Spiel ’13: Con Report

You might have seen some of my articles over last weekend about Spiel in Germany and wondered what’s it all about? Here’s your guide to Spiel and Comic Action 2013, held in Essen, Germany!

Spiel '13 at Messe EssenWhat is Spiel?

Spiel (the German word for “game” or “play”) is short for Internationale Spieltage, which is THE big convention for tabletop games (or “parlor games”) in Europe. Also referred to as the Essen Game Fair, or just Essen, for its host city, Spiel attracts about 150,000 attendees over the four-day convention, filled with exhibitors showing off their latest board, card, and kids games. Yup, it’s the same size as Comic-Con, and it’s all for games. And unlike American gaming conventions, it’s just a massive dealer floor: halls of game publishers, game shops, and related geekery booths – there’s very little in the way of programmed events or scheduled play.

Game publishers showcase and demo their newest products to both the public, press, and potential distributors and retailers, game industry insiders make deals and network, and up-and-coming game developers can show off new games in hopes that a bigger publisher or distributor might pick it up. And smaller companies will also playtest upcoming games, hoping to get valuable feedback to help perfect their game mechanics or design before launch. The game fair is also the site for a few world championship tournaments, such as for Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. Comic Action is a special sub-section of the game fair, bringing a focus on comic books and artists to the show.

Spiel '13 - MapFor 2013, Spiel announced a record-breaking attendance of 156,000 visitors (comparable to GenCon in the US) and 828 exhibitors from 39 countries, with about 800 new releases and world premieres. The convention took up three of the largest halls of Messe Essen, as well as a roofed outdoor galleria which held some kids’ activities, which add up to about the equivalent of about 413,000 sq. ft, which is comparable to Halls A-F of the San Diego Convention Center’s main floor (or roughly 90% of the area used up by the main exhibition floor of Comic-Con International). And while the focus is on German-style games from the publishers, there’s a lot of dealers specializing in used games, role-playing games, collectibles and toys, old books and DVDs, and general geeky merchandise, like fantasy-themed wines. One of the nice things about Spiel is that there are food booths on the main floor in different corners, so you’re never too far from getting a brat, waffelt, kebab or beer, while walking the floor.  

Spiel also is the venue when the Deutscher Spiele Preis (German Game Prize) and International Gamers Awards are announced. While these awards are not as prestigious (and sales-boosting) as the Spiele des Jahres (Game of the Year) award that is awarded earlier in the year, games earning these awards are definitely in the top for their categories!

All about the games at Spiel '13

Comparing Spiel to US gaming conventions like GenCon or Origins:

Spiel has a slightly different focus than gaming cons like GenCon or Origins in the US: primarily, it’s about German-style games (or European style tabletop games). You won’t find a lot of trading card games or role-playing games or miniatures/war games being demo’d or for sale. Instead you’ll find games more akin to Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Kingdom Builder, etc. Also there’s a lot more kids games – whole parts of Hall 1 were devoted to publishers of children’s games. Game companies at Spiel come from all over: there’s the big publishers from all over Europe with massive booths filled with lots of tables (and staff to teach games), and smaller booths where several game companies pool together such as a ‘pavilion’ style booth of several Korean game companies or a consortium of Czech game enthusiasts promoting Czech games.

The other main difference is that there is no real set of scheduled events. A con like Origins has a huge schedule of different games that one can use con tokens to enter into tournaments, learn how to play lengthy games, or just play in various RPGs. None of that here. Sure you can grab a table in the dining area, or back at your hotel, but at Spiel, pretty much you just can go around and demo games, either from the company that makes it, or even from some retailers or distributors that have gaming tables to try out some of their stock that maybe are big sellers but came out last year or the year before. 

Spiel & Comic ActionThe con is run a bit differently than American conventions: for starters, there are no convention badges, which confused the heck out of me at first. You simply present your ticket at the one entrance point and they scan the bar code (on a multi-day pass) or tear off the stub (on a ticket bought from the cashier stations outside the entrance). If you want to leave and re-enter that day, you can get a wristband. With restrooms, coat & bag check, snack stands, and even outdoor smoking areas available on the inside of the convention area, you don’t really need to leave. Because of the rainy October weather outside, many attendees made use of the coat & bag check service (especially also for suitcases on the last day as many checked out of their hotels on Sunday morning before coming to the fair).

