Every year there is a large board gaming convention held in Essen, Germany, where many manufacturers show off their new releases and huge crowds turn up to play the latest games and pick up some bargains. Although there are simplistic games like Monopoly and Cluedo around, most of the games are far more complex and, whilst mostly unknown outside of dedicated gaming groups, Germany has a large market for such involved strategy games. It is quite refreshing to see families as a whole getting to grips with the latest games and sharing the experience.
Spiel also includes Comicon, as well as a large number of sellers of RPGs—even if there are few RPGs played at the convention—and LARP equipment, mostly medieval armour, weapons and clothing. The Comicon contingent has a dedicated group of cosplayers who dress up as their favourite characters, some of them entering a small show and competition. I have been to Essen before, so I know of the cosplay that happens, which is why I choose to take my fox tail and ears along with me. Indeed, I make the fox tail specifically after I know I am going to Essen, putting in the time and effort to ensure I get it created in time.
I have to admit that on the first day I am really quite nervous about wearing my tail to the convention. I don't really hide that I am a furry, but I also don't really dress up, particularly not in public, and I don't even know how the group I am with, including friends and friends of friends, will react, particularly as I haven't told anyone about my intention. But I put on my fox ears hat and hook up my splendid tail and head down to the lobby to get ready to head out for the first day. I needn't have worried, as everyone is quite impressed by the tail, although not all notice it initially. One friend says he thinks my hat is neat, only five minutes later blurting out 'oh, you've got a tail too!' as we turn to exit. It turns out to be a fairly common reaction, which is understandable. Walking around a really crowded centre lets people spot the fox ears on my hat easily enough, but my tail is obscured both by other people and my own legs, so quite a few people enjoy my hat and then get even more excited by my bushy orange tail.
The fox tail bumps against my legs a bit as I walk, but that's fine. It gives me some feedback as to how central the tail is as I walk along and, as it turns out, the friction of the long-haired fabric against the back of my legs forces the fur to compress a little on the underside of the tail, making the rest of the tail look even bushier, which is a superb effect. I am so pleased with being able to walk around wearing a tail that I am encouraged to wear it for the rest of the convention, which runs over four days. Over the weekend, I get quite a few complimentary comments about my tail. I don't speak German, so I miss out on some of the comments, but it also means I probably don't understand any insults that maybe one or two people direct at me, so that is good in its way.
Despite feeling a little out of place wearing my tail on the Thursday and Friday, more cosplayers gradually turn up, most of them on the Saturday for the cosplay event itself. I see a few more tails here and there, mostly not as big and bushy as my own but they are also not as heavy or unwieldy, making them easier to attach to clothes and to wear. There are some quite impressive tails, though, including one that needed a second person to carry it around as a train, as well as some excellent costumes overall. I even find my people, who let me scritch them behind the ears a little. I probably should have asked how they went about creating their costumes before giving these wonderful fellows big hugs and leaving them be, but that's okay. They seem to love my tail as much as I love their costumes and are really friendly. It is unsurprising that many costumes make my effort look rudimentary, mostly because it is quite a simplistic affair, but I am really happy just being able to walk around as a furry for a few days, and I hopefully will make more of a costume at some point.
Essen is not just about walking around as an anthropomorphic animal. There are loads of new board and card games to play, and most people in the group are looking for the best new games to try out and, if they are good enough, buy to play for the next year or so. Personally, I don't get enough opportunity to play multi-player board games, so I am not too fussed if I just end up browsing what is available, but I know that the main motivation for the group is to get some demonstrations. Unfortunately, partly because Spiel this year falls during school half-term, the Thursday and Friday are uncommonly busy and it is almost impossible to get one of the many but limited tables at various publishers' stands in order to try the new games. As some games can take a few hours to complete, and certainly an hour to get to grips with, finding a free table can be a frustrating time. Indeed, on the first day the small group, for we split in to several, doesn't manage to sit down for any demonstrations. We get to play Dungeon Lords during the evening back at the hotel, with a bought copy, and it looks really quite entertaining.
The second day doesn't get much better in the way of demonstrations, but at least we manage to grab a table for a four-player game of Gonzaga, which seems decent enough but perhaps not quite as in-depth as most people desire. As there are five in our little group I am happy to sit out, which gives me a chance to listen to the rules and watch the game being played, as well as sneak away briefly by myself to look at the pretty cosplay outfits for sale without too much guilt. Later on in the day, my friend and I get a table for an hour for a demonstration of Loyang, a harvesting game. Unfortunately, the provided overview of the rules is fairly confusing, and the English-speaking member of the game's team is guiding a different, three-player group through the game. Never the less, we bluster out way through the early stages as best we can, before managing about half-an-hour's worth of solid gameplay. Loyang plays well enough, although the short time spent playing makes it difficult to tell whether the limited player interactions may harm it.
