Three days in Essen

by Moritz Eggert

Oh, how I dread to write yet another Essen report that is filled to the brim with how many games I bought and how I'm the all-round greatest gamer guy.

No, I won't go down this road, and instead avoid completeness and detailed info (others do that certainly better) and simply give an incomplete, lazy and totally personal account about how Essen was like in the year of the Lord 2006.


For the first time I was able to actually manage to come on Friday, not only on the weekend, which usually is crowded as hell, if only for the late afternoon.

 Grey is the new black, and Shogun is the new Wallenstein

I decided to not rush to every booth, but simply wander around a bit, taking in the scenery. As this time Essen didn't fall together with a German holiday during the week days of the fair the attendance wasn't as extreme as usual during the weekdays (although in the end they had yet another visitors' record), so it was possible to linger without being pushed in the back by a trolley laden with 578 new games and a baby that looks like Gollum in diapers.

I always savour the moment when one first enters the halls - somehow everything feels exciting and it's like entering a monty haul dungeon from the early (or late) days of D&D. What treasures will I bring home this time?

 Two gaming greats: Henning Kroepke and Valerie Putman

I quickly got into what I will describe as "the circle", which means moving clockwise through the succession of halls (reaching the huge hall filled with trampolines and screaming kids throwing popcorn at you usually means you have ventured "too far"), making a turn to the right at hall 6 (which contains the most "weirdo" stuff like small publishers with obscure role playing games but also the Scientology Nazis from Warhammer) and then making your way back to the entrance hall which one usually recognizes because of the huge Kosmos booth.

How often you will be able to finish this "circle" while avoiding crashes or mishaps and STILL finding something interesting every time around will greatly determine your enjoyment of Essen (at least mine).

I knew that I wanted to meet Rick Thornquist, my esteemed colleague from the Dice Tower, and he had told me that he was to be found at the Rio Grande booth. I found lots of flags with the name "Rio Grande" on it, but no booth, just a huge open space with dozens of gaming tables. But sure enough, Rick was there, and it was the Rio Grande booth indeed! Congrats to Rio Grande for catering for the most desperate need anybody encounters in Essen - the need for a table where you can actually play a game! They never had to worry about too few people at their stand because of that ingenious idea...

 The great Rick Thornquist, with Dale Yu, and a hand of Greg Schloesser

Basically the fair was over after my first "circle" and the meeting with Rick (I arrived in the late afternoon, and the fair closes at 7 p.m.) so there was nothing else to do but arrange a dinner together with Henning Kroepke (who works for Phalanx, and is a long-time gaming colleague who has sadly now left Munich), his girlfriend and Rick, in the "Chinese place where everybody goes to". We tried to explain some complicated German cultural phenomenons to Rick, who seemed to enjoy it as he asked for more and more.

Rick Thornquist is - as has to be said - one of the greatest gamers I ever met. Well spoken, incredibly knowledgeable (he seems to know every game in existence, I can tell you) and full of humour. I was also excited to learn that he actually played trombone in an orchestra for a while, so he actually understands my profession - great!

 The elusive Die Säulen der Erde

So it came natural to follow him to a game in one of the many hotels around the fair - when we entered there were already some gamers playing the new offerings. Rick approached a pile of interesting new games that lay around, and picked - with sure hand - the later-to-be-hit-of-the-show "Die Säulen der Erde".

"Who does this copy belong to?" Rick asked. The answer was "Martin Wallace, but he isn't here right now, he's having a drink at the bar."

"Well, Martin won't mind" was Rick's answer, and so we played "Säulen der Erde" using a shrink-wrapped copy of "the man" Wallace!

Martin appeared a little while later, and Rick was right - he didn't mind.

More about the enjoyable "Säulen der Erde" in my review on this site.

Unfortunately this had to be the only game this evening, as Rick had a huge program of preparing infos for his website ahead of him, and I was a bit tired after a long night in Berlin with a very fascinating opera director (Christoph Schlingensief).

So that was day one.



 Ted Alspach, the guy who puts the humour in the meeples

One of the duties at Essen is to get up early to avoid the huge crowds which completely block everything at around 10 a.m. so one can come a bit before that. Luckily, with my sneaky press ticket, I could enter early and meet Rick for a scheduled demo of "Battlelore" at the Days of Wonder booth.

