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  • Writer's pictureNikola Petrov

Essen Spiel 2021: Trends and Winners

In this one, I’ll present a short summary of my observations from the very strange 2021 edition of the Essen Spiel expo, what trends caught my eye, and what to look for in the near future of the board game business.


Long time no see, huh? Recently, my time has been completely devoted to, y’know, game design, so I haven't had the energy to crank new blog posts. Luckily, I think I’ve accomplished quite a bit and now I have even more stories to tell, so let’s resume our series, shall we? To kick things off, I want to provide a quick report on this year’s Essen. Of course, no article could ever beat going there and experiencing it for yourself, but my hope here is that if you skipped it (and God knows there were plenty of reasons to do so!), you can read through these lines and get some valuable insights. Enough time wasted, on with the list!


This picture is from last time. This time it felt smaller. (Credit: Messe Essen)


Trend: It Felt Small


First and foremost, I need to address the elephant in the room - or lack thereof. Compared to previous years, the expo just felt small and lacking. That’s crazy to say, given the thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors, but it just felt smaller in a noticeable way.


As my good friend Ivan from Player Lair put it, “You can now stride through a corridor without bumping into people everywhere”, something that simply wasn’t possible back in 2019.


Almost all American companies weren’t in attendance and trust me, the MASSIVE Asmodee-shaped hole was impossible to miss.


Before the show, I was really excited to see how small indie companies will take advantage of the missing giants and the creative marketing tricks they will employ to steal the spotlight this year. If such things happened, I didn’t see them - all in all, it was a quiet, mostly uneventful weekend.


Shout out to Hellapagos and their cute dance routine. No Repos craziness though.


Kosmos have been killing it with their recent releases, especially Robin Hood


Trend: Same Old, Same Old


Despite its huge international appeal and influence, Essen is a German show first. A German family show at that. I fully expected to see lots of familiar logos on the banners and yet another Carcassonne announcement.


I don’t know if I’m overly sensitive to this and it’s just me, but there really was a lot of “same old” everywhere. Catan, Carcassonne, Istanbul, and other 10+ year-old games were displayed on the big booths, and people were perfectly happy to play them, discuss them, and get the newest expansion.

Nothing wrong with that, these are all brilliant games, just a little disappointing that not as much attention was given to some rising stars.


Hey, at least The Lost Ruins of Arnak expansion got love! And by “love” I mean it completely sold out!


Kids' games are not really my focus. GET IT!?


Trend: Kids’ Games


A lot of people really got into the board game craze in the early 2010s and these people now have children. Looks like publishers are picking up on this rising trend and really going hard with kids’ games.


Brands like GraviTrax by Ravensburger and IQ Stars by Smart Games were featured front and center, and many traditional publishers like the Horrible Guild (thanks for the awesome pin, guys!) showcased light, fun games that could be played by children.

Much like the names suggest, many of these games were essentially toy playsets with simple rulebooks. However, they were heavily marketed as super clever wonders of engineering that will make your kids smart.


Another thing I noticed was the nostalgia factor - modernized versions of classic toy board games, such as Ghost Castle.


I don’t have my own kids yet, so I’m not the target audience for these, but honestly, I’m glad they exist. Hopefully, some truly unique genres can be spawned out of this trend.


Every Eastern European gamer's dream game! Please do not disappoint us!


Trend: Announcements


Here’s another interesting pandemic-related effect: there were so many announcements for future products. Many companies had something to sell but were really hyping up an upcoming product.


There were quite a few booths that didn’t even sell anything, just offering demos and explanations for upcoming Kickstarters or even regular releases.


Things like Pathfinder Arena, Heroes of Might And Magic III The Board Game, and Oathsworn: Into The Deepwood are just a few examples.


Obviously, the crazy logistic issues (price increases and unpredictable delivery times) are heavily affecting the industry, and publishers are walking on eggshells when promising new products. Some promised products weren’t for sale at Essen, and many weren’t even promised - just showcased with a good old “coming soon” sign.


POWERWOLF - Armata Strigoi (Credit: Napalm Records)


Trend: Heavy Metal


What does this music video have to do with board games? More than you might think!


Obviously, heavy music and geek culture have always had a strong connection and I couldn’t help but notice that the number of band shirts among the crowd really was matching the number of Star Wars ones.


Of course, we’ve been seeing this with movements like MÖRK BORG. However, the industry seems to be picking up on this as well, and I noticed enough heavy-metal-looking games to proclaim it a trend.


Metal


First off, there was the preview for a very evil-looking game titled Pentacle. It was one of those games that weren’t for sale and had an ominous “not out yet” aura. It featured a big old pentagram on the board and some really cool greyscale art that reminded me of Darkest Dungeon. Their tables tended to attract guys with long hair and leather jackets with tons of pins on them. Guys such as myself!


Another big one was Armata Strigoi - an official partnership between Pegasus Spiele and the metal band Powerwolf. There’s another game in the same series called Battle Through History, this time powered by the popular band Sabaton.


I love seeing cross-promotion initiatives that mix up popular musicians and quality board games. It makes me wonder who’s next...


I made "collectible" business cards and they turned out to be really popular!


Winners

Finally, I think I should spend a short paragraph talking about the winners of this years’ Essen.


In terms of literal winners, we have the Spiel des Jahres:

  • MicroMacro: Crime City (Game of the Year)

  • Dragomino (Kid’s Game)

  • Paleo (Kenner)

Honestly, no surprises there—and well-deserved, too! MicroMacro was a very impressive release and people got really hyped about it. The same goes for Paleo, which had an expansion to promote and a very cute booth complete with a bonfire and animal hides for you to sit on for maximum immersion! Lastly, the Kingdomino series is just fun and they have every right to crank more of them and milk that cow as much as they want!


In terms of unofficial winners, I gotta mention Bitoku and The Great Western Trail (2nd Edition) for the sheer hype factor. Both games completely sold out on day one and it was difficult to even get to demo them, let alone take one home!


Folded Space rocks!


All in all, it was a fun and insightful, if very unusual edition of our favorite expo. There were other trends emerging, such as 3D-printed wargames and the rise of gaming accessories, but if I get into detail about all of them, this article would never end.


HUGE shoutout and thanks to the amazing Folded Space who invited me into their crew and made my trip not only possible but extremely enjoyable to boot. You guys rock!


See you in the next one!

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