An Essen veteran’s convention report from Essen Spiel ’10
From: Alan Paull, alias BenthamFish, a designer from a small UK publisher, Surprised Stare Games

It’s Spiel time again!

Tony Boydell, Charlie Paull and myself at Surprised Stare Games undertake a regular expedition to Essen in October each year that happens to coincide with Spiel. Since we always take along a van full of games on the expedition, it would be a shame not to exploit the opportunity to nip along to the Messe and present them for the delectation of the many gamers who congregate there. And with an empty van to bring back, why not add in a few new games for the return journey?

In short, it’s time for Spiel ’10.

Game Preparations [Monday]

This year Tony’s taking the van, while Charlie and I are driving across rather than flying. We can then meet up on the ferry both ways. Owing to stress levels, this is almost always a productive time for game design. Lots of notes and drawings are made, though sometimes the process can degenerate into games involving small brown cubes.

Stroud to Dover was our first leg – uneventful. Not even a traffic jam of note on the M25, though Ditzy (our satnav) took us south from Reading to link up with the M3 – didn’t feel like a great route.

We had to negotiate to get a little emergency help on the stand, because our German speaking helper was unfortunately ill in hospital – she wasn’t able to make it to Essen this year, but is happily back in action. Thanks very much to Chooi [Teik Chooi Oh] and Daniel [Daniel Danzer] for putting themselves forward and also to Philip [Philip Bolton], a friend of Chooi who was unstinting in providing his time and proved a worthy Totemo demonstrator.

Early start tomorrow (Tuesday) – up at 06:00 so we can get the early ferry and drive rapidly across to Essen, in order to put Totemo into the Press Room before it closes.

Game Preparations [Tuesday]

I’d prefer to rush through this part of the report, in the same way that we rushed through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany. Once you’ve done this drive a few times, it gets a bit stale and monotonous. Ditzy decided to give us a little bit of excitement. In preparation for the trip, I’d updated her maps, but she seemed to have difficulty interpreting the new ones. She kept insisting that we were on a parallel ‘virtual’ road at some distance from the real one. In the end we switched the SatNav off, when we realised that she’d placed the Messe to the south west of Essen in open fields with no roads and only a couple of railway lines for company. As it happens, we knew the way, so we could mostly avoid detours.

We also avoided the French fuel strike by remembering to fill up in Dover. My only worry was that there might have been a Dunkirk blockade – it’s happened before, but not around Essen time thank goodness. I guess there’s a game in there somewhere, but this time we managed our action points perfectly. Charlie and I arrived at the Messe in time to construct a nice little display of Totemo in the Press Room, complete with the large table-top blocks that Charlie had spent many an hour making and painting in the previous week.

Totemo in the Press Room at Essen 2010

Totemo in the Press Room at Spiel


Game Set-up [Wednesday]

All setup was done on time, so we were all ready by soon after lunchtime for the Thursday morning stampede! After our exorbitant expenditure on stand paraphenalia at our first Essen trip back in 2001, we no longer have special carpets and huge amounts of professional and expensive marketing materials and special furniture. We make do with 2 or 3 well designed banners, plus posters for the walls, lots of product, some shelving for the games, and most importantly chairs and tables for playing the games on. And for this year T O T E M O spelt out in large friendly blocks simulating the real wooden blocks of the game, made through the multiple talents of Mr Boydell.

Tony Boydell in SSG stand at Essen

Tony Boydell in SSG stand at Essen 2010

Most of our sales come from pre-orders, and converting players into purchasers. Essen is above all a convention for playing new games.

Thanks to Chooi and Philip for their help setting up. And also to all the old friends who dropped by to see us.

This year we are sharing our stand with Gavin, designer and producer of Cubiko. We’re also selling Octoputs, a game-for-charity produced by Mike Oakes.

Cubiko part of the SSG stand Spiel '10

Cubiko part of the SSG stand Spiel '10

Wednesday gives exhibitors an early opportunity to hunt out essential purchases while the mass audience has not yet arrived. It’s also press day, so it’s important with a new game to have the stand manned in case of media interest. At this time, we hope to encourage press who’ve seen the game in the Press Room to come to the stand for a closer look and a demo.

