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ESSEN GAME FAIR - Report by Brian Walker
Why Essen? I have been asked this many times. After all, 'essen' in German means eating: an activity not exactly synonymous with the playing of games.
 
Like many things, it started long, long, long, ago, in a time when the Burghers and just plain folk of the Ruhr were so skint they couldn't even afford a litre at the local. In a effort to bring some joy into their threadbare life-style they took both to inventing and playing games. So what more obvious choice for Friedhelm Merz and his organisation when a site was sought for the first Games Fair back in '82?
 
Little could they have known then what they were about to unleash. The first Fair, Spiel '82, staged in one of the local halls, attracted a mere 2000 or so souls. Spiel '87, now in the massive Grugahalle attracted an attendance of 65,000, while early reports suggest that figure has been surpassed at Spiel '88, further evidence of the continuing renaissance that the German games industry is currently undergoing. Little wonder that enterprising English companies like Silver Bear (Bottom Line)) 3 Wishes (Elixir), and Present Games (Nessie Hunt), have taken to producing completely German editions of their games.
 
Block Mania
The first day provides no hint of the mayhem to come. The attendance is no more than respectable for a Thursday but at least this means there is
sufficient breathing space to talk to some of the designers, one of the happiest of whom must have been Klaus Zoch, whose game Bausack was one of the hits of the show and quickly sold out. Superficially the game is similar to Timber (Paradigm) insofar as it revolves around a set of wooden building blocks. The blocks arrive in a stylish sack (hence the title), and the rules present four games. The most entertaining of these appears to be Knock Out. Each player has to construct an edifice, the like of which would send Prince Charles into a royal froth. The catch is, you are given chips to bid for the piece which comes up for auction. Should you have no chips left then you can be forced to take something which can only be added to your building with the greatest difficulty. One by one the structures collapse to general merriment all round. The winner is the last player to have a building standing. The components, made of different coloured wood, are really quite beautiful, as is the overall presentation. Klaus explains to me that he just sells the game from home and cannot make a competitive price for the shops.
 
Bausack sells for a remarkable £15.00. Interested parties should write to:- Klaus Zoch, Gunterstalstr. 32, 7800 Hamburg. But no Eglish rules as yet.
 
There aren't many new games at Essen as most of the major companies launch their range at Nuremberg in February. One game of interest is Lieber Bayrisch Sterben which concerns a spot of bother in Bavaria circa 1800. Lest this

sounds a trifle esoteric for your taste it might be worth noting that the game was designed by Karl-heinz Schmiel, who produced the stunning election game Die Macher, and then, just to show his versatility, brought out Suppenkaster for Mattel, an hilarious game about calories, where the object is to remain the perfect weight while others gorge themselves into oblivion, or starve themselves into anorexia. A great shame Mattel UK haven't taken up the option on this, or in fact on any of their German cousin's splendid range. Surely the markets can't be that different?
 
Spielfreaks Unlimited
The games fleamarket which dominated the centre of the hall last year is sadly no more. Instead, the purveyors of these unsung treasures have been forced to take stands on which to hock their wares. The net outcome of this is that there are now far fewer games available. Most of the jewels are snapped up on the first day, though there is a consistent supply of 3M and early Avalon Hill titles. Blue Line Hockey from the former fetches £50, while classics such as Executive Decision go for a snip at £30.
 
On 'new' game which does make an appearance to general astonishment is Family Business, the classic card game from Mayfair, now licensed and splendidly repackaged by Spielfreaks Ltd, a company formed for the purpose by Eamon Bloomfield from Games Unlimited. Eamon tells me that this is

merely the first of a series of gems to which he has acquired the rights and intends to publish utilising only the best components. If his first release is anything to go by this is definitely a venture worthy of your support.
 
All is joy on the ASS stand where Klaus Teuber, one of the new generation of German designers, is receiving the award for 'Game of the Year' for his Barbarossa, an accolade which rescued the publishers from a deep trough. The game could be making its way over here soon and will be reviewed in these pages upon its arrival.
 
Trouble in Toytown
Kings of Europe, though, are Ravensburger, who sells games like MacDonalds sell hamburgers, though fortunately they are better quality (the games, that is). Sales of Scotland Yard are now well over the one million mark. The extraordinary thing is that it was a hair-line decision to publish, as the powers that be felt it was a little too different from their usual products. Their range this year was a little on the lightweight side, though the presentation was immaculate as usual. The Sid Sackson game Das Erbe von Maloney was a disappointment, possibly as a result of too much tampering, while Elefantenparade was the starter for the main course that never came. Their card game Hols der Geier (see review) is quite wonderful though very similar to Destino, a game put out by Spears (Germany), a few years back.
 
