Essen. On the map, it’s just an average-sized German city in the Ruhr, about 35km from Dusseldorf and around 60km from the border with the Netherlands. In the board game world, however, Essen is the Mecca. In October every year, its Messe exhibition halls host the International Spieltage (known simply as Spiel) – the largest games show in the world.
For publishers, it’s a major date in the calendar. It’s the place where they are expected to launch their new titles. It’s also a place where they get to sell directly to the public… Sell a game direct to a player for €40 and that’s €40 cash in the till – considerably more than the company will net from regular retail sales after the distributor and retailer have each taken their share of the proceeds. I spoke to one publisher who had just received the devastating news that all the copies of his game he’d imported to sell at Essen had been held up in Customs and wouldn’t be released for another week… I only hope his company is able to survive the huge financial hit that this will have cost him.
Essen Spiel: it’s BIG!
Essen Spiel is big. You knew that before you got there. Despite that, nothing adequately prepares you for the sheer scale of the Essen show. This year, the show sprawled across six huge exhibition centre halls. Exhibition promoters always like to quote the size of the exhibition space. At Spiel ’17, the space was 72,000 square meters – up almost 10% on the previous year. If, like me, you find it impossible to visualise what 72,000 square meters looks like, I gather it is the equivalent of 10 soccer pitches. If the show grows much larger, we’ll have to start using that other standard unit for visualising areas – comparing it to the size of Wales 🙂
Essen this year attracted around 1100 exhibitors from 51 countries. These vary from big companies like Hasbro and Queen Games, taking seemingly great swathes of hall space, to new start-up companies taking a tiny stand to show off their one newly-produced game or prototype for an upcoming Kickstarter campaign.
Walking up and down the aisles, you’ll cover a lot of ground. But it’s not so easy to make your way from one stand to the next. That’s because you won’t have the place to yourself. If you thought the scale of the show itself was daunting, you may be freaked out by the sheer number of people you’ll be crushed up against as you try to make your way around the show. This year’s visitor total exceeded 182,000. That’s a lot of people. Taking the soccer pitch analogy: imagine 18,200 fans storming onto each pitch! In what are considered to be the ‘main’ halls (1, 2 and 3), the crowds are especially heavy. On the Saturday, I had an appointment to meet an exhibitor at their stand. I could see the stand’s aerial banner hovering above it just 100 meters or so away, but it took me 20 minutes just to press through the throng.
Whether it’s due to the number of stands, their layout, the total distances involved or the crowds, you will find you can’t and won’t see everything. I spent all four full days at the show but I know there will be games I missed. Many visitors plan methodically for their trip: checking in advance what they most want to see and jotting down the relevant stand numbers. It’s definitely worth doing that but you’ll still miss stuff. Just be warned.
If you suffer from agoraphobia or if you prefer to avoid crowds, then Essen Spiel is not the place to be. To be sure, though, the more peripheral halls are not usually quite as crammed. In the main, these halls are where you’ll find the smaller companies and those showing off individual titles.
Why do people go to Essen Spiel?
So why go? What’s the attraction beyond that of being first to see the shiny and new? For many, it’s the chance not just to see new titles but also to try out new games. Most of the publishers have tables set up so players can be shown games and have a chance to play through a round or two. In the past, particular games have attracted queues of people wanting to play, so publishers have arranged systems where you can book a slot. This year, I had the impression that anyone who wanted to try a game was able to do so without too much of a wait.
Where there were long queues, it was mainly to meet celebrity game designers and to get them to sign a copy of their game. Frequently, though, you could spot well-known designers simply manning stands. I bought a copy of the Venus Next expansion for Terraforming Mars from the designer himself (Jacob Fryxelius), serving customers on his own company’s stand, and he was more than happy to autograph the box.
What were the games to see at this year’s Essen Spiel?
It was Terraforming Mars that seemed to be the standout game at last year’s show. There didn’t seem to be any one similar ‘must have’ game at Spiel ‘17. There were games like Altiplano that were in demand and which immediately sold out, but these were mainly titles where the publishers had brought only short supplies to the show. Judged anecdotally from the number of people walking around clutching their copies, however, Plan B’s abstract game Azul and Blue Orange’s Photosynthesis both seemed to be flying off the shelves so both seem likely contenders for the show’s biggest hits. Both are essentially abstract games with striking visuals.
There seems to be no let up in Exit/puzzle games, though there hasn’t been the anticipated explosion in legacy games. Pandemic Legacy Season 2 was in evidence but didn’t seem to be attracting as much excitement as Season 1. Maverick designer Friedemann Friese was up for an innovation award (Inno Spiel). He didn’t win (the award went to Kasper Lapp for Magic Maze) but he did release at the show a clutch of his new ‘Fast Forward’ card games (Fear, Flee and Fortress) which innovate by having the rules evolve as the game progresses.
If you have been to the UK Games Expo in Birmingham, you’ll know that it offers rooms set up for ‘open gaming’: players can just set up their own games and play. There is nothing like that at Essen. There are no facilities set up at or near the Messe (exhibition halls) for players to get together to play games of their choosing. During the period of the show, you will find lots of games being played in individual hotel bars. The nearest equivalent to the UKGE open gaming can be found at the Mercure Hotel, closer to the centre of Essen than to the Messe. There you will find tables where players can try out the games they’ve bought earlier that day: though it’s easy there to run up a hefty drinks tab.
One further thought to share about Essen Spiel is just how comparatively mainstream board games are in Germany as compared with the UK. The visitor demographic of the show is wider and more mixed than you might typically expect to find in the UK. Spiel attracts families as well as hardened gamers. I stay at a small family-run hotel a couple of kilometres from the Messe. Each year, it isn’t just the guests who are off to the show: the family too (three generations) decamp there for at least a day.
So I’m back now from another Spiel. I’ve unpacked the two suitcases full of games I’ve lugged back with me. I’m exhausted. But I’ve already booked my hotel for next year’s show…
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.