Friday 1 June sees the UK’s premier Hobby Games Convention return once again to Birmingham’s NEC. The UK Games Expo (UKGE) is a three-day event, across which thousands of hobbyists and content creators come together for everything from board gaming to model painting. It’s a testament to the explosive popularity of the former, however, that many new hobbyists across the country attend every year. I count myself among these newcomers.
Last year was my first time at the UKGE but not my first convention. To anyone not knowing what to expect from a convention, imagine your favourite hobby. Now imagine a factory-sized hall and multiply your love for your hobby into thousands of people. Pack them all into this high-walled sardine tin, along with prominent figures within your hobby, shops selling your favourite hobby-related gifts, exclusive previews of new hobby products and more.
If your hobby is chocolate, though (whose isn’t) or history (I may have lost you folks at new products), then the analogy falls apart. If your hobby is sardines, I imagine you’ll just enjoy being close to people. But putting the competition and cooperation to one side for a second, it’s undeniably exciting to feel completely at home in a room full of like-minded strangers.
There’s so many ways to enjoy your time at UKGE. You could peruse the incredible number of stalls representing hobby shops across the country, their shelves burgeoning with eccentric and colourful boxes. Go there with a game in mind, and the convention becomes a trip around the market, with the fruits of designer’s labours offered at competing prices for your consumerist satisfaction. If that seems abhorrent to you; if the only thing you wish to consume is milk from the motherland’s bosom, then why not go along anyway to sneer at the capitalist scum and their obsession with fantastical ideas that wouldn’t work in real life. Who knows, there may be more common ground there than you think.
If you fancy chatting to creators or trying new things, look no further than the numerous stalls dedicated to upcoming board games. Friendly first-time designers eagerly offer playtests of their new games, with a fast and enjoyable first impression well within their best interests. You’re sure to have a good time and meet some new people.
Previews of the bigger brands’ latest offerings are there too, with slick presentation and practice games set up for anyone to quickly drop into new realities both near and far. For a huge library of second-hand games, a seated section offers weary convention-goers the chance to relax, recap the day’s events, and play something new or familiar. It’s a great system that epitomises the caring community of board gaming.
All of this has been said without mentioning one of the most exciting reasons to visit: the panels. These are a chance to hear from some incredibly passionate and driven people within the hobbies. Digest some wise words from industry stalwarts such as living legend Ian Livingston (co-founder of both Games Workshop and the Fighting Fantasy adventure book series), or enjoy some irreverent interactivity delivered with British panache courtesy of premier board game reviewers Shut Up & Sit Down (interviewed in Issue 102 of Forge Press).
The beauty of all these hobbies is that playing them nearly universally requires other people. The convention format works so well because the people walking around you could just as easily be your teammates in playtesting a brand-new board game, egged on through a collapsing cavern by proud designers, as they could be determined opponents in a tournament strategically flying model starships.
If it all sounds a bit silly, that’s because it is. But it’s also an opportunity for escapism, and to get together with people that love what you love. If hobby gaming isn’t for you, then you can at the very least enjoy the spectacle, appreciating the confusing passion others have for bits of cardboard and plastic. To my heavily-biased mind, there are few days out more entertaining than this.
[Image courtesy of UK Games Expo]