Maybe there isn't yet a flood of European games in the United States and Canada, but there's certainly a steady stream, and it's a tidal wave compared to what it once was.
Thanks to publishers like Rio Grande and Mayfair (with new publishers getting into the act seemingly every month), Internet retailers like Funagain, Boulder Games, Game Surplus, and (insert your favorite here), and traditional stores like Games People Play on the East Coast and Gamescape on the West Coast (again, insert your favorite local store here), it's no longer hard to come by a board game with German roots.
But that wasn't always the case. Before the steady stream, there was only a trickle of German games to the shores of North America. Before the trickle, only a few drips.
In The Beginning
Counter editor Stuart Dagger has noted that the game markets in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States weren't terribly different from one another prior to 1980. But the launch of the Spiel des Jahres award in 1979 and the start of the Essen games fair in 1983 spurred new creativity in European game design, particularly in Germany.
Perhaps the first hint of a Euro gaming invasion came from Francis Tresham's 1829, published in England under his own Hartland Trefoil label in 1982. A gamer's game of the first order requiring several hours to play and using nothing in the way of chance mechanisms, and a rarity in that realm with its non-war theme, 1829 caught the attention of Carol Monica, owner of Games People Play in Cambridge, Mass.
Monica was already familiar with Hartland Trefoil, having encountered its 1981 release, Civilization, which had proven to a war-game audience that a strategy game didn't have to recreate a war to be interesting. The Avalon Hill Game Co.'s 1983 official company history called Civilization its "sleeper of the year" and credited Monica with showing it to the company in the summer of 1981 and urging them to publish a US version. But with 1829 had come a hint of more games beyond the ocean.
"Jim Koplow of Koplow Games brought a copy of 1829 for me back from an early Essen fair," said Monica. "I went the next year on a trip to Essen myself."
At Essen Monica met Tresham and arranged to become the US importer for Hartland Trefoil. She was also exposed to the variety of games available from German publishers.
"At Essen, there were just so many beautiful games," Monica said.
Monica had opened Games People Play in 1974 because, "You just couldn't find a decent Scrabble board in Harvard Square." By 1983 she was already selling British games from Hartland Trefoil (1829, Civilization, and later Spanish Main), Rostherne Games (Railway Rivals), and Gibsons (Escape from Colditz, Taxi, and later Great Western Railway, Wembley, Westminster, and a much lighter Tresham game, Shocks & Scares). The Essen trip led Monica to a decision to expand her store's offerings to include German-language games, most notably from a new, small publisher, Hans Im Glueck (Greyhounds, Rock Island, PS).
The Logo Appears
The Hartland version of 1829 also found its way into Games Magazine in a January 1983 review. Both it and the Avalon Hill edition of Civilization subsequently made the Games 100 list in the November 1983 issue, as did another European game, Scotland Yard from Ravensburger. Not too many years later Games would be in financial trouble and cease publication for a period of time. In its rebirth the Games 100 lists would become known for an emphasis on the light family games dominating the American market. But in the mid-'80s the Games 100 lists contained a healthy number of now-classic board games, including a couple from overseas. At that time Games itself sold by mail order most of the board games on its top 100 list, including 1829 and Scotland Yard. The Ravensburger version of Scotland Yard sold by Games, which predated a Milton Bradley version by several years, carried the 1983 Spiel des Jahres logo on the box cover, likely the first appearance of the now-familiar logo in the United States.
But it may not have been the first appearance of the Spiel des Jahres logo in North America. Ravensburger, perhaps the most multinational game company, carries different lines of games in different countries. While its United States offerings were geared toward young children, in Canada, at least in French-speaking Quebec, it was selling games like Sagaland (with the 1982 Spiel des Jahres logo on its cover), Le Tapis Volant, Grand Safari, Metropolis, and Le Tour de Monde en 80 Jours. The latter two games never were released in the United States. Le Tapis Volant was released as Flying Carpet and Grand Safari as Wildlife Adventure in the US in the late 1980s, while Sagaland was later released as Enchanted Forest—without the Spiel des Jahres logo. (A late 1980s release of Ravensburger's Hare and Tortoise in the United States also did not contain the still completely unfamiliar—to Americans—German Spiel des Jahres logo, although the rules did mention the game's earlier English origins and the fact that it had won three European game of the year awards.)
