Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

UK Games Expo 2023: The Non-Award Awards

The weird, worrying, and wonderful things we encountered at this year's UKGE.

Put the best-of lists to bed. Plenty of folks out there have already covered which mechanics mattered most at the UK Games Expo 2023. What we -- and now you too! -- are here for is the weird stuff. Welcome to the Non-Award Awards: A bunch of random things and thoughts that came to our attention while exploring the UKGE 2023. It’s time to embark on a meandering river of board-game-related balderdash.

Biggest new rivalry: Catan vs. Warhammer

UK game expo non award awards rivalry catan warhammer - a man stands with arms outstretched between a catan sheep figure and large terminator model

At the entrance to the UK Games Expo, a warm wooly welcome has always been guaranteed courtesy of the show’s ever-present companion: Catty the Catan sheep (official name unknown, but she’s Catty to us). Standing proudly behind the main hall’s gates, she counterbalances the overwhelming size and noise of the convention with a reminder that some things in board games never change: There will always be people willing to trade wood for wheat on a tiny island. 

This year, however, Catty faced a new challenger: The grim, dark, and unceasing strife of the Warhammer 40K universe. 2023 saw Games Workshop’s perennially popular miniatures make a bombastic entrance to the show. Warhammer’s booth sprawled outwards, gobbling up acres of floor space in devotion to the arcane arts of mini painting and strategic skirmishes. And at the front of it all, standing directly opposite our usual ewe? A gargantuan terminator model, twice the height of a human.

Surely only one will be left standing in this contest for premium stall space between two tabletop titans. But it seems we’ll have to wait until next year to find out the victor….

Most exciting video game collaboration (in theory) award: The Last of Us: Escape The Dark

UK games expo non award awards going analog last of us escape the dark - an image of the Escape The Dark Booth with a poster for the Last of Us Game

Video-game-to-board-game adaptations have a patchy track record. We’re absolutely down for merging hobbies, but many attempts seem to get the wrong idea. Too often, Kickstarter cash is prioritized with a deluge of minis over actually designing a solid and affordable game.

The safer attempts in our medium-melding catalogs are collaborations: Pairing a video game with an appropriate pre-existing board game license. And The Last of Us: Escape The Dark has the potential to offer the most harmonious (and harrowing) union yet.

The names certainly don’t make for a blissful pairing. But in theming and structure,the co-operative narrative decisions of Escape the Dark Castle and its space-bound sequel could provide the perfect fit. The Last of Us’ grim, post-apocalyptic world of horrid fungal monsters and even worse people certainly suits the unsettling and grotesque monochrome art of the existing games.

Sadly, we didn’t discover that a prototype of The Last of Us: Escape The Dark was at the show until our time there was almost up, but its presence has only left us eager to see more. Escape the Dark Castle’s uncompromisingly brutal and swift dice combat paired with digital characters we grew far, far too attached to? A brilliant recipe for some seriously stressful game nights.

Comfiest seats award: Viking Raiders

UK Games Expo non award awards - a man sits on a furry bench in front of the Viking Raiders game. He looks impressed and gives a thumbs up

The rules to Viking Raiders may have been simple to learn, but that didn’t stop our first game of it from erupting into sheer chaos. The setup has you as rival chiefs racing to amass the most impressive navy, clan, and treasure stash. But among the standard resource cards you’ll draw and spend to buy rewards from the market are a wealth of inflammatory actions. 

Repeated raids will see earned cards constantly trading between players, and the fickle will of the gods can upset the balance more often than a longship in a stormy sea. Worse still, Ragnarok’s arrival threatens to throw all plans into jeopardy or even declare a sudden and unexpected winner.

UKGE 2023 non award awards - a handful of cards from Viking Raiders

With all that mayhem taking place at the table, the least the games’ booth could do was ensure we were comfortable throughout. And it’s here that publisher Neowulf rolled out the fluffy carpet. Humble benches were lavished in thick furs to ensure each chief’s butt stayed cozy, even when being robbed of all their clans’ worldly possessions.

Brain buster award: Tiwanaku

UK Games Expo 2023 non award awards - a game of tiwanaku being played

If you’ve spent an entire day wandering the halls of a crowded expo, your brain will likely feel like it’s leaking melted meeples from your ears by the end of it. Learning rules is hard work! So when, late in the day, our instructor for Tiwanaku described it as a mix of Sudoku and Minesweeper, we knew we were in trouble.

This abstract game of grid-based maneuvering and deduction has you consulting the gods -- through a series of rotating dials, of course -- to uncover a hidden grid of colored land tiles. As spaces are revealed, you’re encouraged to predict the numbers (also hidden) assigned to them. 

Matching tiles only appear in groups of five, with numbers corresponding to the group size sorted randomly within them. Though not entirely randomly. Tiles can’t share the same number as any adjacent spaces, even diagonals. As such, deductions quickly expand from focusing on just a single patch. You’ll soon be looking at all its neighbors and then, inevitably, the entire board. An excellent puzzle but far too much for our beleaguered brains to handle at the time. We’ll be back, Tiwanaku, after several weeks of rest.

Best underwater showdown award: Kelp: Shark vs. Octopus

UKGE 2023 non award awards kelp - the box art for Kelp: Shark vs. Octopus

Who would win in a fight between a shark and an octopus? It sounds like a hypothetical you’d hear in a schoolyard, but it also makes for a surprisingly entertaining tabletop duel. In the works as a two-player board game, Kelp: Shark vs. Octopus is aiming to offer an asymmetric contest in which one player commands a hungry pyjama shark hunting for dinner. Their opponent plays a sneaky octopus, using its wits to evade the predator within a kelp forest. 

The octopus plays a card-based hidden-movement game, swapping the location of nine tiles in a grid, one of which contains the vulnerable mollusk. The shark must constantly remain on the move, rolling dice to drift on currents between spaces, reveal tiles, or lunge to the side for an attack. Octopus faces shark, deck builder faces dice bag builder. 

UK Games Expo 2023 - an image of the prototype for Kelp: Shark vs. Octopus including a lego shark

Though still in the prototype stage -- and temporarily featuring an adorable Lego shark -- the demo we played was an utter thrill. The octopus is never more than a turn from potential danger, and the shark must temper its aggression to avoid triggering traps or biting down painfully on an unwanted clam shell. Best of all, the octopus’ deck of actions are all real-world behaviors, with art beautifully realized by Weberson Santiago (artist for Coup, Quest, and Avalon). Keep a tentacle outstretched for this one in the year ahead.

Biggest absence award: The lack of a giant dragon

Uk games expo non award awards going analog dragon

Every year the UK Games Expo’s dragon mascot makes his appearance in a cheery new piece of art. 2023 was no exception on that front. Our golden-scaled friend could be seen bursting from a box in a celebratory shower of balloons and board games. Where this year did differ, however, was in the number of dragons found on the show floor. 

Last year featured a fine collection of fire-spewing fellows paying homage to the expo’s winged sovereign. But in 2023? Not a single drake had deigned to drop by. Poor form. Admittedly, we did see someone dressed in scaly cosplay, but the majesty of a dragon is lessened somewhat when they’re scrolling Instagram while queuing for a burger.

Consider any of the above Non-Award Awards egregious? Give us a piece of your mind on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. You can enjoy more of our board game coverage (which is only marginally less ridiculous) by listening to the Going Analog Podcast.

Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Frosthaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found scouring the web for the latest and greatest games, then wondering why he never has time to actually play them. Share your love of deck builders with him at @Fernoface on Twitter or drop an email to henry@moonrock.agency.