The Seriously Fun World of German Board Games

by Blake Eskin

Tin House #43, Spring 2010 (Games People Play)

In 1990, Alan R. Moon invited some friends to gather at a Massachusetts motel for a weekend of board games. Alan had worked as a game developer for Avalon Hill, home of PanzerBlitz and other war games, and for Parker Brothers, the corporate parent of Monopoly and the Nerf ball, but at the time he earned his money waiting tables. American game companies weren’t so interested in Alan’s ideas, or in any new concepts unless they used electricity. Nor were most Americans; if they played board games as adults, they usually wanted the ones they’d played as children. So Alan looked toward Germany, where games could have the strategic complexity of Avalon Hill and the family appeal of Parker Brothers. The pieces are solid wood, the boxes don’t fall apart, the rules keep you involved even when its not your turn, and most games end in ninety minutes.

Many of the games Alan and his friends played that weekend—Adel Verpflichtet, Drachenlachen, Niki Laudas Formel 1—came from Germany. By the time I turned up at Alan’s annual game party, in 2004, he had a Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) prize and a half dozen more nominations to his credit. And his Gathering of Friends, with capital letters, had become an annual affair that quickly outgrew the Quality Inn in Chicopee and moved to Columbus, Ohio, expanded to nine days, and grew from two dozen to three hundred players. Thousands more would have gladly come to Columbus, had Alan invited them—each October, 150,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Internationale Spieltage in Essen—but, as Alan once told me, “I don’t have as much fun playing games with strangers as I do with my friends.”

As I walked into the hotel ballroom, Alan said hello and handed me a name badge. It was red, since this was my first Gathering. Alan, a tall man in his early fifties with close-cropped dark hair, wore a black badge, as did seven others who’d attended every Gathering so far. Friends who worked at board game companies wore blue badges, except for a guy from Mattel who was in Columbus on the down low. Friedemann Friese’s badge was green, just like his spiky hair and the boxes of the games he designs and sells himself: Flickwerk, Frisch Fleisch, Finstere Flure, Fische Fluppen Frikadellen, and Funkenschlag, which had just come out in a green but F-free English version called Power Grid. Yellow badges belonged to the soda monitors; Alan had picked up cheap cases at a warehouse club or something, and these volunteers took turns reselling individual cans for seventy-five cents each. Everyone else’s badge was white.

I made my way, tepidly, into the heart of the ballroom until Chuck, a white badge from Colorado with a shiny pate and large brown glasses, steered me to a round wooden table and handed me a turkey baster. The table, which, I later learned, Chuck had built himself, was unvarnished, with a checkerboard inlaid in the center and four small oarlocks around the edge. In front of each oarlock there was a circular depression in the wood. Chuck told me to put my baster in an oarlock, laid down a pea-size cork ball on the table, and explained that I should use the baster, which was fitted with a narrow metal tip like a bicycle-pump needle, to blow air at the cork ball. The object of Puffball, as Chuck called it, was to get the cork into the pit in front of someone else’s oarlock before it goes into yours. The checkerboard was for playing checkers when you weren’t playing Puffball.

Holding the turkey baster, I thought of Thanksgiving, and then of a friend and her girlfriend who’d been trying to get pregnant. I wondered whether I might actually feel more awkward wielding a baster to play Puffball than if I’d been assisting them. Looking down at the board, my thoughts drifted back before puberty to games improvised on the cold linoleum hallways at school, gnawed pencils and straws and balled-up tinfoil and brown paper bags left over from lunch, legs splayed to mark the goals. Improbable as it seemed at the time, we had all matured. Only I had circled back. Why?

For me, the road to Columbus began three years earlier, when I was finishing a book about the Holocaust and false memory and didn’t know what would come next. I’d stumbled onto a story about a magician who invented board games, and might have treated it as a quirky respite from one of history’s darkest moments, but I needed to throw myself into something new, so I latched on to board games as my next project. I began looking for more articles to write, which is how I came across Alan. Board games make for a quixotic beat. Most editors, like most Americans, understood that the golden age of the board game was behind us, and anything new was too marginal, too geeky, or too German to be of interest.

