Where did the "Games Mecca" come from?
We play German games. American Sid Sackson or Frenchman Bruno Faidutti may design them but they are still most commonly called "German games." It's interested me for some time why the German games market has diverged from the British games market so much. I don't know why America and Britain have, seemingly, flailed about in a blind alley of games design, with only the most fleeting and tenuous glimmers of quality. This article is intended to set out why I think it's interesting to wonder why Germany has become the Mecca for board games fans over the world and "German gaming" a hobby in itself. I hope that, in future letters pages of The Games Journal, readers with perhaps better information or different ideas will help me understand why we have Germany to thank for being a bastion of innovative and strategic game design. On the contrary, I see America and the UK as something of a barbaric wasteland of Monopoly clones and thin "roll-the-dice-move-the-dobber" movie tie-ins. So, I set out only to set out the question, not provide a definitive, fully researched answer to it!
The modern market for what David Parlett has termed "proprietary games" is based in a late-18th and 19th century trend for designing games. It was spearheaded by map-makers and printers, who, in the rudest form, just placed number spaces over maps they had previously published. Virtually all games were re-themings of The Royal Game Of Goose, a 17th century invention by the Medicis as a gift for King Philip of Spain. It was essentially a "roll-the-dice-move-the-dobber" game in its nascent form1 with players casting dice and moving that many spaces. Although re-published by some Victorian British publishers, the game was commonly re-designed to see players moving through stages of life, with "sloth" or "spitefulness" squares leading to a set back.
When introducing "our" games to new Anglophone players, the lack of "roll-the-dice-move-the-dobber" essentials often seem to make it hard for beginners to get involved. It's clear that Germany has moved away from this route quite drastically while most Anglo-American designs still involve it. On our modern shelves we find only glorified quizzes or Monopoly variants. Why do British and American2 games companies churn out bland packages intended to be bought as Christmas presents and played once or twice? The comparison with our hobby's Mecca, where the Spiel des Jahres is a signal of the games industry's importance3 and German families regularly savour the latest designs is stark. While hobbyists may lament Villa Paletti's victory over Puerto Rico, the very fact that Puerto Rico is financially viable is impressive at all. Even in Germany the game market is (inevitably) a bit less sophisticated than the core fans, but at least there is innovation, excitement a concern about quality. Games like The Settlers of Catan, which become popular, don't include the mechanical gizmo or electronic gadget that many modern American games feel necessary.
But I'm sure what I've said so far is old news to The Games Journal readers. What I'm getting at is why Germany has evolved such a games market. I have two initial theories, but I'm eager to hear alternative ones or, simply, criticism of those I've come up with.
First is the "war" theory. It is no secret that war is not a theme frequently confronted by German games. Axis and Allies is presumably not something that will ever market well in Germany, for obvious reasons. While American designers may be happy with wargames based on Vietnam, the USA's loss in that conflict has, fairly obviously, not left scars as deep as those the Second World War left on Germany. While Avalon Hill has been responsible for many of the best examples of American board games in the last fifty years, it is hard to deny that the wargame market has, since the 1970s, attracted a great deal of hobby support. I wonder if the lack of any sizeable wargame hobby in Germany has seen gamers, who would otherwise have worked on complicated historical simulations, turning their hand to innovation in the board game format. Did wargames drain the American market's board game design talent away? Perhaps. Certainly Germany was a centre of wargaming in its nascent stages with Prussian reliance on wargames in planning attacks right up until the Great War. Yet, while I think the German cultural affection for board games could have something to do with the effects of World War II, there are other possibilities.
For example, Germany has long been at the forefront of toy-making and printing. Is it simply that Germany is maintaining a lead in the field of family entertainment, which has grown in sophistication and appeal, from its nineteenth century roots? I suppose it is also possible that there is some social reason why German families have being willing to spend "quality time" with their families while board games have faded into the realm of childrens' toys elsewhere.
As I stated at the outset, I don't know the answer to my question and I welcome disagreements or suggestions from other readers. But I do hope you might share my puzzlement at why we have Germany to thank (almost exclusively) for our hobby.
1 Although one can look back to more primitive versions, for which see David Parlett's excellent Oxford History of Board Games.
2 I have only excluded European countries besides Germany from this statement as I don't feel sufficiently informed about their games industry to comment. Any readers from France, Italy, Spain or elsewhere with views on the health of their games market should make their ideas known!
3 See Wolfgang Kramer's report on the state of the German games industry (The German Game Market) for an expert insider's report on it.
- Richard Huzzey