This year I finally got my chance to attend our hobby's biggest event, the Spiel game fair held in Essen, Germany each October. My wife and I went on trip to Europe to celebrate our 15-year wedding anniversary, her present to me was a suggestion that we go to Germany and squeeze in a day at Essen. Wow, and she's not even a gamer! Knowing that I'd have very little time after returning home to finish this article for The Games Journal, I decided to split this into a before/after report.
I've been reading about Essen for a long time. I don't mean just in preparation for this trip, I mean for years. My exposure to the wider world of boardgaming came in 1996 thanks to Ken Tidwell's website, The Game Cabinet. After first providing an Internet home for the shared collection of early rules translations, Mike Siggins' Rules Bank, Ken also provided online archives for back issues of Sumo and more contemporary reports. That's were you could—and still can—find reports for Essen back to 1990 written by Mike Siggins and others. They're great fun to read even now. Siggins' writing style is always entertaining - you get a glimpse of the wonder of these "foreign" games in the years before Mayfair, Rio Grande, and Funagain. It's also entertaining to read the first impressions of now-stalwart games such as El Grande, Medici, or Settlers of Catan.
Besides the information on the games, each report paints a more complete picture of the event itself. So I already know about the gaming that goes on at the hotel in Mülheim, the smoke, the difficulty in finding vegetarian cuisine (not a issue for me), the apparent two-year cycle of quality releases, the used game market and so on. Perhaps most important of all, I know that with just a single day at Essen, I need to put the thought of actually playing any of the new games out of my mind altogether. There just isn't enough time, especially since this often requires waiting in line. No, my time will be better spent just gawking about, taking it all in, snapping photos, and buying some things.
Even my game buying might be limited by the spare room in my luggage. I did stuff an extra empty bag in there - hopefully I can shove the clothes from my vacation in the bag for the flight home, freeing up room in the main suitcase for games. I'm eager to see that used game market. Beyond that, I'll be keeping my eyes out for games that won't be available as domestic English editions later, or more obscure titles that I won't easily be able to order through German mail order. Generally, I'm content to wait for popular opinion about the new games to stabilize, anyway. Sometimes early impressions (fueled by over-exuberance or rules mistranslations) don't reflect a game's long-term quality.
In contrast to the years when Siggins and Tidwell were first attending Essen, there's now a lot of news available before the event itself. For the past several years, Knut-Michael Wolf, publisher of the German magazine Spielbox, has used his accompanying website to collect information about the games we'll see at the show. I gather that the publishers themselves send Mr. Wolf most of his information, though some trickles in through other sources as rumors and tidbits. Mik Svellov has always translated this information into English on his website, Brett & Board. Now he's been joined by Patrick Korner, doing English translations for Rick Thornquist's must-visit website, Terminal City Gamers. Siggins, Tidwell, Svellov, Korner, and Thornquist… they're in a long line of enthusiastic hobbyists who have spent considerable time sharing their knowledge and excitement about games. Others such as Frank Schulte-Kulkmann and Bruno Faidutti have provided early reports from Essen. Thanks to all of you, as well as those I've failed to name.
My trip to Germany began two weeks before Essen and since I was without Internet access during that time, it offered a good opportunity to sit back and observe. I was mildly surprised to find almost no presence for boardgaming visible to the general tourist. I checked several bookstores and newsstands for game magazines but I only found the same things you'd find in North America—magazines for video games. I saw no games being played and none of the Germans I met showed any flicker of understanding when I mentioned I'd be meeting friends in Essen at the end of my vacation.
I did see a full-page ad for Toys R Us in Munich that listed Alhambra along with the usual spread of toys on sale. In Salzburg, Austria I strolled past a toy and game store (closed, unfortunately) that displayed the new King Arthur in the window, along with Spiel des Jahres winners Alhambra and Villa Paletti. The shop also displayed Europa Tour, Die Maulwurf Co., and Sagaland. In the Czech Republic I saw something similar, where Prague's equivalent of Wal-Mart stocked Carcassonne, Settlers, and Tikal but little else of interest.
