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UK Games Expo 2012 – A view from a Volunteer

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Since 2009, I’ve been a regular day visitor to the UK Games Expo. The popularity of the show has increased year on year, and it has been a pleasure to watch it grow, but without trying to run before it can walk. It always felt like the team running it paid as much attention to what went wrong as to what went right. This year, after seeing a posting on FB asking for any Volunteers to put their names forward, despite a little hesitation I decided to put my name down. I didn’t know anybody on the team, but life is too short to worry about this kind of detail.

Friday Day
To beat the traffic on the M25, you leave early, or you lose 2 hours of your life slowly shuffling along, so I left early. My first shift didn’t start until 11am, but I intended to stop en route for some breakfast as I was due to be working through to 8pm. Every previous year, we’d popped into Sainsburys and had something there, so the plan was to do the same. Traffic was fairly light, and I’d a few Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode Film Review podcasts to get through, so the journey was easy and smooth, and I arrived for breakfast around 9. Full fry up and a large coffee before the final 20 minute run to the Expo.

I was greeted at the door by one of the Organisers, and soon sent off to complete various errands, from clothing tables for Wargamers to building a pen out of barriers for Vikings (both groups looked quite similar). Most of the hard work had already been done by a more experienced and able team over the previous couple of days, so it was mainly light duties and marshalling. We then helped the traders in, and also moved some tables and chairs over to the hotel. With the Expo ready to go and all jobs seemingly done I managed a quick bit of retail therapy at Leisure Games who were still setting up, but had some good stickered offers, so I picked up Marrakech, and Hurry’Cup up for £10 and £5 respectively. I’ve played Marrakech a few times before, and always enjoyed it as a lighter interactive game with attractive pieces, and Hurry’Cup looks fun as a family activity. I grabbed a few moments to book my games into the bring and buy as well, and put out Blood Bowl, Candamir, Diamonds Club, Evergreen, If Wishes Were Fishes, Leaping Lemmings, Midevil, Ming Dynasty, Risk Balance Of Power, Starship Catan, Techno Withces, Zombies, and ZombieTown. I’d tried to be harsh with this a little, and had priced the games to sell rather than come back. If I sold it all, I’d be getting a little over £100.

Friday Evening
Three of us had agreed to get together for a few games that evening, so we grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then went into the Strath Hotel. As an opener, we had a quick game of Zombie Dice with a couple who were waiting for their food. This isn’t a game that really gets me excited, but it was just a light opener so I can accept it as that. Consensus then seemed to be Pirate Fluxx, again not my type of game, but it ended when one player pointed out to another player that if they had played their cards I a slightly different order they could have won. We were all happy for the turn to be replayed, and that was game over. The couple then left as they were booked into an rpg, and we moved on to the end of the library table to play Walnut Grove. This was on my wishlist, so I was keen to see how it played in advance of possibly picking it up over the weekend, and to figure out if it was as good as some had mentioned it to be.

* Walnut Grove *
I’m sat here scratching my head for what to say about this. Ultimately, this 4 player game was won by Peter who had played it the most, but the rest of us weren’t too far behind. Peter described it as Carcassonne meets Agricola, and to some extent I can see that, however I’m not sure that it takes the best bits from either of those games. The Carc bit involves placing about 12 tiles over the course of the game to maximise fenced off areas and areas of a similar type, and so feels considerably more like Cities than Carc. The Agricola part was interesting, but without being groundbreaking. Your ‘workers’ need quite a bit of feeding, and keeping warm, so a good percentage of the resources you create each round go back in to the pot. This creates maths for maths sake, and I found myself pushing cubes slightly off to the side on their tiles as I knew I couldn’t use them. I know you can mitigate your loses slightly, and they change according to how many resources each worker colour needs, but you know this before you go to harvest, so you simply adjust what you collect to reflect what you need. Therefore you are left over with minimal resources with which to take your victory. It is still worker placement, and I just feel that particular mechanism is being flogged to death at the moment, and I don’t feel it is developing particularly. I played to get workers, figuring that the more tiles I placed, the more resources I would get, the more resources I’d be able to use. In the process, I created a wooded area comprising six tiles, so I took the bonus matching this, but came in second to Peter who did a little of everything rather than a lot of something, although he had created a better tiled area with lots of fenced areas. I liked it, but less than similar games. I’d rather play Cuba.