It's funny how my press ticket says "Games International" when the magazine is of course defunct and Brian Walker - again - vanished from the face of the earth.

On the way I encountered some gaming luminaries like Scott Nicholson (from Boardgames with Scott) and Jason Matthews (co-designer of the excellent "Twilight Struggle") as well as Greg Schloesser, who

actually inspired our "Westpark Gamers" with his former "Westbank Gamers".

In my feeble attempt to describe how my wife always beats me with her Russians in "Twilight Struggle" game it somehow came out as me describing it as a "wife-beating" game, which created great laughter.

 One of the many games with a Midgard theme

We headed over to "Days of Wonder". For me it was the first "Memoir '44" style game experience (although I have played similar games), but being a veteran of card-driven games in general I didn't have a lot of trouble.

Although Rick's and my armies clashed almost immediately, there was a strange lull in both our dice luck which meant that several turns of the game passed without any hit at all. The deluxe-rules-explainer from Days of Wonder (Eric Hautremont) became increasingly desperate in trying to say that "this is not normally so", as he was scared we wouldn't enjoy the game. Bu finally the ban was broken and my two cavalry units drove into Rick's lines, while a surround attempt on his left flank brought great problems for him. Well, the battle was soon over, with a satisfying win for my army, but I secretly knew I had just been lucky...

 The new Fragor game, hidden by eager onlookers

Now it was time to meet up with Aaron from "Westpark Gamers" who always tries to come to Essen with his son and look at all the new 18xx games (and other things of course).

In contrast to our last visit, which was just a blur of press meetings and dates with publishers, we decided that we wouldn't be bothered with that this time around and rather enjoy the fair and arrive at the booths unannounced. It turned out that this was much better anyway!

We met at the Surprised Stare Games booth, where Aaron was already talking with the famous Alan E. Paull with two "l", who enjoyed that I called him that on the Dice Tower podcast.

A wonderful and mad nice guy, and the first review copy to be procured (Tara).

Right next to Surprised Stare was the Czech Board Game Company who presented their interesting looking games "Through The Ages" and "Graenaland". The latter was kind of sold out as they had some problems with the game manufacturers and had to assemble the copies by hand during the night before. I procured "Through The Ages" and Aaron got "Graenaland" the next day.

 The sport at Essen - spot the sold out game before it's sold out!

During the next two days Aaron and I met at certain intervals to check what we had got and what we still should get. The good thing about three Westpark Gamers visiting Essen (Günther Rosenbaum was also there, although we failed to meet him) is that three people can manage to acquire a good-sized sample of everything that's on offer. And as our tastes differ we usually manage to buy different games.

Next was a visit to the fabled "Savoy", perhaps the most legendary hotel in Essen. The "Savoy" is not at all a grand hotel like the name suggests, but actually a little "Kneipe" together with a "Pension" (small hotel). But the owners are legendarily friendly. We played "Space Dealer" (together with Valerie Putman and John Palagyi) being the only people in the hall, and the landlady came up and gave us hand-made cookies - for free! This is also one of the few hotels in which you get hugged by the waitress, simply because you're a gamer. I think that's one of the reasons why it's so popular :-)

Anyway, "Space Dealer" felt like hell to set-up and get accustomed to (these are not rules you want to "sight-read"), but once the game started we were all drawn in by the "cube frenzy" and the coolness factor of moving little spaceships around via a timer. Valerie, you kicked our ass!

 Excitement with Ned Kelly

Back at the fair I gave a visit to my old friend and study colleague (from my one year at the guildhall in London) Myee from CMK partners who presented their game "The Game Ned Kelly", a Hnefatafl variant with extremely cute pawns (one faction has little blue police helmets, and the "Kellys" have the famous "bucket-helmet"). Myee played the game with me and explained how some little but well-thought changes to the old rules of Hnefatafl actually make it a more interesting game (and she was right).

 The inimitable Anders Fager - one of my favourite people at Essen - presenting his controversial game about the RAF

Another visit was paid to Anders Fager, designer of the Hell Game and famous Essen personality who showed me his prototype of the R.A.F. game (no, not about the royal air force, but about the "Red Army Faction" which terrorized Germany in the 70's) which I hope to review soon. As "The War on Terror" was actually banned on the show (as well as on other game fairs) this seemed to be the only controversial game on the fair.