A strange rumour concerning Ravensburger raches my ears. Nothing new in that, except this one has the unusual distinction of being true. A few months ago the hierarchy decided that they'd had enough of the nonsense of displaying the designer's (or author's, as they are referred to in Germany) name on the boxes. Why, they argued, should they advertise the likes of say, Sid Sackson, when he is not under exclusive contract and free to sell his wares to their rivals. Our business is selling Ravensburger, they argued. After all, in the book trade it would be unheard of for authors to have two books published simultaneously by different publishers. So went the logic. Uproar from the authors. After a meeting of the latter it was decided that no new games would be offered to Ravensburger until the plan was dropped, which it was a few weeks
later. Power to the proles. It seems quiteextraordinary that Ravensburger should try to implement such an idea in the first place knowing the sensitivity of the designers of whom they depend, and many whose names lend not just prestige, but sales to their products. The attempt to draw a parallel with the book trade is disingenuous. Writers get signing on fees, and working expenses, both of which are unheard of in the games business.
 
Designer Notes
If Ravensburger are the single most succesful games company, then the most succesful designer, both commercially and aesthetically, must be Wolfgang Kramer. Last year his trucking gameAuf Achse won the Game of the Year award for F X Schmidt and netted sales of a quarter of a million. His previous credits include the wonderful Wildlife Adventure, Heimlich & Co. and the much sought after Nikki Lauder's Formula Eins, which Wolfgang tells me is to be republished next year, along with Coup, another classic of his. In addition to these he has three brand new games which wil be hitting the shelves next year, all of which, he tells me, will be worth waiting for. An exceptionally polite and modest man, you can take him at his word.
 
Cycling News
Following the cult success of 6-Tage Rennen (reviewed last issue) a search is conducted for the publishers, Holtman VIP. Alas, they are nowhere to be found,
but a strange-but-true story reveals the reason for their non-apperance; they are not a games company! The game was merely a promotional device for pursuing their true goal in life, ie promoting cycle races of the duration stated in te game's title. The game was designed by one of their employees!
 
A million games inventors eat their collective hearts out.
 
That's the bizarre news. The good news is that the company has now been contacted and Just Games expect to take delivery of the game within the month. So be patient. Another cycling game attracting attention is Ronde de Frankijk, a Dutch game featuring the largest score sheet I have ever seen. A translation is promised soon. No sign of another Dutch game, the legendary Homas Tour, but good news about another classic, Das Favorit: this super card game is almost certain to be republished next year.
 
Barbie Doll Bonanza
The Fair closes each night at 9pm but the fun doesn't stop there, as the games continue in bars, hotels, and restaurants throughout the city. On an adjoining table in our eatery the Mattel crowd, led by Master of the Universe (and product manager) Roland Siegers, are playtesting a new card game which seems to involve standing up and making animal noises, much to the disgruntlement of our fellow diners.
 
Saturday is tournament day, with competitions being staged for Bernd Brunhofer's motor racing game PS,
Glittering prizes at the Interteam '88 tournament

the first prize for which is a remote controlled model Formula One car, as Murray Walker (no relation) would say: 'This is incredible!'. A few hairpin bends away the Kremlin tournament run bu the game's designer Urs Hostettler is just about to start. The winner receives the somewhat dubious prize of a a one way train ticket to Moscow, and no, the second prize is not two tickets.
 
Interteam '88
The main event was the first Interteam tournament; sixteen teams from all over Europe comprising four players each. You'll doubtless be enthralled to learn that GI fielded a team led by yours truly, and which included Philip Murphy, whose jottings you may have noted in our role-playing section.
 
We were quite happy simply to compete; imagine our surprise therefore when we learned that along with the teams from Belgium, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and the USA, we would be paid 115 DM (about £38) each. That's right, getting paid to play games, which certainly makes a change from not getting paid fro writing about them.
 
Each team member had to play one game each of Acquire, published by Schmidt Spiele in Germany; Hare and Tortoise (though it is known as Hare and Hedgehog in the German edition); Cluedo ('It was Colonel Mustard, I swear!'), and a new card game published by Piatnik: Indiscretion, which features ten variants by the world's top designers. For the competition we had to play Bonus Malus by Alex Randolph.
 
Points were scored acording to position, and I'm sure you're all just dying to know we finished a respectable eighth and would have achieved a much higher placing were it not for a lamentable performance by a certain member of the team who shall remain nameless.
 
The winning outfit came from a Hamburg games club, with the Swiss team comming second.
 
