In the fall, I had this conversation with a co-worker
Me: I am going to Germany!
Coworker: Oh cool, when are you going?
Me: The beginning of October.
Coworker: That’s awesome. Are you going for Oktoberfest?
Me: Nope, I’m going to the biggest board game convention in the world!
Germany is know for many things. Amazing beer, awesome castles, delicious chocolate. However, they also have a passion for board games, and have been producing some of the best games on the market for decades. No where is this more apparent than at the Spiel Game Convention in Essen Germany. Each year hundreds of brand new games are released at the convention, and thousands of people come from all over Europe, and the world, to try the latest titles.
In a “small world” twist, I have two German friends, Tobias and Nicole who live near this festival of awesomeness. I had met them at my local game night the very first time I had attended, and we’d gamed together for years since then. Both were originally from Germany, but were overseas for work and had come to Zombie Planet to find two familiar elements from home: Games and Gamers. When they returned to Germany there was a standing offer for a couch or bed at their place if one of the group wanted to swing out that way for the convention, and this was the year I was finally going to take them up on the offer.
So a plan was hatched, and a few months later with the help of some frequent flyer miles, and the hospitality of great friends, I was on a plane to Europe. The trip would be filled with some tourism, of course. I couldn’t go to Germany without exploring the country and sights. But it would be punctuated by three days of gaming nirvana.
The convention runs four days each October, Thursday through Sunday, and fills up four halls of the massive Messe Essen convention center. The halls are filled wall to wall with board game publishers pushing new games, and hoping to come away with a hit release. 2015 had 910 exhibitors from 41 different nations, and more than 400 new board games released to the public.
Unlike many similar conventions in the Unites States such as Origins or GenCon, Spiel is a trade show. There is very limited table space, all dedicated to demoing the new games on sale, and minimal events or guest panels to attend. There is certainly no space to sit down and try a game you have just bought, or even eat lunch purchased from one of the many food carts in the hallways between the showroom floor. It can feel a bit crowded like a busy store during the holidays, but everyone is incredibly polite, and play explanations are given in either German or English depending on the makeup of the group demoing the game.
The word that I think best describes my three days at the fair would be “Overwhelming.” As a huge fan of the hobby, it was a bit of sensory overload, as there were new games around every corner, and it was impossible to take it all in, even with multiple days on the show floor. There was also a bit of claustrophobia on Saturday, the busiest day of the fair, as it was actually difficult to get around with the throngs of weekend visitors. Sometimes my cohort and I would sit down to demo a game just to take a load off our feet and unwind from navigating the crowds.
As for the games themselves, there were some amazing sights to see. One of the biggest hits of the fair was called 504. It boasts 504 different games in one box with each of them playing differently. The way it accomplishes this feat is through having nine different modules from which you picked three to play in a certain combination.
The way you combined the different modules also affected how the game played, meaning 123 was vastly different from 321, even though they contained the same basic modules. The game was being played constantly at the fair, and was definitely the buzz of the show. I could never find a seat at the table, but did manage to snap a few shots of this board game chameleon.
I was limited by both a budget and luggage space for any potential purchases at the fair, but I had done my research and had a short list to whittle down by the time the floors opened. In decades past, most of these games would never see U.S. shores much less be available in English. These days, the cream of the crop always makes it over to our domestic game market, and most game at the convention are language independent, or are available in English as well as German at release. While some folks engineer packing methods that stretch the laws of physics I was content to grab a few gems and oddities that looked like they would have staying power when I got home.
Throughout the fair you can sense the passion for this hobby. Game designers are treated like celebrities, with signing sessions for their popular games. Publishers new and old are eager to show attendees why their game is a hit. It was fascinating to just walk the show floors, and see all of the games being demoed. Everyone seemed to be just as excited about gaming as I was; even the volunteers who were teaching games till they lost their voice. But apart from the electricity of the fair, it was wonderful to visit with some old friends, and be at the gaming table with them again. I hope to go back someday, squeeze in a few more games with them, and perhaps bring and extra suitcase.