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Why Everyone Should Visit Essen
(at least once)
by Ben Baldanza
A few years ago, I was in a meeting with some German businessmen. During small talk, I mentioned that I would be visiting their country in mid October. Happily, they asked where I would be going, and when I said “Essen” they had a most quizzical look. One finally said what they all were thinking, which was “why on Earth would anyone want to go to Essen?”
Mention Germany to a US tourist and Essen will not come up on any of their maps or itineraries either. That’s because Essen is in the heart of a blue-collar industrial region of the country. It’s basically Germany’s Pittsburgh. But what Essen has, that Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, or anywhere else in Germany doesn’t, is a huge set of convention halls that hosts the Essen Spiel and Comic Action Fair every October. “Spiel”, as it is known, is the world’s largest game trade show and it has become the place to meet people, try the newest games, and see things that every gamer should see at least once in their lives.
There are as many reasons to attend Spiel as there are games, but the first is simply to be awed at the size and scope of the event. Spreading out over multiple connected halls are more games than you’ll ever again see in one place. Every publisher you know of, and hundreds you don’t, are hosted in areas from tiny little stands to major displays with tables for gaming and giant-size versions of their latest output. Spiel is a place for gamers and families to attend, but it is also a place where a lot of gaming business gets accomplished. Retailers lock in inventory, small games are discovered by bigger publishers, and would-be designers get access to an audience that would otherwise be unavailable. This makes for an atmosphere that buzzes with excitement and wonder, and reinforces the size and scope of our hobby in ways that you will never see if you only view it from the US.
Since Spiel is all about the games, everyone with a game tries to strut their stuff. You see most major designers either at stands working, in conference with others, or just having a coffee or browsing like everyone else. Major designers are rarely alone as everyone wants to ask a key question or just thank them for their work. But one of the true joys of Spiel is the smaller designers and the absolute passion they show for their output. All it takes is “tell me about your game” and you’re likely to see a beaming face jump into action. Even when the language doesn’t match, people are there to get interest in their games and seeing someone approach them is their key to shine. I’ve bought many games at Spiel solely because of the effort and passion shown by the designer.
Thanks to Boardgamegeek.com, Boardgamenews.com, and other sites, information about the games being released at Essen is now readily available. Even so, each year there are games that show up at the fair that either were not well publicized or just didn’t promote in advance. This means that there are always surprises, and often they are good. Increasingly, limited edition copies of games are being sold in advance and distributed at Spiel, and this is often the only way to get the games. Winsome has done this for several years, and now it seems like stating “limited edition, pre-order now” is a sure-fire way to generate sales even before the published game copies have arrived. After all, who wants to miss out on what be the hit of the fall? Add to this the fact that many publishers offer give-aways or limited-edition expansions to other games, and while these often on their own won’t make your game year, they become a real status symbol when you’re back home with your game group. More recently, game prototypes have become very popular at Spiel and so the fair is a great way to get a glimpse at what people are working on. Alea has become popular for play-testing their new game at Essen, and then releasing it later at the smaller and less individual-friendly Nürmberg fair in the Spring.
The variety of games at Spiel is astounding. Of course you’ll see all the newest and available releases from the major publishers. But if you like abstract games, there are dozens of designers and booths with games that otherwise never make the normal retail channels and some are super. If your dexterity world is limited to Crokinole and Carrom, be prepared for a feast of games that use pushing, flicking, magnets, and balancing in all kinds of ways. You’ll find games for educators, games for the blind, and games on topics that you never thought could be made into a game. Collectible games, fantasy games, euro-games, card games, you name it, they’re all at Spiel.
Buying games at Spiel is great way to build your collection, fill in the gap in a series, and get things sooner than otherwise would be available. Plus, you can usually carry back what you buy and save the shipping charges. Often the newest games have special Essen pricing, and there are two Spiel-unique buying opportunities for visitors. First is the fact that larger distributors will often “clearance” copies of games from a few years ago that they simply need to move out. Over the past years, I’ve seen Knizia’s Trendy sell for 1 Euro, Moon and Weissblum’s Capitol for 5 Euro, Big City for 8 Euro, and dozens more similar bargains. It’s a great way to pick up a copy of game you like but don’t own, or buy for a prize table or gift, or just to have an extra copy if yours is getting worn. The other buying opportunity is the section of used game stalls. Here you will find games of all types, older and newer, and the only way to really appreciate these is to look through the stacks one by one. In recent years these stalls have not been as useful as just a few years ago, mostly because Ebay has made it possible to sell to a world market year-round. Yet still, Spiel represents one of the best ways to find older, out of print games or unique editions of games.
The fair runs from Thursday through Sunday, with Saturday as the biggest day and Thursday the lightest. But “light” is a relative term, as on Thursdays you’ll still find yourself pushing through large crowds at the more popular sites. Among the more social aspects of the event, I have always found it surprising to see how many families attend. It’s great to see families checking out the newest games and getting excited about what they’ll soon be playing. In the US, while the board gaming hobby as grown enormously in the last 10 years, but it’s sobering to see how far we still have to go. While the fair closes each evening, all the local hotels are usually buzzing with activity late into the evening as everyone is trying out the newest things and working through rules translations or clarifications. This is a great way to socialize with a wide range of international participants and come home with a much greater appreciation and inspiration for a hobby that gets bigger and better every year. So, book your hotel early (up to a year in advance), find a cheap flight into Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, or anywhere you can catch a cheap train or plane connection, but by all means make plans to have the best gaming experience of your life – at least once! You can get more information at Spiel’s official website, http://www.merz-verlag.com/spiel/e000.php4. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Ben Baldanza
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