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The UK Games Expo is coming up very soon. Our experiences with it last year were mixed, but overall it was more of a hit than a miss. We’re making plans this year to try and ensure that the baseline level of fun we have is much higher. We learned a lot from our first visit and we’ve built up what I think is a useful body of what I’ve termed ‘convention literacy’. We know a little better how to handle this kind of event. UKGE 2017 was huge, overwhelming, and occasionally deeply frustrating. Some of that though was obviously our own fault. We don’t intend to make the same mistakes again.
So, first things first – if you’re a Meeple Like Us reader you should absolutely come along to our seminar on the Friday. Come say hi, talk game accessibility, and enjoy the exciting laser show and the equally exciting clowns. I know what you’re thinking – ‘clowns are terrifying’. Well, don’t worry – we’re shooting lasers at the clowns. It’ll be a literal blast provided I can book some clowns and lasers by the time of the seminar. If not, it’ll just be the game accessibility stuff.
Also, I want to set up a base of operations at the expo somewhere for people that may not feel entirely comfortable wandering around by themselves. Hopefully this will be a fixed game table that we can occupy in shifts, but if not it’ll be something else. The plan is to just have a set location of Nice Mates where you know you’ll be welcome. If you’re new to this kind of thing, don’t know anyone, or just want a guarantee of a friendly response when you introduce yourself – that’s what the Nice Mates Club will be.
Drop me a comment, a message on twitter, an email, or a Facebook message if you want to be put on the communication list for that. It’s the kind of thing I wish that we had during our first visit – the press room was handy but it wasn’t particularly social. I figure that once you know some people, it’ll be easier to do everything else because you’ll have access to other people to chum around with. The literal only requirement here is that you are a Nice Mate and will be nice to all other Nice Mates.
The real meat of this post though is going to be a kind of restatement of the ‘lessons learned’ from last year for those wondering how to get the best out of their visit to the expo. It’s loud. It’s busy. You might not know anyone and not feel comfortable in approaching total strangers. I get all that – that was my default state for a lot of last year. Leaping in head first was a harrowing experience at times but it did result in something like a masterclass in what not to do. So, if you’re interested, here are the collated wisdoms of Mr and Mrs Meeple for the UK Games Expo 2018!
You don’t have to spend your entire time in the expo hall
It’s almost certainly not a good idea to assume the main hall is where the real expo is happening. That’s more like a ‘board game rollercoaster’ as Nigel Kennington of One Free Elephant phrased it. Mostly what you do is spend a lot of time orbiting tables waiting for anything to be free. I’d especially advise you to have backup plans for the Saturday because that’s when the event is at its loudest and most intense. Make plans to play games with friends if you have them available. If not, set up camp with some fellow gamers at your hotel for a portion of the day. Don’t feel the need to put yourself through the wringer of wandering around enviously watching thousands of people have fun that isn’t available to you. Birmingham is a big place – it has stuff of its own you would enjoy. Perhaps your Saturday can be a day trip to the city instead of a Lord of the Flies battle against rabid board gamers.
Explore a bit of the NEC outside the convention centre – find the quiet spaces where you can pick up sandwiches or hot food. The best places are not necessarily the ones that are closest. Know where there are spots you can sit and take a few moments to yourself. You won’t be missing out if you take time away from the UKGE – you’ll be in a better position to be appreciate it if you’re not forced by necessity to be there.
Go early, and expect to queue
The expo becomes very busy towards lunch-time but there are mercifully quiet periods early in the day and towards closing. If you want to get the most out of the event you should be prepared to be there at opening time. And you should expect to queue for the privilege. Expect to queue a lot. If you don’t like the sound of that, then be very sure that when you queue it’s for a good reason.
The Expo is a working convention
You’ll see a lot of familiar faces wandering around, but the UKGE is very much a work event for a lot of people. They’ll be happy to chat, but you will always have to bear in mind that they likely have other things they need to be doing too. If you’re going as press, don’t expect to get a lot of a chance to network – those on the stalls are run off their feet, and those not on the stalls are waiting for their chance to talk to the ones that are.
Triage your attention and know the schedules
What do you really want to see at the event? Make a list and put the most important things at the top. Be prepared to accept you likely won’t get to see everything because of the unpredictable way that games become available. You need to be in the right place at the right time. If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both. Bear in mind too the more hype around a game the harder it will be for you to get a slice of it. Be pragmatic and be prepared to wait. Also, be prepared to feel quite awkward as people mill around you while you play a game. As polite and patient as they are, they’re still obviously waiting for you to bugger off so they get a go.
The stalls will shift over the course of the event – know what you want to see, but also know when you can see it. Use that information to plan your days.
