Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nobody here but us chickens?

Gosh. A long post on the Expo, and not one comment. Did my prolonged absence drive away my last remaining reader after all?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

UK Games Expo, June 2007

OK, there have been no posts from me for three months, now two come along at once! For a couple of weekends this summer, I've been busy demonstrating Heroscape for MB Games. We've done the first UK Games Expo, held in Birmingham on the 2nd and 3rd of June, the Cast Are Dice in Stoke in August, and Beer & Prezels in Burton.

I'd heard that some local chaps were interested in trying to do a "British Essen". It's more properly called "Spiel", but referred to as "Essen" by every gamer in the western hemisphere; it's an annual games show in Germany held each October. It gets about 150,000 visitors over 4 days, and fills an exhibition comlex that is used to hold things like motor shows. Essen has a mix of big publishers, small publishers, retailers and second-hand dealers, all trying to get the public to look at, play, and ultimately buy their games. Fantastic event, and this year's will be the first one that I have missed in a decade.

Anyway, the call had gone out last November to people who where interested in helping out, traders and publishers who wanted space, etc. At that stage nobody knew what sort of event the UK Expo would be, how big or how much involvement they would have from the games industry.

I've been hooked on Heroscape for a couple of years now, and had taken a few sets along to local conventions to show it off, play demonstration and participation games, learning all the while about how best to show the game off (I wasn't a complete beginner at this; for the last 3 or 4 Essens, I have helped out on the Warfrog stand explaining their games to interested foreigners, and Martin's games are much more complicated than Heroscape). So I knew some of what worked, and some of what didn't, and when the Expo organisers said that there would be space for demonstration and partcipation games, I volunteered.

By the time Easter rolled around, it was clear that the Expo was going to be the biggest boardgames event in the UK; a lot of small publishers and traders had booked space, publicity materials had been prepared and sent out, and things were gearing up nicely.

The organisers held a sort of "preview" event at Birmingham's central Library about six weeks before the Expo, and I volunteered for that too. On the day, I found myself up on the top floor, in something of a backwater with some historical miniatures games, while the main event consisted of family games on the first floor. Not a problem, though - I took along two Master Sets, a blue background sheet, knocked up some flyers of my own advertising our presence at the Expo, and set up the Wellspring of Obsession map.

It was pretty well received, with about ten people sitting down to be shown the game (and about 40 flyers being handed out). How well did it work? I showed the game to one chap, who came back wityh his mates a few minutes later - "You've got to try this!" They all enjoyed it - how much was clear when they came over to my table 6 weeks later at the Expo - between them, they had bought FOURTEEN Master Sets between them!

A handy "prequel" event, that - it showed me that there were still some areas where I could improve on my presentation and make the game easier for new players to pick up. So over the next six weeks, I planned, prepared materials, ordered some extra bits and pieces to set off the presentation (including some excellent water mats, custom made by a US-based Heroscape fan), and I was all set.

The table was set up on Friday night. It took me and my helper, David, about two hours to put it together. I was frequently asked "How many sets?", so with hindsight I should have included this info on the flyers I was handing out (though I did remember to give www.heroscapers.com and Hasbro both a plug). The short answer is "Nine Master Sets." The longer answer is that I needed nine sets for all the water and crinkly bits, but in fact my 9 sets fill two large cardboard boxes in my games room and I only took one of those boxes to the Expo. So I only actually need half of the pieces from those nine sets to get the map built.

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There was a definate idea behind this map. Firstly, I wanted it to make good use of the 6' by 6' table available to me. Secondly, it had to look stunning, and show off the flexibility of the Heroscape terrain system. Thirdly, I really wanted to play several simultaneous games on the one map (I've tried 4-player games with new players, and I'd rather stick pencils up my nose than go through that again). Fourthly, it needed to include water and elevation, but no levels higher than 10 (to avoid the need to explain the 2-dice height advantage rule, that I still don't really understand myself), and not have too many really big climbs or falls (it's possible to find places on the map where a figure can't climb or would take damage when falling, but they are "off the beaten track" - so that's two other slightly fiddly rules that can be skipped from the explaination). Finally it had to be made from Master Set terrain only, and be played with Master Set figures - this is all that is readily available in the UK, and I really didn't want to have to say to the public "Yeah, I ordered all the really cool stuff from America" - they had to be shown things that are actually in the shops here.

Of course, HasbroUK being what they are, they've since told people that they are discontinuing Heroscape in the UK altogether; I can only hope that this information is inaccurate, as the Expo showed me that people were very interested in the game. Perhaps the UK will follow in the footsteps of Australia, where recently Wizards of the Coast (a Hasbro subsidiary) has announced their commitment to making all the expansion sets available, through local speciality games shops.

Here's another shot of our setup from above. You'll notice that I had printed up flyers (we handed out about a hundred; again, with hindsight it would have been good to get one put in each of the 1200+ goody bags handed to visitors as they arrived at the Expo). We also had laminated rules summary sheets (not that anyone needed them, Heroscape is very straightforward), a banner wrapped around one edge of the table, my dice towers, and pre-selected armies laminated as one card.

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The idea behind having pre-selected armies was to help new players get straight into playing the game. Although one of the key strategies in Heroscape is choosing an army of units that work well together (or ones that work well against the units chosen by your opponent), it is much, much easier to hand a complete army to a player and explain his strengths and weaknesses. I've tried the game out on new players having them choose units that "look cool", but it still takes a while to add up all the points.

