Forum : An American in Brum

David G.D. Hecht

What I did on my Summer Vacation

At the kind invitation of Steve Thomas, whom I met at Gatteo 98, I attended ManorCon (17-20 July 1998). ManorCon is a boardgaming convention held in Birmingham, England, on the premises of the University of Birmingham, some 20 minutes from the Birmingham city center.

As I prefer to do, I went over on Wednesday (arriving Thursday), a day early, so as to have a chance to recover from jet lag. Steve invited me to fly to Heathrow and spend the night at his place, and to drive up with him on Friday. The flight itself was uneventful, we left about 20 minutes behind schedule but made up the time on the flight itself. Steve had originally planned to meet me at Heathrow, but circumstances intervened and he instead deputized his brother Graeme. As Steve put it, "He looks a bit like me, but has a shorter beard and is inclined to corpulence. There's a decent chance that he'd be holding up a sign labeled 'Hecht'." Armed with this helpful description, I had no trouble identifying Graeme at the exit from H.M. Customs. Graeme then drove me over to Steve's place where, after a pleasant chat, I started to feel weary and excused myself to fall into bed for a few hours.

Some time later Steve returned from work, and shortly after that Chris Lawson, as previously arranged, arrived and we all went to dinner at Steve's favorite local Chinese restaurant. Although not quite up to the standard I am used to, it was quite good. My only real criticism was that the spice had been throttled back to what I assume was the normal English palate. An excellent evening of chatting about 18xx and other things was held until about midnight, and so to bed.

The next morning we piled into the car, along with about a ton of games, and drove up to "Brum", arriving shortly before two o'clock. After checking in and settling stuff into the rudimentary but adequate facilities (the convention housing is a student dorm), it was time to engage in some serious gaming! Steve was on the check-in desk until about 3:30, so once he was able to free himself, we settled down to a game of 1869:The Golden Spike, the newly released C&K game about the transcontinental railroads. We had an interesting if somewhat unbalanced game, and reached the consensus that there was definitely a game in there, and that, as with the dancing bear, the wonder was not at how well the game played but that it played at all. A word about the convention and tournament format: unlike at Gatteo or most other conventions, the scheduling (except for the Diplomacy tournament), was entirely spontaneous. We learned at the end of the convention that some 34 players had played 18 games of 18xx, nearly twice the number I saw played with a comparable number of players at Gatteo. This is a tribute both to spontaneous order, and to the penchant shown for 3-4 player games rather than the 5-6 favored in Italy.

Another major difference between ManorCon and other conventions was the opportunity to play lesser-known games rather than the same old round of 1830, 1856, and 1870. As is well-known, Chris Lawson has published four games by independent designers (1899, 1841, 1876 and 1851), and they were well in evidence at the convention, along with Leonhard Orgler's 1837, which is apparently, along with 1841, wildly popular in England. Having never had the opportunity to play these with other players (except for one game of 1851 just prior to leaving the U.S.), I had the opportunity to play 1837 and 1841 with expert players. I thus learned not only nuances of the rules that would not be apparent to a first-timer, but of strategy as well. As a side note, I was able to contribute a different understanding of one of the 1837 rules than the common interpretation used by the British players. The lively discussion surrounding this, along with the clash of philosophies of law apparent in the arguments used, led me to be reminded of Winston Churchill's famous description of Britain and the United States as "two great countries divided only by a common language". Nevertheless, I was pleased at the excellent sportsmanship of the British players, as well as their overall good spirits and affable attitude. As at Gatteo, I was impressed to see that a keen sense of competitiveness did not preclude being pleasant to your opponents, unlike at so many tournaments in the United States. This was no doubt in the spirit (again) of Winston Churchill, who once remarked that "it costs nothing to be polite to a man when you are going to kill him in the morning".

The tournament wound up on Monday morning with results, during which I was able to play a quick game of Mark Derrick's 18GA, and, after a final lunch, warm regards were exchanged in anticipation of a return the next year. Steve was kind enough to drop me off at a hotel near the railroad station where I had reserved, and then he pressed on. I stayed over not only the one night, but also an extra one, and used the extra day to travel up to York and visit the National Railway Museum, along with York Minster. This proved to be a fairly straightforward affair of a two-hour train ride in each direction, and a ten-minute walk to the museum. I highly recommend the excursion to those willing to take the extra time and energy. I was also able to partake of the excellent Indian cuisine at the Maharajah (thanks Iain!) while in Birmingham, perhaps the best meal of my stay.

In terms of cost and schedule the affair was reasonable. I had approximately a $700 round-trip airfare from New York to Heathrow, returning from Birmingham. The con fees, including housing, came to £75 (approximately $125). Flying into and out of Birmingham is reasonably pleasant, there is a shuttle bus that goes to a nearby train station and then it is about a ten-minute ride into the city center costing £2.10 (about $3.00). If you wanted to minimize your schedule it would be quite reasonable to fly out on Thursday night, arriving Friday morning, and then return Monday, taking two days off from work (you would be pretty beat that first day). The food and lodging at the con are rudimentary (you sleep in student housing and eat in the student cafeteria), but acceptable. Although it is possible to both eat and sleep off-campus, it is not very practical, as there are restrictions on "guests" (i.e., non-lodgers) being on the University premises after hours, and the meal breaks tend to be quick affairs lasting less than an hour. Again, I had a most wonderful time, and met a lot of interesting new people whom I hope to see again next year (along with the interesting people I already knew). Thanks in particular to Steve, Graeme and Iain for facilitating my travel and lodging, and to Chris Lawson for the opportunity to meet him and exchange ideas.

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