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Lucca Comics & Games 2017 I: Walking the Landscape

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
For years, I had heard about the annual Lucca Comics & Games festival in early November, mostly from Italian publishers and designers who planned to highlight new games at that show in the wake of the SPIEL game fair in Essen, Germany. While the fair sounded fascinating, I never had a reason to attend. Come 2017, however, when SPIEL took place at its latest date ever (October 26-29), when Lucca ran November 1-5, and when my in-laws wanted to take a trip to Rome in November, and I suddenly found a reason.

The easiest way to describe Lucca to U.S. residents is to ask you to picture a state fair — those annual events in which fried food galore is sold on sticks and miniature vendor booths hustle all manner of tchotchkes that you'd never consider buying any other time of the year — spread out across an entire city, and you'll need a city to accommodate all the people who show up. Attendance is huge, with an estimated 400,000 visitors over five days in 2016!

Lucca, a city of 87,000 residents located in central Italy a half-hour train ride northeast of Pisa, has hosted this annual fair since 1966. (More specifically, the Salone Internazionale del Comics ("International Congress of Comics") started elsewhere in 1965, moved to Lucca in 1966, and changed its name to "Lucca Comics & Games" in 1996.) Central Lucca is still surrounded by the brick and dirt walls from centuries past, and this defensive rampart now serves as a pedestrian walkway: the Passeggiata delle Mura Urbane, or "Walk of the Urban Walls". You'll find most of the food vendors on this raised walkway, which is accessible by a few places around town where the walkway dips down toward the town center, along with multiple walkways in the side of the hills, some paved and some little more than patches of stones.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
One of the shallowest and widest walkways (on the right)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
A view over the wall to the right...

From gallery of W Eric Martin
...and to the left

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Looking over the wall into the central city

Fried foods aren't the main offering at Lucca, but you'll find plenty of other treats to grab and eat, whether you decide to mosey around the four-mile circumference of the walkway or sit on the wall to watch all the cosplay. Gen Con has plenty of cosplayers on hand, but Lucca easily has that show beat in terms of number of participants, ranging from the simplest (dozens of people wearing fuzzy onesies featuring unicorns, Pikachu, Jake, Mike Wazowski, etc.) to incredibly elaborate creations that barely allow them to move, whether due to their legs being largely immobilized (as with a mermaid who had her legs wrapped in a tail and a couple of minotaurs that walked on raised metallic "hoofs") or due to them being so awesome that everyone wants to take pictures of them.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I shot pics of dozens of cosplayers while circling the town, none of whom turned down my fumbling, miming efforts to show that I wanted to take a picture of them. Everyone seemed pleased to pose for pictures, and why not? They were putting on a show for thousands of attendees, street actors in a performance that began and ended with how enthusiastically they embraced the role. (I also walked halfway around the town filming passersby, cosplayers, the fair booths, and the surrounding town, but you'll have to wait until I get better wifi coverage before you can experience my shaky cam directorial efforts.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin

At a certain point, it became difficult to tell exactly who was cosplaying and who was merely dressing in a fancy manner. That person is definitely living the steampunk dream with their gear-laden golden armband, but what about that person's top hat? Do they just think they look good in it? Is that woman dressing in a Victorian manner or simply wearing European fashion unfamiliar to me? That person is clearly a jedi, but that person might authentically be a monk.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Bulbhead is clearly a costume, but of what?!

The lines of "cosplay or not?" have became blurred, highlighting the way that geek culture has become more mainstream over the past decade. We're not yet to the point that someone wearing a Pikachu onesie around town would be ignored, but we're getting there, and I can't help but celebrate. Everyone should feel comfortable enough and safe enough to do their own thing, and everyone else should be cool with folks doing their own thing as long as you can do the same, without anyone getting damaged in the process. (The same applies to your choice of games played, books read, movies watched, and so on. You don't owe anyone an explanation for what you enjoy, and if they don't like it, I encourage them to go find their own things to enjoy.)

I spent hours circling the walls of Lucca — 10.5 miles walked that day! — and when I wasn't walking, I was sitting to people-watch. So much effort spent on dressing up to have fun!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
One of the most photographed cosplayers I saw;
he could barely move ten feet before someone else asked him to pose

Aside from being a watcher on the wall, I visited a few sections of town to check out the displays. Whereas Gen Con and SPIEL (and pretty much every other convention) take place in a hotel or convention center, the exhibitor halls and vendor booths at Lucca are spread throughout the town.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Keep this map handy while walking! (PDF and real-life version)

Want to see what's in Japantown? Start walking east! Curious to learn what Blizzard has on hand to play? Head north! All of these halls and booths are behind fenced-off areas in town, and you must show both your bracelet and ticket to enter them.

What do the residents of Lucca do during the fair, when hundreds of people fill the streets from 9:00 to 19:00 and you can't drive or shop where you normally would. Many of them rent their apartments or homes to out-of-town visitors, similar to what people do when the Olympics take place, and they head elsewhere. Along the same lines, non-geek shops and restaurants sometimes don the trappings of geekdom to attract fairgoers and participate in the spirit of the event.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The comic areas featured hundreds of titles that weren't familiar to me and which I couldn't read, so I didn't spend much time there, although I'll note that western comics still seem to be popular in Europe, something that I recall from managing a comic store in the late 1980s when Marvel Comics issued translated versions of Moebius' Lt. Blueberry. Japantown featured a dozen booths filled with the otherworldly , highly elaborate statues of animé characters that you'll find throughout the Akihabara region in Tokyo (minus all the neon), along with manga in Italian, plush manga characters galore, and plenty of other collectibles.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The Netflix show "Stranger Things" seems to have a strong following in Italy as two booths devoted to the show had huge lines throughout the day. (I've never seen it, and that lack combined with a similar absence of Italian language skills made it easy for me to head elsewhere.)

