[Many people present themselves as “game experts” but far too many don’t live up to the title. This time, however, game expert is a title richly deserved. In this issue, we welcome first time Gamers Alliance Report contributor Bruce Whitehill who has long been a force in gaming circles. Mr. Whitehill, aka “The Big Game Hunter”, is a games author (American Games & Their Makers and Americanopoly), inventor (Talat, Fuse, In or Out and more) as well as columnist for the well known and highly regarded German game magazine Spielbox,. He is also an annual speaker at the Board Games Studies (BGS) international symposium and the founder of the Association for Games & Puzzles International. His current research is on asymmetrical games; if you know of any unusual ones, contact him at email@example.com. In the meantime, Bruce sets his sights – and share his insights – on the similarities and differences between the gaming in Europe and in the United States.]
The Euro-American Game Scene
by Bruce Whitehill
For the past ten-plus years, this writer – an American game collector, historian, inventor and, lastly, player – has been living in Germany. Simple question: What’s the difference between the game scene in the U.S. and the one in Germany (and beyond)?
Let’s look at the “institutions” first. In America, for high-level games, besides Mayfair, Fantasy Flight, and Z-Man Games, you have the more recent Plaid Hat Games, Stonemaier Games, Bézier, and AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group), among others. What’s interesting is how many of the new startups (or should I say “upstarts”?) were kicked off by Kickstarter and other crowd-funding campaigns. Along with these, there are, well, a number of smaller companies that sell author’s games from Germany. Companies offering mostly less strategic fare abound. You have Hasbro, and University Games, and you have Mattel – then you don’t have Mattel – then you have Mattel again….There’s R&R (heavy on party games but also reprinting top-drawer Euro games, such as Ulm [featured this issue] and the award-winning Mombasa and Hanabi) – and Endless Games, America’s first retro game company. Pressman Toys and Patch Products have been bought up, the former still selling under its name, the latter now called PlayMonster. Apologies if I have omitted any of your favorites.
In Germany, you have a mix of companies that produce a mixture of leisurely family games and tactical diversions (in alphabetical order): Abacusspiele, Adlung, Alea, Amigo, Asmodee, ASS (with no concern for the “translation” into English), eggertspiele, franjos (the Germans seem to love the lower case names), Gerhards, Haba (don’t laugh—the kid’s toy company started introducing a line of excellent family strategy games in 2015, including Abenteuerland aka Adventure Land, which won the German Family Game award, and Karuba, winner of the German Game Award), Hans im Glück, Huch & friends, Kosmos, Lookout, Pegasus, Queen, Ravensburger, Schmidt, Schwerkraft Verlag, and Zoch, just to name a few. This gives you some idea of what’s being produced in just Germany, let alone the rest of Europe, compared to the United States. France is on board as well, with companies such as Gigamic, Libellud, Space Cowboys, and Ystari, and with some of the best graphic design and artistry you’re likely to see anywhere. With the demise of Waddingtons and Spears and, very recently, Martin Wallace’s Treefrog Games, Britain is left with the old standbys, Jaques and Steve Jackson Games; Gen42 makes extensions of its great Hive game, and we wait for something completely new. English game companies, sorry to say, have a lot of catching up to do. [For a list of – and links to – over 80 companies, go to http://thebiggamehunter.com/companies/game-companies/links-to-game-companies/.]
Of course, lines are getting blurred. Many games made in Europe are easily available in the U.S., and vice versa. Companies that used to only make their own games are now distributing other companies’ games; companies that used to reissue European games in English, often with new packaging and parts, are also producing their own original items (think Rio Grande and Dominion); companies are sharing booths at trade shows. A quick look at some of the new releases on Board Game Geek shows many a new game is released not by one but a dozen companies. With so many more companies producing “serious” games in Germany than in the U.S., it can be expected that there would be more game inventors on the continent as well.