I'd copied and laminated about two dozen armies made up from Master Set units, and I'd definately do it this way again in future, as it significantly reduces the startup time and complexity at a demo game like this. However, I did make one error - I'd originally planned a quite different map, where Mimring and Grimnak would have been severely hampered, so the armies had been made up without them. Due to the change of map, they would have worked fine, and might have added a bit of extra variety - though it did mean that I could skip explaining about how two-space figures move. So they were on display all day, but never got used.

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Alan How (one of Britain's most influential games journalists, and a buyer of far too many new games) came over to the table. I've known Alan for about a decade (my first Essen trip was in a minibus with Alan and others), and he knew of - and lightly mocked - my Heroscape obsession. He then admitted that he'd bought a couple of sets himself, but had never played. Ha, a challenge! "Sit there Alan, and I'll teach you the game." He enjoyed it.

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Alan was by no means unique. With the recent price cuts in Heroscape here in the UK, I found several people who had bought the game (sometimes just for the terrain) and had never played. I did my best to remedy the situation in every case.

Some games going on:

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You'll have spotted my dice towers in some of the shots, although by Sunday I had abandoned their use (at Beer & Pretzels back in May, the towers were in danger of getting more serious enquiries than the game!).

I also abandoned the use of the "X" marker - although it's an important part of the tactics, allowing players to bluff and misdirect their opponents, for the target audience at the Expo it was a distraction - I simply explained that there were a number of rules like drafting and the "X" that I had omitted but made the full game even better.

Me teaching the game.

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One of the three prize winners.

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Hasbro UK had kindly donated three Master Sets to be used as prizes (as well as providing two MB Games T-shirts). I was a little disappointed though that Hasbro UK had never contacted me about the Expo despite my efforts to open a dialogue with them via a number of channels. I know that they aren't interested in marketing direct to the public (though how the Hasbro webshop fits with this philosophy I don't know), but these events do have an effect. Quite apart from the MINIMUM 14 sets sold as a result of my library visit, having over a thousand people see the big Heroscape setup can't help but boost the game's recognition factor - and consumers prove over and over that they like to buy products that they recognise (otherwise advertising would be a waste of time). A moot point, though, if the UK is not going to be receiving any more Heroscape.

At the Expo, I was the closest thing that there was to an "official" Hasbro presence, which was a real shame (and somewhat frustrating - they had sent the T-shirt & games to the Expo organisers, but didn't do anything else - for all they knew, I could have been some nutcase with bad teeth and a surly attitude who could have done no good at all). Hasbro Germany take up a reasonable slice of floorspace at Essen each year - why not do the same at the Expo?

They weren't the only big names to stay away - there was no Wizards of the Coast (OK, technically part of Hasbro too), no Ravensburger (though they are better known for puzzles instead of games here), and no Games Workshop either. Shame on you, guys, and hopefully you will all be there next year. Wizkids showed up though.

Finally, a pic of me with my partner, Jan. I couldn't have made it through the whole weekend without her - she did a fair chunk of the demonstrations and explanations (indeed, I'd almost lost my voice by Saturday evening, so without her help there might not have been any Heroscape on Sunday). It helps that she shares my love of Heroscape.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Okay, then, if I must ...

My reader* has delivered a gentle reminder that this blog has not been updated in a while. Well, in my defence I did say that it would only ever be an occasionaly thing, when the fancy takes me.

* unlike Terry Wogan's single "listener", I genuinely believe that I have only the one reader.

So to rectify the situation, here's a brief summary of what I've been doing this week. Or at least the interesting part of the week when I wasn't working for a living.

Lauren wanted a climbing frame for her birthday (which was at the start of August). Now I'm not the sort of chap to wander down to Argos with fifty pounds in my pocket for some tubular steel rubbish, when a few hours' research on the 'net will allow me to spend a whole order of magnitude more.

Very quickly, it seemed that wooden was the way to go. Especially in the "spend unfeasibly large amounts of money" stakes - if you're insistent upon emptying the bank account really quickly there can be no better route. Of course, I justified it to myself on the grounds that we'd not really had much of a family holiday this summer, and a good quality climbing frame would be used by not only Lauren but sprog number 2 (due at the start of October).

After looking at a great many climbing frames (far more than can possibly be healthy), I decided on a Jungle Gym Cabin with optional Monkey Bars (from which two swings can be hung) and a Rock Module (a sort of climbing wall for tots).

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I bought it from http://www.activegarden.co.uk/ - based mostly on the fact that they had everything in stock, answered my emails promptly, and looked to be bona fide experts on the subject of climbing frames.

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The kit arrives in a series of brightly packaged boxes (containing accessories, nuts, bolts, drill bits and instructions), the slide, and a whole lot of wood. Although the wood was already pressure-treated (to stand up to the rigours of being outside 24/7), we decided to paint everything before - or sometimes during - assembly. Partly to give it extra longevity, partly to make it blend in with our fence, and mostly because it looks good.

The main tower is supposed to take two people two days to assemble. Well, we spent all of the Bank Holiday weekend building it and then some - Friday evening, all day Saturday (starting at 9am, an ungodly hour for a weekend), all day Sunday, much of Monday, several hours during the week of an evening, and some of a second Saturday.

But Lauren thinks that the results are well worth it. Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net
post scriptum: the next camera that I buy simply MUST have some guidelines in the viewfinder. I seem to have real trouble keeping the horizon horizontal :(