Alan understood this last point well; he’d focused on Germany because that was where his professional opportunities lay, and also because he had more fun playing games from there. Alan isn’t a subcultural snob—he doesn’t say “Funkenschlag” when “Power Grid” will do—and he tries to get the international spielfriek vanguard to call games in the German style “designer games,” since the designer gets credited on the box, like the author of a book. The schedule of events at the Gathering included tournaments for the most popular German titles—The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico—but also for cribbage and Liars Dice. He also announced plans for a jigsaw puzzle contest, an afternoon of pickup basketball, and a live game show put on by a friend who won $250,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

After I wrote a story about Alan for the Boston Globe, he invited me to the Gathering; I was a bridge to the mainstream. I committed to going without first securing an assignment. Columbus was an easy decision for some of the same reasons that had drawn Alan there: direct flights and cheap accommodations. But I had also come to realize that board games differed from the other kinds of culture I’d written about. With books or movies or visual art, you can give yourself over to an experience without forfeiting your journalistic or critical distance. Reading a novel can be transcendent but it’s solitary and passive; concerts can offer communal transcendence, but even in the mosh pit, you’re a member of the audience. Playing a board game is more like karaoke, or an evening at the theater when you’re called up to the stage and put on the spot. To understand board games, you can’t sit back and observe. You have to participate, connect, and reveal yourself. You have to play.

And you have to play with other people. German games are not chess. They are strategy games designed for families, and most call for at least three players. You can’t play against the computer and, since these games involve a lot of interpersonal interaction—trading, bidding, negotiation—you can’t play against yourself. As research for my first article about Alan and German games, I needed to test them out. My wife, a ruthless Monopoly player, was extremely reluctant to help, and she grimaced when my interest in board games came up at a dinner party. Through Alan or the Internet, I could have found a cluster of spielfrieks in New York—and in fact I had a standing invitation to play games with a couple I’d done a story about, a man and woman who fell in love over the course of a transatlantic match of correspondence chess. They were perfectly nice people, but I thought, like Alan, that I’d have more fun playing games with my friends.

So I turned to my two oldest friends. One I met the summer before kindergarten; the other entered our school in second grade. We’d played all sorts of things growing up—Clue, Twister, Yahtzee, Master Mind, and so on plus some less canonical titles; the Mad Magazine game was a topsy-turvy Monopoly in which you had to roll the dice with your left hand and get rid of your money. And then, as our voices started to drop, there were forays into Dungeons & Dragons and war games, as well as an intense period of Diplomacy, a seven-player game about the Great Powers before World War I. Diplomacy has a board, but the bulk of a day of Diplomacy (and it can easily take all day) is diplomatic negotiation with the six other players. In these talks, anything goes, and the border between where our friendships ended and diplomatic roles began was unmapped. Betrayal could be as abrupt and brutal as the lowest moments of high school. Years later, once we’d all returned to New York as adults, a friend was starting a Diplomacy game, and I recruited these two old friends to play, only to back out myself at the last minute.

Despite this history and the occasional evening of Scrabble, learning how to play German games was a favor I felt I could ask only of these friends. We sampled Alan’s Spiel des Jahres winner, Elfenland, and San Marco, about Venetian aristocrats. There was confusion, then nervous laughter, as we deciphered the rules. Once we got a few turns in, we could appreciate Alan’s ingenuity—every turn brought a new set of decisions, with no clear best choice; every option involved a trade-off and began to enjoy ourselves, though not quite to the point of unselfconsciousness; I heard a lot of facetious enthusiasm about troll wagons and doges. The historical and fantastical themes plus the stilted language of the rulebooks recalled the games we’d flirted with as adolescents, and more to the point conjured up the unresolved awkwardness of our younger selves, which we can still recognize in one another, even if nobody else can.

