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The Essen Experience

Greg Aleknevicus

October, 2002

I should state right off the bat that I don't intend this article to be about the games that were introduced at Spiel 2000. There are others that will do so and rather than duplicate their effort I instead would prefer to describe the experience of attending Essen for the first time.

Spiel is the official name for the games fair held in the later weeks of October every year in Essen, Germany. It's become common to simply call the fair Essen though and that's the practice I'll continue.

Stuart Dagger had been kind enough to hand hold me throughout the whole process of getting to the fair and finding a hotel and such and I'm very grateful for his help. He and a whole slew of people from the UK stay at the Hotel Handelshof in a town just outside of Essen (the city) called Mulheim. He gave me a couple of options for getting there and ultimately I ended up flying into Frankfurt which is a few hours away by train. Being this far away wasn't that huge an issue though as train travel is very pleasant and it would give me a chance to see some of the countryside. (Unfortunately I didn't see much of anything on this leg of the trip due to a long involved story of lost luggage. Write me privately if you want to hear it, it's a doozy.) I arrived late Wednesday night at the hotel and was happily greeted by Stuart and several others who were enjoying a drink in the hotel bar. I had corresponded with some of the people there, others I knew through their writing and they knew me through mine. Still more were unknown to me but all were very pleasant and enjoyable to talk with.

The following morning was the official Thursday opening of the fair itself. Thanks to Martin Wallace of Warfrog Games I had an Exhibitor's Pass which meant that I could get in an hour before the general public and so we arrived at the fair at 9:00am. The center itself doesn't look all that big or impressive from the outside but that seems to be something of an illusion. The place is actually a collection of several large halls and even when you're in them their size is deceptive. The Ravensburger standThey're huge, the sort of place where you could park jumbo jets. Even more impressive was that this vast area was going to be storing a much more interesting item games! They were everywhere! Stand after stand displaying the latest offering from almost every manufacturer you could think of. The bigger companies such as Amigo, Ravensburger and Kosmos had huge playing areas with rows and rows of tables set out for you to play their new games on. It was rather bewildering walking around the place as you got the impression that for everything you saw you were missing something else as there was so much going on. I spent most of Thursday walking around in somewhat of a daze simply taking in the scope of the event. There were a lot of people who I had the opportunity to meet face to face for the first time as well as seeing old friends. If there was anything disappointing it was that the fair is a little less social than The Gathering of Friends (as an example). For the most part you're there to see what's new and give the games a try rather than actually playing them. Think more in terms of Christmas shopping than playing with your toys Christmas morning. Still, very enjoyable.

The used game market is something to behold and was probably what I was looking forward to as much as anything. For the most part it did not disappoint as there was a ridiculous number of games on offer. Most of an entire hall (#8 as if that matters) is devoted to these resellers and the racks of games are simply astounding. You really do need to think in terms of large department stores to get an understanding of the number of items available. One of the many used game dealersRows upon rows and stacks upon stacks. Unbelievable. I spent a great deal of time here just scanning the displayed games. For sure there were items that I missed as its just so hard to take it all in. It should be said that the great majority of the games were either very common titles or ones that were not well received by the "gamer's market". Still, it's an impressive site. I happen to really love finding interesting and unusual games. I'm a confirmed garage sale addict and spend many Saturdays during the summer driving around Victoria looking for bargains. A lot of the time it's not that I'm trying to find a particular game but simply to discover "buried treasure". Whether it turns out to be valuable or even playable is not really the point. Rather, I appreciate the opportunity to open the game up, have a look at its components and read the rules. More often than not it will then be put up for sale. This has a lot to do with the fact that the typical North American game (the type of stuff typically found at garage sales) is not my cup of tea. Often I'll purchase a game even though I know I won't like it but it gives me a chance to look it over. Surely a case of the journey being more important than the destination. With this mindset the used market at Essen presents something of a troubling situation: everything there is a buried treasure. Since everything is unusual and not the sort of thing I see everyday there's a really strong desire to buy it all. Even with the low valued German Mark it's hard to justify that sort of attitude. On the other hand, I won't be back every year so I might be missing my only opportunity to get that elusive game.

While the fair officially opens on the Thursday, it's possible to get "exhibitors tickets" which allow you into the fair on the Wednesday when everyone is setting up. I wasn't able to get there for that but in talking to those that did it was clear that any of the really juicy items were purchased very quickly and so if your primary reason is to get a hard to find game you really will need to go then. There was only one game that I was specifically looking for and that was Ave Caesar. While this Ravensburger game had been produced in rather large numbers it has become rather sought after in the North American market. As such I purchased the only copy of the game I saw for 70DM. Apparently there had been 4-5 available Wednesday but they had been quickly bought up. I suspect that these are destined for resale to Western buyers so I'll be keeping my eyes on eBay and see what happens there. (Further I suspect that in coming years the prices will drop drastically. From most reports the game is fun but not exactly earth shaking. Once players realize this, the demand will drop and the German second hand agents will have amassed plenty of copies due to their previous high prices. Time will only tell but I was far too impatient to wait for a bargain.)

