Tom Vasel
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Interviews by an Optimist # 83 - Erwin Broens

Erwin said this about himself...

I have been gaming since my childhood, playing the usual mass market games and traditional card games with family and friends. Gaming as a hobby started in 1979, my first year at law school. While visiting an Academic Bookstore in the city of Utrecht I noticed a collection of strange and exotic games, by publishers I had never seen before (Avalon Hill, SPI etc.). Being a fan of fantasy fiction, I couldn’t help myself and bought a copy of a game called Magic Realm. The size and complexity of the rules were a hurdle in the beginning, but finally we managed to play and enjoy this great fantasy adventure. During the next couple of years I moved onto fantasy and historical war games. In 1985 a friend introduced me to the role-playing game “Het Oog des Meesters”, the Dutch version of the German game system “Das Schwarze Auge”. This game was an instant hit with me and my friends. Until 1989 we organized weekly role-playing sessions and almost didn’t play anything else. During these years I started visiting gaming conventions in the Netherlands. At one of these shows I met another “Oog des Meesters” player, who introduced me to the German source material. We became friends and in 1989 he asked me to visit a German games show, Spiel in Essen. Spiel got me back into family board and card games. The quality of the German family games was amazing, especially in comparison to the boring mass market stuff that was sold in Dutch shops.

In the early nineties I joined Ducosim, a Dutch wargamers association. With some friends I started demonstrating German family games at the Ducosim conventions. I also started a column on German games in their monthly magazine Conflict Gazet. I think we did a great job as ambassadors for German games, spreading the word and increasing their popularity. Soon thereafter I became a Ducosim board member. My task was organizing their quarterly games conventions. I was also responsible for organizing the Ducosim presence at the Spellenspektakel games show. The Spellenspektakel used to be a smaller Dutch version of Spiel, but in 1996 it had devaluated to a sales event for collectible card games. In 1996 you could find only a couple of board game demonstrations at this so-called family event. In 1997 I claimed a large booth for Ducosim, showing and demonstrating the latest and greatest German and Dutch games. This booth was a huge success and the organizer realized he should move back to board and card games. In 1998 and 1999 I managed almost every board and card game booth on the show and in 2000 the organizer finally took matters into his own hands.

In 1995 I discovered the internet and started publishing my Ducosim columns on my homepage. In 1998 I upgraded this small homepage to a larger website, containing gaming news and reviews for Dutch and Belgian gamers. My website has been growing ever since. I have also written reviews for several Dutch magazines. Finally I am a founding member of the “Nederlandse Spellenprijs”. We organize the game of the year election in the Netherlands.

Tom Vasel: What is the current state of the Dutch board game scene?

Erwin Broens: Until 1998 we were living in the dark ages. This changed when 999 games started publishing Dutch versions of German games. They won the “Toy of the Year Award” two years in a row, with Elfenland in 1998 and Siedler in 1999. Their “Kolonisten van Catan” is a huge hit, selling more than 500,000 copies since 1998. This game managed to penetrate the mass market, introducing a new generation of games to the large public. A few years later the same thing happened with Carcassonne. Other Dutch publishers noticed the success of 999 Games and also started publishing quality games again. Ravensburger did a great job with the Kramer & Kiesling games and other titles, PS Games publishes Dutch versions of American adventure games and even Hasbro started publishing Dutch versions of hobby games again.

The last two years show another interesting development. Dutch game designers are becoming organized; some of them are even starting their own companies. Hans van Tol started The Game Master and has published three games until now. His board game De Ontembare Stad won the Dutch Games Award and was a huge hit at the Spellenspektakel games show in October. Distributor Vendetta Games is working together with American publishers, adding Dutch rules to the games of Z-Man Games and other companies. Even more important, Vendetta is actively supporting Dutch game designers and small publishers, sharing experience, providing funding and distributing their games. At Spiel they managed a large booth, showing lots of new games by Dutch authors. Even some gamers are getting into the publishing business. White Goblin Games published a Dutch version of Socks in the City, Quined Games recently published Siena and Reef Encounter. Together they will bring Caylus to the Dutch market.

Our Dutch Games Award is maturing rapidly. This year the election generated the interest of our main national news paper and some radio and television stations. We were even contacted by the Spiel des Jahres jury, kindly offering to share experiences and provide us with useful information.

And last but not least, a Dutch magazine on trading card games has recently shifted their focus to these games of ours. They’ve changed their name to “Card & Board Magazine”, added reviews of board and card games and will hopefully introduce thousands of new gamers to our hobby.

I’m happy to say that the current state of the Dutch board game scene is at an all time high.

Tom Vasel: What games are currently most popular in the Netherlands?

Erwin Broens: Considering the number of copies sold, I suppose Catan, Carcassonne and Da Vinci Code are very popular in the Netherlands. The gamers who voted for the Dutch Games Award seemed to like De Ontembare Stad, because this game won the election by a clear margin. If you ask experienced gamers to list their all time favorites, games like Puerto Rico, El Grande, Funkenschlag and Eufraat & Tigris will get high ratings. I expect the Dutch version of Caylus to be the gamers’ favorite in 2006.