In the “GA Report” of Fall 2015, naming the 30 best game designers of the past 30 years, seven of the designers were American, including the late Sid Sackson but not including the late Alex Randolph, plus Aaron Weissblum and Donald X. Vaccarino, whose Dominion series may have done as much to change the hobby as Catan. The number of noted game inventors in Europe (including Bruno Faidutti, whom I would have expected to find on the GA list) is considerably more. Part of that may have been because of Alex Randolph. He spearheaded a campaign in Europe to ensure that the name of the inventor was included on the game box and in the instructions. The “Coaster Proclamation” of 1988 was signed by a number of game inventors – called game “authors” in Europe – on a beer coaster in a German pub, stating that these authors would not sign any contract unless name recognition was granted. The “Coaster 2 ‘beer barrel’ Proclamation” of 2013 was signed by a number of game authors (and a petition was signed by over 4000 people), in response to the failure of the German game publishers group (Fachgruppe Spiel) to acknowledge game inventors as the originators of their games. This petition was a platform of the SAZ, the international (though predominantly German) game designers association. The motto of the SAZ: “Games also have authors.” So Europe now knows its game inventors. It’s a different story in the U.S. For instance, as your editor pointed out in an email to me, “The new Acquire calls the setting of the game ‘Saxon City’ but the inventor of the game, Sid Sackson, is NOT mentioned.”
The SAZ is sort of a union for game authors, marshaling for their rights and advising on contracts and many other matters. I know of no equivalent group in the U.S., though Chitag (Chicago Toy and Game Fair) may be moving in this direction. The larger U.S. companies, by the way, are very protective and secretive about the products they are looking at, and inventors are expected to show to only one company at a time, whereas in Europe, authors share information (and playtesting) with other authors, and companies share information as well; if your game does not fit in a company’s line, the R&D (Research & Development) person might advise you as to what other company could be interested. Approaching a game company is relatively easy in Europe, and, in fact, once a year, in Göttingen and at another gathering near Munich, game authors have a two-day event in which to present their prototypes to game companies – and, in Göttingen, to the public as well on the second day; there’s even a magazine, Spiel & Autor (Game and Author) that has covered the event since 2003 and, naturally, focuses on the game inventors.
How about game museums? In the U.S., there are two true museums for games (specifically games, rather than the many historical museums that house small collections of early games): The new Imogap (Interactive Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery) is in Beaverton, Oregon (http://www.imogap.org/home.cfm). And the Strong Museum of Play, in Rochester, New York, has become the repository for the greatest collection of games in the country. (I want to interject a personal note here with respect to Imogap’s use of the term “gaming,” a word that seems to be gaining in popular use. “Gaming” comes from the computer games field, but, more importantly, it has a long and well-established link with gambling. Many states have gaming commissions. I would say that the traditional use of “game playing” is a better bet.)
In Germany, there’s a games museum in Chemnitz, in Saxony, but it is now overseen by non-game bureaucrats. The Musée du Jouet, high in the Jura mountains in France (the drive alone is worth the visit), has mostly toys, but also an interesting collection of games, though no one on staff seems to know much about the individual items. The games museum in Europe is the Swiss Museum of Games in La-Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland. An actual castle, the facility and grounds are as beautiful as the contents are fascinating, and its director, Ulrich Schädler, an archeologist, is perhaps the world’s preeminent historian on ancient games.
Throughout Germany (and the rest of Europe), there are a number of toy (and other) museums with nice game collections, the oddest one being part of a fishing and weaving museum; there’s also the Museo Nazionale della Montagna in Italy that has a collection of games themed around mountains. Then there are game archives, as well, in Nuremberg and in the Munich area. And the Centre National du Jeu in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, has an archive that includes over 6000 American games (all from the collection of yours truly), though funding complications have resulted in less than optimum use of the materials available.
Game stores in the U.S. and throughout Europe have suffered a similar fate over the last two decades: they have been bought up or gone under in increasing numbers, though Germany still offers non-franchised game stores in most larger cities and lots of towns, almost always with knowledgeable personnel.