During the game, I took a trade from Chris to hand over during the trade on Saturday lunchtime. He was also kind enough to buy me a beer for my troubles, which was well received.

* Sunrise City *
A new one to me. Peter had supported this on kickstarter and we sat down to play. It was 10ish by now, and I was a little phased, and struggled to take on board how the game played. It seemed like a real jumble of ideas – a tile placement round followed by a bidding round, followed by another tile placement round with a different scoring mechanism to the previous round with a bit of role selection thrown in to the mix. I couldn’t see anything clearly defined, nor could I create any form of strategy for playing it. To add to the confusion, you score 1 victory point for every ten points you score, but if you get to exactly 10, then you score 2 victory points. Therefore if you are on 9, it is better to score 1 point than it is to score 10 points. You cannot really plan ahead as the layout changes significantly between turns, so on your turn, you say ‘How do I score x number of points’ and then stare at the tiles until you can work out if you can do it or not. This particular aspect of the game turned into a social activity.

During each round you have to ‘auction’, and if two players by coincidence are only able to build on a few tiles, then they will lose all their voting discs bidding on said tiles, whereas the player with the better spread of buildings in hand can earn many more points. There are also score modifying tiles all over the map that add or deduct points according to what type of building is built adjacent to them. All this did was make the calculation more complicated without making it more interesting. Laying positive tiles can be done to add to your score, but as you have no idea what building tiles your opponent has, laying negative tiles is just done without any reason. As you play all the tiles in your hand each round when laying the groundworks out, you can’t choose not to play these either.

The role selection came down to the luck of the draw, and from the little we saw, it seemed that some cards were considerably more valuable than others. We all stumbled through it, with the game eventually tied between Sarah and myself, so Sarah won on the tiebreaker. The game is the equivalent of a tractor engine on a hedge trimmer – something unwieldy and complicated designed to do a relatively simple task. I can’t help but feel that kickstarter is all a bit of a con. Give us a lot of money for a game that we think is really good, and we’ll give you it well before anybody else. No thanks – it is too much like films that don’t get press screened before they get released.

All this said, this game will find a market and will appeal to some, but it contains too many elements that I really didn’t enjoy when mixed into a single game.

* Bohnanza *
Stefan wandered into the games library looking slightly disappointed that all the gamers from his previous game had gone to their respective beds. We therefore sat down to a game of Bohnanza. The most memorable part of the game was Stefan’s shock at some of Sarah’s trades – she acquired beans she didn’t need and he did by offering better trades, and he sat in disbelief. Peter won this without buying a third field, so fair play to him. I got my now obligatory second place. By now it was 1:30, so we all packed up and headed out to the Hagley. If you are interested to know about this hotel, just have a look on trip advisor, but 2 of the reviews are titled ‘Travellers Beware’ and ‘Disgraceful’. One of the rooms had no lock, and the light didn’t work, but fortunately it wasn’t mine.

I always struggle to sleep on my first night in a new place, especially one like this, so I didn’t drop off until sometime around 2, and slept really lightly around until about 6. I eventually dropped off then, and was just getting some quality kip when the alarm went off. I struggled up, and had the shower dribble on me. No breakfast going at the hotel (probably a good thing), so I had a quick cereal bar and set off for my 8am shift, arriving just after 7:30. I went on to one of the side doors letting traders in, for the first hour and a half, in which time I did manage to spot the current preferred method of transport for Stormtroopers – a Renault Scenic. I then went up to help organise the Bring and Buy queue, which we moved into a separate room to try and keep the hallways as clear as possible. Despite the huge queues and old-fashioned booking in system, people were generally good natured, although the waiting time was about an hour and 20 minutes. I recognised a local gamer clutching a Road & Boats which he was selling for £80, and had to stop myself from blowing my budget there and then. I was amazed at how big the box was. I came off this area at 11am, and then went on a break, otherwise known as a shopping spree, and made my first purchases of the expo.