By 1986 eight Spiel des Jahres awards had been made, half going to Ravensburger games, all of which had been or were soon to be available in North America. The other four winners each originated in England or the United States and were published in various editions on this side of the Atlantic. One, the Games Workshop edition of Railway Rivals, even carried the Spiel des Jahres logo. But the American games market never took any notice, possibly because the games were too light for the "gamers" market, which at the time was confined to war gamers and role players, and too poorly distributed to catch the attention of family gamers. (In a 1989 letter David Watts, the designer of Railway Rivals, lamented that while the game had sold tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in Germany and England after winning the 1984 Spiel des Jahres award, the game hadn't even sold the equivalent of one copy per day nationwide in the United States.) It was left to two releases at Essen 1986 to begin to catch the attention of American gamers.
Games For Gamers
One came from the Swiss game company Fata Morgana. Published in German, Kremlin caught the attention of Bruce Shelley at the Avalon Hill Game Company in Baltimore. Shelley, who would later leave Avalon Hill for the computer gaming world and co-design such popular computer games as Railroad Tycoon and Age of Empires, was a champion of Tresham's Civilization and 1830 at Avalon Hill. He was also a good friend of a former colleague by the name of Alan Moon, who had left Avalon Hill in 1983 to work for Parker Brothers north of Boston. According to Moon in a 2000 interview with Stephen Glenn for Funagain.com, Shelley subscribed to a couple of English game magazines, one of which contained a review of Kremlin by an English game enthusiast named Brian Walker. In talking about the game with Moon, the pair decided to contact Walker, which led to a friendship that revealed the growing German game industry to them. Two years later, Avalon Hill published its version of Kremlin, possibly the first modern German-language game to be republished in English by an American company.
The other 1986 game was Die Macher, from Hans Im Glueck. An election game based on the German political system, Die Macher was far deeper than the typical German game and appealed to war gamers who were looking for a new type of strategy game. It steadily developed mythical status on both sides of the Atlantic, both for its game play and its scarcity.
Moon's correspondence with Walker led him to other German games such as Homas Tour, Niki Lauda's Formel 1, Heimlich & Co. (aka Under Cover), Greyhounds, 6-Tage Rennen, Dorada, Jockey, Grand Prix, and Wildlife Adventure.
"These were the days before they became popular in general," Moon said in the Glenn interview, "because it was just so hard to find out about them. I had no idea the whole German gaming community existed."
A Club And A Newsletter
In late 1985, while now trying to strike out as an independent game designer but still living north of Boston, Moon decided to organize a game group, the North Shore Game Club.
"I started the club because I wanted to play more games," Moon said. "German games were definitely there from the start. The club was sort of a third Avalon Hill games, a third Axis & Allies type games, and a third German games. By that point, I was mostly interested in German games; my interest in war games had been going down ever since playing my first game of Kremlin."
The North Shore Game Club hit the ground running in 1986, with Moon recruiting many of its early members through ads in Avalon Hill's in-house magazine The General. The most popular games played that year were Advanced Squad Leader, Russian Campaign, 1830, Victory in the Pacific, and Axis & Allies. A year later, while the Avalon Hill games and Axis & Allies held their own, European games like Under Cover and Kremlin had made appearances. By 1988 the top of the list included Die Macher, 6-Tage Rennen, Homas Tour, Niki Lauda's Formel 1, Greyhounds, and Wildlife Adventure.
The trick, of course, was finding out about the games, and then finding the games once they were known. The North Shore Club was aided by its proximity to the Games People Play store, one member who had been trading games with Eamon Bloomfield (an English collector who owned Games Unlimited in the London suburb of Kingston), and Moon's own industry contacts, which were increasing overseas and were providing him with dozens of German games. Moon's intelligence gathering was disseminated in a monthly club newsletter that regularly announced new releases at home and abroad, the high point being a listing that spanned five months of club newsletters in 1989 and described 66 European games worth owning.
A Large Company Notices But...
