Across the Board looks at gaming in public spaces around the world. In countries all over the globe people gather to play games in pubs, community centers, cafes, churches, and all manner of other meeting places. This series will describe some of those places and the people who gather to play games there in an attempt to encourage others to emulate them.
Report by Mike Siggins
Okay, I'll admit it. As a seven year veteran of Essen, I was more than surprised to be told recently that Spiel is in no way the biggest game event in Europe, let alone the world. That honour, apparently, rests with the Salon des Jeux held in Paris every April. So, with my interest piqued and wondering why I'd been travelling annually to a grotty industrial conurbation on the Ruhr rather than my second favourite city, I made a point of checking it out. At the same time I performed a quick round up of the shops, magazines and new games, in the hope that this might also be of interest.
Before the description and explanation, the facts. According to the press pack Salon des Jeux attracts around 200,000 visitors each year - around twice Essen's draw. It is held in the modern and well specified Parc des Expositions to the south of Paris, and occupies a huge exhibition hall that is around a quarter of the floor size offered by Spiel, perhaps even less. So it is bigger in visitors, but not in size - first claim shot down. Like Essen, it features a large number of exhibitors including Mattel, MB, Hasbro, Jeux Descartes, Ludodelire, Wizards (avec Magic: l'Assemblée), Gigamic, Abalone and so on. However, there were in total only fifty stands - a mixture of large and small organisations offering children's games, roleplay and jeux des société, CCGs and abstract games. Sadly, there are no small unknown companies, precious few tables to play, no bargains and only one mad inventor turned up. Essen 2, Paris 0.
So, how does the Salon attract 200,000? Well, as you've probably worked out by now, this is lies, damned lies and statistics. The answer lies in the fact that the Salon is attached to a huge model engineering show. It is an important part of the overall show, but still just a part. The rest is an amazing display of model railways, cars, boats, rockets, gliders, figurines and planes. Not exactly a hardship for me, since I enjoy all this stuff and I didn't know it was going to be there, but somewhat misleading when it comes to attendance figures - it would seem that each individual section claims 200,000 - well, they would wouldn't they? Whatever, the Salon was very popular and the crowds were real crowds - I'd guess at several thousand over the nine days, perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 in total. Essen 3, Paris 1 - a late consolation goal for sheer style and location. So, with all that sorted out, what was there?
The Big Boys had all the usual stuff translated to French (Jenga, Subbuteo, Taboo, Jumanji, Triv, Loopin' Louie) so I'll not spend too much time on them. Ludodelire heads the list of companies of interest to me, and they didn't disappoint. Nothing new apart from the latest Formule De track, San Marino, and the French edition of Manhattan, but they have a number of new games in the works after something of a quiet patch - look out for some announcements later this year. Jeux Descartes had lots of CCG stuff, Menaces Sur Ter (an interesting cooperation game, but when did one of those survive gamers' attentions?) and Citytech (a game of 31st century combat). Abalone took over much of the free play area with, er, Abalone but also released Top Quark, a game so abstract and difficult I was left with creme brulee for brains. Perhaps it was my French at fault? Yes, that seems more likely. Gigamic had both established successes - Pyraos and Quarto - along with the newly released Quads and Quixo. Both of these look to be excellent abstract games, even to my mind, and I'd recommend you investigate them. Un Jeu Mind Games had Tantrix which, from memory, looks identical to Trax formerly published in the States.
And that is where I have to stop, because although there are a number of new French games out there, they weren't to be found at the show. I don't know why. Perhaps the stand costs are too high, perhaps the other specialist companies deem it not sufficiently 'gamey' to attend, but there was no sign of Jeureve (makers of A qui le Tour?) or AWE (Hispania, Europa Universalis), the new gliding game or any other small companies. Even Dargaud, who were at Essen with Gang of Four (aka Dalmuti, Karriere Poker) were absent, though they were listed in the catalogue. And of course we can't rule out the impact of Magic and other CCGs (including some excellent home grown versions) which have made an equally large impact in France.
So, having had my fill of cigarette smoke, pompous officials and tempting but expensive games and models, I hit the road to follow my usual route around the gameshops. This panned out as follows: Firstly, Jeux Descartes in Rue des Ecoles, probably the most productive, and well stocked, shop over the years I've been going. No purchases here apart from the latest Vae Victis, the excellent miniature and boardgaming magazine. I spotted the beautiful French editions of Dune, Civilization, Republic of Rome and Credo, but at £30/$45 upwards, these proved an easy dodge for the wallet. I couldn't find Games in Forum des Halles, which may have closed down since I was last there. Temps Libre (rue de Sevigne, in the Marais) seems to have been taken over by a gothic cult and deals mainly in RPG and CCGs, but you can still buy Ludodelire's range cheaply here. WorldGames (84 Champs Elysee) was almost all CCGs, and was infested with cardies. Champs de Mars (rue de Sevigne again) is 95% historical miniatures but, ironically, had virtually all of the games new to me.