What about game collectors? A lot of serious players have seriously a lot of games, but they don’t consider themselves collectors. Gamers Alliance, besides publishing special reports (like this one) and game reviews on the latest games also provides collectors with a huge array of “out of print games and nostalgic favorites.” The Association for Games & Puzzles International, based in the US (your illustrious editor and this writer are members), has been around since 1984, starting as the AGCA (American Game Collectors Association) and changing to the AGPC (Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors) before becoming the AGPI late last year. Within a membership that includes collectors (and makers) of jigsaw puzzles and mechanical puzzles, game collectors number well below 100. In Germany, the ESG (European Society of Game Collectors), formed in 2000, has slightly more than 100 collectors, mostly German, stockpiling mostly German games. In both countries, it seems, playing is up, collecting is down.
In terms of game playing events, there are over 65 game cons in the U.S. aside from Gen Con, Origins, and the more recent BGG (Board Game Geek) Con. (I don’t really like the “con” appellation, since I prefer the “pro” and don’t want to think that my invitation to a game fair could be a con – I get enough cons from the telecommunications companies.) Both the U.S. and Germany have all these smaller game-playing events all over. Then, in the American Midwest, you have Chitag, mentioned earlier. In Germany, there’s the Game Fair (Spiel) in Essen; in France, the International Games Fair in Cannes; and in the UK, Games Expo. Add to these another 25-or-so fairs throughout Europe, though some of them focus on people wearing strange costumes or reading comics. The cons are places where players meet and play, while the fairs cater also to the companies and businesses. The Nuremberg (Germany) International Toy Fair is the equivalent of the New York International Toy Fair – they’re both trade fairs for firms doing business (and inventors promoting prototypes) and not for people playing. Or having fun. The Essen fair is larger than you can imagine, with more people than you would believe, and all of them are playing and shopping and looking – 170,000 visitors in 2016, more than 1000 exhibitors from 50 countries, showcasing more than 1000 new games. All I will say is that anybody reading this should find a way to get to the Essen Fair at least once.
When it comes to playing, are there substantial differences between Americans and Germans? My wife, Sybille, tackled this question even before I started my cross-cultural games research. In fact, it’s how we met.
I was giving a talk on American games at the Board Game Studies international symposium in Marburg, Germany, in 2003, and Sybille was talking about her research on the Settlers of Catan – specifically, differences between German and American players. In brief, with responses from over 4600 players, Sybille found that between one-third and one half of the German participants were female (a split similar to what I have seen at German game playing events), as opposed to only 15% female in the United States. Germans seemed to appreciate the game for its competitive play, while Americans were more interested in the game’s fun value. This too is something I have noticed in Germany – there are a lot of serious players here! There are many other interesting facts and figures to be gleaned from the survey, including age differences, reasons for playing, interaction and variability, as well as other games Catan players enjoyed playing. You can download a pdf of Sybille’s Catan survey results in English at http://www.siedeln.de/phpBB/downloads.php?view=detail&id=91. (By the way, we were married in 2007.)
Catan, along with Carcassonne, was instrumental in bringing more serious games to the attention of casual players of what would traditionally be called “family games.” It helped promote the concept of the “German” game or, more aptly, the “Euro” game. What’s interesting is that this trend began in the U.S. with Avalon (1952-1958), then Avalon Hill in 1958, and, more importantly, 3M in 1962, thanks to the aforementioned Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph. The heads of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) figured they had an American and European distribution network that would facilitate the sale of “serious” abstract and themed strategic games, and hired Sackson and Randolph to start the line. This influenced game playing in Germany, and while serious play eventually seemed to decline in the U.S. (where people were still hooked on Monopoly, Scrabble and Parcheesi), Germans started playing – and making – more complex games. Naturally, there were lots of other influences as well, including role-playing games and games from Games Workshop, Wizards of the Coast and Milton Bradley (known in Europe only as MB) reaching Europe. (War games were taboo in Germany for at least two decades after WWII.) The first “Game of the Year” in Germany in 1979 (David Parlett’s Hase und Igel / Hare and Tortoise) signified a transition from games being primarily for children to games as an activity also for adults. The start of the International Essen Spieltage, now the largest game fair in the world, that same year, and the publication of Pöppel-Revue in 1979 followed by spielbox magazine for avid game aficionados in 1983, laid the foundation for Germany to become the world’s center for game playing and production. An upsurge in game (review) magazines that began in the late-1980s further promoted a growing industry.
