Ben McJunkin – An Essen First-Timer: Parting Thoughts

Okay folks, here it is: my final (and slightly delayed) write up about my experience as a first-time attendee of the SPIEL fair in Essen.   I made it back home safely, as did most of the games (Keyflower: The Farmers is a little worse for the wear, but that’s a sacrifice I can easily live with).  Although I am no means the expert packer Dale is, I did manage to bring home 19 new games, 2 expansions, and a handful of promotional items and stocking stuffers for friends, such as 2-F Spiele’s innovative Folder puzzles. (For those who just want the eye candy, a final picture of my Essen game purchases is at the end of the post.)

Kookaburra, as bored at the airport as everyone else.

If you followed my adventures along the way, you know that I had a blast in Germany, and, despite some bumps along the way, I am very grateful to have been able to experience the fair.  I want to thank my loyal readers for the words of encouragement along the way.  I also owe a special debt of gratitude to Dale and Brian Yu, who allowed me to tag along with them most evenings and who facilitated my access to people and places that most attendees never get the opportunity to see.

For example, me with (an obviously thrilled) Ignacy Trzewiczek on Press Day.

In the few days since returning home, the most frequent question I have been asked is, “Would I do it again?”  And I must admit, I’m not entirely sure.  If I were a twenty-something single lad with a bottomless piggy bank, this would be easy.  But Essen is a pretty lavish (and somewhat selfish) vacation once you are old and married.

So on that note, here are a few more things I have learned throughout my journey that weigh on whether I would come back (along with a random assortment of blurry pictures I didn’t find a place to use previously).

Lesson 12: SPIEL is a Trade Fair.  By which I mean that SPIEL, though a vacation for me, is an important work opportunity for those who design, produce, publish, and sell board games professionally.

A slightly too-enthusiastic Daniel Danzer demonstrating his game Steam Noir: Revolution

On the one hand, I knew this going in.  One of the foremost reasons that I wanted to attend the fair at all is my genuine interest in the board gaming hobby as an industry.  I like to keep up with board game news and gossip as much as anyone, and I imagined that there would be no better place to be part of that conversation than in Essen.  (You can’t imagine my sheer joy to be at the fair when the Lookout/Mayfair pseudo-merger was announced!)

On the other hand, I didn’t fully appreciate going in how much of a divide there is between how hobbyists (like me) experience the fair and how industry insiders do.  It was amazing to watch someone like Dale spend nearly the whole fair in business-type meetings.  While a record crowd of consumers was perusing this year’s crop of published titles, behind the scenes designers were pitching prototypes, developers were organizing playtests, and publishers were hosting invite-only dinners and events.

There is no wrong way to do Essen!

I have to admit, at times, my awareness of the hobby/industry divide encroached upon my enjoyment a little.   I had hoped that simply being at the fair meant being in the trenches, hearing the chatter (which games were showing well, which were selling out, what hidden gems others had found), and discussing games more substantively that I might get to do with my gaming group at home (though I am spoiled by having a group of Opinionated Gamers as regulars).  And sometimes that happened.  A few publishers, in particular, stand out as personal favorites in this regard (I suspect you know who you are).

But at many booths, I was just one potential customer out of 150,000.  And that’s not really all that fun.  I didn’t fly to Germany just to shop for games, you know?  (One of the more awkward moments of the fair happened when I tried to strike up a conversation with a small publisher about whether he was pleased with the general reception of his newest title, which I had just purchased.  I was given a short, curt answer that quite plainly meant “go away now, our transaction is complete.”)

Jens Drogemuller seemingly had no idea why I had just been introduced to him or why I wanted his picture.

As much fun as it can be to just be a board game fan experiencing the fair ­– getting demonstrations and playing until the wee hours of the night in hotel lobbies – that wasn’t fully the experience I was after.  But some of what I had romanticized the fair to be isn’t available to everybody (at least not immediately).  It takes time to make and cultivate the connections (and friendships) that I would like to someday have.  I genuinely don’t know whether this weighs in favor of regular attendance (and continued investment) or not.  Admittedly, I will miss many of you if I don’t attend again next year.

Lesson 13: Save a Little Mystery.  Dale already touched on this, so I will try to keep it short.  There were times (or so I am told) when press would show up to the fair with almost no advance information about what would be presented.  It really was an exhibition, in the truest sense.  Those times have changed.  With the popularity of BGG, almost everything a gamer needs to know about a given game can now be learned well in advance of the fair.  Sure, you might not get to see actual components or have the nuances of the game explained to you, but there is seemingly little to be learned at the event itself about the big, prominent titles.

Carcassonne World Championships. Talk about knowing too much going in…

Knowing that this would potentially be my only chance to attend Essen for a while, I researched reasonably diligently (by my own standards, at least).  I pretty much knew what I was going to buy before I entered the halls, and I rarely deviated from my list (not because I’m bound by the list, but rather because I rarely came across something that was both unfamiliar and interesting).

I didn’t manage to play many demo games, and was not always impressed by those that I did get to the table.  Part of this was by design.  For me, the fair was not about playing games (there are plenty of opportunities for that stateside), but rather about simply experiencing the event.  I used much of my time to chat with designers and publishers, to meet long-time acquaintances from Board Game Geek, and to absorb as much of Essen (the town) as I could manage, including some long walks with the wife and dog and plenty of terrific meals.

My wife took a day trip to the historic city of Cologne.Meanwhile, I found new ways to combine sugar and alcohol.

But I do wish that I had committed a little less upfront investment and saved a little mystery for the fair.  Whether this means doing less research, reading fewer rules in advance, or just being more open-minded about trying lesser-known games, I would have liked to use Essen to recapture the sense of discovery that I first had when I entered the hobby.

