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Culture

German Games Not Just For Geeks

When winter begins, Germans start indulging in one of their favorite pastimes -- playing board games. Germany is the most game-crazy nation in Europe, both when it comes to playing games and inventing them.

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A couple of younger game fans enjoy this year's Game Fair in Essen.

Michael Bartusch-Lenzen scans the cordoned-off area inside the exhibition hall where about 16 adults sit hunched over their tables playing a board game called “The Settlers of Catan.” They’re not just playing for fun; they’re all finalists in the 2003 Catan World Championships, one of the highlights of the annual gaming trade fair in the German city of Essen.

Bartusch-Lenzen is the tournament’s organizer and himself a huge fan of Catan, one of the most successful board games ever produced in Germany. “I started playing Catan the year it was published, in 1995,” he told Deutsche Welle. “In the beginning I played it a lot -- between 200 and 300 games a year, nearly a game a day. Now I don’t play it quite so often, maybe every two weeks.”

Despite the regularity with which he plays Catan, Bartush-Lenzen doesn’t consider himself a board game freak. That title is reserved for people such as the 2002 German national Catan champion. “He plays the game three or four times a day -- every day,” Bartusch-Lenzen said.

When “The Settlers of Catan” won the coveted board game award “Spiel des Jahres” or Game of the Year in 1995, it sparked a renewed interest in gaming in Germany. But Germans have always been crazy about board games.

National passion

Germany has the widest range of board games, more and more of which are being translated and exported around the world. Industry experts estimate that the average German family owns about 30 games. Sales reach their peak during the pre-Christmas period with a game or two guaranteed to be underneath most German Christmas trees.

Spiel des Jahres Alhambra

Alhambra author Dirk Henn

The game most likely to fly off the shelves is the one bearing the current “Spiel des Jahres” sticker. This year, that honour went to a game called “Alhambra,” published by Queen Games. The game’s author, Dirk Henn, who began inventing games as a university student, has been waiting a long time for the recognition he’s getting now.

“I can’t count the number of games I’ve created,” he told Deutsche Welle. “About 20 of my games have actually been published, but that’s discounting all the attempts that landed in the rubbish bin. It’s a tough profession. Let me put it this way, you shouldn’t become a game author if you want to make a lot of money, there are better ways.”

Still, Henn admits that winning the "Spiel des Jahres" gives him financial security. The winning game is guaranteed to sell about 200,000 copies in Germany alone. And with growing interest in gaming in other markets, such as Asia and the United States, there’s a good chance his game could be translated and sold abroad.

Cultural divides

But not every game that’s a hit in Germany will repeat that success in other markets. Gaming is very culture specific, according to Mark Kaufmann, vice president of Days of Wonder, a U.S. game publisher with partners in France. “Culturally, people approach games differently, we all have different backgrounds that might make us more or less interested,” he said. “The German gamer likes more abstract games. They like more strategic types of games, unlike many American players. Americans have less patience than Germans in particular and Europeans in general, and they like immediacy, so we look for games that are easy to learn.”

There are different theories as to why Germans enjoy gaming so much. Some say it has to do with the weather, as dark, cold winter evenings create the perfect conditions for a cozy evening at home with a board game. Others say games provide a playful release and a form of interaction that’s rare in Germany’s typically formal society.

“It’s definitely the interaction with the opponents,” said Dirk Tedes, a gaming fan who also does public relations work for Ravensburger, one of Germany’s leading game publishers. “Or maybe it’s because most Germans aren’t very happy people most of the time,” he added jokingly. “It’s a sort of vent. You can exchange stories while playing. It’s fun, and it’s addictive.”

His colleague at Ravensburger, Heinrich Hüntelmann, agrees. “If you want to get to know someone, the easiest way is to play a game. I’ve even had a friend say, if you’re thinking of getting married, play a game with your future spouse first, and then you’ll know if you’re really meant for each other.”

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