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Thursday, 5 March 2020

Book III ~ Chapter 12 ~ A World of Games

8-Oct-2019 – 17-Nov-2019

Every year in Munich, late in Autumn, there's an event that I very much look forward to. Organized by the MPA agency, the Spielwiesn ("Game Meadow") is south Germany's largest tabeltop game convention.

Thus far, I have only attended as a visitor. However, from this year on out, I have decided to follow in the footsteps of my best friend Robert, and become a volunteer helper as well. As such, my personal involvement in this year's Spielwiesn commences over a month before the actual event, starting with…

The Pre-Meet Dinner


In order to motivate all of the helpers (we're all doing this for free, after all) and get everyone on the same page, make announcements etc…, the MPA starts off this year's Spielwiesn Season with a delightful dinner in a local restaurant. Altogether, there must be about five dozen helpers or so present.

After everyone is assembled, an entrée dish is served, followed by a round of announcements by the MPA, who are doing their best to keep everything organized. Following that, the buffet is opened, and I help myself to a colourful mix of Leberkäs ("Meatloaf" (roughly translated)), Braten,("Roast"), Fleischpflanzerln ("Meatball" (roughly translated)) und Knödeln ("Dumplings") with salad.

Once dinner is done with, the tables a cleared, and we helpers start practicing for one of our primary duties – that is, explaining games to people. And how could we better do that than by trying out and playing new games? I hear that some people don't like learning new games on a regular basis, but I personally find it very enjoyable. That evening, we should play a game by the name of Rurik, where medieval warlords compete for dominance in the area around Kiev. One particularly interesting mechanic in that game is that players take turns in an order based on how important their advisors are, and in case one of your advisors is not important enough you can pimp him with money and enable him to cut in line. "Let me through, I've got CASH!!!"

Also, we're given an overview plan about how the premises are going to be arranged this year around.

That, however, should only be the beginning. In the weeks to come, many a night should be dedicated to…

Ludologic Learning

8-Oct-2019 – 13-Nov-2019

In the remaining time until the Spielwiesn commences, the MPA should regularly invite helpers to attend game learning nights at their agency, and busy though I am, I try to make room to attend at least one such practice session per week.

Among other things, the challenges I have to overcome on these nights also includes the initial setup of a game such as Gizmos.

After that's done, several of us helpers get together and try to figure out how the game is played.

Over the course of the weeks, I get to try out many a new game, sometimes with Robert, and sometimes without. One game by the name of Crystal Palace (which is nothing like it sounds like) should take so long that we have to prematurely terminate it after 3 of 5 rounds because it's getting too late.

Altogether, I learn a total of seven new games during this preparation period, including some of this year's new releases, which are predictably going to be high up on the audience's most wanted list. So with that, I feel as ready as I'm going to get. However, before the SPielwiesn can commence, there's still one more thing that needs taking care of, and that is…

Setting the Stage


The Spielwiesn is hosted at a convention centre by the name of MOC (Munich Order Center)…

…which is located in the district of Freimann in the north of Munich, not far from the soccer stadium and Munich's one and only windmill. It's still a bit of a way for me to get there though, taking about 45 minutes either way thanks to a distinct lack of ring lines in Munich's public transport network.

Thus far, I have only experienced the premises of the Spielwiesn overflowing with hundreds and thousands of visitors, as crowded as they get, but today, on the day before, the halls are almost eerily empty. In some places, there are stacks of as-of-yet unused materials for the publishers' exhibition areas, and some other areas are still completely empty.

As for me, my destination for today, as well as the next three days, should be the Spielothek ("Game-brary"), which is pretty much the helpers' guild headquarters. Here, we have hundreds of games waiting to be played in the shelves…

…as well as the helper's casino, a little staff section where food and drinks are supplied for us helpers.

