Home entertainment, old style: German parlour games, survival in Corona times

Being in lockdown with a small kid brought back something that we neglected due to all the offers of the electronic age: Family and group entertainment via parlour games, a term I never heard in English before I researched it for this article. The German word “Gesellschaftsspiel” was with me throughout my childhood. Not to speak of card games, that are extremely popular in German pubs.

Some of the games of my childhood are well known in Britain as well: Monopoly, for example. Or Risk, the legendary war game. Or Scrabble. All these are now commonly played on the internet or even on the phone. Germans even have an own online service to connect board gamers, so they don’t have to meet in person. Which on the one hand takes some of the community effect out of playing, but on the other hand seems pretty perfect for Corona times. Check out this website if you are interested.

The very first games of my childhood were a classic called “Mensch ärgere dich nicht” (Crikey, don’t get angry) that Britons know as Ludo… and Mao Mao, a card game similar to UNO, but played with a standard Skat set of cards. In the anglo-saxon world, that would probably be a Poker set, reduced to 32 cards.

And yes, the name of the game is Skat – spelled Scat when it was first invented in a very German way of doing things: Four proper dignitaries of academic standing, all male and very likely bearded, met in a pub on September 4th in the year 1813 in the city of Altenburg to play Schafkopf (the sheep’s head, a still quite popular pub game in Germany). With titles like “professor”, “Medizinalrat” or “Hofadvokat”, they counted as local high society, and their games were accurately documented in a leather-cladded notebook by university chancellour Hans von der Gabelentz, who also noted down the rules of their new idea for a card game in that very notebook.

As to be expected from this group of people, Skat is a highly complicated game with plenty of difficult rules. The “king of German card games” is, according to Wikipedia, “a 3-player trick-taking card game of the Ace-Ten family”. If that explanation doesn’t help you, you are in good company. It doesn’t tell me anything either – and I did learn to play Skat, with the help of three very drunk mates at the age of eighteen in a pub in Budapest. It was fun, although not as much fun as our trip back to the hotel afterwards in a tram filled with partying Hungarians, just the start of an evening of excessive events that shall not be mentioned ever again.

One does need at least three players for a round of Skat, and this can be hilarious, as German comedian Loriot presented it in this lovely skit from the 90s. And while knowing some German will help you understanding this scene, it isn’t strictly necessary. Most of it is Skat talk anyway, and simply not understandable for anyone not being in the know.

There is even an official union of Skat players, the “Deutscher Skat-Verband e.V.”, that organizes tournaments. Think of it as Poker, but much more complex in its rules and much more German in its organization. No shoot-out ever happened on a Skat competition, as far as I know, but if I am wrong, I would love to hear that story – leave us a link in the comment section.

It could be… since Germans admitted in a study from 1995 that they are indeed heated gamers, with 39 % admitting that they left a parlour game in anger at least once. Looking at family history, I can imagine that to be true. Here an accurate depiction, subtitled in English, from a German comedy show.

But apart from pub and card games, it is the board games that really reached international recognition. “The Settlers of Catan” for example, 1995 developed by Klaus Teuber, is today an international best seller. Also famous are games like “Scotland Yard” (the hunt for a criminal in London’s streets that my 7yo loves), “Carcassonne” or “Tabu”. Many successful German games have one thing in common: Ravensburg, a city in the South of Germany, home to the Ravensburger Verlag. Founded in 1883, it was originally meant to promote new ideas of educational practice. Today, Ravensburger is an innovator in game development and home to many bright visionaries.

They missed, however, a huge trend in games that changed the market in the last three decades: Role playing games in Fantasy and Science-Fiction. What was a small niche in the 1980s, is now a gigantic international gaming business, dominated by companies like Games Workshop or the Dungeons&Dragons franchise.

Germany does have their own contribution to this thriving world: When I made my first ventures into the world of Fantasy role playing at age 11, I stared with “Das Schwarze Auge” (which would translate to “The Black Eye” in English, but for obvious reasons was renamed “The Dark Eye” instead). This game has, even more than the board games of my childhood, left a mark on my life, forged friendships and created experiences. I am fascinated to see how many people in 2020 engage with these intelligent, communication-based experiences.

There is much more to tell about German game culture, but there is also a way to experience it yourself, once the pandemic lockdown of 2020 is over. The most important trade fair for games is the “Internationale Spielemesse Nürnberg”, with nearly 3,000 companies from 60 countries. This, however, is a business fair. Much more interesting for visitors is the famous “SPIEL” in Essen. Not a trade fair, but a gamer’s meeting, the motto is “Mitspielen erwünscht!”, which translates to “play with us”. And that indeed is what you do.

Given that SPIEL starts in October, there’s a good chance for a trip to Essen between the end of Covid19 lockdown and before traveling becomes more difficult because of Brexit. Take the chance – Germany is worth a holiday trip anyway, and Essen is as good a starting point as any.

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