This year, I attended Spiel for the first time. I’ve known about the event for a long time; I remember reading the “instant” reports on the event on The Game Cabinet back in the mid-nineties. But first my children were too young to leave for so long (my wife having no interest, such that a family trip was also out of the question), then when I finally had a reasonable opportunity to go, I thought about it, and realized that it was simply not worth going to buy games or to play games, which is the reason I wanted to go at the time. So I put it on my “part of a trip to Europe with my wife” plan for a while – until I really thought about how little she would enjoy such an excursion; it would take away from her experience at least as much as it might add to mine.
But then I realized that there _was_ a reason for me to go – and I did. And – not to spoil the article or anything – I had an absolutely wonderful time. It was truly a fantastic experience. But for those who require a flight to attend, there are at least as many reasons for a game enthusiast not to go as there are to hop on a plane.
I mentioned above, but attending Spiel to buy new games makes no sense if you have to travel significantly to do so. You’ll spend more on travel than you save on acquiring the games – far more, really – and have to put up with the discomforts of travel. And, unless your German is good, not really be in any better a position to make an informed purchasing decision than those who just track the Spiel preview on BoardGameGeek. If you reside close enough to make a day trip, it’s a different calculation – but it’s also significantly easier to obtain most of the games after the fact.
But if buying games is a poor reason to head to Essen, playing games there is an even worse one. There’s only so much space for playing at the fair, and often longer games don’t get played in full. There is some gaming after the fair closes for the day – if you can find folks to game with – but you can play more games in a single day at BGG.con (for just one example) than you’re likely to manage in Essen. I suspect this is similar to US game fairs – Origins and GenCon, for instance – so those in the US can get a feel for what to expect for less at those events. And what to expect in terms of crowds; those with agoraphobia might want to skip all game fairs.
And, of course, the games most prominent at Spiel are what I still call German games; sometimes heavier German games, sometimes lighter – but wandering the halls I didn’t see a lot of games in the American style, or lots of options for fans of miniatures, or wargames. There are some examples of each, but there are simply better options for fans of those genres.
That said, there are many reasons to consider a trip to Essen. Mine, for instance – to see people. There were many times throughout the event when I went exploring the halls with a group of folks – but ended up in a half-hour conversation while the rest of the group moved on without me. In spite of how busy the event is, I managed to have a reasonable length conversation with nearly everyone I saw there; this is, first and foremost, why going was a complete success for me.
Game designers – at least of German-style games – might also want to consider attending. Wanting my Essen experience to be complete, I scheduled one – and only one – showing, but there are enough companies attending – and looking for designs – that it wouldn’t be difficult to spend nearly the entire event going back and forth between publishers. And, in fact, a number of designers seemed to be doing just that. Pitching a game via email isn’t bad, but it’s got nothing on showing a game in person.
There are others for whom attending makes perfect sense. For game publishers, attending Spiel makes perfect sense. A small publisher with a promising game can get far more exposure via the fair than spending the equivalent amount on advertising – just be sure to let Eric Martin know about your game in advance. If you really love boardgame trade shows, I can picture Spiel being worthwhile, in much the same way as I can picture Origins or GenCon being worthwhile. Finally, while I’d not expected it, Spiel is also worth attending for local school children asked to conduct interviews. I don’t know if the assignment was to conduct the interview in English, but the one I witnessed was, in fact, in excellent English.
Even with the fair moving to the other end of the complex, and thus no longer a one minute walk from the hotel, it’s really hard to beat the Atlantic Congress as a place to stay. It’s still about as close as you can get, and requires neither crossing a busy road nor taking the subway. Being able to quickly take games back to my room was really convenient. The showers at the Atlantic Congress are great – I don’t tend to notice showers unless they’re either really bad or really good, but these are really good. They set aside a conference room for folks to play games during the fair, which is really nice. And they’re right by the subway entrance, which makes exploring the city easy. Finally, a lot of folks stay at the Atlantic Congress, making it a good choice for meeting people.
But there are also many reasons to choose another hotel. Most importantly, the Atlantic Congress isn’t cheap. You really don’t have to go much further away to save a lot – and have more money for games. If you’re planning to do sightseeing as well, there are downtown options closer to train service. And as nice as the Atlantic Congress is, it’s still just a hotel. I’m glad I chose the Atlantic Congress – but I was choosing a hotel for _one_ trip to Spiel, without any side ventures. If I were attending every year, I suspect I’d be looking into alternates.
Perhaps my least favorite piece of advice I received was to play “dumb American”. I’m by no means fluent in German – one discovery during the trip is just how lousy I am at listening to German – but in spite of the fact that 80% of the time when I tried conducting transactions in German, I was responded to in English, I kept trying. I wish I could say that my German got better, but it didn’t – but I was still much happier _trying_ to speak it than I would have been just speaking English or starting _every_ conversation by asking if the person I was speaking with spoke English.
One of the Essen events I really enjoyed was the math trade. I’ve never paid attention in years past, but I was able to acquire four new games and two older games of interest, in each case in a trade I was thrilled to make. I also sold a few games, which helped to take advantage of the luggage space I otherwise would have had empty on the way to Spiel.
One piece of advice I’ve heard frequently – Ben listed it as one of his lessons – is not really universal. I went to Essen on my own, and didn’t regret it in the least. If I’d been expecting to see lots of demos, I might have regretted it; but I didn’t, and I still got demos of enough games to feel I received some of that experience. But again – I was there to see people. I roamed the halls, and stopped regularly to say hello to folks. I bought games – I was buying for a local event, and so bought a _lot_ of games. And – that was plenty for me, during the fair.
In the evenings, after the fair closed, I had more opportunities for gaming than I could really take advantage of. I ended up spending time gaming two nights – never with an American other than myself at the table, which was ideal from my standpoint. I ended up playing fifteen games during the week – not a huge number, but not bad. But, compared to what I expected – great!
One decision I made really paid off – I knew, if I was going, that I wanted to be there on Wednesday. And to be there and alert on Wednesday, I needed to arrive on Tuesday. And, frankly – for me, Tuesday and Wednesday were more enjoyable than Thursday through Saturday. I got to see a lot of folks, I got to play a few games, and I wasn’t dealing with crowds.
So, since I enjoyed myself so much, when am I going back?
This is not to say that I’m unwilling to return, or absolutely never will return. But I set my trip up as a one-off, and loved it that way – but really can’t make a reasonable argument that I need to go back now. Oh, if the opportunity comes up – if my wife and I happen to be travelling nearby at the right time, for instance – I can easily picture going for a day. But a real Essen trip, the kind folks like Dale make year after year? I just don’t feel any need.
Besides, I tried to convince nearly everyone I saw there to attend various conventions in the U.S., so I need to save my money and time to be sure to be at those events…