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7:32pm on Friday, 29th August, 2008:

Reading Maps


I went to Reading today for Gencon UK 2008. I've been to around half of GenCon UKs, and they're invariably rubbish; still, where else are you going to see fellow gamers in Britain?

Reading is about 2 hours by car from where I live. I therefore set off at 9:50am, aiming to get there by noon. All went swimmingly well until I left the M25 and joined the M4. My satnav was telling me I'd arrive in 22 minutes. Unfortunately, what I could see but the satnav couldn't, was a line of near-stationary traffic. It was backing up from roadworks on some other road that the M4 exited onto several miles in the distance.

Eventually, I got past the blockage and headed off to Reading. GenCon UK is famous for giving utterly hopeless directions. In the past, they've told me to follow signs that aren't there, to take roads with numbers that don't appear at the roundabouts they say they're at, and they use phrases like "at the end of the road" for ring roads. This year was no exception, as they neglected to mention several junctions in between the exit from the M4 and where the directions picked up again. Also, the University of Reading has three campuses (campi?), and they didn't say which one was the right one.

Reading itself isn't a great place for directions, either. I've been there once before for a Computer Games and Artificial Intelligence conference, where I got stuck in traffic at 8am and it took me nearly 45 minutes to drive half a mile. I did actually see two signs for the university while I was there: one was when I looked in my rear-view mirror having driven past it, and the other was actually at the University of Reading (otherwise, I might not have know that's what it meant — it said quot;UOR"). I also saw a single sign for Thames Valley University.

Not to worry, though, because I had my satnav!


My satnav was doing well until it tried to send me up a bus lane. Then, it gave up. It denied all knowledge of there being a university (or two) in Reading, and when I put in the names of roads on the University's map that I'd downloaded, it tried to send me to Basingstoke. I eventually managed to tell it a road junction that didn't involve my risking prosecution from the traffic authorities, and got to the university. The security guard at the gate directed me to car park 2.

Well, if he'd mentioned that the roundabout which car park 2 came off from was itself a left turn away from the main road, he would have. Anyway, after some reversing and the happy sight of a sign directing people who were leaving the university to car parks 2-4 (it actually went to 2 and 16) I managed to get there. There were only two free space. There was also this sign:

Hmm, they don't mess about in Reading...

I had been told by the guard on the gate that to get to GenCon HQ I should take the short cut through car park 3. This information was correct, and I did finally get to GenCon HQ by walking through car park 3. However, it took me 20 minutes to find car park 3.

So it was that I finally registered at GenCon at about 1pm.

The map for the event helpfully pointed out the main buildings. They said things like "Carrington" and "Black Horse". There was no mention of what was in them, although I did find a partial list in the booklet they gave out. I checked out the nearby games rooms (Codemasters was doing a good trade in LotRO gold editions) and some of the smaller publisher stands (suggestion: you will get more people looking at your board game if you don't staff it with a woman who frowns at people when they get within two paces of it).

There was an interesting-looking medieval fair thing going on outside, but given that it had only a couple of tents and the medieval fair we have in Colchester runs to over a hundred, I wasn't too impressed. The dungeon crawl (they'd made the walls out of sacking and it was maybe 20 by 20 metres) looked like it would be fun! I went to check out the LARP stands in the Student Union building, but all I found was a desk staffed by four people who didn't seem to want to talk to anyone but themselves.

I had a look at the RPGA building, and this was where there were people playing actual RPGs, mainly D&D. Most of them had 4-day passes, and looked to be having a whale of a time. Ah, if only I could still take 4 days off work for such a session (sigh).

I went to see the board games and miniatures, which were in a building called URS. Well, that's where the booklet said they were, and the signs took us right to one of its several sets of doors. However, there was no indication inside as to where the board games might be. At one point, there were 8 of us looking for the board games, all with no luck. I went back to GenCon HQ and asked how to get in. I was told that there wasn't anything on in the URS building. Board games were next door in the Carrington building.

I only spent 10 minutes wandering around said Carrington building without finding anything GenCon-related there.

And so to the highlight of any GenCon: the trade floor! When I used to go to GenCon USA in the mid-1990s, I would spend several hours wandering the trade floor — it was vast. GenCon UK's trade floor was not vast. Here's a photograph of 50% of it:

Part of the reason is that the operators charge several hundred quid for a pitch. This is not a good idea: they should charge £50 for a pitch and have a huge show — they'd get more than four times the number of sellers, and would attract many more people to the show if it was bigger. Still, I did buy some things there: a set of large dice (because, well, they're large dice) and a set of rulebooks for Aces and Eights, which I've been meaning to get for a year or two. The guy who sold me A&8s asked if I'd played it before. I told him I hadn't, but I wasn't going to play it anyway, I just wanted to read the rules. He didn't seem to understand why anyone would want to do that; I guess he doesn't have many games designers among his customer base.

The second hand game stalls are always good to look over. I saw several games for sale that I have either in my attic or on the shelf behind me as I type this, all for around £40. I also saw a game that my brother has but that they stopped publishing a while ago: Apocalypse (which was known as Warlord the first time I played it — at a games convention). However, since Apocalypse cost £40, I didn't buy it; I'll maybe check out eBay, or just dig out the colour photocopy of the map and rules I made (note: for the purposes of copyright violation regulations, the preceding statement is a lie).

Interesting sights: someone trying to get the author of a game to sign it without removing the shrink-wrap (he finally signed the shrink-wrap); dice made of solid metal that weighed a quarter of a pound; no unpainted lead figures for sale (plenty of ready-painted ones, though); most of the people there were overweight, including various women in short vinyl skirts and fishnets (I wonder if they had that "oh my goodness, we're wearing the same outfit!" moment beloved of TV comedies?).

I had a coffee in the coffee bar next to GenCon HQ, which advertised itself as being a rip-off by stating its headline prices exclusive of VAT. Here's what it says on the cups:

Looks as if someone's spell-checker was naughty with the capitalisation of "Reading", there...

I left at 2:45. My satnav sent me up some side roads, then down a relatively long road with speed bumps every 50 metres. I began to suspect something was wrong when it seemed to give me right of way at a crossroads but actually I was supposed to give way to the road that ran across. Things got worse when the character of the road change, and it had parking all down one side making it effectively single-carriageway. Worse, other vehicles were coming towards me. I had to pull over onto the path so they could get past. I knew it wasn't a one-way street, because the parked cars where pointing in both directions, but it was clear that something was wrong. Sure enough, at the end of the road where my satnav told me to turn left, a line of bollards awaited me. Cars could turn into the road from that end, but not out of it. I didn't see the bollards until I overtook a badly-parked van close to the end, which meant I had to turn round in a very small space with occasional cars wanting to go in the other direction and pedestrians and cyclists going by me so closely that it was almost as if they wanted to be knocked over.

I made it home at 5:30. Maybe I should pay for an upgrade to my satnav.

Oh well, it was all worth it for the dose of nostalgia and the several conversations I had with gamers (two of whom I actually knew, although we didn't know each other would be there). So long as they don't change the venue (another thing GenCon UK does with maddening regularity), I'll have an easier time finding it next year.

Yes, I do intend to go again next year. Games are games!

(Aside: for the benefit of those who don't know the idiosyncracies of English place names, Reading is pronounced "redding" and Thames is pronounced "temms". Just so you know...).

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).