The SPIEL17 experience – or a lesson in making sense out of chaos

“It’s like Glastonbury for Geeks and Gamers!” is how the organizers describe Internationale Spieltage (or SPIEL). The world’s biggest board game festival is exactly that: BIG. As a board game newbie, I was entirely unprepared for the event but following my return to Denmark I’ve been inspired me to write some of the lessons I learned during the festival days in October. 

By Nathalia Hentze Nielsen, Communication Manager in the Game Hub Scandinavia project and at The Animation Workshop/VIA University College

When I arrived in Essen, Germany, on a chilly night in October everything breathed calm. I got off the train at the Hauptbahnhof, i.e. the central station, and with my trusted smartphone in hand I found my hotel only ten minutes later. After dumping the contents of my suitcase on the floor of my hotel room, I went off in search of the city center and more importantly: a restaurant. The streets were practically empty and so was the restaurant.

Thus, after a couple of hours of minimal exploration, I came to the conclusion that Essen, which is the ninth-largest city in Germany, was a provincial town and that this SPIEL, supposedly the largest board game festival in the world, was really not all that much.

Oh how wrong I’d be proven only one day later…

Before I jump into the lessons I learned, let me preface this by giving you some context: I went to SPIEL17 to represent Game Hub Scandinavia and help out two incubation companies from Viborg, Fat Fox Games and Lemuria, who showcased their card game Don’t Drop the Soap.

Lesson 1: If the festival opens its doors at 10am, don’t take the train at 09:30am
Pilgrimage to SPIEL17 in Essen
Pilgrimage to the venue, Messe Essen

The road to Messe Essen, the location wherein SPIEL takes place, is very straightforward: You jump aboard line 11 from any railway station and in around five minutes time you’ll find yourself at one of the three entrances.

One thing to keep in mind before taking said train is to consider how many people will be traveling the exact same road.

During the course of four days, over 200,000 people visited the festival (a number the organizers expect to rise next year) and unless you want to wait 30 minutes standing like herring in a barrel (Danish proverb, meaning to stand very, very closely together), you’ll be wise to plan ahead.

So being a typical Dane, who prefers to stand at least five feet apart from people in public places, I had my boundaries severely tested on my first journey to the event hall.

Lesson 2: Bring cash or starve

Word to the wise: Bring cash to SPIEL.

Cash is quickly turning into a “persona non grata” in Denmark (even flea markets encourage the use of MobilePay) and with Germany being our neighboring big brother with Europe’s largest economy, I thought it would be the same in Essen. It was not. Day 1 was spent desperately searching for anything remotely ATM-looking in near vicinity so I could eat and buy the board games I wanted. Messe Essen does have their own ATMs but in a twist of faith all of them were malfunctioning.

Finally, after having walked in circles for at least half an hour among tall office buildings, I found a street with four bakeries, one supermarket and a bank!

With euros in hand, I returned to the festival and promptly bought both burritos, coffee and kürtőskalács. The latter is a Hungarian cake, which resembles a chimney but instead of smoke it emits a wonderful scent of sugar and cinnamon that captures you several halls away.

Lesson 3: If you have a booth, definitely bring a chair (preferably one with massage qualities)
Relaxing at SPIEL17 in Essen
Bringing a massage chair will make you friends

My booth-mate and one of the partners of Lemuria, Aima, is a seasoned SPIEL attendee having attended the festival for five years straight. She did all the right things: 1) Brought her own snacks from home to limit the damage to her wallet, 2) wore comfortable shoes, fit for hours of walking the concrete floors and finally, 4) generously shared her massage chair.

I spent a blissful ten minutes in the chair once the crowds had cleared out and so did many of our neighbors. Aima made both friends and valuable contacts by inviting other exhibitors to spend some minutes in mechanical heaven.

The point I’m trying to make here is not necessarily to purchase a massage chair but rather to make yourself comfortable and be friendly to your fellow exhibitors. You might be competitors but you’re also into the madness that SPIEL is together. While Aima could offer the comforts of a chair, the Polish company across from us offered candy and drinks.

Lesson 4: Go mingle with other exhibitors and visitors after hours – or in other words: network, network, network
Networking at SPIEL17 in Essen
Making friends over drinks and games

If you’ve ever been at a game conference – be it Sweden Game Conference, Game Scope, Nordic Game or GDC – you will have heard some speaker somewhere at some point mention the importance of attending parties, after hours get-togethers or just casual meet-ups at bars. They will claim that this is where the real magic happens: Where you make valuable contacts and your elevator pitch really matters.

Guess what? They’re right. Annoyingly so. You really can’t underestimate the benefits of socializing with people outside of a professional setting.

I played a fun drinking game called Barpigs with a group of Danish board game enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who I now know by face and name; people I probably never would have met in a different setting.

Aima and I also spent an hour or so playing Don’t Drop the Soap with four Italian friends who shared with us that they had initially met and become friends through a board game cafe run by one of the four.

To me, these two instances meant new friends, new experiences and interesting stories. As a board game newbie myself, I couldn’t help but be affected by their passion for the genre, and despite doubting I’d buy any games myself, I ended up having to haul three boxes home in my tiny, carry-on suitcase.

To someone else, say an independent developer, meeting these different groups of people would have presented an opportunity to be a part of an experienced community, to get insight into the industry and to possibly sell a game to a board game cafe in Italy.

Lesson 5: Be eye catching or have a gimmick to make you stand out

This year, over 1.000 exhibitors were spread out across 72,000 square meters in Messe Essen. That’s a whole lot of space to traverse and a whole lot of games to take in.

Being both a first-time exhibitor and a first-time guest I was overwhelmed to put it mildly. I think it took me around an hour to find my own booth! During the second day, I had somewhat created an overview of things: I knew where the bathrooms were, my own booth and the kürtőskalács-maker.

As far as visiting the other booths went, I decided on a strategy early-on: I would only engage with those who caught my immediate attention. Now, there’s of course an array of things that can catch one’s attention but for me it was mainly these two things:

1) English signs! While SPIEL is German, there are a lot of visitors from all-around the globe who do not speak German (including myself). I consequently steered towards booths who clearly advertised that they sold board games in English. At one such booth, I spoke with a British exhibitor who lamented the fact that he hadn’t bought a bigger booth. Apparently, he was flooded by gratitude – and business – from English-speakers.

2) Original / provoking / creative artwork or gimmicks. I can’t really specify this as it likely differs from person to person what they consider original, provoking or creative. If I have to highlight some of the booths or gimmicks that made an impression on me, I’d say the after-ski vibe KLASK had going with their wooden house and benches (the free beer wasn’t exactly a deterrent either) and also the man dressed as Snow White who advertised a karma sutra styled game.

If you’re an established company who can afford to be present in one of the two main halls, maybe the suggestions above aren’t right for you but if you’re a small, independent studio, like in the case of Lemuria and Fat Fox Games, you need to make yourself stand out – and stand out they did.

Eye-catching banners: Don't Drop the Soap at SPIEL17
The mix of bubblegum pink and provoking imagery on the banners attracted the stares of many

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