At its peak the club counted 60-plus members. A fair number of them, probably a few less than half, were "corresponding members" who lived too far from Boston to attend regularly, if at all, but joined to get the newsletter. Among those were former Avalon Hill colleagues in Baltimore. Another corresponding member who worked in the American game industry and was taking notice of the German games was Mike Gray, who was in charge of product development at Milton Bradley.
"I was first introduced to German games through playing games with the Moonies way back in the '80s," Gray said. "In the late '80s I started attending the Essen show to scout for opportunities for Milton Bradley. As their resident 'games expert,' I really needed to see what was going on in the rest of the world."
Gray, a top designer in his own right (Shogun, Trump; The Game, among many others, although in keeping with the American "tradition" his name never appeared on a box), saw a lot to like overseas.
"I was attracted to them because they were fun and replayable," Gray said. "Some had nice graphics (Wildlife Adventure) and some didn't (Schoko & Co.). I knew we could recreate them with nicer pieces and maybe better graphics. I did bring back some candidates every year and present them in our product reviews here. Some of them stuck and others didn't. Bandu (1992) came from Bausack. Daytona 500 (1990) came from Niki Lauda Formel 1. Quandary (1996) came from Flinke Pinke, and DragonTales came from Zick Zacke Huhnerkacke. Some of the games I championed like Hare and Tortoise, Wildlife Adventure, a USA version of Auf Achse, Abalone, and Heimlich & Co. never made it into our line.
"I do still go to the Essen fair and to the Nuremberg Toy Fair," Gray continued. "At those shows I spend most of my time in a little room looking at new concepts from inventors, and then get out for a day or so to see the show on my own. I spend most of my time with Ben Rathbone who looks for new games for Hasbro Europe. Ben and I speak to each other several times a week and are very good friends. We do share a love for games and we do global development together on many projects."
The Printed Word
Moon had another "celebrity" guest at the North Shore Game Club, Brian Walker, who visited twice in 1988, both times bringing over a suitcase full of German games for North Shore denizens to sample. He also was full of tales of Essen 1988 and prior years, as well as an announcement of a new magazine devoted to board gaming that he would edit called Games International. On the second visit he was accompanied by, among others, a colleague who would be a regular contributor to Games International and become another friend of Moon's, Mike Siggins. Moon signed on as the American editor, meaning he was invited to contribute the occasional review of a North American game, such as the immortal Canadian offering Mr. Trucker, as well as variant and strategy articles, such as the 1830 Coalfields variant.
One of Walker's North Shore Game Club visits corresponded with a trip to Origins 1988, where he spent time plugging the launch of Games International. The effort met with some success, as games stores like Games People Play in Cambridge, Mass., The Complete Strategist, with a chain of stores including one across the Charles River in Boston, and Gamescape in San Francisco agreed to carry the magazine, bringing news of German games to a somewhat wider audience than those at the Origins convention.
Artistically praised for its glossy, professional appearance, solid reviews, and thoughtful writing, and helpful to adventurous North American shoppers who took note of the publicized availability of the reviewed games at a central London game store, Just Games, Games International was never a financial success. Within two years Walker's venture was faltering. An attempt to broaden its appeal by including reviews of computer games alienated the board game readers and didn't help enough financially. Eventually Games International morphed into Strategy Plus, began to cover computer games exclusively, and was sold to a Vermont mail-order computer game business where Walker continued to edit it for a short time.
The North Shore Game Club was changing too. In the summer of 1989, Moon left his leadership position at the group he founded and moved north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. While the club continued in one form or another, albeit without anything approaching the same level of organization Moon provided, the club newsletter soon sputtered to a halt.
The Rules Quest
With the game club newsletter out of circulation and Games International teetering on the edge of becoming a computer game magazine, the print mantle for European board gaming was taken up by Mike Siggins, who in 1990 launched a quarterly publication he called Sumo. Sumo, in appearance, was the anti-Games International, the first issues being photocopies of typewritten articles stapled once in the top left corner. But the content was attention-grabbing to anyone developing an interest in German games. Reviews were substantial and fearless, the letters pages were full of lively discussion, and even the non-gaming articles contained interesting insights into mass culture. Sumo wasn't hurt at all by the fact that Siggins could write.