I picked up Silverton from Northumbria Games, with both guys on the stand being really friendly and help. I really enjoy train games, but often struggle to find anybody willing to give them any time so this should hopefully keep me quite happy with a solo option. I then ambled over the six feet between Northumbria and Gameslore, and purchased Santiago De Cuba and Mondo. I’ve played SdC online a number of times, and find it highly enjoyable, and often very close run, and have wanted to have the physical version for some time. At £20 this seemed like a good price for a fun game. I like the level of interactivity it offers along with the simplicity of the rules, but with enough depth to make it interesting. Mondo is for playing with my daughter, and I really hope this will appeal to her and help develop her interest in games. I then went up to have a browse through the Bring And Buy, which was in chaos, and ended up marshalling, and keeping people back whilst they tried to tidy games up and prepare for the next onslaught. It was a good chance to have a chat with various friends – both those I was expecting to see, and those whom I had no idea were going to be there. Whilst waiting, I noticed 2 copies of Dominant Species, a copy of Night Of The Magicians, and a copy of Formula Motor Racing. As soon as the stall reopened, I grabbed 1 of the DS games and held on to it after seeing a tag of £35, picked up NotM and promptly put it back after seeing it priced for £25, kept the FMR which was either £3 or £5, looked at the other DS, and put it back (£45), and also spotted and grabbed Manila for £15.

Then back to the car to drop off, and grab my bag of games to trade, and I went up to the Playtest area, arriving about 15 minutes early. Rob suggested I try Zombie At My Heels, a light card game with a similar idea to Family Business. I played with two others who were taking the game very seriously, and were playing quite slowly, so before we knew it, the trade was beginning, and I was lost between trying to play the game, and give it the respect it deserved, and trying to participate in the trade. In trying, I failed spectacularly to do both, and owe an apology to both the maths traders for my lack of handshaking and trading, and to the two gamers for my lack of concentration on the game, and I deserved to get eaten as much as I did, losing quite spectacularly, although I’d lay the blame a little on having both my characters at the front of the eating queue due to the initial draw not favouring me at all (draw 4 play 2?). Otherwise, the game was well explained and would work as fun game for a light-hearted group of gamers. It wouldn’t be fair for me to make any further comment on it. Through the trade, I traded away Chris’s Blood Bowl Team Manager, and my Dragon Delta, Montego Bay, Khronos, Castle Merchants, Barons and Supernova, and picked up a bag of Catan expansions for Chris, Blood Feud In New York, Gheos, and the WarCraft Boardgame. I took those back to the car, and then went on to the door for the rest of the afternoon, which was a terrible job considering the breeze coming through the doors that seemed to attract both Catwoman and one of Dr Who’s assistants to the same spot as me. Awful, just awful. At one point I was most shocked to see Harry Potter popping out for a quick ciggie. What would Dumbledore say to that, Harry?

At closing time, we headed up to the War Machine tables as they were starting their final game of the day, and just helped the traders upstairs close down, securing the area whilst the wargames were still going on. I admire how well organised these tables were, and it was fascinating to see such a mixture of armies and battles going on. The contestants were keen to chat once their games were over, and really seemed to be enjoying the competition – one player I spoke to had travelled with his friend all the way from Serbia to take part. I then collected some cash from the Bring and Buy to replenish my emptying wallet – I’d sold 9 of my 14 games, so was quite happy there. We then picked up another Subway, and sat out on the grass to eat before heading into the Strath. I then picked up Primordial Soup from the Wallace Suite in the Strath before sitting down for more games.

