Friday, July 8, 2011

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN: The Gaming Cafe

As with my favorite German board games, I always have much more that I would like to do in Berlin than is possible with my allotted actions and resources. Because of the capitol’s divided history, there were duplicates of everything in the east and west, and even now the city has scores of museums, no fewer than three opera houses, numerous concert halls, and plenty of alternative venues showing the cabarets and political satires for which it is famous.  And though it’s changing, Berlin is still probably the most inexpensive capitol in the western world to experience all of these cultural events. If only I could find the time. I finally stopped buying Tip, one of the city’s best biweekly cultural magazines, which listed absolutely everything that was going on in Berlin each day, because it was simply too depressing to constantly read about all the things I was missing.

Tip has since tried to narrow the choices for its increasingly busy readership, however, by running a series called “The 14 best things to do in the next two weeks.” One of its recommendations was an unassuming board gaming café in the heart of East Berlin’s new alternative scene.

 On sunny days, customers can take the games outside.



The Ludothek Spielwiese is the brainchild of Michael Schmitt, who, together with his wife, Inike, came up with the idea four years ago after their first daughter was born and their regular gaming group disbanded. “We didn’t really know what we were going to do with all the games we had collected,” he joked.

Michael was raised in a small town near Heidelberg, and, like many Germans, grew up playing board games often with his family. He explained that each Christmas his parents would buy a new game to play during the holidays, and that even “sometimes three or four generations sat around the table and played games together.”

His enjoyment of games continued into college in Passau, where he studied Cultural Science, Business and Political Science. He also met his wife there, and after finishing their studies, they moved to Berlin where they’ve lived for the past ten years.

Our paths crossed in 2006 when I was looking for a new location for our weekly gaming group. Our old café had closed its doors, and we were meeting in a church café for which I had the responsibility of opening and closing—something which became more difficult to do consistently after my twin sons were born. Günter Cornett had just heard of a gaming café opening down the street, and I visited it as soon as I could. It wasn’t long after I met Michael that I knew the Spielwiese would be the perfect place for our group to meet.
Designer Bernd Eisenstein tests a prototype with Spielwiese owner Michael Schmitt and a youth named Paul.

The bright, remodeled shop with its retro design fits in well with the surrounding neighborhood, one of the most popular alternative café districts in Berlin. A half-dozen square tables cover the hard-wood floors, approximately 1,200 games fill the shelves from floor to ceiling on several walls, and a coffee bar offers light food and drink at the other end of the room. One can buy new releases here, but the real draw is being able to play any number of games in the café for as long as you want for one Euro per person, or to rent a game for 3 Euros per day (with children’s games costing only 1 Euro per day). It’s the renting or loaning out of the games that makes the Spielwiese a “Ludothek.”

The word Ludothek comes from the Latin word for “playing” and has a similar function as a public library, which, in German, is called a Bibliothek. Michael explained that there are many Ludotheks in Germany although the greatest number are located in Switzerland, where Ludothek workers are actually recognized with a title similar to that of a librarian. In Germany, however, Ludotheks are usually part-time or non-profit endeavors, sometimes as part of a local library, he said. Most belong to a national organization, of which the Spielwiese is now the only commercial member. “They changed their membership requirements for me because they liked my concept so much,” he said.


Michael’s concept, combining a Ludothek with a game store and café, has become a hit with casual and serious gamers alike. Locals make up the largest portion of his clientele, but other customers come from all over Berlin and even the surrounding towns to play, rent or buy games. In seven months of business, his databank lists over 600 customers who regularly buy or rent games from him. “Lots of tourists also buy games from me,” Michael said. A group of Danish gamers visited the Spielwiese a few weeks ago as part of a yearly pilgrimage. “They found me on the Internet and gave me a list of about 30 new releases they wanted to buy,” he said.
Of course, the number of customers on any given day can vary tremendously. “Every day and every week is different,” he admitted. “I haven’t found any pattern yet.” Sometimes, weather can be a factor, but and business can let up during the warmer summer months, when Germans leave town for vacation--or are glued to televised World Cup soccer games.  But the hip location helps draw people in during even the slowest seasons. “Many people even meet here to play games before they disappear to the clubs at midnight to dance,”  he said.  The Spielwiese's 32 seats inside and outside are full enough during the week that Michael is already thinking about expanding.
Thus far, he’s been able to succeed with a minimal advertising budget. His unique business plan has garnered media attention from major Berlin newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programs. More importantly, though, word of mouth has provided the biggest results. “My customers do the advertising. I get many, many new customers through recommendations from my regular customers.”


Michael’s real advertising begins when a potential customer, often a curious passer-by, enters the store. His attention to their needs, respect for their wishes, and advice are what keep them coming back—and when they do, they bring their friends. “Many of my customers have told me that it’s easier to talk with me because I take their needs seriously,” he said. “In other stores, the employees either have no idea what they are selling—such as in department stores or large chain—or they talk about the games in a way that the casual gamer can’t understand” such as in some of the other hobby stores, he said. 
Jürgen Kerber reads directions with designer Hartmut Kommerell, who brought his children.
Though online game sellers pose real problems to many “brick and mortar” game stores, Michael says it doesn’t really compete with the services he provides. “The ‘game geeks’ buy from their favorite online shop anyway, while the people who need advice or want to try the game out first before they buy come to me.” He said that those who come in for advice or to try out the games in the café usually support his store by purchasing the games from him.
Michael usually buys his games through the main German distributor, Heidelberger, but he has also tried to network with publishers at the Essen and Nuremberg game conventions and has received some free games directly from them. Once a year, the German Ludothek organization provides him with some games as well.
In a country that is slowly learning how to encourage entrepreneurship, it is exciting to see Michael taking big risks to follow his dream of making a career out of his hobby. His decision to work in a completely different field than what he studied at the university, with no previous experience in running a small business or a café, is certainly a sign that Germany’s economic climate is changing. Though he admits it is still not easy getting all of the required permits, his business was already at a break-even point after half a year, and continues to have an almost equal balance of income through rentals, game sales, and café business. I can only hope that his success will inspire more small business development—and creative concepts in board game businesses—around the country.


Editor's note: this is an updated version of an article that originally ran on the now-defunct Boardgamenews.com. 

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