That game inventory is far superior to the retail presence for our sort of boardgames in North America, but not what I had expected in Germany. I'd say the titles displayed represent family-friendly games and established favorites from years ago. (Mind you, I generally prefer the lighter, family-style games.) Perhaps "gamer's games" are almost as exclusive as they are at home?
Buy The Game?
In reading through reports from past years, one of the bits of advice Ken Tidwell offered was, "Buy the game." As in, "buy the game even if you're not sure about it." That was true back in 1995, but I think three factors make it a lot less applicable today.
First—and most important—is the number of American publishers that are producing excellent domestic editions of Europe's best games. The delay in the appearance of these American versions has been reduced dramatically so you don't have to wait long for them to become available. Second, the current poor relationship of the dollar to the Euro means the bargains aren't there as they used to be. (The exchange rate alone means that the same game will cost 20% more than it would have just twelve months ago). Third, the relative ease of ordering from German mail order shops means you don't have to physically go to Germany to get good deals. (True, the shipping costs are considerable, but not bad when amortized over a large order with your friends.) Plus, North American buyers get a 16% discount from the removal of Europe's Value-Added Tax—an advantage I won't get at the fair itself.
All this means that my plans for game purchasing at Essen are modest. Many of the games I'm interested in will be available in English back home, probably for less money. Still, I may give in to temptation, picking up one or two bigger games, it's still fun to be the "first kid on your block" sometimes.
My attitude about limited edition productions, inevitably from small or unknown publishers, is wait-and-see. That sounds backwards—limited editions sell out, don't they? In theory, yes. In practice, I've observed that many of the best limited edition games get picked up by a larger publisher (e.g. High Bohn, Aladdin's Dragons). Others still have the games in stock a year later and no one is playing them anymore. Yes, this attitude might make me miss out on the next Elfenroads, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. There are too many other good games worthy of my money and too many games already on my shelf to speculate on unknown limited editions.
So what do I want to see up close, if not buy? After going through all of the advanced information, my checklist ended up:
- Finstere Flure (2F)
- Maya (Abacus)
- Die Fugger (Adlung)
- Halli-Galli X-Mas Edition & Yellowstone Park (Amigo)
- Schwarzarbeit (BeWitched)
- Logistico (Cwali)
- High Noon (daVinci)
- Feurio (Erlkönig)
- Global Powers (Eggert)
- Attika, Carcassonne: Die Burg, Carcassonne: König & Späher (Hans im Glück)
- Lord of the Rings Risk Expansion (Hasbro)
- Junk Yard Races (JKLM)
- Attribute (Lookout)
- Borgia, Das Zeitalter Napoleons, Der Trojanische Krieg, Revolution (Phalanx)
- Industria, Lucky Loop (Queen)
- Crazy Rally & Tortuga (Red Omega Studio).
Arrival (and First Games)
I'd made prior arrangements via email to stay at the same hotel as the editors of Counter magazine. Besides the "big three" of Stuart Dagger, Mike Clifford and Alan How, a lot of the contributors such as Dave Farquhar and Merfyn Lewis also stay there. After rolling into town on Thursday night, I got to meet those folks at their post-Essen gaming session that goes on in Mike's hotel suite each night. So even before I'd made it to the fair I got to play Attika and Cronberg, plus watched a little of Railroad Dice and Maya.
Attika was certainly enjoyable, but I'm not sure if it's any more than that. What? Isn't "enjoyable" all a game needs to be? That's a good question, and how you answer that will factor heavily into what you think of this year's (any year's) crop of Essen games. Your answer is also influenced by how many games you already have available. There are two schools of thought on this issue. For some folks, every game that is enjoyable is recommended. If their wallet and game cabinet can withstand it, they may even be a required purchase. Others may find some new games enjoyable but not clearly better than favorites they already have on the shelf. For them, they'd be happy to play someone else's copy so there's no need to own it themselves.
