A trade show that is literally all fun and games? Well, maybe there’s a lot of business too, but even that’s fun at GAMA Expo

A professional board game convention hosted by the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) in Louisville, Kentucky, GAMA Expo has all of the elements you’d expect from a trade show: a convention hall with rows of booths, retailers carrying overflowing bags of samples, and lots and lots of new products on display. But this show has something that so many others are missing: a palpable air of passion and energy. 

I learned something about game designers, publishers, retailers, and creators during my time at GAMA Expo: They really, really love what they do. And not only did gaming pros show up at this trade event ready to show off their wares and do business, they also came to share their love of games with industry friends. This show is all about learning, selling, playing, and sharing. In short: GAMA Expo feels more like a co-op board game than a cut-throat round of Monopoly. 

GAMA Expo feels more like a co-op board game than a cut-throat round of Monopoly."

The Business of Play Should Be Fun

So many toy and game trade shows at the national and international level have been overrun with massive displays that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden behind 10-foot walls, with gatekeepers in suits at check-in desks. There’s an air of competition coupled with an unfriendly sense of paranoia, and — ironically — a lack of fun. So often, you’re introduced to a marketing executive or publicist who knows the basic talking points of a brand, but is unfamiliar with the history, backstory, or more intimate details of the products they are supposed to be representing. And quite frankly, interacting with people at these types of shows who look like they would rather be anywhere else is an utter disappointment to those of us who show up in a much more meaningful way. This kind of experience can take away from the magic of what we do as toy and game professionals.

And then, there’s GAMA Expo, where the pros are swapping showy booths for simple displays, you get to meet with game designers and publishers directly who know EVERYTHING about their products, and there are a heck of a lot more T-shirts than there are suits. 

GAMA Expo is a board gamer’s paradise, full of open booths, fun photo opps, and giant sheep! | Source: The Toy Book

The planning team at GAMA Expo also ensured that everyone got what they needed out of the show, whether they were attending as media,  a designer, a retailer, a distributor, or anything in between. The show boasts networking opportunities, info sessions, open game nights, and even lunch and dinner breaks. This might very well be the only show I’ve ever attended that allowed me to have a meal before 9 p.m. (life-changing, let me tell ya). People are there to learn, engage, and share. They are ready to help, exchange knowledge, offer advice, and collaborate. There are no gatekeepers, there are just friendly faces waiting to greet you at the edges of their booths, excited to play the next round with you. 

A Worthy Quest

Sometimes, companies get lost in the acronyms, whether it’s KPI, ROI, EBITDA, etc. And while we are all in a professional industry and making money allows us to “keep the lights on,” there is so much more to the business of play. There is so much joy in what we do, and so much importance to what we put out into the world. Games like the ones found at GAMA Expo bring people together, help educate children, offer a healthy pastime for adults, let fans experience their favorite entertainment properties in a new way, offer engagement in times of boredom, and so much more. And the appreciation for all of this is alive and vibrant at GAMA’s trade show. 

Games like the ones found at GAMA Expo bring people together, help educate children, offer a healthy pastime for adults, let fans experience their favorite entertainment properties in a new way, offer engagement in times of boredom, and so much more."

Entering the game market takes courage. Being brave enough to take the leap, make the prototype, reach out to testers, launch the Kickstarter, and follow all the advice and steps to put your good idea out into the world is not easy. But then you find your fans, watch as your creation hits its funding goal, see your game’s impact first-hand, and start dreaming about what’s next. 

GAMA Expo is full of thousands of board games, including this new offering from CGE, which callenges players to wear knit cat paws and slap cards. | Source: Marissa Silva/The Toy Book

All of this is celebrated at GAMA Expo, where more than 2,700 attendees gather together to play like professionals. Of all the trade shows I’ve attended, it was by far my favorite. From the thoughtful schedule and planning and the transparency from the GAMA team, to the energy and vibes from the exhibitors, the open-booth format, and everything Louisville has to offer, it’s a must-attend show for game pros. 

The next GAMA Expo will take place March 2-6, 2025 at The Galt House Hotel and Kentucy International Convention Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Find more info here. 

Disclosure: The author was part of a hosted media program with GAMA Expo, which included a comped hotel stay and a travel stipend. The Toy Book is a GAMA member.

About the author

Marissa Silva

Marissa Silva

Marissa Silva is editor-in-chief of the Pop Insider and the Toy Insider, the leading consumer holiday gift guide and toy review and news website. As a professional toy reviewer and an industry expert, she consistently reports on toy, entertainment, and pop culture trends and hot products. In addition to digital content management, Marissa contributes feature-length articles to the Pop Insider and leading toy industry trade magazine The Toy Book, providing retailers, manufacturers, and licensors with information on the latest in toy news. Marissa has been featured on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, Fox and Friends, ABC World News Now, MSNBC, CBS, NY1, WPIX, and more. A board game fanatic and professional toy reviewer, she spends most of her free time shopping for superhero T-shirts, crushing at Mario Kart, and anxiously awaiting her Hogwarts acceptance letter. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @thattoygirl.