My first Essen Spieltage, aged 42-and-a-half: board game paradise

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about my recent trip to the world’s premier board gaming convention, the Internationale Spieltage 2012 in Essen, Germany.

My first ‘Essen’, my first trip to Germany, my first European train adventure, meeting tonnes of cool folk, playing a whole bunch of games, finding great bargains.

Maybe I should just blather on as I usually do? That seems a safe bet.

When I started getting back into board games a couple of years ago, I hadn’t considered going to a convention full of them at all – unless it had been at the bottom of the road.

In fact I still haven’t bothered going to the ones in either London or Birmingham, despite having easy access to both cities. But as I bought more and more games, and met more people that were ever so slightly obsessed with the hobby in the same way I was, the word ‘Essen’ had begun to loom larger and larger.

Last year’s coverage of the event on the Spiel podcast finally pushed me over the edge (thanks guys…). I punted the idea around my local group (there was no way Zoe was going to be able to go, as it was in term time – not that I think she’d want to anyway), but while a few ears twitched nobody would pull the trigger. But the second some friends from London on Board made an Essen Facebook group I knew my wallet had lost. I was going to Germany.

Choo choo!

I booked a room in the ‘English’ hotel, the Ibis (more of which later), booked time off work, then turned to travel plans.

I’m not sure what inspired me to look into the train; it just seemed like a good idea. I guess having had many boring hours in airports and sweating on horrible planes, compared to some very nice experiences on Eurostar, it just seemed the sensible thing to do – right until I was standing at St Pancras, alone, with three trains ahead of me.

It certainly wasn’t a cheap way to travel, but nor did it break the bank; I got the Eurostar from London to Brussels for £99, Thalys from there to Cologne for £80 and then a local DB train the rest of the way for £40 (all returns).

The world’s worst planned waiting room? Cologne Station.

I left London at 9am and should’ve pulled into Essen at 5pm – but that was leaving long breaks in both Cologne and Brussels for food/panic attacks over late trains. I ended up being delayed about 30 minutes on the last leg, so it all worked out fine (the trip home was a breeze, taking in five hours sight seeing in Cologne on the way).

More importantly, it was a lovely relaxed trip. The air con worked, the seats were comfy, my luggage was handy (and unlimited) and I never had that horrible feeling of waiting. The Wi-Fi on Thalys was free and worked well (get with the programme Eurostar!) and I was lucky enough to have no one sitting next to me on any of my six trains.

We’re in Belgium then…

In fact, the only downside was the view. I’d picked window seats throughout but the countryside was bland, flat fields the entire way – if we’d pulled into Hitchin at any point across Belgium I wouldn’t have been overly surprised.

I’ll certainly travel by rail next year too, although I may have been lucky with the trains. Looking at the departure boards in Cologne station, it seemed 60 per cent or more of the trains were delayed – I’d expected German efficiency and was wholly let down! Maybe it was just a bad weekend, but I’ll certainly leave the same long gaps between trains next year too.

The show

It was great to meet up with the Alea Apartments crew from Paros, seen here enjoying a game of Coup.

As something of a veteran of massive conferences thanks to my current job, Essen Spiel didn’t blow me away for sheer size as it has some others. However, it was remarkable in other ways.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s big – really big – but not unmanageably so. It’s also well laid out and signposted, with easy access to food, drink, toilets etc.

Sure it was busy, but never unmanageably so – although after about six hours, the tension build-up of being knocked into by huge bags/trolleys/rude people did begin to grate. Overall though, it was well organised. My only complaint would be a lack of taps to fill up water bottles and the heat, but it was an unseasonably warm weekend.

Shafausa designer Christophe Borgeat (right) demos his game.

In retrospect, the best thing about it was the total lack of pressure put on you from vendors.

Maybe it’s a German thing, or a European thing, or simply that the enthusiasm of those attending meant vendors didn’t have to barrack you as you walked by as they were simply too busy.

But whatever the reason, not a single stand monkey tried to catch my eye and foist crap on me – even the flier people smiled and didn’t give you evils when you refused to take one.

Best laid plans

The game list I’d made pre-trip went out of the window pretty early on. I guess I’d listed about 40 stands to find and check out during the four-day trip; I’d completed that list by just after lunch on the first day and bought very little because of it.

Might & Magic: Heroes, the board game. This is going to be an absolute epic.

Essen simply doesn’t work like that; beyond a few key buys and demos, the real fun for me came in bargain hunting, browsing and generally just wandering around and seeing where I ended up.

I wandered around mostly alone, which was great for browsing but less so for getting demonstrations of games. While there were occasions where I just joined a group that was at a table, mostly I ended up watching other people’s demos which didn’t give quite enough of a feel to lead to a purchase – although I did return to a few for a ‘proper’ game. I think next year I’ll set Friday aside to try and demo the hell out of as many games as possible with some friends.