Following the tournament, the games, which had generously been provided by the manufacturers, were sold off in packs of four to the competitors for 50 DM (£16).
Flying Turtle Captain Jean Vanaise gets a short sharp shock
In addition, all members of the first ten teams received a game of their choice.
 
Everybody agreed the tournament was a great success, though I felt main hosts took it rather too seriously. Next year the competition is to be expanded and should include a greater choice of games, so start swotting now.
 
X-Rated
Over to the Das Spiel stand now. This Hamburg based copany is one of the best known games shops in Germany, though their stand is bereft of home grown products. Their speciality is importing and translating English and American games. A large selection of American wargames is kept doscreetly under the counter, rather like the X-rated videos at your local newsagent.
By way of a memorial there is also a large display of releases from the defunct Italian company International Team (RIP), famous for their beautiful looking games and hopeless rules. It's always surprised me that they didn't team up with some of the American companies whose products were very often the converse.
 
Also on the stand is retired trainspotter David Watts, busy promoting two new maps for his evergreen Railways Rivals, and also premiering Slick, a new share dealing game about the oil business.
 
English Not All Hooligans Shock
Most of the other English contingent are sharing a massive stand which is unfortunately, though appropriately, located behind a double decker bus and resplendent with Union Jack flags. No shorts though. Despite the location there is no lack of puntersmany of whom are soon attempting to find the monster in Nessie Hunt, while others indulge in an Orgy, or find themselves in a Digital Dilemma. The latter, along with Jeremy Shaw's other game Trinity, (both published by Intellectual Pursuits) attract high praise from their German rivals, and neither would look out of place in Habitat. Also present amongst the Union Jacks is the inevitable Mike Lorrigan, busy promoting Capital Adventure, though the locals look understandably baffled when asked to name the first head of the BBC. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of players. Mike vows to have a translated version ready for next year's fair.
'Showbiz' star Derek Carver (centre) shares a joke with Hexagames product manager Joe Nikisch (left) and Spielfreak Ernst Knauf

Representng the magazine of post-human atrology, Games Monthly, is earthman David Pritchard (star sign: Libra). In a previous life (same star sign though) David used to be the editor of Games and Puzzles. David is also impressed by the high quality of the homegrown product, and we both lament the fact that the UK seems incapable of staging an event similar to the one we are now witnessing. Lest anyone think that the Fair deals only with boardgames it might be worth pointing out that there is also a snooker tournament complete with a resident pro; a chess competition with the chance to play against one of Germany's Grandmasters; a backgammon tournament in which they unaccountably wouldn't let me play; and last but not least a competition of the ancient Indian game, Carrom.
 
Heavy Metal Magic
Fantasy games are a growing force in the German market but are still minuscule when compared to their boardgame brothers. Of the majors, Schmidt Spiele are the company
showing most interest in this market and have already licensed Avalon Hills Wizard Quest with some success. On the figures front the busiest stand belonged to Hobby Products and their beautifully detailed Metal Magic Miniatures. These are undoubtedly the market leaders in Gerany and judging by the reaction here it's easy to see why. In the UK they are distributed by Hobby Games and it can only be a matter of time before they achieve a similar status here.
 
Vodka ist Verboten
In case you hadn't noticed it's Sunday already, so over to the Kremlin championship where the proceedings have appropriately ended on a satirical note. The winner of the tournament turned out to be a professional officer in the German Army, and, as such, he is forbidden to go to the Soviet Union by law, let alone take a one-way ticket to Moscow. A compromise is reached when he agrees to the more sedate prize of a ski-ing holiday in Switzerland instead, providing the après ski aperitif isn't vodka, of course.
The crowds are surging in now in such numbers as to make an average Royal Wedding look like a bus queue. It's virtually impossible to get on a stand let alone play a game. Younger members of the family have arrived and are having a great time destroying the Milton Bradley stand. Their Inkognito game manages to survive the onslaught and protect its title as 'Best Looking Game of the Year'. Rumour has it that it will be afforded a UK release next year, but the MB staff are, er, incommunicado when asked for confirmation.
 
The show closes a 6pm tonight and at 5.55pm the crowds are still buying games by the boatload. As Phillip Todd from the newly formed European Games Association points out, 'The Germans really love to play games'. And with such a wealth of treasures on offer, who can blame them?
 
Spiel '89 takes place in Essen, October 19-22. Yes, in 1989. Don't miss it.
UP
Reprinted from Games International Issue #2, with kind permission from Brian Walker © 1988

© Mik Svellov 1997-2004editor@brettboard.dk 28. aug 2004