If you look at the average American family's board game shelf, you'll see Monopoly, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and maybe Life. It might as well be "the land that time forgot," because that selection is awfully stale by modern standards. Board games never stopped evolving over in Europe, though, and are a considerably more popular activity across the pond as a result. Every year, European gamers converge on Essen, Germany for the International Spieltage (offhand referred to as the Essen Spiel, with spiel being the German word for "play") to see what new games will be hitting store shelves.
That's not to say that America doesn't have its own A-list conventions to tout: Gen Con and the Origins Game Fair attract huge crowds as well. Yet while American conventions embrace all aspects of hobby gaming, including RPGs and miniatures combat games, the Spiel focuses solely on board and card games. Still, 150,000 gamers attend, putting even geek mecca, the San Diego Comic Con, in the shadow of Spiel.
Which way is the bathroom again?
The board games you'll find at Spiel run the gamut of themes and mechanics, but you'll most commonly see the economic Euro-style games popularized in America by The Settlers of Catan back in 1995. Euro games can be distinguished by a few key characteristics: they have easy-to-understand rules, play in 60 minutes or less, and use very few elements of random chance. Combined with a focus on high-quality pieces and appealing graphic design, the end result is a slew of family friendly games that are the complete opposite of our standard board gaming vision: a four hour monster that takes an hour just to learn the rules, only to have some random factor play heavily into who wins.
Unlike other conventions where companies may unveil a new design for the first time, there are few surprises at the Essen Spiel. What gamers come for are the new releases, and there are literally hundreds of them. Titles that may not actually hit store shelves for several more months are available for demo and immediate purchase at just about every publisher's booth, so it's not uncommon to see fans travel great distances to snatch up these preview copies.
A calm before the storm.
Think about it for a second, perhaps with a video game analogy. If you could go to a convention tomorrow and buy copies of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, you'd have booked a flight months ago. You'd probably probably line up early, race to the Activision booth, and fly home with an entire suitcase full of discs for your friends. This is exactly what happens at Spiel, except for the slightly less mainstream hobby of board games, so you can understand why this game fair is a big deal to the gaming community.
With so many games to choose from, it's nearly impossible to pick out which will be this year's big hit. Even the best ranking systems only get about 3 out of 10 right. I've spent more hours than I can count poring over the coverage coming out of Essen this year, and after digesting many gamer's impressions of the new releases, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the following ten titles:
- Power Grid: The First Sparks
- Ora & Labora
- Drum Roll
- Ascension: Return of the Fallen
- Mage Knight
- Stalag 17
- Dungeon Petz
Of course, most of these wont hit US shores for several months, so we'll have to reserve actual judgement until MTV Geek can review them! In the mean time, for a deeper look at some of these games, I recommend checking out BoardGameGeek's UStream channel. BGG had their own booth at Essen and live-streamed meetings with each of the major game publishers, but all of the videos are still available for viewing at your convenience.
Even though the focus is typically on pre-release demos and sales, there are still a few announcements throughout the convention. This year's biggest news was that rising star publisher Stronghold Games will be reprinting a "holy grail" out of print title, Richard Hamblin's Merchant of Venus, originally published by Avalon Hill way back in 1988. The news was quickly followed by Fantasy Flight Games announcing they were publishing... the same game? It turns out that Stronghold has signed a contract with Hamblin, who claims that rights to the game's design have reverted to him, while Fantasy Flight Games has struck a deal with Hasbro (which owns Wizards of the Coast, which then in turn owns Avalon Hill).
Fantasy Flight has already shown off the box art for their upcoming Merchant of Venus reprint.
Stronghold's Stephen Buonocore has provided a few updates to fans online, stating that he has been in personal contact with Fantasy Flight's CEO, Christian Peterson, about sorting out this misunderstanding. Of course, Hasbro went ahead and filed Merchant of Venus with the US Patent & Trademark office this morning, so legal forces are already in motion. Fantasy Flight already has a completed design, and was preparing the game for an early 2012 release, so my personal speculation is that we will not see FFG backing down in this fight.