At the close of each day, there was the loudspeaker announcement that the con was closing (in German), but no army of security guards to sweep the floor clear of non-exhibitors (unlike Comic-Con). People filed out leisurely as they finished up their demos, or made their purchases, or finished their conversations. (Then again, without badges, there’s no way to really identify some exhibitors from other attendees).

Because of the focus on a different style of games, the crowd is a bit more diverse – compared to Origins or GenCon, there’s definitely a lot more children present (and activities and games for children), and there’s a greater balance of genders. My wife and I played in quite a few demos where I was in the minority (and not her), which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced at an American convention. Even “con funk”, that aroma that permeates some conventions with unwashed attendees was absent – I only really smelled it near a men’s room. Instead the smell of fresh waffles, fresh spiral cut potato chips, or real bratwurst filled the air. 

While most gaming cons tends to also have a few minor media celebrities selling autographs, Spiel had none of that. Instead, some game companies would have their more renowned game designers occassionally doing free signings at their booths, and at Comic Action, Panini Comics brought a slate of comic book artists to Germany from around the world. Their biggest name out of their lot was Bill Morrison, artist and writer of The Simpsons comics. The Comic Action end of one of the halls also had an artist avenue area, where different artists sold sketches and prints similar to the artist alley at a comic book con.

Costume at Spiel 2013Most gaming conventions in the US don’t have a whole lot of costuming (typical gaming attire is some sort of geeky t-shirt and a backpack), and Spiel was similar in this regard – a very low percentage of attendees were in costume, and most costumes tended to fit into the fantasy category.

There was so much stuff to see on the con floor that even by Sunday, I was still finding sections of the main hall that I hadn’t even seen on previous days of the show. 

My coverage:

Here’s my videos on the comics side of Spiel & Comic Action:

And talking with some game designers about some new games:

Going to Spiel:

I had been to Essen, Germany earlier this summer for Star Wars Celebration Europe, so returning to the same convention center (though to a different wing of it) and its surrounding neighborhood was a return to known territory. For 2013, a 4-day pass was 29 Euros, which on the same lines as Origins — plus you don’t have to buy any tokens or supplemental badges to play any games. (At Origins, the token system essentially pays for the table space for organized games that happen in the halls and conference rooms of the Greater Columbus Convention Center). 

Just east of Messe Essen is a great walkable street, Rüttenscheider, which is full of restaurants and bars. Oddly, I felt the Rüttenscheider Strasse was busier during the Star Wars convention, possibly because there were more out-of-towners unfamiliar with the greater Essen area. 

While German is the main language of the convention, English is a close second. Most demo staff from game companies would be able to handle both languages just fine to teach whatever game you were trying out and there were only a few times when our German friend who came up to see us and go to Spiel needed to provide extra translation when an exhibitor didn’t quite have the right word in English. Plus some of the exhibitors were better in English than German, especially if they were from another part of the world – we encountered Italians, Greeks, Dutch, Brits, Russians, and even a few Americans among the crowds at Essen.  

Same for traveling in Germany: most Germans can speak English, and getting around the airports and train stations is not too hard (most signage is in both German and English). Going to Essen typically involves flying to Dusseldorf and taking the train from the airport to Essen’s main train station (Essen Hauptbahnhoff) and then hopping on the U11 underground line that goes straight to the Messe Essen and Grugapark. I have no real German language ability (except when reading restaurant menus), but we got around fine.

What we brought home from SpielExtra tip for going to Spiel:

Save some extra space in your luggage for the games you’ll be bringing home! As you can see, we picked up quite a stack of games (and expansions to games), some of which might be really hard to find in America, or just came out at the convention. If you buy games from the publishers, you might want to ask if English rules are included – our copy of the Spiel des Jahres winning game, Hanabi, just came with German rules, but since we already learned how to play, we’re set! Definitely open the games and punch out all the pieces, and you might find that you can nest some games in another’s box to save space. 

Next year’s Spiel will be held from October 16 to October 19, 2014. If you’re into tabletop gaming, you should check it out at least once – do what I did, and combine it with a general vacation to Europe!