Feel like a new game? Here were the best ones we saw at Spiel, Europe’s (and likely the globe’s) preeminent board game conference
Every year in October, geeks from across the globe flock to the German city of Essen to take part in the largest fair for table top gaming in the world. The event is known as Spiel followed by the year. Spiel is German for game or play and is a major event comparable to the Academy Awards for films or the Nobel Prize for literature.
The event started in 1983, but has grown dramatically in the last five years. Last year 162,000 people from mostly Europe but also gamers from North America and as far as New Zealand attended the four-day exhibition. For a geek and gamer like myself, it was like coming to Disneyland as a child and forgetting everyday life for a few hours.
What does everyone do during Spiel?
During Spiel, people can not only buy the games, but also play them — for many, this is where the fun begins. Turning away from the gray European autumn, you enter a fantastic playground and escape reality for four days. Even if children have their own section known as the “Galleria,” there are plenty of places where adults can re-trace their own childhood memories and dreams through a plethora of games.
Apart from the big publishers like Asmodee and Fantasy Flight Games, numerous smaller game makers also bring their own products to the fair. For many vendors and inventors of new games, Spiel is a remarkable opportunity to show a demo of their game to thousands of visitors and get important feedback if it isn’t in print already.
At every Spiel, the prestigious award “Spiel des Jahres” or Game of the year is awarded in several categories. The games awarded with that prize can expect a sharp rise in sales and this year the Czech game Codenames won the award. In Codenames, you co-operate with your partners in trying to decode a certain pattern made up of words. It is a tricky game, but one that awards both wit and quick resolve and can be seen as an upgrade from the classic game Scrabble. This year they also released a variant with pictures instead of words. At Spiel there were over 1,200 new releases for the 2016 fair.
The rise of board games
Most people tend to associate board games with games like Monopoly, Risk or Scrabble. Even if those timeless classics still exist and are played, Spiel is a lot more than that. The fair is home to over 1,000 exhibitors from 50 different countries showing and selling their own games. The fair has grown by over 58% every year since 2012, which is quite remarkable given the theme.
Tabletop gaming has recently become more popular. Not only geeks play board games, although they are still in many ways associated with the hobby. You can see modern games such as King of Tokyo and Agricola being played on hit shows such as Orphan Black. In South Park, you can also see games like Mice and Mystics and Zombiecide, which shows that board games today have rolled back on the sofa tables across the globe and not just on the screen.
Hollywood stars such as Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day even run their own YouTube channel called Geek & Sundry, where they invite guests to play a variety of new and exciting games. The channel has over 1.4 million subscribers.
Manufacturers of games published a sales growth of 10% in Germany alone just for last year and YouTube and other outlets certainly contribute to these numbers as of course does Spiel. Crowdfunding has also vastly contributed to the rise of board games as we saw when the small card game Exploding Kittens raised almost $9 million in a short time. At Essen, you even have the option to pick up games you kickstarted instead of waiting for the mail to deliver them.
Meet the stars at Spiel
Just like all cultures, board gamers have their own superstars, from designers to world champions. Klaus Teuber, the man behind the Catan brand, was there this year to sign his games as was Antoine Bauza who is behind the smash hit 7 Wonders: Duel.
There are also many people who make a living off of board games and have their own shows on YouTube and run Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. One of the more influential YouTube channels is “The Dice Tower,” where a group of dedicated gamers led by Tom Vasel review tabletop games. At Spiel, I had the opportunity to talk to him as he and his crew had his own stand, where they met their fans and sold promotional cards of various games. To a board gamer like myself, meeting Tom was like a Belieber meeting Justin Bieber, but without the screaming!
Personally I picked up a few games during the exhibition and played countless more, but if I have to narrow it down to a Top 5 list of the most fun games I saw, played or bought at Spiel 2016, this would be my list:
1. Dream Home: a neat little game where you play an interior designer of a house, building rooms, laying roof tiles and adding various accessories to score points. The game only takes around 20 minutes to play and you can play with up to five players too.
2. Crisis: Set in a not so distant future, this economic worker placement game lets you control a small country struggling through a recession. In the game you build factories, produce goods and either export them or sell them on the black market. However, if the country’s economic meter sinks too low, all players lose!
3. Seafall Legacy: This game is of the famous legacy series, which means that once you finish the game, you cannot play it again with the same crowd as it is only designed for one run through. In Seafall, you play as a captain exploring new lands building a new story of discovery and exploration.
4. Ice Cool: This is a different game where you play as a penguin in a school racing to steal fish and not be caught by the supervisor! You flick the bouncy penguin with your fingers as it bounces around corners and other players on the board!
5. Terraforming Mars: a Swedish game by game makers Fryx Games, where players try to develop the planet’s harsh surface to a rich and green paradise. Players cooperate in the terraforming process, but later on compete for the victory points awarded. Build structures, introduce plant life and turn Mars into a lush and green environment.
New game trends
To please the crowds, game makers have to make sure that their game stands out, unless they already have a proven brand like Ticket to Ride or Catan. This year, there were several new themes at Spiel. One of them was Escape Room games, in which you and your playmates are put in a situation very similar to the real-life Escape Rooms that have sprung up as a new cooperative game in cities across the globe. In the game Exit – the game, you are trying to solve, puzzles, riddles and finally a mystery, but you have to be quick about it as you are racing against time! These kind of games are fun, but limited as they do not allow a second run through of the game once it has been completed.
Another trend we saw at Essen, as Spiel is colloquially known in the gaming community, are games with real life smells. In the game The Perfumer, players play with their nose trying to discover a secret formula of a perfume. The cards of the game have been printed with real smells!
If music is your game and you like rap, then the game Rhyme from the Greek company Mechanical Egg, might be something for you. The players have to make up different rap verses in a timed challenge with randomly chosen subjects and themes!
Going to Spiel in Essen for me wasn’t just about playing and seeing a lot of games, but more importantly to realize that growing older also means you only level up.
The views expressed are of the author.
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