One of the main tasks for today is sorting the games into the shelves, which is not as easy a task as it may seem. For the most part, the games are sorted alphabetically, which already brings with it the problem that at the beginning you have to estimate how much space each letter is going to require – and believe me, I should spend a good amount of my time "defragmenting" the games near the end after every little misestimation starts adding up, and we end up having too little space around the letter "E" but too much around "U". And then, there's some predicted favourite games that get special places, as well as two-player games that get their own section, and so on and so forth.

Another related task is labelling the games by first letter so they always get field in the same section. This might seem trivial at first glance, but how do would you for example label "The Lord of the Rings ~ Battle for Middle Earth"? "T" for "The", "L" for "Lord" or "B" for "Battle"? Or you have the games "4 Seasons" and "Four Elements". Should you file one as "#" and the other as "F", or do you file both as "F"? Also, while doing this, I by necessity get to see a great many games that I have never played and probably never will play, such as this amazing new and innovative game that goes by the name of "Schere, Stein, Papier" ("Rock, Paper, Scissors").

Finally, there's also the task of choosing a representative selection of games…

…and transferring them to the yet-empty game exchange points that we have placed conveniently across the various convention halls.

Working together, we get it all done in several hours, and before we know it, we're ready and prepared for…

Spielwiesn Day 1


On the first day of the Spielwiesn, I should miss the grand opening due to having to work on that day. However, as soon as my duties at work are fulfilled, I hurry to the Spielwiesn to find the event already fully underway, with visitors from all age groups filling the halls and playing games. I quickly get down to business, helping out at the Spielothek fetching games, and at times walking the halls to see if anyone needs help.

Since today only marks the initial phase of the Spielwiesn, there's actually still quite a lot of free spaces in the backmost extra hall (Hall 4).

However, the main halls (Halls 2 and 3) are still quite crowded even today.

Running in parallel to the Spielwiesn for the last time this year, there's also the Forscha, an interactive science fair for kids, conveniently located in Hall 1. There, curious kids can try out all sorts of stuff from physics to chemistry, and indulge in electronics, astronomy, music and many other scientific topics.

Interestingly, the Bundeswehr ("Union Guard", the German army) also has an exhibit there, which is something I take not of with… interest… and heavily mixed feelings. I do understand that having a defence force is a necessity in the world that we live in, and trying to get people interested from an early age is generally an expedient approach, but still… Oh well, motives and educational ethics notwithstanding, this exhibit (which offers a pointedly harmless reaction game where the kids have to hit buttons on a wall with their hands) sure is popular with the boys.

One aisle down from that exhibit, we also offer the Kinderspielothek ("Children's Game-brary"), which is where all the kindergarten-grade games such as Looping Louie can be found. While convenient for families with kids, this system ends up giving us a headache as some visitors try to return kid's games at the regular Spielothek or game exchange points, causing a logistic overhead for us.

Dinner for today consists of a simple yet satisfying selection of sausages and Spezi, that special drink only found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

While eating, I notice a curious note on the window of the Helper's Casino, which can only be read from the outside, and turns out to be a humorous description fashioned after the plaques describing animals in zoos.

Here's what it says:

The Game Explainer (lat. homo ludens explanandum) in his natural refuge habitat.

Here, he has the opportunity to ingest food and drink during periods of rest.
Also, this is where he can study additional rule sets for as of yet unknown or already forgotten games in an environment of relative peace and quiet.
The Game Explainer normally roams his territory alone or in small groups and is usually not timid.

Please do not knock against the glass!

Feeding may be permissible, please enquire first.

It turns out to be a fun night for me as I get to help people left and right, explaining games or playing the eternal fetch quest at the Spielothek. In a manner of speaking, the Spielwiesn itself is one big game for me, and it's already close to midnight by the time the Spielwiesn closes its gates for the day, and I leave for home, only to return on…

Spielwiesn Day 2


The next day should be the main even of the Spielwiesn. Saturday is always the day with the most visitors, and such the busiest day for us helpers. This time, I arrive in the morning before the official opening and take my post at one of the game exchange points, where for a few short minutes I am able to enjoy the quiet before the storm.