I'm in the second group, which colors my opinion of new games. There are perhaps only 3-4 games that are published each year that I feel I need to own and even those sometimes displace older games in my collection. New games find the bar higher and higher each year. A bidding game has to be as good or better than my copies of Medici or For Sale and a car racing game needs to match Ausgebremst for me to buy it. This attitude is helped greatly by the fact that I have other friends in my game group that buy games, and I have other opportunities to try the new titles at our SoCal Games Days.
Getting back to Attika, this means that while I found the game enjoyable—but not a must-buy—other gamers might easily decide they need to own it. It's good enough for that, certainly. Also, if I was just starting to build my game collection and didn't already have some games of a similar strategic "heft," I would probably snap this up. As it is, I thought some more about the game the morning after - already a good sign - and decided some more sophisticated (or correct!) strategies would make for a better game. I'd like to try it again.
I found Cronberg to be a surprisingly good little game. I say surprisingly, because I'd read a little about this earlier on Brett & Board, including Mik Svellov's positive review. The rules and downloadable gamekit were also available, and by looking those over I thought the game seemed a little conventional. Perhaps prone to overanalysis, too. Happily, that isn't the case. It can be compared to Auf Heller und Pfennig (Kingdoms) in that you're playing tiles to create criss-crossed scoring opportunities.
However, Cronberg is lighter and faster than Knizia's game (which I've always sort of enjoyed), without the added layer of multiple rounds and double/triple score pieces. Our game took half as long as I expected and there was no analysis problem at all. (Later at the fair I decided to buy Bonobo Beach, which is the exact same game, same publisher, just offered in an alternate theme - prime sunbathing spots at the seashore.)
It's an impressive sight. Essen was generally so packed with people that getting through the aisles was difficult. And this was only Friday! The next day's attendance would be even greater. The crowd, while thick, was a lot more pleasant than those that I've rubbed shoulders with at American conventions. You know what I mean? A very normal crowd. More twenty-something guys than anything else but not overwhelmingly so. There were lots of women, children and older folks too. Everyone was clean and generally sociable.
In a nutshell, there were far fewer of the weirdos and nerds so prevalent at the American cons I've attended. If boardgaming is ever to gain as much of a presence in our society, it will need to see a similar shift in audience. Wider participation in our hobby isn't likely as long as we've got so many games about orcs or gamers wearing costumes. Actually, there was one hall (of about six) that featured various dragon-y things, swords and armor merchants. Craig Berg called it the American convention inside Essen!
The fair was more like a trade show—about trying and buying—than the hobby cons I'm used to. Sort of like one of those Home & Garden shows at a convention center. There is no separate dealer's room because the whole place is a dealer's room. Nor are there seminars or rooms for open gaming (do that back at your hotel). Seminars are getting hard to find at American cons, too, and here at Essen I think it's a missed opportunity. With essentially all major publishers and designers onhand, I would've loved to hear some talks given by those knowledgeable people about past and upcoming titles, the design and publishing process, strategy analysis or an economic report for the industry.
Then again, it may just reflect the different nature of the hobby in German society. I understand some of this information was presented to a much smaller, private audience of the hobby press. The avid boardgamer can read about it later in magazines and on websites.
The biggest companies (Ravensburger, Amigo, Hasbro, Kosmos) have big plots of floorspace, with displays, tables for trying the games, and some staffers to explain them. The small publishers have a single booth to display and sell their games, just enough room to demonstrate them. In between are the medium-sized companies (Abacus, Piatnik, Clementoni, etc.) with a few stalls' worth of space and a few demo tables. I thought it was especially slick how Amigo, at least, had demo tables with the game board printed directly onto the tabletop. Also, I spotted a number of oversized versions of games (e.g. Pueblo, Gobblet, Hamsterrolle) for demo purposes.
Abstract games made a good showing. I think an oversized Abalone set was the first game I saw upon entering the fair. Gigamic had a good-sized section, and elsewhere I saw lots of folks trying Yinsh. There were even areas for Go and Bridge. Chess was notably absent. I spotted Crokinole for sale at one booth, and Carrom at another.
