Held at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre (NEC), the Expo has become an annual event and a ‘must attend’ for board, card, roleplaying, and war game enthusiasts all over the United Kingdom.
The first UK Games Expo (UKGE) was held in 2007 at the Clarendon Suites in Edgbaston, but the convention really took off when it moved to the Hilton Birmingham Metropole and later the NEC. Now, it is one of the largest gaming conventions in Europe. According to the press material, it’s the world’s third-largest, and there’s certainly a sense of scale when you arrive.
The convention monopolises the largest indoor exhibition spaces at the centre and also makes extensive use of the Hilton Birmingham Metropole rooms for tournament play and private hire.
Inside the convention, the mixed use of spaces gives the event a unique feel. For the first-timer it can be a great shopping exercise, the kind of expedition we used to do before internet shopping. However, there is still very much a place for this kind of spectacle, and when you go and experience this kind of weekend, you start to see why.
When you arrive, there’s a pretty quick ticket validation process and then a couple of stands with the full programme and a helpful little promotional discount booklet. You can get a holder and lanyard for your ID card, pick up some printed material, and head into the halls.
At first sight, UKGE is a veritable hobby feast. Hundreds of stalls and thousands of people — more than 45,000 over the weekend in 2019. Whilst you might need to squeeze through the crowds and wait in a queue or two, it’s wonderful to see so many enthusiastic people who like games wandering about and enjoying the spectacle.
Bring and Buy is a huge tradition at this kind of event, like Dragoncon and Warfare, but the Bring and Buy at UKGE is the biggest in the UK. This is when people bring along things they no longer want and put them in a huge second-hand sale. Proceeds from each sale go to the contributor, with a small cut taken by the event organisers to go to a registered charity. Attendees can wander around the tables and pick up things they like for a bargain, or find something rare that someone else no longer has a need for.
Touring the stalls is quite an experience. This year, there were huge displays from Games Workshop, Asmodee, and some of the other major publishers of gaming content. Scattered about next to them are an assortment of startups, self-published works, consultants, manufacturers, stockists, and plenty of other stuff. There’s something for all sorts of hobbyists here, and this definitely makes the Expo a much better destination than a Comic-Con for the shopping omnivore who is looking for something a bit different from comics and associated merchandise.
It’s worth sparing a thought for some of the hobby shops that are dotted around the country. Stores like Spirit Games in Burton have been around for decades and seeing them at UKGE is like seeing old friends. You can tell people have come to the convention to buy things and I’m sure these stalls must do really well over the weekend. You’d hope so — they’ve been little islands for the gaming hobbies for years. So good luck to them here and long may they continue.
There’s also a selection of new retailers and individual pop-up stalls, selling books, leatherwork, war game scenery, and plenty more.
UKGE also offers a ‘shop and drop’. The free bus from the car parks runs pretty consistently, meaning you can drop stuff back at your car if you drove up, but also there’s the equivalent of a cloakroom for your new purchases so you can stack up the shopping before you leave at the end of the day.
It is also an excellent place for a new company to launch and demonstrate its product, with many stalls devoting much of their space to gaming demos. If there’s a new release that takes your fancy it’s more than likely you can get a game to play with one of the professional demonstrators on hand to explain the rules of their company’s products. These fine folks can usually be identified by the colour of polo shirt they’re wearing.
There’s a playtest corner where people bring their prototype games for testing and feedback. This is an excellent place to polish your ideas and start creating an audience for when you’re ready to launch.
Playing games is definitely a major part of the weekend. If there’s a particular old game you’d like to play, there’s a games library set up as well — which allows people to book something out, bag a table and have a go. This can be a great way to make new friends or spend a little time with your family enjoying something you’ve just bought. A lot of the large spaces available to do this are near some of the fast food stalls and other eateries. There’s a good selection here, although you will have to pay the same kind of convention prices you’d have to pay in other events like this one.
For the game player who wants a more serious challenge, there are a variety of tournaments to take part in throughout the weekend. A number of areas are specifically roped off for these events. You can find most of the popular games advertised in the programme, with X-Wing, Warhammer and the like, as well as a host of popular card game tournaments. There are board game tourneys as well, and whether you take these things seriously or not, this is a great way to meet and compete with new people.
Included in the programme are a set of tailored seminars, panels and workshops from the great and the good of the gaming industry. UKGE is big enough to be a draw for the very best, so expect a selection of your favourite YouTube board gaming reviewers, legendary game designers and more, taking their turn on stage to impart their wisdom and opinions on all aspects of gaming. It’s a mark of just how diverse and varied the content is that you might walk right past people who are unknown to you, but incredible celebrities to someone else.
UKGE is a really good place to bring children. Aside from the fact that an awful lot of the traders are producing games with children in mind, there are a host of different activities tailored specifically for young people. There is a really good atmosphere of inclusion, which makes this environment a great place to share your hobby with the rest of your family.
The convention’s organisers are also very frank about what is and isn’t permissible when it comes to gaming content. There was one issue this year which ended up on social media, but it was very quickly dealt with by the convention team who were transparent about their actions and responsibilities in relation to what happened. As a result, they gave their attendees confidence that if such matters should arise, they could talk to UKGE and expect situations to be resolved quickly and decisively.
All the best conventions have more going on than you can manage to attend. That makes first-time attendees want to come back and get more involved the next time they go. In its twelfth year, UKGE is just like that. In its current venue, there is plenty of scope for it to expand and with the amount of commercial content they’ve managed to attract, it is quite clear the Expo has established itself as an integral part of the UK gaming’s calendar. We hope the event will continue to go from strength to strength.
If you haven’t been to the UK Games Expo yet, the dates for 2020 have already been announced — the 29th to the 31st of May.