Tom Vasel: Can you give us more info on Ducosim?

Erwin Broens: Ducosim is not a regular gamers club, but the national Dutch games association. Its primary goal is to promote the games hobby in the Netherlands. Ducosim publishes the games magazine Spel!. The editor of this magazine is Han Heidema, designer of several train games. Spel! contains reviews of board games, miniature systems, wargames, roleplaying and trading card games.

Ducosim also organizes quarterly games events in the Jaarbeurs Trade Fair in the city of Utrecht. These events normally attract between 500 – 600 visitors. At these events Dutch publishers show their new games, designers test their prototypes (wanna play the latest Cwali game?), you can participate in tournaments, etc. Dutch and German shops are also selling games at these shows. During the February event Ducosim organizes the annual games auction. At these auctions you can find many interesting and rare games. I’m very happy that I finally managed to acquire a copy of Keywood at one of these auctions.

Tom Vasel: Tell us about your website, and the goal of it.

Erwin Broens: Playing games is a wonderful hobby. I want to share this with as many people as possible. My website allows me to pursue this goal.

The most important part of the website is the section providing international gaming news in the Dutch language. I maintain a large preview section, with detailed information on recent and future releases. Keeping this part of the website up to date is a lot of work, especially around Nürnberg and Essen. At this point I should mention Knut-Michael Wolf and Rick Thornquist. Working with these guys makes life a lot easier. Talking about Essen, every year I publish a huge report on the show and the new games.

Finally I use the website to publish reviews, approximately three or four per month. This part doesn’t feel like work at all, as I really like writing about games. I would like to increase the number of reviews, but the news section claims too much time at the moment.

Tom Vasel: How much work do you put into your website each day? And what rewards do you see from it?

Erwin Broens: On the average I spend 6-8 hours a week working on the website. Before and after Spiel this could go up to 20 hours a week. On weekdays I only work on minor updates, publishing news items when available. On Sundays I usually work on reviews and descriptions for the preview section.

I don’t see any financial rewards from the website. I could place advertisements and banners, but I don’t want to. Generating some turnover would require registration as a company for sales tax purposes. Being a sales tax inspector myself, I want to avoid any possible conflict of interests.

There are other rewards though. The website allows me to interact with other gamers, authors and publishers. This way I can meet many friendly people, through the internet or at conventions, who share my enthusiasm for games. I especially appreciate the feedback from my visitors. It’s always great to hear that one of my reviews introduced somebody to a wonderful new game.

Tom Vasel: How do you determine what games to write board game reviews on?

Erwin Broens: Sometimes publishers send me review copies. I try to test and review these games as soon as possible. I also give review copies to other gamers, who write reviews for my website. Beyond that, I prefer to review games that inspire me to write about them. This usually means that, after playing the game a couple of times, a “story” develops in the back of my head. When this happens the review almost writes itself. This also means that I tend to write reviews on games that I like. But sometimes even a “bad” game manages to inspire me that much, that I’m willing to test it a couple of times and write a nasty review. The inspiration part is important to me. Not only because writing should be fun, but also because this approach produces better written articles (at least it works this way for me).

Tom Vasel: How many times do you play a game before writing a review?

Erwin Broens: On the average I like to play a game at least five times before writing a review. Because I do not want to spend every gaming session analyzing games and taking notes for future reviews, I need to play a game more than once or twice. I also like to test a game with different numbers of players.

Tom Vasel: As a renowned game reviewer, which 2005 games do you think are the best of the year so far?

Erwin Broens: I wouldn’t dare to call myself a renowned game reviewer. Let’s just say I’m trying to become one. In my humble opinion the following games are the best of the year so far.

Manila by Franz-Benno Delonge is my favorite family game. This is a wonderful speculation and betting game. Luck plays an important role, but so does the control element (the harbor master).

My favorite heavier game is Im schatten des Kaisers by Ralf Burkert (the Dutch version was published in 2005). It’s a rather unusual German strategy game, because it openly rewards aggressive play and nasty tricks. This one should be played with 3 or 4 players though.

My favorite card game is Trump, Tricks, Game! by Günter Burkhardt. This is an original and interesting trick-taking game. It adds a nice twist to a familiar mechanism.

It’s probably too early to include Essen releases in my “best of the year” list, but I enjoyed my first playings of Mesopotamia, Caylus, Il Principe, Hazienda, Elasund and Shear Panic. I’m looking forward to Ostia and Tempus, having played each prototype once.

Tom Vasel: What is your opinion of Essen? Is it a “must attend” event for the serious gamer?

Erwin Broens: Considering that I visited every Spiel since 1989, I suppose I should say that it is a “must attend” event for the serious gamer. On the other hand, this opinion is as easy as pie for a gamer from the Netherlands. It’s a 90 minute drive by car to Essen, so time, money and luggage space aren’t a problem. I suppose it’s a different matter for a gamer from Korea or the USA.