UKGE isn’t really a shopping event
The bargains go quickly at UKGE and you’ll need to employ your elbows to even get close to a lot of the shop stalls. Even recognising those bargains needs you to know what you want and how much it’s normally worth. Stocks deplete rapidly and inconsistently and restocks are erratic and unreliable. Stalls will be there one day and not the next. You will need to be assertive to even see what’s on offer. If you’re there for cheap games, you’d be better off haunting the Hot Deals forums on BGG. By the time Saturday rolls around you’re paying market prices for pretty much everything. You’ll see a lot of shops clustered together at the UKGE, but competition doesn’t necessarily imply consumer benefits.
If you want to meet people, make concrete arrangements
Saying ‘I’ll see you around’ is the UKGE equivalent of saying ‘We really should meet up for lunch at some point’. You won’t see them. You’ll drift within inches of each other and never know it like you’re in some kind of fifties Ealing comedy. Make concrete plans to see people. Know where, know when, and have some way you’ll recognise them. Schedule people the same way you’ll schedule games and stalls. Don’t just say ‘Let’s play a game together when we’re there’. Have a plan for what game, where and when.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you find it overwhelming
People rarely talk about how much they didn’t enjoy a thing – convention coverage has a massive selection bias with regards to what you read of it online. UKGE is less crowded than Essen or Gencon. That doesn’t mean it’s quiet or calm. If you’re not having fun with the crowds, that’s not a failing in you. You just need to have a plan to deal with it. As I said above, drop me a note and I’ll let you know whatever we work out with regards to the Nice Mates Table. Take regular time away from the event to recharge your social batteries, but bear in mind they’re going to take a pounding over the course of the weekend. Introverts need to be prepared to build self-care into their convention strategies.
Be generous with your attention and word of mouth
It’s rare that a stall will be dead at the UKGE – the demand for novelty is so high that people will be visiting everyone just to have something to do. The big publishers though are guaranteed the event will be a success – the smaller stands are taking a much bigger risk. Many of them won’t cover the cost of their attendance. If you see something cool at a smaller stall, tell people about it. If Shut Up and Sit Down endorse a game the stall will be mobbed. You’ve got a similar power – drive attention towards the worthy games that don’t catch the updraft of hype. Most stalls won’t be lucky enough to get the attention of a big name in the media. They need you to help make the event worth their time and effort.
Don’t assume you can vlog or do any kind of recording in the halls
We took a camcorder and external mic with us the first time. We won’t be doing that again. It’s hard enough to take photographs. You can’t simply stand in the expo streets and talk to people. You’re like a cyclist on a busy road – everyone is queuing up just waiting for you to get out of the damn way. Those kind of video activities have to happen elsewhere unless you’re happy with a gopro around your neck or something similar. Sound quality will be poor, and you don’t have room to set up anything professional. Ad hoc and situational recording of the event is as good as it’s going to get.
Have plans for when you get separated
Know where you’re going to meet if you get separated from friends and family. Have a working phone and keep it charged. Take an external battery if you have one. The event is too large and too busy to hope you’ll ever see your friends and family again – you need to make sure that if you need to get in contact you can.
Those looking to ditch their friends and family, well – this is a great event for you. Just run into the crowd. Run like your life depends on it. You’re free now. You’re free forever.
Know why you’re there
Why are you going to an event like this? Do you even know?
There are lots of reasons why these kind of conventions are popular, but to want everything is to plan for having nothing. If you’re going for the spectacle, you’re sorted – there is a constant and dizzying array of sights and sounds. You can wander around the halls for hours and still not see everything. You can sample what’s available and not feel frustrated because you didn’t really have any specific goals. You can be a cardboard epicurean, just enjoying what comes your way. Still, you probably won’t get to see the most popular things and won’t really be able to play much unless you bring people and games with you.
Are you going to play games then? Well… if that’s all you want out of the UKGE then you’d really be better off arranging something at home. Gaming spaces are in high demand, players may be otherwise occupied, and it can be difficult to get hold of the games you want to play from the lending libraries. To counteract all of that, you need to be prepared to stake out a claim on the gaming tables and defend that claim vigorously. You need allies. You need people who will help you filibuster. You need to know that’s why you’re going so you can build your plan around that.
Are you going to see The New Hotness? Well, you’ll probably need to sacrifice a lot of gaming time to make sure you stake out a claim to the stalls. You need to make sure that there’s a line, and it’s a line forming behind you. You can’t just wander past – you need to set up camp and fight off interlopers. That really cuts into your gaming time.
You need to structure your attendance around what you’re looking to get out of your visit. That way while you won’t get everything you want you will get enough to make it worth the visit.
Remember that for most people the real reason you’re going is to have a fun weekend. That means – don’t force yourself to do things that aren’t fun. Don’t queue for things that you don’t want to see. Don’t play games you don’t like. Don’t be passive in accepting your experiences, be proactive in how you plan for them. You can get a lot out of the expo, but you’re going to need to put a lot in to make sure that’s the case.
So that’s it – come along to our seminar! Let us know if you fancy being on the contact list for the Nice Mates Table. More than anything though – have a plan that makes sure this weekend is the best that it can be for you and everyone around you.
See you there!