I never thought I’d go to a boardgames convention. I am a complete nerd for lots of things… learning stuff, cover versions, stand-up comedy, weird electronic things that make strange noises, wikipedia, other people’s obsession with survivalism… but I don’t really fit the (pretty misleading) stereotype of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.
My first experience of a boardgame convention was working at Essen (officially known as Internationale Spieltage SPIEL), which is technically a massive trade fair rather than a ‘convention’. It is hard to express how GIANT this event is – 158,000 people come through the turnstiles over its 4 days and 800+ exhibitors from all around the world show their wares in 58,000 metre sq of exhibition space. As a first-timer it was pretty overwhelming, but at the same time, AMAZING!!! I had never seen so many people in one place so excited to be surrounded by boardgames. So, after jumping in at the deep end, it is safe to say I am pretty hooked on the buzz of it.
At last year’s UK Games Expo, I was working for Grublin Games again, demoing Cornish Smuggler (and the prototype version of Waggle Dance) and taking care of Grublin’s twitter coverage of the event. You can have a read of my round-up of the event, see my attempts to live tweet a panel discussion and the #UKGE highlights tweets to get a flavour of what went on.
This was also my first experience of putting-faces-to-the-names of those I had interacted with a lot via Twitter and Kickstarter in the months running up to the event, which I imagine is an increasingly common thing that happens at conventions around the world…
So, why should I go?
The three main reasons I would give you are: the experience of scale, becoming part of a community and trying new things.
Scale – wow, this thing is big!!
As boardgaming goes through a new (and much talked about) ‘golden age’ and more and more folks are celebrating their love of this hobby publicly, conventions are also getting bigger and bigger. For example, the UK Games Expo began in 2007 with an attendance of 1,200 and has grown steadily every year since. In 2014, its attendance figures shot up to 10,000 (almost doubling on the previous year). It’s now host to a large array of different events, including 160+ exhibitors, tournaments, game re-design competitions, 1100+ seats for open gaming, a board game library, playtesting of unpublished games, a seminar programme, cosplay and a very popular boardgame Bring and Buy.
I would liken the shift in scale for a punter attending a convention like this to the difference between watching a band in a busy pub to going to a medium-large-scale music festival. If you are used to playing boardgames with a few friends in your living room, imagine suddenly having 10,000 potential friends to play with! Your stack of 5, 10, 15 or 100 games suddenly becomes a choice of 1,000s. That’s a pretty hard feeling to beat.
Community – wow, I’m part of something!!
Playing and enjoying boardgames is an inherently social pursuit, and unless you are a hardcore solo player, you always need other people to join you in playing games. Conventions do a pretty good job of bringing people together from all round the area, the country or the world (depending on the scope of the particular event). And once everyone is in the same place, you have a pretty good head-start – everyone’s got something in common straight away – indulging in a passion of theirs, the excitement of having 1, 2, 3 or 4 full days of just playing / talking about / learning / teaching games and putting everything else on hold. In my experience it has been pretty easy to strike up conversations, meet new people and hang out.
On the whole people are pretty relaxed and friendly – again, the music festival analogue is pretty useful here. You’ve got lots of different things to choose from to do, to look at, to get involved in and to explore. Some people come with friends, some people prefer to go it alone and some people use the opportunity to meet up with ‘con-friends’ (people who they met last year, or at another event) or use this as a chance to meet up people they’ve been hanging out with online for the first time face-to-face (SEE: @GoHalvesOnGames #twitterbingo). Things go on late into the night but you can come and go as you please and take in as much or as little of it as you like.
New Things – wow, shiny, new and exciting things!!
I don’t spend a lot of time in games shops. Actually, I just don’t really go to games shops at all. This means that I find out about new games to play through personal recommendations, reviews, playing games at meetups and now by going to large boardgame events, conventions and trade fairs. These events offer a great way to see and play new games – you can try before you buy, have a demo of lots of the games that are for sale, borrow something from the games library, or have someone at an open gaming table teach you something you’ve never played before. You can see inside and outside of the boxes, you can touch the pieces and you can peruse the rule books. You can work out what you like the look of, what seems like good value and what is probably over-hyped. Sometimes you also end up meeting the designers and the publishers, especially in the indie-game world, through the playtest areas and re-design competitions. All of this has the downside that you might be tempted to spend all of your available money on GAMES, so those suffering from the uncontrollable urge to buy everything they see should be careful.
Professionally, if you are (or would like to be) involved in the boardgame industry, access to all of these new things is also really useful in terms of research – getting a good idea of what’s out there, watching people play, what people are enjoying, what people’s reactions to different styles of game are and where trends in illustration or graphics are going. At some stage, if you chat with enough people you’ll find yourself in conversation with designers, reviewers, illustrators, indie-hopefuls and more. In the UK (and even further afield), boardgame publishing is a relatively cottage industry (outside of the really big names like Hasbro, who make things like Monopoly, Twister, Yahtzee, Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit). This means that you’re likely to meet and share a drink or a conversation with someone who is involved in some way over a 3 day national or international convention.
Right, I’m sold…
Hopefully this little round-up has whetted your appetite and you might even consider looking out for conventions and other boardgame events that are happening in your area / country / continent…
If you are in the UK, the UK Games Expo happens in Birmingham (3rd – 5th June 2016). If you are looking for something on a smaller scale in the South West, check out Devcon in Plymouth (organised by Final Frontier). And if you are feeling really brave, check out the BGG Conventions listing.
STOP PRESS: There is also an excellent #BoardgameHour discussion on this very topic for you to check out. Watch the replay on http://nurph.com/BoardGameHour/replay?chat_id=1966 – it kind of gets going at 19:02, so fast forward the first bit.
Rachel Dobbs is the founding organiser of the Plymouth Board Games Meetup, a regular open games night held in Plymouth, UK. She also works as a freelance art director for indie boardgame publishers like Grublin Games & Tinkerbot Games. Rachel will be tweeting from the UK Games Expo on @