Essen Spiel Report, Part One

I arrived at my hotel in Essen, conveniently right next to the station, at a quarter past noon. I was ten minutes late. After spending six and a half hours in stations and on trains (I was in the Metro station at a quarter to six in the morning), there was nothing that I wanted to do more than lie down and rest. That, however, would have wasted the reason why I was there. I dropped off my bags in my room, made use of the facilities and headed back to the Hauptbanhoff.

There I purchased an all-inclusive ticket, admission into the Messe Essen Convention Centre and two way fare, and hopped on the U-Bahn 11. It’s always amazing to me, after growing up in Mississauga (a sprawling suburban city of 700,000,) that there are cities in the world that are smaller but with proper metro transit service and even underground rail. I realize that cities in Europe are more condensed and have more history to allow for this sort of thing but it is a strong reminder of Mississauga’s poor planning. I return there in a week I’m already here, sadly.

Anyway, Spiel 08! Boardgames! Outside of the Messe Ost station I knew I was in the right place. A large number of very Teutonic-looking people were milling around in their Teutonic-ways. There were long jackets, cigarettes, and long brown pony tails. Some were wearing cloaks. An old balding jedi passed by.

Spiel EntranceSpiel Entrance

I entered the Messe and, instantly, I was awestruck by boardgames. Oh so many, many boardgames. There were large booths with giant signs advertising Roskothen and Eggertspiele and ASS Altenburger and SechserPasch and other German companies that I had never heard of before but were, judging the size of their banners, somewhat important in the German boardgame market. Other more-familiar posters promoted Catan and Carcassone and games that I knew by name but never played. There were tables everywhere, all filled with people playing games, and those that couldn’t find any were playing on the floor. Numerous retailers adorned the hall, selling hundreds of games at special show prices. Just to the right of the entrance was a wall of boardgames, all for sale, of a scale and variety I have never before witnessed. I think in this one corner there were more modern boardgames than in all the hobby stores in Toronto combined. This from a single retailer in a show that had many, many more strewn across a dozen halls. I knew the temptation to buy things would overwhelm me.

For the first hour or so I wandered hall to hall, camera in tow, taking it all in. There were many new games from companies I didn’t know advertised in a language I did not understand. The old stand-bys were ever present, as one would expect, but they had strange and unusual variants on show. There was an odd Deutch version of Catan that was played on a massive, fixed board (the regular game board is created from an arrangement of tiles) with new German landmark pieces. I never learned how those worked. Carcassone had an expansion featuring a physical catapult. I never figured that one out either.

Strange CatanOdd Catan variant

“Keltis” seemed quite popular throughout, being played across all the halls. Only later did I learn that it was a Reinier Knizia game (instant interest from me) and that it was this year’s Spiel des Jahres winner. Had I previously known this I would have sought out a demonstration. Oh well. “Comuni” and “Agricola” seemed popular too. Czech boardgames were getting all sorts of buzz, including the generic sounding “Space Alert”. In that regard, I did notice quite a few space-themed games there, from the licensed Battlestar Galactica boardgame to the unusual “Duck Dealer.” I thought that the German boardgame industry had milked all historical themes for all their worth, so it was focused on the future, but there were multiple feudal Japan themed games present so clearly there’s still some new old ground to tread.

Battlestar Galactica boardgameBattlestar Galactica boardgame

Another part of the floor seemed to have a number of licensed games like World of Warcraft, Starcraft (a bit of an old game, that) and Battlestar Galactica. There were collectible card games here and there and a bunch of videospiel retailers strewn around. Occasionally you’d see a demo station for videogames. They were, almost exclusively, DS and PC games. There was one exception: an EA Wii demo station in Hasbro’s massive booth showcasing a Monopoly game.

I stopped at Bezier Games’ booth since they were the first demonstrators that I heard speaking in English. They had a version of the party/conference game werewolf, “Ultimate Werewolf”, for sale as well as a poker-based card game with a bidding mechanic called “Rapscalion.” Werewolf is quite popular amongst some geek conference crowds so it’s interesting to see a publisher jump on that to provide a boxed, illustrated, codified version of it, but a game that ideally requires a dozen or more people seems like a hard sell to me. That dependence on a large group meant that it was of no interest to me. I took a mental note of “Rapscalion” though.

Nearby, at another booth, someone explained “Cities” to me. It can be summarized as a tourist-based “Carcassone”. It had a similar “draw tiles and place them strategically” mechanic but the scoring and strategy seemed more shallow. The demonstrator agreed with me, saying that it was a game designed for families rather than strategy nerds, but mentioned that it did have variable game rules that could be used to make the game more complicated if one chose to do so. Last year’s game, “Wadi,” was also there and while it looked very similar, also riding the “Carcassone” bandwagon, the mechanics used in the game seemed a tad more interesting. I never did get a full demo of it but I made a mental note of it too. The box was also quite small which, considering how I was travelling, was a bonus.

Boardgames!Boardgames galore.

After wandering for an hour or so I found myself where I started and decided that, yes, one day was enough for all this. While the place was certainly big I couldn’t imagine spending four days there. I went off looking for some more play tests and possible booths that I might have missed the first time around. It turned out that there were more than a few booths that I had missed. For example, I missed, in its entirety, Hall 9. That, by itself, then connected to Halls 8, 6 and 4. I had also missed those. Hall 5 too. This show was way bigger than I thought it would be.

Finally I understood why the show was four days long: it’d be impossible to see everything otherwise. It was HUGE. At this moment of realization I was struck with a greater sense of urgency.

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