And then the Spielwiesn opens its gates and the run for the game begins.

Within just a few seconds, visitors line the entire length of the exchange point…

…the first few lucky ones of whom manage to get themselves a copy of this year's most wanted game Flügelschlag ("Wing Beat", engl. "Wingspan").

Being the Kennerspiel des Jahres ("Connoisseur's Game of the Year"), this is what everyone who is into tabletop games is going for this year, and you can bet your tail on the fact that at least one in three persons you serve at the counter is going to ask for Flügelschlag first. Regrettably, we only have, like, ten of those, which is roughly 521 too few to satisfy the demand, and once they get borrowed in the morning, we don't usually see them again until evening as players usually trade these very popular games right in the middle of the hall. But here's photographic proof that we actually have them in our inventory (most of them are at the Spielothek though, but I got everybody to agree that it would be cool to have one copy at each of the game exchange points for the lucky ones who reach it first in the morning).

As for how the exchange system works: At the entrance, everybody can buy a Game Card that can be exchanged for a game at the Spielothek or game exchange points, and alter they can either exchange the game for another game, or return the game and get their Game Card back, which they can then return at the exit to get their money back. A simple and effective system, albeit somewhat poorly communicated as we often encounter people who obviously did not know that's how it works and are upset at being sent back to the entrance.

But I guess that's all part of the Eternal Fetch Quest, which is how I like to call helping out at the exchange points or the Spielothek. It goes somewhat like this:
  • The next visitor in line approaches and asks for Flügelschlag.
  • You reply (without even bother to look) that those are all out.
  • The visitor then asks for another game, and you go and look if it's still available.
  • You return to the visitor and tell him that regrettably that other game is also all out.
  • This process repeats approximately two to four times before the visitor asks for a game that is still in stock.
  • You collect the Game Card or previously borrowed game from the visitor, give him the new game, and he leaves, looking for a place to play.
  • The next visitor in line approaches and asks for Flügelschlag.
At least those are the easy ones. The more complicated ones are those who ask for a vaguely defined game like "a simple game for three people" or "a not-too luck dependent game for five that doesn't take too long". Now, I do know a good number of games, but even so this is truly is a test of my skills. However, in the end I always find one game or another that satisfies the visitors, and at the very least, the Eternal Fetch Quest never gets boring.

It's easier at the exchange points where both the helpers and the visitors can see all the games at one glance, but especially at the Spielothek this is a complex challenge that combines counseling skills, legwork, and memorization all in one.

Apart from the Eternal Fetch Quest, the other main duty of us helpers is to roam the halls and explain games to people, which might also take the form of another helper looking for a helper who can explain a certain game. With the almost infinite number of games at our disposal here, there's literally no one who can explain even half of them, but between all of us combined there's always someone to be found who can explain a particular game. And even if no one can be found, there's always people like me who can grasp the concept of a game by looking at the parts and casually glancing at the overview page of the manual, as such even helping time can be learning time. For example, today I should learn and explain the game Carpe Diem, and subsequently explain it to at least two other groups over the remaining course of the Spielwiesn.

Sometime during that day, we experience what should get to be known as the great fire prevention debacle of 2019, where the fire prevention officer of the MOC all of a sudden rules that the halls are too full and declares a shutdown, meaning that no more people can get in until some people come out, meaning that:
  • People have to wait forever in the cold outside.
  • People who don't have Game Cards can get out to the entrance, but won't be let back in again.
  • People who pre-ordered tickets can't get in.
Naturally, this causes a hatestorm on social media, which sadly is directed against the Spielwiesn as a whole, and not as would be right against the fire prevention officer of the MOC who caused all this. In fact, most of us helpers inside should not even realize what is going on until much later, for in contrast to the fire prevention officer's assessment, there's still plenty of space available. It may not be super-empty, but personally, I'd say it would need to be about 20% fuller before we reach maximum capacity (especially counting Hall 4, which is still pretty empty).

