Mike Siggins reports...
Sorry, couldn't resist that font and I certainly didn't want to wait a whole year... [Ken: Use your imagination, folks...]
October may well mean bierfests for many visitors to Germany, but for the gamer there is only one place to go - sunny Essen, hard by the Ruhr, a town all but devoid of aesthetic qualities. Despite my firm making every effort to prevent my attendance, I once again made the pilgrimage to the massive Spiel exhibition where in addition to my usual buying hat, I was also a retailer for the first time. Yes, after some concern over allocation, Sumo and Lionel Games shared a stand in one of the main halls, opposite those of Ravensburger and Piatnik thanks to some string pulling, and despite a couple of hitches we were more than happy with the results.
Let's deal with the hitches first. Problem one was the air quality in the halls. Apart from the prevalence of chainsmoking as a hobby (Mike Clifford insists that it is in fact compulsory), the air was laden with dust and was very, very dry. I spent the weekend with sore throat, headaches and dysfunctional nostrils as a result. Not good. Problem two was linguistic and financial, involving a misunderstanding that ended up with our paying out over £100 to have the stand wallpapered in a very tasteful white anaglypta. Given that the gentleman in question was there for ten minutes flat, I know where I will be going for a new job if it comes to the worst. This, as these things tend to be, was a bit of a bummer, not so much from the money angle but because of the mental anguish it causes to spoil your day. Or in this case, the entire weekend.
Nevertheless, the stand was paid for and games were bought from the proceeds of the Lionel sales and I would recommend it if any entrepreneurs are thinking of doing the same. Grab a Transit and go. If we can sell well over a hundred minority interest sportsgames, foreign language magazines and a pile of second hand stuff, then there must be scope for the rest of you. Selling is hard work (and something that I didn't particularly enjoy) but if you add the intangibles of meeting all the right people (!), soaking up the favourable comments on The Tour and having a base in the massive halls, it all seemed very good value, decorators notwithstanding. For those that asked, the stand cost about £100 (initially £80, but Mr Lamont stepped in to help us out) which, even if you sell nothing all weekend, gives you a place for weary Brits to come and rest their legs and chew the fat over the hot games or the latest gossip.
And gossip there was a plenty, not least the strange computer 'coincidence' in the Interteam tournament that saw all the German players start first in Quo Vadis while all the British spookily went last. A walkout was mooted, but nothing transpired. We came 6th and lower, the Austrians took first and second. Or there was the tale of the tequila bill at a local restaurant, rumoured to run into three figures, that made a large hole in a major US company's expense budget or, indeed, the fact that Karl-Heinz Schmiel allegedly had no new game whatsoever two months before Essen but still managed to release Packen Wirs which met rapturous comments from everyone present. Not. But of course, Sumo is above gossip in any form.
Press reports, which never mislead, indicate that 115,000 people visited the show this year, a slight increase overall. This is contrary to what most people at the show thought, as the crowds were noticeably thin at times. David Watts, a seasoned campaigner, put this down to more people coming in on the Thursday to avoid the weekend crowds. This is certainly borne out by Lionel sales that were high initially and then tailed off to next to nothing on the Sunday. I think the crowd mix is also important here, with most keen gamers and collectors appearing early on, to be replaced by families on Sunday who are rather less likely to want solitaire cycling games.
A general problem, that presumably applied to all the British visitors, was the recent devaluation of Sterling. I think we have achieved around DM2.90 to 3.00 over the last couple of years, but I bought Marks at 2.37 in the airport (great foresight there from a man who should know better) which made all the games, hotels and food distinctly expensive. In real terms, this meant a DM 55.00 game came in at £23 instead of the £18 we were paying last time. Not pleasant, and I know it made me think twice on a few games. Conversely, all Lionel sales were paid in Marks so we were much better off there, our games appearing very good value. Considering we also have the inevitable price hikes on the American games to come (Avalon Hill already 11% higher; who mentioned petrol pricing tactics?), it could be an expensive time for the UK game buyer over the coming months.
