POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #57: The Two Sides of Essen

„Most of the public doesn’t know the other side of Essen,“ reflected Michael as he, Bernd and I compared our own conversations with those we’d had with other fair attendees.  Bernd was managing his Irongames booth again, content to sell remaining stock of his previous releases along with some new expansions for those games.  Michael was collecting games from publishers for the library at his Spielwiese gaming cafe.  And I was rolling  my carry-on suitcase full of prototypes through the crowds from one appointment with publishers to the other.

There really are two sides to the fair, and it is difficult to experience each one equally.  Last year was my first time here, and I chose to see it from the perspective of an attendee.  I had a great time bumping into well-known game designers, meeting many gaming jounalists and bloggers for the first time, and seeing friends from other countries again who had visited me in Berlin over the past few years.

This time, however, was different. I had a backlog of prototypes I was ready to show—something for everyone, really, from children’s games to gamers’ games—and I was ready to pitch them to as many publishers as possible.

A few months before the Messe, I had already begun scheduling appointments, both with those publishers I knew and those I had not yet been able to contact in person.  By the week of the fair, I only had 3 hours free of appointments from Thursday through Saturday.

Several of those were to demonstrate  my new game, Nieuw Amsterdam, for publisher White Goblin Games and for  Boardgame Geek.  But two days before I left on the fast train for Essen, I received a discouraging email.  Apparantly, every one of the other 7 White Goblin releases were delivered from their factories in China, but my game was mysteriously missing from the shipment.

It was a disappointment, of course, but I was still looking forward to showing off the two pre-production copies which White Goblin had with them.  And, as my prototype-heavy luggage could attest, I was already thinking about the next years’ projects.

Still, it is times like these that confirm my reservations at making game design a full-time job.  I have no shortage of designs that I think would make marketable games, but I think the pressure would then be too great, and events like this one that are out of my control would probably be far too exhausting emotionally if I was expecting to feed my family through game sales.  Besides, I love my career as a pastor working with the church in Berlin, and game design serves as a nice creative compliment to my „day job.“

And so, regardless of the absence of my one new game release, I boarded the InterCity Express train in Berlin bound for Essen on Wednesday with great anticipation and excitement.   I looked forward to seeing people I knew, to making new friends and finding new publishing partners, and to seeing the new games from the best designers in the world.

I soon arrived at a cultural center about 20 minutes away from the convention center, where a large apartment with dorm-style sleeping and common kitchen and living areas awaited me, along with over a dozen other attendees.  Berlin friend and fellow designer Günter Cornett was there again, and he was the one who had invited me to join the group last year.  Susanne, a wonderfully hospitable woman from Bremen, took care of all the organizational duties together with a group of her friends, including greeting us with a huge pot of chili con carne upon our arrival, and a German breakfast each morning.

German breakfast with gamers in the apartment.

Staying overnight with a large group of gamers from around Germany is my favorite way to enjoy the convention, and it was again a pleasure to catch up with those who stayed with us last year, while getting to know others who were new to the facility.  Each night, backpacks were emptied and new games were punched and played.  Then, each morning, strong coffee hit the table accompanied by fresh rolls from the corner bakery and an assortment of jams, meats and cheeses.  I was even brave enough to try an interesting mix of ground blood sausage and liverwurst.

Early Thursday morning after filling myself with coffee and rolls, I squeezed into the back seat of Berlin friend Felix’s Mini, and he and Günter chauffeured me to the convention center.  Although Günter did not have his own stand this year, he still had an exhibitor’s pass, and so they dropped me off before heading to their special entrance.

I did have a “Fachbesucher” ticket from the Spielautorenzunft (Game Designer’s Association), which allowed me to enter the convention an hour early at 9 o’ clock, but the “bouncer” at the main entrance was adamant that I had to wait until the main opening time.  Fortunately, I met German designer Martin Schlegel, who had also just been turned away, and he led me to another entrance through the cafeteria, where we were allowed in without a hitch.

I went straight to the Bezier Games booth where I met my friend Michael, owner of the Spielewiese gaming cafe in Berlin, for an appointment with designer Ted Alspach to play his new game, Suburbia.  After playing Hawaii with designer Greg Daigle last year, I decided to make it a tradition to play one new game with a designer at the beginning of each Essen.

Suburbia is definitely a well put-together game, and I liked the interaction of the different mechanisms.  At first, it was easy to forget or miss some of the symbols and effects of the different tiles, but it became easier as we continued to play the game.  I jumped out to a huge lead as my well-planned city (I’m an archtitect, after all) was attracting  a constant flow of new residents—and churning out a large income to boot.  But my lead meant that I passed the “road bump”-like red lines on the scoring track more frequently, decreasing my income and reputation each time. Michael’s industrial city gave him plenty of cash, but he neglected the buildings that would give him more population early on in the game.  In the end, however, he was able to get enough big bonus tiles to finish just a couple of points behind me for an exciting finish.  Suburbia is a nice building game that is not overly complicated, but still has a little more „meat“ to it than last year’s card game, The City.

