Today I was lucky enough to dine with Frank West, the creator of City of Kings, Isle of Cats, and Vandoran Gardens. Frank is a great guy; we know each other from numerous conventions, and I consider him a friend. Right now, we are wandering the city south of Essen, with no plan and no direction, realizing we actually need somewhere to eat lunch, in order to have lunch. As is my norm, we pick up mid-conversation, comparing the big conventions GenCon and Essen Spiel.
FW: [GenCon is easier] To socialize with people, interact with people than at Essen.
DTD: Really? I find it easier here [Essen Spiel].
FW: During the show hours I find it easier here. But as soon as the show finishes here, everyone disperses to random places.
The Essen Spiel convention is a strange beast. The show has defined hours – 10am to 7pm, and when the show closes, the show CLOSES. Everyone leaves, and there are no formalized after-hours events. At GenCon, you can find games being played all day and night during most of the week.
DTD: Everybody goes wherever they’re gonna go.
FW: You never see people. Like, I have a special hotel that I go to. There’s a bunch of people from the industry, and we go there, and very few other people go there. But outside of the 20 people in the industry who go to my hotel, you don’t see anyone else from the industry. And there’s no way to find them, or meet them, or interact with them.
DTD: So, I’ve eaten there [points], and I ate a place down there [points]. I don’t know, do you like Korean?
I had a wonderful dinner with the Dice Tower crew at Sa Rang Bang at the start of Essen.
DTD: This was good, but I don’t know if they’re open. Yeah, they’re open for lunch.
FW: Do they have a menu that I would be able to read?
DTD: I could do some German. They had English menus when I was here.
At the start of Essen, I believed I could speak German. At the end of Essen, I wasn’t even sure I could speak English. Oh, how we grow as people.
DTD: But it’s pretty straightforward. Have you had Korean before? The generic thing is a Bibimbap. It’s a rice bowl with some veggies and some meat and an egg on top. And then there’s a marinated pork thing that’s really popular [bulgogi].
FW: If you want to go here, I’m happy to go here.
DTD: Well, I found it! [laughs]
We stood outside of the Korean restaurant chatting with a crowd of other lost souls in search of nourishment, and the agreement among the crowd was that food is good.
DTD: I ate here a couple days ago for dinner, and for dinner it was very slow, but the food was very good.
Random Dude: Really? cool.
DTD: So that I know [pointing]. The other one I had that was really extraordinary, is if you keep going down this street, there’s Tatort Essen, which is a higher end restaurant, three course meal, business style. So, they just slam it out fast. And the food was amazing. For two people, though, it was about 75 Euro. So, it was up there a little bit. If you prefer something like that.
I interviewed Friedemann Friese at Tatort Essen. Man it was incredible. But more on that later…
FW: What was it?
DTD: I mean, I’m paying. This is on me, Frank. But there’s kind of a more high end Italian gourmet.
FW: I would probably prefer Italian if you’re OK with that. But you don’t need to pay.
DTD: No, I will. I will. Life has been really good to me; I’ve been very lucky.
FW: Well, I very much appreciate it.
DTD: Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna interview you, make you cry.
FW: So, what was the reason you made this offer? Don’t make me cry. [laughs] Someone interviewed me the other day, and to be honest, I quite enjoyed it, because the questions they asked me were just so out there. Like the first question was basically, “How do you think board games can bring happiness to the world?” And I was like, “Wow, this is a good starting point. I’m worried what the rest of the questions are going to be.”
Spoiler: I didn’t make him cry. There was a close moment, but I was quite amiable.
DTD: “What are YOU doing to improve the world on a whole?” No, I did an interview yesterday in a restaurant up here, and I was very impressed with [that restaurant], and I’m really sad it’s not open on Sundays. Because I’d like to do it every day.
FW: So how come this is your first Essen? What made you come this year and not on previous years?
DTD: I’ve been meaning to come for a long time, because I can speak German, and I used to live in Germany for a little bit. Yeah, we’re gonna cross here. And, uh, I don’t know. I just never did it. And this year, I met some friends of mine from Germany. They came to California and I was talking about it [Essen], and they said “Yeah, you have to go, and stay with us. Make a vacation of it.” And so, I talked to Tom [Vasel]. Then he said, “Yeah I’ll get you badges.”
