Event Coverage: Internationale Spieltage - SPIEL 2012
Eddy Sterckx is in Essen, Germany for the annual four days of board gaming fun at SPIEL. He reports back on what was new this year and what was the most attractive.
Where: Messe Essen, Essen, Germany.
When: October 18th - 21st, 2012.
A Wargamer at a Board Game Convention
Many moons ago when I turned in my first article for a website, a grizzled reviewer asked me what I wanted out of my writing efforts. “That’s easy,” I said, “money, women and fast cars just like all the rest of you.” He just smiled like a Jedi to his particularly dense padawan and said, “When I ask you this question again years from now your answer will be: recognition: people reacting positively to the stuff you write.” He was absolutely right of course. Now, the trouble is getting people to react to your article. This requires either putting outrageously erroneous or obnoxious claims in there, or coming up with a novel concept or idea. Last year, by pure accident, I accidentally hit on the latter when I did a write-up of Spiel, the German board game convention. That article landed more reactions in my mailbox than all my previous articles combined, so on the principle of never changing a winning team I’ll try to do a repeat performance: Spiel, a wargamer at a board game convention—the 2012 edition.
So a quick summary of what this Spiel thing is all about: it’s the largest gaming convention in the world with 150,000 people passing through the many halls of the convention center in Essen, Germany. During the show about 800 new board games get introduced of which a handful were wargames or hybrids. In addition, there is Slitherine/Matrix Games, the sole publisher there for digital wargames. A bit odd you might think, but not so much as you’ll discover later in this article as the digital world and the world of cardboard are not that much apart.
Here’s another trick that grizzled reviewer taught me: re-use text wherever possible. So here’s a shameless copy & paste of last year’s explanation of the setup:
About this article and its layout: inevitably an article about Spiel is going to talk about lots of other stuff besides digital wargames, so what I’ve done is not write a day-by-day report of this convention but to work in layers so that those only interested in digital wargames only need to read the first part without fear of having missed something. Each successive layer will be one step further removed from this. I would encourage everyone to read a layer further than his comfort zone tells him to do because much as some like to believe, digital wargames are not created on some remote island, but are influenced by what happens in the gaming world at large.
Digital Wargames at Spiel
Of all the digital wargame publishers only Slitherine/Matrix Games seems to believe in the cross-over appeal between board games and digital war and strategy games, and for the third time in a row had their own booth at Spiel. This time they managed to land a corner booth in a high-traffic hall and though this year they had Iain on hand to help them run it, they were pretty much busy talking to customers constantly. JD was very happy with the show and looking suitably exhausted, which is always a good sign. Tim and Lucas of The Lordz Games Studio were also there, and chatting with them is always fun because they're so passionate about their games. They enjoy talking about all the grandiose plans they have for the future. As I said to them, they always seem to have 26 different irons in the fire, but have this knack of suddenly deciding to focus on one of them, hammering it into a beautiful game. They were going to give me an exclusive look again at their upcoming Commander - The Great War but technical glitches and simple lack of time came between plans and reality. Talking about glitches: somehow I managed to completely miss having a private chat with Viktor Reijkersz about his plans for the future and the gamer's response to his most recent game-release of Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue.
I did however manage to talk to the Slitherine/Matrix Games guys a lot and they're very optimistic about the future. Wargames are doing well and there are new opportunities with tablet gaming coming into its own this year. Wherever you went at Spiel you saw iPad versions of board games, sometimes even simultaneous releases. In one case even iPad exclusive board games and the boys from Slitherine/Matrix Games are fully committed to getting their piece of the pie. This doesn't mean of course that all digital wargames will move away from the PC to tablets—far from it—but the success of their first few titles on the various tablet platforms indicates there's a seriously growing market there, just waiting to be explored.