*    *    *

In Columbus, I expected there to be no ambivalence about board games, whether they required a twenty-sided die or a turkey baster. And, in fact, the paralytic self-consciousness that overtook me at the Puffball table quickly gave way to a determination to keep the cork ball out of my goal. Within a few seconds, everything else in the world dropped away, as did everyone else who wasn’t pointing a turkey baster at the cork ball. I gave up four points before learning to harness the momentum of the ball, to use a short blast of air to deflect the ball, to judge how far the air from the baster could reach. It was totally absorbing for a few minutes. Then I got frustrated and a bit bored, thanked Chuck, and moved on to another game.

There was always another game. The cavernous ballroom was filled with rows of tables with four or five chairs around them. And because everybody is a friend of Alan’s, an empty seat is more or less an open invitation. The immediate assumption of friendship is highly unusual in such a large group, and rarely sincere. Maybe you find it at some religious conclaves, but this is why college freshmen attend orientation, why vice presidents do trust falls at corporate retreats. This welcoming atmosphere is no accident: a game designer is someone who develops sets of rules to govern how people interact—and for Alan the Gathering is simply a larger canvas. To encourage mingling, Alan chooses a handful of his guests as secret “targets,” and the person who plays at least one game with the most targets at the Gathering wins the target contest.

After months of attempting to interview wary child survivors of the Holocaust, I find the open spirit of the Gathering especially refreshing. The crowd is mostly male, mostly white, mostly married with children, but Alan seems to make as much effort to foster diversity as a well—meaning liberal-arts college. Several married couples were in attendance; the only reason you couldn’t call it a family atmosphere is Alan (who has no offspring, and had recently married a woman half his age) maintains a strict no-child policy. The only one I saw was Sophie, an eleven-month-old born to a couple who’d met at the Gathering a few years earlier. While one parent played in the ballroom, the other pushed Sophie’s stroller sullenly back and forth in the hallway. There was a strong international contingent, mostly Germans, but Patrick came all the way from Sydney, and Ken, an American expat, flew in from Tokyo. The most common profession is computer programming, followed by the board-game business, but I also met schoolteachers on spring break, a professor of environmental studies, a furniture designer, a deejay at an oldies radio station, an overnight host for the Weather Channel, a Harvard Law student who moonlighted as a statistician for the Celtics.

The target contest helps explain why I’m not the only person carrying a small notebook and pen. Also, people in the board-gaming hobby maintain lists, as birdwatchers do, of the games they have played, who else played with them, who won, and what the game was like, since they may never come across it again. Some guests try a lot of games to decide what to acquire for their own collections; some pursue big hits from Essen or games that have good buzz among spielfrieks online; some are eager to test out unpublished prototypes, meet the designers, and help shape the final product. Certain games acquire a cachet because demand exceeds supply; I spent the better part of the week chasing an idle copy of St. Petersburg, a business game set in imperial Russia. The seventy-two-ounce steak of the Gathering is Die Macher, a simulation of German party politics that can easily last five hours, and that’s after you have digested the rules.

If you couldn’t find an empty seat at a table with a game that interested you, you were welcome to pick one off the built-in shelves that lined the ballroom walls. The games are on loan from Alan and his guests; they put their names on them and leave them out for everyone to enjoy. Collectors fret over torn box corners and crimped cards and pawns missing from the snack-size Ziploc bags they use to store them. But since we are all friends, games are left out for all three hundred of us to enjoy, and as a rule everyone treats other people’s stuff as if it were his own.