As for the show as a whole, to continue my annual commentary, I am now of the opinion that Essen runs, for me, in cycles of two years. 1989, my first, was an absolute corker, enhanced no doubt by the novelty and the massive range of games that I was seeing for the first time. 1990 was flat by comparison though there was a marked revival of fortunes the next year. This year was again a little disappointing, perhaps because of the relative lack of outstanding games, the higher prices or possibly because of my harassed state of mind. Nevertheless, others commented on the lack of atmosphere and buzz about the 'must have' games and I'm sure the air quality didn't help matters.
Interestingly, to return to Herr Schmiel for a moment, Moskito seem to be something of a barometer for the show as a whole, neatly shadowing the abovementioned cyclical trend. If I am not mistaken, his last four releases have been Tyranno Ex, A la Carte, Extrablatt and Packen Wirs which shows worrying and consistent swings from class games to junk. Whether Moskito see it as releasing alternate 'deep' and 'fun' games as a strategy or if it just happens that way, I don't know. But I am getting ahead of myself. In time honoured fashion, here is the run down on some of the highlights and lowlights....
Abacus had two or three new games, none of which I managed to get to play, but then again there was very little word of mouth recommendation so I wasn't too fussed to try. This is a dangerous tactic as, sod's law being what it is, the games you don't play often seem to be the sleepers. I think the games were called Quick, Revolt and Flotte Krabbe, or something similar, and I'd value your comments on their merits. Is it me or have Abacus gone a little quiet of late? They didn't have much last year and the days of Airlines, Dicke and Pony Express seem long gone.
Doris & Frank Sandi Toskvig lookalike Doris Matthaus has produced a steady stream of stylish, inexpensive games that are gradually cultivating a following. 'Grower' titles such as Eselsrennen, Igel Argern and Tante Tarantel have now been joined by Banana Republic, a clever cardgame in the Koalition mould. I say this because there is enough by way of tactics to constitute a fairly meaty game system yet it is all done with simple, quick cardplay. Very good indeed. Review elsewhere this issue.
Thomas Fackler The man who stole the show last year with the limited edition Wandering Books game was there again. Not one to be upstaged, he wheeled out Die Oper der schwarzen Spiegel, a game concerning the opera, featuring gold and silver pieces, exquisitely tooled leather board and components and a £700 price tag. As before, one was tempted to take the 'Get a Life' stance, but the game looks so damn good that you do find sympathy with the limited edition, craftsman approach. Sympathy he can have, but I feel I can hold on to the smackers for the time being.
Fanfor Verlag The power of reviews can be frightening. Last year, Fanfor released Hacker which, allegedly and for no apparent reason, met a hail of abuse from the German critics. Accordingly it was literally hidden away at the back of the stand and pride of place was given to WaldesFrust, a beautifully produced but expensive (DM99) game that concerns big business, growing trees and forestry. Hacker is reviewed this time, WaldesFrust next, but all I will say is after the first play through (admittedly much abbreviated) this is not a game to be spending your money on. the views were admittedly rather split, but if you want my opinion, it has all the signs of a duffer.
Franckh Kosmos The company that produces nearly games, Franckh had the usual range of sumptuously manufactured products that are guaranteed to trap the unwary buyer through looks alone. Sadly, in my experience, they have a lot of iffy titles among the good ones and as they also carry high prices, it can be bloody expensive tracking the latter down. Even this situation is better than Noris, who pursue the same tactics, except they don't have any good games at all. Franckh's big '92 game, and probably their most lively seller for a while, is Tal der Koenige (Valley of the Kings), a game about building pyramids in ancient Egypt. Graphically superb, with luxury wooden bits, thematically and bitswise it was right up my street. I agonized all weekend with the £50 price tag, saw it drop to £40 on the Saturday evening and then cracked on the Sunday morning, only to find that they'd completely sold out. Paul Jefferies came to the rescue by sweet talking a lady on the stand who found a demo copy and charged him 'just' £30. What a hero. Review to follow as soon as I've stopped dribbling.
