Thursday, May 17, 2007

UK Games Expo

OK, in an attempt to kick some life into the UK boardgames industry, two chaps have organised the first UK Games Expo on the 2nd and 3rd of June. That's just a fortnight away.

I've mentioned before that I'll be there, running a demonstration and particiption game of Heroscape.

I've seen too many wargames shows where someone's idea of a "demonstration" game was to have lots of pretty things for the public to look at, but get too close to the action and they'd just growl at you. Almost as bad are the "participation" games where you have to give up three hours of your day to play something ill-thought out, untested, and where the organiser just tells you exactly what to do turn-by-turn anyway.

Thankfully Heroscape lends itself to both the people who want to just look, and the people who want to get stuck in but can only spare an hour.

Now I've been taking Heroscape to several local cons and events over the last 12 months, including Beer & Pretzels last week, and the reaction has always been very positive. In the meantime, I think I've managed to pick up a few ideas and avoid a few pitfalls in ways to get people to play and enjoy the game in the confines of a public event. I know for a fact that my efforts have managed to sell more than a few games (though you're never going to empty all the local Argos stores on the back of one public event).

Anyway, my preparation for the Expo is largely done (though I'd love Hasbro to wake up and contact me about the event, given that it is their product I'm showing off). I've accumulated a rather daft NINE sets of Heroscape, and designed a map that will allow several games to be played at once (as well as providing what I hope is something of a "wow" factor). Various bits and bobs have been purchased or prepared to make the whole thing look as porfessional as possible, because professional-looking is often approachable in the minds of the public - I've seen how they react at Europe's biggest games show (Essen, 150,000 attendees, which usually includes me trying to demonstrate something) to organised exhibitors, and how the same public shuffle past anyone who looks like a clueless amateur.

The centrepiece to make Heroscape look good will be the map itself. As I say, nine sets have gone into this; all the necessary pieces are all boxed up in my games room, to help with a smooth setup on the day, and there are just a couple of small details to iron out (one being how we're going to allocate the copies that Hasbro have promised to send as prizes).

Anyway, here's the map:

Although I had a last-minute idea of getting some new dice towers together and trying to sell a few at the Expo, that's not going to happen. I contacted three firms that do acrylic cutting for a quote at the start of the week, and so far none have got back to me with numbers, let alone enough detail to put me in a position to place an order for the components. I'm still hoping to make some more, but there won't be any for sale at the Expo.

Open Letter to David Cameron

I was going to blog about boardgames, but I think that this is rather more important.

Dave - I hope you don't mind my calling you Dave, it seems like everyone else does), I simply must take issue with your latest policy change.

Had I been a party member, I would be cancelling my membership (it seems like every time that I have got close to signing up over the last 20 years, the Conservative Party has gone ahead and doone something stupid to push me away again). Had you announced this policy change a fortnight ago, you wouldn't have received my vote in the local elections.

Of what do I speak? Your new stance on selective education and grammar schools in particular.

I think that I would be categorised as "middle class"; University-educated, professional career et cetera. And a product of the grammar school system (at a time when it was under fierce attack from Labour-run local councils). Although my parents can never agree as to which "class" they belong to, one of my grandfathers was a postman, the other a milkman; as the first member of the family to go to University, the first to obtain a degree, the first to achieve a professional position, I might be considered an example of social mobility at work.

Now perhaps that might have been achieved if I had not gone to a state-funded grammar school. But going to such a school guaranteed that it was probable, and not merely possible.

One of the striking features of the school that I attended was that it is exactly the sort of institution that permits - nay, encourages - eductional opportunities for all. It is non-fee paying. It is located in the inner city of a large metropolitan area. It has a very wide cross-section of pupils from all different backgrounds. To illustrate the last point, I was considered "posh" at school because my family owned their own home in the right part of the city.

Yet you want to throw this away, in favour of promoting a model of education that isn't working despite it's place at the heart of the Labour Government's education policy.

You're crackers.

If there is a problem that too many of the "middle classes" are able to shoehorn their offspring into selective grammar schools, then it is a problem that can and should be tackled by promoting the aspirations of the less well-off; it should be done by providing them with the positive assistance that you fear the middle classes can buy for their children, by providing the extra tuition and extra-currular activities (that you fear weigh so heavily in favour of the worng sort of people getting into the schools) at inner city junior schools, by targetting funding and assistance at the level where it is most likely to promote a commitment to educational achievement and success. You don't solve the perceived problem by doing away with the schools themselves.

I presume, by the way, that when you point to perceived problems in the schools' intake, you are excluding all the fee-paying grammar schools. Because although the Conservative Party has had some very able leaders to have come from modest backgrounds, helped along by the grammar school system, I understand that your own educational experiences were somewhat different. You are, are you not, a product of a school system that is completely closed to the less well-off, that has for decades (if not centuries) been seen as positively reinforcing barriers to social mobility.

In fact, by not encouraging state-run grammar schools you are destined to pile injustice on top of injustice in the educational system. Parents with the means - and the drive - to influence their offspring's choice of secondary school can easily side-step the failing inner city schools by moving house - something that the housing market has reflected for many years. You don't "fix" that by denying the less well-off entry into the best schools, schools where it is ability and not wealth or catchment area which determines who can attend and who cannot.

Instead, tackle WHY some families don't put their children forward for such places; look at providing the means for the child to achieve DESPITE parental antipathy. Because for the United Kingdom to succeed in this century it will need to get the very best from its citizens, promoting ability and hard work. The grammar school system has always done that.

As it is, you may be right to identify a problem (though it is not one I recognise from my own experiences); your solution is to throw the baby out with the bath water, when it would be far more efficient to just shake the water up a bit.