The first of these is the most beautiful item I have seen for a while. Versailles is a sumptuously produced game which concerns the court machinations in 18th century Paris. Everything about it reeks of quality, from the cards to the inlaid box. Spotting the price, FF370 (£50/$75), I made a mental note to get some input on the gameplay before handing over the plastic. I was subsequently informed that this is another case of "Nice bits, no game", but they are working on rules for gamers. Not quite so impressive graphically, but priced at a similar level, were four new games from AWE. This company carries the reputation of huge, multi-player (often warlike) games which for most are unplayable due to length and magnitude. However, the designer and friends have been busy. The latest games are Grand Siecle (trade and diplomacy in the 17th century), Roissy 1917 (The Russian Revolution), La Foi et La Glaive (Dark Ages intrigue) and Revolution Francaise. Buy them at your peril (but I'd be keen to know if they work).
From here, I went on to OYA (22 Rue Daubenton), one of the main aims of the journey for me. OYA is a game shop with a difference. Located to the south of the Latin Quarter, hard by Censier-Daubenton metro, and run by Patrick Ruttner and whatever friends he can press gang on the day, it is a shop where you may play the games before buying. In fact, you don't even have to buy - you can just rent them for the evening. And to my mind, the setup is about as good as you could expect. The walls are lined with around 70 quality games, mostly from Germany. The games are grouped by designer, with Herr Knizia enjoying a comfortable lead, and each is labelled with the publisher, number of players, duration, price (of course), a commentary, a list of the game's strengths (including aesthetic quality!) and an "If you liked this, you'll like this...." recommendation. Excellent preparation, all ready for the customers who arrive in groups keen to play. Patrick meets them, stocks them up with drinks and snacks, and then they discuss which game to play. And you know, it is really good to see this in action. On a good night there can be upwards of 35 players, and on the Friday I was there were around twenty. The atmosphere is amazing, the crowd ranges from trendy youngsters to crumblies, and it is just a great place to be.
The most interesting aspect, for a hardened game critic, is that this is the front line for the games we play, write about and love. This is about as close as you can get to controlled observation on the public's gaming tastes, which is what I found so fascinating. We start with the fact that Siedler is extremely popular. No ifs, no buts, just top of the list. More on this, and its implication for the Siggins viewpoint, next time. The next angle was of those games that get on the wall, which get played, and which stand the test of time. And this really was surprising. I could list them all, including most of the 'classics', but some indications should suffice: Billabong, Auru Poku, Capone, Heller & Pfennig, Set, 6 Nimmt, Bakschisch, Stonehenge, Adel, Ufern des Nils, Olympia 2000 and Galopp Royale have all survived the tough test of public approval while getting short shrift from ol' Siggo. Doesn't mean I'm wrong though! No, oh no. Nurse, the screens.
Finally, when all the journo stuff was covered, I sat down and played some games, choosing from the vast selection those I'd missed, or not yet played (or seen). Patrick gets in a huge range of new games, probably most of them in fact, and his shop is like Essen in miniature. Some highlights: Take it Easy (FX Schmid), an oldish game but one that I will certainly be buying. Double is a pack of cards with a similar concept to Indiscretion (remember that?): that is, take an ordinary pack of cards and make a fundamental change to give traditional card games a new lease of life. Indiscretion put the suits on the back of the cards, Double splits the face of the card in two and thus puts two values/suits on each. Great idea, as you can play either - trump play is incredible. More on this one when my set arrives. Of the newer games Patrick also recommends Nix fur Ungut, Lines of Action, Yucata, Entdecker, Vigo, Chrominos, Auf Achse Card Game, Vegas (only with advanced rules), Twins, Sokrates and Nuba.
Finally, the French magazine situation has taken a turn for the better for me, but has declined as far as jeux de société are concerned. I picked up a copy of Casus Belli, and promptly replaced it on the shelf. It is now almost exclusively RPG and boardgames are tucked into two pages at the back. A sad decline for what was once an essential purchase.
So, in summary, the Salon was well worth seeing but in no way can it be compared to Essen in scope, size, excitement, interest or visitors. If you happen to be in the city at the right time (uncanny how this always happens to me, indeed almost spooky), it is worth the metro trip to Porte de Versailles. If not, then it probably doesn't warrant a special journey. Since I had other plans involving OYA, the Musee d'Orsay and a Bande Dessinee Festival, I spent a pleasant five or six hours wandering round, playing the odd game and chatting. And that in itself explains the real difference between Essen and Paris - you'd be hard put to cover Spiel in less than twenty hours.
Beyond that, and a very pleasant trip, that's all I have to report. Thanks to a continuing weak Pound and the usual French 'luxury item' pricing structure, Paris remains a painfully expensive destination. So expensive I returned with not one new game - and that really is a first. Fortunately, thanks to the excellent Eurostar train service (three hours from London to Paris), future trips can be carried out as one day commando raids - an early start, mad frantic shopping and sightseeing on a carnet, and back in time for the last tube at midnight. Sounds good to me.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell