AN INTERVIEW WITH TABLETOP SCOTLAND'S ORGANISER: DAVE!
Written by: Tabletop Crafter
Find out what goes into making Scotland’s biggest board game convention a reality!
Tabletop Scotland is set to be the first convention where The Hub has its very own table, hosting around 16 Hub creators’ products, plus 15 Hubbits exhibiting there themselves! Ahead of the event, we sat down with Dave, lead convention organiser to really delve into his planning process and what to expect from the weekend.
Hi Dave! Thanks so much for taking some time today to answer our many questions! We love Tabletop Scotland, and would love to be able to tell our community more about it!
So, first of all, why a convention?
For a long time, I’d been going to events in Scotland and trying to work out why they were poorly organised and why there were so few of them. This bubbled away in some part of my brain until I went to Gen Con in 2014. That trip got the brain turning over, thinking about what a gaming convention in Scotland could look like. Fast forward to UK Games Expo (UKGE) 2015. Seeing what UKGE had done within the Hilton, that bubbling in my brain got louder. So, I decided I was going to do it.
That’s a huge undertaking, how did it play out?
I asked my network for input on what an event like that would look like in Scotland, which led to meetings with venues in Edinburgh. For me, the venue of a convention provides the foundation of the experience. None of the ones I saw felt right.
At UKGE 2017, I attended a seminar hosted by organisers Richard Denning and Tony Hyams. They talked about how they’d like to see more conventions in the UK and how they could help. That kicked my brain back into gear, and in September 2017, my wife suggested I look at the venue where a Yarn Festival was held: the Dewars Centre in Perth.
We visited the Dewars Centre, and it immediately felt right. Plus, they wanted us there! During that visit I had a call with Richard and Tony and they proceeded to ask me a LOT of hard questions, and I had an actual tangible answer for all of them. By the end of that chat, they were prepared to help in any way they could. Then we signed a contract for the Dewars Centre and one month later we announced it was happening!
Going public makes it a lot of pressure! What happened next?
We had a three-stage plan: It was all upstairs, a tiny event that could maybe have had 200ish people. It was all in one hall, a medium-sized event that could have had 600/700 people. It was using all of that space and could have 800-1000+ people.
Right up until tickets went on sale, I set everyone’s expectations at 400 attendees, including local retailers, customers and potential exhibitors. However, once they were on sale, it quickly became clear that we’d have more than 400. The third stage plan was now Plan A.
Next came activities: RPGs, open play for board games, exhibitors, tournaments and demo games. I adopted the mantra of “we will do three things well, and everything else is an experiment”, with those three things being RPGs, open play for board games and a curated range of exhibitors.
The feeling of making it happen and seeing things come together was a fascinating blend of terror and excitement. I didn’t care if I enjoyed the experience, and largely to this day, I don’t care if I have fun during the con as it’s not for me. Sure it’s my (and my team’s) creation, but I’m not the customer. I care that it’s a success, measured by our attendees having fun and our exhibitors making money, I care that it doesn’t lose money, and I care that we attract a diverse mix of attendees.
Tell us about some of the core values you uphold while planning the con.
Tabletop gaming is for everyone, and making the convention accessible in all ways possible is a core aspect of its design. I don’t believe in us trying to deliver a perfect event, but I do believe in putting on the best event we can.
Keeping the convention accessible is more than just ticking boxes for me. We have the widest aisles between our rows of open gaming tables than any other convention in the UK. Why? Because I want someone in a wheelchair or a parent with a child in a pushchair to be able to walk down every aisle. How wide? 2.5m between tables or 1.5m between the backs of chairs on the basis that the chair is occupied. Could we fit more people in if we reduced that spacing? Yes. But it’d impact the feel of the event, and I’d feel bad.
It’s not easy making the leap into a new hobby, especially if you don’t have people around you that share those interests. A key value for us is to ensure the event space makes discovering the hobby an accessible and safe space for families and complete newcomers. It’s easy to lose sight of this aspect and focus on the ‘hard core’ and existing gamers, but creating new gamers is very important to me and my team.
Why is it important to you to give the small creatives a presence at your show?
Everyone starts somewhere, and as an ex-game store owner, I know how challenging that environment is. I wanted to include the three core business types; our local bricks and mortar game shops, indie publishers and designers, and “makers” (people who handcraft gaming accessories).
I don’t care about your product, I care about how much you care about your product. If you’re going to bring that energy and enthusiasm to my event then I am happy to have you there. If I learned anything about exhibitor selection from Gen Con and UK Games Expo, it’s that you need to enable those ‘indie’ exhibitors to be present. Giving those smaller exhibitors a voice and a presence at events like this is very important.
How did you get into boardgaming and tabletop gaming yourself?
Before I got into tabletop games I was an avid comic book fan. I was introduced to RPGs thanks to my older brother Allan, who got the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1984, when I was 11. After pleading with him to let me play, I was hooked. My dad introduced me to The Hobbit when I was around 9 or 10, and D&D exploded that fiction for me.
