Extraordinary Meeples

 At Berlin’s Grand Hotel
Esplanade on June 30, a panel of German-speaking board-game critics will
announce their selections for the Spiel des Jahres, or Game of the Year,
and hand out playing pieces the size of bowling pins to the winners.
This may sound like a comedy sketch—can you think of an American
newspaper with a board-game critic?—but the Spiel des Jahres is no
joke. The addition of its red and gold seal to a box can push sales of a
new release to half a million copies or more. Who are the buyers?
Ordinary German families, and the game enthusiasts known as
spielfrieks.

Much as youth culture in postwar Japan transformed
the comic book into manga, Germany has incubated a new style of board
game over the past few decades that reflects a historical commitment to
meticulous craft. Manufactured domestically, these games come with
polished wooden pieces. The boards, covered in varnished linen paper
printed with elaborate illustrations, have reinforced hinges, and even
the corners of the boxes are built to last. “The quality standard
for games in Germany is very high,” says Bernd Brunnhofer, owner
of the Munich game-publishing firm Hans im Glück. It’s not
just the materials; these multiplayer games have innovative board
topologies and clever game mechanics. At their best, they are easy to
learn yet strategically and socially complex, which results in a more
intense and interactive experience than a turn-based track game such as
Monopoly.

Though German games aren’t yet as ubiquitous as
manga, international interest in them has similarly been driven by a
web-savvy network of acolytes. Spielfrieks trade gossip about new
releases, puzzle out translations, and make pilgrimages to the Essen
Internationale Spieltage, a game fair that attracts 150,000 visitors
every October. Some German titles have small English-language print
runs, distributed through specialty shops and the online store Funagain.
In Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, meanwhile, there are now board-game
cafés where resident masters teach patrons how to play.

Now
that German-style games are gaining this kind of international momentum,
it may be time to give them another name entirely—perhaps
“designer games,” since the game designers (and sometimes
also the graphic designers) are credited on the outside of the box, like
the author of a book. “Game designers, they are making up stories,
they are making themes, but the most impressive things they
make—and the most un-understandable things—are the
structures,” says Friedemann Friese, a green-haired maverick whose
games, which he publishes under the brand 2F-Spiele, enjoy a cult
following. These structures, Friese adds, are not physical but
metaphysical. “An artist has drawn the game
board—that’s not me. There’s only a piece of paper
that describes what I’ve done, instructions for how the material
you see on the table works.”

The development of the modern board
game is bound up in the history of printing. Milton Bradley was a
draftsman who owned one of the first color lithography presses in
Massachusetts; his breakthrough was the Checkered Game of Life (1860), a
snakes-and-ladders game that rewarded virtue and punished vice. Today,
the company he founded belongs to Hasbro, which, with Mattel, owns the
rights to most titles in the American canon: Clue, Monopoly, Risk,
Scrabble, Sorry!, Trivial Pursuit. This consolidation, which is even
more extreme than in book and music publishing, has made recent output
increasingly disposable. Some blame the decline of board games on the
disintegration of the family, the passivity of television-watching, or
the computer age. Whatever the explanation, many “new”
American games are repackaged classics or licensed extensions of TV
shows or movies—and are cheaply produced in China.

In Germany,
by contrast, games are embedded in the culture: People buy them at local
shops, not superstores, and families play together. Designed to last an
hour or two, they satisfy the need to think and socialize within busy
lives. “The more you go to the south in Europe—Spain and
Italy—the less they have a board-game culture,” quips Frank
Weiss, a game developer for Ravensburger. “The colder it is, the
more they stay in the house, the more they play.”

