By Jeffrey D. Allers
After a brief 3-hour train ride Wednesday evening, I finally found myself in an Essen guest apartment, anxiously awaiting my first SPIEL fair. My housemates were fellow Berliner and game designer Günter Cornett (Hey, That’s My Fish!), designer Stefan Risthaus (Monuments, Level X, Ostia) and his family, and a friendly group of Gamers from Bremen (and fellow Berlin designer Peer Sylvester (Singapore, King of Siam) would join us Friday night). I could hardly sleep, but went to bed so that I could awake in time to make it to the convention center early enough to utilize my 1-hour early pass.
Thursday morning after the traditional German breakfast of coffee with fresh rolls from the corner bakery, I marched around the convention halls to get an overview of the different booths, which were still being hurriedly set up (and many games were just arriving or on their way). Sheets of cardboard were being punched and games were being set up on tables, while others were stacking boxes and marking prices. When the crowds were allowed in at 10:00, however, all eyes focused on the potential customers and the marathon demoing sessions began.
I said quick hello’s to Cwali’s Corne van Morsel, Bernd Eisenstein at his Irongames booth, and Günter at his Bambus booth. Then I met Michael from the Spielwiese and he gave me a tour of the facility, showing me where the different publishers were located. I made all my new-game purchases based on rules and previews I’d read: Eclipse, which I had pre-ordered (although I honestly don’t know when I will have time to study the rules and get such an involved game to the table), Walnut Grove (a worker-placement tile-laying game with a Little House on the Prairie theme, and I still think they should have included a Laura Ingles vs. Nelly Olsen direct conflict expansion giveaway), Friday (a solo game that couldn’t fit the theme better), The City (Race for the Galaxy for families—I’m in), Ruhm um Rom (a German version of Glory to Rome, as I finally had to see what all the hubbub is about), and the Japanese game Master Merchant (as I wanted to have at least one independent game that would not be available anywhere else, and Dale’s description sounded intriguing). There were many more games in which I was interested, but most of them were by Berlin designers and mainstream German companies and would be easy for me to get later (Hawaii, Singapore, and Frigiti, for example).
With my shopping out of the way, I was able to spend the rest of the day meeting people I knew and others I had always wanted to meet. I dropped by Bezier Games where I was finally exposed to Ted Alspach’s unique sense of humor first-hand. He showed me his prototype for Mutant Meeples, which looked like great fun for fans of Richochet Robots, and it had a nice catch-up mechanism for players who might get off to a slow start. I also took advantage of a special offer for his older Beer & Pretzels game and got the “purple coaster expansion.”
While I was there, I was excited to see Patrick Korner a.k.a. “the Game Mule” stroll up and introduce himself. I used to pour over his articles on the old Gamewire site when I was first exposed to the hobby almost 10 years ago. I still remember his enthusiastic description of Caylus back then, when Ytsari allowed him to put together his own prototype for an early look at the game before it was published. Yes, that was still BWPE (Before the Worker Placement Era).
I also had the chance to squeeze into a game of Nefarious that was just beginning. I was actually looking more forward to meeting Ascora Games’ Scott Tepper, as we had corresponded often over the years, but he was busy explaining and selling the game. I decided to try to catch him another day before the crowds came in.
As crowded as the Messe was, I was surprised at how many people I literally “bumped into.” Earlier that morning, for example, I saw Seth Davis, a native Bostonian who has been living in Norway and joined us at the Spielwiese in Berlin. Later, I saw a German friend, Nils, who had been in our gaming group in Berlin for awhile before moving to Britain. And then I bumped into Californian Sam Brown who had joined our Berlin game designers group for many months while he was living there a year ago. He just successfully kickstarted his new fantasy wargame, Lyssan, and we ran into each other at one of the game retailers. It was about lunchtime, so we decided to eat together at the cafeteria to catch up and show each other our latest prototypes. Unfortunately, we were harassed by the staff, who thought we were about to tie up the table with a long game, so we had to hold up the game boards and cards to show each other (“No games on the tables!”). I had a prototype of the near-finished artwork for my upcoming game, Nieuw Amsterdam, and the publisher had given me the bits back from the older prototype. At the end of our meal, I dumped out the old tiles and cards onto my plate to carry to the trash, and Sam and I decided to have a little fun with it. He later sent me this photo with the caption: “Jeff Allers eats prototypes for lunch!”
