Spiel.digital 2020 – I got those ol’ Essen Spiel blues

So today, my thoughts turned to Spiel.digital 2020. I’ve just been away for a long weekend in the country. It was totally lovely. Loads of walking out into areas where we diddn’t see another person for hours. Deer, wild horses and donkeys, all kinds of wildlife. Blissful. The walks were spectacularly peaceful, which I love.

But I also love the opposite – the smell of nerd in the morning. That fever-pitch level of excitement as the masses pour into the Essen halls. I find the sprawling sea of humanity almost as anonymous.

We stayed in two lovely pub/B&Bs. As it’s the New Forest, nothing is cheap. But even by those standards, the first place we stayed was at pricey. Our thought was, sod it, thanks to Covid we’ve been spending practically nothing. Let’s treat ourselves. But there was another longing in the back of my mind. Because it was bought with cancelled Essen hotel money.

We played a few games in the evenings the last couple of nights. It was a nice big room with a little table and a sofa – perfect. We’d only packed small stuff, enjoying plays of Archaeology: The Card Game, Kahuna, Adios Calavera and That’s Pretty Clever. But of course, again, thoughts turned to that suitcase full of brand new games I wouldn’t be dragging into the Eurostar terminal in a few months time.

Spiel.digital 2020

The logo for spiel.digital 2020

I’ve tried logging into a few virtual con ‘experiences’. I always seem to log into a live feed when Gil Hova is on (why me?). But even if it was someone great, I don’t think it would matter. Watching a game designer talk to a grinning amateur youtuber about their latest release is research, not a con. There’s nothing convention-y about it at all. No feeling of crowds, buzz, anything. It’s just videos.

Spiel.digital is promising something different; something better. Try new board games, interactive live events, and local stores and cafes being able to have a ‘free presence’ at the con. They can hold small events of their own and stream them, highlighting new releases etc. This does sound like it could be interesting. And for the many who can’t go to Spiel usually anyway it sounds like a big improvement on the normal. So while I feel confident it will be the best virtual con yet, I remain sceptical that I’ll get much out of it (here’s hoping).

And I’m not comfortable going indoors to public spaces right now due to Covid19, so the idea of going to a local event isn’t appealing. I overheat in about three minutes in a mask, so am avoiding going into stores etc wherever possible. I haven’t even been to my local pub since it reopened, as it doesn’t have outside space to speak of. So you’re not going to catch me going into a room of random gamers to touch cardboard with them (as it were). I simply don’t feel safe enough to make unnecessary risks.

New game release schedules

The Dead Eye, from Pleasant Company Games, releasing around Spiel.digital 2020

It looks as though most publishers are still having Autumn releases, timing them for Spiel.digital 2020. This makes sense, as the lack of Essen Spiel is hoped to be a blip rather than the dreaded ‘new norm’. But by now I’m usually starting to get excited about the Spiel release list. And I’m just not. Without the actual event to go to, I’m really lacking motivation in terms of checking out new board game releases.

This may also be fuelled by the fact we’ve had (in my opinion) two pretty poor years in a row in terms of new games. Very few have stood out. And in the areas I like most, even less games have stayed on my shelves to replace older ones. There have been far too many publishers dressing old ideas in new themes, or using component quality to hide an embarrassing lack of originality and design imagination.

I also fear exposure issues may get even worse for the smallest publishers. Who, ironically, often still make the most interesting (if not the most polished) games. Essen is such a great opportunity for the likes of Pleasant Company Games (see The Dead Eye, above), Mucke Spiele and Looping Games to meet the whole of the industry in one place. How will they cope with having to deal with sending out review copies worldwide? Both in cost and logistics. Many can barely be trusted to open their emails or update their websites.

Keep gaming and carry on

The list of things I’ll miss goes on. The evenings in the hotels and bars. Catching up with old friends – gamers, publishers, designers and journalists alike. That buzz of getting recommendations of things you hadn’t even heard of. The mad rush for those low print run games. And those lovely little gaming trinkets and T-shirts you’ll be hard pushed to find elsewhere. Then there are the cheesy pretzels, the potato swirls, and the cheeky little outside bar between the halls. It’s my favourite week of the year and it’s NOT FAIR.

But that’s Covid. Moaning about missing out on a holiday seems churlish when so many people (over 800k deaths at the time of writing) have lost loved ones. And alongside the loss of life have come redundancies, homelessness and bankruptcy. I have my health, I have my job, and no one close to me has yet died from the virus. So yes, I should count myself lucky. But but but… it’s Essen! OK. I’ll shut up now.

I expect I’ll still go through the game release list. I expect I’ll still email publishers. And I expect I’ll still be sent some games to review. And I expect I’ll do my best to log into Spiel.digital 2020 and find some cool content to engage with. But more than anything I’ll be hoping a vaccine comes along in time to save Spiel 2021 from the same virtual fate.

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