Tom Werneck: Ravensburger shot down my game idea with the comment that a competitor already had such a game. Somebody had had the audacity to come up with my idea before I did...
Erwin Glonnegger, the clever and energetic director of the company, remarked that it was one of the game inventor's tools of the trade – knowing what was already on the market. And so I started buying games until my wife said we couldn't afford to do so in the long run. The game column in the German newspaper Die Zeit inspired me to visit the Spielwarenmesse as a games reviewer. The games flooded in – boxes and boxes of them. That was in 1970. After three fairs, I introduced myself to the Nürnberger Nachrichten newspaper as the new games reviewer for their weekend magazine. With the words, "Write what you want. But just leave now," I was kicked out. But the following weekend, my text and picture appeared in the paper. From then on, I sent more reviews in week after week. It was the start of my career as a games reviewer. Other publications followed and later I discussed games for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit for five years.
You've been attending the Spielwarenmesse for decades. What's changed?
T.W.: I've been following very closely the gradual evolution from simple but bold beginnings to the leading professional trade fair in the industry today. At the beginning, the work of journalists was of little significance in the overall scheme of the trade fair. This has changed fundamentally and the support for the trade is cutting-edge now.
Decisive progress was made when the exhibition grounds were built in the Langwasser district. In the years that followed, you could observe the constant race between tortoise and the hare: whatever extensions they built on the site as of the 1980s simply couldn't keep up with demand.
Which encounters at the Spielwarenmesse are you particularly fond of?
T.W.: At the beginning of the seventies, I got someone to send me the 3M-game Twixt from the USA. After my initial enthusiasm, I complained to the 3M subsidiary in Düsseldorf that I always won if I was able to make the first move. Games are called 'determined' if a player has an unfair advantage, because he knows the associated rule for winning and may make either the first or the second move. Michel Matschoss, the manager in charge, suggested talking to the author, Alex Randolph, who was going to attend the next Spielwarenmesse.
As soon as the fair opened, I found myself with Alex in a small cubbyhole on the 3M stand, where coats were hanging and boxes were stacked. The game board was balanced on our knees after a fashion. Randolph let me go first. I played simply brilliantly…until I lost the game. So we played again. Once again, I lost with aplomb. After several rounds, I admitted defeat. My accusation of determination had found its master. For me, it was an embarrassing defeat – and, at the same time, the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
And what conflict-ridden encounters at the Spielwarenmesse do you recall?
T.W.: Parker had banned me and my colleague, Bernward Thole, from their stand and excluded us from receiving review copies. This wave of anger had befallen us, because we had aired well-kept company secrets. Wherever possible, we had, you see, revealed pseudonyms or meticulously researched the authors and published their names in our articles. In the early 1970s, most game manufacturers treated the names of their creative minds like state secrets.
What did you and Bernward Thole want to achieve with this hunt for the real identity of the game designers?
T.W.: People were aware of the names of book authors. They were familiar; they were important; they were close despite their distance. We wanted to transfer this book industry recipe for success to the world of games. Thole and I started mentioning the names of the authors, editors and graphic artists of the games we reviewed. Some game publishers took note of this more or less grimly; others protested and some threatened us because they believed their business model was at risk.
As is so often the case, the steady drip had an effect in the long run. These days, it goes without saying that games now list the joint creative effort that has ground the rough diamond of an initial idea for a game into a finished, attractive and eventful product. After all, a game is not a matter of the financial value of a bit of cardboard and some figurines. The price of a game justifies the value of a cultural asset that comes from the interplay of ideas, of imagination, the joy of designing things, stimulating communication and, at times, also from lateral thinking.
Trade fairs bring people together. What results from this?
T.W.: Every year, I invited a small, hand-picked circle of the games industry to our apartment in Büchenbach near Erlangen to spend an evening by the fireplace on the eve of the trade fair. In a break during the already advanced evening, Jürgen Herz asked whether it wouldn't be a good idea to choose a "Game of the Year". First, there was stunned silence. Then Alex Randolph was spontaneously enthusiastic; Walter Luc Haas, Gilbert Obermair and Dieter Hasselblatt took a wait-and-see attitude. Bernward Thole expressed concerns about what the game industry would say about it. However, Rüdiger von der Linde, the boss of games publisher ASS, saw no problem in the proposal. And Jürgen Herz himself dispelled all objections with a clear positioning statement: "We are journalists and thus advocates of the consumers. We are solely accountable to our readers, listeners or viewers. But certainly not to the game publishers!"
The idea, born at the Spielwarenmesse, initially remained dormant until it was once again brought up by Jürgen Herz in 1978 on the occasion of the TippKick World Cup by Mieg for journalists at the FIFA World Cup in Buenos Aires. Bernward Thole and I developed the concept in the years that followed and founded the association. The "Game of the Year" has just been awarded for the 40th time and has become an internationally renowned award.
What do you take away with you from all your many visits to the Spielwarenmesse?
T.W.: Over the long term, you see a lot of people as well as a lot of companies come – and go. New people mean new contacts and often new ideas. And those that go? You don't shed a tear over some of them. But others leave a hole behind, because more has been created than a mere professional contact. Because some of them have become companions along the way as well as friends.
Thank you very much for all your stories about the Spielwarenmesse.