Expo! Expo! Read all about it!

A sign of the times. Or at least of the dates.

The 2011 UK Games Expo has gone, fading into memory and history, leaving nothing but recollections of good times and the aftermath of eating too many pub meals.

This was the fifth full Expo (there was a small trial run in 2006, I’m told, not something I attended) and I’ve been to it every year. Back at the start it was a bit of a frantic runaround as I was conducting interviews on behalf of RPGMP3.com to be used in their podcasts; and indeed the interviews are available from RPGMP3 as a free download. It was lovely to tote a Press Pass and chat with the likes of Matthew Sprange and Phil Masters, but of course the teensy drawback was that I missed much of the actual show, so none of that this year. In other years I’ve either gone for the full-on gaming option, with every available moment filled with scheduled games, or else circumstances have meant that I could only attend for part of the weekend. This year I decided to try for a better balance which, on the whole, worked rather nicely. One scheduled game each day, with plenty of time to browse the trade stands and chat to friends. And go to the pub, obviously.

You underestimate the power of the Dark Side...

Gaming conventions are odd beasts, usually dedicated to quite specific sorts of games. There are boardgame cons, role-playing game cons, wargaming cons, card game cons… all sorts. Where they often fail, in my opinion, is in catering to only the sorts of people who already play those particular game types, so you very often find that role-players don’t go to a wargaming con and, conversely, the military fans with their beautifully painted metal miniature armies avoid the role-playing conventions. The UK Games Expo takes a different, more inclusive approach, not only providing space for the games I’ve just mentioned but also making a strong effort to offer something for children and families as well as the more casual gamer and science-fiction fan. No doubt some of the role-players are annoyed that there are boardgamers taking up valuable RPG space and vice versa, but there is plenty of interest to everyone, on top of which it’s an all too rare opportunity for people to give different games a try. Lots of demo games make it easy to play a quick hand of Monty Python Fluxx or whatever takes your fancy, run by people who know the rules inside out, and there are packed trade stands in the halls to sell you a copy if you like the experience. And should you need a break from the games then you can always hobnob with interdimensional celebrities.

Absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing.

For the last couple of years the Expo has started a day early, with Friday devoted to games only, no trade stands and the like. After a fairly horrendous trip down to Birmingham, and a quick meeting with old friends including the Yog-Sothoth crew, the first game for me was something brand new: Leagues of Adventure from Triple Ace Games. TAG, as they’re known, are a British publisher of role-playing games with a strong presence at each Expo. In the past they have exclusively supported the Savage Worlds game but more recently the TAG product line has expanded to include their own complete games. Leagues of Adventure turned out to be a Victorian “pulp” adventure game based on the Ubiquity rules developed by Exile Game Studio, a solid and quite popular system. The Friday games are played in the Menzies Strathallan Hotel, with several games being run in a single room. That caused some difficulties for poor Robin Elliott of TAG who was running the game for a group of half a dozen players, since the noise level meant that he was forced to practically shout for the entire duration. He made the best of it, but some of the players had trouble hearing what was going on further up the table and the whole game was made somewhat frustrating because of it. TAG produced a special advanced copy of the game, generously handed out free of charge to anyone who signed up for a game during the weekend, as a teaser and promotion before the complete product is released. A lovely touch, although personally I didn’t see much to distinguish it from the crowd of similar games. Maybe the full game will have a few more unique touches.

Saturday saw me in a game run by Dave Blewer, another TAGger and Expo perennial. I’ve probably played in more convention games run by Dave than by anyone else and once again he threw the action at our characters from the start. This time the game was All for One: Régime Diabolique, casting us in the role of King’s Musketeers up against demons and hideous undead creatures, played in the manner of an horrific Richard Lester Musketeers movie. Much silliness and derring-do, topped magnificently with classically bad ‘Allo ‘Allo accents from everyone (except Nick Marsh, whose French accent morphed hilariously into Dr. Strangelove German whenever he tried to issue an order). Moving away from Triple Ace for once I opted for a Call of Cthulhu game on Sunday, playing a member of the Resistance in wartime France. Traditionally Call of Cthulhu characters end the game either dead or, more often, wholly insane, but somehow my chap came through practically unscathed, which is more than you can say for the rest of the party… only one other character made it out alive. Clearly I wasn’t playing it correctly.

These days it’s very easy to buy role-playing and board games on-line. When I started gaming – shortly after the invention of paper, I think it was – finding out about a game meant scouring the ads and news sections of now long-dead magazines such as Space Gamer, Dragon and Sorcerer’s Apprentice, followed by a trip to a dedicated hobby shop (if you were lucky) or one of the model-making or toy shops that were starting to stock a few RPGs. The easy access to information and games now makes convention trade stands less vital than once they were. It’s often more expensive to buy a game from a convention than on-line, so there has to be something more than simply price with which they can compete. The more interesting stands were generally those offering very small press stuff, generally low-budget/no-budget operations where the person manning the stall probably designed the game as well. Despite the fact that I too am a low-budget/no-budget operation I do like to support these people when I can and when they’re presenting something worthwhile. Find of the convention for me was Backswords & Bucklers from Tied to a Kite, who also had the best business cards I’ve seen for a while. You can download a free PDF copy of the game from a link on their product page (just click here to go there) or the printed booklet is a very reasonable £5. The game itself is based on the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons game, the first commercially available role-playing game, via a more recent game called Swords & Wizardry, but unlike those and many similar games Backswords & Bucklers is inspired by Elizabethan England. More specifically, it takes strong inspiration from Michael Moorcock’s wonderful Elizabethan fantasy novel Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen, although it’s obvious that Blackadder II is another unavoidable source. Being something of a Moorcock fan, and having recently read a few bits and pieces about Christopher Marlowe, Francis Walsingham and the dark, dirty world of Elizabethan espionage, there was no way I could resist it. I shall probably write up a review in the future; for now you could do worse than download the free PDF, gather a few friends and give it a try yourself.

And there it is, the merest hint of a wonderful weekend and in no way a full description of the UK Games Expo at all. I have considerable fondness for the event, not least because of the friends I have made there, many of whom I only get to see once a year. It isn’t true to say that the Expo has something for everyone, but it certainly does have lots to appeal to a wide range of people, far wider than many of the other gaming conventions held each year. If you haven’t tried a con and worry that they are noisome haunts of overweight nerds whose idea of sartorial excellence is a black slogan T-shirt then this show might change your opinion a little. There’s no denying that black slogan T-shirts, many of them XXL, were out in force, though…

Best not to try it...

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  1. June 8, 2011 at 22:57

    I reviewed Backswords & Bucklers [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2010/05/and-not-codpiece-in-sight.html] a while back and am rather fond of it. I will review the supplement fairly soon too.

    The developers are total grognards too, heavily into their wargames.

  1. March 22, 2012 at 11:57

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