The first board game Martin Wallace invented that he could persuade anyone to play twice was called Lords of Creation. It was a Risk-style game which required its players to subdue a horde of barbarians and transform them into a civilised society. Wallace, an unassuming supply teacher from Manchester, grew up a gamer: he loved Christmas Monopoly contests as a child; was obsessed by Dungeons & Dragons at sixth form college; got his first job at Games Workshop in his teens. Shortly after turning 30, he produced 50 copies of Lords of Creation using a desktop printer and distributed them to friends and fellow gamers.
When a journalist from Die Pöppel-Revue, an influential German games magazine, got hold of a copy and wrote a glowing review, another inventor suggested Wallace take Lords of Creation to the Essen games fair in Germany. "I was already in the van with the engine running when the new run of the game arrived from the printers," Wallace recalls. "I drove overnight from England to Essen and arrived dog-tired at seven in the morning, only to open the boxes and discover that most of the counters were misprinted. I'd brought enough for 500 copies, and after chucking away all the duds I was only left with about 100 that were saleable. They looked rubbish, but thanks to that review, I sold them all."
Essen is a nondescript city in the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland. It lacks both the extensive transport links of Düsseldorf, 30km to the South, and the attractive architecture of nearby Cologne. In 1983 Friedhelm Merz, the editor of Die Pöppel, organised a small get-together for games lovers in an Essen school hall. Five thousand people turned up, and the road outside was so overcrowded, it had to be closed. Today, Internationale Spieltage – more commonly known as "Spiel" – is the world's largest annual board games convention, occupying, for four days every October, 10 cavernous exhibition halls at the Messe Essen exhibition centre. The Nuremberg Toy Fair in February is larger, but that's for the trade; Essen is for the people. This year, 152,000 of them came to play 600 brand new board and card games from 763 exhibitors, representing 31 countries.
Wallace brought Lords of Creation here in October 1994. Three years ago he became a full-time games inventor. Nowadays he comes to Essen as a cult hero. On the first morning of the fair, he and his team made €16,000 from direct sales of his latest games, which include Last Train to Wensleydale, a game about transporting cheese through the Yorkshire Dales by steam train; and God's Playground, based on the history of Poland between 1400 and 1790. Every year his boutique games publishing company, TreeFrog, takes over Essen's Jung Hotel for the fair, reserving rooms for like-minded gamers. Clattering dice, shuffling counters and the grinding of mental gears echo through the hotel bar late into the night.
The internet has made Wallace a niche international brand – he has fans as far away as the US, Indonesia and Chile ("We also have a small but vibrant South Korean fanboy community," he says) – but Essen is where he made his name. If you're a games inventor, or even just a player, there's nowhere like it.
As soon as Messe Essen's glass doors are thrown open each morning, a wave of gamers floods through them, young children weaving between adult legs like excitable Weimaraner puppies, desperate to get a games table at their favourite producer's stall. At the major manufacturers' stands, pretty German girls in branded T-shirts sit waiting to explain their company's latest game and play it with their eager customers.
By the third day of the fair, games lovers are sprawled across the floors and into the aisles, playing card games, war games, party games, puzzle games, family games; two-player games, four-player games, six-player games; games set in the Wild West, games set in the Far East, games set in the Caribbean; games set in the Industrial Revolution, games set in the Bronze Age, games set in the Middle Ages (games fans are especially fond of the Middle Ages); games about hospitals and police stations and factories; abstract games, about nothing but the game itself. There's a game that involves one player trying to build a Jenga-like structure from wooden blocks, while their opponent bashes them over the head with an inflatable club. It's called Argh!Tect.
One hall is devoted to fantasy roleplay games with titles like Mage Battle, Space Gothic and ElfenWelfen. Stalls there sell gothic jewellery and battle wear: swords, shields, sledgehammers, prosthetic heads on spikes. At the stall set aside for BoardGameGeek.com, the gaming community's online hub, Derk Solko, the loud, kilted Texan and former Wall Street hedge funder who co-founded the site in 2000, holds court. He has a tattoo of a card from his favourite game, Tichu, emblazoned across his forearm. Committed older gamers take their pastime very seriously, referring to it as "the hobby". Matthias Hardel, the journalist who first reviewed Lords of Creation for Die Pöppel, rolled a dice with his wife to decide whose name would change when they married. He lost.
To visit Essen, you'd think the videogame had never been invented. There are children here playing Pokémon, sure, but they're playing it across a table. When they're not focusing on their cards, they're looking each other in the eye. Grown men (and women), who'd never consider using instructions to build a futon, will happily study complex rulebooks so they can enjoy new games with their friends.
