Thursday, June 30, 2016

U.K. Games Expo 2016

Thanks to some inexplicable and completely fortuitous circumstances that still baffle me to this day, Chad and I found ourselves at the U.K. Games Expo at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England back on June 3'rd.


Look, I've never been to a dedicated gaming convention before. So, as you might imagine, just as soon as I walked into Hall One my head nearly blew off of my shoulders, Scanners-style, yo.

Not knowing any better, Chad and I stumbled off to the far left-hand side of the convention hall. Which is technically south if you actually orient the map. Hey, I was totally overwhelmed at the time so you really can't slight me for getting completely turned around.

Thank Vishnu Chad still had the presence of mind to jump into some quick game demos. As we started down the crowded aisle (designated "Faith Avenue") he noticed that the designers of Push It were play-testing their game for curious onlookers so I followed his lead and we both plunked down to give it a shot.

And I'm glad I did. As someone who's a sucker for dexterity games this was a great first thing to jump into and the designers really enjoyed showing off their baby. One part Crokinole and one part Bocce, this is a fun, portable, well-crafted game that anyone can enjoy. And thanks to a recently successful Kickstarter campaign, we should be seeing this one get wide distribution soon.

After test-driving Push It, we only managed to stumble a few feet down the hall before we ran into Steve Venezia, who was kind enough to demo his super-compact, dungeon crawling card game Side Quest: Pocket Adventures.

Steven mentioned that the game was inspired by his epic play-throughs of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. He wanted something quick, simple and portable that he could just bring along anywhere, throw down and jump into wherever he needed to scratch that lite RPG / dungeon crawlin' itch. And in that sense it does succeed.

Chad and I dutifully made some progress on one of the three scenario cards chosen for us, fighting creatures and grabbing treasures. With eight different heroes, seven locations, twenty-two monsters, twenty pieces of equipment and spells and fourteen weapons to discover, there's certainly no shortage in variables and variety. I also like the fact that there's a time crunch in the game, represented by various "damsels in distress" who are slowly being lowered into a lava pit. Lose her and you lose the game!

Side Quest was good, but that's as far as I'll go. The generic anime-style art is a match for the game's color-by-numbers game play. Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly serviceable design, but if I'm gonna play a compact dungeon-crawl board game, I want something slightly more innovative and atmospheric. More on that later.

P.S. It's 2016, yo. "Damsels in distress" is so...1980's.

At the end of the row I came across the stuff of legends: the D-Day scenario for one of my all-time favorite games: Memoir '44.

I've always wanted to see this in the flesh. Consisting of six pre-printed battle maps representing the Normandy coastline, seven total Memoir '44 core sets and various expansions, the game was breathtaking to see set up. The guys presiding over the game gave me an offer to play but I knew that if I sat down the entirety of my weekend would immediately be spoken for.

Side note: if you're looking for more information about rules and requirements to run this beast yourself, click right hur.

Even though I resisted the siren call that is two straight days of Memoir '44, I couldn't resist the curb appeal of a revamped Battle of Britain. Designed by several luminaries such as Richard Borg, David "Zeb" Cook, Tom Hoffman and Ken Sommerfield and originally published by TSR back in 1990, the Plastic Soldier Company is planning to bring this one back in the form of a fancy new deluxe edition.

Between the two awesome R.A.F. gals manning the booth and an amazing prototype featuring an over-sized map of the U.K. and some gorgeous aircraft models, I was easily reeled in. I had a chance to demo a German bombing run and my dice proved to be smokin' hot.

Granted, it was only a demo, but the game doesn't feel particularly deep to me. Maybe that's a good thing. Likely there's a lot more to it and the mechanics I was privy to make for a fast and furious experience. I did like it enough to prospect for more info about the game and was told that...
  1. A Kickstarter for the new edition should be going live soon. D'uh.
  2. This will be a new edition of the game, not just a straight-up reprint.
  3. The miniatures won't be as elaborate as the oversized prototype but there will be distinctly different sculpts for all of the aircraft.
  4. They're toying with the idea of including an big-ass board. Smart.