If I get a response, I will post it here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

After this weekend's Beer & Pretzels (which I'll blog about later this week), I've thought about sorte=ing out another batch of dice towers. They were getting more attention than anything else at the weekend. So, I've put some enquiries out to see if anyone can supply and cut the components at a decent price. If anyone wants one, drop me a line.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A total lack of activity?

OK, so it's been over a month since my last post, so both of my readers have probably got bored and wandered off now.

It's hard to remember all the completely inconsequential stuff I've done recently. A fair bit of Ebay activity (because I've set myself the task of selling stuff before buying new any new toys this year; so far it's worked well). Some gaming. Nothing exciting.

"Some gaming" started with Baycon at the start of the month, at the close of which I came home with the bits to playtest a new board game. As it's not my project, it's also not my place to talk about it, butthe game is heading for a commercial release later this year or early next. I really enjoy it, but the gamers up at Spirit Games in Burton (where I go most Wednesday evenings to play a game or two) have started backing away when I put the box on the table. The good news is that the game - and the rulebook - are almost finished now, with just some final polish needed on both. Then it's off to the publishers, for them to arrange artwork and components.

I also managed to wheedle myself a copy of Risk Express - one of the first in the UK. Now I know that it's been released in Germany, but Hasbro UK don't have the best record when it comes to picking up games published by Hasbro in the US or Europe. Hopefully the Risk name will ensure that not only will they import the game, but that it will be on the shelves in Argos, WH Smiths et cetera. It's a good little dice game - much more appealing than something like Yahtzee. Risk Express reminds me a lot of another great dice game published a couple of years ago, called Pickomino. Unfortunately the long distribution chain (with everyone taking a cut) meant that whilst it could be bought in Germany for about a fiver, in the UK it was very hard to track down (specialist games shops only) and sold for £20! If Risk Express sells at the same price point as Yahtzee, you're looking at a very reasonable £8 for a more substantial game.

As well as spending time helping out with the rulebook for the playtest game, the other thing that has occupied my spare time this month has been Heroscape, and particularly planning and preparing for the first UK Games Expo. I'll blog something about Heroscape (with pictures) after the Expo itself; for now, it's enough to know that it is probably my favourite game of all time (and I've played more of them than is than my fair share).

The Games Expo is going to be held in Birmingham in three weeks' time, on the 2nd-3rd of June.

The UK boardgames scene is quite small at the moment - maybe a dozen or so specialist shops, very few quality boardgames in the High Street, and a few events that usually pull in 100-200 people. That compares poorly to Germany, where good quality boardgames can sell tens of thousands of copies, and a big hit will clear half a million in a year (Settlers of Catan is the best-known German boardgame export - they's sold 11 million Catan-based games, and there's now a version available for download on the Xbox 360). Germany's main boardgame event is the annual Spiel fair in Essen - for 4 days, the industry takes over an area the size of a Motor Show at the Essen exhibition centre, and approximately 150,000 visitors go through the doors.

The Expo is an attempt to bring a smimilar sort of event to the UK. What has made Spiel so good in the past is the mixture of publishers, inventors, retailers and members of the public who attend. Events in the UK always appeal to a certain sort of person (usually someone who is carrying a few extra pounds, sports a beard or a ponytail, and thinks that cardboard counters are cool); Spiel is very different, with an emphasis on family games and participation. Of coure, it's easy to see why there's been so much success on the continent when you see how much better the games actually are; a quick flick through the Argos catalogue reveals that here in the UK the mass-market games publishers have little to shout about. But there's been a growing appreciation of what can be achieved by new publishers and distributors, and they've been bullied into coming to Birmingham next month to show off their wares. Hopefully the very low entry price will encourage lots of bored families to take a look at what is on offer.

Of course, if it is to succeed, the Expo needs to follow the German model in getting people to actually sit down and play games (rather than following the wargames show tradition, of having people wander around, looking at all the pretty displays). It is only by engaging with the public, by showing them what they have been missing when they first see something like Settlers Of Catan, that things can move on from year after year of Monopoly re-issues, Connect 4 and Risk.

To that end, I volunteered a while back to host a game of Heroscape. Now it's something of an exception - a game designed for the mass market, that is readily available in the UK (OK, it's absent from the current Argos catalogue, but it was in the 2005 and 2006 Autumn/Winter books), which is actually a very good game. How do I define very good? Well, it needs to have lots of meaningful decisions, some (but not too much) luck, lots of interaction between the players, and plenty of variety (in any given game of Monopoly there are probably 5 important decisions made; in a game of Heroscape, you probably make 5 every turn).

In terms of having a participation game for the public, it is important that the game looks good, that it be relatively simple to explain, it should look somewhat familiar, and it must look fun. Heroscape ticks all the boxes - and it's visual appeal is particularly high. We tried it out on the public a couple of times last year, have largely ironed out the kinks in the way in which we explain the game and get people playing, and the reaction has been universally positive (it helps that although the game is simple enough for children, there's enough depth for adults to sink their teeth into).

So I've been planning and thinking about how to show Heroscape to people at the Expo - we had a small trial run at the Birmingham Central Library the week before last I think what we've got planned should be good fun, as well as having a certain "wow" factor. It's a shame that its left to individuals to publicise good games when they come along, though - Hasbro in the USA has marketed Heroscape much more aggressively, as a result of which it is widely available - and pretty popular.

If you're in Birmingham on the 2nd or the 3rd, do make sure that you pop by and say hi. I'll be the looney next to a table full of robots, vikings, paratroopers and samurai, trying to stop the dragons and elves from taking over the world.

I'll make sure that I do a proper blog post - with pictures - when we're done.