The German Game Archive had no stand but its representatives came over to chat on the last day, requesting copies of Sumo for their collection. The archive is in two locations and contains tens of thousands of games, all of which are post-war if I remember correctly. They left me a set of their archive magazine, which suggests that the formal, academic study of games, designers and archival subjects not only exist but are widespread. The journal is accordingly rather austere in layout and outlook, but as a reference point and as a newsletter it made for fascinating reading. The archive is open by appointment for serious study or, I gathered, simply a look round at what must be one of the largest collections outside those of private individuals. I am intrigued to know how it is financed, as a representative of the archive was buying frantically at the Bloomfield auction. I may be a little odd and serious, but I am rather interested in this area of game archives and museums and wonder if anyone out there knows anything about this or other public collections. I know there is one in Vevey, near Montreux, as I was there just before it opened, but I don't know of any others. Anyone care to write me a few lines?
Hans im Gluck One of just three companies generating buzz this year (the others were Whitewind and Doris & Frank). The reasons were Quo Vadis and Modern Art, both games designed by Reiner Knizia who, even at this early stage, is clearly heading for the premier league of games designers. Modern Art was hailed by most present as a certain Game of the Year contender and many said it was the best release for a couple of years, presumably since Adel, but we don't talk about that. I think sales could have been far higher if the game wasn't so expensive for what you get and if a true story about the game components hadn't put people off - basically, the money chips hadn't set properly and promptly fell apart in your hands in much the same way as a mille feuille. To give them credit for confidence (or arrogance), Hans im Gluck hardly seemed worried as the problem 'had only affected the first edition'. They're obviously expecting big sales on this one and I can understand why.
Historien Spiele Every year there is a game that I completely miss and I can't work out how. This year, according to the press release, it is Colonial Africa from Jean du Poel. Ironically, I can't imagine a more appealing title to bypass. Information please asap.
Jumbo Didn't have a great deal on offer beyond Um Reifenbreite that was selling for just £12 around the show. Just to prove I can namedrop with the best of them, I got chatting to Rob Bontenbal, designer of Um Reifenbreite/Homas Tour and winner of Game of the Year honours this year, about his legendary creation. Some interesting facts emerged. I asked him to confirm the story of the factory fire, which he did. It seems that 20,000 games were printed by Homas Spelen, a Dutch manufacturer of shuffle boards. The fire wiped out all the remaining stock along with the company (no insurance presumably), but Rob believes between 5,000 and 10,000 games were already on the market, a figure that seems a lot more believable than the 200 odd that the myths indicated. Rob has not designed any other games in the sixteen years since Homas Tour was completed, though he does plan on releasing the definitive set of Homas rules that will correct some of the anomalies that have crept in over the years. He will also be working on a new game over the winter based on the Olympics, using a completely new system. Can't wait. Overall, Rob is one of those rare good-natured people and he seemed genuinely baffled by the instant fame. I liked him. And he liked The Tour. I am not worthy.
Krohnland Makers of the cult game Neolithibum from last year, this year they had Pfusch and Burp. Well I think they did, it may have been another similar company, but they were all in the same style of box. Pfusch is a vaguely sensible game about unscrupulous property developers moving into town while Burp is a very strange game that involves building a pier out of planks and rocks from which you fish for aquatic fruits. Mmmm. We tried to play this one evening and I must admit I was less than impressed, though many raved uncontrollably over the weekend. I think our playtest was doomed to failure once the Moon & Clifford double act ('The Fun Bunch') got under way, with most of those present unable to play for laughing. I'll give it another go.
Ludodelire Making their first visit to Essen, Ludodelire had a packed stand and seem to be churning out the new product at a respectable rate. I tried a polite approach to the management and thrust Sumos into their hands, but, very possibly due to my poor Francais, they assumed the usual French reserve. Undaunted, I resorted to buying. I purchased Tempete, a graphically impressive card game that may well need rather more French ability than I have, and a set of geomorphic maps for Full Metal Planete which should see this old favourite given a new outing. I also looked longingly at the final prototype artwork for the new Formule De track; Germany. Sales looked to be brisk and the piles of games shrunk quickly over the weekend. Understandably, Supergang was shifting in large numbers in preference to the very similar but relatively underproduced AH Gangsters. I do like what this company is doing and look forward to their '93 range.