Wargames at Spiel
Debuting at Spiel was Victory Point Games, the wargame company that came out of nothing, starting out a couple of years ago with games literally made in their garage on a laser printer. Now the rising star among wargame publishers, they were here showing us their newest quality improvements: boxed games, mounted maps and really chunky and well-produced cardboard counters. They do need to be cautious though, I ran into several wargames who expressed their admiration for the quality of their product, but were also receiving complaints about their steep prices.
The new art for Zulus on the Ramparts - they've sure come a long way.
Talking about debuting: Russian heavyweight historical miniature maker Zvezda made an appearance at Spiel as well, demo-ing their newest Blitzkrieg 1940 "wargame in a box" addition of their World War II series of games. Whenever we passed by we saw kids playing, which was heartwarming—the next generation of wargamers got off to a good start
In the meantime, their dads were busy checking out Blocks in the East—basically a Russian Front game with all the chrome you'd expect and, due to the nature of blocks, one of the few board wargames with a real fog of war.
Lost Battalion Games was there as well with their miniature/board hybrid board game Sergeants: Day of Days. I noticed that wherever the cardboard counters get replaced by cool looking miniatures, youngsters flock in droves. Who can blame them? Those kind of games not only play well, but looks smashing.
The same type of idea can be found in Samurai Battles, a cooperation between the aforementioned Zvezda company and famous wargame designer Richard Borg, of Command & Colors fame.
Pure wargames used to be less popular in Germany due to historical reasons, so I was a bit surprised to notice that the hit wargame Virgin Queen got a German version called Elisabeth—this must indicate that interest for wargames is growing in Germany
Modern wargamers weren’t neglected as Phantom Fury, a solitaire wargame about the battle for Fallujah, got demo-ed there as well.
As was Martin Wallace's Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861, for those interested in the American Civil War.
Udo Grebe is the largest wargame publisher and distributor in Germany and his booth is a fixture at the show. I was pleasantly surprised that his booth size almost doubled compared to last year, with lots of tables for playing demo-games. One thing I did notice was that Udo has also caught on to the fact that many gamers are not either wargamers or non-wargamers but that there are many of us who'll gladly dabble in all genres so he had many non-wargames for sale that had this cross-over appeal as well. He's also the guy who runs the craziest daily auction at the convention and with some luck I managed to get my hands on a second-hand copy of AH's Russian Front for 5 euro. Other must-haves went for serious money, so I passed on those.
At his booth I got a chance to look at a prototype of a wargame he's publishing next year—it has no title yet—set in medieval Europe, and I must say it was one of the nicest looking prototypes I've seen at the convention.
Uwe Eickert of Academy Games was there as well, with people lining up to get demos of Conflict of Heroes and 1812: The Invasion of Canada. Battlefront was there too—no, not the Battlefront we all know from the Combat Mission series, but an entirely different company which funnily enough also specializes in WWII tactical wargames; but with miniatures. Their best-known product is the Flames of War series. They're also the people behind Wargames Illustrated, the top-selling miniatures wargame magazine. They were mostly there to promote their media tie-in game Spartacus, but had a couple of tables there as well for their WWII stuff.
As always, Histogames was present, this time presenting the special edition of Friedrich to commemorate his birth exactly 300 years ago. This is a special type of wargame where the designers managed to accurately represent the historical problems and conundrums faced by the guy on the box cover using typical regular board game mechanics (like cards). If you're curious about new mechanics in board wargames, check this one out.
One of the nice things about Spiel is that you'll find multi-million dollar companies right next to 2 guys with a dream, and that both get the attention of the audience purely based on the quality of their product. One such two-man company is the Ukrainian guys who produced Ruthenia, a wargame set in the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe.
Miniature gaming is not really rare at Spiel, but historical miniature games were—up until last year that is. Last year saw the debut of Warlord Games, a manufacturer of tabletop historical figures and rule sets. As I remembered, their booth was packed pretty much all the time the year before, so it was no surprise they showed up there again this year. And again, I didn't have the heart to drag one of their overworked staff members away from customers with money in their hands to have a quiet chat. I'll catch up with them in a couple of weeks at the Crisis wargame convention anyway: look for a quick report about that at The Wargamer if and when.