The games piled up around the room suggest a world tour: New England, Dos Rios, Carcassonne, the Princes of Florence, Tigris and Euphrates, Goa, Sunda to Sahul, Kahuna: South Seas Magic for Two. Ancient Greece is a mainstay (Odysseus, Attika, Hellas) as is ancient Egypt (Ra, Tutankhamen, Osiris, Oh Pharaoh!). Alan’s latest game, Ticket to Ride, joins Union Pacific, Empire Builder, Transamerica, Metro Paris 1898, and many others in the train category. Any parent knows that boys gravitate to exploration and construction and transportation, but you could also edit a newspaper (Extrablatt) or put on a play (Show Manager) or make movies (Fabrik der Träume) or run a pizza joint (Mamma Mia!) or be a matchmaker (Punk Sucht Lady). Blokus, Einfach Genial, and Tayü are abstract; they have no theme at all. The ballroom has enough umlauts for a heavy-metal arena show, but there is also a Boggle set and the twentieth- anniversary edition of Trivial Pursuit and New York Minute, a tie-in to a Mary- Kate and Ashley Olsen vehicle due out the following month. There is also Avoiding Alan.

“One of Alan’s goals during the early Gatherings was to play a game with everybody there at some point during the weekend,” Bruce Linsey tells me one afternoon as he opens a cardboard box meant for a small pizza but containing a signed and numbered copy of Avoiding Alan, number 21 in an edition of fifty. The proud owner of a black badge, Bruce created the game in 1999, in honor of the tenth Gathering.

“The game board represents the Gathering of Friends,” Bruce explains. “As you know, at a Gathering of Friends, there is a lot of open gaming going on, but those don’t yield rewards per se, and then there are tournaments, which yield prizes.” About half the spaces on the photocopied board are tournament spaces with victory points. The four players are represented by wooden blocks decorated with a circular sticker of the sort found in an office-supply store.

“Then there is the Alan Moon piece,” Bruce says, pointing out a wooden crescent moon. “When you win the right to move at all, rather than moving your own piece, you are instead allowed to move Alan that many spaces in either direction. And normally Alan doesn’t do anything, but if he lands on somebody, that person gets Mooned. And when you are Mooned you lose victory point chits to the person who Mooned you.”

Bruce, who wears thick glasses and carries a pen in the pocket of his white-and-blue polo shirt, is the Gathering’s self-appointed record keeper, so I ask him how the event has changed over the years. Bruce has noticed a shift in emphasis from tournaments to free-form play. Also, he says, “in a group this size, I think you need more rules than when you have twenty-three people.” Many of the rules border on the obvious—don’t enter a tournament if you’ve never played the game; when you’re done borrowing someone else’s game, put it back where you found it; if you play an unpublished prototype, don’t blab about it on the Internet—but as in many board games, they are spelled out anyway. “The central rule—that Alan wants to make sure everyone has fun—has not changed.”

More than one person described the Gathering as nine days of exercise for the mind, but I think a better comparison is Las Vegas without the sin. No wagering, smoking, or drinking is allowed in the ballroom (and these are only in evidence in moderation elsewhere); very little cursing; no cocktail waitresses or, as far as I could tell, excursions to topless bars. The only intoxicant is games themselves. They intoxicate in two ways: the joy of play, and the compulsion of collecting. I can’t really relate to the collecting. Board games take up too much space to stockpile in a two-bedroom apartment, and the other kind of collecting, the collecting of experiences—playing as many games as possible—strikes me as the antithesis of fun. Maybe some of Alan’s friends can understand a game simply by reading the rules, but I can’t figure out how good a game will be without playing for a while. If you’re at a table with someone who cares deeply about his life list, it can be a very long couple of hours.

But I do get high on play. At times, I get so caught up that time stops, whether for a few seconds of Puffball or for hours on end. My most memorable run began midway through the Gathering, when I ran into Frank Weiss, an editor at Ravensburger, the biggest game publisher in Germany. We sat down in a glassed-in annex off the main ballroom with a friend of Frank’s from the North Sea island of Sylt, and a fourth guy, from Virginia. It was about four in the afternoon, and the Germans proposed we play Attika, a game set in ancient Greece with too many cardboard discs and hexagonal maps. It was involving enough, but I figured out what I should have been doing a turn too late, and was catching up the rest of the time. Meanwhile, we had our eye on St. Petersburg, which a foursome was playing at a nearby table. We called next, and after Attika we kept ourselves busy with King Arthur, a light card game by Reiner Knizia, the most prolific of German game designers; his board game of the same name was said to be the first to use electroconductive ink.

