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EYES ON ESSEN

EYES ON ESSEN:

A LOOK AT GERMANY’S GIANT GAME

CONVENTION

by Selwyn Ward

 

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams’ description of Space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be applied almost as aptly to the International Spieltage at Essen. This is the board game fair held in October each year in Germany. It’s so well known around the world that most industry insiders and board game enthusiasts refer to it simply as Essen. And it’s BIG! Before I went for the first time, people told me this. No amount of warnings, however, prepare you adequately for the sheer scale of the show. No matter how large you imagine it, it’s bigger: six halls packed to the brim with board games and board game related product. This October’s show boasted 1150 exhibitors, ranging from conglomerate publishers with serried ranks of demonstration tables to tiny one-man enterprises there to generate publicity for an upcoming Kickstarter launch.

And unlike most of the other smaller shows around the world, Essen Spiel is truly international. It’s the show where designers come to pitch new games to prospective publishers, and it’s where publishers come to negotiate distribution deals. It was no surprise then to find that, this year, the exhibitors came from 50 countries drawn from every corner of the globe.

Sprich kein deutsch? That’s really not a problem at Essen Spiel. The show attracts families from across Germany but its visitor appeal is every bit as international as its exhibitor list. Of this year’s 190,000 visitors, I don’t know what proportion came from outside Germany but the show expects and receives an international clientele. Whether you come from elsewhere in Europe, the Americas, Asia or elsewhere, English is almost everyone’s second language. This means that English is the lingua franca at Essen. Of the 1150 exhibitors, all ensure that English is spoken – which is more than can be said of German. Sit down to a game demo and you will invariably find the game introduced and explained in English

I wouldn’t want to make it sound too easy, however. Essen is the place where publishers like to announce their new games: this year saw around 1400 new titles released at the show. Inevitably, some titles attract a lot of advance speculation and hype. On all but the largest publishers’ booths, demonstration space is tight. The upshot is that, for the hottest games, you can only get a seat at a demo game if you pre-book a slot. This can mean a mad scramble through the crowds at the start of each day to get to a booth early enough to book a place on a demo game.

And it’s not easy to make your way from one booth to the next. 190,000 is a lot of people. Sometimes it can seem as if they are all there at once and every one of them is heading in the opposite direction in the aisle ahead of you. Essen Spiel is not a place for agoraphobics who struggle in crowds.

Other than sitting in on demo plays, Essen Spiel isn’t so much a place for actually playing games. For visitors from the UK who have previously attended the much smaller UK Games Expo (held in Birmingham in early June), the lack of space for gamers to play the games they buy at the show may come as a culture shock. UK Games Expo has whole halls available for ‘free play’. At Essen, there is no organised play space. That means that players tend to gather in the evening to play in their hotel bars, not all of which lend themselves to setting up meaty games.

Essen Spiel is a huge marketplace. You can pick up bargains if you’re looking for a copy of last year’s hot games. Bargains are not so evident if you’re looking to take home this year’s hot new titles. Publishers are always keen to sell direct to the consumer at shows like Essen because they end up with a very much larger margin on such sales than they can realistically expect to reap from sales through retailers. Given that retailers and middleman distributors each ordinarily expect to take a slice of the retail selling price, a publisher gets at least twice as much for a game sold direct to a customer at a show as compared with one sold through retail. At Essen, however, few publishers pass on much if any of this saving to the customer. You may see games sold for a small discount off the “manufacturer’s recommended retail price” but that is likely to be a rather smaller discount than you would ordinarily see from a competitively priced retailer. If you compare with online retail prices, games at Essen are significantly more expensive.

You don’t go to Essen because you expect to get the latest games cheap. You do go though if you want to get these games ahead of your friends. One of the reasons why publishers are able to command such high direct sale prices is that some of the hottest games at Essen can often be in relatively short supply. Although it’s the principal venue for announcing and releasing new games, publishers often have only a limited number of advance copies for sale at the show. Frequently these are copies that have been specially air freighted in from printers (usually in China) while the bulk of copies make their slow sea journey to their various distribution hubs around the world.

Many of the games released and sold at Essen will only begin to appear at retail by the following January. In some cases, the wait can be close to a year. When the last expansion came out for Eclipse, those who didn’t buy copies at Essen had to wait around 10 months before the game managed to creep onto retail shelves here in the UK!

For toy retailers, the run up to Christmas is the period in which the large majority of their sales are generated. Similarly, the opportunity for direct sales at Essen can represent a measurably significant proportion of the income for some small and medium-sized publishers. That’s why, this year, it was such a heavy blow to find the Essen show targeted by criminal gangs.

Most sales at Essen involve cash transactions. Criminal gangs have apparently sussed this and exhibitors were deliberately targeted. We are not talking here about petty pilfering: at least four publishers had a full day’s takings stolen by thieves; typically visiting a booth just as the show was closing, using a gang member to distract staff while others swiped the firm’s cashbox. For some of the companies involved, the loss has been a devastating blow. There have been loud calls for the exhibition hall owners and managers to ratchet up security but Germany seems to have a collective distaste for the use of closed circuit television surveillance that is seen in the US and is commonplace in the UK. If firms are going to avoid similarly potentially crippling losses in 2019 and beyond, something will need to be done by either the show organizers or the exhibitors themselves to tighten surveillance and security. Perhaps part of the answer will be to make the move to more cashless transactions.

If you want to experience the awe and excitement of the largest board game show in the world, then the dates for your diary for 2019 are 24–27 October. It’s probably already too late to book a reasonably priced hotel in the town but savvy showgoers settle for hotels in the neighboring city of Dusseldorf, which is a short and inexpensive train ride from Essen. See you there! – – – – – – Selwyn Ward


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