This year, my husband and I attended Internationale Spieltage for the first time. Held in Essen, Germany, it’s the largest board game convention in the world.
Board games have been slowly but surely taking hold among the more nerdy circles here in the States – heralded by the growing popularity of games like Settlers of Catan and Dominion, they’ve started showing up in our friends’ households and at conventions like Penny Arcade Expo.
In Ballard (a trendy city just outside Seattle), we even have a French-style cafe called Cafe Mox; because it’s connected to an incredible board game store called Card Kingdom, you can sit down, grab a beer (or an Italian soda), eat a tasty meal, and play a board game (or two, or three!) with your friends. Card Kingdom has an extensive collection of games which are open and can be checked out by anyone, and they don’t care if you play them while eating. Cafe Mox even has back rooms which you can rent out (they’re free when you order over $100 of food, which isn’t hard to do when you’ve got 5-10 people playing board games and snacking.)
In any case, what’s fascinating about going to a game convention in Europe – particularly in Germany – is that board games aren’t just for self-identifying geeks. At Spiel, entire families were in attendance. Grandmothers were playing strategy games with grandchildren; high school teenagers chattered excitedly on the tram with us on the way to Messe Essen, the convention center which hosts the annual expo.
In other words, in Germany (and in other parts of Europe), board games are ubiquitous family activities, not just a niche hobby. I think this is incredible – what a fantastic bonding activity for families to do together. Certainly there are a small set of games like Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Chutes and Ladders which are considered American classics, but so many of these are simplistic, heavily chance-based, and lacking in deeper strategy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those elements, though they can often become boring and even reviled with time. (I’m looking at you, Monopoly – there’s no better way to create family schisms than playing an intense, multi-hour game of Monopoly during the holidays.) It’s just that there’s so much more richness in many of the games that are out there, but because they aren’t mainstream in the US, I don’t think as many people are discovering them.
The games I’m talking about are immersive and wonderfully themed – from running your own farm (Agricola), to curing the world of a disease outbreak (Pandemic), to fighting zombies (Zombicide). These games require strategy, skill, and problem-solving; they make you feel like you’re a farmer, disease control expert, or running from zombies. Many aren’t necessarily that complex to play or learn. We even own games about being a mountain climber and acclimating to altitudes (K2), and spelunking through a cave (The Cave – one of my personal favorites).
More and more games are also cooperative, with players working together to win. So, while board games have been experiencing a resurgence in the last couple decades, it feels like they just keep getting more creative. Board games are being elevated to an art form.
While going to Spiel is an amazing experience in itself, our main impetus was actually to pitch a board game we’ve been working on for the last year. The goal of pitching our game is twofold: to get feedback, and to hopefully find a publisher who’d be interested in bringing it to market.
Jason and I were crunching for hours every night in the month before the convention, frantically preparing 5 prototypes for their international journey – we finished the rules book the night before, at about 3 in the morning! We set up three pitch appointments in advance, with the publishers Rebel, Ystari, and Z-Man. I wasn’t there for the pitches because I didn’t have enough vacation days to take all that time off, so Jason flew to Germany ahead of me and took care of them during the first three days. It sounds like they went quite well, in spite of being accidentally double-booked for one, and doing another on top of a cardboard box because there wasn’t any other space to demo – very intense and exciting!
Ystari concluded that our game is a little too complex for their brand (the play time is a bit too long, and there are more physical pieces than their games typically have.) However, both Rebel and Z-Man accepted our prototypes.
In about 4-6 months they will play our game, provide feedback, and let us know if they think the game is a candidate for publication. In the worst case scenario, we’ll hopefully get some great feedback from industry professionals, which we can turn around and apply to the next game iteration. In the best case scenario, they’ll be interested in picking our game up and publishing it. But, if not, we can also consider Kickstarting our game, which is becoming a very popular method for bringing games to market – in fact, many board games get significantly overfunded, because it ends up that we nerdy types like to shout, “Shut up and take my money!” whenever we see something cool on Kickstarter.
As for the rest of our time at the convention, it was very difficult not to buy everything in sight – so many interesting games! We saw many people lugging around entire carts full of them – I don’t envy them the process of transporting them all home, but it just goes to show you how dedicated many of the people in attendance are, especially when many of the games haven’t yet been released in the US or other countries. I certainly wish we’d had more room in our luggage: especially on the last day, the sellers were offering great deals on bundles.
We ended up getting the following:
- Cornish Smuggler – a game about establishing your smuggling network and avoiding customs in 18th century Cornwall. It was originally funded via Kickstarter, but the game’s creators were at the convention selling it as well.
- Assaultous – a two player strategy game that’s a combination of Settlers of Catan and chess. It’s independently published and not available in the US, so we were very excited about this one.
- Call of Catthulhu – hilarious, ridiculous, and looks like a lot of fun.
- Iron dice – gorgeous, Italian-made dice. They aren’t balanced for games of chance, but they’re pretty to look at. :)