The world's largest annual games trade fair kicks off Thursday in Europe's most game-crazy nation with thousands of Germans indulging in four days of mind-boggling fun in Essen.
The fair is a feast for young game fans too
Starting Thursday, four floors of the exhibition hall in the western German city of Essen will be home to a familiar sight: hordes of Germans hunched over tables, racking their brains and carefully plotting their moves on some tricky board games.
The annual games fair, the "Spiel '05" in Essen is the world's largest and this year it's going to get even bigger with a record 724 exhibitors from around the world showing off some of the niftiest board game inventions. Some 150,000 visitors are expected to stream in over the next four days and test the more than 350 new games on show.
"In Germany we have the world's largest variety in the games industry," said Ernst Pohle, chairman of the expert group Spiel.
Germany indeed 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.
Court intrigues and brain teasers
Poker can also be played at the ongoing game fair in Essen
In a taste of the mind-boggling things to come, industry representatives and insiders presented some of the highlights of this year's gaming fair at a press conference a day earlier.
The centerpiece was the awarding of the prestigious German Games Prize 2005, which usually guarantees the winner booming sales over Christmas. This year's pick was a rather unlikely strategy game called "Louis XIV," which is all about intrigues and power-struggles at the court of the Sun King.
Created by author Rüdiger Dorn for the alea/Ravensburger game publishing company, the game, which involved extensive historical research by its inventors, can be played by up to four players who try to get the coveted crowns and scepters by using bribes and connections.
Sudoku is featured regularly in German dailies
Another huge attraction at this year's game fair includes numerous variations of the iconic Japanese brain teaser "Sudoku." "It's a sensational cult puzzle," said Pohle.
Already immensely popular in Europe and in Germany with a few newspapers even running the puzzle daily, several game-makers at the fair have attempted to translate the logic-based numerical crossword into a board game that involves several different strategies.
World Cup mania and booming profits
Other showpieces include an adventurous children's game called "Akaba," which won the German Children's Game Prize. Meant for kids aged five and above, the game involves blowing an airplane-shaped air pump to steer a carpet over an oriental bazaar and buy gifts.
Several games have been influenced by the World Cup
A slew of games also take their cue from the soccer World Cup in Germany next year. The latter range from simple board games to four square meter felt pitches featuring large figures of German soccer stars Oliver Kahn and Lukas Podolski. The emphasis is on tactics rather than physical power.
Another big trend is classical board games mixed with modern electronics. They include interactive games which comment on maneuvers and strategies via an integrated computer as well as Ravenburger's high-tech game "The Island" where a legendary island complete with a three-dimensional volcano can be chip-controlled with dramatic sound and light effects.
The profusion of games on show this year is matched by the industry's optimism about its financial prospects.
German game makers say they expect a turnover boom for 2005 and 2006. For the current year, the industry is counting on growth of 6.5 percent, amounting to some 350 million euros.
"Fun and addictive"
There are different theories as to why Germans enjoy playing board games 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 still society.
"It's definitely the interaction with the opponents," Dirk Tedes, a games fan who also does public relations work for Ravensburger, told Deutsche Welle.
"Or maybe it's because most Germans aren't very happy people most of the time," Tedes said jokingly.
"It's a sort of vent. You can exchange stories while playing. It's fun and it's addictive."