FW: That’s nice.
DTD: So, everything was cool. It all just lined up. Just perfect. I gotta tell you, I’m loving the [expletive] out of it.
FW: Do you think that you will try to make it a regular thing? Or do you think it will be just once every few years?
DTD: At least once every other year. I would much rather come here than GenCon. I have a little issue with crowds and people, and GenCon freaked me out a lot more than Essen did.
FW: I can understand that. So for me, I get very uncomfortable when I struggle with people because of language barriers. That’s one of the reasons I probably prefer GenCon to here.
DTD: I understand that.
FW: I am someone who is very talkative. I enjoy talking, and blah blah blah. But when I know that someone struggles to understand what I am saying I find it really hard to have a conversation. And not to say that I won’t. But I just enjoy teaching games to people and stuff. I just find that much more challenging, because I worry that I cannot…
It is a good time to point out that Frank is a fantastic conversationalist. He is friendly, intelligent, and has the most inviting British accent. I could listen to him for [more] hours.
DTD: How’s your German?
FW: I can’t speak German at all. I worry that I’m speaking too quickly or too slowly and I get really anxious in my head in a way I would not if I were with an English person. And it makes me feel uncomfortable.
DTD: I think I have come to a peace if the language barrier is there. If I just speak clearly, the same way I would speak clearly to someone in English. It seems to work. In Essen they have all been so nice. I try to practice my German, but as soon as I say something, they answer in English, because it’s like “Oh this American doesn’t know what he’s talking about…”
Also, my German is embarrassingly bad. I may have mentioned that.
FW: Well I’m hoping that in 10 years’ time, once I’ve been here a billion times, then it will be second nature.
DTD: By the way, the best ice cream in the universe is right around that corner. [pointing]
FW: OK, that’s good to know. Because ice cream is by far my favorite food.
DTD: Oh, we could just eat lunch at the ice cream place!
FW: I won’t have issue with that.
DTD: When I owned a veterinary hospital, every time a birthday came up, we would all go out to eat somewhere. And for my birthday, we all went out to Baskin Robbins. We all got ice cream. No real food, we are just eating ice cream. The place where I ate previously is just at the end of this block on the left. I know it’s closed tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow I’m going to have a language barrier.
FW: The interview tomorrow?
DTD: Uwe Rosenberg.
FW: Oh, okay. Have you met him before?
DTD: Briefly. I know he’s nervous about English, and I’m nervous about German, so it might be terrible. [Arriving at Tatort Essen] Oh, no. This is it. Oh no, I’m sorry. It’s not open Saturday or Sunday.
The previous day, Friday, I was lucky enough to interview Friedemann Friese at the aforementioned Tatort Essen. You should read about it. I was so impressed with the restaurant that I wanted all of my Essen interviews to occur there. But it turns out they are closed Saturday and Sunday, which still flummoxes me.
FW: Very strange.
DTD: That is crazy. Well, let’s look at this street. There’s lots of restaurants.
FW: There must be something.
DTD: And worse comes to worst, we can always go back to the Korean place.
FW: It’s so strange. There must be a cultural thing, right? Because in England, Saturday lunchtime would be the busy time.
DTD: Actually, we kind of have handlers that speak German, and they are floored by it also. And then, the fast food Doner places are everywhere. Is this a big thing in England as well – fast food Doners? Because we do not have them in America at all.
For the uninitiated among us, a Doner is a pita sandwich of layered and spiced lamb, much like a Gyro. Apparently they have these wonderful stalls in Europe and Canada, but I have yet to see one in the U.S. As a country, we are falling woefully behind in food technology.
FW: They are becoming bigger and bigger, but generally speaking, in England, they are a place you go to after you go out drinking at night, so they are normally open from 8pm to 4am.
DTD: Oh, that’s Taco Bell.
FW: You would not go there for lunchtime or sometime like that.
DTD: There’s La Turka. I’ve heard good things about Turkish food.
FW: I don’t even know what Turkish food is.
DTD: Doners, meat.
If you get the impression I am obsessed with Doners, I can tell you I did get one within minutes of arriving at Essen. It’s the exact one to the right. Worth it.
FW: I mean, yeah, that sounds good.
DTD: And this is… [Closed restaurant] What is with all these places being closed?