There was a lot of fun to be had in bargain hunting and there were some crazy prices; €5 for games that are routinely more like £40 was commonplace. However, two problems tripped me up; the fact many of the games were German only, alongside my general ignorance of so many of the titles.

The Essen floor plan, which was my screensaver for the weekend.

While those close to me may scoff at the second point, there really are many levels of knowledge/ obsession in the board game hobby and while I may be several rungs above my close friends I’m whole stratospheres away from the real experts. I’ve already lost count of games I’ve enjoyed as original that others have later derided as derivative, or games I had no idea were reiterations of old classics; it doesn’t bother me, it’s simply fact.

But when faced with hundreds of thousands of potential bargains/stinkers it becomes pretty frustrating: so many titles, many of which I know by name but not reputation, and only so much room in the suitcase! Were they good titles – and with some of the German titles, were the parts language independent so I could later just download the rulebook?

Suffice it to say though, I managed to spend plenty of money in the end – €120 on a total of 12 games and two expansions (compared to many, believe me, this was very modest). I’ll save the game info for another effort once I’ve played them all.

Essen and the Ibis hotel

The only nice building in Essen?

After getting a horrible metro four stops to the show on day one, as we were lucky with the weather we walked there and back every other day (30-40 minutes). It actually turned out to be a nice walk, heading south from the city centre through an area they seemed to be gentrifying. It was a long road with plenty of restaurants, cafés, bakeries and poncey furniture shops, perfect for either breakfast on the way down or dinner on the way back.

However, to the north, Essen town centre was a depressing place. I wandered in on Saturday afternoon having had a great morning, but an hour later I was thoroughly depressed (luckily beer and pizza back at the hotel revived me).

Like many German cities it was devastated during World War II, but unlike some of the country’s more prominent locations it seems nothing was done to try and return it to any former glories.

Snowdonia designer Tony Boydell teaches us Suburbia at the Ibis. His game was an awful lot more fun than this one…

Instead it’s a drab and depressing pedestrianised concrete nightmare – think Stevenage, but on a bigger scale. This is not a place to pop to for the weekend for anything other than a convention.

Luckily the Ibis was pretty much perfect for what we board gamers needed.

The rooms seemed reasonably priced (but certainly not cheap), while being clean, modern and comfortable (if a little small). Breakfast was a rip off (how can you charge €10 for a self surface spread of cold food, plus scrambled egg?), Wi-Fi in rooms even more so, and the temperature in the dining room was about 10 degrees above comfortable for me. Otherwise, it was all good.

Rumble in the Dungeon

The wonderfully daft, and mercifully short, Rumble in the Dungeon.

The free lobby Wi-Fi was fast and efficient, working throughout the trip without a fault. The staff were friendly and helpful, snacks and beers reasonably priced, the lighting and décor pleasantly forgettable.

And, most importantly, no one turned a hair as each day the breakfast areas slowly filled with board gamers testing their new purchases.

I didn’t have a night later than 1am, being both knackered and excited about the next day, but each night when I went to bed there was rarely a spare table to be had – and there were a lot of tables.

As mentioned earlier, the Ibis has become known as the hotel the English go to – but I played games with Germans, Aussies, Spaniards, all sorts. It made for a great atmosphere; the child like excitement was infectious, while the openness and friendliness was remarkable for a hobby many deride as nerdy.

Spiel 2013?

Packing to go home. Wot no clothes?

Overall, I had a great time. While a bit of me would like the show to be in a nicer city, mostly I’m glad it’s a complete dump.This is a black and white thing – we go, we game, there is no compromise! It’s a single issue trip where I’m not even going to attempt to persuade Zoe to come along; it’s a games weekend, pure and simple and anyone who wants in on it is going to get just that, by the cardboard box load.

So if you hadn’t already guessed, yes, I’ll be back for more next year. This trip proved that board gaming is probably more than just a hobby for me now, although hopefully it’s not yet an obsession.

And finally, a word from our sponsors…

But more than this it proved that the vast majority of board gamers are nice people too; friendly, fun to be with and not as smelly as you might think (although I did have a bit of a cold).

Will I do anything differently next year? To be honest, not an awful lot.While it was expensive to have a room to myself (that hadn’t been the plan – I’d hoped one of my local lot would come along) it was worth it; it’s a long day and a good night’s sleep was a big help. The hotel was fine, the train journey a pleasure, the event a blast – thanks to everyone I played with, demoed with or just shot the breeze with – you’re all awesome. See you next year!

4 thoughts on “My first Essen Spieltage, aged 42-and-a-half: board game paradise

  1. Hi there.
    Had a great time sharing the hotel with you guys. I hope you had a safe trip back to London. Keep on gaming.

  2. Essen – the German equivalent of Coventry. It is in the industrial heartland of the country. It has an exhibition centre on its doorstep. It was heavily bombed during WW2. And it was rebuilt afterwards with lots of concrete and little imagination. Yet one is an ideal place to spend a few days in during October, whereas the other should never be considered as a holiday destination!

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