Conventions are an important part of the gaming hobby. Bringing a lot of people together in one place leads not just to socialising (and drinking!) but it also gives the industry a chance to showcase and demonstrate their latest games and game accessories.
Being involved in the hobby since my teenage years I’ve been to quite a few events, and since this last weekend I just attended another one it seems appropriate to talk a little bit about my game convention history.
In the USA GenCon is the daddy of all game conventions. Founded originally by TSR – the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons – it quickly swelled into a behemoth taking place over four days, occupying multiple city blocks – first in Milwaukee, and then Indianapolis.
The UK version was a less ambitious affair but nevertheless constituted the biggest show in the year in the UK. The original site was the Pontins holiday camp in Camber Sands, but in its later years it migrated to Manchester University, Loughborough University, Kensington Olympia, two different Butlins sites and then finally Reading University.
Gaming veterans will always reminisce about the show’s high point when it was at Pontins. Effectively subsidised by TSR (and usually run at a loss from their marketing budget) the entire complex was thrown open to every possible type of game. There were Battletech and Star Fleet Battles tournaments, 100+ person live role-play events, hundreds of tabletop RPGs organised by the RPGA, plus a lively trade hall.
When Wizards of the Coast absorbed TSR in 1997 the philosophy was changed to start running the show at a profit. With the advent of collectible games like Magic: The Gathering and Heroclix, the focus of the event moved towards tournaments and organised play. Role-playing was given short-shrift by comparison (although key games such as D&D were still represented).
Although I first went to GenCon UK as a punter (which resulted in some hilarious stories – including GMing while asleep, and winning a 50-person Paranoia LRP that closed with a drunken parade through the bar) I was lucky enough to get an insider’s view on many of the subsequent shows. Working with the Vampire Elder Kindred Network and White Wolf I maintained a presence running tournaments for Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. Then working with my friend at WotC I ran demos of M:TG and Star Wars Miniatures. Subsequently joining the demo team for Esdevium Games I got to present all kinds of different games – a particular highlight being one of the final Reading events where we ran non-stop games of the just-released Battlestar Galactica board game for four days.
Although GenCon has not taken place for a while in many people’s memories it is still missed. The lively, convivial atmosphere has been difficult to replicate since. The show’s absence in the gaming calendar felt like a hole that needed to be filled. Thankfully in recent years UK Games Expo has stepped in to fill in the void in more ways than one (more on which see below).
Salute is a show aimed specifically at wargamers and miniatures enthusiasts. Organised every spring by South East London Warlords Games (SELWG) it is a massive affair, these days occupying several adjoining units at the Excel exhibition centre in London Docklands.
The hall is normally split between trade stands (selling miniatures, scenery, and/or accessories) and club stands (offering display, demo & participation games). For many years there was also a bring-and-buy stall, but this year for the first time it was abandoned to make more space for other games instead.
As a hobby miniatures wargaming has traditionally been dominated by historical genres and minimalist, ‘simulationist’ style games. However in recent years fantasy and science fiction genres have trended higher. Another recent trend are ‘prestige’ miniatures produced in exquisite detail and in unusual scale, offered not as gaming pieces but purely for painting and display.
In addition to all the gaming, SELWG run an annual painting competition and dish out awards at the end of the show. There are also additional awards for the best display and participation games. All punters get a limited edition miniature in their ‘freebie’ bad upon entrance, and all exhibitors also normally get a show-branded mug for their efforts.
For many years I’ve been attending Salute with my club Frothers Unite! UK, helping to run participation games for the unsuspecting public. Some years our efforts have been quite grandiose – e.g. Frothertown (with a lovely board built by Ian Brumby or Fenris Games) or the amazing Planet of the Apes and Dune dioramas by Matt Parlour.
Some of our offerings have been more esoteric, but have led to us winning SELWG’s ‘Most Innovative Game’ award at the show. Our first win was for a Tron Lightcycle game I designed myself and built out of luminous plastic (quite gruelling, but very rewarding).
Unlike GenCon UK, Salute is still going strong and is likely to be a fixture in the UK gaming calendar for many years to come.
