A Gamer's Journey: The Trip to Essen (Chris Wray)
I landed in Essen, Germany, earlier today. This is my third year attending Spiel, and the days I spend here are always the most joyful of my year.
Much to my surprise, many of my gaming friends are (still) confused about why I make the annual trip. I get why many gamers don’t come: the distance, cost, and time away from work are formidable. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I think most gamers would enjoy it. I hope to keep coming back year-after-year.
Below are my thoughts on Essen. This is part introspection, part evangelism, and part beginner’s guide. If you know nothing about the convention, this is probably a good introduction.
I’ll be posting from Essen all this week. Most of my work is over at The Opinionated Gamers, but some of my posts will be here. You can follow my travels on my Opinionated Gamers (@OpinionatedGmrs) twitter handle, where tweets by me are signed “cw” at the end.
Why make the trip?
The biggest reason to make the trip is to buy games. Over 1,000 new games will be released on Thursday. Sure, many of the more popular games will eventually make their way to U.S. shores, but the sad reality is that many will not. There are dozens of small publishers here that only sell their one print run at Essen, and I tend to buy only those games, plus the games that won’t get a U.S. release for a while. There are also numerous used game stands, and Essen is an ideal place to find that out-of-print gem you’ve been hunting for years.
The second biggest reason I go is to meet old friends. I’ve got several gaming friends that I only see at conventions, and I always look forward to chatting with them or grabbing dinner after the halls close. I’m active on the convention scene, so I know a lot of gamers from around the world. This is one of the few chances I get to see them.
The third reason I go is to see the spectacle in action. Spiel is just an amazing scene. Tens of thousands of people --- mostly German families --- rush into the halls each day to try and buy the latest games. The Messe (where Spiel is held) is enormous, way bigger than any convention center I’ve been in, yet the place is packed. Designers are pitching their games to publishers; most of the board game media is on hand; and many publishers start hinting about what’s coming out next. Plus, the entire show has the atmosphere of a fair. There’s food and drink in the halls (a rarity at American conventions), carnival attractions, and gigantic events, like the Catan Big Game or the Carcassonne World Championship. It’s fun to just walk around the halls and see what’s going on.
What are the downsides of making the trip?
The cost and travel time are the big issue. I left my home in Kansas City at 10:30am on Monday, and I got into Germany at about 2:30am Kansas City time. That’s 16 hours of travel. I kind of enjoy traveling, but that’s a bit daunting for even me.
It does cost a lot to come here. The first year I came, it cost me about $1,000 more to attend Essen than Gen Con, but the last two years, Gen Con has cost me more. My flight to Germany this year was less than $700, and my flight to Gen Con was almost $400. Hotels in Essen, however, are decently cheap if you book them in advance, which isn’t the case in Indianapolis. Last year I paid the Euro equivalent of less than $100 dollars a night. It’s a bit higher this year (I’m at a nicer hotel), but the price has always been far higher for me at Gen Con for rooming.
And once you’re over here everything is cheap. A pass to Essen costs around $30-35 dollars (I haven’t bought one yet so I don’t know the exact price) and gives you free transportation on the rail system around the city. Food is cheap. And activities inside Spiel tend to not cost money. Compare that to Gen Con, which has badges of $100 or more, plus you have to pay for several events.
But don’t expect to play games…
This always shocks people, and I’ve had several people not believe me: don’t come here if you expect to play games. This is primarily a shopping event. Sure, there are demo games in the halls, and unlike at American conventions, the demos tend to be full playthroughs. But there is very little gaming at Spiel. Outside of demo games, the only chance I’ve had to play something here is at the hotels at night, but even then most hotels don’t have gaming space. The halls close early in the evening, and after that, almost everybody just goes home.
I once wrote a detailed comparison of Spiel and Gen Con, and my first impressions hold true: Essen is simply not a place to play games. It is, however, the best place in the world to buy games!
What’s going to happen over the next few days? What should you watch out for?
Tuesday: Today was one of the days leading up to the fair where the publishers are primarily arriving and building their booths. (The booths at Essen can be large and elaborate.) But many of the games themselves haven’t yet arrived, and there wasn’t much news coming out of the convention.
Wednesday: Things will start to heat up tomorrow. The press events start in the morning. Those with a press badge will all go spend time with the game designers/publishers at the annual press event, so expect some buzz surrounding that.
Meanwhile, publishers will ramp up production of their booths, and many palettes of games will start arriving. Tomorrow night there are a few press events on and off site, and usually a few things make the news at those gatherings.
We’ll also start getting the list of games that didn’t make it because of customs or transportation problems.
Thursday: Things will start happening in rapid succession on Thursday. Exhibitors can get in the hall at around 9:00am German time, though I’ve walked in around 8:00 and nobody seemed to mind. The press can enter at 9:30, though once again, people seem to get in a bit early. Then, at 10:00, the big doors open, and the crowds rush in. Thus begins what are arguably the most important few hours in gaming.
The small publishers with just a few copies of their games will be inundated. Last year, I was in the Japon Brand line when the doors opened, and I felt like we were being swarmed. Most of the big publishers have adequate stock on hand for at least the first few hours --- I don’t recall any big sell outs like there are at Gen Con --- but the smaller single print run games can go quickly.
Then the news of games sold out will start coming. And we’ll start getting first impressions of games on social media.
Later in the day, we’ll start getting indications of what is a hit at the convention. Fairplay Magazine (a German publication) will start sending out their “scouts,” and later in the day, we should have the first Fairplay list. Most Americans don’t seem to know much about this mysterious list, but it is basically a “hotness” list of the convention. It is posted in hard copy at the Fairplay booth, though myself and others usually snap a picture and post it for Americans to see when it is posted. The primary other source of this information is the BGG list, but that is based entirely on user votes, and thus is is subject to manipulation early in the convention.
Social media is helpful for following what’s going on. BGG will have a lot of information, and they’ll be doing video broadcasts. I do nightly blog posts.
The halls will close at 6:00 or 7:00 (I don’t remember which), and at that point we should have a good indication of what sold out, what was hot, and any big news.
Friday and Saturday are just as chaotic in the halls, but there tends to not be as much news coming out. Fairplay will post updated lists, and the BGG voting will become more reliable. Saturday tends to be the most packed day of the convention.
A few of the big gaming awards are handed out. I believe the International Gamers Awards are distributed on Friday.
Sunday tends to be an uneventful day. A lot of my friends who don’t work with publishers have flown back on Sunday, and this year, I’m joining them. I went on Sunday the last two years, but the fair closes early, and it is only good for last-minute shopping.
That’s it for now! More to come this week, and leave any questions below!
Chris Wray is a frequent reviewer of board and card games, writing dozens of reviews each year. In addition to writing for WDYPTW, he also writes for the Opinionated Gamers, Counter Magazine, and Gamers Alliance. He also posts reviews on BoardGameGeek, where he's listed as a golden reviewer.
You can find Chris at various conventions, including BGG.CON, Geekway to the West, Gen Con, or Spiel (Essen), and he often blogs while at the conventions.
Chris lives in Jefferson City, MO and works in government.