After the game, my tour of the backrooms of the convention center finally began.  While gamers from around the world pull out new games onto the tables at each publisher’s stand—as well as taking to the floor once those are filled—game designers, artists, and distributors disappear into tiny cubicals behind the publisher’s displays to show prototypes and portfolios, and talk business.

My first appointment was to pitch to Alderac Entertainment Group, which was kicking off a series of games centered around a common theme, that of the fantastical city-state named Tempest.  Other publishers have released similarly-themed games in the past (Pro-Ludo’s Alturien series, for example), but what makes AEG’s line so appealing is its website specifically aimed at game designers, in which their fictitious world and its characters are explained in great detail.  There is even artwork available for using in prototypes and posting on personal design blogs.

Before our meeting, I picked up a copy of Love Letter, the minimalistic 16-card design that had intrigued me after reading about it from W. Eric Martin on Boardgame Geek News.  It turned out to be the game I played the most during the fair.

Next, I finally met Klemens Franz, a well-known game artist.  He also reviews new prototypes for Lookout Games, and I was able to show him my new designs.  Rolf Raupach, who demostrates games for Lookout and is also one of my best playtesters in our Berlin group, was able to join us and give Klemens inside information on my games, as he had played most of them in various forms.

Afterwards, I had a few minutes to roam and dropped by the What’s Your Game? booth to pick up copy of Oddville.  Italians Mariano and Veronica had moved to Berlin over a year ago, and I was able to playtest the game a while back.  Just like Suburbia, the game has quite a few symbols that one must first become familiar with, but the game is a very nice mix of worker placement, tile-laying, and resource management packed into a card game with a quick playing time. In particular, I like the action-selection mechanism, which is very uncomplicated yet original.

I then went over to the Zoch booth, as I never miss an opportunity to pitch to them.  The production of their games is top-notch, and I hope that someday one of my 3-dimensional game designs will find a home in their catalogue, although I still have not found a way to include their trademark wooden poop in any of my prototypes.

I then headed over to the Kosmos stand, where the game developer I was scheduled to meet had difficulty finding an unoccupied cubicle.  Finally, she found one where a German couple was enjoying a few refreshments away from the crowds, and had to ask them to leave.  As they stepped out, I recognized the man’s face.  „Klaus Teuber“? I asked, embarrassed to have been indirectly responsible for kicking his wife and him out of their room. „Wolfgang Kramer“ he answered, and now I was doubly embarrassed.  He was gracious, however, and I quickly changed the subject, asking him briefly what it was like to experience so many game conventions.  This year, Kramer was to receive a special lifetime achievement award.  Among his contributions to the industry are the „Kramer Scale,“ the now-standard scoring track around the boards of many Eurogames, and a whopping 26 best-selling  game designs, each with sales of over 100,000 copies. I’m a grown man, but part of me wanted to drop down on my knees and do my best Wayne’s World impression, „I’m not worthy!“

As I left the Kosmos booth, I recognized Inka and Markus Brand and couldn’t resist talking with them for a moment.  Now that their children were designing games and adding to their parent’s prolific output (and I’m a big fan of the kids’ creation, Mogel Motte), I wondered aloud if they had joined the limited ranks of full-time designers.  Without hesitation and to my surprise, they answered, „No!“  Even with a family of 4 game designers and a steady stream of constant releases, including The Village, which won both the Deutsche Spielpreis (determined by popular vote) and the Kennerspiel des Jahres (decided by a jury), their earnings through game royalties are not nearly enough to support their family. „The idea that you can make a lot of money through game design is a myth,“ they both confirmed. Fortunately, game design is also a lot of fun, and, with the Brand’s, a great family activity.

After a day of shuffling through the crowds with my carry-on from one cubicle to the next, and bumping into a few people I had met last year (and sometimes this is easier than trying to look for them),  I was ready to go out to eat with some friends and, perhaps, take out a few games to play.

Bumping into gaming journalists Stuart Dagger and Dale Yu.

I found Michael again, and ex-Berliner Sebastian Wenzel, who is editor of the website, Zuspieler, joined us for a chinese buffet.  Soon after we got our first plates filled, Rolf also came in with a large Lookout Games contingent (orange t-shirts everywhere), and Bernd also joined some friends nearby.  It was if we were all back in Berlin’s Spielweise, except we only had a couple of small games to try.  It seems I was the only one who had made any purchases that day.

After we were finished eating a few courses, we took a break to work off the calories with a little card play.  Love Letter fit the bill as a nice filler, and we had a blast bluffing, cheering and groaning our way through several rounds.

Oddville was a bit too much for us to try to learn, as it was getting late, so we took out Fundstücke.  I liked the theme and presentation, but the blind bidding rounds were too repetitive and fulfilling the contract cards lacked any tension.  I think Friedemann Friese’s other game, Fremde Federn, was the much more interesting 2F Essen release.  And, even more interesting, Andrea Meyer told me that most American gamers liked the satirical cover art of that game, showing a campaigning Friese with “Yes, we Play!” button, while many German gamers felt that he had gone too far.

After last year, when I was out much too late, I had promised myself not to do the same thing this time around, but it was just too much fun being here again. Even after I got back to the apartment, I couldn’t resist chatting a bit with the others, who were playing their new games even later into the night.

