Veteran of a hundred American conventions, blooded in many an Origins registration line, in 2010 I finally matched myself against the largest tabletop gaming event in the world: the annual International Spiel in Essen, Germany – the Essen Game Fair. I entered the first of Essen’s huge halls as a seasoned professional game designer. By the time I reached the second hall – of eight! – I felt like some hayseed tractor farmer at the Indy 500 – a lounge singer in Bayreuth – a Louvre suitor with an armload of Marmaduke. After six more halls, four days and hundreds of games presented close-up (occasionally) or in tantalizing sidelong glimpses (almost always), Essen reduced me to a bewildered novice, practically a zygote.

All told, the Essen Game Fair cost me several thousand dollars, four days and 1D20 Sanity points.

All told, the Essen Game Fair cost me several thousand dollars, four days and 1D20 Sanity points. In return I got to play maybe six or seven games, went to one party, made no new friends, didn’t buy a thing and emerged appalled at my own ignorance. Was it worth it? Would I want to return this year?

Damn straight. But I needed a while to understand why.

Essen is Big

Did you think Gen Con is a big gaming convention? Here, Grandpa, I’ll move your rocking chair closer to the fire. The twenty-eighth annual International Spiel, October 20-23, 2010, drew 500 exhibitors and over 150,000 attendees – five or six Gen Cons laid end to end. The list of Essen 2010 new releases runs 35 pages. Not all of these 700-plus products actually made it to the show, and many were children’s games of little interest to hardcore gamers. How many potentially worthwhile new games did that leave? Oh, just 300 or so.

Boards, cards, roleplaying, historical simulations, live-action – Essen covers it all. But its specialty is “German” games – designer board games in the elegant, fast-playing European style that hit early 1990s tables like a blitzkrieg of wooden cubes and meeples. The Settlers of Catan, Tikal, El Grande, Puerto Rico – these games and hundreds more found their first fame, and launched an entire industry, at the Essen Game Fair. Publishers like Ravensburger, Kosmos and Hans im Gluck prospered, and great designers like Klaus Teuber, Reiner Knizia and Wolfgang Kramer became authentic Essen celebrities. The International Spiel became a huge scene that, outside a cult of hobbyists, Americans for many years knew nothing about.

But Germans – boyoboy, did they know.

Essen is Broad

In the U.S. we get together with friends on a Friday night and go to movies. Germans – ordinary people like your parents and co-workers – are as likely to gather at the living room table and play Knizia ‘s latest board game. As Tyler Sigman wrote in “Pawn Takes Megabyte,”
Germans see gaming as “a healthy, family-oriented activity suitable for after-dinner entertainment. And ‘family’ means cross-generational; grandmas through granddaughters can all be expected to play in the same game.”

These are Essen’s customers. Old folks, young parents, thuggish biker-looking guys, teens with fashion sense and smooth skin, and kids, kids beyond counting – all of them pack the walkways as tight as dice in a bag. Between two halls stood an entire mini-carnival of moonwalks, boffers and life-size foosball games; hundreds of kids crawled over all of it every day, because Essen 2010 coincided with a week-long school holiday.

This was my most unexpected and bitter Essen lesson: It’s actually quite difficult to play games.

Peter Adkison, who founded Wizards of the Coast and now runs Hidden City Entertainment, says Essen has “school buses that will bring in kids from the area. They’re very aggressive about making sure they keep the child population – the gamers of the future.”

Essen is Hotness

Essen pulls in not only families but hardcore gamers from across Europe and, increasingly, North America. Today perhaps a third, even 40 percent of attendees are hobbyists. They seek the latest big releases, the games that have, or soon will, set the hobby buzzing.

I belonged to the hardcore – or so I thought, until I met a few. I’d considered myself passingly familiar with German games, having played a few dozen. At Essen, I happened to meet some American writers who play more games in a weekend than I do in four months. They were friendly and helpful, but their discussions of new designs sounded like sommeliers describing a light, meandering Pinot Noir with whispers of brackish lemon and bashful onion.

