Another Essen fair has come and gone, and to say this year it was different would be an understatement of some considerable magnitude. Let me just put this ahead of everything else, canceling the physical event in Essen, Germany was the only responsible thing to do. I generally have a pretty healthy immune system, and I bring back some sort of respiratory infection back from Essen every year. In the year of Covid-19, a fair with as many people from all over the world as the SPIEL was guaranteed to become a superspreader event. They’d probably have to invent a new term and call it a hyperspreader event. Frankly, I just like all you guys making games and playing games too much to risk sending you home with the big C. Also, if the regular SPIEL had actually happened it might have been shut down on government orders at short notice, or at least have faced huge restrictions on the number of people they could have in the halls. That would have been frustrating for visitors who’d already traveled there and then couldn’t enter, and it would have been devastating especially for small publishers who’d have all the usual expenses, but only part or even none of the sales. So, kudos to everyone at Friedhelm Merz Verlag for making a clear decision early, and even bigger kudos for creating the digital alternative.
That’s what we really want to talk about. How did the SPIEL.digital go? Where to even start? The central offering at SPIEL.digital was solid. There were some hiccups on Thursday morning when pages wouldn’t load and people couldn’t log in, but all that was resolved after an hour or so and the rest of the extended weekend was rock-solid. I work in IT myself, so I feel qualified to say that for a launch with that number of users just chomping at the proverbial bit to get in, it was well done. I had minor usability gripes with the site – please don’t use infinite scrolling for a long list that people might want to look through item by item – but no major complains.
The SPIEL experience was entirely different, of course. Instead of our usual approach of grabbing a random person at a booth and asking them about their new games, many publishers had video trailers prepared for that purpose. That’s vastly more efficient, of course, but also very impersonal. The biggest general sad detail about the SPIEL.digital, lack of personal contact, but I don’t see how that could have been avoided.
To learn more about a game, and especially to try games, most publishers used Discord for communication and Tabletopia to play. Discord was always a solid platform, so the only issue there was that I ended up with a bakers’ dozen of new servers that I joined. Tabletopia had already been pretty solid the last time we used it extensively, but still I was pleasantly surprised by how stable it was now. No load issues at all, and the only misbehavior I noticed was that you had to reload the page very occasionally when things had gone out of sync between players. Until we get the Matrix, a digital gaming table will never be as fun as a real table and a real game, but Tabletopia is a very good replacement by now. Plus, no long setup and cleanup times. Yay! We played two games on BoardGameArena as well, which is also a joy to use, but Tabletopia was by far the most common platform at SPIEL.digital.
Having everything online presented some extra challenges, of course. Explaining a game on a virtual table with only a little hand cursor is trickier than sitting around a table and explaining a game. All the game explainers we met took those challenges in stride and made sure we knew how to play and could have fun. That’s where the one big advantage of doing everything online came in, too: there are no space or game limits. The usual SPIEL experience, especially at smaller booths, of fighting for a table and then waiting for someone to explain the game, their voice mostly gone by day three from shouting over the fair din, didn’t exist this year. If you had eleven people for a four player game, then everyone could join one Discord channel, the extra players could join the Tabletopia pages as spectators, and after the explanation they could just launch some extra tables and play as well. Even better, if you really loved a game and wanted to show it to a friend later, you didn’t have to wait for a table and then take it away from someone who didn’t know the game yet. You just launch your own table and play. Despite everything being online and impersonal, we even still managed to play some games with total strangers and met some great people along the way. So that was, in total, pretty awesome.
Obviously, when things are this different, not everything is for the better. One thing I really missed was looking at random games I’d never heard of before. We did a little of that, but at the physical SPIEL there would always be some games that the title didn’t sound all that interesting, the cover didn’t immediately catch our attention, but the game on the table was intriguing enough that we wanted to know more. That didn’t happen much this year, for lack of tables to look at. I also missed looking in on the far-away publishers from Korea, Japan, Brazil, etc. who were technically present, but mostly didn’t have any interactive options. Implementing a game on Tabletopia is an investment, so I perfectly understand why they didn’t do it, but I can still be sad about it.
The thing I had least expected about SPIEL.digital, however, was how tiring it was. As some of you know, the Meeple Cave is close enough to Essen that in a regular year we drive there in the morning and back again at night, four days in a row. It ends up being fourteen-hour days spent either driving or struggling through the massive throng of people plugging the halls in Essen. Yet, coming home from that we were all much fresher than we were after eight hours of playing from the comfort of our own desks. I’m not sure why, probably the depression from being cooped in for most of the year has something to do with it as well, but in the evening I was simply done. Consequently, we ended up seeing and trying fewer games than we usually would, and fewer games than we would have wanted to. That’s sad, but on the bright side we did have a chance to try those games that we did. For 2020, that’s a lot better than expected.
The bottom line is, SPIEL.digital was an experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m grateful to all the people who made it possible. You guys rock! Still, if possible I would much rather go to the SPIEL 2021 in Essen, so let me get a little preachy here for a moment: while the Covid-19 situation is ongoing, please stay at home if you can, wear the mask if you can’t, and when it’s available, take the vaccine if you can. Above all, stay healthy. I hope to see you all face to face next year.
If you want to see more details of our Essen experience, especially the games we played, have a look at our Essen 2020 Facebook album! Also, the SPIEL.digital website is still online, and the new games that were made on Tabletopia are still there as well, so if you want to explore the new releases you still can.