James Wallis levels with you

The Essence of Essen

Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, usually known as ‘Spiel’ or ‘Essen’, is the biggest tabletop gaming event in the world, with around 150,000 admittances over its four days. My first Spiel was 1995: I went with John Nephew of Atlas Games, showing off the almost-released second edition of Once Upon a Time. Then I didn’t go back until last week. Here are some thoughts on the show and how it’s aged.

The emphasis of Spiel hasn’t changed: it’s about playing games you haven’t played before, and buying them, not necessarily in that order. The only old games that I saw being played were stone classics or new editions of stone classics. There was a thousand-person game of Settlers of Catan, everybody playing on the same map. I overheard some plans for a big game for next year to blow that out of the water.

Other than that kind of thing, it’s about games you haven’t played before, or expansions for games you have. Spiel is about the new. It’s about acquisition. The number one topic of conversation among people on their way to Spiel is about how they’re going to transport all their new games home afterwards. I brought back two medium-sized suitcases stuffed full, with a third bag hitching a lift to Reading in the van of excellent friends. In 1995 I came home with a selection of traded items and one boxed game which I still haven’t actually played.

Stack of games acquired at Spiel 2015

This pile is two-thirds of the games I acquired at Spiel 2015. You can pick up classic Eurogames second-hand for €10-15. It would have been churlish not to.

It’s also a family show. Loads of families, loads of kids, many of whom will beat you to a pulp at a game of your choice. If anything this was more obvious this year than twenty years ago. You do see kids at other games events, which is great, but they’re a key part of what makes Spiel Spiel. It also means there are a lot of children’s games, many of spectacular quality and cleverness. For example, Haba’s games are almost unknown in the UK with the exception of Tier auf Tier, but they have a major presence at Spiel. The halls fill up with families on Saturday and Sunday: don’t expect quiet browsing and empty demo tables.

It’s more friendly and welcoming than it was in 1995, and it was pretty friendly and welcoming back then. But it’s also confusing. Nobody thrusts a programme book with venue maps and lists of traders into your hand as you walk in, because there isn’t one. If you haven’t downloaded the maps and list of traders from the Spiel website, and if you haven’t made a note of the stands you want to visit and the games you’re interested in seeing, you will spend your time wandering bewildered through halls the size of aircraft hangers, packed with stuff you have never heard of.

The food in the convention centre is better and better priced than any other convention centre food I’ve ever had. That is not to say that it’s particularly good or particularly cheap.

Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany, and nobody outside Germany has heard of it, and there’s a reason for that. Twenty years ago I couldn’t find anything to do there outside Spiel, and that hasn’t changed. To call it a cultural and culinary desert is to insult the exquisite carpets and fine cookery of the Bedouin. If you’re looking for local colour, I’m told Düsseldorf is nice.

Spiel is a lot more international than it was. There were foreign companies demonstrating and trading in 1995, the big ones mostly Americans surfing in on the wave of CCG money, but I didn’t see many. Today Essen is multicultural. The range and variety of games is jaw-dropping. To give two examples of games I picked up at the show with excellent names: Kune v Lakia: A Chronicle of a Royal Lapine Divorce Foretold is by Babis Giannios, who is Greek, and is published by Ludicreations, a Finnish company; and A Fake Artist Goes To New York is published by the Japanese company Oink Games, and designed by its CEO Jun Sasaki.

The language has changed as well. Last time, as a non-German speaker it wasn’t easy to find traders with sufficient English to explain their games to me, let alone a game with English rules in the box. These days while German is still the lingua franca of the show, any booth-holder without English-language product and English-speaking staff is going to lose a bunch of potential business.

I’ve heard people expressing worries that the Asmodee/Esdevium/Fantasy Flight/Days of Wonder merged entity threatens the – I don’t know what it’s supposed to be threatening, but there’s a sense among some fans that large = bad, and that goes back a long time, as if somehow a mass of small companies are somehow better for the hobby. I’m not a disinterested party (Asmodee has been the French publisher of Once Upon a Time since the 1990s) but from what I’ve seen, who I’ve talked to and what I know, the future is in good hands.

Not all gaming was there. It’s not a place for minis gaming. Games Workshop had a presence, but not a large one. There are RPG publishers, but not a lot of them.

It’s still as mind-melting as it was in 1995. Almost literally. You may think Gen Con is mind-melting but whoa nelly. Mid-way through the second day I realised I was sweating hard and losing focus, I’d been so overwhelmed by the sheer density of unknown games that my brain was overloaded with the effort of trying to assimilate them all. I did the best thing you can do with a melted brain: I went back to my hotel and worked on Paranoia instead.

No con-crud either year.

German trains are getting less reliable.

Should you go to Spiel? If you like Eurogames, if you’re not scared by languages you don’t understand, if you’re prepared for a relentless onslaught of unfamiliar titles, and you’re prepared to do the prep work, then you should definitely go at least once. There’s nothing like it, nothing that even comes close. Just don’t leave it twenty years between visits.

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  1. The Roach says:

    Just a few comments.

    1) The trains aren’t any more unreliable than they were. No one copuld have fortold that a control centre / switch board would burn down the week-end before the fair…

    2) There exists a programme book -that catalogue you can buy (!) at the teller selling the tickets. The maps and exhibitor lists for download are niche, but also contained in the catalogue if you’ve missed downloading them.

    Other than that, I think you hit it spot-on :)

    • James Wallis says:

      Good points. The train thing was unfortunate, but my comment was based on reports from friends who have used the system lately, not just to get to Essen. I’m interested to know there was a programme because I didn’t see anybody holding or reading one, and there was nothing on my pre-booked ticket to say that one could get one. I’ll be better informed when I return in 2035.

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