One of the real advantages of staying in the same hotel with a group of people is that you can get together after the fair closes at 6:00pm each day to try out your purchases in a proper environment. This was for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip even if I didn't get to play that many games. I'm always interested in hearing differing opinions and seeing what other people thought and having a like minded group around is always welcome. I would highly recommend that anyone attending the fair try their best to hook up with group of others so that you can actually enjoy such after-fair game playing. This reminds me of a little incident. I was sitting in the Torres section of the fair looking over my copy of Morisi. The largest game of Torres ever(Torres had won the Spiel des Jahres and they had a great huge copy of the game on display. How huge? The individual tower pieces could be used as tables to play a normal sized version of the game. Rather clever actually.) Normally you're meant to be playing Torres at these tables but sitting space is rather hard to come by and since it wasn't that busy right then nobody seemed to mind. A gentleman came by and enquired, in German, where I purchased the game. When I told him that I didn't speak German he said that was great and that he didn't either. In fact he turned out to be a Canadian from Calgary and someone whom I probably would have met if I had attended Fallcon held there in late September. (I couldn't make it as that was the weekend that I moved to Ireland.) We had a short chat and I must apologize for forgetting his name. In any case I had hoped to run into him again as I wasn't sure he was traveling with anyone or was on his own. While there's a lot to see at the fair it is so much more enjoyable if you've got someone to chat and play the games with. Hopefully he had a good time either way.

While the fair is officially in German there isn't too much of a problem getting English instruction for most of the games. Obviously it's easier with the bigger companies as they're more likely to have a bilingual teacher but I didn't really run into too many difficulties. There will be times that you'll have to wait for a specific person but again nothing too troublesome. At the larger stands you simply grab an available table and sit yourself down. If there isn't already an open game there you can get one from the stand and open it yourself. At the smaller stands there will often only one or two tables so you may have to wait your turn. Chances are in those cases that you'll be taught the game by the designer!

Friday morning came and we were back at it. I felt a little more comfortable knowing exactly how the place operated. I managed to get a quite a few more playings in during the day and was somewhat more relaxed about things. The intense pressure to purchase those scarce used games was off and I had a pretty good feeling about what I wanted to get done and see in the next few days. I ended up having some interesting conversations with many people that were quite illuminating. Alan Moon gave me a little insight into how the "back room dealings" were going with regards to his new designs. This I found rather interesting as it's not something you see out on the showroom floor. However since everyone in the industry is there, it's the perfect time for prototypes to be shown and discussed. Sadly (and understandably) I wasn't privy to any of this but Alan tells me that he's got about 15(!) new designs that are being shopped around. Some are his own and others are in collaboration with Aaron Weissblum. I also managed to chat with Kris Burm (designer of Gipf) who informed me that the deal with Schmidt to produce the games in the Gipf project has been terminated. He was still in good spirits though and had hopes that the remaining games would be produced in some fashion.

One of my great fears had been the warnings of just how smoky the fair got particularly on Saturday and Sunday. My hometown of Victoria has almost completely eliminated all indoor smoking and I find that I really appreciate having clean air to breathe. Since moving to Ireland it's been difficult to accept just how much public smoking there is in Europe. Almost every report I had read about Essen mentioned that it was particularly bad so I had braced myself for the worst. Happily I'm able to say that it wasn't as bad as I was led to believe. Certainly worse than North American standards but I guess my month in a very smoky Ireland toughened me up. In any case I don't think it's something that should prevent anyone from attending.

The fair is much more crowded on the Saturday and Sunday and I was glad that I had done most of the important things by then. Even moving around is a bit of a bother. I'm a rather large person and find getting through a crowd troublesome at times. For this reason I cut my visits on those days rather short. I purchased a few more items, played a few games and left by around 1:00pm or so. (Speaking of purchases I picked up a number of "spare parts" while there. There were at least two stalls that sold various wooden game bits that are common in so many games. They weren't all that cheap, about five cents a piece, but I feel better having a supply of sundry game bits on hand.) I was always a little surprised when I read how many of the UK people attended for only Thursday and Friday. I can now understand why. For the most part I did everything I wanted to do in those two days. Once that was done the enjoyable bits had very little to do with the fair itself chatting with friends and playing the newly purchased games.

So what were my overall feelings? While I really enjoyed the visit I must admit to some sense of disappointment. I guess this is natural as Essen represented some sort of holy pilgrimage for me, a gaming Mecca. It's doubtful that anything could live up to this ideal. There's certainly a lot to see but it doesn't feel as though there's that much to do. Once you've looked around the halls and seen the new offerings, that's about it. There's no doubt that if I was in Europe permanently I would attend every year. I don't know if I'll be able to say the same once I'm back living in North America. However, it is assured that I will attend again in the future and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the same to anyone interested.

- Greg Aleknevicus

(This article originally appeared in issue #11 of Counter magazine.)

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