From the start Sumo (and Siggins) served as the home of the Rules Bank. People with English rules sets for German games were asked to deposit them with Sumo, while Siggins did his best to supply copies by mail of rules when people asked to make a withdrawal. Each issue of Sumo contained a lengthy list of English rules sets sought by Sumo readers. Siggins developed a fairly healthy subscription list in North America through mentions in the latter issues of Games International, by liberal used of Moon's substantial contact list, and by word of mouth. Sumo continued for eight years before Siggins stepped aside to tend to other matters in his life. Soon after Siggins stopped Sumo, the print baton passed to three of Sumo's more frequent contributors, Stuart Dagger, Alan How, and Mike Clifford, who started another quarterly with a very similar format, Counter, which continues to be published today.
News about German games was starting to spread in other ways. In addition to Games International appearing in some US game shops, Monica from Games People Play was attending conventions like Origins and was developing a substantial mail order business for her imports.
And by the mid to late 1980s the Internet was taking shape. Although the World Wide Web was still a few years away, hobbyists of all stripes, particularly those with Internet access in academia and at research outposts, were using usenet newsgroups to exchange information. One, rec.games.board, became a gathering place for gamers, and was well populated by 1989. Most of the talk was about war games, but in October 1989 Jennifer Schlickbernd in southern California posted a lengthy review of Die Macher, apparently the first detailed comment on a German game stemming from a game session in the United States.
"I was standing in line at Origins '88, and I had somehow read about Die Macher," Schlickbernd said. "Behind me was a guy with an English accent. I asked him (out of the blue) if he knew anything about Die Macher and he had one in his hotel room, which he promptly sold me for $50."
Schlickbernd's review was enthusiastic and detailed. She closed it by including an address and phone number for Just Games in London, as that store was known to have the game in stock. She also mentioned she had recently obtained several other German games from Just Games—Schoko & Co., McMulti, and 6-Tage Rennen—and offered to post reviews of those "if there is enough demand." Apparently there wasn't in the still young newsgroup, as no further reviews appeared.
"I knew about Just Games from Brian Walker's board game magazine," Schlickbernd said. I used to get up at 5 a.m. to call them to keep the long distance costs down to $1 a minute. I paid a lot of money for games like Schoko & Co. since they were double imports."
A Few Good Gamers
Schlickbernd and other early rec.games.board regulars, like Bob Rossney, Carl Schnurr, Nick Sauer, and Dan Blum, who were intrigued by the German games they were hearing about led the cyberspace information campaign that presaged the far more populated rec.games.board of today and the Spielfrieks Yahoo group, both of which are now dominated by discussion of German games.
All of them worked hard to find and acquire German games, usually using one or more means such as mail orders from Games People Play, telephone orders to Just Games, purchases during overseas trips, and trades with willing Europeans, many of whom were reached on the Internet.
"I found out about German games the same way everyone did," Rossney, who at the time was living in the San Francisco Bay area, said, "through Mike Siggins's Sumo and through Games International. I found the latter at Gamescape (the San Francisco game store) and the former I discovered through a co-worker who had a subscription."
"The first games I actually got from Germany were Die Macher and Inkognito, which I got in a trade with a fellow at the University of Kaiserslautern who couldn't get American games in Germany," Rossney said. "He'd discovered my interest by reading r.g.b. I don't remember how I'd heard about Inkognito, but I know I'd learned about Die Macher from the ad that Mark Green (manager of Just Games) placed in Games International, quoting Alan Moon as saying that it was the finest four-player game ever designed."
Rossney said he also got German games by traveling to London, and, like Schlickbernd, by trans-Atlantic phone calls to Just Games.
"I remember staggering back to the US under the weight of Big Boss and Carabande after a trip to London," he said. "But now that I think of it, I can remember talking to Mark Green on the phone—I'm certain that I ordered some games from Just Games before I ever traveled to London."