Strategy Games at Spiel
It's pretty impossible to exactly define what is or what isn't a wargame, and the border between wargames and strategy games is the same blurry line. Strategy games to me are those games you play on some sort of map, where you decide on long-term strategy, and through the build-up of your in-game economy and armies you try to defeat the other players. An excellent example of such a game is Antike Duellum. Antike is the classic six-player game set during ancient times, and at Spiel famous designer Mac Gerdts was presenting his two-player variant of that game which was even more geared towards conflict. We played a couple of rounds and were impressed with how smooth and elegant it played. One side of the map featured the Punic Wars, the other the Greco-Persian Wars—this game is simply begging for a conversion to a digital platform.
Another game which is a couple of years old, but just now made an appearance at Spiel, was Blockade Runner (an economic game with a very heavy dose of historical background and flavor).
Grand Conquest is the new version of the older Conquest, and again this combination of strategic gameplay with good looking components is a very attractive one.
Another good example of one of the cross-over style of board games is Autokrator, a euro/wargame set in medieval Europe at the time of the crusades. Diehard wargamers may scoff at the historical depth of such a game, but it's exactly this sort of gateway game which gets people into the wargame hobby.
General Games at Spiel
Board games are the heart and soul of Spiel, and the number of them debuting here is staggering. 800 new games were released at the convention, and the only way to deal with such a number is to go over the list and make hard decisions as to what you want to explore beyond a cursory glance, and what to to play a demo of. As I said earlier, the one thing that was very noticeable is how the board game world is embracing the digital world—especially the tablet—as another medium to play their favourite games.
That's not to say everyone is ditching the cardboard and wooden blocks. Here are some of the games we thought were the best of this year's crop:
Tzol'kin: a classic worker placement game with a twist, 6 interconnected gears means you'll need to get your brain in gear for this one.
Village: winner of the “German Expert Game of the Year” award. I've played this game a half dozen times now and I must say I agree with the award committee (for once).
Star Wars: X-Wing miniatures: What can I say? They cost an arm and a leg and everyone wants them. Fantasy Flight Games have another winner/milking cow - take your pick - on their hands.
Myrmes: a game about collecting various kinds of mushrooms (yes, that's not a typo). Weird theme, but going by how utterly impossible it was to get a spot on one of the demo tables for this, it was a hit.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple: Undoubtedly the biggest buzz game of all. The game is pretty self-explanatory: you're in a temple, get the jewels and get out before everything comes crashing down—think of an Indiana Jones movie in a box. This is a real-time board game that comes with a 10 minute soundtrack on a CD, and that's exactly how long the game takes as you'll all work together to get in and out within 10 minutes, or die.
Yedo: This was my own personal favourite, which also happens to have been designed by two local guys. This is a strategy game where players assume the roles of clan elders in the city of Edo during the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Great mechanics and a great theme make this game a piece of work the designers can be rightly proud about.
The gaming world is a weird place, with weird and wonderful people in it. So, finally, here are some pictures that I think you might enjoy.
And now I have to rectify a grievous mistake I made last year. All pictures in this article and that of last year were taken by my lovely wife Ann who shares with me a passion for games, and in her case combines this with great picture-taking know how. Last year I somehow forgot to properly attribute those pictures, and I know she's going to read this article and be pleasantly surprised that her forgetful hubby remembered it this time around.
I'll leave you all with the traditional picture of "The Loot" we took home.
Take care and good gaming.
Article written by: Eddy Sterckx
About Eddy Sterckx
Eddy Sterckx is a software engineer who’s been playing digital wargames from when they sill came on floppy disks, and the paper kind from back in the Stone Age when AH and SPI were kings. He hangs out at all the usual grognard spots.
Forum username: eddysterckx
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