2 weeks ago I made the trip to Germany to attend Essen Spiele, the world’s largest board games fair. This is actually the second time I’ve been, but the first time was a long time ago and my memories of it are rather hazy.
This time it was primarily to promote my new game Waggle Dance with Grublin Games, but it was also great to chat to people, see what else is being released, and to buy a lot of cool stuff. I made some awesome new friends and had the most amazing schnitzel ever.
1. Spiele is huge!
It’s difficult to articulate just how big Essen is. This year it occupied over 3 entirely halls of the Messe convention centre off Essen town centre. Apparently it was over 58,000 square meters – that’s about 5 football (soccer) pitches. For comparison, if you went to UK Games Expo this year, the combined size of the trade areas would fit in about a quarter of one of these halls. Or an area larger than Salute or MCM Expo at London Excel (with the traders much more tightly packed).
All of this space is dedicated to buying and selling games. Every games publisher and distributor in Europe (and many beyond Europe) have a strong presence here demoing and selling their games. The range of games is vast – from hard core hobby strategy games to educational, party and children’s games. Some brands – such as Ravensburger and Pegasus – are much bigger in their native Germany and have stands to rival more internationally ‘known’ names like Mayfair and Days of Wonder. Of course there are also refreshment stands, and more ‘fringe’ stalls selling LRP gear, party costumes, artwork, collectibles and interesting forms of alcohol.
The event is popular as the majority of the players in the industry offer preview or just-released copies of new games that have never been seen anywhere else (except maybe by press, play testers and/or Kickstarter backers). As a result the place is heaving with attendees, many with pre-prepared lists (or even indexed folders) of the games they want to try and maybe buy. Apparently the count this year was approximately 158,000 turnstile visits (uniques not quoted but maybe 50-60K?)
2. Spiele is exclusively a trade fair
One thing I discovered about Spiele is that it is primarily a trade fair for the industry. Unlike many local and national games conventions I’ve been to around the world at Spiele there are no communal areas to chill out or play the games you have bought. You queue up for a demo, and/or to buy your game, and then move on. Also, the show shuts down and kicks all the public out at 7pm.
If you want to play in your free time you have to do that back at your hotel. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the area of course, but not all of them are accommodating of gamers wanting to cover their tables with games. Sadly this meant I didn’t get to play as many games as I wanted to while I was there.
3. Spiele has a broad demographic (and a great atmosphere)
At Spiele I saw a much wider demographic of people than I have at any other kind of games convention. In the UK and the US hobby events seems to be dominated by (single?) white males but at Spiele there were many families, couples, children, women in groups or exploring on their own. It was heartening to see and it gives me hope that I’ll see more of this back home.
There was also a wide variety of nationalities and ethnicities – people had travelled literally from all across the world to attend the show. I spoke to Russians, Estonians, Japanese, Americans, Australians, and many, many more.
Importantly, there was no judgement or finger-pointing anywhere to be seen. Everyone was just there to enjoy the hobby and have a good time. Even though the event was packed and mega busy, everyone I encountered were very patient and super nice. If people had to wait a little bit for a demo then that was ok. If you asked them about their time at the show or what they have played/bought they’d be happy to chat to you without reservation as a fellow gamer.
4. Spiele is harmful to your wallet
I know a number of veterans that attend the show every year and they always go with a plan and a budget. Most of these guys usually end of going over budget, and I can see why. To a gamer Spiele is like Aladdin’s cave, with new (and potentially unexpected) treasures around the corner.
I am quite a tactile person so there’s no substitute to actually seeing the contents of a game up close. Getting to see the rules is not quite mandatory, but certainly very helpful. Better yet, getting to play a demo (or often in my case, watching other people playing a demo) is great for determining whether a game is for you or not. The trouble is, this leads to you being impressed by games that you hadn’t considered (or budgeted for). A few purchases in it almost comes as a relief when you find a game that after close contact you don’t actually need to buy.
The biggest upset to the best laid plans comes in the form of recommendations. If you get to know people who give you a strong opinion about a game, that’s much more likely to sway your own feelings about it. If they scorn something as rubbish you will likely give it a wide berth. And if they praise something as totally awesome, that will make you hunt for a copy for your very own.
This exact thing happened to me on the last night of the show. I thought I was done buying stuff but then someone gave a glowing review of Dienko’s Patchistory that led me hungering to get hold of it. And so I did (even though it pushed me way over budget).
5. Spiele is not actually that far away
When I was first offered the prospect of a lift to Essen in Germany (courtesy of The Games Hunter) I wasn’t really sure how that was going to work out. I was however surprised by how quick and how pain-free the journey actually turned out to be.
In particular, the return trip made record time. We left the Messe car park at about 1.30pm and with only 1 road stop in the Netherlands we made it to the Calais terminal in time for the 6pm ferry. (Well done guys!)
And although the ferry seems a bit old-fashioned these days it was fine. It gave us a chance to chill out, have some dinner and play a few games – most notably iPad games of Ticket to Ride over Bluetooth.
The journey also gave me an opportunity to try out the new app version of Galaxy Trucker, which I have to say is the best board-to-app adaptation I have seen to date – any tablet-owning gamers out there should definitely check it out!
Hence if you’re thinking about taking the trip next year I can assure you it’s easy and totally worthwhile!