I planned to go to Spiel on a whim. It was a large con in a country that I spoke the language for, and reputedly a cool place to hang out for a few days. It gets more visitors that the main US con, GenCon, and it's practically on our doorstep globally. I dragged my girlfriend along on the promise of a brief holiday in Cologne afterwards. Included here are my thoughts on the experience:

Travel wise we flew from Birmingham to Cologne/Bonn. It took an hour and cost 50 quid, I expect it'll cost me a similar amount to go by train to Dragonmeet. We then got the (nice and swish) InterCity Express train to Essen Hauptbahnhof. Only minor issue being buying the local train ticket and having to pay a supplement. The Holiday Inn took a bit of finding (our map wasn't great), but was fairly central to Essen and pretty good for 50 quid a night. We mooched around Essen for food, and discovered it does bars and grills and that's about it. Had a reasonable pasta dish and a nice drink of Diebels Alt, which is on the aley side of German beers

Breakfast next day came courtesy of one of the many German self-service bakeries. Pastries and chocolate milk, mmm. We then caught the U-Bahn to Messe Essen (4 journey ticket for a couple of Euros). Messe is like the NEC, huge conference halls with lots of parking. The queues were extensive, but well managed (I thought only the Brits knew how to queue properly?), entry for up to four days is 25 euro (17 quid).

The main hall

Inside the hall was packed. It feels big, then you realise there's another 9 halls. The big family boardgames are the first three halls, along with the latest collectable card crazes. Each stand has a demo table or three, and if you stay for a moment you'll be sucked in. It's a frenzied mix of demos and purchasing (people bring trolleys to fill with the latest releases). The smaller halls are home to smaller games companies and a host of comic and tat retailers, complete with an artists alley, where you can have pictures drawn for you.

RPGs are mostly confined to dark and dingy hall 6, the only place with a distinct lack of demo games... Which is kind of jarring when the rest of the con is so focused on play. Lots of LARP kit though, including full-on chaos armour a couple of thousand euros and some neat bows. If you want oddments, it's a good place to browse. There were some really nice miniatures, my favorites of the lot being the pirate miniatures from Freebooter, who gave me Haribo so must be good. I managed to impress my girlfriend by failing to notice the scantily clad woman dressed up as a Confrontation miniature until she was waving a flyer in my face.

We spent most of the first day wandering round getting an idea of what was there. I popped in to see the guys at sighpress, who I'd chatted to at the Forge, they were showing a cool post-apocalyptic game - Degenesis - and German translation of Unknown Armies. Reading their products taxed my A-Level German, but the artwork and layout is of amazing quality. I expect an English translation to sell well on production alone, if they can get it sorted.

Our games first game of the day was Oltre Mare, a game of merchants around the Mediterranean from Rio Grande. I think we annoyed the staff by being two people playing on a our person table... German snacks were eaten to keep on the move. We found a small contingent of UK people at the back of Hall 7, including IRM Magazine (who I thought should be encouraged, so gave a review copy of Nopress), Crimson Empire and LARP Stalwarts Eldritch.

Spiel is a place to bring a game even if it's not yet for sale, the distributors and shop owners do the rounds.One cool unreleased game we saw was called King of Chicago, unsurprisingly about mobsters. Bargain of day one was Cartoon Action Hour RPG for 5 Euros (3 quid). A day mostly browsing and walking took its toll, so back to the hotel for a kip and dinner.

More bakery Breakfast for the next day. We took a more studied approach involving more sitting and demoing. First played was Cashtrap, a fun abstract family boardgame from a family company from the UK, get your money to the bank on the otehr side of the board while blocking your opponents. Next up was Daimyo, a hex-based strategy game. The game has a cool card-passing mechanic that means whatever you do this turn will be available to your opponents next turn. Xig, a fun game of jigsaw building with some lovely characterful artwork was next. Simple to play, and ideal for kids and adults to play together. Warumono 2, a game of heist esape and briefcase shenanigens, from a Japanese company. Also saw but didn't play, Anachronism, the History Channel CCG, for those who want to battle Genghis Khan against Joan of Arc.

The card-game highlight was Badaboom from Gigantoskop a game of goblin bomb diffusers. Great artwork, cool premise, fun gameplay. We bought that and its twin, "Spank the Monkey" a game of junk pile building. The guys at Gigantoskop were very chatty and entertaining salemen, those in the RPG hall could learn a thing about demos from them. By pure chance ended up playing in the demo with, Jurgen, the man responsible for the German version of Inspectres. I ended the day by browsing the hall for bargains, and got three of Hogshead's New Style games (Pantheon,Puppetland, Violence) for 6 Euros and had the pleasure of seeing a copy of Nopress on sale.

Saturday we took a break from games and went to Essen Zollverien, Essen's only tourist attraction, a disused coalmine, now a world heritage site and re-purposed to house a design museum and modern art installations (including the bonkers Palace of Projects). We were going to head back to Spiel afterward, but a slow waiter at the cafe stalled us somewhat. Nice beer though.

Sunday was the last day and we set about turning up early and playing a few games before the crowds arrived. Essen station's left luggage was handy store for our backpacks while we went back to Messe. Niagara was first test of the day, Spiel des Jahre (game of the year) 2005. A fun game of boats, diamonds and a neat river moving system. Treasure Island followed, a game of territory control and pirates, as demoed by a kid who was minding the store. A fun diversion, but the artwork could do with being sharper. Palatinus, a not very fun game of roman hills and control (unclear rules and uninspiring play) rounded the actual play off.

I popped back to talk to Tim at Sighpress, who'd had a good con, bar getting a cold. I'd sadly missed their demos on Saturday (curses!). Had a mooch around the Holistic booth, talked to the booth staff, and took a gander at their proposed cardgame, which has some stonking artwork.

Finally I did some purchasing in the dealer room, including some nice LARP kit. Also picked up a copy of Aye, Dark Overlord a RPG-Cardgame hybrid (kinda like Bedlam or Munchhausen) of Goblins making excuses to the eponymous Overlord. Great potential for crossover into broader market there.

Overall: Spiel is definitely more geared towards boardgames, it's a family occasion and a great opportunity to try before you buy. There's a substantial RPG crowd too, but what's missing is more solid demoing from the various RPG vendors. It is certainly a place to pick up bargain RPG purchases though! If you can combine it with a trip to Germany, it's well worth a look.