* Small World *
We set up again at the end of the library table so the library volunteers could join us, and started with Small World which all of us but 1 had played before. I picked up Pillaging Orcs in the first round, and for the first time kept them for the entire game. Nobody attacked me once, and I scored a steady 9-10 points per turn. Every time I thought about putting them into decline, another player would go into decline so I’d just lift them all off and come on afresh. At final scoring, I lost out by 1 point so ended up in second again. Small World was a great ice breaker for Lindsey who then ended up playing games with us for the rest of the evening. It is at it’s very best when treated that way, and I don’t think works as well as a quiet and serious game. There was a lot of fun banter, and we all really enjoyed it.

* Discworld *
Last year after the Expo I raved about this game. Commander Vimes won the game that time. Every time I’ve played it with gamers since then, Commander Vimes has always been one of the Player’s objectives, and Commander Vimes has always won, which I find worrying. Easy to solve, but slightly frustrating. However, I went into this with an open mind. I was the only player who had played this before, so taught the game, dealt out the goals, and we began. It is such a simple game to play and teach. Almost all the information you need to play is given to you and as long as you watch out for what others are up to, then you are fine. Again, with the interaction inbuilt into this, the level of banter was fairly relentless as we robbed and backstabbed one another on a regular basis. I was slowly losing my voice at this point, so was reduced to hand gestures and squeaks. The game ended and… Vimes won again. Everybody really enjoyed it though, so we went immediately into another games. My goal this time was Vimes, and I played as one of the Lords, making all the other Players lose their turns to try and keep me from that objective. This also helps burn through cards, and soon the deck was gone without anybody else even getting close, and Vimes won again. I’m tempted to just remove him from the game next time, but then my strategy would be to maximise VP as opposed to going for my objective.

It was again fairly late/early by now, but we were all up for just one more, so we played Poo, another random card game with a silly theme that in itself was fodder for the fire, but with us all flinging banter about worked quite well, and gave us some laughs. I was first out in both games, but didn’t get the banana in either. If that means nothing, don’t worry.

I didn’t go to sleep that night – I passed out.

Sunday Morning
I was up again at 7, and at the expo for 7:30. We changed tables over in preparation for the 40k tournament and Flames of War, and then I went on to the back entrance for the pre-booked crowd. We got them all through in 8 minutes flat, so I spent the rest of the morning on the front door.

Again, I wasn’t on shift from 11 to 2, so I went looking for 1812 Invasion Of Canada which I couldn’t find anywhere. Northumbria Games went on to their distributor, and said it was in stock there, but I couldn’t find it on any of the stalls. Trouble was as soon as I asked for 1812, people would think trains, so no go there. Whilst looking on the Leisure Games stand though I did find Upon A Salty Ocean for £17, so grabbed that, and then found Zertz for £3 on the Bring And Buy. I then went in search of some playtests, specifically Mythotopia, only to find the 1 person who knew the rules wasn’t there. I spoke to some of the stallholders before moving on through the Family Zone, were I was delighted to see so many families with young children sat together enjoying games. The smiles were very genuine, and the delight was a good reminder of why this is such a great hobby to be involved in. The Imagination Gaming team were a fantastic bunch, and were always busy giving time to new and old gamers alike.

* Anchorage *
I’d seen this on Saturday, and liked the look of it. I enjoy pick up and deliver anyway, so this looked like it should work for me, although I’m not so sure about the plastic lunch box it came in. I jumped into a demo just starting so we were a 3, and after a very brief and slightly scattergun rules explanation we began playing. The game was quite light, and easy to learn, but didn’t seem to have much in the way of depth. Your goal is to use factories to make goods to build better factories to make better goods to sell for points. The best approach seemed to be to build a buoy route between two ports, upgrade to the better factories, produce the high value goods, and sell them at the ports. There is limited demand at the ports, but if your scoring marker lands on the VP track (which goes around the outside of the board) adjacent to a port, then the demand card is replaced. Also, when these VP markers pass various points on the board, the tide changes. This is a neat idea, but it applies to all players on all parts of the board, so makes no difference.