GW Games Day
The annual Games Day run by Games Workshop is a less popular slot in the calendar as it focuses exclusively on the promotion and sale of Games Workshop products. If you’re after the latest hot Citadel miniatures or a quick Warhammer game with a stranger then this is the place to be.
In more recent years the show has broadened its appeal slightly to include licenced products by third parties – e.g. computers games, and the board games created by Fantasy Flight. There is also a significant presence from Black Library and Forge World.
In the height of GW’s popularity in the 90s they actually ran two shows every year – Games Day and a separate event for the Golden Demon painting awards. Things however have now been slimmed down to one show, which last year saw it occupy the smaller Birmingham Arena instead of the NEC.
My first time at one of these events was in the 90s as an employee. All the staff from our Southend store were shipped up (along with a coach load of fans) to help work the stands at the show. I had the rather unpalatable job of flogging copies of Epic Battles – a large colour softback of pictures and campaign ideas that added very little to their 6mm Space Marine game. We were frisked for cash in our pockets on our way in and our way out, such was the concern about employees stealing from the company. Fun times.
Lately I’ve been back at the show with Esdevium to demo board games, and it’s a pretty captive audience, with kids often queuing at the tables to have a go. The first time Fantasy Flight Games got involved it was actually just me, an FFG guy and a printout of the intro scenario for Dark Heresy (which I had to run over considerable background noise) . Now of course FFG have over a dozen great licensed board games, card games and RPGs (a favourite being Chaos in the Old World) and the presence is much better organised. The last couple of years at the show I’ve mastered my patter for Horus Heresy, which is a beast of a game (but pretty good fun if it’s your sort of thing).
Dragonmeet is another regular fixture in the calendar, and is London’s only dedicated games convention, normally taking place just for one day at Kensington Town Hall. Strong on role-playing there is usually a queue at the door before it opens so people can sign up for the delegate-run games.
Unfortunately the event is quite small so if you miss the signups, then after browsing the trade hall for an hour and trying a couple of demos it can be a struggle to find things left to do. The event is strongly supported by the industry however and there are also usually a few talks/panels/seminars which can be of interest to hardcore gamers.
Over the years I’ve been there to run V:TES and EVE CCG tournaments, and as well as running board games demos for Esdevium I’ve also run intro sessions of the Rogue Trade, Hunter and Changeling RPGs as part of the team.
With myself and many of my friends based in and around London Dragonmeet is a great focal point and a good excuse to meet up, play games, and afterwards to head to a local pub for dinner and drinks.
This year I hear they are extending the opening hours of the show to stop people wandering off. We’ll have to see how that goes, but I’ll definitely be there.
UK Games Expo
Conceived originally as the more local Birmingham Games Expo, this event has quickly outgrown its roots (and original site) to become a national, headline affair. Deemed by many as the spiritual heir to the old GenCon UK (see above) UKGE is now the nation’s biggest general hobby gaming event.
Last year in 2013 it moved to the new venue of the Birmingham Hilton Metropole by the NEC, allowing punters to take accommodation on the same site for the first time, and this year it returned (and expanded on) the same site. This year it was crazy busy, with an incredible, buzzing (bzz!) atmosphere.
UKGE supports all kinds of games, with areas dedicated to miniatures and game tournaments, and huge industry presence with many companies showcasing their latest games. There are also panels and talks, plus usually a dearth of bloggers and journalists taking interviews and reviewing the wares on show.
Esdevium, as a the major games distributor in the UK has a strong presence here and normally pulls out all the stops – putting on giant versions of Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Castle Panic. Last year they had a special Death Star trench board shipped over by Fantasy Flight especially from the USA, and this year they had a show stopping giant Star Trek Attack Wing lent by Wizkids, again from the USA.
The event is definitely the place to be, and the place to be ‘seen’ if you have any interest in working within the industry or publishing your own games. Two years running there has been a ‘game resdesign’ competition, inviting new game designers to try their hand and get published. This year there was also be a ‘Dragon’s Den’ type event for people bringing their own prototype games for consideration.
Not only does the show normally fall on my birthday, but this year was particularly special: I was there to showcase my game Waggle Dance, which is currently on Kickstarter. It was very well received at the show, and we’re hoping everyone who saw it will back it and spread the word. If you weren’t at the show, and you haven’t checked it out already then please do!