Eventually, the lockdown is lifted and the remainder of the day flies by in a hurry without any other incidents, and before I know it it's already evening again. Sometime along the line a had my traditional Spielwiesn Chocolate-Crepe for lunch as well as some sandwiches for dinner, and then the closing bell resounds and the halls empty out again.

As usual, we helpers stay behind for a little bit longer to wrap up the day, and some even stay and play some games on their own. Not me though. I leave early so I can catch some shuteye and be well rested for…

Spielwiesn Day 3


It's the third and final day of the Spielwiesn, and once again I manage to come in before the event opens, once again experiencing the quiet before the storm. Apart from us helpers, the only ones here are the representatives from the various game publishers who are busily getting their respective exhibits ready.

And then, the event gets started for the last time this year. As usual, Sunday is not quite as busy as Saturday, and there's still plenty of spaces available…

…although later on there's still a healthy influx of visitors, so it sure doesn't get boring. Apart from the Eternal Fetch Quest, I should also get to explain Carpe Diem one more time today.

Still, that means that I have some time during the day to stray around and run into interesting things, like this cleaning cart parked rebelliously in front of an electrical distribution box that very expressively says "!Electrical Distribution! Keep door reachable at all costs!"

There's also that game that clearly violates the prime directive of typography ("the utmost goal is readability") and causes many misunderstandings in the game exchange points. I recall people asking for this game and me not finding it because I couldn't read the name on the box. So here's a quiz for you: What is the name of this game?
A) Trunks B) Francis C) Transit; D) Frantic

The answer is the last of the bunch, and the gag of that game's name is that it's 180° rotational symmetric, which naturally impedes the readability quite a lot, but oh well…

Anyway, one Chilli Con Carne lunch later (as well as another few rounds of the Eternal Fetch Quest), the day is over already, and the Spielwiesn closes its gates for the last time that year. After that, it's cleanup time for us helpers. The first order of business is emptying out the game exchanges and gathering all the games in the Spielothek again.

Afterwards, we start the next game, which I like to call Game Storage Tetris. It starts out by getting a bunch of palettes…

…and then stacking up the games in the most space-efficient way possible, while also giving consideration to the box sizes. One very important rule here is that although it's physically possible, you can't stack smaller game boxes on top of bigger ones (unless near the very top), because the weight of the boxes on top will push on the boxes below, causing the covers to become dented, or even be damaged. It's only there and then that I realize how many slightly different box sizes and formats there are. Up until now, I was under the impression that there was some kind of standard box size, but really, they come in all manners of proportions and sizes, making this particular game exceedingly fun.

Once a pallet is sufficiently full, it gets wrapped in a more or less protective plastic cover…

…and finally transferred into the basement via pallet jack and freight elevator.

All in all, it's a busy bustle of people going back and forth, fetching games and comparing box sizes, and while to a Flirial like me the entire process is rather fun, I also take note that it seems to stress out quite a few of the other helpers.

Also, the whole event is kinda disorganized, and I sorta have to figure out all the rules on my own since no one bothered to tell me, but oh well. In the end it still works out, and we leave the Spielothek behind as empty as we found it.

Finally, after all the work is done with, we retire to a nearby Greek restaurant by the name of Myknos, conveniently located just across from the U-Bahn Station Kieferngarten, and have a fulfilling dinner there as a reward for our efforts. Regrettably, many people here drink alcohol, and so it's only a matter of time before people start bickering and arguing, so apart from the meal, there's not much for me to enjoy here, and I vacate the premises relatively quickly.

Apart from the ending, however, the entire event was pretty enjoyable for me, and I'll be sure to participate again next year. Until then, however there's still plenty of other tales to be told, which are going to come soon to a Travelling Fox Blog near you!