First purchases were High Frontier, Dominant Species (both on recommendation), Pocket Battles Orcs & Elves, Agricola G deck, Parade (a critical miss for us last year) and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose (and thanks, if that’s quite the right sentiment, to Kara from Leisure Games for introducing that one to us).

In the evening we play tested some stuff. Pete Armstrong had his game ‘Wild’, which looks like it has considerable potential. Its theme is African animals escaping from wildfire. Elephants, giraffes, rhinos & lions all are fighting to get away. Each player has one animal model of each type, and a hand of cards, either randomly drawn or from a pool of 3 face up cards, to try to match with their 4 animals. The cards are used to fight off opponents, though herding animals can coexist in the same space. Particular points in the design that I liked were: time pressure and graphics of the approaching wildfire; movement restrictions by keying each hex by animal; card pool for drawing from, which could probably be extended, and the basic combat mechanism – which was quick, simple and effective. We made several suggestions for possible improvemenst, and I’m looking forward to the next safari.

Then we had a quick 5-player go at Maureen Hiron’s new game ‘Up for Grabs’. I found it to be surprisingly fun! Not a game I would buy myself, but should have immense appeal to a mass market US audience.

The Spiel is A’Foot! [Thursday]

Unfortunately my post for Essen Thursday was lost when I published from the iPhone with no Internet connection :(. So this part of the report is a bit briefer than I’d like. After that I switched to composing the material in Notes then posting – see, I can learn!

We spent all day demonstrating Totemo (there’s a surprise). Players liked it a lot, particularly the graphics, and we were busy the whole time, which is always a good sign. Many happy gamers went away with a copy, though there’s always the disappointment when a group that obviously liked the game leave with a thank you but no copy. The nature of Essen is that people come to play and try out new games, but because of the hundreds of good and great new games that come out every year, no-one can buy everything that they want to.

Sales were moderate, bearing in mind that Totemo is not a traditional gamers’ game, and Thurday tends to be a gamers and collectors day. Totemo will perhaps have limited appeal to Eurogame collectors. We had lots of families on the stand which encouraged us for Saturday, the prime family day.

Phil demoing Totemo

Phil demoing Totemo

We like to have a few language experts on our stand, though this year our German was not our strong point. Our best moment was Philip explaining Totemo in Japanese to Banesto Games! Not many stands can do that. Also Chooi had a chat with a Malaysian importer too, so we had a very multicultural day.

We also sold a small number of Confucius and Fzzzt! 2nd edition plus 5-6 player expansion – the new tin box edition that we have licenced to Gryphon Games.

We had productive meetings with Schmidt Spiele, FRED and Cryptozoic about future products too.

In conclusion for day one, we were reassuringly busy.

Further game play [Friday]

And the campaign continues…

Vicki’s artwork is going down a storm! Specific companies that have been impressed included Adlung Spiele, Gryphon Games and Kosmos, amongst others. Vicki is our illustrator for Totemo, having already impressed us with the box cover for Fzzzt! last year. She has also produced the artwork for Braggart card game produced by Spiral Galaxy Games, unfortunately not out for Essen, but expected before Christmas. She’s also our daughter, and I confess that her artistic flair is inherited from Charlie and definitely not me.

Do Not Push!

Today we had the opportunity to take some more display or play space, because the stand opposite was empty. It’s a curious situation that a company can book a 20m frontage stand, then not turn up. Though I thought this would be to the advantage of the organisers and ourselves, it proved to be too expensive, because Merz Verlag wanted to charge €400, and we would have had to rent or purchase furniture on top, making an extra cost of about €1,000. I had a wonderful response from neighbouring companies reflecting cultural differences. Myself, being English, was playing by the rules; the Poles had to refer up to a higher authority for a decision, and the Italians were all for just occupying the space without asking! In the end, none of the companies potentially involved expected to be able to cover the extra expense, so the mini-project didn’t materialise.

We met up with even more old friends, including Jonathan and Lucy from Blighty. Both we and they run well-attended games weekends though at opposite sides of the country. We didn’t manage a game with them, because our evening plans did not quite mesh. Sometimes at Essen, we only get to say ‘hi’, because we’re so busy.