The large crowds on the weekdays, and almost complete lack of available tables, don't bode well for the Saturday, generally the convention's busiest day, so most of the group decide to stay at the hotel playing games already bought for the morning, only heading to the convention for an hour or two in the afternoon to browse the trading stalls a little more. I decide to head in earlier to wander around the stalls more, just to take in the sights and sounds and, if I am to be honest, to get more of a chance to wear my tail. I pop over to see another member of the circle of friends at the convention, who is on the other side of the fence this year, selling a game he has designed and produced himself. I catch up with him half-way through a rules explanation he is giving, after which he invites me to play the potential customer in a demonstration game. Even though I only heard half the rules Monkey Dash is easy to pick and fun to play. It is quick, but with enough strategic depth to make each game different and interesting. I also get to sit down for a bit and enjoy a fun game.
I wander through to the cosplay area of the convention centre as the cosplay event is underway, and I head over to enjoy the atmosphere. A lot of time and effort goes in to making the excellent costumes and the occasional skit that the cosplayers put on for the audience, which mostly consists of other cosplayers. Not understanding German hampers my enjoyment a little again, but it's a fun little show and everyone enjoys themselves. I take some photos of a few of the costumes, generally the ones with tails, although I also get shots of an excellent Warhammer 40,000 trooper, Rorschach patrolling the area, and an amazing Link complete with shield of Hyrule and sword. To complete my cosplay fun for the weekend, I pick up a couple of pairs of paws, one black pair and one white pair, which I can use and maybe copy and adapt to make my own.
We get a break on Sunday, the last day of the convention, as dinner the previous night is with some friends of the group who also run a gaming shop and have a stand at the convention. After hearing of our frustration at finding a table for some of the games in higher demand, they kindly offer to nab a table before the doors open to the public, as they get in early to set-up, and effectively reserve it as long as we get there early enough. It is a most generous offer and readily accepted, so rather than playing bought games late in to the night and only getting ready to head home on the Sunday, we turn up at the convention centre early and are able to get a table in one of the busiest sections. There we play a couple of games of Tobago, a treasure-hunting game, which is interesting and clever and captures my attention wonderfully, although I got stitched up on my treasure more than I would have liked. It is a lot of fun, though, and I would definitely play it again.
I wasn't expecting to buy any games, although I am able to pick up a copy of the Dark Heresy RPG which I was looking for, but I end up buying a couple anyway. It is as if fate draws me to the Hard Furry Pets stand, a game of anthropomorphic animals trying to seduce their owners. It is a little bizarre, but exactly what appeals to me. I buy it without a demonstration, just on the strength of a few of the cards. We manage to get a quick game of it back at the hotel and, as my friend points out, it plays like Chez Geek, but with some modifications. I love the text and art of the cards. I haven't read them all, but I think the French Accent card is superb, where the hard furry pet adopts the accent to impress his date, the flavour text on the card reading, 'Je suis la bas ici comme ca'.
A second game I buy is explained to me before we get to the convention centre. Bunny Bunny Moose Moose is a game of silly faces, and the description and seeing it for only ten bucks makes me think that maybe it would work well as a family game for Christmas. A five-player game at the hotel one evening makes for uproarious entertainment, as four of the five are making bunny ears or moose antlers, sticking tongues in and out, changing quickly as new cards are revealed before the hunter turns up. It is very silly, but jolly good fun and well worth the cheap price tag. I almost buy Dungeon Lords, hoping that perhaps I can find a single-player variant, but it is in such high demand that it sells out before the end of the Saturday.
All that is left is getting back home. This year, instead of flying, my friend decides to drive from the UK to Essen, which costs about the same, doesn't have the hassle of airport travel or 'security', and allows more games to be brought back stuffed in to the boot of the car. The journey is quite long but is mostly one long motorway, apart from taking the car on the Channel Tunnel train crossing and the last mile or so on each end. It is interesting to note that we left the UK, travelled through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and in to Germany, then back through Germany in to the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and it was only getting on the train back to the UK that we ever have to show our passports.
Spiel 2009 has been an excellent little break. Good company, lots of friendly, like-minded gamers, and some fun gaming. I hope to go back again next year.