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An Innocent at Essen

Allen Varney | 10 Oct 2011 15:40
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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."

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