Over the years I’ve played a LOT of RPGs, and multiple editions of many RPGs. But D&D is still my go-to. Regardless of the edition, and I’ve played all of them since 1984, I have always been able to define a narrative for a plot that the characters could explore. Aside from D&D, I’m a big fan of the Gumshoe RPGs by Pelgrane Press, particularly Night’s Black Agents, The Expanse RPG by Green Ronin Publishing, and Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium. I enjoy many others alongside those but those are the ones that get my creative juices flowing.
What are some of your other favourite conventions to attend and why?
Gen Con. Hands down. There’s no contest. Gen Con is more than a convention. It’s an experience and it’s got the most amazing festival-like atmosphere. The whole of Downtown Indianapolis is essentially taken over by it. It sprawls through the massive Indiana Convention Centre, into the nearby Indianapolis Colts NFL stadium, several streets around the ICC where food trucks and beer tents are placed, and about six different hotels nearby hosting events. For me that’s a large part of the appeal of the convention, it’s not just about the exhibitor halls. This year Gen Con has 19,000 events as an example…
Do you have any advice for convention goers?
Plan to have fun. Don’t over-schedule yourself. Be open to trying new things and meeting new people. There are also other things, like the 5 - 2 - 1 rule: Minimum 5 hours sleep, 2 decent meals and 1 shower per day. For me though, the main recommendation is about what you do before you get there.
Have a plan. If you’re going solo then try to schedule something to do when there. Whether that’s booking into an event or post on social media groups looking to play games. Find that inner extrovert that hides beneath your introverted exterior. I know for many folks that’s not easy to do, but if you’ve made the decision to go and be in a social environment, with people who are ‘like you’, then you need to have a plan that helps make that the right decision.
Unless you’re playing the convention in hardcore mode, don’t book something for every hour of the day. I essentially did that for my first time at Gen Con and I learned VERY quickly that it wasn’t possible to sustain that level of engagement. Not because I wasn’t having fun, but because I was constantly seeing things that I hadn’t planned for. So expect the unexpected to come onto your radar and then make sure you have time to explore it.
What’s your favourite part of Tabletop Scotland?
This is hard to answer. Ultimately it’s the people. Whether that’s opening the doors on the first day of the convention and seeing people that have been to the con in previous years coming back for more. Or getting to meet our exhibitors for the first time, or seeing those who’ve been with us for years (and getting hugs). Or just standing back and watching the convention unfold, seeing people having fun together is an amazing feeling.
Tabletop Scotland has only grown over the years, and seemed to immediately be one of the top events in the country for the hobby, why do you think that is?
We’ve been very lucky with our growth. After 2022’s event we’re now, I believe, the fourth-largest convention in the UK based on attendance. With UKGE, AireCon and Dragonmeet being the only tabletop cons bigger than us. Some of that is down to geography - there’s nothing else like us in Scotland. We have attendees and exhibitors that come from not just all parts of Scotland, but from all corners of the UK, Ireland, Europe, North America and a few even further afield, too. Above everything, I nurture the growth by remembering why I created the event in the first place: to be a celebration of the board game and roleplaying game hobbies.
What exciting things can we expect to see from this year’s event?
For the first time, our attendees will be able to come to the convention on the Friday (from 4pm) and play some games. We’ve added an additional RPG slot on the Friday night to accommodate that, and have more things planned for the Friday night that have yet to be announced! Another first is that we’re going to have food trucks outside the venue! Feeding (and watering) attendees and exhibitors, especially quickly when they have busy schedules, is a challenge when you have one on-site route to get food. So, we’ve negotiated a solution with the Dewars Centre team that splits that queue from one on-site source to multiple sources. We’ll be announcing the specifics of that soon!
We’ve had a lot of interest in exhibiting with us this year! 45% of all of our 2023 exhibitors are completely new to Tabletop Scotland, which is amazing. We’ve had to adopt a stronger level of ‘curation’ to ensure that we balance the mix of exhibitor types as much as possible. What I mean by this is that we don’t work on a first come, first served basis. We want all of our exhibitors to have a successful event, and as such we aim to ensure that the volume of overlap between them is as balanced as possible.
I don’t like to single out our exhibitors from each other, they’re all very important to the success of the con and many of them have become fast friends over the years. I am excited by who we have coming this year, and I know our attendees will be too.
How do you see Tabletop Scotland growing in the future?
The Dewars Centre and neighbouring Leisure Centre have been under review for several years, with the intention to replace them with a modern combined building. I’ve known about this since late 2019 and I started to look at our alternative options, then the pandemic hit so I shelved those plans. When it became clear that we’d lose the venue, those plans were revisited to look at ‘What if?” options around alternative venues for 2024 and beyond. So, watch this space!
Tabletop Scotland runs from Friday 25th - Sunday 27th of August, with trade halls open from Saturday, and is hosted at the Dewars Centre, Perth. Tickets are available now, here.