St. Petersburg was everything it was rumored to be and more; I wish I could explain why. Even for a German game, the rules were complicated. There are cards for workers, buildings, and aristocrats; some of them generate income, some cost money, and all of them help you get points. But that’s as meaningless to you, reader, as it was to the four of us until we got under way. All I can tell you is that when the game started, it was still light out, and the next thing I knew, the sun had completely set and I’d amassed more different kinds of aristocrat cards than anyone else at the table, leaving me with the most victory points. In between, I looked up only when the one black woman at the Gathering came by and asked if we were done yet. I think she came by twice.

Famished, the Germans and I dashed out to Bob Evans for a quick dinner, then back for more games: Thor, another Knizia card game; Werner, a motorcycle-building game based on a cult comic strip with nostalgic appeal for my new German friends; and Schnuff, also with cards, silly but vicious. At some point between Thor and Schnuff, we were joined by B., an American who spoke in German and apologized to Frank for his accent. The Germans answered in English, and eventually B. gave up. As we finished our third hand of Schnuff, B. pulled out a metal box containing dice and a customized deck of cards, and asked if we wanted to try something he’s been working on.

Once you’ve been to one Gathering, you’re on the guest list forever. But for certain infractions—discussing unpublished prototypes, for instance—your invitation can be revoked. Hence my circumspection here about B. and his game. But I will say that he took a long time explaining the rules, long enough for me to wonder whether B. himself understood them. Then B. dealt the cards. Frank, who as an editor evaluates games for a living, stopped B. before we’d finished the first round of action. The game, he said, was basically a variation on another, more popular game, and his twist added complication but not any fun. B. looked crestfallen. To be polite, Frank said to him, If you want us to play a few more rounds, we will. B. wanted us to, so we did. Only then did I notice how tired I was. It was one o’clock in the morning.

I excused myself and went to bed, aware that I’d crossed a threshold. I stayed up later and later as the Gathering went on. My last night in Columbus, I sat with Andrea Meyer, an independent game designer from Berlin. “I’m not interested so much in putting out medieval games or games on Egyptian emperors,” she tells me. “I’d like to handle reality.” By day, Andrea works for the German government as a writer for the Ministry of the Environment. Her games, which she publishes herself, deal with campaigning and red tape and off-the-books labor, the last of these a collaboration with the green-haired Friedemann Friese. For Andrea, a game “doesn’t have to be firsthand political, but it should somehow show the complexity I experience in my life,” she says. “At the moment, as far as I can tell, German games aren’t interested in that.”

Andrea is not only the first woman I’ve met at the Gathering who designs games; she is the first person here to acknowledge that, at their core, German games are about violence. “If you take knights battling each other, obviously somebody will die. But these games do not deal with that—nobody dies.” Andrea brought up Dos Rios, a game we’d both learned that week, in which campesinos chase one another off the board; shed wondered how much force it would take to make a campesino retreat all the way to the city. “I suppose they are at least beaten up badly, but according to the rules, they are scared away.”

Many of Alan’s friends and other American spielfrieks once stayed up all night recapitulating key battles fought by Kutuzov or Rommel. These tactical war games descend from the Kriegspiel, used in the early nineteenth century as a training tool for the Prussian general staff. Yet the recent generation of German board games (the Spiel des Jahres was first awarded in 1979) is not exempt from that society’s postwar taboo against militarism, so the conflicts are displaced to other parts of the world, and into the past. Andrea, who believes that games can offer “the perfect chance to replay reality” and to learn how to make better decisions, has little patience for this indirectness. “Of course you will never see a World War II game published by a German company, just as you will never see a game on the Israel-Palestine conflict by a German company,” she says. “If I published such a game, I would definitely be the bad German.”

