Spiel ’17 – A Designer’s Perspective

The International Spieltage SPIEL, otherwise know as ‘Essen’ to English speakers, is the world’s largest board gaming fair, with an attendance this year of 182,000 over four days. I first went to the Spiel in 2010, travelling by car from Budapest via Brussels, driven all the way by the my friend PaYa, who owns the Budapest-based FLGS, board game distributor and publisher Compaya. I hadn’t been back to the Spiel since then, so I jumped at the opportunity for a return visit at the suggestion of an Italian friend Giulio, who is now living in Berlin. Once again I attended as a normal punter, there to try out and buy the latest games. But I also made the most of being a soon-to-be-published designer at the premier customer-focused event of the board gaming industry.

I did not get around to booking accommodation until the end of March. With only seven months to go before the event (held on 26-29 October), all of the reasonably-priced rooms in Essen itself had been taken. But I found a cheap place in Mülheim an der Ruhr, a small city only a 10-minute train journey from Essen Hauptbahnhof. Although probably the most picturesque settlement in the vicinity of Essen (which isn’t saying much), it proved to have a down side – as the Spiel was held during the school holidays, the locals were out in force in the evenings, filling up every decent restaurant around. The other disadvantage of staying outside of Essen and relying on public transport is the need to take the U-bahn from Essen Hauptbahnhof to the Messe, the venue for the exhibition. The 5 to 10-minute journey featured scenes reminiscent of the Tokyo metro at rush hour, with an atmosphere that can accurately be described as like a sauna!

My four days as a “regular board gamer” at the Spiel were exhausting but great fun. I completed most of my purchases on Day 1, which made it a test of endurance to carry all those games through the crowded halls, overdressed in a long-sleeved shirt (the Spiel itself is not quite a sauna, but is certainly very warm). I spent much of the time with Giulio and his friend Lorenzo (also living in Berlin), wandering the halls looking for games to try out. It is difficult to get on a table with one of the popular games – you either have to wait around until the players are finished or book a slot in advance. Fortunately, Lorenzo had a long list of games to try, and so we could eventually find something. On the Saturday, Pete Heatherington, an Essen veteran and a volunteer at the Medusa Games stand, joined me and used his connections to secure us a place on table for a part-game of Stefan Feld’s Merlin, one of the few games on my own list that I managed to try out at the Spiel. Also on the Saturday, I was able to meet up with PaYa, who I hadn’t met in years and who was attending the Spiel as he does every year. I had originally planned to spend Day 4, the Sunday, away from the Spiel looking around Köln. But the poor weather and my tiredness persuaded me to return to Essen, and it turned out to be my most successful day for playing games.

The start of my experience of the Spiel from a board game designer’s perspective began on the journey there. Martyn Pool and I had established the day before that we’d be on the same flight from Birmingham airport. We then bumped into each other at the bag drop off and, as we had coincidentally reserved seats next to each other on the flight, we spent a few hours together. Martyn runs Board Game Exposure, writes reviews for Zatu Games’ Blog, and is the designer of the forthcoming Robin Hood and the Merry Men, so he was able to share plenty of information about subjects such as Kickstarter campaigns, theme in games, and what it’s like to work with a small publisher. All this knowledge and experience, even though he’s only been a board gamer for 18 months! It was not a complete surprise to learn, a couple of days after the Spiel, that he had quit his job to take up paid employment in the board games industry.

At the Spiel itself, I was able to meet my publisher, Florent Coupeau of Nuts! Publishing, face-to-face for the first time. The value of such a meeting cannot be overstated. As well as establishing that he’s a great guy (don’t tell him I wrote that!), we were able to chat about the publication of This War Without an Enemy,  I showed him the prototype for my game Kingdom of Kiralysag, and I also heard about his plans for the company. I first contacted Nuts! when it was a small and infrequent publisher of high-quality wargames. Florent had just taken over the company from the previous owners who essentially ran it as a hobby. That is changing quickly as Florent, who also quit his job recently to dedicate himself full-time to Nuts!, expands the company in new directions. Already he is involved in publishing French-language versions of existing and future games, including Gloom of Kilforth and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, both designed by Tristan Hall, Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 and its follow-up Nights of Fire: Battle for Budapest, both co-designed by Dávid Turczi, and The Great War by Richard Borg. There are various other projects which I probably shouldn’t reveal at this stage. This puts me in the fortunate position of being part of a board games stable that includes some famous and prize-winning horses. Of course, I took the opportunity to chat with David Turczi and Martin Wallace, introducing myself as a fellow designer rather than a fan. On the evening of Day 3, Florent invited Tristan and I out for a meal together with a group of French guys, including Henri Kermarrec, a prolific designer of lighter and family games such as Sushi DiceSiggil and Noxford. As Florent is also a designer, we had a mini gathering of creative types at our end of the table. What struck me is that all of us have a passion for knowledge and “content” – history, literature, films, TV drama, video games etc. A long and passionate discussion about The Wire has encouraged me to watch it again, and I yet may yet revisit my opinion that it is (only) the second greatest TV drama ever made…

I had tentatively arranged to meet up with another couple of designers at the Spiel. The first was Luca Cammisa, who I have helped with playtesting and editing the rules for his games Secret Weapons of the Third Reich, Democracy under Siege, and Rise of Totalitarianism. Luca had a more unusual path to becoming a published designer. He self-published his games using The Game Crafter before being picked up last year by a new Spanish publisher, 4Dados, which has rereleased his first two games this year, with updated artwork and graphic design. He was there at the Spiel demoing Democracy under Siege at the booth of 4Dados. The second designer was Richard Mikalsen, whose game Vikingjarl I wanted to try out. Richard was wandering the exhibition halls in true Viking fashion, advertising his game simply by being a Viking. He plans to launch a Kickstarter in Q1 2018. I can see another Richard (Mr Buxton) doing the same at next year’s Spiel, though he may have to work on his Poseidon outfit a little before achieving the same effect!

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