Spiel is held at Messe Essen, a sprawling convention complex. This year there were five large convention halls devoted to games and gaming. The entry hall held stalls for several game shops, Eurogames from France, Jumbo from the Netherlands, Gibson from the UK, Milton Bradley (sort of) from America, and a host of smaller game manufacturers anddistributors. The main hall held displays by the major German game manufactures: Schmidt Spiel, Ravensburger, ASS, FX Schmidt and the like, as well as Piatnik from Austria, White Wind from America, and many others, and several game and bookstore stalls. The third hall, with computer and roleplaying game stalls, was the only hall where American products, software and games, made anything like a reasonable showing (White Wind and the Hasbro conglomerate companies not withstanding). The fourth hall was half full of used games with the balance filled by Ludoliere from France and many more small game companies. The last hall was devoted to the entertainment of children, presumably so that their parents could go off and play games, and had several stalls with kids toys and the like.
Game company stalls varied in size and layout but all offered tables to play their latest wares and helpful, English-speaking folk to teach you the as yet untranslated rules. Most of the companies do not offer English translations for the rules of their latest games. One notable exception was Doris & Frank, who had a seperate stack of English rules that they popped into their games as you bought them.
The smaller game companies were selling their games directly. The larger companies relied on four or five large game shops set up at the show. This led to dissappointment in the case of ASS's Route 66, which was being demonstrated by its inventor but was not available at Spiel.
We spent most of our time wandering from booth to booth trying to see everything. In between, we played lots of new games and chatted with lots of people that we had corresponded with over the last few years.
The Gruga Park stretches for about a mile behind the Messe Center. It is a fine urban park in the style of Central Park in New York except that you have to pay to enter the Gruga Park. I suppose that's why there were no homeless folksleeping on the benches (although, to tell the truth, I don't remember seeing any homeless people in Germany...).
Transport was easy. We stayed just down the road, close enough to walk to Messe but near the subway so we could ride in. We came to town by train and took a short (though expensive - we got caught in rush hour traffic and it took twenty minutes - later in the week we walked it in about that same time) cab ride to the hotel. Germany's trains are still great and I particularly recommend that Americans travel around by train in Europe just so you realize how screwed up our own transportation system is. We flew out of the airport in Dusseldorf, which is 45 miles away or so. Since our flight was at the crack of dawn, we thought we would need to relocate to Dusseldorf the night before. The folks at the hotel assured us that this was nonsense and that they would arrange a cheap taxi for us. We said okay and ordered the taxi for an obscenely early hour to give us time to make the trip to Dusseldorf. Huge mistake. We had forgotten about the autobahn. Our taxi driver cruised to Dusseldorf at around 130 mph and we were there in less time than it had taken us to go from the train station to the hotel.
The German food was great. Jos, Siggins, and Mike Clifford are all vegeterians and I think they had a tough time rustling up good grub. I would avoid New World food, in general, and Mexican specifically. It's quite the craze in Germany and the rest of Europe but something gets lost in the Atlantic crossing. Almost everyone spoke a little English, which was good since I'm hopeless at languages and Jos doesn't speak German. We had a few problems at small bars / restaraunts but a fellow patron always came to the rescue.
'Spiel & Autor' is a zine published by Karin and Reinhold Witting, a prominent game designer and his wife, that is devoted to publishing the games of fledgling game designers. I picked up several copies and hope to translate several of the games. If I can get permission from the designers maybe Peter can publish some of them here and I'll also include them in the Game Cabinet on the Net.
But what about the GAMES!?
Ausgebremst - Ave Ceasar redone (or re-redone, as the case may be) as a Grand Prix style race but with lots of the randomness removed. Each player sorts their movement cards into four stacks and can choose which stack to draw from when replenishing their hand.
Phantoms of the Ice - the first White Wind game NOT designed by Alan Moon. A reworking of Team which was a reworking of Slapshot (or was it the other way round?). It's ice hockey with silly cards and guess who the Sumo player looks like? It sold like hotcakes at the show.
Mush - dog sled racing in the Yukon. A reworking of the near-classic Men of Iron by Mike Clifford. A must for Alan Moon fans.
Die Vikinger Kommen - a dry strategy game from Alex Randolph. A reworking of Turnier from Parker (1976) and Claim from Jumbo (1984) according to Spielbox.
Check the Ripper - another Alex Randolph memory game that was little more than Sagaland for adults.
Easter Island - those famous heads take part in a foot race (head race?) and the heaviest of the two frontrunners wins. Each turn a player may add stones to their head and move all of the other heads OR add stones to the other heads and move their head - nice bits, some strategy, impossible to take seriously, great fun.
Wurmeln - yet another offering from Alex Randolph. This one is a boardless boardgame about worm racing. Part puzzle, part strategy game, part kid's toy.
Die Schlacht der Dinosaurier - winner for most prolific bits - a few dozen, detailed, plastic dinos complete with attacking cavemen and pterodactyls on clear plastic stands. I've no idea how the game plays, though, but judging from the players its a light wargame.
