Reflections on Essen: Why I Make the Trip (Chris Wray)

Reflections on Essen: Why I Make the Trip (Chris Wray)

I’m sitting at airport, and in a few hours, I’ll hop across the Atlantic to Dusseldorf, Germany. From there, it is only a short train ride to Essen. The fair runs from Thursday to Sunday, and I’ll be covering it for WDYPTW, bringing summaries of what’s hot and what I played.

But before I embark on the final legal of my journey, it seems fitting to set the stage and explain why I make the trip. Here are five things I think people should know about Essen Spiel.

Modern boardgames were born in Essen, and it is still the center of the hobby…

The hobby has seen unprecedented expansion in recent years. Each year sees thousands and thousands of people join the hobby. The Meetup group I’m a big part of is now 10x its original size, and growing. There are several thousand games being released each year. And we went from having a few dozen board game reviewers to having hundreds (though most of those people aren’t really reviewers).

The growth may be widespread, but this all started in Essen. The Spiel des Jahres, one of the most significant factors in the growth of the hobby, was first awarded in Essen nearly 40 years ago. Shortly thereafter, Essen hosted the first Spiel, and within a few years, it became known as the place to go pick up games.

Every year, I encounter more and more gamers who have never heard of Essen. And even among experienced gamers, I hear them say that they don’t think Essen matters, or that it matters less.

But with apologies to Gen Con, this is still the most important four days in gaming. More than 1,200 games will be released, including most of the games that will make “best of” lists at the end of the year. Designers will sign more games with publishers at Essen than at any other fair. And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies of games will be sold on site. No other event can claim those accolades.

It shows what boardgames can be as an industry and as a hobby…

I’m from a gamer family. The Wrays are now three generations of gamers, though the little ones are still enjoying Animal Upon Animal. I love it, and that’s what I wish this hobby could be. But here, it is somewhat unusual: board and card games still have a relatively niche following in the United States. But that’s not true in Germany, where they have a much bigger following per capita, and where this is still often a family affair.

I love to tell the story of the family in Essen standing at the Hans im Gluck booth buying Carcassonne promos. It was three generations: a grandmother, a kid of 8-10 years old, and his parents. They were able to quickly rattle off dozens of promos they had, and were asking for help finding the ones they’re missing. I’ve heard families debate which Ticket to Ride expansion to get. I’ve seen families line up to get Wolfgang Kramer to sign their games. These experiences show me what gaming could be here.

It’s truly an international affair…

Gen Con has never felt like an international convention to me: I love it for what it is worth, but gaming is a truly international hobby, and I don’t see that aspect of it at Gen Con. Essen had exhibitors from 51 countries last year, and I bet there were attendees from 100 or more countries.

Essen has games in every language. For every age. For every creed. Games can bring us together, and that shows every year at Spiel.

You can find games that just aren’t sold anywhere else… and you can get them first…

There’s a prominent reviewer that claims that if a game is good enough, it’ll get reprinted, and be available widely. But that’s just a demonstrably false claim.

Some of my favorite games in my collection are handmade games produced in limited quantities that were only available at Essen. They’re good games, but the designer/publisher doesn’t care to make a more commercially available product.

The halls of Essen are lined with small batch games from across the world. And as my game group often laments, just because a game is good doesn’t mean it’ll get a U.S. release.

And even games that may eventually get a broader release are often available first here. This year, for example, I’m very excited to try Belratti, a game in which players select artwork cards from their hands to form a deck to match a particular topic. Belratti (a sort of art scammer) then adds art randomly, and players have to figure out which was the legitimate art and which were the fakes. It sounds cool, and it won first prize at the HippoDice game competition. Yet it is only available in German, from a small publisher. I’ll get a copy at Essen, but otherwise, it would have been difficult to track down.

Many of the coolest people in gaming go to Essen…

I’ve met some of my favorite figures in gaming at Essen. I got Klaus Teuber to sign my longest road card. I got to chat with Reiner Knizia about the different versions of Modern Art. I interviewed people for my SdJ series. But most importantly, I’ve made some good friends in Essen. (And had some great food!)

For this Missourian, the trip is long, and expensive. And much to my annual bemusement, Essen looks geographically almost identical to the part of Missouri where I live (but with more trains and castles), so I’m not really even getting a change of scenery.

But Essen is about the people. And the games. And for me, it has become my favorite four days of the year.

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