Saturday, October 1, 2011

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN: Where Designs are Discovered

Editor's note:  this was originally published in July, 2006 on

October is a magic month for those in the board game scene.  The SPIEL convention has become such a big event for designers and publishers—as well as a sort of pilgrimage for gamers—that the Mecca of board gaming conventions is referred to simply by its location: Essen.  But there is another meeting in Germany that does not receive as much coverage outside the Fatherland.  It’s the Essen before Essen—the annual Game Designer’s Convention that shows a glimpse into the future of German board gaming.  And like Essen, it has become so big that it, too, is referred to only by the name of the city hosting the event:  Göttingen.

Showing games to publishers at my table in Göttingen.

Twenty-five years ago, German game designer Reinhold Wittig started the Spieleautorentreff when he invited fellow designers, journalists, and game company representatives to his home town for a weekend.  Since then, the Game Designer’s Convention has become the largest annual event of its kind in the world. What began with about 50 participants now includes at least 200 each year, and hundreds of the approximately 7000 game prototypes shown there over its history have been published.  Some, such as The Amazing Labyrinth, Barbarossa, and Adel Verpflichtet (Hoity Toity) have even gone on to win prestigious awards and become board game classics.

I had heard quite a lot about Göttingen over the past several years from the designers in my Berlin gaming group who would make the annual trek to central Germany to demonstrate their latest ideas and network with other authors.  Several of my own prototypes had been getting enough positive feedback from them that I finally decided to experience it for myself.  I wasn’t expecting to be “discovered” the way Klaus Teuber was, mind you, but I did feel confident enough that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. After all, designing a hit game seems to me to be a bit like writing a hit song or film—you can put all you have into it, but there is so much competition and, in the end, there are just too many variables outside of one’s control.  Göttingen, however, does a lot to give designers a chance to meet face-to-face with the biggies in German game publishing, and that certainly cannot hurt one’s chances.

I also benefited immensely from the advice and experience of Göttingen and game designing veteran Hartmut Kommerell.  Together with his 11-year-old son Clemens, and another friend and designer Peer Sylvester, we packed up our prototypes and took off on the Autobahn for a weekend in Göttingen.
It was funny to examine our luggage:  Peer especially had packed relatively light with a small duffle bag of clothes and toiletries—but sported a huge backpack full of game prototypes.  “I just brought everything!” he defended.  Hartmut brought about as many, and I brought the five games that I had tested the most over the past year, as well as another from friend Bernd Eisenstein to present to a publisher who was interested.  Even Clemens had a game to show at Göttingen, and was more than willing to offer a few tips to the newbie among them.

It was a beautiful day, the traffic was light, and so I took the opportunity to bombard Hartmut with questions about the German game industry.  One major difference with American game companies seems to be the amount of legalism and paperwork.  In the U.S., a company will not accept a prototype without a release form from the designer, fearing legal action if they happen to already be working on a similar concept.  In turn, designers are encouraged to have their own forms for the companies to sign, so that they agree not to divulge the designer’s ideas to any other company or designer, should they decline to publish it themselves.

In Germany, however, these types of forms are rarely exchanged.  Prototypes are handed off freely, game publishers even pay to send them back if they turn them down, often including comments detailing why it wasn’t considered and even constructive criticism in how to improve the design.

I sensed through our conversation that there seems to be a level of trust and cooperation in the game designing community here, a feeling that would only be reinforced by the Göttingen meeting.
It was about a 4-hour drive, so there was plenty of time for every topic imaginable, including a few random ideas for games thrown around.  After taking a number of shortcuts through Berlin to get onto the Autobahn, Clemens and I started to think of designing a game called “Schleichweg” (shortcut), partly because it would be funny to see how American gamers would pronounce it.

Unfortunately, I am not much of a multi-tasker, and as Peer and I lamented Dirk Nowitsky’s blown opportunity to win an NBA ring, I missed a major exit.  Fortunately, Hartmut was able to guide us through another Schleichweg, which brought us back on track.

Hartmut, Clemens, and I had decided to camp outside Göttingen, since it had been nice weather.  After pitching our tents, we ate dinner with Peer, who was staying in a bed & breakfast with several other Berlin authors, and brought out a couple of prototypes to try, while keeping an eye on the World Cup showing on the restaurant’s TV.

Afterwards, we tried to catch some sleep before the big day, but our tents had been surrounded by groups of German youths who had decided to turn up the volume on their techno music several times during the early morning hours.  Hartmut finally told them “enough is enough” at about 3 a.m., but one boy argued, “C’mon, you were my age once!”  “Yeah,” Hartmut responded, “and I didn’t get away with this kind of thing, either!”

The next morning, we made the quick drive into Göttingen and walked down the quaint pedestrian-only streets to the department store Karstadt for breakfast.  The multi-level store not only had the advantage of having a large buffet, but it also had a games department.  So naturally, we followed up eggs, sausages, and rolls with Ravensburger, Queen, and Schmidt.  None of the sale games grabbed any of us, though, but as we made our way to the convention hall, Hartmut spied a flea market in front of a cathedral that was just getting set up.  There was one board game there, a 3M copy of Acquire in excellent condition, and Hartmut wasted no time in “acquiring” it for a mere 3 Euros!