The Flohmarkt is another story. I made a beeline to this hall at the start of my day. Unlike at American cons, this flea market isn't individual gamers selling off their old stuff. Instead it's a dozen or so used game dealers that have a lot of inventory. There are some bargains to be had—I nabbed For Sale for 5€—but these folks generally know the value of what they're selling. I saw several copies of Ave Caesar, all going for about 50€. That's not much less than the game usually sells for on German eBay.
A lot of what's on offer at the Flohmarkt are older games of medium desirability. There were plenty of copies of Hols der Geier, Drunter & Drüber, and Venezia, for example. I thought the flea market was best for mixed-reaction games that you want to try, but couldn't justify paying full price plus shipping for. If I had more room in the suitcase I might've walked off with Casablanca, Zug Nach Westen, or a spare copy of the original Entdecker.
Then there are the new game dealers, lots of them. This is where I spent most of my time, hunting for bargains despite not buying much. It's just fun! Some of the German mail order shops I've used before were there, such as AllGames4You and Playme.de (not Adam Spielt, though) but many other dealers were unknown to me. These all sold shrink-wrapped games, had almost identical inventories with little variation in price. I saw Carcassonne: Die Burg from 10.90€ - 11.50€, for instance.
More Than Just Games
Next to the game publishers' stalls were companies selling various toys. For instance, we bought a rainbow drawing pad and solar-powered toy windmill. Good souvenirs for our kids but maybe not what you expect at Essen. There were some bigger toy booths, too—Lego was there, promoting their Bionicles models. In the first hall, some sort of interlocking magnetic construction toy had enough tables, floorspace, and customers to rival Hasbro and Ravensburger.
The online boardgame portal Brettspielwelt had a booth with some computers hooked up. The Hippodice Boardgame Club, organizers of an annual game design competition, was there with a stand showing past winners that were picked up by professional publishers (e.g. Vino, Mississippi Queen). They also had a large section of floor where a dozen aspiring game designers had prototypes to demonstrate.
A few game magazines had stands, too. Counter was the only English-language print magazine but others in German were Spielbox, Spielerei, and Fairplay. The latter was worth a couple visits throughout the day since they collect early impression ratings from fair attendees, displaying the running tally on a board. Despite these being early opinions from mostly family gamers, I've found them to be a reasonably accurate indicator of Essen's better games.
As a gamer-parent, I was very interested in seeing the hall dedicated to kids. It wasn't what I expected. Turns out the children's boardgames are displayed and demonstrated right in the main halls - there's no distinction made in the fair layout. Amigo, Drei Magier, Selecta, and of course Haba had notable areas for kid games, complete with shorter tables and chairs. This was a busy area, too. It was all very impressive. The actual hall for kids was for something else, a way to burn off some extra energy. There was a giant inflated climbing wall, and an inflated "bounce house" that looked like a sinking Titanic. Bigger kids could try a bungee-trampoline combination, or play in a human foosball game. (I wanted to try that myself!)
Comics get second billing on the official Essen promotion material and their dealers come close to filling one hall. That still leaves a considerable majority of the Messe Essen center for games. I understand that CCGs took up a lot of space in earlier years, but not any longer. Magic: The Gathering was easy to find, but not overwhelming. Same goes for the fantasy miniatures games and computer games were barely there. In fact, I think saw as many computer game conversions of boardgames (e.g. Carcassonne, Euphrat & Tigris) for sale as I did for original computer games. Not too many of either, in other words.
The recent Spiel des Jahres winner, Queen's Alhambra, was everywhere. Besides Queen's own section, I saw it being played elsewhere, sometimes by folks sitting on the ground, and it was offered for sale at just about every dealer at attractive prices (17€). The existing boardgame "franchises" (and past Spiel des Jahres winners), Settlers and Carcassonne, were just as prevalent.