While on this topic, I want to reiterate my great experience with Wildcatters.  For those of you who have never heard of it, Wildcatters is one of this year’s great dark-horse candidates for best game of the fair.  It is an area majority and network-building game about oil drilling.  The game has terrific components, great artwork, and plays extremely smoothly.   It spent nine years in development, and the designers’ passion for the game shows.  In fact, even though I had pre-ordered the game and had already paid, Rolf Sagel, one of the designers insisted on giving me a personal walkthrough of the gameplay and then offered to sign my box lid (he even interrupted his co-designer’s demonstration to get me a second signature.  My first play of the game was a lot of fun, and I have high hopes for its longevity going forward.  I hope more people take a look at this game.

An incredibly blurry Rolf Sagel.

Lesson 14: You Have More Friends Than You Realize.  I originally meant for this lesson to be sarcastic.  I can’t tell you the number of friends who suddenly emailed me after a long absence to offer their game-playing services once I returned with my Essen haul.

But instead, I want to tell you about just one message I got from one particular friend.  It was possibly the nicest and most genuine, unsolicited message I have ever received. I hope the author doesn’t mind my sharing.   It came out of the blue one day from a friend that I hadn’t spoken with in a while.  It came before my first OG blog entry, before I mentioned getting sick, and before I started sharing pictures of my Essen loot.  It was titled “Essen Pep Talk”:

Hi Ben,

I know you’re suffering from jet lag, you probably caught some airborne sickness on the plane, and you’re just a worn-out shell with glazed eyes.  Yes, just like the intern days.  And you haven’t even played one Essen 2013 game yet…

So, when you feel like you can’t roll any more dice, place another meeple, or update your OP blog, remember the commercial on TV–“Just one More [game]!”  Do it for those of us who are green with envy that you are there and we are at home raking leaves!!  When you are at your darkest hour, lowest ebb, and feel like you can’t go on, think to yourself, “At least Rob is not making me play [enter game name here–Talisman, Dark Horse, Cosmic Encounter, Tales of the Arabian Nights, etc.].”

It was that, or the other commercial when the AFLAC duck just says AFLAC over and over again in the locker room.

I’m here for you man!

These are my friends.  I’m a lucky guy.

So will I go back?  I’m really not sure.  I would love to be able to.  And if I do, I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons that will help make next year’s experience even better.  I hope you’ve enjoyed learning along with me.

Thanks for reading!

Gratuitous “loot” shot. You know you wanted it.

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8 Responses to Ben McJunkin – An Essen First-Timer: Parting Thoughts

  1. Jacob says:

    If I ever go to Essen I would try to experience it like you did. Sure, I’d buy some games, but I don’t feel the need to sit and play for three straight days. I would be happy observing games in progress. I do need to ask about Wildcatters: what parts of it resemble other games you’ve played? Thanks for this post. I enjoyed every word of it!

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Thanks, Jacob! I really appreciate hearing from readers, since it does take a fair bit of time and energy to keep putting out updates during a busy event like Essen.

      As far as Wildcatters, I will start by saying that, while it isn’t a train game, I think it will appeal to the train-game crowd. When it comes to specific games, however, the two that come to mind are Wolfgang Kramer’s Maharaja and the Ostertag brother’s Kaivai. In Maharaja, players strategically construct infrastructure both for their own use and for use by other players, all in the service of a series of area majority scorings. The same is true in Wildcatters, although the timing of the scorings doesn’t shift like it does in Maharaja. Kaivai is another design that ultimately proves to be an area majority game, despite a bunch of board play that is interesting in its own right. I also think both Kaivai and Wildcatters encourage a kind of parasitism, where you hope other players will do some of your work for you. I think if you like both Kaivai and Maharaja, I would be surprised if you didn’t like Wildcatters (I will note that I think it is a 4-player only design, although my initial play was with just 3).

  2. Dale Yu says:

    well Ben, I hope you still had a good time. I enjoyed spending time with you and getting you know you. I know that Essen can be a confusing place, and I’ll admit there is definitely a “learning curve” to it.

    At least, grilled pork knuckle makes everything better. As does Doner pide.


    • Ben (chally) says:

      I had a blast, Dale! I hope that came through. (I know I’m a big, scary rock monster and all…) This was a tough post to write because it all sounded a little more depressing than I intended. Honestly, I miss Germany already.

  3. Klemens says:

    When I attended the fair my first time in 2002 I was “one potential customer” walking very fast (no not “runnung”) to the Lookout booth to get the newest Bohnanza expansion … now Essen feels like coming home and meeting old friends or even family. And I got at least one new “old friend” this year – I hope to see you in 2014!

  4. Marcel says:

    I for one am happy to experience Spiel as “just another customer” year after year. Even though a lot has changed as far as preparation goes, I still enjoy roaming the halls and sitting down to try as many games as possible in one or two days (although, since there is more info available beforehand these days, I will no longer play any random game that I come across).
    I don’t even have time to try and make new friends! ;-) But seriously, I prefer playing games to business meetings or “nosing around” behind the scenes. (Of course, this would probably be different if I was in any way involved in the industry.)
    Anyway, glad to hear you enjoyed your first trip to Essen. I enjoyed your reports.

  5. Diceman says:

    Nice to meet you in person and have a chat.
    At least you now like the buildings in Mush! Mush! (or was that too much mead ?) !
    Hope to catch up soon,
    Gordon Lamont
    Fragor Games

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Gordon! The pleasure was all mine. Thanks for your hospitality. As for Mush! Mush!, I adore the houses, and you know that. (Of course, you also know that I adore that mead; that stuff was amazing.) Please do keep in touch.

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