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 huddled close 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 board games, and thus even beat the United States, which is otherwise known for its superlatives, is often and often forgotten. Almost 40 years of hard work went into the world event. The 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 one fortieth visitors: “Deutsche Spielertage” was supposed to be a treat for the readers of a board game magazine. “The meeting was supposed to take place in the American Club here in Bonn,” reveals Dominique Metzler, who has been at the helm of Friedhelm Merz Verlag since 1996. Because the readers had to pre-register at the time, it quickly became clear that the selected location would be far too small. A plan B was needed.

"Since Friedhelm Merz had many contacts in politics, he asked our then father Johannes Rau whether there would be a free location somewhere that could accommodate more than 700 people and the 12 exclusively addressed exhibitors," says Metzler. The then Lord Mayor of Essen, Peter Reuschenbach, reported. He had 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 through an appointment note in the morning magazine of WDR 2, which a reader and player who worked freely there,”, remembers Dominique Metzler. Around 5.000 people from Essen and the Ruhrpott made a pilgrimage to Essen over three days.

70 journalists and the caretaker phone

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

This time it was no longer just the appointment note in the WDR that made a round. "Almost 70 journalists crowded around the caretaker's only phone available to deliver 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, and that was groundbreaking: the adult education center was bursting at the seams, and Metzler believes that a larger area will have to be found for the future. Essen's then Lord Mayor made his appearance again: “In this situation, Lord Mayor Peter Reuschenbach, who was also Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Messe Essen, suggested to Friedhelm Merz to move to Messe Essen in 1985”. Nobody really wanted that because the Spielertage was not supposed to be a fair at that time. But, as is well known, things turned out differently - in retrospect: luckily!

It was a huge challenge, said Dominique Metzler. “Nobody from Merz Verlag had trade fair experience. So roll up your sleeves and go. Learning by doing. " What followed then fits in as well with Bonn as it does in the Ruhr area: Decades of hard work.

“It was hard work for many decades to make SPIEL what it is today - a leading international trade fair,” said a happy Metzler today. “Especially since there was no such thing as today's variety of publishers. Many small publishers have grown through SPIEL ”. Internet? There wasn't. So neither do online shops. They sold face to face, even board games. The fair developed into a sales engine that the publishers used accordingly. "Many editions from small publishers were almost exclusively sold at SPIEL," said Metzler. “A successful trade fair appearance at SPIEL was often decisive for the continued existence and growth of these small exhibitors”. The international game days are therefore definitely responsible for the success that well-known publishers have today: “It has always given me a lot of pleasure to see how small publishers have turned into 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 over the past few decades. So what's the magic behind the fair? “I always think the magic was the unique atmosphere at SPIEL”, 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 for the board game 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 center, which above all had to be financially supported”, 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, who was 33 years old at the time and faced a “great challenge”. Then the years passed and the trade 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 present a peak of 1.500 game ideas. The number of visitors grew to over 200.000. Only Corona thwarted the bill. Another milestone that Dominique Metzler mentions: “The creation of SPIEL.digital in only about three months in 2020”. It wasn't about the quality, but about the performance behind this alternative. And then: “The extremely successful restart of SPIEL 2021.”

Time for sadness: “My succession plan, which was initiated this year with the sale to the toy fair”, is the fifth milestone of the international game days. One of the most important: for the fair, but also for Dominique Metzler personally. For reasons of age, she had wanted to transfer SPIEL to 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 fair. The framework, however, has changed.

SPIEL: “has literally exploded in recent years”

Just like the makers of SPIEL and the trade fair itself, the visitors have also changed over the decades. “As already mentioned, the scene has become completely different,” says Dominique Metzler. “More and more publishers have emerged over the decades. Above all, publishers who serve frequent gamers ”. It never happened before with this intensity. "Little by little the industry became more and more international."

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

By the way, Dominique Metzler shows how much board games reflect society with a simple example: “When I looked into the exhibition halls 30 years ago, I saw mostly male visitors between 40 and 50 years of age”. Today it is completely different. The visitor structure has become much more colorful. “You see mostly young people. Women and men, but also families with their children. And that shows that gaming has become a part of 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 Nürnberg Spielwarenmesse eG already. But: Metzler and her team in Bonn continue to organize, continue to stand for shaping the character of the international game days - until others take over at some point. Dominique Metzler, then in 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 ”, oracles 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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