The story behind SPIEL in Essen is long, almost 40 years have passed since the debut of the event, then known as the German Players' Days. Today the international game days are the world's largest public exhibition for board games. The historical review shows that a lot has changed. What exactly? If anyone needs to know, it is Dominique Metzler. We asked around.

The international game days take place annually - under a changing name - in Essen, which was considered a set up until 2020. The coronavirus pandemic interrupted the series, and the comeback was celebrated just a year later. For parlor players, the Essen exhibition halls have become something like a living room. Every year in October there is a highlight for many: the SPIEL. You can rely on that. The Friedhelm Merz Verlag in Bonn is closely associated with the international game days and has always been the organizer of the trade fair that began as a completely overcrowded readers' event.

SPIEL in Essen: a success right from the start

In 1983 the author of this post was two years old. Board games weren't an issue yet, and a game fair wasn't anyway. That was to change almost ten years later - by then, SPIEL had long been held at Messe Essen and had been known as the International Game Days for years. The first experience: lots of people, lots of tall people, lots of long legs, lots of games. There was (too) much to watch in the halls for the standards of the time. That has not changed over the past 40 years. Even today, the international game days are a hodgepodge of toys - fascinating, but also exhausting. Half a week of SPIEL in Essen in October is not a vacation - you need a vacation afterwards.

About 200.000 fans came to the last regular fair in 2019. There was still no talk of a global pandemic situation. The visitors crowded tightly together, as they always do when they are out and about in their "living room". The fact that the International Game Days are now the world's largest trade fair for parlor games, even beating the United States, which is otherwise known for its superlatives, by far is often forgotten. Almost 40 years of hard work have gone into the world event. Headquarters: Bonn. At the start of SPIEL it was still the federal capital.

SPIEL in Essen review

SPIEL in Essen 2008: The look of the T-shirts of the Kosmos explanations is apparently timeless. Photo: Matěj Baťha | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

It all started in 1983 with around a fortieth of visitors: “German Players’ Days” were to be a treat for readers of a board game magazine. "Actually, the meeting was supposed to take place in the American Club here in Bonn," reveals Dominique Metzler, who has headed Friedhelm Merz Verlag since 1996. Because the readers had to register in advance, it quickly became clear that the chosen location would be far too small. A plan B was needed.

"Since Friedhelm Merz had many contacts in politics, he asked our father at the time, Johannes Rau, if there was a free location somewhere that would accommodate more than 700 people and the 12 exhibitors who were exclusively addressed," says Metzler. The then mayor of the city of Essen, Peter Reuschenbach, reported. He made the Essen adult education center available to Friedhelm Merz for a weekend free of charge. Then came the WDR and with it a popularity that seemed unimaginable for the debut of the playful readers' meeting. “The meeting became known nationwide thanks to an appointment in the WDR 2 morning show, which a freelance reader and player had prepared,” remembers Dominique Metzler. Around 5.000 people made the pilgrimage to Essen from Essen and the Ruhrpott over three days.

70 journalists and the caretaker phone

The world's largest board game fair was born, but nobody knew it at the time. A year later, in 1984, it should become clear how great the interest in parlor games is. Again "fair", again in the adult education center. This time even with "Marketing". Dominique Metzler explains: "A small poster was printed and a press meeting with the newspapers of the Ruhr area was scheduled in advance." The games industry had long since heard about this extraordinarily successful event in the heart of the Ruhr area. 66 exhibitors took part, in a newly added adjacent school there was more space for the actors.

This time it was no longer just the appointment notice in the WDR that made a round. "Almost 70 journalists crowded around the caretaker's only available telephone to drop off their reports," says Metzler today. 15.000 visitors caused traffic chaos. That still exists today – so not everything has changed in 40 years of SPIEL. One thing, however, did, and that was groundbreaking: the adult education center was bursting at the seams, and larger quarters had to be found for the future, says Metzler. Essen's Lord Mayor at the time made his appearance again: "In this situation, Lord Mayor Peter Reuschenbach, who in this position was also Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Messe Essen, made the suggestion to Friedhelm Merz that we move to Messe Essen in 1985". Nobody actually wanted that, because the player days were not supposed to be a trade fair at that time. But as is well known, things turned out differently – in retrospect: fortunately!

It was a huge challenge, according to Dominique Metzler. “No one from Merz Verlag had trade fair experience. So roll up your sleeves and go. Learning by doing.” What followed then goes as well with Bonn as with the Ruhr area: Decades of hard work.