Since I'm an easy mark for lite war games, I'll definitely keep my eye on this sucka down the road. 

Hungry and overwhelmed by all the sensory overload, Chad and I took a brief spell to collect our wits and plan our next move. And therein lies the rub. I'd come into the Expo completely green, unaware of the myriad of different strategies. Did I want to comparison shop for games? Test drive prototypes? Learn how to play games that I was interested in? Scope out pre-releases? Take in the seminars? Check out the cosplayers? The options were endless.

Thumbing our nose at the baffling number of options, Chad and I forged on. As we plowed through the crowd I noticed a familiar face while Chad was distracted.

"Oh, yeah, there goes Sam Healey from The Dice Tower," I mentioned off hand, barely above a whisper.

Well, it was if I'd just blown a dog whistle. Chad perked up, spotted Sam trundling by and then started chasing after him like a Labrador retriever going after after a Buick. Instantly I kicked myself for mentioning this out loud. I cursed under my breath and then fell into hot pursuit.

By the time I caught up to them Chad was running around Sam like Chester in the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Mercifully Sam was super-sweet about the whole thing and even agreed to take a photo with us.

Eventually Chad stopped hyperventilating and I slowly pulled him back to reality. As we passed by the Z-Man Games booth he took one look at Beyond Baker's Street and instantly was smitten. Even though I was exhausted and starving to death by that point, I couldn't pass up learning a new game, especially when our teacher would be the co-designer himself, Steve Mackenzie!

Beyond Baker's Street is a co-operative deduction game for up to four players. Here's the game's case study right from the official webzone:

Another criminal is on the run and Sherlock Holmes has a lead! Of course, he’ll have the culprit behind bars in no time… Unless you beat him at his own game! Holmes isn’t the only capable mind in London and it’s about time someone noticed! With the help of your associates, gather evidence, follow the clues, and use your power of deduction to solve the case before the great Sherlock Holmes! Whatever will remain, however improbable, must be the truth!

At the start of the game, players will select one of the crimes to solve. A number of suspects, motive, and opportunities will be available for the players to convict of the crime. Each player holds a set of five clues, but they won’t be able to see their own clues, only their counterparts. Each turn, a player may either: assist another detective, investigate a crime scene, confirm evidence, eliminate dead leads, or pursue new leads.

Players will either win together if they can gather enough evidence to make a conviction before Holmes does, or crumble under the stress of the case. 

Given the fact that I was borderline delirious from hunger and exhaustion at the time, I fully expected to completely bork this co-op for everyone. But Steve did a bang up job explaining things and except for one forgetful misstep on my part, we still won the day, if just by a hair.

I must confess: as Steve was explaining the game I snobbily thought to myself 'Oh, it's just a Hanabi re-tread.' But as the game progressed, it started to get its claws into me. The subtleties of the five different actions started to impress and I was charmed by the game's gorgeous production values. Most importantly, the Sherlockian theme seemed a helluva lot more in-step with the hidden card mechanic than Hanabi's "fireworks artisan" conceit. In fact, as of this writing, Beyond Baker's Street threatens to put Antoine Bauza's venerable classic on life support for this particular amateur sleuth.

We finally paused for lunch, which is just what what the Doctor (Who) ordered. After that Chad and I tried to weasel our way into the live Dice Tower podcast but by the time everyone ahead of us got seated, there was no more room at the Inn (I.E. the Seminar Room).

But then something super-cool happened. Instead of sending everyone away unhappy, the staff gave everyone still in queue a numbered ticket guaranteeing a seat at the 4 pm show! Man, say what you want about the Brits, but they line up like professionals! I mean, c'mon, how smart is that? Why the fuck don't we do stuff like that here in North America?!? Arrrggghhh!

After a cherished re-union with some wayward friends, Chad and I took in a lecture by Dr. Reiner Knizia about the future of board gaming. How cool it that?!?

