The Sophomore Jinx?

Last year, Essen became one of the highlights of my gaming life. Those who have read my over the top reports will know I had a great time and the enthusiasm and wonder generated by last year's show have pretty much stayed with me for a whole year. So, it was time to top them up with another visit, but the sophomore Mike Siggins that went to Spiel '90 was in fact a much different gamer to the rookie of '89.

The change happened because of last year's excess of purchases, reckless trading and being tempted into buying on sight. This time, I approached Essen with a much more sensible outlook and a slight shift in emphasis - an attempt to buy fewer games which also required at least some intelligent thought. Perhaps as a result Essen itself seemed more restrained, with less to offer. Because I knew what to expect, the sheer size of the event took a while to sink in and the intended curb on purchases was made easier.

Gone then were the mad purchasing sprees and the desire to buy almost everything on display, replaced by a considered three day browse where I took time to see how the games worked, played them if possible and carefully assessed each purchase. This resulted in me missing out on two games which sold out, but never mind. I bought just eight games (this is good for me), collected a few old ones from friends and made only a couple of rash purchases. One of these was a medieval game looking a lot like Kingmaker, but which was a must buy. You'll see why. The other was some plastic money chips that are rather nice. Overall, I'm quite proud of myself really. A year on and with the realisation that lovely pieces (Mare Med.) and/or a silly theme (Hans Dampf) do not necessarily make for a good game, I was a wiser visitor and also a richer one at the end of the weekend.

Where Essen really shines is the contact with loads of friendly gamers; both old friends and recent acquaintances. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and advice from gamers who have known me a maximum of two years and in some cases a few hours. The other human factor is the crowds. Estimates indicated 90-100,000 attending over the four days and judging by the packed aisles, it couldn't have been far from that figure. As before, the mix was not the usual 98% male, 1% women and 1% fancy dressers but a wide spread of families, ages and gaming tastes. There seemed to be more young children this year and there were at least 30% women. As an exhibition to appeal to the masses, this one has got it all covered.

The competitive types again had a chance to play in the Interteam tournament which this year featured twenty teams of four from six countries and was ably organised by dapper Peter Gehrmann. Lukas Kautsch (from the German PBM hobby) won the individual prize and his Karlsruhe team won the overall title from more Germans and some Dutch. The British hopefuls struggled into various lowly places and many excuses were overheard, most of which seemed entirely justified for once. Having a new rule (for Cash) sprung on you mid-tournament can't be much fun. The collecting fraternity were not ignored with several very busy and well stocked stands of second hand games, together with the Friday evening Guest of Honour talk with Reinhold Wittig, the long standing Perlhuhn designer famed for his interesting wooden bits. Well, you know what I mean.

The fair content itself was very similar to '89, even to the extent of most stands being in the same place as last time. That said, there are hundreds of stands in four very large halls in which it is hard to find anybody once separated. Whereas last year saw a whole flood of new games (mainly from smaller operations), this year the trend seemed to be for one or two new games per company, displayed along with their older releases. There were of course exceptions to this like the prolific Editions Perlhuhn who had three or four new games in their simple, family line.

Some companies had nothing new to show and rode on last year's fame while others had 'restructured' like Flying Turtle who have sold three games (including Shark) to Ravensburger. 'Death Row', round the back of the Parker stand (where only the brave or stupid go) was just as sad as usual. The ideas of these people always seem to have the mark of normality. Do they congregate together because they know they're all of a similar standard or would only a person with minimal business sense take one of these stands in the first place? Perhaps they are simply the cheapest available platform for their talent. I wish them well, but they have only the slimmest chance of making it.

Far be it from me to start analysing the German market after a mere three years of exposure, but in the light of this year's Nuremburg/Essen releases it may be appropriate to offer a few comments. As I stand, with a sizeable (and not untypical) range of German games both new and old, I see the impact of the initial wave of European games as having passed its peak. The bulk of those gamers that would probably play Die Macher, Six Day Race or Flying Carpet have them by now and we must therefore look to the new releases, and well translated versions at that. On this point, I would suggest that most gamers who have bought a number of foreign games will have a sizeable portion sealed off through lack of good English rules. I am obviously chipping away at this through the rules bank but something major needs to be done. I am open to suggestions.

The German market undoubtedly offers an impressive back catalogue of games, but I suspect good quality releases of interest to hardened gamers are now likely to number half-a-dozen or so per year. Sure, this is four or five more than some other markets are producing but the days of European games being bought by the caseload are probably behind me. I have also discovered to my cost that, fairly obviously, the rarer German games have virtually no secondary resale market if they turn out to be weaker than yer average game. In fact, Alan Moon is the secondary market. If I can't sell it to him, then I probably can't sell it at all.