We bought Troyes, a new Belgian Eurogame, and played it in the evening, 4-player with Sebastian [Sebastian Bleasdale, a well known UK games designer] and Caroline, his partner. For the first try it took perhaps 2.5 hours – the rules look pretty comprehensive; no problems with them. It’s a medium to heavy traditional Eurogame, and will probably take the 90-120 mins on the box. There’s a lot going on in the game. Worker placement gives access to mechanisms to convert resources to other types, and to generate VPs. However, the resources are primarily in the form of coloured dice – yellow for civil, white for religious, red for military. While high dice rolls help, they are not essential – in this game you can pay to use the other players’ dice, the price depending on the number of dice – from 1 to 3 – that you want to use for your action. Conversion of dice from one colour to another, adding to the dice total or other dice manipulation happens as part of your action, not as a separate one. Another great twist is that bonus VPs can be achieved through meeting the conditions set by your mentor (a character card randomly dealt at the start and hidden from tht other players). But everyone can get the bonuses from all the characters, so there’s an element of bluff. Recommended.

The game hots up! [Saturday]

Frenetic Saturday arrived at Spiel ’10. For the first time Surprised Stare Games has a product, in Totemo, that could be thought of as a Saturday game; one that will appeal to families and the general public. So it has transpired.

As usual the halls were packed wall to wall – though some exhibitors have said it wasn’t as crowded as in previous years. For us, it was unusually busy. Previously we have had massive crowds ignoring us on Saturday. This time we were demoing all day. Sales were also good for a Saturday. It helped that we were high up the GeekBuzz rankings for most of the day. We were also pleased that for quite a lot of the time we had two games in the top 30 – Fzzzt! 2nd edition and Totemo.

Overflow Playing

Overflow Playing

I had earlier picked up a copy of Pocket Battles: Orcs v Elves – a follow up to Celts v Romans and one that I had helped to play test. It’s a Z-man game designed by Paolo Mori and Francesco Sirocchi. I was also lucky enough to catch up with Paolo, as he stopped by the stand. Vasco de Gama expansion is due out soon, I hear.

In the evening we met up with another Alan, Sebastian and Caroline, and Jonathan and Lucy. Caroline introduced me to Mijnlieff and promptly thrashed me (at the game).

Then we gave Ascension a go. It was enjoyable, but why buy, play or design this rather than Dominion?

Finally we had a 6-player game of Parade. Few turns and I think driven more by the draw of cards than skill (and I won). Probably better with three or four.

Game end

The final day of Spiel ’10 dawned at, well, dawn. A quiet morning (tumbleweed slowly passing by) was followed by a much busier lunchtime and afternoon.

We made a few sales to shops, including the final one in the carpark after we had packed up! Thank you to Swan Panasia!

A few last minute swaps for Totemo with other designers included Sun, Sea and Sand (Cwali), Thunderstone, Antics (thanks Gordon). Weren’t able to swap for Mines of Zavandor as there wasn’t an English one available.

We got our copy of the English 7 Wonders and special T shirt, so it paid to be at the top of the waiting list. Also picked up Sceptre of Zavandor for 10€.

Packing up was swift if fraught, as we couldn’t bring the van to the stand – something about health and safety or German bureaucracy, take your pick. It meant we had to lug the lot out to the van in the parking area, under a time limit, because you’re only allowed a short window of time (30 minutes I think) with the van on site; if you take too long, you lose €50 deposit. Thanks to all the crew (including Julian, Pete and Gavin + Gavin’s dad). It was only on the Tuesday after we’d arrived back in England that we realised that we’d not packed up the game in the Press Room, so we lost the game, the cloth it was on, and Charlie’s hard-won special cubes :-(.

Finally we had our usual wind down Mexican meal, a very relaxing and necessary ritual.

Team Totemo

Team Totemo

The Spoils of Spiel ’10

What we’ve bought at Essen Spiel ’10 – too much as usual.

A&C Essen 10 game purchases
Essen 10 Purchases

7 Wonders
Agricola Gamer’s Deck
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose
Cartagena 2
Cat and Chocolate
Dominant Species
Guided Lands
High Frontier + expansion
Inca Empire
Key Market
Magnum Sal
Pocket Battles: Orcs & Elves
Ricochet Robots
Sceptre of Zavandor
String Railway
Sun, Sea & Sand
The Resistance


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