For most of
the 20th century, children in West Germany grew up playing many of the
same games as Americans did. But things began to change in 1979. As
American corporations were buying out family-owned game companies and
electronic games were taking off, German game critics introduced the
Spiel des Jahres. The earliest winners weren’t Germans; they
included David Parlett, an Englishman who wrote The Oxford History of
Board Games, and Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph, two Americans who
designed games for 3M—which put out a faux-leather
“bookshelf” line, aimed at adults, in the ’60s. But
German designers, working with Kosmos, Ravensburger, Hans im Glück,
and other game publishers, soon came to dominate the competition.

The
standard-bearer is Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan, the
winner of the 1995 Spiel des Jahres. The game and its spinoffs have sold
more than 15 million copies, and it has been adapted for the Xbox. An
island made up of 19 hexagons is assembled in different configurations
in each game; players build a series of roads and settlements along the
vertices of these hexagons. Multiple strategies are effective, decisions
involve trade-offs, and, happily, most players will stay in contention
until the very end.

If The Settlers of Catan has a
drawback—other than revealing the ruthlessness of one’s
closest friends—it’s that the graphic design doesn’t
live up to the ingenuity of its geometry and rules. But other German
games lean heavily on inventive imagery to reinforce the theme. For
Andreas and Karen Seyfarth’s Thurn and Taxis, a game about
securing postal routes, graphic artist Michael Menzel strove for
historical authenticity, painstakingly drawing sepia-toned reproductions
of 17th-century German architectural landmarks and delving into the
archives of the Thurn and Taxis family. Friedemann Friese developed a
signature style with the graphic artist Maura Kalusky that fits his
oddball brand: Friese’s games are green, to match his hair, and
they all begin with the letter F—Finstere Flure (Fearsome
Floors), the cannibalistic Frischfleisch (Fresh Flesh), Funkenschlag
(Power Grid).

“Many players like to dive into another world when
they are playing a game,” says Doris Matthäus, an illustrator
and graphic designer responsible for the appearance of dozens of board
games, including three Spiel des Jahres winners. For Klaus-Jürgen
Wrede’s Carcassonne, in which players construct a medieval town
out of square cardboard tiles, Matthäus created a hand-painted
landscape. The wavy lines of the roads and castles soften the underlying
abstract geometry into approachable forms. The wooden
pieces—brightly colored human figurines with touchably rounded
edges—have charmed spielfrieks, who nicknamed them
“meeples” and embraced them as icons of the entire
German-game genre.

Before an artist like Matthäus gets involved,
of course, a game has already undergone an arduous design process. It
can begin with an idea for a theme (pirates, Antarctic exploration), a
mechanism (an auction, simultaneous card-playing), or even a playing
piece. Once the rules are drawn up, game designers will begin
play-testing prototypes and making iterative refinements. “You
make this system, and you set it free, and you have to look at what the
system makes,” says Friese. “You play it with different
people, different groups, different levels of people, and to see who
likes it and who doesn’t like it and why,” says Stephan
Brück, editor for Ravensburger’s Alea line. “And then
the main work starts: finding the illustrator, finding the theme,
finding the title, the materials, and so on. Sometimes the prototype is
done pretty well, sometimes you have to change 50 percent.” After
a publisher accepts it, a game about taxi routes in Berlin can evolve
into a camel race across the desert. As for themes, German games take
inspiration from a range of historical and geographic settings, real and
mythological, and can involve transportation, business, settlement, the
art world, cannibalism—anything but war. “You will never see
a World War II game by a German company,” says game designer
Andrea Meyer. In these multiplayer games, direct conflict is rare, and
usually the winner does just a little better than everyone else. In
other words, they’re a lot more European Union than Cold War.

How much further can German, or designer, games penetrate American
culture? Many of these games have four- or eight-page rulebooks, which
can be daunting, especially when compared with a party game like
Pictionary or Taboo. “Germans and Americans obey rules
differently—we are big on rules, and you are not,” says
Meyer. On the other hand, geeks have proven to be the cultural vanguard
of our time, and the influence of video gaming may be paving the way for
a generation of American spielfrieks. After all, once we’re
willing to read manga right to left, anything is possible.

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