The event is remarkably good-natured. Wallace's entourage, who come to Essen to sell Treefrog titles in exchange for samples and beer, include a postman, a nuclear physicist, a barrister and a tax consultant, all of them united by their love of games. "A few years ago, I wanted to play a particular new game," says Maureen Hiron, another British inventor. "So the head of the company put me into a game with some German guys. It was a game about the Mafia, and I had the opportunity to kill off one of their 'capos', so I did. At the end of the day, I was walking out of the hall and this great big guy stands in front of me, legs apart, hands on hips, and says in a deep voice, 'You killed my capo.' I cowered and said, 'S-s-sorry ... ' Then he smiled and said, 'Can I give you a lift somewhere?'" She laughs. "It's so friendly here, it really is."
Board games are like takeaway pizza and the Devon tourist board: they thrive in a recession. Monopoly, the most popular board game, was created during the Great Depression, and has seen its sales increase by 57 per cent since last year. The Germans, in particular, adore board games. More are sold per capita in Germany than anywhere else in the world. Games are reviewed in newspapers alongside films, books and music; a national news crew reports from Spiel once every hour. Successful inventors are minor celebrities on a par with a bestselling author; they attract autograph hunters and have their names prominently displayed on each game's box. "German-style games" or "Eurogames", meanwhile, are a recognised genre, tightly designed with clear rules and sleek gameplay. They're less open-ended than the likes of Monopoly or Risk, with more complex strategy than simply rolling a dice and deciding whether to buy Oxford Street. They rarely eliminate players before the end of the game, or allow them to disengage when it's not their turn. Only a few such games have crossed over into other markets, however, the most successful being Settlers of Catan, a game about establishing a primitive colony on an island, invented by Klaus Teuber in 1995. It has been translated into 30 languages and sold 15 million copies.
"Germans like strategic games," says Heinrich Hüntelmann of Ravensburger, Europe's largest games company. "The more rules there are, the more we like it." Wallace, for instance, is known for combining this German love of strategy and rules with an "American-style", deeply-integrated theme. Each of his games has a painstakingly researched historical background. Tinner's Trail, a game about Cornish miners, was developed during regular visits to his in-laws in Cornwall. God's Playground is named after the book of the same name by historian Norman Davies; Wallace created it after making a bet with a German friend, who told him he could never sell a game about Poland in Germany. Last Train to Wensleydale was inspired by he and his wife's trips to the Dales in search of a singular variety of hard cheese infused with mango and papaya.
A country's games culture reflects national stereotypes with remarkable precision. Polish history isn't entirely verboten as a theme in Germany, as long as you don't mention the war. Wallace had to change his company's name from Warfrog to Treefrog to appeal to a German market that's sensitive about the topic. A fellow inventor almost had his entire stock of games seized and destroyed by German customs officials after they found a tiny swastika in its artwork. In 1982, the government threatened to ban Risk until it was changed from a game of world domination to a game of world "liberation".
The US mass market demands games with few rules that can be explained very quickly to children. "When we sell games to Italy," explains Hüntelmann, "they must have more luck involved, so you don't have to think so much. It has to be fast. They don't tend to sit around the table for hours. In the UK, we always need a character who's been on TV; the game mechanics don't matter, as long as the character's there. Gaming is a very cultural thing."
Some Brits at Essen seem unimpressed by the thought of the Deal Or No Deal electronic board game. Derek Carver holds a weekly games group for five or six other gentlemen at his home in East Sussex. They've come to Spiel to try the latest title by Friedemann Friese, an iconoclastic young German inventor with spiked green hair whose best-known game, Funkenschlag, was published in America in 2004 as Power Grid; its object is to provide power to a national electric grid. His latest game, Funkenschlag-Fabrikmanager, is about running a factory. Most of Friese's games seem to involve the world of work, but apparently he also went through a brief flesh-eating zombie period.
"When Friedemann published his first game, he was obviously the new kid on the block because it was so unusual, so different from any existing game," says Carver. "Each year he came out with a different game, totally different from the one before, but always good. Power Grid is one of the best games around. His game last year, River Fever (about logging) was good and so's Fabrikmanager. When I started playing, the two leading countries for games were the UK and America; no one had heard of German games. But the Germans take it very seriously."