A Magical Gathering
While the Internet chatter was ramping up as the decade turned to the 1990s, a face-to-face meeting of gamers who were primarily playing German games was about to occur. In April 1990 in a Quality Inn in Chicopee, Mass., the first Gathering of Friends took place. Alan Moon and 22 of his friends from Baltimore, Boston, northern New England, and points in between, as well as Mike Siggins, who flew in from England, gathered for a three-day gaming orgy. While game conventions had been around for years, the invitation-only Gathering, which now draws in excess of 200 people, was the first one where German games dominated. As it grew, it also became a place where people regularly exchanged comments on German games on the Internet finally met in person.
"One year at Origins Bill Cleary (one of Moon's Baltimore friends) and I were talking," Moon said. "Bill said I should start a small convention for our friends. I said no way was I organizing something like that. I'd spent so much time organizing clubs in the past. Bill said I was the right person to do it because I knew so many people, and people knew who I was. I said it was an awfully small pond. But many months later I changed my mind."
The list of European games played at that 1990 Gathering included Ausbrecher, Cash, Civilization, Die Macher, Drachenlachen, Favoriten, Hare & Tortoise, Haithabu, Homas tour, Jump the Queue, Karawane, Karriere Poker, McMulti, Niki Lauda's Formel 1, Ogallala, Railway Rivals, Sahara, Traber Derby, Up the River, Wildlife Adventure, and the clear hit of the convention, Adel Verpflichtet.
Adel Verpflichtet was only a few weeks away from winning the 1990 Spiel des Jahres award and would become another watershed game. Taking note of its success overseas, Avalon Hill opted to publish it in the US the next year, virtually unchanged right down to its unpronounceable and meaningless—to an American audience—name.
Jennifer Schlickbernd, who was working with Avalon Hill on the development of Advanced Civilization, posted an announcement of the forthcoming Civilization add-on and of Adel Verpflichtet to rec.games.board in July 1991.
"I talked to Don Greenwood this a.m., and got some info on upcoming AH releases," she wrote. "Adel Verpflichtet and Advanced Civilization will be out in approximately one month... They are looking at releasing the entire Hexagames (a game company in Germany) card game line (not McMulti though). This includes Black Monday, Karriere Poker, Digger, Four Musketeers, Die Romer, and Res Publica... It's unfortunate that there just aren't many (any?) good American strategy game designers around any more. The American strategy board game market appears to be about dead... I am glad though, that AH is going to market at least some of the better ones here, so that us American gamers can have something to choose from."
Avalon Hill never did republish the Hexagames line in the United States, but Schlickbernd's listing of the games brought their attention to the Internet board game audience and sparked what was becoming a regular round of "What are these games like?" and "Where can I find these games?" type of questions.
More Games Appear
One new company was promoting German-style games in the United States, Alan Moon's White Wind company. A partnership between Moon and Peter Gehrmann, a German game industry insider who Moon had been introduced to by Brian Walker, White Wind was born out of Moon's frustration with the American game industry and the difficulty he was having selling his designs to German companies. In 1991 White Wind released its first two games at Essen, Elfengold and Fishy. Both were Moon designs as was the case with all but one White Wind game, The games were sold in limited editions of 1,200 copies to both the German and American markets.
In November 1991 Bob Rossney posted a list of German games he had discovered at Gamescape in San Francisco, which was taking a tip from Games People Play on the other coast and experimenting with importing games.
"These games range from very good to excellent," Rossney wrote. "I think that Airlines, Res Publica, Manager, Vendetta, and Maestro are games I'll play for years. By comparison, the American games on the market are dreary. There are a handful of games for children, a seemingly endless series of rehashes of Victorian parlor games, war games, and that's it. (One exception, Milton Bradley's Daytona 500, is a startlingly good game; they haven't published anything this good since they let Square Mile go out of print.)"
If Rossney knew at the time that Daytona 500 was born from a German game too, he wasn't letting on. He also noted in his post that Gamescape had already stopped importing games as the store wasn't able to make enough money to justify the effort.
"Does anybody out there have any information on how I might get a hold of more of these games?" he concluded. "I suppose I could start my own mail order company."
Rossney soon posted reviews of many of the German games he did have. The effort sparked a few brief online discussions of the games. Those in turn led Carl Schnurr in North Carolina, in early 1992, to ask "What exactly are the good 'non-war game company' games out there?"
