Often called ‘Essen’ after the German town it’s held in, or ‘Spiel’ after the German word for ‘game’, Essen Spiel is the biggest real-world board game convention of the year. It was the highlight of my board gaming life in 2017, 2018, and 2019 — a place where I pitched publishers, got to see the newest games being released, and otherwise connected with designers and friends I had first met online.

For obvious reasons, the coronavirus changed those plans. The organizers acknowledged this months ago, and like many other organizers, began working towards an online event. I had high hopes and high expectations for this event, assuming they had a budget, the personnel, and the ability to learn from the other virtual conventions that came before them.

This event was a disappointment to me as a gamer and a designer.

So what went wrong?

Issue #1: the website.

In the days and weeks leading up to most conventions (virtual or real-world), a website usually has information on what to expect during the con. It might be a place to build hype, or at least awareness of what is to come…

There was a countdown.

To their credit, there was an promotions and event schedule in the site menu – use the filters to show one (and only one) category, or to sort by date. Sorting / filtering to show actual events was a possible but tricky proposition, especially considering the couple dozen categories.

Once the con started, the website opened its virtual doors to reveal a hex-tiled ‘map’ of the different game categories as seen above… and yes, as the picture above implies, there were some technical difficulties leading to error messages. As best as I can tell, this was only a problem on Thursday morning / afternoon European time, as the event first started. Whether it was related to a large influx of people or something else, I don’t know. It was fixed relatively quickly and was never seen again, so no big deal there.

Click on one of the hexes and you’re taken to a zoomable map of exhibitors. This list was quite random, however — if you just wanted to browse through things and click through stuff at random, it was acceptable…

If you’re more about searching than browsing, the site had a good search engine able to help with filtering games by categories:

This is a pretty basic expectation to have of a website, of course, but it worked as well as can be expected.

Eventually, you’ll come across some games that sound interesting:

Cool! Loved the video game… so is there a place to play / demo / see this played?

Well… erm… no – the event you see a partial event listing for was essentially a press release announcing its existence. A link to buy the game, but nary a mention of the official Discord server or any event-related place to gather to see more. If you correctly interpreted the icon for ‘link’ on this image (which is visible on the above image), you could visit the publisher’s home page and perhaps learn more / buy it… But a big point of going to a convention like this is to try it out before buying…

This is just one example, but there were plenty of others – what really stood out was how inconsistent the provided information was. I didn’t understand why every publisher that had a virtual presence on the website (and presumably paid for the privilege) didn’t also have a link to their virtual voice / text chat presence in Discord. Some did, some didn’t. Some were doing scheduled demos, some weren’t. Some had events scheduled at specific times / days of the con, while others didn’t.

Issue #2: Discord.

At least initially, the thought process behind the Discord servers (emphasis on servers) was sound: each publisher received a category with an ‘announcements’ channel, a ‘chat’ channel, and a ‘talk’ channel. This was already a better setup than Gencon.online, which essentially asked exhibitors to create and use their own communication systems.

The issues began presenting themselves after a few minutes of use:  one voice channel per publisher all but ensures a maximum of one game could be shown at a time, or only one conversation could be had before it turned into a party line.

That was assuming there was anyone on the official Discord servers to connect with, though.

Even several hours into the first day, the only posts present in most announcement or chat channels were those generated by Spiel.Bot, the Discord bot showing links to places you can already see (possibly making it easier to share with others). It was as though exhibitors didn’t know about the Discord servers, or didn’t have an opportunity to virtually set things up beforehand.

Complicating matters were at least four major issues with the design of the Discord servers:

  • Everyone appeared to have the same default role, whether they were a gamer or an exhibitor, along with the standard default permissions (such as being able to tag @everyone or @here – not exactly what you want everyone to be able to do in a public server)
  • No one had the ability to upload photos, which makes it… rather challenging to make a channel look nice.
  • If booths were categorized or organized in some way, I completely missed it. It certainly wasn’t alphabetical, and I don’t think it was by type of game. If they were going for the quasi-random nature of how the real-world con was laid out, then so be it — but it was a far from ideal experience.
  • The biggest and most critical issue: if you left the Discord server or closed the program, the Spiel bot would kick you out of the server. Even assuming you found the correct link to the correct server once (and there were at least five official Discord servers), you’d find yourself needing to re-discover those links every time you wanted to use them.

Understandably, more than a few savvy publishers set up (or linked to) their own Discord servers where they could hold more than one conversation at a time. If you didn’t already know that a publisher had a Discord server, however, you’d be going on a treasure hunt to find them…

Recall for a moment that I’ve worked with and lived with this sort of tech on a near-daily basis for months now. I help to run a Discord group, and have attended most of the virtual board game cons this year. There was far too much friction involved in discovering games, then attempting to connect in the correct place at the correct time to get a demo — and in the correct language…

In the end, I’m just disappointed. There was so much potential to see a world-class convention run with the benefit of seeing other virtual conventions take place in the months prior, and being able to see what worked and what didn’t.

Over to you

Did you discover a new favorite at Essen? Did you give up or not bother after trying to understand the system?