Berlin Board Games Have Fun with the Cold War and Poolside Competition

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On a lovely street in the now chic Friedrichshain neighborhood of former East Berlin, lies the world’s first board game cafe called Spielwiese. If you aren’t familiar with board game cafes, they are spaces where people can buy, rent, play or in some cases even design their own games.

“When I started, my place was the first of its kind: a gaming cafe where you can drink beer, wine and rent the games to play them at home,” said Michael Schmidt, Spielwiese’s founder of the cafe.

Since its beginning, it has become a lively, creative space where people have the chance to create games of their own. “Monday is my favorite day here with the designers. At 7:00 PM there’s an international group that meets up here for years now. There are not only games published from the designers that meet here every week, but also designers from everywhere,” he added.

But Germany specifically is famous for its board games. It’s the place where Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico and a number of other popular games hail from. Jeffrey Allers, who is originally from Iowa, frequently attends the board game design sessions at Spielwiese and says that in German board game design, unlike American is more focused on strategy than luck, and that “the theme is secondary, it’s the mechanics that are really important to German game designers usually. They are trying to get at some tension with some very simple choices.”

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Despite that, upon visiting Spielwiese, I stumbled upon a couple of games by German designers with fascinating themes. There’s a table on the right hand side of the cafe where board game designers congregate every Monday night. That’s where I discovered “Cool am Pool,” a soon-to-be published board game with a theme ripe for summer. Designed by Hartwig Jakubik, the game explores the struggle to snatch (and keep) the best place at the pool.

While I loved the sense of humor behind “Cool am Pool,”which pokes fun at a tendency many other Europeans feel to be real–the German talent for getting the best spot at the pool–I encountered another game that took on a more serious issue.

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Peer Sylvester with his board game “Wir Sind Das Volk”

“Wir Sind Das Volk,” which in English translates to “We are the people,” the rallying cry of East Germany before the fall of the wall, is a board game that is a Cold War nerds’ dream come true. Designed by Peer Sylvester and Richard Sievél, the two player game has East and West Germany compete for dominance starting from the 1950’s and it ends at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As was the case with East and West Germany, the advantages and disadvantages for each player are inherently different. In order to win, the East merely has to survive through four decades, but the West has to defeat the East.

The idea for the game was actually inspired by divided Korea. Sylvester wanted to create a game that featured two countries fighting through competing ideologies. But he found that because of how closed off North Korea is, it was difficult to research and create a complex game around the topic. But then he thought of Germany, his native country and started to do the research and develop many of the ideas featured in the game.

The game contains many historic events on a series of cards that players can choose to have occur–or not. The events on the cards range from everything from the decision to allow East German citizens to purchase blue jeans for the first time in 1974 to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Making these historic decisions options as opposed to foregone conclusions in the game was an attempt to show that every event that took place between East Germany and West Germany was a series of tradeoffs.

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Action cards from “Wir Sind Das Volk”

“Why did they build the wall? They had certain reasons for it, and I think you can understand the mindset better if you have to make the same decisions. And you can show that it is a decision. It wasn’t that they didn’t have any choice, they had to build the wall and that was it. They could have made things differently,” Peer Sylvester said, and additionally the game “gives you an idea of the tradeoffs that leaders went through.”

But ultimately, he argues, it’s much easier in the game if you build the wall. Because, as happened in real life, you’ll have to deal with the consequences of a fleeing population.

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“Wir Sind Das Volk” board

As a West German who grew up before the fall of the Soviet Union, creating “Wir Sind Das Volk” was very personal for Sylvester. “I was raised when the state [East Germany] was a fact already, and the wall was there, and intellectually I knew it was part of Germany, but during my upbringing, it was a different state, it was so-called enemy territory, everything was behind the iron curtain,” he said.”It was strange when the wall came down finally, it was very weird to see that it was a German state. If I see it on television I still feel choked up about it, because it was such a revelation. I am always very impressed if people can free themselves without violence. That’s what I tried to put into this game as well, my respect for these people back then that made this revolution happen.”

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Busy night at Spielwiese