The booth of the GHS (Gesellschaft für Historische Simulationsspiele) is one of my favourites at Essen. There one can also meet Udo Grebe (game designer and publisher) and among cries of "no bloody elves" directed at the nearby Warhammer Scientology Nazi booth one can find the best prices for Wargames and Cosims.

And again, a visit to the Savoy for a long night of gaming, together with Rick's fellow Canadian (and great gamer personality with excellent German language skills) Patrick Korner and the man Rick himself, later to be joined by various (drunken?) theatrical appearances by either Alan Moon or Richard Borg. I wonder why the latter never had the idea to call his website "The Collective" - why hasn't he?

We played "Die Baumeister von Arkadien" (excellent), "Im Bann der Pyramide" (ok) and again "Die Säulen der Erde", this time with four players. Rick again had to leave early to perform his editorial duties in the 5 star suite he called his home (I was especially impressed with the 50" inch flat screen he had ordered as a TV).

That was day two.



 The famous Alan E Paull with 2 l's explains the rules to his interesting looking prototype about power struggle in ancient China

We had made yet another date with the famous Alan E Paull with two l, who explained exclusively his new game about ancient Chinese bureaucracy which looked very interesting. I was happy to make a little rules suggestion that he couldn't decline...

Before that came a prolonged trip to the hell of bad games - a game of "Alhambra-The Dice Game" which prompted the 3 players (Rick and Patrick and me) to always invent new ways to describe how bad the game was. A sign of Essen was the 4 people interrupting us and asking when our table would be free. When we said "in 2 hours", probably thinking the game would take that long, they said "ok, we'll wait", only to disappear into the crowd and never to be found again.

Rick has done a wonderful description of this game at "Boardgame News", which you can find here.

The "graph" was invented right there, at our table!

 These Gloria Mundi pawns look like condoms. Really, they do!

Next came a long interview session about the great games of Essen with Rick that I wanted to do for the Dice Tower. Unfortunately our fantastic report was destroyed by some unknown alien force - although I had checked the recording equipment before and after the recording, and listened and re-listened to the recording, when I came home I had found that the complete mini-disk had been erased. An explanation still hasn't been found, as I had put the "hold" switch (which prevents unwanted overdubbing) in the right position. Perhaps Angelo Porazzi took revenge on me, I don't know (I should mention here that Angelo presented his 10th anniversary edition of "Warangel" and his new game "Wrestangel" at Essen, thank you for your interest).

I think I should have talked a bit more with Ted Alspach instead (who waited patiently for us outside) and got his autograph, his board-2-pieces cartoons are simply fab.

Another favourite place is of course the Warfrog booth, were Martin Wallace helped me to his new games (always a pleasure to meet him) and also introduced me to Stratamax, where I acquired "Iroquoia", a game about the Indian Beaver War. Yes, it's really called like that.

Uli Blenemann from Phalanx, great as ever and a big soccer fan and reader of feuilletons, showed me the new games from Phalanx, of which especially "Italia" and "Anasazi" piqued my interest. Phalanx has always something for every gamer's taste, ranging from family games like the excellent "Hey, that's my fish" to complex affairs like "Revolution" by Francis Tresham.

 The final voting at the Fairplay booth - for all who are interested

And I should also not forget our friends from Sunriver Games ("Havoc-The Hundred Year's War", see my review on this website) who are always a pleasure to meet. I tried out 24/7, the new game which is an abstract and addictive board game with some hints of "Zatre", but much better (Sunriver Games always does everything "better" it seems) and nicely produced.

And I also went to meet my old friend Guido Eckhof again, who presented his great game "Big Kini" for the second time.

The rest of the day was an attempt to procure as many games as possible and to see as many things as possible while talking to as many people as possible.

Ultimately, I failed.

I am sure that somewhere else you'll find a full list of our acquisitions on this site, and I am already looking forward to many nights of gaming trying out the new hits and flops.

All in all Essen 2006 seemed to be one of the best editions of the fair, dealers as well as companies seemed happy, and - even more important - their audience as well.

With the already familiar call of "The next fair will take place from...." which usually heralds the end of the great show I left Essen to return... next year!

©2006, Westpark Gamers