Among the games lovers at Essen you can spot the dealmakers, disappearing into the back rooms behind stalls, wheeling suitcases full of games and paperwork. Games companies come here to hunt the next big game. Designers come hoping they've invented it. Maureen Hiron is one. Hiron began her career as a sports teacher, but after a 20lb air extractor fell on her head as she was leaning from a window to shout at some unruly children, she suffered a series of blackouts and was forced to retire.
Instead, she threw herself into playing bridge, representing Britain and, following the death of her husband Alan, taking over his role as The Independent's bridge correspondent. She created Continuo, her fiendishly simple first game, on the morning of 1 April 1982. Like some elegant combination of dominoes and the Rubik's cube, Continuo players merely have to arrange card squares to make lines of colour as long as possible. "I invented the thing in about two seconds," says Hiron. "It just came to me. I spent the next two hours cutting up cornflakes packets and making the squares, filling them in with colours. We formed the company the next day. It went into the shops on the first of September and six weeks later it was the bestselling game in the UK. By the end of the year, we'd sold 205,000 sets in the UK alone. Now it's in over 60 countries. It's considered a modern classic, and it's a one-rule game."
Hiron remains the world's foremost female games inventor and is, she boasts, unashamedly commercial. "I keep a careful eye on where the market's going. At the moment I see a major turn towards games and puzzles that use mental processes to keep the brain active." Her latest invention is a simple game that teaches its players new words in five different languages.
Hiron and Wallace are polar opposites, one appealing to the mass market, the other to a niche. Both have a place at Essen. "The games Maureen and I design are functionally the same as what the Sumerians and Egyptians played thousands of years ago," Wallace suggests. The modern board game form was enshrined by the success of Monopoly in the Thirties, which has been played by 750 million people. Even the most successful games struggle to break into the pantheon alongside the Monopolys, Scrabbles or Cluedos of the world. Dungeons & Dragons created the fantasy roleplay genre when it was released in 1974. The first major trading card game, Magic: The Gathering (which forced parents to spend endlessly on new packets of cards), was a big hit at Essen in 1994.
This year's winner of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres Prize – Germany's "Game of The Year" – is one of Magic's descendants: Dominion, a card collecting game set, naturally, in the Middle Ages. A bellwether for next year's winner is the games chart. Players vote for their favourite games at the fair, and the list is constantly updated over four days. By Friday afternoon, a Wild West game called Carson City is in the lead, just ahead of Automobile, by Martin Wallace.
Mike Gray is fiftysomething, a bear of a man: well over 6ft, with a bald head, a badger-striped beard, and an infectious smile that spreads whenever he's talking about games, which is most of the time. "I breathe games," he says. Gray is senior director of product design for Hasbro, the world's biggest board games company, which owns Monopoly, Scrabble and Cluedo. At Essen, this makes him something like the Man chester United talent scout. His physical stature means he's unmistakable; when they see him coming, games inventors hover nervously near their creations like anxious parents at the touchline.
Gray is a company man third, a designer second – he's created more than 100 games himself, including Fortress America, Mall Madness and Omega Virus – and a games lover first. When he was growing up in Toledo, Ohio, he'd mow the lawn for a retired telegraph operator who lived on his street. The man would sit in his front window, playing chess and checkers with his former colleagues in other parts of the state by numbering the squares on the board and tapping out each move on the telegraph. After Gray mowed the lawn, man and boy would share a slice of pecan pie and a game of cribbage.
In the evenings, Gray played games with the other children in his neighbourhood: Stratego and Risk with the boys, The Game of Life with the girls. He invented his first game when he was 11, and sent it to a games publisher. By 1978 he was designing professionally for Milton Bradley. "There was just one other games designer there, who was in his 50s," he recalls. "He made very simple games where you rolled marbles into holes for points, or traditional path board games. By then I was playing war games that had 50 pages of rules and took weeks to play. I had maps pinned to the walls. The people there had never met someone like me. And you know what, I'd never met someone like me."
Twenty years ago, Gray came to Essen for the first time. "It's like finding my lost race. Suddenly here are 100,000 people like me – men, women, children – who love to play games."
When Gray pulls out a photograph that he carries with him, it's not of his children, but of his rec room, each wall lined with shelves, each shelf stacked high with games. "If I gave you 20 dollars and told you to go and spend it on something that would bring your family together; something that delivers an experience where people can laugh or learn, or both, there's nothing that comes close to a game," he says. "When you're a kid games are about winning, but as you grow older you realise that having people want to play a game with you is a great compliment. And if it's a really good one, then you'll remember it for years. It'll become a memory, not just something you put back in the closet when you're done."
Read the 50 Best Board Games in The Information in Saturday's Independent