POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #58: A New Year

By Jeffrey D. Allers

Honestly, I’ve always found it difficult to get excited about New Year’s Eve. Perhaps it was because I grew up in Iowa, where privately-owned fireworks were illegal. But even if people there could buy their own, no one wanted to brave -40 degree wind chill temperatures (Celsius or Fahrenheit—take your pick) to party in the street the way they do in Times Square. Furthermore, I always felt that it was a little anti-climactic after Christmas, as I always preferred cozy meals with friends and family to midnight toasts with complete strangers in night clubs. Many times, I was simply content to watch the “ball drop” in front of the television before drifting off into another long winter’s nap.

It was not until I first visited Germany over Silvester—their name for New Year’s Eve—that I finally came to enjoy the holiday. Germans usually begin the evening with a meal that is an event itself.  They dust off their Swiss-style fondue and raclette sets, and the air is filled with the scent of baked cheese. Although I was familiar with fondue, raclette was something new to me: a communal type of stove in the middle of the table upon which each guest prepares their own combinations of ingredients, spreads cheese over it and then waits for it to fuse everything together. In fact, having the raclette in the middle of the table reminds me of a board game night, as each of us strategizes to create tasty combinations on the “board” in the middle from the limited resources at our disposal. Eating the results might even be the best use of the phrase, “multiple paths to victory.”

But after hours of consuming numerous helpings from the tiny little raclette plates, the evening is capped off by the universal standard of dancing, toasting with bottles of sparkling white wine, and fireworks.

Next to the eating, the fireworks are the most anticipated element of the celebration. It’s nice to see, by the way, that a German publisher has finally released a game about fireworks, and I wonder if it sold well this holiday season. Hanabi, though originally a French design, is actually very “German” in its execution, as the main goal of the game is to get the different colors of numbered firework cards into piles in ascending order.

When it comes to the actual fireworks of New Year’s Eve, however, the Germans go against type, and there’s absolutely no “order” to it. And just as with the raclette, Berliners see fireworks as a communal, chaotic activity, and it seems that every child who is able to stand has an arsenal of firecrackers at his disposal. The streets are lined with private stashes that must have cost small fortunes, but even at the large official displays in front of Brandenburg Gate (our version of Time’s Square), people supplement the show by lighting their own little explosions in the middle of the crowd.

The coming of a new calendar year means more than an excuse for a party, of course.  First, it is a time to pause and evaluate the previous twelve months. The media has no shame in capitalizing on this.  After all, they are trying to compensate for the “dead weeks” of the holidays, when there just isn’t enough newsworthy material to write about. So, we are inundated with “Top 10” and “Worst of” lists for everything from entertainment to politics to Twitter feeds.

Boardgamers are no exception, and for the first time, I actually perused the “best of” lists at BoardgameGeek.com.  With so much content added there daily, I haven’t really kept up during the past year, and the lists were actually a nice “filter” for me to finally read some well-written and often humorous pieces I had missed.

In addition, many bloggers like to talk about their favorite games of the year, their most-played games of the year, and some even talk about their favorite prototypes played last year.  It seems that many are already looking forward to future publications, long before the dust has had time to settle on 2012’s enormous output. For game designers, this is a mixed blessing, as publishers are always interested in our newest creations, but they are also quick to drop previous releases from their catalogs in favor of the next new thing.

And, speaking of the future, one cannot celebrate a new calendar year without making new “resolutions” for it. For many people I know, January is a chance to “reset” and start over with things they would like to change in their lives. Perhaps they want to trim down, or to spend more time doing what they love.  For a gamer, this means trimming down the gaming collection and spending more time trying to keep up with the deluge of new games coming onto the market.

And although I have the same need for new beginnings and setting personal goals, I have always found it difficult to do so this time of year.  For one thing, it is the middle of winter. Everything is dead, the sky is dark, and every Berliner is simply trying to survive–or hibernate. One is simply incapable of generating enough motivation to turn a new chapter in one’s life.

The Springtime, on the other had, seems much more appropriate, as the city parks are in bloom, people begin to populate the streetside café’s covered in blankets, and rats finally emerge from their winter nests (our urban version of Groundhog Day). Interestingly, I found out that the New Year was actually celebrated on March 25 in the British Empire up until 1751, and I think that it’s a shame it did not stay that way, as I’d be in a much better mood to celebrate and make resolutions.  Even in the city, my internal biological clock seems more in tune with nature.

After giving it a bit more thought and reflection, however–as one is supposed to do this time of year–I realize that there really are many different “beginnings” throughout the year.  One of the most obvious is the new school year, and as my twin sons became eligible last August, we found out that–for first-graders, at least–it rivals the festivities of Silvester. My sons were treated to an elaborate school program followed by huge private parties where relatives, friends and neighbors each presented them with Schultüten: giant paper cones filled with school supplies, toys and sweets.

For boardgame enthusiests, however, there is yet another type of new year celebration, and it takes place in late October. The SPIEL game fair in Essen is the target release date for the bulk of the hobby’s new games, and there are hundreds of new titles debuting there. That’s hundreds of New Years’ resolutions for those in the hobby that consider themselves part of the so-called “Cult of the New.”

The fair in Essen, like any New Year celebration, is also a chance to look back and reflect on previous years and the accomplishments of the past.  This year, I had the opportunity to, quite accidentally, bump into Wolfgang Kramer, who was being honored for his lifetime achievements.  When I asked him how many fairs in Essen he had attended, his wife, Ursula, told me that they had been at every one, including the first ones which were held in a school building.

One could still find many of Kramer’s best games at the show, along with classics from other legendary designers. Some of those have been rediscovered and re-released by other publishers. Many more, however, were only available at the used-game vendors, often overlooked by those seeking out the “hidden gems” and “hot new mechanics” among the new releases.

If this is our gaming New Year, however, it would be wise for us to take the opportunity, not only to look ahead to the new, but also to reflect on the past…

…for all the influential designers who have pushed the medium,

…for all the innovative games that have challenged gamers and a new generation of designers

…for all the publishers who put their hearts into making good games available

…for all the gaming journalists and friends who introduced us to the hobby

..for auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne.

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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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