25 July 2014

Event Coverage: Spiel 2011 - A Report from a Wargamer at a Gaming Convention

Eddy Sterckx infiltrated Spiel 2011 in Essen, Germany as one of the 350,000 plus attendees to check out the latest and greatest wargames in the digital and traditional format.

Published on 25 OCT 2011 4:17pm by Eddy Sterckx

Pop quiz: what’s the biggest gaming convention in the world?

The answer is not the E3 Gaming Expo in Los Angeles (attendance : 50,000) , nor is it GenCon in Indianapolis (attendance : 40,000). The correct answer is a convention in Essen, Germany which goes by the name “Spiel” - which in German simply means “Game” - and has an attendance of 150,000 – an order of magnitude bigger than all the rest.

The main focus of this convention is boardgames, and before anyone tunes out and surfs to another topic here’s a couple of pictures to capture your attention again

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Yup, that’s Battle Academy, and yup it’s playing on an iPad and you read it here first.

Ok, about this article and its layout : I know this is a website for digital wargamers and inevitably an article about Spiel is going to talk about lots of other stuff besides digital wargames, so what I’ve done is not write a day-by-day report of this convention but to work in layers so that those only interested in digital wargames only need to read the first part without fear of having missed something. Each successive layer will be one step further removed from this. I would encourage everyone to read a layer further than his comfort zone tells him to do because much as some like to believe, digital wargames are not created on some remote island, and are influenced by what happens in the gaming world at large.

 

Layer 0 : Digital Wargames at Spiel

The main problem of digital wargames these days is not that there isn’t a market anymore for historically oriented strategy games, it’s a visibility problem : digital wargames have totally disappeared from the retail shelves, mainstream websites and magazines and gamers could be excused for thinking that the genre which once dominated the PC gaming scene simply does not exist anymore. Nothing could be farther from the truth of course, but the trick is to make gamers aware of this and one of the ways to do that is to have a presence at places where gamers gather, preferably in huge numbers - and none of them is bigger than this convention in this town in the heart of the Ruhr valley.

But, marketing budgets being what they are it’s no wonder only Slitherine / Matrix has the clout to attend conventions and this year they had a well-situated booth in Hall 6 – a high traffic hall. On the big screen they were running Panzer Corps, which given the enormous success Panzer General enjoyed in Germany, acted as a crowd magnet. What caught my attention however was an iPad running what looked like Battle Academy and it got confirmed right there and then that they’re going to release this game for the iPad in the very near future.

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JD McNeil, Slitherine CEO and Marco Minoli, PR director manning the booth

 

Layer 1 : Wargames at Spiel

Like Lazarus, board wargames were dead and almost buried when the digital age, and more specifically the Internet, saved them. And how. Forget what those old crusty grognards tell you about the heydays of Avalon Hill, SPI and GDW – the Golden Age of board wargames is right now, today, with literally hundreds of releases each year. And I’m not talking cookie-cutter games here, the variety of game-topics today is simply astounding and with production values going through the roof – no more pink panzers.

Thanks to the growing popularity of boardgames in general and the high visibility the wargame portion of it enjoys at “boardgame central”, the BoardGameGeek website, I’ve noticed an increase in the number and size of the wargame booths at the show over the years : dedicated wargame shops like UGG and Brave New World, but also general boardgame shops often have a well-stocked wargame section. There’s an impressive second-hand wargame shop as well where I could spend a whole day just looking at stuff.

If there’s one word which would describe modern wargames it’s “innovation”. Thanks to the close relationship wargames enjoy with boardgames in general, there’s a high level of cross-pollination, with novel mechanics and ideas of boardgames popping up in wargames and vice versa.

What also certainly doesn’t hurt the visibility of wargames with the general boardgame public is that a top designer like Martin Wallace regularly releases a wargame too – and usually of the highly innovative kind with as an example “A Few Acres of Snow”, a wargame about the French & Indian War which combines Dominion-style deck-building elements with a true wargame. In a world where deck-building is Big Business this hasn’t gone unnoticed and “A Few Acres of Snow” even topped the Essen Buzzlist for a while.

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A Few Acres of Snow

Another wargame which has made a splash over the years, pushing Advanced Squad Leader from the WW2 tactical combat throne, is Conflict of Heroes and Uwe Eickert, the designer, was there demoing his designs to everyone, young and old.

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 Conflict of Heroes and Uwe Eickert, designer

His newest wargame “1812” is another excellent example of how euro-game elements are influencing modern wargame designs to make them both more challenging and more accessible at the same time.

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 When was the last time you saw two girls playing a wargame (1812 pictured at left)?

Now, why would digital wargamers care about this? Well, here’a good reason: one of the worst-kept secrets on the ‘Net is that Conflict of Heroes is getting ported to the PC platform and will be released by Slitherine/Matrix Games in the near future.

