Extraordinary Meeples

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At Berlin’s Grand HotelEsplanade on June 30, a panel of German-speaking board-game critics willannounce 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 Americannewspaper with a board-game critic?—but the Spiel des Jahres is nojoke. The addition of its red and gold seal to a box can push sales of anew release to half a million copies or more. Who are the buyers?Ordinary German families, and the game enthusiasts known asspielfrieks.

Much as youth culture in postwar Japan transformedthe comic book into manga, Germany has incubated a new style of boardgame over the past few decades that reflects a historical commitment tometiculous craft. Manufactured domestically, these games come withpolished wooden pieces. The boards, covered in varnished linen paperprinted with elaborate illustrations, have reinforced hinges, and eventhe corners of the boxes are built to last. “The quality standardfor games in Germany is very high,” says Bernd Brunnhofer, ownerof the Munich game-publishing firm Hans im Glück. It’s notjust the materials; these multiplayer games have innovative boardtopologies and clever game mechanics. At their best, they are easy tolearn yet strategically and socially complex, which results in a moreintense and interactive experience than a turn-based track game such asMonopoly.

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

Nowthat 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 sometimesalso the graphic designers) are credited on the outside of the box, likethe author of a book. “Game designers, they are making up stories,they are making themes, but the most impressive things theymake—and the most un-understandable things—are thestructures,” says Friedemann Friese, a green-haired maverick whosegames, which he publishes under the brand 2F-Spiele, enjoy a cultfollowing. These structures, Friese adds, are not physical butmetaphysical. “An artist has drawn the gameboard—that’s not me. There’s only a piece of paperthat describes what I’ve done, instructions for how the materialyou see on the table works.”

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

In Germany,by contrast, games are embedded in the culture: People buy them at localshops, not superstores, and families play together. Designed to last anhour or two, they satisfy the need to think and socialize within busylives. “The more you go to the south in Europe—Spain andItaly—the less they have a board-game culture,” quips FrankWeiss, a game developer for Ravensburger. “The colder it is, themore they stay in the house, the more they play.”

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

Thestandard-bearer is Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan, thewinner of the 1995 Spiel des Jahres. The game and its spinoffs have soldmore than 15 million copies, and it has been adapted for the Xbox. Anisland made up of 19 hexagons is assembled in different configurationsin each game; players build a series of roads and settlements along thevertices of these hexagons. Multiple strategies are effective, decisionsinvolve trade-offs, and, happily, most players will stay in contentionuntil the very end.

If The Settlers of Catan has adrawback—other than revealing the ruthlessness of one’sclosest friends—it’s that the graphic design doesn’tlive up to the ingenuity of its geometry and rules. But other Germangames lean heavily on inventive imagery to reinforce the theme. ForAndreas and Karen Seyfarth’s Thurn and Taxis, a game aboutsecuring postal routes, graphic artist Michael Menzel strove forhistorical authenticity, painstakingly drawing sepia-toned reproductionsof 17th-century German architectural landmarks and delving into thearchives of the Thurn and Taxis family. Friedemann Friese developed asignature style with the graphic artist Maura Kalusky that fits hisoddball brand: Friese’s games are g
reen, to match his hair, andthey all begin with the letter F—Finstere Flure (FearsomeFloors), the cannibalistic Frischfleisch (Fresh Flesh), Funkenschlag(Power Grid).

“Many players like to dive into another world whenthey are playing a game,” says Doris Matthäus, an illustratorand graphic designer responsible for the appearance of dozens of boardgames, including three Spiel des Jahres winners. For Klaus-JürgenWrede’s Carcassonne, in which players construct a medieval townout of square cardboard tiles, Matthäus created a hand-paintedlandscape. The wavy lines of the roads and castles soften the underlyingabstract geometry into approachable forms. The woodenpieces—brightly colored human figurines with touchably roundededges—have charmed spielfrieks, who nicknamed them“meeples” and embraced them as icons of the entireGerman-game genre.

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

How much further can German, or designer, games penetrate Americanculture? Many of these games have four- or eight-page rulebooks, whichcan be daunting, especially when compared with a party game likePictionary or Taboo. “Germans and Americans obey rulesdifferently—we are big on rules, and you are not,” saysMeyer. On the other hand, geeks have proven to be the cultural vanguardof our time, and the influence of video gaming may be paving the way fora generation of American spielfrieks. After all, once we’rewilling to read manga right to left, anything is possible.