I love to visit Spiel. Not only for the new games, but also for meeting fellow gamers, game designers and publishers. During the show it’s mostly walking and talking. I prefer to play the new games in the evenings, mainly because I do not like the crowded booths and the waiting time for a free table. I would really like the organizer to reinstate the “free gaming areas”, that were common until 1997. There used to be several clusters of
“picnic tables” in the halls, so finding a free table was no problem at all.

Tom Vasel: Do you think there are too many board games being produced right now?

Erwin Broens: I think there are too many board games being produced, especially in Germany. Only a few games will be a commercial success. Many German games are dumped for ridiculously low prices, only one or two years after their initial release. Many gamers have noticed this trend. They are speculating on games going out of circulation next year and are happy to wait for the special prices when they do. I cannot imagine that this is a healthy economic strategy for the average publisher.

Tom Vasel: So what should a publisher do to make sure their game is “above average”?

Erwin Broens: In my opinion “above average” is about going for quality. This means being offered interesting prototypes, taking time for development of the game system, finding an interesting theme that fits the system, using quality components and finally learning to write rules like Stefan Brück.

Tom Vasel: What would be your advice to an aspiring game designer?

Erwin Broens: I think the magic word is play testing. An aspiring game designer should test his game as much as possible. Not only with family and friends, but also with other gamers. He should also pay enough attention to the rules. Many game designers and/or small publishers seem to think that their rules are clear and complete. Sadly, most of the time they are not. And finally some advice for people who want to design the next Monopoly clone: “go to Jail and do not collect your $200 salary”.

Tom Vasel: Why is Monopoly so successful, even outside of America, while other - perhaps more deserving - games are not?

Erwin Broens: It’s been there for a very long time. Several generations and millions of people have played this game. That’s why this game feels like something familiar to the general public. I expect people will be buying this game for years to come. I’ve played many games of Monopoly in my childhood. I will probably never play it again, mainly because I do not like the combination of player elimination and a long playing time. Eliminating another player, who then has to watch the game for one or two hours, is not my idea of fun.

Tom Vasel: What mechanics do you really enjoy in games?

Erwin Broens: I like the “action point” mechanisms that you can find in some Kramer & Kiesling games. I also enjoy auctions, especially those where money is also needed for victory points. I suppose I like difficult choices and being forced to spend scarce resources wisely.

Tom Vasel: Tell us some of the easiest and most difficult things about organizing a convention.

Erwin Broens: I haven’t organized a convention since 1998, so I’m probably no longer qualified to give a proper answer to this question. The easy thing was working with the professionals at the Jaarbeurs Fair. I supplied them with a floor plan and my wishes and/or demands, and they usually did a great job. The difficult thing was controlling the horde of Magic players (we are talking about conventions in the nineties). Magic introduced all kinds of problems: theft, illegal traders, kids dropping their garbage anywhere they liked, etcetera. I really hated the fact that I had to play the part of a “convention policeman” in those days.

Tom Vasel: How have CCGs affected board gaming, both past and present?

Erwin Broens: In the Netherlands CCGs had a huge effect on board gaming. Not directly, but the profits made by selling CCG’s (especially Pokémon) allowed 999 Games to invest and expand. This allowed them to publish dozens of fine board games in the Netherlands. CCG’s also lured younger players to games shops and conventions, where they got acquainted with other kinds of games.

Tom Vasel: What about RPG’s?

Erwin Broens: I didn’t keep in touch with the role-playing scene, so I do not know if RPG’s affected board gaming. Role-players seem to like the Munchkin card game, but that’s all I know about them these days. I suppose I’m too old to connect with gothic youngsters pretending to be vampires.....

Tom Vasel: What do you foresee in the future of board games?

Erwin Broens: As I do not own a crystal ball, please do not expect too much from this answer. In the next couple of years I expect the big German publishers to shift towards “lighter” games. Smaller German and foreign publishers will try to cater the experienced gamer. At least that’s what I would predict, based on the last two editions of Spiel. I’m also curious where the Ravensburger experiments with electronics in board games will end up. Maybe we will see more and more games with electronic support, for registration of events, victory points, money etcetera. For 2006 I predict a new edition of Avé Caesar with beautiful new artwork, a Blue Moon board game and an interesting “dungeon crawler” by Friedemann Friese.

Tom Vasel: What are your favorite games?

Erwin Broens: My favorite board games are El Grande, Die Fürsten von Florenz, Tadsch Mahal, Kardinal & König and Java. The number one spot goes to El Grande, I really love this wonderful mix of strategy (area control and managing the supply of caballero’s) and tactics (trying to get the best out of the current round). My favorite card game is Wizards. I have played this bidding game more than a thousand times with my colleagues during lunch break. We have to replace this game two or three times a year.

Tom Vasel: Erwin, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Erwin Broens: First I would like to thank you. Not only for showing interest in me, but especially for your many contributions to the gaming hobby. I would also like to thank Rick Thornquist and Knut-Michael Wolf for being great partners in news gathering. My final words to all gamers: enjoy playing games and enjoy the company of your fellow gamers.

Edited by Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
January 5, 2006
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