INTERVIEW: Richard Denning, Co-Director of UK Games Expo
This weekend, the UK Games Expo, the UK’s largest board game convention, returns to the NEC, Birmingham. Ahead of the event, we caught up with Co-Director Richard Denning, to talk about his career journey from NHS medic to board game inventor and event organiser, and the many ups and (lock)downs along the way.
Hi Richard! First of all, what can we expect to see at the UK Games Expo this year?
We’re really excited about being able to run a full international tabletop games event again. We have more than 350 exhibitors signed up, over 75 of whom are from overseas, with more still booking in.
Our aim is to create an event where there is far more on offer than you can possibly do in three days, and to send visitors and exhibitors away on a high. This year’s event will be for many people the first they’ve visited in a long time, so we’re doubly motivated to give people a great experience.
There will – of course – be board games, miniatures and card games tournaments, including the UK CATAN and Carcassonne championships. We’ll also have a full RPG [role-playing game] schedule, live shows, cosplay and reenactors, and a zone where the whole family can enjoy gaming together.
Our Publisher-Designer Track, which is sponsored by Cartamundi, will give new designers a chance to learn about making games and to pitch designs to publishers. Visitors will be able to play-test the designs and help shape tomorrow’s games.
What are some of the greatest challenges involved in putting on the Expo?
The greatest challenge is probably the tight time frame. It takes a full year, or even more, to plan each show, but games manufacturers, tournament umpires, exhibitors and the like tend only to engage with the show in the final three or four months beforehand, which means that a lot of organising is compressed into a very narrow period.
Of course, the challenge of Covid and its impact on the events industry dwarfed anything we had experienced before. There was no show in 2020 apart from the virtual one, and only a half-sized show in 2021. We were very grateful to exhibitors who rolled over their stand fees and to visitors who rolled over ticket money for helping us keep afloat through that time.
Have you noticed any trends coming through in board games recently?
Sustainability, certainly. Another area of growth, perhaps prompted by lockdown, is in digital/board game hybrids and apps that help teach games, or fill in some form of narrative and story and allow choices. Games that support solo play are on the rise, too. I’ve also noticed a trend for games with a very short duration – maybe even only minutes long. Personally, I like to really get into a game over the course of an evening, but those fast versions at least are likely to get new people playing board games.
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.