.
There’s a strong focus on RPGs at the convention, and Pauline and I took the opportunity to try out first proper face to face D&D game. We’d done some forum roleplaying in the past, but that tends to be ponderously slow and fragile – it’s easy to lose momentum and very hard to build it up again. We played through an adventure called ‘A Thousand Tiny Deaths’ which was a cheerful way to begin our Sunday. We sat down with Inspiring Games to try out Legends Untold, which is a curiously involved rogue-like dungeon crawl with roleplaying elements. We tried out Forbidden Sky, which was being demoed at the event – it’s a little like Forbidden Desert and Tsuro had a baby and then it was adopted by a ‘My First Electricity Circuit’ science kit.
We also took advantage of the Playtest Zone and sat down with Friends of the Show Unpopular Mechanics and James Naylor to try out the latter’s prototype of Magnate. Suffice to say that Pauline has given me my instructions that we’ll be backing that Kickstarter when it’s launched next year.
Even though we were there for two days, and even though there are only a small fraction of the exhibitors that you’d see at UKGE, we still didn’t get to see as much as we’d like or try as much as we’d hope. I mean, when you factor in breakfasts and second breakfasts and elevenses and lunches and second lunches and dinners a weekend scarcely seems like any time at all.
Really Tabletop Scotland though don’t have to do much for those of us already too deep in the hobby to get out – just give us plenty of tables, ideally a game library, and we’ll sort the rest out ourselves. The games library, as it happens, was surprisingly concentrated. As a result of fire-related difficulties, the original arrangements for the convention fell through and the Uncon Tabletop Convention in Kent stepped in at almost the last minute to drive up a whole lending collection from England. The result of this that while it wasn’t a massive game library you were hard pressed to find any filler in there. There’s also a much healthier circulation of games too. From our report on UKGE 2018:
Unfortunately the generosity of the library book out periods means you might have been at a loss for something good to play, but you certainly weren’t a loss for somewhere to sit.
That wasn’t an issue here. You could walk in and pick up Concordia for goodness sake. CONCORDIA. Just sitting on the shelves.
The thing is that Tabletop Scotland, for all its geekiness, isn’t really aiming itself at the hardcore gamer audience. Don’t get me wrong – there are exhibitors and shops and lots to do but largely their focus is on a friendly, inclusive event. When speaking with Duncan at the UKGE, one of the things he emphasized was the role that Tabletop Scotland could play in growing the hobby. They wanted positive experiences for newcomers – making sure newbies felt supported and encouraged to get into a hobby that they might not otherwise have considered.
I had recommend to an old school friend of mine that she should come along, pointing out that HABA – a company that obviously respects children enough to give them the good fun – were running a family zone. You may remember our reviews of a number of their games – Rhino Hero, Rhino Hero Super Battle, Karuba and Iquazu. I think her review says a lot more than mine does with regards to what success Tabletop Scotland with attracting new people.
I’m hoping we can get her and her husband along to the Glasgow Games Festival in November…
Oh, I suppose I should talk about our seminar too.
So, here’s the thing…
We were expecting Tabletop Scotland to be a good event. We were expecting it to be a successful event. However, on our signup sheet for our seminar we had only four people who had indicated they were planning to come along. On Twitter I’d heard several variations of ‘Oh, I’d love to but I’m at X doing Y at that time!’. We even had a prize to give away – apparently playing a game with myself and Mrs Meeple on a nice table was something that might be a draw for The Punters. Even that dubious reward hadn’t set the heather alight. There was no indication that we were going to have many people at it and since it was a new convention without an established seminar track I wasn’t expecting to fill even our relatively small twenty capacity room. I was honestly thinking that it might end up being so poorly attended that it would be necessary to cancel it rather than go ahead, even if only for the sake of our pride.
As a result I had said to Pauline – look, let’s do this fast and loose. I’ll bring Ice Cool and Rhino Hero Super Battle. We’ll set them up on tables in the middle of the room and push the chairs off to the side. We’ll get people to play a few games of those, and we’ll just chat about the accessibility issues they notice. I mean, we might have eight people there at a push and two games would be plenty. We’ve got four sign ups, and if we assume we’ll double that I think that’s a safe estimate. We’ll do it like a tutorial, rather than a seminar. It’ll be good. It’ll be interactive. It’ll be a blast!