Kosmos was making a big splash with Klaus Teuber's boardgame reinterpretation of a popular computer game, Anno 1503. It sounds like something I'd like (Teuber, exploration theme), but I knew I wouldn't have time to learn the game, and I'd wait for the Mayfair edition anyway. Not too long, hopefully.
Unless I missed it, King Arthur had less of a presence than I expected. Don't misunderstand—Ravensburger had this Knizia game prominently displayed in the front-and-center position as you entered the fair. Perhaps I had the wrong expectation. I thought Essen 2003 might have been the "King Arthur Essen" where all of the buzz would be about the significance of this new boardgame technology. I didn't see that. I didn't even see many people playing it. That could've been because the audio features in it required more quiet than you could get at a the crowded fair. In fact, the folks I did see playing King Arthur were doing so inside a special double-booth closed by a heavy curtain, made to look like a small castle. That must've been it. Also, it's one of the priciest new games around, even with Essen deals (44€ was the least expensive I saw, discounted from 60€ list).
Hans im Glück showcased Knizia's addition to the Carcassonne series, Die Burg. It's a 2-player game where you lay out what's inside the castle walls. Those walls appeared to start the game in a fixed position, being something like the cardboard frame that encloses a game of Seafarers. Rather than a simple rectangular layout, the walls have a couple inside corners (to provide tactical "texture," I'd imagine). I wonder if alternate setups would be interesting, either by reconfiguring the frame pieces or an expansion (homemade or published)? It was all I could do to resist buying this one, between the Carcassonne system, Knizia name, low price, and the fact that my wife and I were just finishing our vacation tour of some European castles. Even the medium-sized box was too much for my remaining space and Rio Grande's English edition is coming very soon.
On Friday morning, I checked the "scout ratings" at the Fairplay magazine booth. The top games were Yinsh, San Juan, and Maya. Later in the afternoon I swung back to find the same top three, but Maya had climbed to the top and Feurio had joined them. When I commented on Maya's improved rating to someone at Fairplay, he stressed that there were always other good games at Essen that most people have missed, the trick is to find them. Well, maybe. When I asked for any tips on such hidden gems, he didn't have a suggestion. (Maybe he didn't have many opportunities to try games himself at the fair, being busy at his booth.) At any rate, the final tally posted to Fairplay's website after Essen identified the following as the best games: Princes of the Renaissance, San Juan, Yinsh, Maya, Fresh Fish, Railroad Dice, Attika, Finstere Flure, Pingvinas, and Ludoviel.
International Gamers Awards
Near the end of the day, a small crowd gathered around the Alea booth to hear Greg Schloesser present this year's International Gamers Awards for General Strategy Multiplayer (to Age of Steam) and General Strategy 2-Player (to Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation). Puerto Rico's special award for General Strategy Multiplayer during the January-June 2002 period was also presented.
Now, Greg does not speak German, but he got some help to have his considerable speech translated to that language, then did an amazing job of wrapping that New Orleans accent around so many German words. There were a few grins here and there in the German-speaking audience with his pronunciations, but no look of incomprehension. They certainly understood what he was saying.
The rest of us, of course, did not. That's the funny thing about the award. Essen doesn't slow down for a full-blown awards ceremony—the IGA presentations were made while the rest of the fair was going on. The people that gathered around were mostly English-speakers who knew about the award, so most of the audience couldn't understand what was said! Just the same, it's a well-considered gesture to make the announcement in the native language of the country hosting the game fair. Greg and everyone involved in the IGAs are doing a fine job, and I know the recipients appreciated the recognition for their excellent games.
After the IGA presentation we left Essen. I had made all the purchases I thought I could fit in the suitcase and there wasn't enough time to learn anything new. What did I buy? Probably not what you'd guess. I bought Settlers of Catan! That's right, in 2003 I bought Essen's biggest game from eight years ago. Of course I already own the game. In fact, it was the first German-style boardgame I bought, Mayfair's first edition back in 1996. Since then I've owned the third edition because I like the cover art, getting Seafarers along with it. The reason I wanted to own yet another version of the game was Das Buch, which I'd ordered from Adam Spielt before my trip. This is the book of tips, tactics, and—most of all—scenarios and components for Settlers that is only available in German. Though it can certainly be used with the American editions of the game, I really wanted all of the components to match. So, I needed a German edition of Settlers, and not the new one with molded plastic pieces. Give me the original wood edition, please! I bought German Seafarers, too.