"It took many decades of hard work to make SPIEL what it is today - a world-leading international trade fair," says Metzler happily today. “Especially since there wasn’t the variety of publishers that we have today. Many small publishers have grown through SPIEL”. Internet? There wasn't. Neither do online shops. Selling was face to face, even board games. The fair developed into a sales motor, which the publishers used accordingly. "Many editions from small publishers were sold almost exclusively at SPIEL," says Metzler. "A successful trade fair appearance at the SPIEL was often decisive for the continued existence and growth of these small exhibitors". The International Match Days are therefore definitely responsible for the success that well-known publishers have today: "It has always given me great pleasure to see how small publishers have become medium-sized and large companies over the years," says Dominique Metzler happily.

The organizing Friedhelm Merz Verlag must have done a lot right with SPIEL in the past decades. So what is the magic behind the fair? "I always think the unique atmosphere at SPIEL was magical," summarizes Dominique Metzler. “That moment when a visitor enters the halls for the first time and is overwhelmed by the offer. Also the feeling of being among so many like-minded people who share a love of board games and which can be lived out in Essen.”

There have been many milestones for the international game days over the past 40 years. Dominique Metzler was supposed to pick five of them - three of them were in the past two years. Surprising, and at the same time a sign of the rapid development of the event, which was based on social conditions, had to be oriented.

SPIEL in Essen Historically

The SPIEL in Essen in 2007: Back then there were even tablecloths. Photo: Matěj Baťha | License: CC BY-SA 3.0

"The move from the adult education center to the Essen exhibition halls, which above all had to be financed," was the first major milestone for SPIEL, according to Metzler. "The death of Friedhelm Merz in 1996 and the great responsibility that Rosemarie Geu and I carried alone from now on," says Metzler, then 33 years young and faced with a "big challenge". Then the years passed and the fair grew: in 1998 there were still less than 140.000 visitors and 300 new products – fifteen years later the number had almost tripled. Today, exhibitors are presenting 1.500 game ideas at the top. The number of visitors grew to over 200.000. Only Corona thwarted the calculation. Another milestone that Dominique Metzler mentions: "The creation of SPIEL.digital in just about three months in 2020". It wasn't about the quality, it was about the performance behind this alternative. And then: "The extremely successful restart of SPIEL 2021."

Time for melancholy: "My successor plan, which was initiated this year with the sale to the toy fair", that is the fifth milestone of the International Game Days. One of importance: for the fair, but also for Dominique Metzler personally. For reasons of age, she wanted to give SPIEL into new hands, Metzler revealed to the German Press Agency. But that doesn't happen overnight: in Bonn people continue to hold their hands over the trade fair. However, the context has changed.

SPIEL: "literally exploded in the last few years"

Just like the organizers of SPIEL and the fair itself, the visitors have also changed over the decades. "As already mentioned, the scene has changed completely," says Dominique Metzler. “More and more publishing houses have emerged over the decades. Above all, publishers who serve frequent players”. That didn't exist before with this intensity. "The industry gradually became more and more international."

Today, publishers almost automatically sell a successful game in many other countries, says Metzler. Game publishers have also sprung up all over the world abroad. These were then presented at SPIEL. "And so the trade fair has literally exploded in recent years."

Incidentally, Dominique Metzler uses a simple example to show how much parlor games reflect society: "When I looked into the exhibition halls 30 years ago, I saw mostly male visitors between 40 and 50 years of age". Today is very different. The visitor structure has become much more colourful. “You see mostly young people. Women and men, but also families with their children. And that shows: Playing has definitely arrived in society.” Games are an instrument “that connects us – culturally and across generations”. Metzler: "An important mirror of our society."

Maintaining the mirror shine is now gradually becoming the task for the next generation. The process was heralded by the Takeover of Friedhelm Merz Verlag by the Nürnberger Spielwarenmesse eG. But: Metzler and her team in Bonn continue to organize and continue to shape the character of the International Match Days – until someone else takes over at some point. Dominique Metzler, then in his well-deserved retirement, already knows that “her” trade fair is in good hands. Whatever will happen in the next 40 years, a look into the crystal ball reveals: “SPIEL will continue to grow in the future. Above all, I see an even bigger trade fair that will continue to develop,” says Metzler.

The International Game Days have the next chance to do this from October 6th to 9th, 2022 - in Essen, of course.


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