A Trip to Berlin

The origins of the eurogame movement are usually traced to two German innovations. The first is the Spiel des Jahres, a gaming award that began offering awards in 1979, and which honored its first homebrew German game, Scotland Yard (1983), just a few years later. The second is Essen Game Fair, which debuted that same year and quickly became the second major gear in the engine that would soon be propelling German games to success.

Of course it’s wrong to say that those early Euros were German games, because they were in truth West German games. At the time the country was still split, with East Germany then being a satellite of the USSR. So if you look at the maps you’ll find Essen, Prien am Chiemsee (the home of F.X. Schmid), Munich (the home of Schmidt Spiele), Ravensburg (the home of Ravensburger), and Stuttgart (the home of Kosmos) were all in West Germany. The Special K of early German designers — Reiner Knizia, Wolfgang Kramer, and Klaus Teuber — similarly all originated in West Germany.

Which all goes to say that if you want to make a pilgrimage to the German Game homeland, the western part of Germany is the place to go. Essen is the high holy spot, of course, but Munich would probably be a great alternative for really seeing German game culture in its native environment.

But Germany has been reunited since 1990, which means that the former East Germany got to participate in the most notable growth of the industry, which I tend to trace back to The Settlers of Catan (1995). The formerly communist-controlled parts of the country seem to still be poorer than other areas, but if anything economists have told us that usually benefits the game industry.

So when I visited Berlin a few weeks ago, I decided to do a bit of investigation of German game culture — in the part of the country that may not have originated the form, but which is clearly now a full participant in the Eurogame revolution.

A Berlin Game Store

I spent my week in Berlin in Mitte, the central borough of Berlin. It’s shockingly free of game stores, but that’s probably because it’s the tourist center of the city, also heavy with businessmen and fancy hotels. (I was one of the businessmen, I suppose.) However, once you get outside of Mitte proper, where the actual bürgers of the city lived, and you find a halo of game-related businesses. The game store that I choose to go to was Brettspielgeschäft, which has an amusingly on-the-nose name: it’s German for “board game store”.

I was immediately struck when I walked in the door by the neat, regular shelves of board games lining all the walls. I’ve certainly seen plenty of board game stores in the United States, but they tend to downplay their stock a little, leaving plenty of open space. Not so this German store, which had games from floor to (almost) ceiling, from wall to wall.

I was somewhat surprised to see that I recognized most of the games — or at least, most of the big box games. At least half of the big boxes were releases that I’d seen in the United States. The biggest difference was that more games seemed to remain in-print in Germany — which is a big change from the US where several of our publishers have troubles keeping this month’s big new release in stock, let alone something from a few years ago.

The games that I was unfamiliar with tended to be the small-box games. Clearly, there are a ton of them produced for Germany, and equally clearly, English-language publishers aren’t that concerned with importing them.

I think I was the most jealous of the Quined masterprint series, which I’ve never before seen at a store. I love numbered game series, especially when they’re purposefully high-quality games. As Alea has fallen off of new game production in recent years, I’d love to have an alternative: but with the Quined’s games being limited editions that are largely available in the US, I think I would have set myself up for some expensive collection if I’d filled my luggage with what they had at Brettspielgeschäft.

While I was browsing, I noticed a few Monopolies and Strategies wedged onto the game shelves, almost lost amidst the superior quality Eurogames. It was rather joyful to see these games that entirely fill the American landscape so irrelevant in Germany.

I definitely had a goal of picking up a German game while in Berlin. I could have picked up something unknown, perhaps one of those Quined games that hasn’t hit American shores. However, I’ve grown very picky with my game purchases in recent years, because I’m getting ready for a major move in 2020. So instead I picked up the German edition of a known hit that hadn’t made its way to American shores yet: Queendomino.

And I discovered it was out in the US when I visited my favorite American game store a few days after my return to the states. Ah well, at least I have a German game souvenir that I’m pretty sure I’ll hold onto.

A Berlin Game Café

My other gaming stop in Berlin was at Spielewiese (game field?) which advertises itself as being the first gaming café in Berlin. I’ve never gamed in a gaming café before, as the game stores in the Bay Area suit my needs, but I have seen one other — a local Berkeley café that always struck me as cramped. In contrast, Spielewiese was spacious, while still having half-a-dozen or so tables. Mind you, I had to make a reservation to make sure I’d get one of those tables.

There was also an extremely bountiful collection of games, many of them with English rules, and an extremely nice proprietor, making it all around a nice place to play.

A friend and I got there a bit before 7pm on Friday evening and we soon witnessed a very strange pilgrimage. About a dozen people arrived in groups of 1s, 2s, or 3s, went up to the cash register and each departed with a single game. I eventually came to the conclusion that these people were renting games for their weekend gaming! It was really neat seeing this as a part of the café’s standard practice. I would love to be able to rent unknown games like this, just for a play or two.

For those of us playing at the café, we just had to put out €1 an hour each. Now I generally don’t believe in paying for playing time, but this cost was so ridiculously low that I made sure I bought myself a drink while there, just to further subsidize our time.

I’d hope to be able to game with some German players, dreaming that they might even introduce us to some games that hadn’t made it over the Atlantic yet. It wasn’t to be. Most people visiting the café did so with the people they planned to game with already. There were quite a few young-ish couples, which is certainly what I always hear is the main vector for game playing in Germany. Many of them also had a third wheel along for the ride (play).

Ironically, my friend ended up teaching a game to a group of German students, who’d apparently been sent to the café to get to know each other better. There were seven of them, so he told them about Saboteur, which they seemed to enjoy quite a bit. Meanwhile, he and I played some Uluru and Kingdom Builder off the shelves.

The Ishtar Gate

I had one other board gaming encounter in Berlin, but it was a bit of a surprise.

I visited the Pergamon Museum which contains many looted (and I suppose preserved) antiquities. This included a few really notable structures that had been reassembled (and to a large extent reconstructed). This includes the Ishtar Gate, once the eighth gate into the city of Babylon:

If that looks really familiar, there’s a good reason. As RPGnet reviewer Antonios S. pointed out to me, it was the basis of the artwork in the Mayfair Games edition of Tigris & Euphrates:

And that was the serendipitous  end to my week in Berlin.

I just wish I’d bought some of those Quined games …

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