A couple of weeks ago, I took a flight to Essen, a city in Germany, with my son for a long weekend away. Our sole purpose for going was to visit the Essen Spiel 2018, the largest boardgame fair in the world. A whopping 190,000 people attended the fair this year.
I’ve been mulling over my experiences since coming back and thinking about how it compares to other boardgame conventions (such as the UK Games Expo, which is my main benchmark for comparison).
People warned me before going that it was very cramped and not necessarily a very enjoyable experience. Apparently, some people would go there to buy the latest games and saw the fair itself as a necessary evil.
Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, but it is quite different from other boardgame conventions and there are a few things that you ought to be aware of if you’re considering going for the first time. Let me tell you all about it…
Unlike other boardgame conventions around the world, Essen (as it’s colloquially known) is essentially just a massive marketplace. There is no organised play (tournaments) or open gaming. There was a surprising lack of cosplay (the UK Games Expo always has loads of cosplay). Just a lot of people buying a lot of games.
More boardgames are released at Essen each year than at any other time or place. This year around 1400 new games were released: in a single weekend! Most people would do well to play 1400 different boardgames in their entire lifetime.
The fair itself consists of around 8 large halls filled with stands. Some stands are just retailers selling games; some are publishers demoing (and hoping to sell) their latest games; some stands sell game accessories: dice, storage trays, T-shirts, playmats… you name it.
The first thing that strikes you, apart from the size of the halls themselves, is the sheer number of people. Some halls are definitely busier than others, but even the quieter halls still had plenty of people wandering round. I didn’t find it too cramped personally, but it was strangely claustrophobic (from the crowds) and agoraphobic (from the huge spaces) all at the same time.
People have a different attitude to boardgames in Germany. They have been an integral part of family life for decades. Much more so than in any other country around the world. Tens of thousands of people attending the fair will have never heard of BoardGameGeek or The Dice Tower, but simply like buying and playing new games each year.
I was sat on the tube with my son on the Saturday evening, heading back to our hotel, when two ladies got on the tube and attempted to sit next us. I say ‘attempted’ because they were each carrying four bags full of games (no exaggeration) – and they weren’t small games! There just wasn’t enough space for them to sit down on the seats with the bags on their laps. It was quite comical to watch!
I looked wide-eyed at one of them and she gave me this naughty grin, as if she’d been caught stealing candy. “You’ve done well!” I said and I started laughing: incredulous at the number of games they were attempting to carry. They both started laughing with me, clearly aware of their over-abundance of games. “We’re boardgame freaks!” said the first lady.
The extraordinary thing (to me) was that, glancing over the games they had bought, I didn’t recognise a single one. Now I had done my research before coming to Essen: I knew which were the hot releases, which games people were raving about and would be selling out quickly. They didn’t have a single one. I don’t know how they decided which games to buy, but they were clearly very happy with their purchases!
There were plenty of other people there though that had been paying attention to the hotness list, because some demo games were incredibly difficult to get a spot in. The only way to get in these games was to effectively form a queue next to them and wait for the current group to finish. It must have been rather off-putting for the people playing!
My son and I refined our queuing strategy over the course of the weekend. To begin, you have to find a demoer who isn’t currently explaining how to play the game and ask them how you can tell how far through the games are (eg. is there a round tracker?). Then you scout round all the tables to find the one closest to finishing (without another full group waiting!) and then form/join a queue.
We had to queue for about 20 minutes to get a seat in a game of Treasure Island. The other people we ended up playing with had been queuing for 20 minutes prior to us arriving!
Saturday is the busiest day, but one thing that shocked me was how long it took to get into the convention centre even on the quieter days. Although the halls hold huge numbers of people, the entrance-ways aren’t actually that big so once they open the doors in the morning, it can still take a good half an hour of queuing to get in!
Are you planning to go to Essen next year? If it’s your first time, I just have a couple of recommendations for you. Book your hotel/AirBnB early – they book up fast. Essen itself is pretty expensive to stay in over that weekend, but the other cities around Essen are only 20 minutes or so by train so you can save money that way. Finally, the train/ticket system is not exactly intuitive so do your research on that beforehand.
All told, we played (and bought) lots of games, met lots of friendly people, filmed lots of previews (my son was the microphone guy – and did a great job!) and really enjoyed ourselves. It was tiring, but I’m definitely going back next year.
Have you been before? What were your highlights? Do you have any tips for people?