The question elicited many diverse lists, both of American and European games. Among the European games, the lines from Ravensburger and Hexagames were mentioned more than once, as were specific games like Die Macher, 6-Tage Rennen, Airlines, and Adel Verpflichtet were brought up.
A German reader of rec.games.board commented that Adel Verpflichtet had won Spiele des Jahres, a mention that finally prompted someone to inquire as to what that award was all about. Again it was Schnurr posting the provocative question, "Is there any chance that someone who knows could post a list of the games that have won Spiele des Jahres?"
The full list through 1991's Drunter & Drüber was dutifully posted by one of the German r.g.b. readers, prompting yet another round of questions about where to find more information about German games and how to get a hold of them.
The information issue was taking care of itself. The expanding Internet was connecting board gamers with common interests in Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand. Sumo had a steady readership in the United States. And an American entry into the print realm of board game information was soon to start.
In 1992 Peter Sarrett, based in the Seattle area, launched The Game Report, another quarterly publication devoted to board and card games. The first three issues confined the reviews to American games. But between issues three and four, in the summer of 1993, Sarrett took a trip to Europe and made Just Games in London a destination point. Armed with a shopping list gleaned from rec.games.board discussions of European games and suggestions from Carl Schnurr and Nick Sauer, Sarrett returned with 24 games. Capsule reviews of these soon appeared on the Internet, and full reviews worked their way into the pages of The Game Report, starting with the fourth issue. The genie was further out of the bottle.
Imports R Us
The issue of how to get a hold of the games continued to be a tougher nut to crack. Gamescape had for the time being given up on importing games. Games People Play was still mailing around the country, but its import shipments, though continuing, were irregular. Just Games was proving to be a dependable option, but the cost of trans-Atlantic ordering and shipping was not insignificant. More and more people were finding trading partners either in Germany or England.
One of those was Ray Pfeifer, another of the Baltimore gaming crew, but Pfeifer would expand his trading into a business venture. Pfeifer had missed the first Gathering of Friends, but was bitten by the German game bug when other Baltimore gamers returned from the Gathering of Friends with Adel Verpflichtet. He made sure he was part of the second Gathering in 1991.
"I saw just a ton of games there," Pfiefer said.
Later that same year Moon introduced Pfiefer to Peter Gehrmann at Origins. Gehrmann was on the lookout for American games, Pfiefer for the German games he had seen at the Gathering, and the two worked out a deal to trade games.
"For the next two years, every six months or so, I would contact Peter and send him a list and he would send us games," Pfeifer said. "He had ways to get them fairly cheap, and I headed that effort up for our game group."
By the beginning of 1994 Pfiefer was thinking trying to start a mail-order business using Gehrmann as a source for German games. He said he was hesitant to take the plunge, as he wasn't convinced there was a lot of money in it, and he knew it would take a lot of his time. What finally convinced him to get into the mail-order game business was an American gaming phenomena—Magic: The Gathering.
"When Magic came out I thought I could get Magic cards at dealer cost and make more money," Pfeifer said, indicating that the relative security of income from Magic would guard against the more risky investment in importing games. Pfeifer announced the start of his import mail-order business, which he called R&D Games, and started taking orders at the 1994 Gathering of Friends.
"My God I just had people lined up," Pfeifer said. "I put in a 150 to 200 game order to Peter."
The Watershed Game
Just before the 1995 Gathering of Friends, Pfiefer received a 24-game shipment from Gehrmann of a brand new game called Die Siedler von Catan. He sold them all at the Gathering within a day (and, he noted, a few copies of another new game, Medici). So he ordered 70 more copies of Die Siedler in time for that summer's Avaloncon, Avalon Hill's own game convention.
"I remember that year the most played game at Avaloncon wasn't an Avalon Hill game; it was Settlers," he said. "I sold them out of the trunk of my car in the parking lot at the convention. I remember at one point Jackson Dott (Avalon Hill's owner) came out to find out what was going on."
Pfiefer said word about R&D Games was getting around in 1995 such that he probably sold more than 500 copies of Settlers of Catan and had three different stores ordering from him, including San Francisco's Gamescape, which had decided to get back in the German game business.