Moskito You will have seen from my comments above that Packen Wirs (Let's Get Packing) didn't exactly impress me. The game is one I could have 'designed' in the bath in five minutes flat. Theoretically about moving house, a Ludo level pre-game leads to the main theme of moving pieces of doll's furniture around using lolly sticks. The idea is not to drop them. A one joke game that pretty much died a death. Further comment is superfluous.
Noris See Franckh.
Piatnik In my view, Piatnik are consistently the most underrated company at Essen. To follow up their excellent Jewelenzauber, they released Insider and Palermo, both very good games in the semi-abstract vein, but seemingly attracted next to no attention from gamers or press. Mike Clifford has promised me a review or two to adjust the imbalance. Of the two I preferred Insider, but both games are well worth your time.
Rostherne Games were there but sadly the new version of Dampfross wasn't. David Watts had a prototype version which, if I may say, has some of the best looking RR maps you are ever likely to see, but release is now slated for later this or early next year. It will be expensive, but I think it will be worth it for fans of this classic game. David was selling Thataway, Chafts, Overdrafts, Manchester, City & Suburban and Townscape among others to the usual enthusiastic crowds and despite a string of travel disasters, he seemed in good spirits.
R&D Games Richard Breese of R&D, from the gaming hotbed of East Sheen, was selling well with a variety of games, the most notable of which was Chamelequin. I am ashamed to say that I embarrassed myself in trying to play this. It is one of those crypto-abstract designs that completely blow my brain and Richard spent an agonising (for him) ten minutes politely explaining quite why I had made the dumbest moves he had ever seen and I quickly resolved to get someone else to review it. I understood enough to spot it has some very clever systems and plenty of strategies, but it requires a brain of a higher order than mine. Review to follow when I have recruited that nice Mr Fischer.
Salagames were very low key and, according to rumour, brought along just 60 copies of Koalition for the whole show which, if true, had to be a cock-up of the first order. I lost count of the people asking me where they could get hold of a copy and hundreds of sales must have been lost. Weird. You can of course buy it from most of the UK suppliers listed last time. Salagames only new release of note was SchatzenTaucher, which should be reviewed next time by Dave Farquhar.
Someone or other had released a boardgame version of the PBM system, Ashes of Empire. It was big, heavy and expensive and looked like the sort of game you might easily complete in less than a fortnight. I must admit I was intrigued to see how they had achieved the conversion, presumably from a computer program, but I can only imagine the game will feature piles of tables and conditional rules. The Knauths, among others, have bought it and I'd be interested to know how it plays.
Schauroth-Lorenz Being as Cockpit was one of the few games I bought, I am very much hoping that this turns out to be the sleeper of the show. This is a game about piloting a plane across awkward terrain and landing safely at an airport, with all the other players simultaneously trying the same thing, it looks very much like a cross between an air traffic control game and a flight simulator. However, the emphasis is firmly on gaming - this is most definitely not a simulation. Very high production values, an interesting theme and all those playing were having a lot of fun. Report to follow when we have the rules.
Whitewind Difficult to say much about this stand as it was always full of people playing and buying both of Alan Moon's new games, Elfenroads and Santa Fe. Assisted by a preview in Spielbox magazine, business was active to say the least and I heard not a bad word said about the games all weekend. Along with Modern Art, these were clearly the stars of the show and having played both already I can say that the enthusiasm is justified. Both games should be reviewed elsewhere this issue and I recommend them both very highly. If neither of these games is nominated for Game of the Year next time, there ain't no justice.
Welt der Spiele, one of the German retailers, was selling the newly released eight player Civilisation which I understand comes with a Western board extension and new cards. There is no news on whether this will appear in an English version, but Gibsons are monitoring the situation.
On to a report from Mulheim or back to cc Office Of Fair Trading.
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