In a sprawling convention centre in Essen, western Germany, the busiest day in the German board games calendar – Saturday at “Spiel” – is about to begin. Hall after hall of stands are piled high with board game boxes, most eschewing the garish graphics of the toy shop for evocative paintings of lands far off and times long ago.
A few minutes before the official start time of 10am, the doors are thrown open. There’s a rumble and then a roar as thousands of gamers surge into the hall, breaking and swirling around the stands, sweeping into the farthest corners of the halls, seeking out rare second-hand products or the hottest of the 500 new games being launched, or simply a good place to sit and play. The biggest stands resemble pavement cafés whose patrons grab games instead of coffee: they are filled with tables, each just big enough to seat four players and a board. Before long, the spaces in between the tables are colonised, too, with gamers sitting cross-legged around their boards.
Beyond the sheer number of enthusiasts, the striking thing is that they look, well, normal. The convention centre boasts nearly as many mothers with prams as heavy-metal-T-shirted, body-pierced teens. In one of the farthest halls, Dungeons and Dragons merchandise is on sale, and I counted more than one person wearing a sword and a cloak. But for the most part, the convention centre’s population wouldn’t look out of place on any German high street.