And it probably would have been, if we had eight people turn up and we had space to work with. Instead, we had the full twenty including a few people more because of the filming being done by the lovely folks from the Unlucky Frog podcast. And the seminar room was – well, it wasn’t optimally arranged for audience participation. It was just… awkward for people to get up and badly positioned for people to observe what was going on at the front. Our idea was full audience participation – just playing and talking and playing and talking.
Our unexpected full house might not have been a problem if we had a day or so before the seminar to rethink our plans and retool the room. We were just chilling in the convention centre a couple of hours before the thing thinking ‘Yeah, play a couple of games, it’ll be ace’.
Simon came over.
He asked ‘You’ve seen the board room you’re doing the seminar in, yeah?’
‘Oh, yeah’, we said, thinking he was going to give us a quick look while the other event (booked in until the start point of our seminar) was going on. We’d had a chance to look at it earlier though. Ten minutes was all we’d need – push some chairs away, pull some tables out, sorted.
‘How many people do you think you could fit in there at most?’
‘Uh… I mean, there’s like… twenty chairs in there but I think we’re only getting six or seven or eight people…’
‘Oh no’, he said, ‘There’s a sign-up sheet right there that’s filling up and a whole pile of people asking at the front desk about it’
And if we had been planning for a full house, that would have been great news. Unfortunately, we’d been planning for something very much not a full house.
So, I apologise to those that attended our seminar and thought it was an unstructured, rambling mess with two people that obviously had no idea what they were doing. That’s because it was completely improvised on the spot as a consequence of our actual plan being utterly unworkable. We gave some audience participation a try but most of our plan had worked on the idea that people would be able to mill around a couple of tables and see what was going on. That would have been, I think, a good seminar. It just wasn’t the one anyone attended in the end.
I mean, I don’t think it was a disaster or anything – but I do think it fell pretty short of what we were wanting to do. The side effect of this was that I didn’t just mostly dominate the thing as happened at the UKGE, Pauline was basically completely side-lined. Improvisation of an hour’s seminar is tough enough without also adding in co-ordination between two speakers both of whom may be improvising a different plan. That’s a different kind of double act, and we weren’t there to improv our new stand-up show, tentatively titled ‘Two people talk like they have never met each other, and also don’t know anything about their supposed shared topic’.
With the UKGE seminar, I was anxious because we had literally no idea how many people would turn up. It could have just been us in a room talking to each other. That would have been fine – the seminar rooms were air conditioned and I honestly could have done with the rest. It turns out you get a different kind of anxiety when you design a seminar for one headcount and it turns out you get a headcount that makes that design an utter liability.
I’m not a great judge of how these things go, though. I mostly enter a fugue state when I start talking and I only really snap out of it at the end and think ‘Well, I hope I didn’t say anything career ending’. If you were there, feel free to drop a comment to say how you found it!
So, I loved our time at Tabletop Scotland. It is now not only the best event I have attended, it’s also so good that Pauline and I are genuinely asking if we even need to go to UKGE 2019. We’re not really convention junkies, and while UKGE 2018 was fun it was also – well, kinda samey. If you were there at UKGE 2017 there was a solid sense of déjà vu. For a convention that is so much more about spectacle, that makes three years in a row a somewhat unappealing idea. We still like the idea of going and meeting people and playing games, and it turns out Tabletop Scotland is so much better for that. Our question now is, ‘Do we really need to do both, or can we just do Tabletop Scotland?’
I think we would like next year to go without having any commitments just so we can enjoy it as ‘regular punters’. I mean, we’d still write up our experiences because we’re addicted to press passes, but other than that – it would be nice to just enjoy a wonderful event that promises to become even more wonderful in the future.
I heavily stumped for Tabletop Scotland over the past few months because I had a lot of confidence it was going to be good – I’ve had the chance to meet all four of the main organisers over the course of the past year, and they are genuinely lovely people. More than that, they’re all obviously switched on and know exactly what they are doing any why. I was happy to try to get people along as largely a faith based proposition – I had faith that I wouldn’t regret it. I can begin hyping up Tabletop Scotland 2019 from a more informed position. I think it’s going to be bigger, better and more successful while still retaining the solid core that has made this weekend such a great experience. Book your hotels now – or at least, as soon as the dates are known. Book your annual leave in plenty of time. Get your tickets early. Be willing to make a lengthier journey if you’re not in Scotland! Tabletop Scotland 2019 is going to be a Proper Banger. I hope to see you there, and maybe I’ll even get to win a game I play next time.
For more of our Tabletop Scotland coverage, you can check out Pauline’s diary of the event!