As far as I'm concerned, if the European industry throws up six decent games per year plus several lighter games, abstract jobbies and hangers-on like sports games, then it must be considered a buoyant situation and one likely to keep Sumo full and myself occupied for a while to come. I think it is true to say that games like 1835, Boomtown and Airlines probably wouldn't be emerging from anywhere else right now and for this reason I am happy to remain involved in the European scene and am hopeful of future pleasant surprises.

To conclude, I guess that for the first time attendee, Essen is still a gaming experience of the first order. The second time around, it lost a little for me but was still ten times better than anything you will see over here (or anywhere else for that matter). For the gamer, the collector, the seller and the generally interested it is definitely the place to be. If you have the chance to go next year, please make the effort - it's well worth it.

Cost Details

I flew BA, Heathrow-Dusseldorf for #79 return. Essen is a short S-Bahn journey from the airport (or better still get a friend to collect you - thanks to the Knauths). Driving is also feasible. Hotels in the area are not cheap but are more reasonable as you get further from the halls. I stayed at the An der Gruga which is literally opposite the entrance and this cost me DM 97.00 per night for a smallish single with private bathroom. Three nights therefore set me back #100 and it was probably worth it, especially if breakfasting with Wolfgang Kramer is your bag. Entrance is about #6 for all four days but most Brits seemed to have somehow wangled free tickets (Interteam?) or press passes. I guess I'll take some Sumos next year. The cost of the games is entirely down to your willpower. For further details I recommend David Watts' superb Essen Guide which is produced nearer the time but this year's edition would still be correct in the main. For those wishing to sell games commercially, the cost of the booths seems to be about DM 500 upwards but prices are yet to be confirmed for next year.

The Games

Ooerr, I've come over all clammy. It must be a list coming on. The detailed breakdown that follows is not exhaustive - the official press release on new games runs to several pages and that isn't comprehensive. I have tried to highlight games that might be of interest to Sumo readers or which are notable for some other reason. There are few family and no children's games included. What follows is also an initial, personal view and does not constitute a review. As we know from past experience, those games that appear to be marvellous at first can often fizzle to nothing. I therefore suggest you do not go out and buy based on these comments, unless you simply must have it. In the main, the comments are based on looking at the game, watching a demonstration or at best playing it through once or twice. Either way, I know I'd like to see a list like this, so here goes:

Abacus Spiele, producers of last year's hit Dicke Kartoffeln, had Airlines which very possibly was the hit of the show for the 'German' gamers. Designed by Alan Moon, this is a neat game for four or five players in the vein of Acquire but with a few clever and vital tweaks. Quick at around an hour, this is a potential winner. I played this more than any other game at Essen. A touch expensive at DM 50 perhaps, but superbly produced. If I get time, see the review this issue. Abacus have another Moon game in the works.

Demand, a new company to me, had a couple of interesting games from completely different ends of the game spectrum. Lords of Alban is a monster game likely to take 5-7 hours and is based on a hex gridded British Isles. It is essentially an economic system where you build up your holdings over a period of time, recruit lords and try to get voted into the King slot. You get the picture. It is hard to know what made this one so popular as it has a long, slow system and conflict is severely detrimental to one's prospects. Neverthless, this a cert for the multi- player groups. One to watch out for though is Fieber, a horse race game (there's always one) with well cast (but poorly painted) plastic horses and a very simple but original mechanism. This has all the signs of being this year's Favoriten and it is about as simple. Claimed to be good fun by those who played it, this one will depend on your attitude to simple games.

Editions Perlhuhn had two main releases: Play Grimm and Doctor Faustus (I think that's what it was called anyway). Both are typical Wittig games. Simple, fun, tubed and superbly made. I bought only Play Grimm (DM 75), which has a incredible range of wooden pieces and didn't play too badly. The theme is the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and has to be seen to be believed. This was the only family game I succumbed to. Doctor Faustus is a stark, black and white, pattern recognition game that really didn't do much for me. There were two other games as well, but their names escape me and the press release lets me down on this company. Whatever, you can assume they were pretty simple.

FX Schmid were floating around on the success of Adel Verpflichtet and there was much talk of where Klaus Teuber (now winner of two recent Spiel des Jahres awards) would emerge next. The hot money is on Hans im Gluck for announcement at Nuremburg. Without exaggerating, Adel was selling by the crate load and on the Sunday, when prices dropped as low as 24 marks, it seemed almost everyone had a copy under their arm. Total sales so far are rumoured to be 400,000 - that little red poppel logo really sells games. And 400,000 at at least 1 DM per game royalties isn't bad going either.

Franckh, purveyors of reboxed Wittig games among others, had the spectacular Terra Terrium by Wolfgang Kramer. A snip at DM 115. This is a re-do of the old Abra wooden game, Burgenland. Abstract, beautiful and quite hard work to play if you have a brain like mine. One to play before you lay down the readies.

