Every October, tens of thousands of people descend on the city of Essen in west Germany for an event without equal: the International Spieltage, a four-day tribute to board, card and tabletop gaming.
Germany is the cultural epicentre of the modern board game movement, with such classics as Settlers Of Catan spawning from its decades-long involvement with the cardboard industry. If Germany is the holy land, then Essen is its holiest site.
The cardboard realms
While the words “board game” evoke Monopoly and Battleship, the modern industry has as little resemblance to those games as a smartphone does to a toaster oven. Titles like Game Of Thrones, Star Wars: Imperial Assault and Ticket To Ride now line the shelves of mass market retailers and boast sales figures in the tens of thousands.
In 1994, the game Catan was largely responsible for the spread of modern board games in the United States. Even today, the series sells 750,000 copies a year.
Board gaming is now a worldwide phenomenon, with regular appearances on television in shows like Orphan Black and The Big Bang Theory, hundreds of YouTube channels devoted to gaming, and even a homegrown industry here in Malaysia, with such games as Politiko, Monster Hero Academy, and The Lepak Game being released in recent years. We even have our own conventions, such as the upcoming Kotakcon on Dec 26 and 27 at the Publika Shopping Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
The state of Spiel
The Spieltage itself (hereafter Spiel) is an event of impressive scale. At the 2016 convention, over 1,200 games were released and 174,000 people attended its four days, with millions of euros changing hands for games, accessories and exclusive promotional items that are one of the draws of such events. Sprawling out across seven different halls of the Messe Essen convention centre, Spiel is a spectacle for the senses as gamers, game publishers, hopeful game designers, and retailers form a maze of stalls, exhibits, buntings, and amazing decorations.
For those who wish to exhibit their products, booth space is not cheap: The smallest available space, 10sq m, costs a cool €3,000 (RM14,000).
So for first time-designer Gordon Alford, coming to Spiel with 100 air-flown copies of his self-published dark fantasy adventure game Of Dreams And Shadows was an enormous risk. Many big games come to Spiel and have to be boxed up and shipped home – so it was a huge relief for Gordon when he sold out completely.
“Some big names have come to me asking about the game,” says a very tired Alford on day four. He’s a banker by trade, who “spared no expense” in trying to recreate the fond memories of playing role-playing games with his friends in his younger days.
“Getting picked up by a publisher would free me up to work on the expansion to the game instead of having to deal with logistics.”
Spiel is a big-time event for publishers as well, who come to look at unpublished prototypes and meet with unsigned designers, hoping to pick up the next huge hit. Stephen Buonocore, CEO of US-based Stronghold Games, elaborates: “Spiel is by far the most important show of the year. Sales are tremendous, obviously – getting our games to the early adopters is critical for generating buzz – but most importantly, this is when we make decisions about our catalogue for next year. The choices we make could do a lot of good to our brand. Or a lot of damage.”
One of its previous pickups paid off handsomely; Stronghold Games’ hottest 2016 title, Terraforming Mars, experienced a run on its inventory by hyped gamers. Despite Buonocore bringing in many hundreds of copies, they were all gone in the first few hours after the doors opened.
Within the board game community, coverage of the event reaches a fever pitch. The Dice Tower, the world’s largest board game YouTube channel, sends a contingent of hosts from the United States to Germany every year to do a live show, check out the hottest titles, and generally cover the convention.
When asked why they make the long trip with so many people, founder and host Tom Vasel replies: “We come to Essen because more board games are released here than at any single point during the year. There are also more companies, more of pretty much everything!”
Also present is the crew of BoardGameGeek.com, the Google of board games. Sporting football-style jerseys complete with names and numbers, the BGG crew live streams the latest releases on their Twitch.tv channel, previewing the hottest new games for the entire world.
Apart from publishers, retailers come to pick up the hottest releases firsthand. Titles like A Feast For Odin, from world-renowned designer Uwe Rosenberg, weigh a whopping 3.53kg and can cost a pretty penny when shipped – easier to take it home in your checked baggage.
Log Cheng, co-partner of KL-based board game cafe Meeples, underlines the importance of attending Spiel: “It is where the industry gathers. It is where we create and strengthen the relationship with our distribution partners. We have meetings, we spend time catching up with publishers/designers/friends, and find out what’s the buzz and pulse of the board gaming industry.”
Local game designers also hope to find international recognition at Spiel. Seh Hui Leong, whose first published card game, Pasaraya: Supermarket Manager is due early next year, explains that he wanted to attend Spiel as it is an opportunity to scout out games, do some networking, and connect his game into the global market.
Small countries, big influencers
Highly game-involved nations are represented by dedicated pavilions, including many East Asian countries as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Poland is a particularly prodigious producer of games – this little country is home to many gaming companies such as the prestigious Portal Games, whose stable of Spiel releases included Cry Havoc, an Avatar-esque science fiction war game and the second edition of the co-operative game Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island. (Poland is also home to CD Projekt Red, the video game company responsible for the platinum-selling series The Witcher.)
Cry Havoc was one of the most hotly anticipated games of the convention, debuting there weeks ahead of its worldwide release.
While Europe is the nerve centre of board gaming, seeing such relatively small countries having such a powerful influence on the industry is heartening, to say the least.
American gaming giant Fantasy Flight Games has a series of Star Wars titles that are immensely popular. The X-Wing Miniatures Game alone accounts for 80% of its revenue.
The power of community
If you are looking for a sign of Spiel’s significance, well, for the first time, the event was targeted by professional thieves, with 40 exhibitors reporting some form of significant theft over the four days.
One of the targets was Ludicreations, a Finnish company that had €3,600 (RM17,000) stolen when the cashbox was lifted from its booth on Saturday afternoon.
Demoralising as this was, the company decided to make lemonade by developing a brand new board game overnight, raising money to offset the theft. The result? Steal This Game – a postcard-sized title about trying to rob a board games exhibitor. Steal This Game raised over US$50,000 (RM220,000) on Kickstarter, the board game community’s preferred crowdfunding website.
Many of the people who worked on Steal This Game and helped to promote it were not part of Ludicreations, but members of the media, designers from other companies, or simply part of the board game community.
“We were devastated by the theft,” says Ludicreations project manager Alvin Chen, “but the community’s response completely overwhelmed us. From helping us develop the game to launching and funding the campaign, we’ve been so humbled by the way people have come together to support us.”
Something for everyone
Even people who don’t consider themselves members of the community found Spiel an experience bordering on magical. First-time convention attendee and fellow Malaysian Hong Di-Anne braved the cold climes of autumnal Europe and the huge crowds even though she herself is only “barely into board games”.
“Even as an introvert, the atmosphere was contagious,” says Di-Anne. “Even though I only had a passing interest in the hobby, everyone’s passion is so clear and so powerful that you can’t help but be swept up.”
The sheer number of board games released every year is mind-boggling, coming in every imaginable stripe and flavour. Although many of them may never make it to our shores, those that do are almost guaranteed to be excellent due to the economics of global distribution.
Whether it’s a family-friendly party game or an epic jaunt into fantasy adventure, if you’re reading this, chances are there’s a board game out there you’re going to love.
Calvin Wong has been writing for most of his life and gaming for all of it. He writes for the All Aboard Community Gaming Centre (allaboardcgc.com), and Ding & Dent (dinganddentcast.com).