Weeks before they hit the first hall, experienced Essenites are studying hard. They track the BGN Spiel preview list of the most anticipated games. At Boardgamegeek, the leading fan site, they update the canonical Essen release list and hang out in the Essen forum.

The quest for hotness reaches a frenzy – well, as much of a frenzy as tabletop gamers ever reach – at the show itself. Boardgamegeek rents a small booth where fans can rate the games they’ve played. A projection screen displays the GeekBuzz list of that moment’s 50 top-rated games. Every minute of the show, gamers flock three deep around this display, and around the booth across the aisle where the European games magazine Fairplay displays the ever-changing top ten games on its “ScoutAktion” shelf. This is the only practical way to cope with the many new designs that arrive unheralded, under everyone’s radar. Essen is a giant Germany’s Got Talent for game designers, where any homely contestant might be the next Susan Boyle.

I was surrounded by hotness. Why didn’t I get to see more of it? This was my most unexpected and bitter Essen lesson: It’s actually quite difficult to play games.

Essen Isn’t a Convention

Essen isn’t like U.S. game conventions. It’s not a gathering of subcultures; it’s a straightforward business event. The business is thriving, but increasingly crowded. Most of these games, even many good ones, are destined to be forgotten by next Essen, if not next month. So the show floor, like the business, is crowded – and hypercompetitive.

Essen has no open gaming. You can’t just sit down anywhere and play whatever games you bought. Each booth has its own tables, where exhausted demo monkeys teach that publisher’s games and no others. The crowds are so thick that every table is usually occupied. Even when tables aren’t scarce, demonstrators are – and often they don’t speak English.

Alone, without a group to commandeer a table and mandate the speaking of English, I wound up playing very little in four days. I consoled myself with the hope I’d know better at future Essens – until others, far more experienced than I, reported the same experience. Boardgame News reporter and seasoned Essenite Dale Yu:

When I’m at Essen, I honestly don’t get a lot of time to play games. I rarely demo a game to completion at a booth, partly because the guys at the stand don’t really want to play a full game as it’s inefficient for sales and partly because there simply isn’t time to play all 150 games that I’m interested in! […] I’m guessing that I played seven or eight games to completion during the fair.

Essen showed me a society where tabletop games have become truly – beyond argument, with no room for qualification – mainstream.

For anything other than shopping, Essen, the biggest tabletop gaming event in the world, is a poor second to any ordinary gaming convention. Even for previewing hot new releases, you’d have better luck staying in the U.S. and hosting your own Protospiel playtest con. If you play with the truly cool kids, wangle an invite to designer Alan Moon ‘s annual Gathering of Friends in Columbus, Ohio, where big-time designers bring prototypes of their latest work. This is the way real insiders see new games – or so I’m told.

Essen is Inspiring

For four days I wandered the Essen Game Fair, oblivious and slack-jawed like a poleaxed barmaid. Discovering the magnitude of my ignorance was instructive, if not exactly fun. More on the plus side, Essen showed me a society where tabletop games have become truly – beyond argument, with no room for qualification – mainstream.

I recall talking with a manager at Wizards of the Coast in 1994, in the early days of Magic’s success. He said Magic cards in circulation had recently surpassed the huge total for the decades-old family game UNO.

“Congratulations!” I said. “This must be a big moment.”

But the manager was nonchalant: “It’s just one milestone on the path.”

“The path to what? What other games do you think Magic can beat? Chess?”

He chuckled. “Baseball.”

Could any intellectual pastime really overtake a major sport? Probably not. But if you visit the Essen Game Fair – and I recommend you do – the idea may seem less farfetched. At Essen you will comprehend a world of gaming much larger, and more overwhelming, than you ever imagined.

The 2011 International SPIEL takes place October 20-23 in Essen, Germany. Writer and game designer Allen Varney has written over 70 articles for The Escapist.

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