I like the look of the game, and I enjoy the mechanic, but this is an optimisation game, and there seems to be a single route to victory with only minor divergences. The game feels like it is the basic shell that needs something more to create a more varied gameplay. Having the tide alternate across the board would help here so when one half of the board is on low tide, the other half is on high. The game does allow for interaction, and it is possible to block routes by using up the buoy spaces. I see this as positive interaction – it is deliberate, and forces players to think carefully about the routes they choose. However, the best tactic here is just to keep out of the way of others. The negative interaction is that you can’t use a port if another player is already in it. This isn’t deliberate, just frustrating, but again can be planned for. The demoer failed to score in the time it took me to complete the single lap of the board we had agreed to play (you would normally complete 3) mainly because every time he tried to enter a port, it would already have a ship in it. Actually, what I feel the game really needs is an economy. I’d really like to like it though as it was attractive, and fun, but it isn’t really any more than games like Bombay.

* Mythotopia *
Ah, my most wished for game. Never have I been more excited about a plain white box with a sticker on it. I spotted someone I won’t publicly name, and knew he would be able to provide me with more information about this game which, to the very best of his ability he did. We opened the box, and had a look through the cards and components. The game will use the A Few Acres Of Snow mechanic, but in a game that goes from 2 up to 4 players. Each player is handed their starting decks, from which they then select a number of cards. Players also have their own Empire deck to purchase cards from, as well as a common deck which, if I understand correctly, will be a selection from a larger deck of cards. There are also a set of location cards.

Players earn points from owning cities and magical symbols, and from placing roads, and the victory condition was described as being ‘Settlers like’, which I can see will have to lead to alliances and bash the leader. Areas also produce resources, so there are mountains to be mined, and gold to be had. The board layout currently provides a central land with an island in the south west corner, and varied terrain to be dealt with. The board is far more open than A Few Acres, (think more Game Of Thrones) and I assume therefore that combat will have to be dealt with differently. There is a VP track around the outside, with marker points dependant on players (not sure why – I’d have to assume this was to do with victory conditions). Oh, and apparently it is going to look truly spectacular. My response to this was ‘Are you going to get somebody else to do the artwork then?’.

I’m definitely not one of those who believes A Few Acres is a broken game. I’m equally as competent at losing as either side, and find it a really enjoyable game to play. So much focus has gone into the debate about the game working or not working that everybody has missed the step forward this game has taken. Martin Wallace has taken one of the most interesting developments in games and has taken it to the next step. Lords Of Waterdeep sold out at the show. You couldn’t buy a copy past about mid morning on Saturday. I played it a few weeks ago, and it was interesting enough, but about as new as that comfy sweater you just can’t part with. Hopefully gamers will finally recognise the step forward that has been made by taking Dominion, putting it on a board, and making it fit together so seamlessly. So, in summary, Mythotopia is, at its heart, A Few Acres, but on a more open board with up to 4 players, and lots of bells and whistles. Lets hope for an Essen release.

Sunday Afternoon
Back on shift after this fleeting glance, and I was working on the main entrance by Kenny Baker’s signing table. The Galactic Knights were all on hand, and were reluctant to move away from one of their heroes, and I don’t blame them either. They were keen to try and draw the crowds over so he could sign some autographs, but the price seemed to be putting people off. How the Galactic Knights kept going throughout the show, having fun with the crowds, and keeping their enthusiasm up I don’t know, but well done to them. With the day slowly coming to a close, the awards were announced (don’t ask me – I missed them as I was on the door) and we began the final cleardown.

Most volunteers had worked from 6 to 9 hours each day from Friday through to Sunday, but the level of energy put into the clearup was incredible. All the tables were moved away, all the boards and chairs were stacked, the cloths cleared, and in super quick time. Everybody kept good humour throughout, and it was an exhausted but happy bunch of volunteers that gathered for pizza at the end of the day.

I’ve never met a more hard working and dedicated crew of people who were tireless and who never, not even for a second, lost their cool. It strikes me the further north you head in this country, the easier people get to talk to and be around, and this is from someone born and bred in the south. It was a real pleasure to be part of, and I enjoyed every last moment. Next year bigger and better, and with the team behind it, I’ve no doubts that this show is just going to grow and grow, but never lose its way.
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