After more than an hour discussing reality and fantasy, Germans and Americans, men and women, it was time to try one of Andrea’s games. She gathered a dozen of us around a large round table, and taught us Hossa! which is not, on the surface anyway, a form of political education. Named after a faux-Spanish chant from a pop song by the German crooner Rex Gildo (think Engelbert Humperdinck), Hossa! is a party game where you take turns trying to sing songs that include a specific word or theme. There are ways to earn points, but these are mostly a pretext for getting competitive people to have fun in a large group. Hossa! was karaoke using a deck of cards instead of a microphone. I went to bed at a quarter past three.

*    *    *

Four hours later, I landed at Newark, exhausted and filled with that home-from-camp evangelical zeal. My mission was to help my friends accept German board games into their lives, just as Alan and his friends had helped me bring them into mine. I drafted my two oldest friends for a regular German game night and, and after a few weekly sessions, the self-consciousness went away. We played things from the Gathering that I liked—St. Petersburg, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride—but our runaway favorite was The Settlers of Catan, which is also the most successful of all German games. It has sold more than 15 million copies around the world, has been adapted for the Xbox, and inspired board-gaming cafés in Seoul and Singapore. In Settlers (when you don’t mention Catan, you can pretend it sounds less geeky and less German), players take turns developing an island, which comprises nineteen hexagonal tiles, assembled randomly at the beginning of each game. The hexagons can be one of six types of terrain, and each produces a commodity—wood, bricks, sheep, grain, ore—except for the desert tile, which is barren. A road can be bought with one wood and one brick; a city costs two grain and three ore. I may have lost you already, but a key part of the game is trading: The rules limit when you may negotiate, but not how; players can swap commodity cards at any rate of exchange they can agree on.

In terms of strategy, Settlers works best with four players, but it wasn’t always easy to find someone who would fit in with—and put up with—the three of us, with our thirty-year cache of inside jokes and shared references. Soon we were playing three-handed Settlers almost every week. It was unlike the Gathering, where each time I sat down at the table, I played a different game, or with a new group of players, and Alan’s guiding ethos of congeniality was a buffer on competitiveness, as was our need to master the rules. Once we didn’t need to be reminded that the building phase came after trading, and grasped the relative merits of the ore-grain strategy versus the sheep-o-matic approach, Settlers boiled down to bare-knuckled psychology. Once the rules got out of our way, it was not so different from Diplomacy in high school, except that we were more experienced negotiators—especially my friend who teaches law. He used game night as a laboratory for exploring the techniques he taught his students. These tactics felt to me like violations of unspoken codes that governed our friendship and friendship in general, but when I complained it only encouraged him to delve more deeply into the theory and practice of negotiation. In other words, it egged him on.

The Settlers of Catan might not have been the root of our conflict. Life was pulling us in opposite directions. I was getting married, taking out a mortgage, becoming a parent, while his future—where he’d end up living, or with whom—was if anything becoming more uncertain. And though our culture would call my path settling down, it could be unsettling, too; his situation looked a lot like freedom, and his network of friends was expanding as mine felt at times like it had shrunk to the game table. Whether it was Settlers or us, game night stopped being fun. And after a while, how he went about trading commodity cards colored my view of all of our interactions, and of his interactions with others.

We are still friends, thanks in part to a university in another city, which gave the law professor a one-year appointment and us a well-needed break. When he returned to New York, it seemed wise to let go of game night, so I haven’t played Settlers in a while. Nor have I been back to the Gathering, and my appetite for dispatches from Essen is not what it once was. What remains, I hope, is the spirit of play: At work with my colleagues, at home with my children, and in the small gaps in between, its usually not enough to sit back and observe. You have to participate, connect, and reveal yourself.