Starting with the buyout of the 124-yr-old Milton Bradley company in 1984, Hasbro (originally Hassenfeld Brothers, a modest-sized American company that produced its first game in 1954) continued with its acquisitions, gaining control of the games of Ideal, Lakeside, 3M and Selchow & Righter, plus the companies Coleco, Parker Brothers, Avalon Hill, the British firm Waddingtons, and, in 1999, Wizards of the Coast. During that same period, while one American company was buying up many of the other major U.S. game companies, Germany saw the emergence of ten significant new companies, all of which produced not only family games but also high-level strategic and tactical games. This complete disparity between the two continents is what I consider to be the predominant reason Germany has emerged as the country of games, with products worthy of a name for the entire continent, “Euro games.”
Magazines contributed to this phenomenon. Spielbox, still in print today, has had an English-language edition since 2010, whereas the primary games magazine in the U.S., Games, contained primarily puzzles and was bought and sold numerous times; Games Games Games, Games Annual, Games International and Knucklebones were all American or British games magazines that lasted two years or less. Herb Levy’s Gamers Alliance Report, on the other hand, has been in continuous publication since 1986. The American-based Sumo’s Karaoke Club magazine began in 1989 and morphed into Counter magazine in 1998, and now continues online. Germany still has Spielerei (since 1986), FairPlay magazine (since 1987) among others. Many of these are also – or only – online. In Austria, WIN, das Spiele Journal began publishing in 1977. For a more complete list, including magazines in other languages, go to https://boardgamegeek.com/wiki/page/Game_Magazines. Not to be overlooked are the exceptional German online game review websites: Hall@9000, spielbox.de, Reich-der-Spiele.de, Poeppelkiste.de (game reviews and fair reports since 1997), and the amazing game/author/publisher index that will send you to all the right websites, luding.org.
And this article doesn’t even touch on sites in other languages, or the new and unusual games coming out of Japan and Korea, among other places. Still, with all the great games on both sides of the Atlantic, much of adult America – and some of Europe – continues to play only Parcheesi and Monopoly. But maybe this is changing, as better games get more word-of-mouth and better press. Online games, digital devices and apps were supposed to be the death knell of table games, but we’re seeing just the opposite.
Game playing (family games and the more serious stuff) seems to be on the increase in both the U.S. and Europe. Game fairs are attracting more people, while local game nights, game groups and game cafés seem to be doing well. More games are being sold across the Atlantic – in both directions – though postage, shipping and distribution costs seem to be working against this. The Euro game is flourishing, along with newer mechanisms such as card drafting (7 Wonders), deck building (Dominion), cooperative games (Shadows over Camelot and Andor), decksploring and storytelling (Time Stories), and dicepool-building (Quarriors). Dungeon crawlers have gone from one player versus the group (Werewolf and many of the umpteen murder mystery party variations since David Landau’s Murder to Go in 1985) to one-to-four players against the game itself (Descent and Mice & Mystics). Skill-and-action games for adults with or without kids (Flick ‘em Up, Nowheresville Bandit Paradise and Riff-Raff) are on the rise, and, at last, party games (Codenames), long popular in the U.S., are perking up in Germany. And, more and more, when you see a new game, it’s difficult to tell what country it originated in, or, for that matter, how far it’s going to go. – – – – – – – Bruce Whitehill (supporting information for this article was contributed by Sybille Whitehill and Benjamin Aminzadah.)
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