This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
When I close my eyes, I can still hear the roar of tens of thousands of gamers rummaging through the halls. They’re chatting, arguing, haggling, explaining and simply playing. My body still wants to use those reflexes that let me weave through the bulk of people to get to the next booth… to the next must-see game… to the next exciting thing…
Spiel is an experience unlike any other. I’ve been there now a total of 6 times. Starting with a rushed one-day excursion, where we left Berlin in a group of six roleplaying nerds and rushed home at night after the halls closed. The following year, a handful of us returned and even managed to find a place to crash at night. We were already drifting away from RPGs and finding our way into boardgames. I brought back Battlestar Galactica that year. The next time I went, I went on my own. An experience I do not recommend. Spiel is – like boardgames – a social event. If you don’t have somebody to share it with, to interact with and talk about games with… it can be an unnervingly alienating four days to go through. (Even worse than couchsurfing with a home nudist. Which all things considered wasn’t as awkward as the image, I have just evoked in your mind, would suggest.)
I also remember getting one of the first five copies of the Game of Thrones board game (2nd edition) because I rushed to the FFG booth way back then. An utterly silly and needlessly nerdy thing to be excited about or proud of, but still… a memory that makes me smile.
In the end, Spiel has always left me energized and in some cases even rejuvenated about this hobby. To be lost in a sea of gamers for four days, to leave the halls and go to any of the hotels, restaurants or even train stations nearby and overhearing only conversations about boardgames. To feel – even for a moment – that this hobby has engrossed not just these few, these merry few, this band of buggered… but everyone (EVERYONE! #GaryOldman) is as fantastic a feeling as I could wish on anyone in this hobby.
Cynical voices will undoubtedly point out that Spiel is a sales fair at heart, not a gaming convention. That playing games and meeting people is a fortunate byproduct, but that proper gaming conventions are somehow purer. To this I say… poppycock. Of course Spiel is a great place to stock up on games, both new and old (and when I say old I am mainly talking about 8-24 months). But if you managed to get your nano-Kardashian-sized derrière into Essen, chances are you’re at least waist-deep in the hobby and know that collecting exciting games, owning them… shapes us as gamers as much playing the games themselves does.
Yes, Spiel is a place to buy new games. It is also a place to try out new games. Although maybe not the type that last 2+ hours and need laser-sharp focus and concentration. It is admittedly too crowded, too noisy and too much of everything to really sit down and play the next great tome wedged in the deepest and heaviest end of the spectrum. But then again, it is still possible for the right game to pull you in, to let you forget everything around you and just emerge yourself in the joy of discovering a new flavour in this hobby.
In that sense, Spiel might almost share some similarities to a sense deprivation tank. But instead of being filled with water and no light… you only see and experience thousands of games and tens of thousands of gamers. I actually find myself delegating things like eating and drinking to an afterthought, a sideshow to the main event. I walk ridiculous distances when I am there. Up and down the same halls, back and forth from one booth to another. I’ve been here often enough to start running into familiar faces, even in a crowd of more than 100,000 people. And with each visit that number grows, and it’s fantastic.
Friedrich Merz Verlag (the people behind Spiel) have just recently announced that not only are they going to include yet another hall next year… bringing the total number of halls in use during Spiel to 8 out of 12, but that this year once again saw a new visitor record by luring 174,000 game fanatics to Essen.
People with more experience than me might want to argue that Spiel isn’t the best 4 days of gaming on the planet. And maybe they are right. But I seriously doubt there is a more satisfying place to be for gamers each year.
I know that next year, when I dive into the mass of gamers rushing through the halls, the same thought will pop up in my mind for better or worse.
This is my tribe.
These are my people.