The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Es War Einmal

Stuart W. Dagger

March, 2003

...a German games industry, but it was not as we know it. German games companies and, to an only slightly lesser extent, German games designers so dominate our hobby that it will probably come as a surprise to many that the whole phenomenon of "Eurogames", Essen and the Spiel des Jahres is less than 25 years old. Companies such as Ravensburger and F.X.Schmid existed before then, and it was worth paying attention to what they were producing, but there was no question of dominance. Back in the seventies the German industry sat alongside those of Britain and the United States, and for gamers each was as important as the others. The Germans were already notable for the quality of their components, but when it came to innovative game design the edge still lay with the English speaking nations.

My own interest in boardgames was reawakened in the early seventies by two chance discoveries, one an American game and one a British magazine. As a 10-12 year old in the mid fifties, top of my wish list when it came to Christmas presents was always "the latest game from Waddingtons" and my friends and I spent many happy hours playing Cluedo, Careers, Flutter, Totopoly and the rest. Then we discovered Chess, Bridge, Canasta, Oh Hell and Black Maria and started to play those instead. They were more interesting, not to mention more grown-up.

Games & Puzzles magazineThe game that alerted me to the fact that boardgames were no longer solely for children was Diplomacy, which I happened to spot while shopping for kitchen equipment. Quite what it was doing in the miscellaneous section of an early seventies Habitat catalogue is still a puzzle to me, but I'm glad that it was there, because otherwise I'd probably never have discovered this hobby and had the friendships it has brought me. About six months after I bought the game, a friend to whom I had shown it presented me with a copy of the magazine Games and Puzzles, which he had spotted while waiting for a train. I took out a subscription, sent for the back issues and continued to subscribe until it folded about ten years later.

The publisher of Games and Puzzles also owned a games shop in London and it had a mail order arm. This meant that not only could I read about the new breed of games, I could buy them as well. Diplomacy was soon joined by Acquire, 1829, Hare & Tortoise and the rest and I had acquired a new hobby. During the time that Games and Puzzles was being published I bought nine German games. That might not sound a lot, but in those days there wasn't the torrent of games of interest to gamers that there is now and I was buying about half a dozen games a year. At that rate one even had time to play them all.

Of the nine, five were from F.X.Schmid, three from Ravensburger and the other was Ogallala, a kids' game with cute graphics that is still around, being republished yet again in the middle of last year. It is the other eight that are of more interest here. Only the Ravensburger ones were multi-player and all three were designed by foreigners. One of them, Broker, was an American game being produced under licence; the other two were Ravensburger originals, but the designer was the Englishman, Eric Solomon. The F.X.Schmid games had German designers but were all 2-player. For multi-player gamers' games one did not look to Germany in the seventies. Broker was a gamers' game but American and the only other one from that time that I recall was an F.X.Schmid game called Trade, which I inexplicably omitted to buy. Even the two Solomon games, good though they were, were firmly in the family game category. The gamers' games came from Britain and America.

However, the judgement at the end of that last paragraph only tells part of the story. While I was buying nine games from Germany's top two publishers, I was only buying one from the big publishers in the English-speaking countries and that (Formula One from Waddington's) was actually a game from the early sixties. Waddington's & Spears in Britain and Parker Brothers & Milton Bradley in the States were all in creative decline. They seemed to be pursuing a policy based on the idea that families no longer played games; families watched television. Boardgames were things that adults bought for children and since children are a renewing market, a constant stream of good new games was not required. Developing new games is expensive and risky. Why bother when the parents will gravitate towards the familiar in any case? At one point Games and Puzzles carried an article from the Marketing Director at Waddington's and he even spelled it out for us. In writing this I am not accusing the people in charge of these companies of bad management. They had the figures in front of them and when they decided that adults no longer played boardgames in sufficient numbers to make the market worth pursuing, they were almost certainly correct. It was just unfortunate for people like me that it was so.

In Britain and America there were good games being produced but they were either by designer/publishers such as Hartland Trefoil (1829, Civilization), St Laurent Games (Crude) and Koplow Games (Organized Crime) or small companies such as Intellect Games, Philmar, Gamut of Games and Avalon Hill, who all lacked the distribution that they needed to have a chance of achieving the sales that they required if they were to thrive.

In Germany the market must have been bigger. For Ravensburger and F.X.Schmid sitting back and relying on established favourites such as Monopoly and Scrabble wasn't an option, but the fact that they were putting out a steady stream of new and beautifully produced games must have meant that they were selling them in sufficient numbers to make the activity worthwhile. The potential was therefore there for them to up their game and that is what they proceeded to do, thanks to a coming together of the companies and a group of energetic games enthusiasts. It is that marriage that produced the present German games scene.

1978 saw the launch of both Germany's first professional games magazine and the Spiel des Jahres organization. Between them they would raise both the profile of German games and the standard of German games design. For the first three years the award would go to German editions of games first published elsewhere: Hare & Tortoise, Rummikub and Sid Sackson's Focus. In year four it was another foreign designer in Alex Randolph, but this time with a game that I think was a Ravensburger original, and then in 1983 came the first entirely home-grown effort, Scotland Yard, designed by part of Ravensburger's "in-house" team. 1983 also saw the start of the other key component of the German games phenomenon, the Essen games fair. Held in the city's adult education centre, the organizers hoped that about 700 people would come along; 5000 did. The following year it was 15000. The year after that they moved into the Essen Exhibition Centre, where the numbers continued to soar: 45000 in 1986, 60000 in 1987.

Unfortunately, all this was happening just as I was losing contact with the German games scene. Games and Puzzles, which by then had changed its name to The Gamer, folded in late 1982 and for the next five years information became quite thin on the ground. British gamers who lived close enough to London to keep an eye on the stock in Just Games would have seen what was happening, but I live in the North of Scotland and didn't. For me the news didn't arrive until 1987, when I came across the reviews that Brian Walker had started to write in one of the British play-by-mail magazines. The following year Games International was launched with Brian as editor and as far as Britain was concerned the secret was out. Not only did German games still have the best bits, but their family games had gone from "worth a look" to "the best around", and there were now also some seriously good strategy games, such as Kremlin, Die Macher and Schoko & Co.

Games International magazineGames International only lasted a couple of years before being forced to acknowledge that in Britain the market is too small for a professional games magazine to be viable, but by then Mike Siggins had started Sumo and the flow of news, opinions and high quality reviews was assured. Britain was now in the German games orbit.

North America would take longer. Alan Moon was one of the key contributors to Games International and so he and the group he played with knew about what was happening in Germany at about the same time we did in Britain, but the news would take the best part of ten years to spread. That it did was due partly to Alan's evangelising with his "Gathering of Friends", partly to Ken Tidwell's pioneering website, The Games Cabinet, and partly to the bulletin board As games players gained access to the net, they discovered browsing as a lunchtime activity, found that particular source, saw the references and became intrigued. And from that point you can probably continue the story for yourself.

- Stuart W. Dagger

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