It’s unlikely that you’ll find a better spot than a former Masonic lodge to hold a games expo. Although the Clarendon Suites in Birmingham seems an inconspicuous brick building from the outside, its interior is a different story; cabinets of ornate swords and chalices line the winding corridors, emblazoned with arcane symbols, and wood panelled doors sit so flush with the wall that were it not for the addition of a handle you wouldn’t even know they were there. Its lingering sense of intrigue provided the perfect context for the UK Games Expo, which managed to pack every square inch of the labyrinthine space with an incredible array of gaming delights over the first weekend of June.
Storm troopers and daleks patrolled huge rooms packed with stalls representing seemingly every specialist game store in the country, whilst in every available nook distributors and independent designers could be found touting their new products, some fresh off the shelves and others barely out of the prototype phase and ready for play testing. Meanwhile a lecture room, complete with a row of ornate Masonic thrones, provided an atmospheric setting for a run of talks by key figures within the industry, whilst imaginative family friendly events such as a full-size Catch the Pigeon and a recreation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral strove to make boardgames as accessible and fun as possible (although we did attempt to spoil that by gunning down a small child’s cowboy). Throw into the mix the biggest bring and buy sale imaginable and there were probably more games present than you could play in a dozen life times; an empowering atmosphere for any gamer and, whilst wandering amongst these riches with thousands of other enthusiasts, it was easy to forget that ours is still a relatively niche hobby.
When Rhythm Circus arrived at the event after a long drive we were given a whistle-stop behind the scenes tour by founder and organiser Richard Denning (you can read our exclusive interview with him leading up to the event here), who naturally seemed incredibly busy ensuring this well organised event was running as smoothly as possible. Down in the deepest depths of the building we met several bearded minions preparing for Living Munchkin, an ingenious live action take on the playful card game from Steve Jackson Games. On their turn a player could kick down a paper door in this makeshift dungeon to reveal a large painted cut out of one of the game’s many beasties. Then they would be forced to convince their fellow players into helping them take out said monster with bribes and promises of untold riches. Players were dressed in Velcro suits, onto which the game’s various tongue-in-cheek artefacts could be attached (we’re not telling where we put our ‘horny helmet’).
Tournaments and Talkers
On the Saturday we decided to take part in one of the many tournaments running at the convention. The Memoir 44 tournament has been organised by Barry … since the Expo started and saw 12 players competing across 4 different campaigns for a commemorative medal. Memoir 44 is a fantastic entry level strategy war game set during WWII that manages to be both accessible and deeply tactical. Its publisher Days of Wonder have been developing an online version for the last three years, which has just recently been released. Rhythm Circus has been taking part in the Beta for several months, fighting the good fight, and you can read our review here soon. Whilst the memoir tournament was just a bit of fun (we would say that, I suppose, as we lost), the UK Games Expo hosts several important national tournaments including the national finals for Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, which offer places at the finals in Essen, Germany to the winners as well as the title of UK Board Games Campion. This year the title was retained by our good friend Richard Gough, founder of the Colchester Boardgame Club – well done.
A highlight of the event was undoubtedly hearing Lewis Pulsipher speak on the subject of games design. Pulsipher’s best known work is Britannia, first released in 1986 and recently reissued by Fantasy Flight in a wonderfully lavish edition, which charts the multiple invasions of Britain over a millennia from the Roman conquest to the Norman invasion. Each player controls multiple races throughout the course of the game, pursuing wildly varied and asymmetrical victory conditions. Pulsipher spoke of the many pitfalls of design and how long and hard the road is between inspired idea and the final release. In spite of its cautionary tone it was hard not to come away inspired by this elder statesman of the medium. I wondered how many of the exhibitors present would have had second thoughts if they knew how hard it was to make a quality game and then produce and market it, but I suspected most would have just gone ahead and done it anyway.
It’s Alive! The Rise of the Living Card Game
Recently there has been a transition from Collectable Card Games (such as Magic the Gathering) to Living Card Games (LCG’s), which utilise all the elements of a constantly developing game system with more regimented updates, which (in theory) are supposed to work out cheaper (but tell that to my bank manager). New cards are released regularly as chapter packs with multiple copies of the same cards in each, meaning you won’t have to buy boosters and pray that you’ll actually have some cards you need. One such CCG making the jump to LCG is Legend of the Five Rings, a long running card game set in an evocative feudal Japanese setting populated by samurai and ninja published by AEG (who are also behind the excellent deckbuilding game Thunderstone). The new starter box to the LGC, called War of Honour, was one of the big games on show, available to play and buy a few days shy of its release date. Like Fantasy Flight’s great LGC A Game of Thrones (which also began life as a CCG), based on the fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin which are currently being adapted by HBO, War of Honour is attempting to tap into the boardgaming market by adding a set of mechanics and components that makes the game more suitable for longer multiplayer games rather than short two player duels. The game comes with starter decks for 4 of the total 9 clans that make up Legend of the Five Rings, carefully balanced and designed to be played right out of the box, or ready to be expanded with other cards (including any released under the CCG banner). A new addition to this release is the inclusion of a series of interlocking hexes that represent territories, giving players bonus abilities and dictating who they can attack and ally with, which gives the game a fresh structure and pace.
One of the great things about the expo is how large and small companies can both present their efforts to the gaming public, and so as AEG trumpeted their new release a much smaller company was also attempting to break into the LGC; X610Z, a Dutch team, were presenting their prototype of On the Ruins of Chaos, now in its final stages and due for an October release. The most immediately striking thing about the game is its central game board, which takes the form of a beautifully designed map in archaic sepia tones, upon which zigzags a series of interlacing lines moving outwards in concentric circles. The setting is an alternative Earth, set 300 years after a cataclysmic event at CERN causes a massive DNA reshuffle. Players each begin in the centre of the world map and, cooperatively or competitively, must race to the goal on the outer edge, using a deck to build up an army of summons with which to attack their foes. Designer Patrick Ruedisueli has been leading a tiny team in creating the card game and they should be proud of what they have achieved in only two years. The artwork is often beautiful and the board layout imaginative. This may well be one to keep a look out for. Rhythm Circus will be running a review in the coming months.
Another game being presented in its final prototype form was Ankh Morpork, a boardgame based on Terry Pratchett’s long running Discworld series of comic fantasy. A fast and frantic game, Ankh Morpork sees players attempting to control various areas in the eponymous capital city during the chaos following Lord Vetinari’s unexpected absence. Each player begins with a secret victory condition and must achieve it before his opponents achieve theirs. The game is designed by Martin Wallace, whose Treefrog games is synonymous with deep and elegantly designed adaptations of historical conflicts and, although the theme of the game might be a step away from his usual output, it is no less well executed and is an absolute joy to play. Furthermore the theme of the game never overwhelms the mechanics, so whilst there’s more than enough flavour for Pratchett fans (largely in the form of 132 cards that drive the gameplay) the game requires absolutely no knowledge of the Disc in order to be enjoyed. Ankh Morpork deservedly picked up the award for best Board Game ran by the Expo.
And so it was after a tiring weekend of gaming and uncomfortable Travelodge beds we found ourselves riding home, the car’s rear axle bowed under the weight of all the games we probably shouldn’t have bought, but did anyway. The weekend was a blast and demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that instead of just being a niche, geeky pass time, table top gaming in all its forms is a living, evolving thing enjoyed by a wide cross section of people. So next year why not give in to the inner geek inside us all and make your way to Birmingham for the UK Games Expo?
Words > Dean Bowman, Jake Parkerson and Greg Knowler