We finally reached our destination, and as I began to see faces I had only known from internet postings, I began to feel a bit intimidated.  But there were plenty of familiar faces, too, including fellow Berlin gamers/designers Andrea Meyer and Thorsten Gimmler.  After registering, we went to pick our tables.  Each author received one to set up any way he or she chose, and there were more than a hundred of them, with games of all types already covering half of them.  Peer was already there, and we chose tables nearby.  I unpacked by bags and set up two of my prototypes in mid-game situations.  People were still trickling in, so I took a look around.  It was fascinating to see all of the different game ideas people brought with them.  In a country that publishes hundreds of designs each year, it is amazing to see that there are hundreds more (and many of them very good) that never make it onto a store shelf.  As I said before, I had very modest expectations for my own designs.

A woman who set up on a table next to me had arguably the most beautiful display of the meeting.  It included a children’s game with a large water-color painted board, and an accompanying children’s book, all written and illustrated by her.  The main character of both the game and the book was The Little Dog King, based on her own pet, which she brought along to help sell the project.  Dog King and I became instant friends, and he wandered over to my table often during the weekend, although he never stayed long enough to play one of my prototypes.

A pair of publisher representatives did, however, and I tried to hold back my excitement as I stuttered through the instructions in my second language.  As we played the game, I silently hoped for a tense battle with a close ending.  As the game ended and the final scores were tallied, I was pleased with the results:  one of the reps won by one point, with the last place player only 4 points behind!  They were impressed enough to ask for the prototype, and I agreed to give it to them on Sunday.

Meanwhile, other reps were constantly weaving through the tables, scanning the prototypes, and mixing with the better-known designers.  Hartmut introduced me to a very friendly Günther Burkhardt, who was rendered speechless when I told him sheepishly that I was a fan.

In fact, everyone there was very friendly and helpful.  The representatives were definitely looking for their next products and were not afraid to talk business, and there was obvious competition between the huge amounts of designs on display, but I felt a sense of community and cooperation during the weekend.  Hartmut told me that it is largely due to the nature of game design:  that although the author must make the decisions in where to take the design, he or she relies on the testing and constructive criticism of other designers, gamers, and publishers.

The day flew by, as I was in full extrovert mode, trying to take advantage of the opportunity to meet as many people as I could.  I also got the chance to explain all of my games to a number of publishers, and received several requests for the prototypes to take back for their testers. 

There were workshops as well, but I was much too busy chatting with the reps and designers.  After playing one of my card games with a couple of different publishing reps, and winning one of the games, a rep joked, “You forgot one of the rules in showing your games—always let the rep win!”  I replied that I had, unfortunately missed that workshop.  He didn’t ask for the prototype, and I was left to wonder if he was only half joking.

I had the chance to catch up with Sebastien Pauchon, winner of the Göttingen Game Designer’s Scholarship from last year.  My wife and I had bumped into him during our vacation to Switzerland last summer, and it was good to see him here.  He was busy interviewing candidates for this year’s prize, but offered me some advice: “Don’t wait at your table for the reps to come to you—go out and invite them over.”

Thanks to Hartmut, however, I rarely needed to.  He gladly sent reps over to my table and pointed out the different publishers who might be interested in what I brought with me.

When dinner time approached, the planned program was changed to allow for the large mass of designers and publishers to make their way to a Mexican restaurant to watch Germany advance in the World Cup.  Afterwards, Peer and I played prototypes with fellow Berliner Günter Cornett.  A mother with two young sons were there as well, invited by Günter after winning a scholarship for young game designers.  He was helping the boys to develop a game they designed.

We returned, exhausted, to our tents, and a much quieter night of sleep.

The Sunday schedule only went from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., and was open to the public, unlike the previous day, but very few outsiders came in to have a look.  I played a prototype of Peer’s with one of the publishers, showed the game Bernd had sent with me, and tried to meet any reps that I had missed on Saturday.  Still, the day was too short and I was not able to meet with everyone. 

At the end of the weekend, I had received requests for 4 of my 5 prototypes, which went far beyond my expectations.  Of course, that is only the first hurdle in getting a game published, but it is a hurdle I had never before crossed.  More importantly, in an industry that really is a community, I finally had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with many of the people who are responsible for the hugely diverse German games market.  It was great with the help of Peer and Hartmut to network with designers and reps.  Even if none of our prototypes ever see the inside of a game store, it was incredibly fun trying them out in such a constructive atmosphere.  

But who knows?  Göttingen might have given one of us—or another lucky designer—a shortcut to a publishing contract…a Schleichweg, if you will. 

Postlude:  2006's Göttingen proved to be a very successful year for our group of Berlin designers.  Of the games we brought there, these were soon published:  Peer's King of Siam, Bernd's Zack und Pack/Pack and Stack, and my Circus Maximus and Heartland/Eine Frage der Ähre (the game that caught the attention of several publishers right from the start).  Günter also published the game Tokugawa by the two school aged brothers, Tizian Blumenthal and Victor  Gilhaus.  In addiiton, the game in which I made the mistake of winning when presenting to a publisher was published by Cambridge Games Factory as Pala, and another game Bernd and I continued to refine afterwards, Artifact, was published in 2013. I showed Alea Iacta Est, Piece o' Cake/...aber bitte mit Sahne, and Wampum to publishers the following year in Göttingen, and they were all eventually published. Citrus was also initially rejected in Göttingen by those publishers to whom I first showed the game, but was later picked up and published in 2013.

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