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UK Games Expo 2024

Jun 6, 2024

#board gaming #uk games expo #convention 

During the first weekend in June, I made my yearly pilgrimage to the UK Games Expo at the Birmingham NEC. UKGE is the UK’s biggest boardgame convention which has been running since 2007, year to year it has grown in size to the point now that it uses up four halls of the NEC. For me, the expo is a chance to check out some new games, buy ones that generally I can’t get my hands on, and just be part of the board gaming atmosphere.

Catan: New Energies
Catan: New Energies

Friday

Friday started strong with us sneaking onto a table of Catan: New Energies, I’m still a relatively newcomer to Catan after spending many years despising the thought of it due to a few bad sessions of the base game, but this version is quite refreshing and gives you a few new angles to attack if you so wish. You can quickly grow by being polluting but it’ll slowly bite you as you try to push forward, building using a greener route will be slower and more expensive but will allow you to place more good tokens into the bag and make the game a little easier for everyone.

In my short five turns, I was able to quickly ramp up a coal power station and start building up resources quickly, much to the detriment of everyone else as we quickly hit an event with the tokens being drawn from the bag. Mark stuck to the more eco-friendly choice and built a wind farm and added a green token into the mix.

Our game was a quick five-minute sampler but it has ended up on the ‘To Buy’ list, I couldn’t imagine myself saying that six months ago! The game looks like it’s going to be released around the 1st of July 2024, but no firm date seems to exist online. Hopefully, my FLGS (friendly, local games store), Mutant Dice Games will have it in stock when I’m next able to pop down.

The rest of our Friday was spent wandering around and enjoying the trade stands, much like the past few years most of the stands were in Halls 1 and 2 of the NEC which top out at about 25,000 m², so doing a complete lap of all the stalls will take you a good hour or two, more if you’re actually having a look and poke around at each of the stalls. Before we went to the show I did check out the new releases section of the UK Games Expo site and make a list of any games I’ll be interested in seeing.

First of all, was Arcs, the newest game of Cole Wehrle, the creator of Root and Oath. I enjoyed my group’s play-through of Root, and having this described as a tightened-up Root in space, I was sold. As you can imagine the tables for this one were packed, and it was a shame that All About Games only had two tables demoing it. I was able to shoulder surf for ten or so minutes and I think I understood the basics. It’ll be a surefire purchase for me, but I’m just not sure about the rest of my regular gaming group, as Root received a mild response.

Sky Team popped up as a recommended game for me a few weeks ago. The premise is simple: you and your co-pilot have to land a plane, but you have to take certain actions in secret and hopefully not crash and burn. Being a two-player game it seemed perfect for something me and Jo could play in an evening, so I was interested in playing and buying the game. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to play this one, and because I didn’t play it I was steered away from purchasing it on the Friday, which turned into a rather big mistake. By Friday afternoon it was sold out, and some stores had a minor restock on Saturday but they were all gone within an hour of opening.

To repeat that, Happy Home is an Alley Cat Games release that works much like Copenhagen, you have to place furniture in your new home to score the maximum points and achieve goals. My Saturday purchase goal was smashed as it sold out, with the only option to pre-order on the website. I’m not a great fan of pre-ordering games, even with a discount, so I’ll wait until I can pick that up at my FLGS.

One final target on my Friday ’look at’ list was Pampero, and oh my, what a game! My regular group loves a game with lots of bits, tokens and meeples, this game fills the brief quite nicely. From the little bit of gameplay I spotted it seemed to flow quite nicely and while looking complicated it wasn’t once you got to the bottom of it. The Kickstarter for the game ran a while ago, and it is getting close to shipping, so I can’t wait to snag a copy of this from somewhere.

A selection of milks at the hotel
A selection of milks at the hotel

The Hotel

As I live in the northwest, we generally stay over locally to UKGE rather than taking the 1-2hr trip back home. In the last few years we’ve found that the Holiday Inn Coventry M6 is a great balance of price and distance from the NEC; only two junctions further down the M6 from the NEC and at nearly half the price of the local hotels. The drive takes about 10 minutes out of the main car parks of the NEC, and as a bonus, it has a Lidl next door to pick up any supplies.

We usually pair our hotel stay with booking “Express Parking” which gives you a space nearer to the entrance to the NEC, so running back to drop off a bag load of games isn’t too much of a hassle. This year the hotel cost £190 for two nights and the parking was £26/day, which isn’t too bad when you compare it to the Moxy, Crowe Plaza, or Hilton located next to the NEC which cost you £200+ a night.