If you don't recognize the name "Reiner Knizia" then I have to assume that you must be new to this whole "board gaming" thang. Reiner is one of the most prolific game designers of all time. Since leaving his day job back in 1997, he's has gone on to publish (nor design...PUBLISH) a whopping six-hundred titles, including classics like the co-operative Lord of the Rings as well as the two-player Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, not to mention Ra, Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Desert, Ingenious, Lost Cities and Pickomino

The presentation topic was "hybrid gaming". Now, to me, hybrid gaming is something that combines an iPad or phone app with a board game, like, say, XCOM: The Board Game or Golem Arcana. This is in direct contrast to games that incorporate electronic elements, such as Reiner's King Arthur, his volcanic island exploration game Die Insel or that kiddie game he designed with the gassy-looking dog on the front cover of the box, I.E. Wer War's? Löst das Rätsel von Schräghausen!.

IMHO, just because a game lights up or talks to you, it doesn't make it a "hybrid". It's just a board game with electronic bells and whistles; not much more advanced than Operation fer fuck's sake. The sort of games that Reiner was pointing out were about as revolutionary to me as an 80's-era electronic game like the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game or Dark Tower. Which is to say, not very much.

As for true hybrid games that use smart phones and tablets, the jury is still out for me. Don't get me wrong, I love my board game apps (Tigris & Euphrates in particular!) but I like my board games the same way I like my women: analog. Wait, that's doesn't sound right.
Still, it was really cool to hear a super-star in the hobby talk about his designs. Sure, I might not agree with him on the definition of a "hybrid" game is, but what the hell do I know? I'm not the one who's published six-hundred freakin' games!

Chad and I temporarily left the hall to queue up for the next presentation. Armed with our numbered tickets we filed right back into the Seminar Room and settled in for Tom's Dice Tower live podcast. During the set up Chad and I had a brief chat with Tom...and that's when Chad snapped this completely ridiculous pic:

I swear, he was facing in our direction just milliseconds prior to this. Two things can be gathered here:
  1. You should never just arbitrarily snap photos of people. Do this to the wrong person and they're well within their legal right to go all Sean Penn your pushy ass. 
  2. Chad's photos use more Dutch angles than Battlefield Earth.
Even though Sam wasn't there, the podcast was pretty cool. First up, Tom interviewed Dr. Reiner Knizia.

It was really great to hear such a prolific designer talk at length about the design process and our beloved hobby. Some highlights included:
  • Tom comically underestimating the number of designs that Reiner has published.
  • Reiner trying to pin down which game, among hundreds of published designs, that he'd use to impress non-games. His answer inspired me to bring my "36" Pickomino tile with me on Sunday in the vain hope that I'd see him again and get him to sign it.
  • When some kid just flat out asked him: "HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU MAKE?!?"  
Next up Tom interviewed Tony Boydell, the native designer of Guilds of London, a major smash-hit on the local circuit.

Even at the Expo, with dozens of game retailers present, copies of Guilds of London were scarcer than hen's teeth. Having said that, I saw it being played everywhere!

One of the things I really loved about Tony's segment was the palpable sense of glee he exhibited over the fact that one of his designs had "made it". I can only imagine what a thrill it must be to get one of your games published, receive accolades and then start to see it played all over the place.

Another interesting point he brought up was the inexplicable dearth of U.K. game designers. This was a solid point, I thought. As someone who wrote a fantasy novel, I'd murder me Nan to live in the U.K., if only because I'd find inspiration all around me. Indeed, to Tony's point, given Britain, Ireland and Scotland's rich history, why aren't there more designers cranking out imaginative regional fare?

Next up, fellow Canucklehead Eric M. Lang took the stage and delighted the crowd with his unfettered enthusiasm.

I get the vibe that Eric and I would probably get along quite well together. Based on his sharp design acumen and his commitment to making good games based on preexisting intellectual properties, I'm pretty sure we'd be on the same page about about a lot of things. Plus, I'm a unrepentant fanboy for Blood Rage, Chaos in the Old World and all things Dice Masters.