Naturally I devoted a decent chunk of time to walking the board game pavilion at Lucca, but despite being on par with "comics" in the name of the event, the game pavilion is small relative to the amount of space devoted to comics. (If you add in the video game booths elsewhere in the city, then the two topics might have the same amount of space devoted to them, but I don't do video games, so I saw those booths only in passing.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The main takeaway for anyone thinking of visiting Lucca to check out the board games is that you need to be fluent in Italian. A couple of vendors had small sections devoted to games in English or multilingual titles that had been imported, but other than those, you had to search carefully to uncover games that even included English rules in addition to Italian.

One of those finds was Mucho Macho, a card game by Evin Ho that is sort of the official game of Lucca 2017. Each year since 1994, the Lucca fair has held a card game design contest — Gioco Inedito ("Unpublished Game") — and since 2004 when publisher dV Giochi became a contest partner, the winner has their design released at the subsequent Lucca (and at SPIEL in the weeks prior). Each year, the competition features a theme or setting, which helps give designers a focus around which to build their creation.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The 2017 finalists

An interesting aspect of Lucca is that the game publishers you think you know from Gen Con, SPIEL, or (in my case) Spielwarenmesse take on a very different look at Lucca. When I think of dV Giochi, I think of them as being responsible for BANG!, the new Deckscape escape room games, and a handful of other titles — but when you see dV Giochi at Lucca, their booth is enormous and they have a huge range of titles that you've never previously seen. This shouldn't be a surprise, given that you'd never expect them to promote the Italian versions of Amun-Re, Happy Salmon, or Above and Below at Gen Con or SPIEL, but I never knew previously how many games they had licensed for the Italian market, so indeed the surprise was there.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
An all-kids Tikal table!

The same was true for publishers like Cranio Creations and Giochi Uniti, although for the latter publisher I had a greater awareness of their breadth, given that they're often the Italian partner for Fantasy Flight Games.

Giochi Uniti also had a separate clearance booth outside the main exhibition hall for both its own games and titles it distributed, and I was astonished by the huge range of titles inside for bargain prices, including the second edition of Fury of Dracula (which wouldn't bring big bucks on eBay since it's in Italian); big box games like Magestorm, Venetia, and The Mystery of the Templars that had been highly anticipated a few years earlier; dozens of expansion packs for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (again, only in Italian); and even a stack of twenty-year-old copies of Alex Randolph's Twixt from KOSMOS.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Even knights like to find bargains

Elsewhere in the main exhibition hall, I discovered who released Italian versions of titles from IELLO, what's been happening with Warangel designer Angelo Porazzi (who hasn't visited SPIEL in a few years), and what happens when you encounter Eric M. Lang in Italy. (He makes bunny ears on people, just as he does everywhere else.) As in Germany and other non-U.S. locations, Asmodee distributes CMON Limited titles in Italy, so Lang had made the trek from SPIEL to Lucca just as I had — on the same plane even! — to be a special guest at the show. One thing that Lucca had that SPIEL lacked as the presence of real-life Zombicide zombies. Maybe next year?

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Bunnying others, and being bunnied in return

From gallery of W Eric Martin
You'll have to imagine the shambling, which this performer did with gusto

I saw that while Italian publisher/distributor/retail has created straight translations of some games in its catalog, it's altered others to meet the tastes of its market. Machi Koro and Medieval Academy come packaged in tins similar to Sushi Go Party, for example, while Mysterium was given a more gothic, less cartoony look as Il Sesto Senso, Glory to Rome was blessed with a more professional cartoony look in Sit Gloria Romae, and Guildhall was transformed with a nautical theme as Seven Seas: il canto della sirene.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

As is the case around the world, certain games are already in the mainstream, and they have an audience. Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! had multiple booths devoted to selling new and used cards, and Monopoly Tex (another western!) had a spot near the entrance to catch those just entering the pavilion.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The prime spot in the exhibition hall, however, was devoted to Bruno Cathala's Kingdomino, which had won Gioco dell'anno (game of the year), just as it had won Spiel des Jahres in Germany in July 2017 and been nominated for As d'Or in France in February 2017. Whatever our individual tastes in games, good distribution partners often allow for the same game to hit multiple markets around the world at roughly the same time, and some games hit the spot for more players than other games do.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I spent a couple of hours walking the hall, taking pics, noting what was new to me (both the games themselves and versions of existing games, although I'm unlikely to spend time adding game versions to the database when other projects are still in the docket), and surveying what folks were playing, then I walked through again with the video camera running. Again, I'll post that video later once I can.

While I'm taking home only a few games from Lucca, such as the Italian edition of Tichu from, I loved having the chance to see the fair firsthand and experience what I've heard about from afar so many times. I'm curious to think about what this fair would look like in a U.S. city, but none of the ones near me are centralized in the way that Lucca is. Any suggestions for cities that can be taken over in the future?

I'll post another round-up of pics from Lucca in the near future, both of games and cosplayers. For now, you can just imagine yourself being part of the crowd...

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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