Where in the world do you think the most creativity is coming from when it comes to board games? Does the UK hold its own?
Historically, Germany has been the great powerhouse when it comes to board games, or Euro-style games at least, with US-based companies often creating more ‘conflict-orientated’ games. However, I don’t think that differentiation is quite as clear as it once was. At Expo before the pandemic we were seeing a huge growth in exhibitors from all over Europe and to a certain extent from Southeast Asian countries such as China, Korea and Taiwan. As for the UK, we have seen a massive expansion in British publishers and designers during the 16-year history of the show – a real flourishing of indies as well as medium and larger-sized companies, offering so many new ideas and concepts in games each year.
Where did your journey in the games sector/events sector begin?
I actually studied medicine at university and worked for 27 years in the NHS, while Tony [the Expo’s Co-director] trained as a minister and also worked in IT. My pivotal moment was deciding in 2006 – with my wife’s encouragement, and after having run a couple of small events locally – to have a go at launching a UK convention somewhere between an Essen and a Gencon model. I managed to pick a point in time when the tabletop games industry was expanding and there was a desire for an event of that type. That first year we aimed to get 400 visitors and got around 1,000; the venue ran out of water and bread rolls and we ran out of tickets!
Can you describe your career journey to where you are now?
I’ve been a keen gamer since the late 1970s when I came discovered Dungeons and Dragons in a shop in Warwick. Through my teen years, at university, and through my twenties and thirties I organised games weekends and roleplaying campaigns. I also mucked about with game design myself, although it would be 2010 before I first had a game published.
Tony came on board at UKGE when we were looking for a ticketing solution. Over the years we have discovered complementary skills. I tend to be the details man, drawing up hall plans, maintaining contacts with exhibitors and partners, while Tony is more of a big-picture person and a problem-solver.
At the outset, UKGE was something we did as a hobby, deciding each year about the next one and if we wanted to go again. Then around 2012, Mayfair Games and Esdevium Games [now Asmodee UK] separately came and saw us and offered to support the show if we moved into a bigger venue. That saw us move to the Hilton Hotel at the NEC and after only three years, having outgrown it, we moved into the NEC itself.
That put us on the international radar of games shows and the growth continued steeply until 2019, when we had 25,000 unique visitors and 45,000 attendees, and 425 exhibitors from around 40 countries.
Then, of course, Covid happened. Things were tough for us, as they were for so many others. We simply didn’t know if we’d be able to run again. It was gamble but in spring 2021 we decided we’d go for it, and in late July, just two weeks after the UK lockdown lifted, we ran the Expo. Many, many hoops had to be jumped through, but so many people thanked us afterwards that we realised it had all been worth it.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Publishing my first game, The Great Fire of London, in 2010, was a big moment for me. It’s now on its third print run. Also, getting a UK tabletop games show into the NEC on this scale was an amazing thrill; I remember walking around the Hall that year and thinking: yes! We have arrived on the world gaming stage! In the end, though, I think managing to run a successful show in 2021, against the odds, is what I’m most proud of.
What advice would you give to young people who want to break into the board games industry?
Play lots of games. Play everything you can. Try different types of gaming like miniatures, roleplaying, board games and collectible card games. Work out what you like but also find out about what is already out there in the market.
Get to conventions here and in other countries and make some contacts. Get to know the publishers and designers, if you can, and also the gamers.
If you are designing games, play-test them a lot. You’ll find that many of the conventions have play-test areas.
Finally, what’s your favourite board game of the moment?
I’ll play most things but I particularly like fairly heavy games like Terraforming Mars, Great Western Trail, Caverna and Agricola – games that take a while and develop over two or three hours rather than games that only last half an hour.
The UK Games Expo is at the NEC Birmingham and the NEC Hilton Metropole Hotel, on Friday 3 to Sunday 5 June 2022. Visit www.ukgamesexpo.uk for more information.
This feature appears in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of ToyNews. Read more here.