Digital wargaming today could hardly be called innovative, so getting top innovative designers on board is crucial in order to get some new blood into the hobby. I’m not privy to all the business deals but I think it’s telling that both Martin Wallace and Uwe Eickert were present at the Slitherine dinner on Friday night, mixing it up with established digital wargame developer Victor Reijkersz (Advanced Tactics, Decisive Campaigns, … )

Lest you’d think the convention was limited to those designers and designs – here’s a game of Histogame’s Friedrich (7 Year’s War) in progress – cards and chess-like moves are the key concepts of this game and also Maria, a game about the War of the Austrian Succession.

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Friedrich and Maria

 

Layer 2 : Strategy games at Spiel

Ok, if you’re still with me here’s another point to chew on : the vice versa of a couple of paragraphs above needs some explaining : as much as modern wargames are getting influenced by general boardgames, strategy games are taking on board (pun intended) pure wargame elements. Gone are the days when playing a euro-game meant playing a non-conflict game. The line between strategy game and wargame is getting blurry with many strategy gamers now getting a taste of war – and liking it. In essence getting duped into playing a (light) wargame without even realizing it. Strategy boardgames are becoming the gateway games to the wargame hobby. If you cannot get your buddies to play a wargame with you, maybe you can convince them to play a strategy boardgame and slowly get them to see the light.

A good example of such a strategy game is Fief – a game of Medieval conquest and diplomacy that doesn’t take all day.

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Fief

 

An even better example is Battles of Westeros, a 2-player strategy game which recreates the military conflicts from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Based on a popular series, good-looking thanks to the plastic miniatures and you’ve got a game here, a wargame at heart, that most everyone will want to try out.

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Battle of Westeros

I’ve got to admit that there’s one strategy game that has managed to conquer my heart and that’s Lancaster, a strategic level game about the 100 Year’s War. It got nominated for the equivalent of the Oscar in the boardgame world and is just a jewel. We got the chance to playtest the expansion for it with designer Matthias Cramer and I simply cannot imagine any wargamer not liking this brutal direct confrontation strategy game.

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  Lancaster expansion picture – beta components

 

Layer 3 : General Games at Spiel

Are you still reading this? Ok. I’m a wargamer so I focus on war and strategy games, but Spiel is much more. Hundreds and hundreds of games get released there and it’s simply impossible to have a look at even a tiny fraction of them. The official “New Game Releases” pdf is a 37-page document – no kidding. You need 30 days just to have a look at everything that interests you and we only had 3. But in those 3 days we tried to cram in as much as possible so here’s a short list of things I thought were noteworthy :

3D printers – they’re here – and they work. When prices come down a bit more expect an explosion of creativity in boardgame design.

If you’re looking to play Sid Meier’s Pirates! game with a bunch of friends, don’t bother hooking up computers, just play Merchants & Marauders – it has the look and feel of the computer game and is playable to a finish in a couple of hours. Incidentally, it’s a couple of years old now, but the very best Civilization game I’ve ever played isn’t the digital version either, it’s the boardgame Through the Ages. This is not for the faint of heart though as our last 4-player full game took 6 hours to complete.

Cooperative games with a traitor element are all the rage these days, so add in some classic sci-fi elements and a lot of paranoia and you get the game Panic Station, the first game to sell out at Spiel, 2 hours after the convention doors opened on Thursday. I didn’t witness it, but people tell me the feeding frenzy was brutal.

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Designer David Ausloos holding on to the last copy of Panic Station

Everyone seems to be jumping on the tablet bandwagon these days. Queen games, one of the major German boardgame publishers, announced an iQueen division responsible for porting their boardgame portfolio over to the iPad. Various other companies were showing off iPad versions of their boardgames too, with particularly Small World looking great.

What seemed a bit down from previous years are tabletop miniatures – no Flames of War guys to be seen this year and Games Workshop seemed to be absent yet again. Warlord Games were there with absolutely smashingly painted English Civil War and 30 Year’s War minis but that was about it. They were so busy I didn’t even get a chance to talk to them about upcoming stuff so I guess it’s not lack of demand which kept the rest of the publishers away.

To end on a personal highlight : I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series – it’s in essence Monty Python distilled into books – so when beta-testing pictures appeared of Ankh-Morpork - the boardgame, from some Italian convention a couple of months ago I was all over it, especially after I learned that the designer was none other than the aforementioned Martin Wallace. We didn’t get to play it as it was simply impossible to get a spot on the demo tables for this game, but it looked extremely cool.

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 Ankh-Morpork and Ankh-Morpork Discworld

They call Spiel the best 4 days of gaming on the planet and they’re not wrong. Spiel 2012, October 18-21 – start saving those pennies so you too can make the pilgrimage to gaming’s Mecca.

Article written by: Eddy Sterckx, Contributor