For our 42nd birthday, we made a pilgrimage to the biggest board game convention in the world: Essen Spiel, in Essen Germany. The convention is setup for board game vendors to promote their latest games to the gaming public and press. There is a gallery of all the photos here.
We went to Essen a day early to have time to relax and see the town itself before the convention started. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the town has a UNESCO world heritage site celebrating the industrial heritage of the Rhur region. The Zollverein site is a coal mine and cokery that was active from the 1850s till the 1990s. It is a cool site to walk around and has an interesting natural history museum.
The Spiel is the largest board game convention in the world by number of attendees. This year there were 162,000 attendees, with 900+ vendors promoting 1000+ games. In physical space it is large, but not as big as other conventions like GenCon. It takes up about 1/2 of the Messe convention center or 500k sq ft.
We spent the morning of the first day just looking at all the different vendor booths. The vendors are split among five halls. There are a mix different types of vendors in all of the halls. In general, hall 3 had the biggest game companies with large booths and lots of tables for playing games. Hall 1 was medium sized companies and hall 7 had the smaller companies and Kickstarter campaigns. Hall 2 had a lot of retailers and comic book companies. The Galleria had food and kid focused companies.
After scouting the halls, we focused on playing games. Essen spiel is very focused on new games and each vendor booth would typically have two or three games that they were promoting. Sometimes a vendor would just have a copy of the game open and a person giving an overview or a rules summary for the game. Usually they had tables for guests to sit down and play the game after the rules explanation was completed.
I went with a list of games that looked interesting; so while we were scouting the vendors, we also took a quick look at the games on my list. We picked about 20 games that looked good to play over the next few days.
Sometimes we got lucky and were able to walk up to a booth and sit down immediately. More often, we had to wait a few minutes for a table to free up. There were a few games that required reservations to play, but most games could be played if you were willing to wait a bit. The people explaining the rules were very good, so we could usually get through the rules explanations in half an hour.
One of my big worries before arriving was the language barrier. I had three years of German in high school, but that was a very long time ago and even at the time I couldn’t have understood game rules in German. So we were relying on exhibitors being willing/able to explain in English and the other convention goers being able/willing to have the rules explained in English. Some exhibitors had badges that listed the languages that they could speak and every booth had someone who spoke English. The most impressive part was that the other gamers were all able and willing to have the rules described in English. In fact, we only met a handful of Germans who were not nearly fluent in English. We were very grateful for their ability, and a bit embarrassed to ask them to use English.
Unlike most of the convention goers, we only planned to buy a few games. I was shocked by how many games were sold. It seemed like everyone went home with a suitcase full of games. Some people had multiple large cases. Prices were good, and some companies had Essen exclusive versions, mini-expansions, and promotions.
On Saturday, they had a Settler’s of Catan event where over 1000 people (a new world record) played one giant game. Instead of taking turns the normal way, players were arranged on long tables and all the players on one side of the table would play at the same time. So half of the players were the active player for each roll. There was an island between each two players and you could expand to the neighboring islands during the game.
In the Galleria, Ravensburger had a 32000 piece puzzle under construction. Anyone could walk up and grab a bag of maybe 40 pieces that would make a 4×8″ block of the full puzzle. Once completed, you added the block to the main puzzle. We stopped by a couple times a day, and I’d guess that they completed the full 32000 piece puzzle once a day.
We ended up buying three games. Concordia was released in 2013 and had an expansion called Salsa this year. Concordia is a peaceful strategy game of economic development in the Roman empire. It is quick to explain and seems very re-playable. We also bought Celestia and Between the Cities. Celestia is a press your luck game with a bit of backstabbing. Between the Cities is a quick city building game that plays 7. Each pair of players works on a city between them, but each player scores only the lower of their two cities.
We played lots of good games and didn’t dislike any of the games that we played. Some other games that we were interested in:
Automania: A light euro-style car building game where you upgrade your factory and compete with the other players to produce the best cars.
Antarctica: A building game with an interesting turn order mechanic.
Empires: Age of Discovery: A new version of Age of Empires that cleans up the board and incorporates the 6 player expansion.
Stinky Business: You run a trash recycling company. It had an interesting way to buy earlier or more frequent access to the available trash. It also played two very well.
The Bloody Inn: You run an Inn where you try to murder, rob and bury your guests. What makes it interesting is a good balance between building up a hand of helpers, having enough money to pay them and the multiple steps that it takes to actually make money.
504: A game where you pick three game mechanics to play each session. Interesting idea, but you’d have to read the rules before every game, and there is no way they could have fully play-tested all the combos.