"The biggest shipment I ever got at once was 28 boxes that arrived in a truck and pretty well filled my house," he said. "At the start I could handle a shipment just by driving to the airport and putting it into my car. Then it got so it would take two trips. Then I had to hire an extra car. Finally came the truck. I probably had 100 to 120 regular customers at its peak. What really blew it open was Settlers."
Pfeifer went over to the 1995 Essen fair himself to collect a large number of used and new German games for his customers. But in some ways R&D Games was a victim of its own success. The easy part of the business, selling Magic cards, had lost its luster, Pfeifer said, because the market had changed and it had become harder to get "the real great cards." The German games part of the business had become more than one person could handle, so in 1996 he decided to sell off his remaining stock at that year's Gathering of Friends.
"It was fun while it lasted, but let me tell you it was a lot of work," he said.
Are We Having Fun Again?
The decision to fold R&D Games was also hastened by word that Alan Moon was about to start a German game import business of his own, and Pfeifer said he knew Moon had more sources for German games than he did. As it happened the vacuum was brief as Moon's business, The European Game Source, started the same year Pfiefer's folded.
Partnering with Moon in the venture were Lou Cerreta and Richard Borg, with the business operating out of Cerreta's house in Connecticut. A September 1996 catalogue from the European Game Source listed more than 140 new and used European games for sale.
"We got involved in it because we thought we could make money, and the timing was right because the craze was just starting," Moon said.
It was also the right time for German game players, who welcomed anything that was less expensive than buying from overseas. Both Pfiefer and Moon were able to acquire games below retail cost, and neither had much in the way of overhead expense. The European Game Source grew quickly with Moon using his extensive mailing list and postings to the rec.games.board.marketplace on the Internet to spread the word.
It also ended quickly when problems in the partnership caused the business to fail. In the spring of 1997, at the 1997 Gathering of Friends, less than a year after its start, The European Game Source set up a shop in the hotel and sold as much of its substantial stock as it could. Everything that was left, as well as the remaining stock of White Wind, which Moon was also bringing to a halt, was purchased by one of the Gathering attendees, Rick Soued. Soued was the owner of a used game business in Oregon called Funagain Games.
Almost instantaneously Soued's purchase of The European Game Source and White Wind remainders transformed Funagain from a used game dealer into a German game importer. Soued's visit to Essen 1997 and the launch of a website at the end of the year, Funagain.com, solidified the business's transition, and its success paved the way for other Internet game retailers like Boulder Games, RC Hobbies, Game Surplus, Fair Play Games, and others.
With the stream of German games into the United States growing, the problem of foreign language rule sets grew as well. More and more people were looking for more and more English translations. Sumo's England-based Rules Bank was ever popular, a number of non-German speakers were struggling through their own translations assisted by rudimentary computer-translation programs or even wading through German-English dictionaries, and game players in the United States who actually knew German gained something akin to royal status.
A monumental shift in the way English translations and other information about German games were passed around occurred in September 1994 when Californian Ken Tidwell launched The Game Cabinet on the World Wide Web. Tidwell had stumbled on the Just Games store in 1991 (coincidentally the same year the World Wide Web was launched) and discovered European games and Sumo all in the same afternoon. Tidwell started collecting European games and contributing to Sumo, and his interest in the hobby eventually led to The Game Cabinet.
"Originally the Cabinet was stocked with articles I had written for Sumo or The Game Report supplemented with articles gleaned from the Net." Tidwell wrote on his website. "Back in September 1994, there were around 300 loyal Game Cabinet readers. By September 1995, there appeared to be somewhere around 700 serious readers (some folks download upwards of 100 articles each month!), about as many casual readers, and an even larger number that peek in occasionally. By September 1996, readership had grown to somewhere around 5,000 regular readers and the Cabinet was receiving over 15,000 visits per month."
Tidwell tried to maintain The Game Cabinet as a monthly magazine, albeit in electronic form, with new reviews and articles appearing regularly. The Cabinet also soon became a repository for English rules translations donated by Cabinet readers, allowing those with Internet access to download and print out rules sets, rather doing the translations themselves or waiting for postal mail from the Sumo Rules Bank or elsewhere.