I next headed over to the Cambridge Games Factory booth and was happy to see that 99% of my new game, Pala, had arrived. I also had the pleasure of meeting game designer Jeremiah Lee (Zombie in My Pocket), graphic designer Heiko Günther, and Wakefield Carter for first time. While they were still putting the cards and chips together for the first copies of Pala, an English gentlemen came over specifically looking for the game, and I witnessed the first sale of the game at Essen.
I then dropped by the huge Qwirkle booth to finally meet designer Susan McKinnley Ross, who was signing Qwirkle bags. I still have the first copy of the game to make it onto German soil, brought over to me in 2007 by W. Eric Martin and his wife Linda. It was back then that Schmidt Spiele editor Thorsten Gimmler was first exposed to the game at my After Essen Party in the Spielewiese, and Susan and her husband, Chris invited Eric, Thorsten, Michael from the Spielwiese and me to dinner that night. Thorsten could not make it due to a Schmidt Spiele appointment, but the rest of us had a wonderful evening at La Turka restaurant. Eric even posted a photo of his desert on BGG. It was interesting to hear the “design notes” first hand from Susan and Chris and discover some interesting tidbits. One example was that, at one time, the game had 8 colors and 8 symbols! It was also interesting to learn why Eric will never buy another music CD.
Friday: Playing Games
Greg Daigle and I had never met before, but we had a mutual friend in Larry Levy and have both been courting the same German publishers with our prototypes for years. We decided to meet that morning at 9:00 before the official entry in order to get to know each other and play his first published design, Hawaii. On our way to the empty tables, we bumped into Dale Yu along with his brother, Mattel designer Brian and fellow Dominion developer Valeria Putman.
After getting a copy of Hawaii and chatting for a while, we broke out the game to try. A German couple joined us for a 4-player game. It was a great game and even signals a return by Hans im Glück to more complex games aimed at gamers. The funny thing was that Greg had to look at the rules a few times, and he even discovered afterward that we got a rule wrong. Gamers are often surprised by this, but the fact is that publishers like to tweak designs, and oftentimes designers don’t get the opportunity to playtest the changes before the game is released. Of course, changes made by good developers, like those at Hans im Glück, are usually for the better.
Afterwards, Greg and I both wanted to meet Stuart Dagger, as we were fans of Counter Magazine, and Stuart had kindly given me some good email advice on things to see in Scotland when I was there with my family last spring. When we found him and introduced ourselves, I realized that he was the man who had bought the first copy of Pala while I was at the CGF booth the day before! We had a great chat with the Essen convention veteran from Aberdeen.
I met design/publish couple Rory O’Conner and Anita Murphy from Northern Ireland for lunch in the cafeteria. They had contacted me last summer, as they were going to be in Berlin for a month and wanted to attend my game designer’s group at the Spielwiese. I was in the U.S. during that time and missed them, but I helped connect them to Michael and the other designers there. We had a nice talk about alternative game designs, and they gave me a copy of their Rory’s Story Cubes. Hopefully they will be able to come to Berlin again when I’m in town.
I went back to Hall 4 afterwards to check out some of the small publishers, playing a few rounds of Drum Roll, which had beautiful art although it seemed to be more of a resource management game than a themed circus game. I then watched a demo of the prototype for Black Dove’s 3M game (Murder Mystery Mayhem, I think). It was a fairly involved deduction game with incredible components, including magnetic boards for each player to track information.
Then I stopped by CGF again and finally had the chance to play Pala with the finished graphics—and the finished rules. Just as with Greg and Hawaii, I had not had the chance to play all the changes that developer Rob Seater had made to the game, including one of the forms of bidding. I have to give credit to Rob—the game turned out great. The two bidding mechanisms provide two very different games in the same box (although the version with the chips is the most intuitive), and a few other key rules changes take the chaos out of the game and give the players more control and room for strategy. The CGF guys said they were playing it at a pub for hours the night before and loved it, and their experience showed as they destroyed me in a couple of 3-player games. I’m not the most skilled trick-taking game player, anyway, so the fact that it was difficult for me to win is probably a good sign.