If it came from anyone else, I would have taken Eric's answer about have no preference between designing original and licensed games with a grain of salt. But in his case I really do get the vibe that he honestly adores Star Wars, Game of Thrones, superheroes and Dungeons & Dragons and, as such, he really wants to see someone do justice to these wonderful worlds.

I have to be honest, though, I visibly flinched when he mentioned that he's currently working on Munchkin: The Trading Card Game. Seriously, I used to own the base set of Munchkin but dumped it after just one play. Maybe Eric and Kevin Wilson they can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear...but this is my skeptical face

So, if you wanna watch the entire Q&A, here she be:

The panel brought us right up to 5 pm. As soon as our asses were elevated staff and security began to root people out of the convention hall with rakes and cattle prods. So ended Day One. Chad and I still hadn't gotten to the other side of the room. Oh well, this would be a noble goal for...


As we attacked the far side of the convention floor on Sunday morning I was delighted to come across Star Trek: Frontiers.

As a fan of space exploration games (and Star Trek-flavored ones in particular), this has been on my radar for quite some time. Even though the players were clearly engrossed in the game, a few of them were kind enough to gave me some insights.
  • First up, since it's a Vlaada Chvátil game it plays out a lot like Mage spaaaaaace! I.E. technological improvements in Frontiers is kinda like the equivalent of magic in Mage Knight.
  • Second up, since it's a Vlaada Chvátil game it's not a "quick throw down and jump right into it" sort of affair. The play testers that day had a bunch of questions that weren't always being addressed by the rules. 
  • There are scenarios, but the one they were playing involved hunting through the galaxy for the Borg Cube. Hmmmm, the phrase "let sleeping dogs lie" kinda comes to mind. 
Nevertheless, as someone who unconditionally loves Fleet Captains, I'm super-stoked to try this game. I'm hoping that Vlaada uses some innovative Euro-style mechanics to bring this potentially rich IP to life in a less clunky and more intuitive fashion.

Next up Chad and I were fished in by the incredibly-alluring Everdark prototype. 

I mean, c'mon...look at this freakin' thing! Essentially it's a semi co-operative / semi-competitive maze game with four concentric tiers of moving circles. The upshot is that the illuminated city of Phos is being besieged by crushing darkness outside. Recently the guardian of the city died leaving a power vacuum. Players must drive back the encroaching darkness together to save the city but also distinguish themselves in the struggle in order to be the sole winner of the game.

Like many other co-ops, you have four actions that you can spend on various tasks for valuable rewards. Players must constantly weigh the cost of re-attempting tasks they've failed since the whole thing is under a huge time crunch. Even more interesting: you can spend actions to rotate a part of the board, constantly changing its configuration to help your partners or screw over your rivals. Fun!

A relative of the designer told us that the game is still a work in progress. Based on a constantly battery of play-testing, the rules are being tweaked to perfection and now they're looking at launching a Kickstarter sometime in August. I, for one, will have my eyes firmly glued on this unique and visually arresting design!

Next up, Chad wanted to test drive the new game by Hive designer John Yianni, Tatsu.

Even though Chad was slightly bummed that one of John's helper monkeys, and not John himself, showed him how to play he still really enjoyed the experience. The game itself looks pretty sweet, kinda like backgammon on steroids.

Next up I went over to the Fantasy Flight booth to drool over the new Star Wars Armada minis.

It might be tough to see but what you're looking at are the Wave III's Flotillas, featuring two ships per base. This includes GR-75 Rebel transports and Imperial Gozanti-class assault carriers which allow you to do super-handy Fleet Support upgrades.

Also present are two Wave IV ships, namely the Interdictor-class Imperial Cruiser which sacrifices raw armament for the ability to impede your opponent's moves during the battle. Also shown is the Mon Calamari Liberty-Class Star Cruiser which gives the Rebels some badly-needed firepower. 