FW: Maybe we should just have ice cream. Of course, the ice cream probably isn’t even open either.
DTD: There’s a Thai place, do you like Thai?
FW: Yeah, Thai is good.
DTD: Let’s see if Ruen Thai is open. Oh, there’s pasta also. This is open. Oh, waffles here – ooh, it’s Belgian. Nope, that is not a restaurant…
So the Thai restaurant that I spied from a distance is, in fact, Ruen Thai, a massage parlor. Not exactly the place to hold an interview. At least not today.
DTD: Hey, Traum Kuh, let’s go here, just as a random pick. I see other Essen people here. Looks like there’s burgers and kind of normal food. Oh, have you had Poutine?
FW: No, what is Poutine?
DTD: French Fires with cheese curds and gravy.
We paused a little too long at the door, and the waiter excitedly tried to close the deal in German. We froze like deer in headlights.
DTD: No, not yet. Too difficult! The poutine says its house made French fries with meat and mozzarella cheese curds. That’s the first one. And there’s Chile con Carne, which is the same thing but cheddar and jalapeno. And the third one is sour cream and tomatoes. But they are all French fries with crap on them. Which, what could be bad? Is there anything I can try to translate out for you? I am about 80% on German. If you get a chance, there’s a place, Hans im Glück, but it’s always super crowded. They have French fries to die for. I would have taken you there, but people told me don’t go on Saturday, it’s so crowded.
FW: That doesn’t surprise me.
DTD: This makes me happy. It doesn’t look very crowded at all.
FW: This looks like simple fare.
DTD: “Traum Kuh”. I don’t know what that means. Kuh is a cow. A traumatized cow? [laughs]
Yet again, I am showing off my complete incompetence with the German language. I got the word for “cow” correct, but it means “dream cow,” a much, much cooler name.
FW: It will be, considering we are eating it. [laughs] So, any particular games you have picked up or seen that have been good?
DTD: I am really impressed with the Lorenzo il Magnifico card game, Masters of the Renaissance. It looks really nice. It has the feel of Lorenzo, which was a game I really liked, but it is simpler, and it’s resource management still. It has this really interesting market where you can buy things from the market with a grid of marbles. You push a marble into the grid, and one pops out, it is 4×3, and you get all the resources that are in one line of the grid. But there are marbles in the grid that represent nothing.
FW: That’s interesting.
DTD: So, you can mess other people up by shoving a “nothing” into the grid. Later if you want to shop there, it might be all glutted up with nothingness. I like that mechanism a lot.
FW: That’s kind of cool. So what have you decided on?
DTD: I think I am going to go with the Con Carne. Or the Grünzeug: it is french fries with guacamole and sour cream, tomatoes. No, maybe the one above it with the Chile con Carne and the cheddar and the jalapeno.
FW: Oh, the 261? Yeah, I think I might have that. I might go for that.
DTD: Poutine is kind of, it’s a Canadian thing. And it’s pretty darn good. They would probably pooh-pooh it here [laughs]. I’ve always enjoyed French fries with all sorts of goo on it. Kind of like nachos, but done with fries.
FW: My partner, she is from Portugal, and there they have a cod dish that is cod and fries and cream cooked together.
I think this is “Bacalhau com Natas”, and I am dying to overindulge on it. Fair warning, Frank – If I am in Bristol, I am coming over, and we are eating this.
DTD: That sounds so good.
FW: I don’t eat fish, but that is by far her favorite thing.
DTD: I love fish. But I don’t really do the fried thing too much. Most of the places that have a lot of fish, they do fish and chips. So if I can just find stews and gooey things…
FW: Yeah, this is a baked dish.
DTD: I love, love Portuguese food.
FW: This is fried chips, but then it’s all baked together. You want a drink?
DTD: Yeah, I’ll grab something. [Looking at the sodas] They are always so different [sodas in Germany], that’s what I love. OK, I’ll get this orange thing. Oh, that’s an orange thing too. What’s the difference between the orange things?
FW: That would be lite, and that one would be normal I expect.
DTD: OK, I’m on it.
FW: Do you not know Fanta?
DTD: Not this kind. We have Fanta but it’s really, really fake.
FW: I can tell you an interesting story about Fanta.
