Con report: Cologne & Essen Spiel 2018

Luckily this year Essen Spiel coincided with the school half-term in the UK (and will again next year) – so Sarah and me took the opportunity to spend a lovely long weekend in Cologne.

Afterwards I went on to Spiel 2018 and she headed home to be a responsible adult (them’s the breaks). And while we didn’t do much gaming in Cologne, we did find one of the best board game stores in all the land – for more on this, skip to the bottom of this post. Suffice it to say that each trip to Essen from now on is going to have to coincide with a Cologne pit stop…

My Essen Spiel 2018

As always, I had a brilliant if exhausting time in Essen. I only had publisher meetings on Friday, dedicating the rest of my time to simply looking, playing and picking up review copies of games – as well as socialising and catching up with as many people as possible.

I also spent chunks of time on both Saturday and Sunday on the Drawlab booth, talking about and signing copies of Witless Wizards: so if you were one of those that bought a copy, and particularly if we had a chat, thank you so much – it was great fun meeting and chatting to you all. The game did well and pretty much sold through the copies they had with them, which is all I could have hoped for – and all the guys (and gals) working on the booth did a brilliant job of explaining and selling the game – thank you all (again).

In terms of organisation, this was the best Essen Spiel I’ve been to (this was my seventh). While numbers rose once more (more than 190,000 came through the doors over the four days) it rarely felt ridiculously crowded. The one exception was the Galleria, which has become an unfortunate bottleneck. I understand why they fill it with kids’ stuff, but they really need a new solution for next year so this area can simply be used a smooth funnel between halls.

With the addition of a new entrance via Hall 6, it also meant there wasn’t really a hall where games went to die. Some smaller publishers in Hall 6 may dispute this, as it was mainly dedicated to everything from weird beer to cuddly toys, but overall it felt as if there was more of a flow between halls.

Games and gaming at Spiel: Hits and misses

I felt, in terms of new releases, it was an average year. The games generating buzz were often those which had limited copies, rather than the ones people were looking forward to most. I don’t think people wanted Newton more than Coimbra, for example – it’s just there were less copies of Newton available.

It’s a shame poor management by publishers still generates more buzz for a title than it actually being a good game (not to say Newton isn’t one). People – it will be in the shops soon, and it’s not as if there weren’t another 1,000+ other new games to choose from…

In terms of innovation, you don’t expect to be saying Fantasy Flight stole the show – but they did. Both KeyForge and Discover have been troubling the top of the Board Game Geek Hotness list for months and were very highly discussed, played and coveted at Essen Spiel. I’m hoping to get hold of copies of both, but the idea of every box containing unique content – but with a shared rule set – is fascinating. Even if it isn’t perfect this time around, the idea computer algorithms are starting to make their own games (in a way) is a fascinating one.

But beyond Fantasy Flight, the output from the larger publishers – for me at least – was largely disappointing: it felt more mass market and largely bereft of imagination. Titles such as The River (Days of Wonder), Azul: Stained Glass (Next Move), Solenia (Pearl) and Blue Lagoon (Blue Orange) felt derivative and unoriginal (if fine to play), which suggests to me the larger publishers are – probably quite rightly, in a business sense – targeting the ever-growing number of players new to the hobby.

My hunt for interesting mechanisms and ideas kept leading me out to halls four and five – and the great majority of games I brought home were from smaller publishers (see my list of incoming reviews here). But again, this isn’t a criticism of the big boys – more an acknowledgement that, as the market continues to grow, the priorities for the larger publishers will change in terms of what they’re aiming at this new, uninitiated public. The fact masses of new gamers seem to think Century: Spice Road is a ‘game’ (to me it’s a mechanism at best) suggests I’m part of the past, not the future!

Outside the halls: Essen itself

Finally, a few words on Essen the place, as I’ve been mean about it in the past. My first few visits to the city (2012, 2013) were a real struggle in terms of finding anywhere nice to eat or drink, but things have certainly come on in the past couple of years.

Fritzpatricks (pictured) still serves a great pint of Guinness and is the go-to place to meet up, while the Istra Steakhaus is still my favourite place to get a plate of meat and a lovely cold German beer on tap. But they’ve been joined by an ever-growing list of solid eateries on Rüttenscheider Straße and also Alfredstraße. Special mentions this year to the burgers and craft beers at Kohle*Craft*Werk and the hot dogs at Pan’s BeBop.

And finally, a hotel bombshell… After seven years in seven different establishments, I have finally booked the same place two years in a row for 2019! Congratulations, Boutique 019. You may not be in the best location, and you may not have a bar, but the fact you have a nice breakfast included, good free Wi-Fi, comfy bed and good shower makes up for that. And better still, you have single rooms at under £100 per night – pretty much gold dust in Essen during Spiel.

Cologne: Second-hand board game paradise

Being the world’s most mature board game market, Germany has a thriving second-hand game trade that stretches back into the nineties and beyond. It means you can find some amazing bargains alongside reasonably priced games that are super hard to find (and/or expensive) elsewhere.

While we largely did the tourist stuff in Cologne she did humour me for a morning in what many describe as the best second-hand board game store in all of Germany, Spielbrett. Owner Nadine Pick was great company and I could’ve spent all day in the shop.

The place really needs to be seen to be believed (check out the video snippet of one of the rooms below). An unassuming entrance leads to a series of small but jam-packed rooms full of games new and old, both in German and English, covering the history of the hobby. And I mean full – we’re talking floor to ceiling here, and some of the ceilings are pretty high. The actual collection stretches beyond 10,000 titles, with perhaps a third of that on display – but everything is catalogued, while you can enquire and even order much of it online (via Board Game Geek).

Via Spielbrett and the second-hand traders at Spiel, I managed to pick up the following:

  • Kupferkessel Co: (2001) A two-player game from Maori designer Günter Burkhardt that uses the same ‘move around the outside of a tile grid’ mechanism. I’ve been on the look out for it for ages, and this copy was still sealed. It was a SdJ ‘recommended’ back in 2002, but never got an English language release.
  • Balloon Cup: (2003) This whimsical looking yet mean two-player game has been on my radar since playing it on Yucata – but I couldn’t bring myself to get the horrible Rio Grande reprint (as Piñata). I instead picked up the original German version, in perfect condition, for a cheaper price.
  • Manhattan: (1994) Another classic (surprisingly aggressive area control) with a reprint that is no more appealing than the original; surprising in this case, as the original wasn’t exactly stellar in the looks department. Found the original German version for way under the price of a ‘new’ copy, again in great condition.
  • Thurn and Taxis: Power and Glory & All Roads Lead to Rome: (2007/8) The original Thurn and Taxis is an enduring favourite, so I kept a lookout for its two expansions. I found both second-hand for less than 20 euros each, so snapped them up. Now to get all this new nonsense played so I can get to the old stuff!

Overall, it was another brilliant trip to Germany. I just need to remember to book a few days off afterwards next year to recover…

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