I also spent considerable time smearing up the X-Wing display. "Sanjay to the Fantasy Flight booth with the Windex!"

Given my irrational bounty hunter fetish I'm definitely gonna pick up IG-88's IG-2000, Bossk's ship the Hound's Tooth and Dengar's Punishing One. But I'm also adamant in limiting my X-Wing fleet to ships only shown on-screen in the classic trilogy. I have zero interest in that crappy-looking prequel scow the ARC-170, the Special Forces T.I.E. from The M'eh Awakens, as well as the Protectorate Starfighter and the Shadow Caster from the Rebels cartoon.

Hey, if you're interested, more power to ya. For me, I gotta draw a line in the sand somewhere.

Later in the day I was tickled pink to run into James Raggi, designer of the Olde Skool Renaissance RPG system Lamentations of the Flame Princess. This gave me a chance to pick up a copy of the new, super-slick looking "Rules & Magic" core rule book and find out from James that the Procedures and Inspirations book for Game Referees is coming down the pike via an ambitious IndieGoGo campaign.

Frankly, I think it was stunning just to see that many copies of Zak Smith's A Red and Pleasant Land all in one place together. I would have picked that one up if not for the fact that I already snagged my copy ages ago.

Speaking of lamentations, James had a lot to say about his recent printing woes but he also indicated that the con had gone well for him. That's great to hear. I can only imagine what the investment must be to rent a booth, schlep a bunch of inventory over from Finland and then deal with curious rubber-neckers for three days straight.

Since I already have a great source for game discounts back home I didn't go absolutely nuts and buy a metric crap-ton of games. Instead I concentrated on picking up some unique souvenirs including this massive glass mug:

And some cool-ass fantasy coins:

I did break down and score a copy of the Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game since it seemed like an appropriate purchase!

We had even less time on Sunday and the time flew by. The next thing we knew it was 4 pm and we were being ushered out of the NEC. Boooo!!!

But then something completely ridiculous happened that pretty much put the perfect capper this entire crazy weekend. Chad spied Sam Healey and Tom Vasel in the distance walking back to their hotel and instantly gave chase. So, naturally, we did what any self-respecting owner of a Jack Russell terrier would do when the hyperactive l'il pooch breaks off of his lead: we ran after him!

Thankfully, things turned out great. If it had been just us two sweaty manboys asking for a pic, Sam and Tom probably would have told us to go pound sand. But when they saw the respectable company we were keeping in the form of our gracious hosts Dulseigh, Jon, Kcaz and Issi, they were more than happy to take a snap with us.

Thanks for being such good sports, guys!   

I can't believe a month has already gone by since the the Expo. Time has now given me some perspective on the event, so here are my final thoughts:
  • This whole thing came about because Jon (an ex-pat of our gaming group) and Dulseigh were kind enough to invite us over. Not only did they house us, they also transported our carcasses back and forth to the event, took the time to feed and water us and also played tour guide. For that I will be eternally grateful.
  • If I ever get the chance to go again I'd try to make it for all three days. I'd also be sorely tempted to stay at the hotel affiliated with the event if only because they hosted all kinds of cool gaming events and tournaments in the evening after the NEC shut down. But this would be a tough call on my part because the tourist in me really, really enjoyed staying at the historic Bull's Head Inn. I think I'd be willing to go all in at an Origins or a GenCon, where the tourist in me wouldn't be so much at odds with the gamer.
  • On both days we left the convention hall to have lunch and, personally speaking, I would have been perfectly content to grab some overpriced crap to eat on site, cram it in my mush and then jump right back into the fray.
  • Next time out I'm not going to spend nearly as much time looking at vendors. Sure, I'll buy a few unique things that I can't get at home as well as some out-of-print, early release and / or prototype stuff, but next time out I really wanna demo and play as many games as I possible can.
All told, it was a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime event that I'll cherish forever!


Wanna take a closer look at some of the same things we saw at the Expo? Then click on the following images to learn more and possibly fund another trip across the pond for me next year!