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Nürnberg: What's That All About Anyway?

Hilko Drude
Lower Saxony
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What are you doing!? I don't even know you!
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
With the Nürnberg Toy Fair nearly over for 2011, I will attempt to write something about it. I have been there for all of Saturday and most of Sunday, and since most of you who read this probably have little or no opportunity to go there, I will try to let you know my impressions. This will be a completely subjective account of things I noticed, so please bear with me if I make no mention of your favorite publisher/designer/teddy bear or whatever. Thanks.

From gallery of HilkMAN

Here's what I won't do in this write-up:

• Give you an overview of new releases. Aside from being impossible to do in just two days, with the Nürnberg Canonical geeklist we have a much better tool for that already. (Editor's note: Boy, do I need to update that geeklist! —WEM)

• Show you hundreds of photos that I took. Officially, taking photos isn't even allowed for ordinary visitors. I asked every time that I wanted to take one, and permission was usually granted. Exceptions were large publishers who were more than happy to supply me with press folders containing CDs or a USB stick – I haven't even been able to look at all that material, although I am working on it – and in one isolated case I wasn't allowed to take a photo of a crossover of our two favorite timeless classics: Hello Kitty Yahtzee.

So after a while, I stopped taking photos of individual games altogether. I am neither great at it, nor was I willing to spend a large amount of my time asking permission and fumbling around with my shabby pocket camera, nor was there much use for it when with one smile I could get a bunch of professional pictures at once. I will upload as many as possible of these to the database, but it is a large task and will take me some time. For a good overview of many new releases, I recommend a visit to the German board game site hall9000, which offers a slide show covering many publishers' new releases.

• Tell you everything about the latest in toy cars, miniature trains, carnival costumes, wooden toys, the multitude of pitiful imitations of famous brand toys, children's stationery, plastic junk, construction kits, kids' science labs, remote controlled helicopters, bathtub toys, fluffy animals, less fluffy animals and so much more – it was all there, and there wasn't nearly enough time even if I had been interested in all of it.

Board Game Publisher: LEGO
I will, however, tell you something about LEGO and Playmobil, because A: everybody around here seems to love these two brands, B: LEGO at least does some board games, and C: their booths show quite well how this fair differs from, say, Essen.

The comparison to Essen seems a good starting point, I think, as many of you have been there or at least read all about it. Now Nürnberg is really different from Essen in many ways. First of all, the Nürnberg Toy Fair is considerably larger than Spiel. There are 17 halls of different sizes, and the areas between the halls are also bigger, containing many additional booths, snack points, information centers, press and conference rooms, etc. In fact, you can take a shuttle bus from the eastern entrance to the main entrance hall and back. (I don't particularly recommend doing this, however, and if you do try to make that trek, ALWAYS ask the driver which way s/he is going as the staff who directs people into the buses aren't always competent. When trying to reach my train on Saturday night, I (along with dozens of others) was sent on a 45-minute sightseeing drive to the adjacent parking lots, until I finally asked the driver to just let me out, after which I walked another 15 minutes to get to the other side of the fair – I'm a fast walker, mind you — just in time to get the train leaving one hour later than the one I would have easily caught just walking in the first place. End of rant.)

Another sign of the size of this event was getting lost and ending up in the back of the LEGO booth. There was an open door and I caught a glance... of an actual kitchen and canteen for the booth staff (I assume). I have no idea, really, but I estimate that the staff of the Danish toy giant probably numbered way over a hundred people.

From gallery of HilkMAN
From gallery of HilkMAN
From gallery of HilkMAN

A second major difference between Essen and Nürnberg is that Nürnberg is open only to people who belong to the industry. That means you can get a ticket only if you are either an exhibitor (or are invited by one, which does happen), a store owner, a journalist or anything else of the sort. Being a gamer doesn't qualify, unfortunately. Being a game designer does, though, and members of SAZ, the Game Designer Association can get a free ticket if they order it early enough, which is how I got mine. One upside of this restriction is that while there are a lot of people at the show, Nürnberg isn't remotely similar to Essen on a Saturday. There are no great lines at the entrances, and you always have enough room to walk rather fast, unless you are on an escalator or something similar. When you approach a booth of a larger publisher and ask for specific information, you often hear "Are you our customer already?" That doesn't mean, "Did you ever buy a LEGO set when you were little?" It just shows that the staff expect most visitors to be interested in business contacts. Bring plenty of name cards, as you will be asked repeatedly.