Afterwards I dropped by to see fellow Berlin designer Andrea Meyer and her new game, Frigiti, in progress. It’s similar to Balderdash, except in this case, there are no correct definitions, as the words are made up from the dice rolled. It is definitely a game that is more about humor than determining who wins, of course, and it looked like fun—for anyone who posseses a sense of humor, at least! Andrea said that there were many publishers interested and we can expect to see a much wider release of this game in the future.
Before I left, I took a look at Jonathan Franklin’s Fistfull of Penguins. When a couple of friendly men from Zurich joined me, we decided to give the game a go. It was fun and just the right game length, the bits were nice, and the price was great—only 11 Euro—but, unfortunately, the 200 copies they had brought with them had already sold out.
After playing a life-sized game of Tokyo Train on the Essen subway system (in which I bumped into Greg again, literally), I headed back to the apartment, where I taught Stefan PAX. We played a 2-player game, which was the first time I had played it with that number. It worked great, and it was helpful for me to practice teaching the game, as I volunteered to fill in a demoing time slot for designer/publisher Bernd Eisenstein the next day.
Saturday: Crowds and Appointments
For my last day of the fair, I had a full schedule of appointments with publishers to discuss projects in the works and show new prototypes.
First, however, I was finally able to meet Scott Tepper in person, catching a few moments with him before the 10 O’Clock Saturday “rush hour.”
Then, three booths down from Ascora at Irongames, I had my first experience demoing games along with Berlin friend, Alfred. In the process, I was able to play two more games of PAX, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Bernd is a friend, but this really was my personal hit of the fair.
While at the booth, I happened to see my friend and game designer/artist Christoph Tisch. We decided to meet for lunch, and he brought along Moritz Eggert, founder of the Munich-based Westpark Gamers, and a young Greek couple from the island of Paros who have “gamer’s apartments” for tourists. Although I’ve never stayed in the “Alea Apartments,” my wife and I were in Naoussa, the town where they are located, and it is a beautiful area. The couple were very nice, too, and Moritz said it was a great place to stay.
After an appointment with a publisher, I made a quick visit to the Spielworxx booth to say high to Uli Blennemann. Uli used to work for Phalanx Germany and had been interested in two of my games at that time, including what would become Alea Iacta Est and a forthcoming archeology game co-designed with Bernd tentatively called Artifact. It was a pleasure to send prototypes to him, as he always responded quickly and with very helpful feedback. I wanted to thank him, as his critiques and encouragement helped Bernd and I to get Artifact to the level it needed to be to place in the top 6 of Hippodice competition (along with Hansa Teutonica that year). The game is now almost ready for an early 2012 release.
I dropped by the CGF booth again to grab an extra copy of Pala for the After Essen Party and saw a family playing the game. When I asked if they were enjoying it, I suddenly realized that it was Uli, the woman who discovered my game Aber Bitte mit Sahne/Piece o’ Cake in Göttingen in 2006 and developed it for Winning Moves Germany. It was her idea to use 11 slices each round instead of 10. She no longer works in the industry and was there to enjoy the new games with her family. I thanked her again for all the behind the scenes work she did on Sahne. The designer may get his or her name on the box, but developers like her, Blennemann, Rob Seater and Pegasus’ Andre Bronswijk are the uncredited co-designers and deserve much of the credit for a game’s success.
After a few more appointments with publishers, it was time to pick up my bags and head to the train station. Once there I found out that I was on the same train as my friend, Daniel from the Spielwiese. His couch-surfing hosts even showed up to see him off at the train station. Then Peer walked up with his luggage, and we realized that we were sitting right next to each other! Daniel had a seat with a table, however, and as soon as the person in the other seat got off the train, Peer and I joined him to play a couple of quick card games I had picked up. Both Master Merchant and The City were light fun, although Peer trounced us both times.
We arrived in Berlin just after midnight, and the city that never sleeps was bustling. After three days of games and gamers, however, I was ready to get back to my own bed.
My first SPIEL had come and gone, and it was a great experience to have finally been a part of it.