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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.