While it is possible to get somewhere fast, it isn't always easy to find out where you are. The aisles often have walls that are three meters high, so in many cases the signs showing you the way to whatever direction you are currently looking for are often covered from your view. I lost my orientation (briefly in each case) around 20 times over two days, and this was my second time in Nürnberg. There is some room for improvement here, I think.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The Playmobil booth was a good example of the purpose of this fair. I asked to have a look around to possibly write about it. I was asked for my name card, then told to wait for a moment. Then, as the person in charge of the press wasn't free yet, I was invited to have a look at the novelty show – and only then was I admitted into the actual booth. Once I was inside, plenty of people were ready to explain the details of what was on display, with most of the toys being behind glass. Explanations always included release dates within the year, target ages, product line, whether TV advertising was in the making and lots of other things I didn't care about. Most other customers did, however.

Once I finished, I again waited at the press counter. While doing that, I looked around and noticed a circle of maybe a dozen counters in the center of the booth. Each of these counters was staffed by someone in charge of distribution for a certain area, distinguished by zip codes for the German market, some international counters, etc. All of them were equipped with snacks, and there was interaction going on at many of these while I was waiting. Surrounding this area were more counters for additional business transactions. You could spend a long, long time in there, getting plenty of information and never touch a single Playmobil piece.

Eventually I was received by the press representative, told her what I was planning to do, and asked for a press folder. The whole conversation was very nice, and not being part of the "customer" crowd was happily accepted. And before walking out I got a cool Playmobil pirate – which made my daughter seriously happy.

From gallery of HilkMAN

What I just described about LEGO and Playmobil applies mostly to larger companies, of course – the smaller ones sometimes consist of a table and two people only. From a gamer's perspective, these are your only serious chance of actually playing anything. At the larger publishers' booths, you are guided from table to table and get a brief explanation of each game. There is neither any space nor any time to actually play – there aren't any free tables, and the next group or visitor will be close behind you. Two or three sample turns will be all you get, at most. There are some exceptions to this rule, particularly on Sunday afternoon (and up to Tuesday, the last day of the fair, I hear), but playing games is not a main concern of most exhibitors. The Game Designer Association runs a gaming cafe with a few tables and a game library, but it is often hard to get a seat and tables tend to be taken up by people not playing but chatting or doing business. It's a friendly atmosphere there, though.

Another problem with playing a game on display is that you might pick up a game box at a publisher's table and find out that it is just that: An empty box. (Sometimes they are made from rather thin paper and cannot even be opened.) And it's not like they are hiding away the components – the games are simply not ready yet, but rather are being announced for later this year. And while game publishers are usually quite relaxed about it, LEGO and other giants strictly prohibit taking photos of items not released yet.

The board and card game publishers actually take up a surprisingly large part of the whole show. However, it is a bit difficult to tell. There are some thematic halls, some regional halls, and others I couldn't figure out, but nothing is really strict. Haba was several halls away from any other publisher I checked out, for example. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's because Haba does not make only games but also other things, and they had to pick where to be placed? In any case, I estimate that game companies make up three or even four full halls out of the seventeen, which I find a remarkable share, as this fair pretty much covers all non-electronic toy sectors and some electronic stuff, too.

So is Nürnberg worth the trip for gamers (who are lucky enough to get a ticket)? Maybe. I had a great time and I am looking forward to going again next year (1st to 6th of February, 2012 – from Wednesday to Monday). Nürnberg can be a great place to meet people from the industry, and even to advertise your game if you are a designer. However, I do recommend making a plan of what you hope to do before you go. I find the show too big to just wander around looking for whatever highlights it might have in store. Make appointments with people you hope to meet and leave plenty of time in between – there's your recipe for a great experience.

From gallery of HilkMAN
Meeples from Carcassonne: Das Gefolge – they really are transparent!

From gallery of HilkMAN
We've all flown on these airlines before.

From gallery of HilkMAN
Halli Galli Sommerspaß with waterproof cards – I think there is some potential for this concept considering the "no drinks on my table" debate...

From gallery of HilkMAN
Finally, my favorite image – The sign says: "Our company is looking for sales representatives". Well, good luck with that!
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