DTD: Oh, I know about its history. I recently had Fanta Exotic. I’ve never seen that before.
FW: I’ve seen different fruits and stuff, but in my head, the orange one is the only one. If you say “Fanta”, it just means orange.
DTD: We have a couple weird ones in America. If you look hard, you can find pineapple, and things like that. There’s a red one that’s just red. There’s nothing real in it, it’s just red.
FW: I am intrigued by what it’s going to be like.
DTD: I have no idea. This is the random pick, in a random city, in a random language. So, it’s going to be perfect, I know it is.
FW: They’ve got some quaint little trees in here as well.
DTD: Oh, I didn’t even notice. And for some reason there’s Japanese characters on the wall, and I don’t know how that fits into the rest of the food motif. It’s really fascinating.
The interior of the restaurant was just crazy. A huge fake cherry tree in the middle, and Japanese motifs, around benches. Check out the title picture.
FW: I wish I understood what this place was. Because, American food, combined with Japanese decoration and Canadian fries.
DTD: It’s interesting.
FW: So, is there anything that’s big coming up that you are excited about?
DTD: Honestly, I have gotten so brain fried so far, that I did all my shopping on day one. And there was a lot in there that really impressed me. There were a lot of expansions I didn’t even know were coming. Newton expansion, Hadara expansion, and Hadara is really new. I got all those. Oh, and the Underwater Cities expansion is gorgeous. It is so perfect; I didn’t even know it was out there.
FW: That was pretty much the third thing I picked up, because I knew it would sell out quite quickly. It could take so long for that to get to America as well.
DTD: Underwater Cities was hard to get. It was sold out, nobody had it. Hardly anybody had heard of it.
FW: I think that’s one of the big differences again for you guys. When I get games from America, it can take a while to come here. But when I go to Europe, those games come out quite quickly. I guess for you guys it’s the opposite.
DTD: Are you starting to get threatening of differences with that [game availability across Europe], with Brexit?
We ordered our food for the most adorable waitress I have ever interacted with. Of course, I tend to fall in love with people who make me food. I tried valiantly to order in German, but she just smiled and switched to English, sparing my pride and dignity. I ordered the Grünzeug, but then immediately recanted and switched to the Juarez 261. Frank orders the same. We receive one of those pagers for when our food is ready.
FW: Where do you want to sit? Over there?
DTD: Anywhere. Wherever you like. We can hide in a corner.
FW: If its busy we can move.
DTD: It’s true. I’ve got the buzzer.
FW: The Brexit side effects, it’s just like…
DTD: It’s all threatening right now. Nobody really knows, right?
FW: Right, and for people like myself, from a working, business perspective, it’s incredibly frightening. It could mean huge amounts of money. As an example, The Isle of Cats will be going onto a boat soon and we will be shipping it into England for delivery to Europe. And when it gets into England, if we leave the Union because Brexit happens, I will have to reship it from England into the EU and repay customs import, which costs me about 60,000. And I have got no say in that – I have no idea, it may happen, it may not.
DTD: I have heard so many random stories about things that are happening. One company, their paperwork was improper because they had used old British paperwork for customs and they wouldn’t accept it this year because of Brexit. So, customs held their games because the paperwork was incorrect. And they just repeated the same paperwork they did last year.
FW: Its really quite scary, some of this stuff. And every country has their own regulations. I am working with a country in Russia, I am doing a Russian translation, and I’ve not done that before. And they said to do it in Russian, they need the physical full address of the manufacturer on the box in a visible place. And for us, we have to put “comes from China” and a company name, but you need to have the full legal business address for it on the box. Which is bizarre, right? So, we need to make sure we update the box to have that for those versions of the game. If we don’t, then that entire shipment won’t get into the country.
DTD: They’ll just hold it.
FW: And just knowing these things is so hard. And obviously, the US, you’ve got your tariffs going live in 6 weeks.
DTD: They keep changing their minds about it.
FW: Currently it’s the 15th of December, I believe is when it goes live. And it is 15%. If that goes live, again my stuff will arrive just after that, so that will cost me tens of thousands. So, between that and Brexit, there’s probably one hundred grand worth of unknown costs.
In the next installment, Frank and I further discuss Brexit, expansion development, philosophies in board game design, and the massive interconnected worlds of City of Kings.