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An Innocent at Essen

Allen Varney | 10 Oct 2011 15:40
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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.

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