The next day I had the privilege of demoing Nieuw Amsterdam live on the web for BoardgameGeek.  I was, of course, a bit nervous, but Beth Heile was a great interviewer, and her jokes and manner quickly put me at ease.  Perhaps she could be the next Barbara Walters? I realized afterwards that she had also demoed my game, Piece o’ Cake, for Mo Rocca on CBS Sunday Morning News back in the Spring.  Thanks again, Beth!

Demoing Nieuw Amsterdam at the White Goblin Games booth.

Afterwards I went to the White Goblin Games booth to demo the game some more. Qwirkle designer Susan McKinley Ross and husband Chris stopped by.  The German game of the year from last year was still going strong, supported by the release of Qwirkle Cubes on this side of the ocean and a new expansion that adds a board and special scoring spaces.  My wife and I have been enjoying playing this again recently.

Susan McKinley Ross and husband Chris.

After that, I was off to do another tour of publisher cubicles.  My last meeting of the day, however, was with Tasty Minstrel Games’ Michael Mindes and Seth Jaffee.  As with most new American publishers that break onto the scene, I had been following them for some time, and am happy that they have established themselves with some solid releases, many of which have found German distribution partners.

While I was talking with them, Berlin friend and designer Hartmut Kommerell and his partner, Wiebke, spotted me. Hartmut asked if I still had the English rules to a game of his.  The game is actually my favorite unpublished prototype of all time. It’s a family game with dice, but still very original.  It’s also completely interactive with plenty of opportunities for messing with your opponents. Apparantly, a Korean company was interested, and I told Hartmut I would send the English rules to him as soon as I was back home.

Later, after retreating to the business lounge with Michael and Seth to show them my prototypes, they wanted to see Hartmut’s game too.  Never missing an opportunity to promote the game, I took out game pieces from my own prototypes to set up Hartmut’s game and describe how it played. I would love to see the game find a publisher someday.

Michael, Toby and I play another game of Love Letter after a Subway sandwich.

After another late night of playing games back at a restaurant with Michael and another Berlin friend, Toby, I began my final day at the fair with Tanya Thompson from Thinkfun.  I even had a couple of themed puzzle games to show her, inspired by the company’s successful Rush Hour games.

Afterwards, I demoed Nieuw Amsterdam again for White Goblin, then met with Stefan Brück of Alea. After showing Stefan my prototypes, we had a few minutes to catch up on industry talk. We were both amazed that the number of new releases continues to increase year after year.  „I don’t think this can continue, but then again, I’ve been saying that for years,“ Stefan told me.  Even with his critically-aclaimed Alea brand, he sees sales drop off dramatically for most titles after only two years.  And that might be good in this kind of market, as we saw many games from last year’s Essen already in the deep discount bins at this year’s fair.

As a designer, I have mixed feelings about this. After all, this kind of market drives publishers to seek out new game designs, and I have more options to pitch my prototypes. But when my games do get published, they are quite literally forgotten in two to three years.

As a gamer, I have always enjoyed exploring new game systems, which probably puts me into the „cult of the new.“  But just because there are more game releases each year does not necessarily mean that there are that many more original game systems to explore.  It seems instead that there are simply more games that are very similar to each other, and I don’t really feel as though I am missing much if I do not have the time to try every one of them.  I would also like to see the milestones in game design hit the table more often.

In between more publisher appointments, I was able to stop back by the White Goblin Games booth to check on the groups who were playing Nieuw Amsterdam.  It was good to hear their feedback and answer questions about the game. The convention can be so overwhelming, it is difficult to get all of the rules right after a quick demo, but most of the groups caught on to the rules quickly and enjoyed their first play of the game.

One of many groups who enjoyed playing Nieuw Amsterdam in Essen.

Nieuw Amsterdam was also well-received by the Galactic Empire. Perhaps Disney will now get behind it?

At the end of the day, I caught the train back to Berlin.  I was exhausted, but I had enjoyed my second Essen experience, this time from the „other side“ of the fair.  Instead of arriving with empty suitcases and leaving packed full of new games, I had arrived with a full bag which I had „emptied“ during the convention, hoping that one day, those prototypes will be published and fill others’ suitcases.

P.S. you can see highlights from my 6th Annual After Essen Party here.

About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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6 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #57: The Two Sides of Essen

  1. BoxFart says:

    What an interesting read.
    We too were at Essen this year and it was great to read how it went from your viewpoint. I laughed out loud at the Teuber/Kramer eviction/name incident!
    Thanks for the insight and good luck with the prototypes.

  2. BoxFart says:

    Reblogged this on Boxfart and commented:
    Interesting read from a game designer who attended Essen Spiel 2012.

  3. Oliver says:

    Hi Jeff, very nice to read your report here. It’s great! Frederik and I were very proud to spend the evenings with you famous game designers at the Grend. ;-)
    Funny thing you have a shot of my local gaming group here presenting your Nieuw Amsterdam. I have not met them in the three days of pilgrimage.
    Good luck for you and your new games! Hope to see you again. Oliver

  4. Fraser says:

    Hi Jeff, a very interesting read. Thanks.

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