Date: May 19th-20th, 2012
Exploring the German Pinball Scene, by Bruce Ng
Birthdays seem to be very good to me on the pinball front.
My lovely wife lavished me with my first two pins, Johnny Mnemonic and World Cup Soccer '94, for my name day two years ago. This year, due to the dearth of public “flipper” venues in Germany, she graciously assented to a pinball excursion to the Pinballcenter Test-turnier. And so we found ourselves in beautiful Ulm on a glorious spring weekend, visiting the birthplace of the greatest mustachioed patent clerk that ever lived, Albert Einstein.
This charming city, where the rivers Blau and Iller join the Danube, is also home to the impressive gothic Ulmer Münster cathedral, featuring the highest steeple in the world and 768 fun spiraling steps to - on a clear day - a magnificent view of the Alps.
Of course, Ulm also has several breweries and we were particularly fond of the suds at Barfüßer. The beers were more flavorful than your flawless but typical German fare.
The locale was imbued with history and perfectly inviting for some relaxed imbibing. For our lunch, we discovered our favorite German restaurant so far, Zur Forelle. They have put the last four centuries of their existence to good use by perfecting their recipes for the live trout they keep under the adjoining foot bridge. Even the most mundane little potato was expertly cooked to revelatory perfection. Somehow, right around dinner time, we happened to wander right back into that same lovely Fischerviertel neighborhood...
These gems and the superb weather were unexpected big bonuses to the coming flipper feast.
Right across the Danube, in Neu-Ulm, one can find Pinballcenter’s 'garage'. Marco Knauer and Holger Exner co-founded Pinballcenter in 2008. They had actually met a year earlier when Holger purchased a High Speed from Marco.
With no real business plan, they set up a website to sell a few parts to test out the market. They started selling the popular NoFlix LEDs and then the NoFlix Plus a few months later. At first all their customers were German but as word slowly spread on various online forums about their products, they started shipping all over the world, from the Americas to Australia, Brazil and even Moscow. Holger jokes that it’s “actually easier to name the countries we have not shipped to yet.”
It’s safe to say that the business has surpassed their expectations. And since this is a side project to their day jobs, they were able to pour any earnings right back into the company. Marco handles the parts sourcing and purchasing, stock management, shipping and logistics while Holger takes care of the marketing and the software programming to support their online store.
It comes as no surprise that Holger actually runs his own marketing firm, since Pinballcenter has such professional branding and polished marketing materials. Their complementary roles within the company also extends to their pinball collecting tastes, to the boon of local enthusiasts.
By 2009, they had run out of space for their personal collections in their respective homes; the bane of most pinheads. They decided to rent a common space for their games and also create a place for flipper fans to meet. This is how the rest of us get to delight in their diverging tastes. Marco favours the more recent games like Scared Stiff and Cirqus Voltaire, whereas Holger seeks out classic Stern titles such as his latest prized acquisition, a 1980 Catacomb, currently getting restored to outstanding shape.
There are about 40 games currently in the 170 sq. meters garage (~1800 sq. ft): from a 1960 Williams single player Kingpin to a 2006 Stern Pirates of the Caribbean, a good representation of Sega/DE games, a great playing Banzai Run, A-listers like Twilight Zone, Star Trek - The Next Generation (ST-TNG), Williams Indiana Jones and popular classics such as Bride of Pinbot, Eight Ball Deluxe and Diner.
The garage is currently open to the public every four weeks. And of course they serve good, inexpensive German beer!
Soon after they opened the Garage in 2009, they started a local pinball league. It is administered by Jörg Schwegmann and currently has 19 players who meet once a month. They employ a 'pyramid' set-up adapted from Robert von Keller’s system of the Isar-Amper German League. Each pyramid step is worth an increasing amount of points as you go up the rankings. Players on any step can challenge any other players on the pyramid for a certain number of points depending on their respective steps.
As with any inaugural event of this scale, the next two years of preparations would prove to be quite industrious. They were able to line-up some great sponsors. Holger enthused, “The sponsors have been quick to recognize that this is a really important event. The Pinballcenter festival is expected to be the largest pinball event in Germany, not only in 2012.”
Gauselmann, the German leader and an international player in the manufacturing, supply and operation of coin-op amusements, signed up early on. They are the biggest Stern importers for Germany and will have a booth at the festival.
Flexing his marketing chops, Holger contacted the local '80s FM radio Donau3 to discuss advertising options and instead got a call back saying that not only would they promote the event, they wanted to come on board as a sponsor. A lot of their radio executives - as well as their target audience - are from the generation that fondly remembers the heyday of pinball arcades.
In addition, Thomas Fidel from Tom's Pizza and Gerhard Romer from the Sportpark Laupheim also joined the cause. Last, and not least, the local Berg Brauerei, founded in 1466 is also supporting the Festival as a sponsor and supplier.
As the co-founder of the German Pinball Association (GPA) with Bernhard Wagner back in 1997, Martin is a longtime fan of Steve’s creations. In those trailblazing days the GPA only had 13 members. All of them were from Munich, so they sought out one member from out of town in order to call themselves the German Pinball Association with a clear conscience. After many years of holding steady at 50-70 members, the GPA is now 300 strong and still growing.