The Holiday Inn at Coventry is going through a mini refurbishment, some of the soft fittings in the rooms have been replaced and the outside is getting some much-needed modernisation. I think this hotel was built back in the 80s and the room block really shows it. One thing I was impressed with was the selection of dairy alternatives and gluten-free choices at breakfast. I’ve been taking better care of myself since my health issues so it is nice to be able to not make any special requests or prepare my own alternatives, and now I’m quite partial to an almond milk decaf latte.

We did see a few other attendees staying at the hotel, along with Geeknson, the boardgame table manufacturer, but otherwise, it was mostly booked up with people taking breaks on long journeys or tour groups.

Jo with Steve Jackson
Jo with Steve Jackson

Saturday

Saturday was chaos, by 11 AM the aisles were packed with people and stall holders were ran off their feet. Demo games were nearly impossible to get on, and you couldn’t get within a few feet of Travelling Man or Zatu. I didn’t enjoy Saturday at all, I’ve been to a few years of UKGE but this was something else. After the show, we looked at the stats and they’ve reported 65,000 visits to the halls, which is a massive uplift from the previous years.

We spent most of the day wandering the halls, and later on popped back to Catalyst Game Labs as none other than Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games was making an appearance to meet and greet fans and show off the latest version of Munchkin. It was nice to meet the legend and Jo rolled out her version of Munchkin Sketch to have him sign, much like she did with John Kovalic.

We’re now the proud owner of an ‘Invoke Obscure Rule’ card with Steve’s signature and a comment of ‘Yes, it’s legit’ written on it.

I was completely overwhelmed by Saturday, so we made a group decision to dash for the door and get some food. Last year we tried a place within Resort World called ‘Karaage’ and we decided to give it another go, it didn’t disappoint and the quality was great considering the relative cost of the food. One of the biggest problems I have with the NEC is the amount of overpriced food and drink and it’s nice to find somewhere that is good tasty food for decent prices.

Ominoes by YAY Games
Ominoes by YAY Games

Sunday

We left the hotel and hit the halls early on Sunday, lucking out that as we walked into the main doors near Hall 1 the barriers dropped for the initial wave of people entering the halls and we could walk right in. The first job was to dash over to Travelling Man to check for any games in stock, and within a few minutes left disappointed. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the retailers had sold out of their items on Friday/Saturday, and if you didn’t get in early then you missed your chance with some of the more popular games.

The halls were a lot less packed in the morning so we were able to take a bit more of a stroll around the stands. First of all, we ended up at Yay Games and were quickly shown Ominoes, Jo had issues with the style and Egyptian artwork due to her degrees (the artwork had some incorrect hieroglyphs) but the game was solid, with a few variations that could make the game interesting.

We also had a chance to play Orbito, we had played this quickly at Airecon but this time we were able to take a little more time. Also, they had an Orbito XL version which was huge and used pool balls for the marbles. I don’t think it’ll ever be available retail but it was good fun to play with at that size, with a very satisfying clunk to the button.

With that, we decided at around 2 PM to start heading our way back up north. As we were leaving the crowds were reducing by quite a lot and if you want a relatively quiet walk around then a Sunday afternoon might be just the ticket.

Retrospective

It’s been a week now since we visited UKGE, and at the time I did say I’ll never go back due to the crowds, but as time goes on I think I did enjoy the event just not as much as previous years. I can’t exactly remember which was our first year, but looking at my emails it seems to be 2017, but since then UKGE has grown and I think it has got to the point where it has outgrown its venue. The NEC is huge, but it abuses its captive market and makes the entire show an expensive proposition. I’m not sure where it could be held, but a city centre location could make booking hotels and finding food and drink a lot easier and cheaper for its attendees.

I’ll probably attend UKGE 2025, but I know I’ll skip 2026 in favour of EMF Camp 2026. I had the choice of going both events and I left UKGE feeling down as I missed out on an awesome biennial event for what I felt was a mediocre event.

If you’re interested in UKGE, then the next one is from 30th May to 1st June 2025 at the Birmingham NEC, tickets go on sale in December 2024. I’d suggest looking at hotels in the next few weeks if you want to stay over as they sell out quickly. Or, like us, you’re happy to stay further afield and can drive, check out the Holiday Inn Coventry and we might see you there.