The woman for the big games

Carol Rapp is in charge of SPIEL Essen. For team building, she also relies on board games

By Peter Budig

Carol Rapp: "Playing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember."

Carol Rapp, still 43 years old in spring 2023, is the woman of the year in the board game industry. She came to "SPIEL Essen" last fall, the industry's largest public fair in the world, held in the fall, with nearly 150,000 visitors and 980 exhibitors from 56 countries at last count. She initially worked with Dominique Metzler, who had taken over and developed the event from founder and stepfather Friedhelm Merz. On January 1, 2022, it became public that the owner of the fair organizer, i.e. Friedhelm Merz Verlag, had sold the major event to Spielwarenmesse eG. The board game industry finds its professional audience in Nuremberg in spring, i.e. buyers, store owners, journalists, company owners and executives from all over the world. The "people", game freaks, board game collectors, nerds, they all make a pilgrimage to Essen. Already in spring, Dominique Metzler announces her retirement from the business; an era has come to an end. The new boss is Carol Rapp. Together with Florian Hess, Member of the Board of Spielwarenmesse eG, she is responsible for the further development of the International Games Days.

Among the audience of SPIEL Carol Rapp does not stand out

Carol Rapp fits perfectly into the trade show's audience profile. A self-confessed gamer and owner of a private collection of a good 3,000 games together with her equally enthusiastic gamer husband, she doesn't stand out as a trade show flaneur. To the question "What connects you with "games", she answers: "That's easy: Everything. I love games! I've been playing all my life. It's always been in our family." So Carol Rapp could always be strolling around the trade show event without a care in the world, sitting down at a game table with others, looking at a new publisher and author product here and there. Being a game fan is probably essential for the job, but of course not sufficient for the task. Rapp's career is unusual but it's a perfect fit for the new job - "a playful way of life," she finds herself.

Playing isn't just good for kids, it's good for a modern organizational culture.

Carol Rapp

Even before graduating from high school, she worked regularly in system catering (McDonald's), was discovered there by a supervisor, and recruited into the training program from the fryer, so-called. After that, she moved quickly towards realizing her professional dream: She helped organize and design events, such as the "Catan Big Game 2005" in Chemnitz, with over 800 players at the same time. At the German publisher Kosmos, she was the marketing representative for Catan and worked closely with Klaus Teuber. Afterwards, she participated in the management and marketing of Asmodee Germany, a subsidiary of the Asmodee Group France. Asmodee is a market leader that operates worldwide, has more than 30 distribution units and publishing studios in Europe, the U.S. and China, and considers itself the experts in board games. Rapp speaks excellent English and, en passant, has acquired a whole range of high-quality additional qualifications (coaching, social media, etc.). At the time of the suggestion that she could lead SPIEL Essen into the future, she had just started her own business as an executive coach: "I already had some experience in individual coaching behind me, where I consciously used game forms to support the coachee," she says - but the new task means that freelancing is a thing of the past for the time being.

Understanding Team Building as a Game Guide

Team SPIEL Essen with Carol Rapp (center).

As the new managing director of Friedhelm Merz Verlag, Carol Rapp has tasks ahead of her in a familiar environment. On the one hand, there was a decades-long acquaintance and collaboration with Dominique Metzler, who had also proposed Rapp as her successor. On the other hand, there were almost 40 years of trade fair tradition at SPIEL, where Rapp has been a professionally committed visitor for 22 years. Then there was the new partner, who, according to Florian Hess, the Spielwarenmesse board member responsible for SPIEL Essen, had long looked at this fair "with admiration and a little envy," as he revealed in an interview with Julia Zerlik ("Spiel doch mal"). Both Rapp and Hess agree "to want to keep the event in its core. At the same time, the new Friedhelm Merz Verlag has hired many additional permanent employees. "Five and a half permanent employees," a whole team, all but one is new. So Carol Rapp had to activate SPIEL Essen to Corona, distribute work areas, restructure work processes anew in the team, make plans for the future. At the beginning of the sentence "Carol Rapp had to" the Cologne woman will probably already frown. Because her approach is fundamentally not a must, true to her motto "I think people who play a lot have a different way of looking at things from the start."

Playfulness is a 21st Century Skill for me, because games are always presenting us with new and unplanned challenges, and yet this is also in line with what we experience every day in a professional context. Therefore, for me, playfulness in problem solving is something I would wish for all of us.

Carol Rapp

For example, she initially asked her team (three men, three women) to each choose their "personal favorite activity." At the same time, rules were formulated to ensure that certain requirements were met: Someone had to be in charge of office supplies, someone had to be in charge of invoices; despite basic hybrid freedoms, everyone had to be in the office two days a week; on one day, everyone had to be in the office. She let the team discuss this on their own, decide, find their own rules, "on a "Catan-like playing field." Her credo is: "The team knows what it's doing"; and she smiles a bit about this first success: "They were stricter and more stringent with themselves than if I had ordered everything." That's how playful entrepreneurship happens - there are rules and there's an open field and everyone joins in because in this game, the only way to win is together. "What I do, I do with heart and soul and as a player I keep the inner perfectionist in check," Carol Rapp describes her approach.

Codenames as a form of game for optimal group cohesion

Codenames: The play with associations exerts a pull that hardly anyone can escape" and "anyone who likes to juggle with language will love Codenames."

Rapp continues, "A key approach to good collaboration is to play with the team. First, because teams that have fun together work better. Second, to reveal unconscious behaviors to both the individual and the group" - a belief that is said to go back to Plato. Rapp has found "Codenames", Game of the Year 2016, to be a well-suited game form for this purpose. A detective game with words, it requires not only a feeling for language, but also empathy for the thinking of all those playing along and is very challenging for the teams. "Especially in team coaching, a different lightness emerges that nevertheless reveals things that are deeply hidden in a group," Carol Rapp is convinced of this.

My most important personal insight is that you can get to know a person better in an hour's play than in a year's conversation. This saying is attributed to Plato. Even though it wasn't Plato who said it, the essence is true for me. Very few people can hide when they play. Their true nature always comes out.

Carol Rapp

Creating depth through play

She has also had good experience with the use of "Dixit" cards. Dixit (Game of the Year 2010) was developed by the French child therapist Jean-Louis Roubira, and the illustrations are by Marie Cardouat. At the beginning, each player receives six picture cards. The cards deliberately show imaginative, symbolic images, colorful motifs. On his or her turn, the player names a term, word, phrase, or quote to go with one of his or her cards. In the game, one person chooses a card and tells what phrase, concept, he associates with it. The others choose from their cards those that fit them. In this way, deep feelings unconsciously come into play, associations or sensations are triggered. "In this way, you express yourself emotionally without consciously noticing it," explains Rapp.

The goal firmly in sight

Of course, the team at SPIEL Essen, which will take place again in October 2023, doesn't just sit around playing games. A lot of concentrated work is needed to make the trade fair experience positive for exhibitors, game inventors, board game players. "However, we as a group decide the success of the fair. Good trade show experiences can only be created by a good group. That's why dialogical and playful approaches are so important," Rapp summarizes.

About the author

Peter Budig studied Protestant theology, history and political science. He worked as a freelance journalist, headed up the editorial department of a large advertising paper in Nuremberg for ten years and was the editor of Nuremberg’s Abendzeitung newspaper. He has been freelancing again since 2014 as a journalist, book author and copywriter. Storytelling is absolutely his favourite form.

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