Four Days In The Center Of The Board Game Universe

By Ward Batty

While they don't have much direct relevance to the video game market, the design ideas introduced in board games do evolve into video game mechanics. Further, popular board games showcased this year at Essen may end up digitized and popularized on gaming consoles, as with The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. Gamasutra was lucky enough to attend the biggest board game show in the world, in Essen, Germany, and presents this on-the-floor report on the latest developments.

The Essen Internationale Spieltage

Held every October in Essen, Germany the "Internationale Spieltage Essen Spiel" (Essen International Game Days) has been the premiere event for European board game fans for 25 years. Essen is a medium-sized city of about half a million, located in the westernmost part of Germany, near the Netherlands and Belgium. While a relatively small city, Essen boasts a world-class facility in the Messe Essen convention center. This event is several times larger than any North American non-electronic game events. This year attendance was down, mostly due to a German rail strike, but over 100,000 managed to attend.

The Spiel Fair consists of mostly publisher booths, big and small. Big companies like Ravensburger and Amigo will have a "booth" that's more like a small complex, with dozens of tables for folks to try new games as well as displays and folks to teach games. There are also several large retailers featuring many of the new games that have been timed to debut for the show. Additionally, there are a dozen or so dealers each with hundreds of used and rare board games priced from 5 to 800 euros.

In Germany, most board games are released either for the Nuremberg Toy Fair in March, or in October for Essen. Nuremberg is like the New York Toy Fair in that it is mainly a trade event. Essen is for the general public, although a lot of business also gets done. This year there were over 400 new games released for Essen, and more than 150 of these will find their way into an English edition when they are picked up by an American publisher, such as Rio Grande Games, Z-Man Games and Mayfair Games. The most popular games, such as Settlers of Catan, have also found their way into several electronic game formats including PlayStation 2 and Xbox Live Arcade.

A Brief History of Euro board games

The origins of the Euro board game can be traced to the line of bookshelf games produced by the 3M Corporation from 1962 to 1975. These were games designed for adults and included such titles as Acquire, Bazaar, Executive Decision, Facts in Five and TwixT. These were very successful when imported to Germany and helped to stimulate an already hearty appetite for board games. Soon, more board games were being published in Germany, per capita, than any other country.

What distinguishes a Eurogame from a typical American board game? Unlike many American games which are net sum (you gain by taking directly from other players) in Eurogames players are generally competing against the game itself. They may compete for limited resources or the best action, but rarely do the spoils come directly from an opponent, but instead from the game itself -- usually in the form of victory points. German games are generally shorter to play, ranging from 20-90 minutes. There is usually a good social aspect to the game as well. Players are almost never eliminated from the game, for example.

Settlers of Catan brought the Eurogame to North America in 1995. This year, a couple of hundred Eurogame titles will find their way to store shelves in North America. This is generally accomplished by gang-printing the different editions of the game. An effort is made for the board and components to be language-neutral so the North American publisher can produce the box and rules with English text and the same time the German version is printed. I've seen rule sets in as many as eight languages included with some games.


Essen From A Designer's Perspective

Bruno Faidutti is a game designer from France with over 30 published games. He is probably best-known here for Citadels, a classic variable roll card game. I asked him about his reasons for attending Essen each year.

"I don't know if I would have preferred Nuremberg, where I've never been, but Essen fits better with my school holidays. Everybody also says it's more fun, more gaming and less business. It also means it's probably more tiring, with shorter nights and more alcohol. Anyway, I consider I have to attend one such fair just to keep in contact with publishers and fellow authors, to feel the mood of the gaming world, to see the new games, try to get some offered to me and buy the others.

We usually made common appointments with publishers, together with other French authors, Bruno Cathala, Serge Laget and Ludovic Maublanc. Due to day-job reasons, Serge won't be here this year. I think the other ones would be in trouble if I miss, since I'm usually assuming most of the English-speaking talk with publishers."

Bruno says he had exactly 0.7 new games on the fair -- half of Chicago Poker (designed by Faidutti and Bruno Cathala) and one fifth of Stonehenge (a game with a set of common components and rules for five games by five designers). Is Essen a good place to pitch designs? "I don't think it's the best place, but it's the only fair I always attend, and my only opportunity to meet many non-French publishers. I have to try Nuremberg some day, I think it's more efficient business-wise, but it doesn't fit with my school holidays."

He also appreciates the opportunity to meet other game designers at Essen. "That's what I do there almost all the time when I'm not showing games somewhere. I really like the casualness of the fair, that makes such chance meetings very easy." The fair was productive for Faidutti as he announced at his web page, www.faidutti.com, that "Save the Kursk!, a cooperation game about the dangers of drinking alcohol in a confined environment, had found a publisher the day before the fair."

Report From Essen: The Games

Board game sales have been in decline in Germany for the last several years. The major publishers are responding by going for more light family games. The upside of a light game catching on would appear greater to the big companies that coming up with the next Carcassonne -- which is also available for Xbox Live Arcade. That said, there were a number of games that, at least at first play, look very solid. For the most part there was nothing that was truly groundbreaking. Right now the mechanic that has all the designers excited seems to be finding new ways for players to select from a group of actions.

The variable role mechanic goes back at least to Cosmic Encounter, where players have one or more "alien powers" that change the rules to their advantage. Puerto Rico made novel use of a similar mechanic, where a player may choose roles such as to Produce or Ship goods or Build, but the other players also get to do that action. The player who selected the action goes first and gets an extra benefit (to produce or ship one extra good, for example). Caylus expanded on this idea by having the actions on the board and allowing players to place pawns, in turn, on different game actions.

The idea of finding ways and uses for this mechanic has captured the imagination of game designers and publishers, and this was the strongest trend in the games I played and saw at the fair. Two of the best were Amyitis and Kingsburg. In Amyitis, the available actions are on cards. These are dealt, face up, into groups of three. When an action is selected, the card is flipped and shows a coin on the back. The first action of each group is free, the second costs a coin and the last costs two coins. Players may select all the actions they want, or at least all they can afford.

Kingsburg has actions numbered 1 to 18 and players each roll three dice which they can distribute individually or in groups on the spaces equal to the number on the space. This is a novel twist that has players looking around to see what numbers the others have rolled and what they can grab in what order.


As sales have slowed in Germany, much of the energy is spreading to neighboring countries. The hottest new player in the Eurogame scene is the Czech Republic. These are Eurogames with a strong influence from American-style games in terms of themes.

A good example of this was Galaxy Trucker by Vladimír Chvátil and published by Czech Games Edition (pictured below). This is an interesting game where players assemble their space truck (tiles on a grid) and then a series of action cards are revealed so players can see how their truck fares in space. I'd be surprised if some American publisher doesn't pick this up.

The most novel concept for a game I saw at the show was Seigo. Billed by the publisher as "world's first linguistic strategy game, players build armies of 36 basic phonetic Hiragana characters. The players build armies of Hiragana (Japanese phonetic characters) by conquering Japanese prefectures and producing the Hiragana that appears in the names of the prefectures.

The winner is the player to first acquire all the Hiragana at some point during the game (they need not be held at the same time).


There is technological progress in the game, represented by the acquisition of Kanji (Chinese ideograms used in Japanese). Each Kanji gives you one of the game's 20 technologies and is acquired by forming the Kanji's pronunciation on the game board.

Wars often occur as players compete for control of prefectures and trade routes. But wise players stay out of trouble by intimidating or co-opting their rivals, while building up strength for the inevitable war for the last Hiragana. Of all well-known games, Seigo mostly resembles Advanced Civilization in character.

There is always a strong interest in American board games, primarily adventure board games from Fantasy Flight such as Descent and Twilight Imperium, as well as Magic: The Gathering. Games Workshop, the British miniatures stalwart best known for the Warhammer franchise, has an impressive booth and always seems to do brisk business. German versions of a number of Steve Jackson Games such as Munchkin were available, as well as German Fluxx and Killer Bunnies.



One of the best aspects of Essen is seeing board games so fully integrated into the German mainstream. Nothing is cuter than a German blond carrying two big bags of board games. Is that not the "total package?" The publishers of kids' games have small tables and chairs so the primary customers, the children, can comfortably sit and try the new games. I have heard it speculated that one reason board games are so popular in Germany is there wasn't a lot else to do. Stores closed early and on Sundays.

The culture was to spend evenings and weekends doing things like playing board games with friends and family. I think the forces that pull at family time in America are starting to be felt more in Europe. It will be interesting to see how the game industry responds to this challenge.

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