The boxes for those two games are large, so my luggage space was already challenged. Even more so when I bought another Kosmos big box, a copy of Giganten on sale. I filled the remaining room in the suitcase with new card games and smaller boardgames: Yellowstone Park, Bonobo Beach, Die Fugger, Die sieben Siegel, BSZZZZ!, Fliegen, Tortuga, High Noon, plus the older games For Sale and Lao Pengh. The only game I regret not buying is Feurio, which would have been unfortunately topical when I returned to Southern California.
The "Internet blackout" I entered by leaving for vacation two weeks before Essen means I didn't know to look for some things. The free variant card for Verräter or a chance to try Feurio online, for instance. Plus, I now see that there were some interview sessions with notable game designers Kramer, Moon, Meyer, Knizia, and Friese. Too bad, I would've enjoyed meeting and hearing Alan talk about games.
My final experience at Essen was a dinner with several friends I'd known for years via email. This was the highlight of my Essen experience. I've never been to The Gathering, but have read reports from that event that identify meeting old and new friends as the best part. This was the same, I suppose. We ate at a Croatian restaurant no more than a block from the fair, where I had the last schnitzel of our trip. My wife Candy and I sat across or next to Craig Berg, Mik Svellov, Henning Kröpke and his girlfriend Angelika, with many more at the long tables. Some of the discussion was about games, but mostly it was just a wonderful dinner with friends. We particularly enjoyed hearing about Craig's wife Kim and how her attitude about games matched Candy's!
Earlier that morning several folks had asked Candy what she planned to do while I was at Essen. To my delight and theirs, she always answered that she was pretending to be a gamer for a day and would stay with me throughout the fair. She did just that, too. Afterward, I asked Candy, a non-gamer, what her impressions were of the event. She said she found it typical of other trade shows and conventions. Noting the great variety of attendees—children, women, older people, and entire families—she found it "inspirational that there were more normal people than freaky people." She thought it was fun how all the games were set out, with people to teach them... even though she herself didn't care to play any. Then again, she pointed out that we weren't there for her anyway, that she was more of an observer. Most of all, she said the best part was meeting the people I was excited to see.
My own impressions are similar. It was wonderful to see the fair itself but my favorite part was meeting people. I don't think I can justify the expense of going back to Essen just to see new games and make some purchases. Don't be misled by all the stories of great game deals into thinking the trip can come close to paying for itself. In fact, I bet I could buy every new Essen game that interests me sight-unseen via mail order (plus older games via Boardgamegeek or German ebay) and save money compared to another Essen trip. But the people, that's different. How do you put a price on meeting wonderful people and having a good vacation? You can't, of course. In my case it worked well to add a little Essen to what was already a great trip to Europe, seeing castles and medieval towns. I can't imagine doing it any other way, in fact. Some gamers can visit Essen multiple times, but for most it's out of reach. I don't know if I'll ever make it back to Essen, and not because I didn't have a good time—I did. It was good to be there, fun to see the newest games and delightful to meet long-distance friends. I'll enjoy playing the few games I brought back, placing orders for some more and above all continuing my email friendships.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that you don't need to go to Essen. It's fun but not necessary. Buy the games at home and have a gaming weekend. You know, back in The Game Cabinet days, there was only Essen and The Gathering. With the expansion of our hobby (perhaps helped along by the popularity of Boardgamegeek and spielfrieks), a wonderful explosion of other game events has occurred within the past couple years. So go to Unity Games, Gulf Games, the Oasis of Fun, Games Round-Up, Batty's Best Game Fest or the next new event. I'm confident you'll meet wonderful people there, too.
- Mark Johnson