Franjos, a small company, had reboxed two of Eric Solomon's games; Black Box and Hyle. Both are similar to their earlier versions and are well made.

Hans Im Gluck made the endurance gamers happy with the release of 1835, the fourth official release in the Tresham railway games saga covering, logically, Germany's railways. My man in the know, 'Chuffer' Clyne, tells me it is good from both the building and share dealing angles and others were heard to say, 'closest to 1830 but it uses the best parts of all the three other games', whatever that means. DM 90 or thereabouts, lovely production and a neat little box. Those who want this one know who they are and probably have had it couriered over already.

Jojo Games were responsible for much merriment at my expense. They released Sumo, a quite reasonable game based on the popular Carom game. Basically, two bulbous plastic Sumos stand in the middle of a wooden board and you pelt them with small wooden rings flicked off the edge of the board. The figures gradually move to the edge of the 'ring' and points are scored for pushing out. I resisted this one manfully, which was a good move because it is a yard square, weighs a ton and costs DM 350. I would love just the figures, but they wouldn't split.

Jumbo had few releases but Wind & Wetter was much in evidence. This is a game about controlling the weather and spoiling holidaymakers' fortnight on the coast. A dead cert for the British market I'd imagine, and it will be released here next year. Jumbo have Homas Tour pegged for 1992 release and are looking for official Tour de France sponsorship, which means the doping rule will have to go. Looks like no Theunisse counter after all.

Ludger Korte presented the strongest test of my willpower with his Tisch- Eishockey. Imagine a top quality bar-football game, hand-made from wood, but instead of soccer it's ice hockey and instead of bars and fixed player positions, you get grooves in the floor for each player to 'skate' in and controlling sticks under the table. In play, there is a frantic battle under the table for the right stick. The hand painted players have little wire sticks and with practice you can get the small marble to do puck-like movements. The game is brilliant, and looks stunning (if only to stand in the games room for admiration) but it would probably pall quickly. I played it several times and in the end I had to say no to one of the twelve games on offer. I'll probably hate myself for years to come but at least I saved the 500 marks he was asking. Oh well, I couldn't have got it home anyway.

Kuhlmann. While Herr Korte thankfully failed to open the Siggins wallet, Herr Kuhlmann managed to make an easy sale. He was peddling Welfen und Staufer, a game about 12th century Germany. The company is designing, publishing and selling for itself and has printed 500 copies of a 1,000 game first edition. It looks tremendous - nice box, colour map, lots of wooden counters with shield designs and event cards. Mmm, my favourite. The designer is a German historian and claims it is historically accurate. Whether the game rises above Kingmaker level (which it does strongly resemble) remains to be seen. Either way it was a must buy at DM 100. I am very keen to get English rules for this one if anyone can help?

Livingstone Games had Boomtown, their first release and a limited run of just 1,000 copies. Designed by tanned, svelte Ian Livingstone and ably supported on the stand by Steve Jackson and a co-ordinated T-shirt sales team of Brian Walker (now sporting a Dickie Davies grey streak) and Jonathan Turner, this looks like a goodie. Aside from the shock value of Mr Livingstone finally crystallising the rumours, Boomtown has nice pieces, super artwork and a good, quick system though Stephan Valkyser rightly said it reminded him, in feel, of a stockmarket mechanism. It covers the 1950's housing boom and you get to play a darts club counter. It sold out and looks to be exactly what the German market is after. Price is DM 75 I think. A pleasant surprise then (the first of many?) but the GWR poster depicts a pre-war house move, writes Mr Picky.

Moskito Spiel (aka Karl Heinz Schmiel, he of Dye Marker fame) had Tyranno Ex which, however you look at it, had to be better than A la Carte. It was, but where A la Carte was original, the words 'highly derivative' spring to mind here. Tyranno Ex is a game about evolution of animals and owes an awful lot to Eon's Quirks. It is better, but then a re-design should be. Nevertheless, it has some good ideas and is great fun. Herr Schmiel managed to sell the whole lot so no review for a little while on this one.

Walter Muller Spiele brought you Favoriten last year. This time it's FlussPiraten and the chances are it will be another small scale success. River Pirates leave a lake to travel down river to score points at the other end. En route, movement, chucking people out of boats, adverse currents and other fun events are determined by a simple set of rules and much haggling. Virtually everything is negotiable in this one and it makes for a quick, fun game. Could be a sleeper.

Etc. There was another popular game seen in various bags and pockets called Chameleon but I didn't see the stand selling it, it isn't in the press release and I have no idea what it's about. Worrying. Advice welcomed on this one.

OK, that'll do for now. It gets a bit pointless saying 'lovely production' every time, it would have been easier to say they were all well produced. Hope you enjoyed it.

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