Route 66, The Card Game - a sleeper from last year, the setting is a road trip from Chicago to L.A. Players keep accelarating the car till someone gets pulled over by the highway patrol. Tricky, silly, fun, not available for purchase at the show due to 'distribution problems.' By Wolfgang Reidesser, the author of 'Ausgebremst.'
Hotel Life - This game of hotel management looked great and seemed to be a lot of fun but was lost in a sea of German. Unfortunate.
Spritfresser - Which means 'Gas Guzzler.' A car racing game with a new system to model the decay of the vehicle. Accelerating or braking consumes gas - when your tank is empty, you stop (as opposed to Formule De's more complex system of vehicle breakdown).
Fugger, Welser, Medici - The new gamer's game from Doris & Frank was approached gingerly by the Sumo Regulars but Siggins eventually handed over the 99 DM (roughly US$65) and left with a copy. It looks very nice (but all D&F games do) and there may be a good game lurking in there somewhere.
In Teufel's Kuche - Randolph, again, this time in the Devil's Kitchen. Cute, plastic devils race to feed the Prince of Darkness, take part in cooking duels, and get blasted if they serve the wrong dish or lose a cooking duel. A kid's game with a smidgen of strategy thrown in for good measure. This one wins the Tim Trant Charming Award.
And that, was about that. I recommend attending at your earliest convenience.
Ken Tidwell (email@example.com) is the keeper of The Game Cabinet, a treasure trove of game-related info on the World Wide Web at http://web.kaleida.com/u/tidwell/GameCabinet.html.
Das Regeln Wir Schon! (Moskito) Easily the best of show. Absolutely brilliant. Karl-Heinz Schmiel discards the "every other year" theory with this one, since I also loved Was Sticht? last year. Game is about making and changing the rules of the game, all through the play of cards and taking of chips. I've played it three times and it gets better each time. Will probably wind up being one of my four all-time favorite games. Unfortunately, the whole game is in German, including many cards with lots of writing on them. But if you have a translation, the cards are only a problem during the first game. Besides, you can make up an English card deck if you really like it, like I'm doing. Self-balancing game, with lots of ways to catch up or stay in the lead. Has some action elements too (don't speak at a certain time, knock on the table at a certain time, stand up as you play a card, etc.), which I usually hate, but they work in this game. In fact, I may add some more action rule cards of my own. Of course, if you don't like this kind of stuff, you can leave out these cards. There is one which concerns knocking at a certain time which should be left out because it doesn't really work. Lots to think about but not too much as in Extrablatt. Lots of laughs with all the strategy and tension.
Falsche Fuffziger (Friedemann Friese) May be the second best business game ever, second only to Schoko & Co. Might even be as good except for a small luck element that may not be as significant as I think. I played it twice. Subject is counterfeit money. Lots of clever mechanics within the overall system. Not as long as it appears.
Wucherer (Friedemann Friese) Great little card game about apartment houses. Double sided cards drive the system. Quick, possibly too quick with 5 or 6, but you can easily extend it. A hassle the first time through because of all the different cards, but worth it, and the second game is much easier.
Terrain Vague (Ludodelire) A game that everyone likes when they play it, but no one seems in a rush to play again. Probably because it is very chess-like and involved. Great system with lots of interaction and lots of clever balancing elements. The subject is teenage gangs at war in a junkyard. Sort of an abstract wargame. I played it once, but I'd try it again.
Wurmeln (Blatz) Worm race game that is simple but lots of fun. Some people I didn't think would like it because of the mechanics and/or the theme, did like it anyway.
Volle Lotte (Abacus) Great little card and dice game. Sort of Yahtzee and Can't Stop with cards. Don't pass it up. Traumland (Piatnik) Terrific trick taking card game. The twist is that a trick can be any number of cards from 1-30, depending on what's played when. I played it a bunch of times. I liked it better with 3 than 4, but it was still okay with 4. Probably overpriced since all you get is a card deck in a much too large box, but the play value is real. By Hartmutt Witt,designer of Koalition among others.
Last Paradise (Franckh) This one was really new last year, but I just got to play it for the first time. A great 20 minute game with just enough strategy to keep you interested. Great bidding system. Unfortunately, it just isn't worth the 90-100 DM price. By Reiner Knizia.
Big Boss (Franckh) After the first game, I thought this was better than Acquire. But I've changed my mind now after the second game. A good Acquire variant, but again, probably not worth the 100 DM price, even with the nice components.
Teufel, Teufel (Salagames) Abstract game with a very unusual system. I'd try it again, but I can't decide what the replay value is yet. By Hartmutt Witt.
Ausgebremst (ASS) Uses the same basic system as Ravensburger's Ave Caesar except the theme this time around is auto racing. Everyone seems to like it. Adds more strategy to the system and gives you a lot more variety with more tracks and difficulty levels.