Siggins recognized the greater efficiency of the Web, and eventually migrated much of the Sumo Rules Bank, as well as back issues of Sumo, to The Game Cabinet where it still resides today.
Tidwell's life grew increasingly too busy to maintain a monthly magazine, and The Game Cabinet wound down with only one issue appearing in each 1999 and 2000. Even so, Tidwell notes that The Game Cabinet was receiving more visits than ever, some 70,000 a month by August 2001, despite no updates for a year.
It wasn't the end of the availability of rules translations on the Internet, however. In Georgia, Frank Branham concocted an automated Web-based database for English rule sets called The Gaming Dumpster. Branham's effort was eventually mimicked and expanded by Texans Scott Alden and Derk Solko at The Board Game Geek website, the current must-go website for rules translations, playing aids, and other board game-related files.
In Their Native Tongue
With the community of German game players in North America growing and communicating, small businesses importing games from overseas, and rules translations becoming readily available, it only remained for game companies to publish German-style games in the United States for the tide to fully arrive.
Aside from the sporadic offerings of Avalon Hill (Kremlin, Adel Verpflichtet, Tyranno Ex) and Milton Bradley/Hasbro (Scotland Yard, Daytona 500, Bandu, Quandary), Darwin Bromley at Mayfair Games in Chicago had been importing some German games for retail sale as early as 1991. Early imports included 1835, the German entry in the 18XX series from Hans Im Glueck, and Dampfross (Railway Rivals), both choices reflecting the company's fondness for railroad games, and a line of games from the Flying Turtle company in Belgium; Shark, Restaurant, Sindbad, and Murphy. None of these imports were cheap—the retail prices tended to indicate that were purchased at something close to full price from Germany and then had the cost of importing them added on. Nor were they "consumer friendly" in that they were sold without English translations.
Despite the price and language roadblocks, Mayfair apparently saw a lot of potential in German imports. In 1994 Dan Blum reported on rec.games.board that a Mayfair employee told him the company had plans to import 140 German games. That never happened, perhaps because of the financial struggle the company would soon find itself in that would force its sale.
Just before Mayfair's financial crisis arrived, Jay Tummelson joined the company, as yet uninitiated to the world of German games.
"In 1995, when I went to work for Mayfair games, (German games) were very popular with the staff there, and I was introduced to them," Tummelson said.
Attracted by the relative lack of luck and shorter game play, Tummelson eagerly began contributing to the import effort. At first Tummelson contributed by adding English translations to the imports.
"But the price remained too high," he said. "I then suggested we do English versions to get the price down."
Tummelson argued for selling the English editions in the games' original form, but was overruled by Bromley. Instead Mayfair used its own production resources to publish new US editions, in English, of three Bromley choices; Modern Art, Manhattan, and Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix (another version of the Niki Lauda Formel 1 game); one choice that both Bromley and Tummelson backed, Streetcar (the former Linie 1); and one that Tummelson selected and took a personal interest in by negotiating for the game's US rights with its inventor, Klaus Teuber.
The game? The Settlers of Catan.
Down By The River
Mayfair was just starting to reap the benefits of publishing a North American edition of Settlers when the company's financial troubles caught up with it. Because of the company's sale and near demise, Tummelson moved on to work with a game distributor, the New Mexico-based Wargames West. But still with a strong interest in the German games, Tummelson in 1997 started a separate company, Rio Grande Games.
"When I left Mayfair to start RGG," Tummelson said, I decided to piggyback (on the German press runs) so I could use the great artwork and save money by working with the German publishers instead of separately from them."
Tummelson said the company has developed as he had hoped, with 90 different games (not all still in print) in its line, more on the way, and with Carcassonne and its expansions/follow-ons leading the way in 2002 by selling more than 25,000 copies. His only regret, he said, is that he didn't start Rio Grande Games sooner.
Looking back on dawn trans-Atlantic phone calls to buy European games in an era before there were Internet stores, translations done with German-English dictionaries before there were websites storing rule sets (or better yet, German games that didn't need translating), and frantic searches for information on new releases before there were dedicated magazines and discussion groups, there are many gamers who wish a few things had happened sooner.
As Bob Rossney put it when asked to reflect on what he once had to do to find a decent board game, "It's all so easy now."