This last weekend I attended the 5th UK Games Expo in Birmingham (my local convention!) A couple of thousand people playing board games, card games and RPGs. I was joined by Andrew Kenrick, Iain McAllister and Marku and Eero Tuovinen on a booth full of Indie RPGs.
I've been going since the convention started and each year has been bigger and better. I though it would be worth nailing down exactly why this convention goes from strength to strength, from my perceptions at least, and what it might be able to improve.
The big differing factor of UKGE is that it defies the white, male and thirty-something convention norm. It attracts people of all ages, has a healthy gender mix and attracts a multi-cultural family crowd. This is proper gaming outreach; The organisers put a huge amount of work into attracting new visitors by running tasters at other events and in schools, and timing the event for the end of half term. The importance of this shouldn't be underestimated. They go out and actively get people interested. No other convention I know even comes close to this in terms of bringing in new folks.
A particular aspect I liked of this was the Family Zone, located by the cafe on the 2nd floor and with a host of games set out for families to try. Along with a wonderful large scale, "Catch the Pigeon" game and some game consoles. Once my daughter is old enough, I'll be taking her along to this.
It's also a strong sales convention. The dealer hall allows you to shift product. There are some caveats to that, of course. New product, or more precisely, new product to Expo always sells well. You can do OK with some older product (I paid my booth share in sales, which with my newest product being three years old is pretty good going), but it's not where you'll do best. Crossover products will do well too, the Indie booth shifted a few board/card/rpg hybrids. You can also do a good trade in 2nd hand goods at the Bring & Buy, if like me you have loads of old games you no longer need.
Expo is also notable for its solid organisation and communication. The event is very well run and the organisers area always easily contactable. While not everything is perfect, you can also be sure that if something is sub-optimal it'll be improved next year. This year's much more organised parking was a great example of this feedback loop in action. Another, nice new development was this years playtesting alley, which had a lot of boardgames in the final stages before release. A bit hidden away, but worth a peruse.
Are there problems? Well, from a personal perspective the fact that you get charged entry and then have to pay extra for RPG sessions is an issue. It actively dissuades people from trying unknown or newer RPGs and to err on the old favourites. I can understand why they want people to pay, an RPG table eats a lot of resources for a 4 hour session, which adds expense to a venue. I do wonder if it could be better handled at a cheaper secondary venue nearby (as the board-game/open play is).
The awards are an oddity too. I like the idea of a UK-centric set of game awards, with a broad range of categories. However, I'm not sure how I feel about a set of awards for games that include titles not even released, and so not exposed to much in the way of play.
The size of the venue is also a problem; It's just a little too small for the crowds they get! A nice problem to have! The Clarendon Suites are an odd bunker of a building, with no windows and little in the way of air con, this means with all those people it can feel a bit claustrophobic. Especially in the RPG rooms, where you can have a few games in a confined space...
All in all, Expo continues to be the poster child for a well run and entertaining convention. Here's to many more!