German families have little time for the classic games afternoons as more women go out to work and grandparents live further away. Even during the holiday period people prefer exploring foreign lands over board games.
Video consoles are displacing traditional toys like dolls
Astrid Kling-Hornig, 45, is a mother of two. "Actually, we wanted to have a games evening once a week. But unfortunately, that hardly ever happens," she says as she sits at a long dining table at her Berlin home.
She is joined by her sons, Maurice and Paul, and their friend Jakob. A colorful board game with cards, figurines, and dice is spread across the table – the classic game of Monopoly, only this is a modernized version with an electronic bank.
The children are feeling under the weather, so they stayed away from school for the morning. Their mother is also at home for a change, so it seems they've finally found the time required for such elaborate games.
All work and no play
"We all work during the week, so everyone is tired on Fridays. On Saturdays and Sundays, we often visit friends or the children's grandmother," Astrid says regretfully. "Yet we all love to play games so much."
When children in Germany are asked what they expect of their parents, most say “more time”. That's a particularly telling response as in many families today both parents have full-time jobs. The Klings are no different.
Few families have the time for a classic game of Monopoly these days
Paul and Maurice's friend Jakob, who's joined the family for a game of Monopoly today, normally fills his afternoons with judo, art classes and guitar lessons – typical of many 11-year-olds these days. Then, if there is still time for games, he's most likely to join Paul and his brother to play their Wii video game console - a device the boys insist is "cooler than board games."
Boom in electronic toys
The toy trade in Germany is worth about four billion euros annually, with nearly half the sector's turnover coming from computer games and video consoles.
The electronic games market is booming, especially among boys over the age of 10. In the past year alone, sales shot up by 19 percent to 1.9 billion euros.
Classic children's toys - such as teddy bears and construction kits - still account for the majority of the German market, but no individual product group can escape the shadow of the video games. Puzzles and board games form around nine percent of the market, while dolls account for just five percent.
Less scope for imagination
The classical toy segment is, however, changing in response to market forces. This is particularly evident in the case of Lego.
When Lego was first launched it was a purely a construction toy – children used the simple plastic bricks to build whatever they could imagine. Nowadays the shelves of the toy stores are stocked with huge, expensive packages containing customized kits for spaceships, castles or police stations.
Critics say the fact that most children build the models by simply following the accompanying instruction booklets means there's not much scope for creativity. But more business-minded observers recognize that the specific nature of the blocks encourages additional purchases as opposed to continual re-use in different forms.
Learning by playing
Vivian Reimann, a social education teacher at the Thalia Elementary School in Berlin, says she can easily tell whether a child plays with his or her parents at home or spends long periods of time alone in front of the gaming console.
She says playing helps children develop important social skills such as patience and concentration as they learn to follow rules and deal with defeat.
"Moreover," Reimann points out "they must respect each other and see themselves as part of a community."
This experience is critically important especially for the children aged between five and 10 - a phase when most boys and girls develop a sense of their own abilities and discover they can seek solutions on their own.
Settlers of Catan was one of the first German-style board games to achieve popularity outside Europe
Game of the year
Some 350 board, card, guessing and mind games, along with games requiring skill hit the German market each year. To enable parents and grandparents to select from such a wide range of products and promote games in general, an association of independent journalists and critics awards the “The Game of the Year” prize annually. There's also a “Children's Game of the Year.” Winners generally see a huge increase in turnover. Instead of the usual 25,000 games sold, sales can rise to a whopping 300,000 units.
The record is held by the Game of the Year for 1995 - Settlers of Catan. It has been translated into over 20 languages and has sold millions of copies in 40 countries.
Settlers of Catan was first published in Germany under the name Die Siedler von Catan. It was one of the first German-style board games to achieve popularity outside Europe. The game is well suited for family play, since no one gets eliminated, and players who are behind can strive towards goals that are within their reach.
Author: Svenja Pelzel (rb)
Editor: Sam Edmonds