Martin may have been involved with the GPA since its very beginnings, but he got his first Richie game even before the GPA's creation; a Firepower back in 1984. That title remains his all time favorite pin and he got to meet the man in person at Pinball Expo in Chicago in 2004. They quickly became friends, discussing pinball and their other common passion - motorcycle riding. Since then, they’ve kept in regular e-mail contact and have visited each other at their respective homes. The first visit was when they were finally able to arrange for Steve and his wife Diana to come to Germany in the context of the 2007 German Pinball Open (GPO).
That trip had to be postponed at least once, and even then, the timing to get the brand new Spider-Man to the GPO was a constant race to the finish. The sample game was eventually completed, packaged and shipped by plane to Bremen barely one week before the GPO event. But it worked out beautifully as Steve got to set it up in person and take the inaugural ball plunge on the first Spider-Man in Europe.
This time around, when the Pinballcenter guys contacted Martin - one of the biggest collectors in Germany - about contributing games to the festival, he offered to try to bring a speaker as well. So five years after his last whirlwind visit to London, Cologne, Bremen, Amsterdam, Rome and back to London, Steve is poised to come back to Germany once again with the fortuitously timed release of a very promising new game.
And it was down to the wire again for the dozen Limited Edition AC/DC games on order with Gausselmann to arrive in time for the festival. They arrived just last weekend, and hopefully the pinball gods will smile upon the German fans so that some these Limited Edition games and some Premium models make their way to the festival. Right now at least one AC/DC Pro edition is confirmed for the festival.
On the first day of the festival, most of these games will be used for an International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) sanctioned competition and World Pinball Player Ranking (WPPR) points will be awarded. It is limited to 192 participants, and two thirds of the spots are already spoken for. Tickets are available online only until May 9th. The rest will be made available on the premises.
Building on their experience of running the Pinballcenter Ulm league and from participating in many German contests, Jörg Schwegmann led the effort to create a new type of competition. “Each tournament system has inherent advantages and flaws, so we decided to combine 2 different formats”, he said.
The final round is a simple knock-out bracket system with an initial 32 players. The first and main round is adapted from Robert Sutter’s Match Play system for the 2011 Swiss Open. Robert is the reigning 2011 Swiss champion as well as the 2011 IFPA Player of the Year. He helped the organizers fine tune this system further for this festival.
This system has the advantage of being point-based as opposed to needing to write down complicated scores. The results are recorded by the contestants themselves which makes it easier on the organisers. It allows the contestants to play with people of all levels, and guarantees a good minimum of playing time for all contestants.
It also frees the competition from any given machine, thereby allowing organisers to easily substitute in a different game in case of any serious issues with a machine. All these elements come from hard-learned lessons over the years.
An interesting characteristic of virtually all contests in Germany is that participants overwhelmingly prefer single day events, as many drive home at the end of the day.
My wife and I certainly broke the mold by playing tourists. We elected instead to spend that entire weekend in Ulm exploring the sights and, most importantly for me, to take part in the Test-Turnier - the dress rehearsal for the new tournament format and software to be used at the Festival.
48 of us entrants converged on Neu-Ulm for this tournament dry-run in late March. Most competitors were from Germany but a dozen players made the trek from nearby Switzerland. The Festival tournament will feature four such groups of 48 participants. With the top 8 players of each group advancing to the Festival's second round.
The Test-Turnier was much more relaxed with 32 players advancing and nothing much at stake except bragging rights.
There were a few minor kinks that were worked out on the spot. Also, since the games are assigned randomly, there were a few repeats for a lot of entrants. Thankfully, with many more games at the Festival, playing the same game twice will be less likely.
Overall the event went very smoothly. It didn't hurt that the bountiful food spread, included with the admission price, was simply phenomenal.
The chef, Günther Gutzmann, is a longtime friend of Holger, going back to their mandatory national service as young adults. His professional culinary training and passion for his craft were undeniable and we were particularly impressed with his celery cheese schnitzel (shown above). That inventive dish just blew away the still excellent classic pork schnitzel. One would never dream of such high caliber food and variety at a pinball event.
This was my first time competing. After a first jittery game on Bram Stoker's Dracula where I completely tanked, I gradually got more comfortable, especially with a happy full belly. On the third round I actually reached the Final Frontier and set a high score on the Richie designed ST-TNG. This of course further endeared the game to my eyes and it’s now firmly on top of my 'want-to-buy' list. Thank you Mr. Richie.
For my very first contest, I respectably placed firmly in the middle of the pack and my prize was meeting many great fellow pinheads.
Out of the four finalists, three of them were named Andreas. It seems to be a very popular German first name. Mr. Weiblein won on the Apollo 13 single match game, setting a high score as well.
Judging from how the Test-Turnier was run, the outstanding food, how polished all the Pinballcenter marketing materials are, the absolutely gorgeous Edwin-Scharff-Haus venue, and the participation of the legendary Steve Richie brought in by his close longtime friend Martin Wiest, this Festival is shaping up to be a top notch pinball event.
300 tickets have already been sold, so let’s hope it is a resounding success so that it may become a regular event. And if it ever happens to fall close to my birthday, I may even be able to drag my dear wife along. For this year on May 19th, the first day of the festival, remember to wish a happy 67th birthday to a musician who’s not a mustache guy but likes to smash guitars. You may have heard a few of the compositions by Mr. Pete Townshend.
Bruce is originally from Mauritius island. He and his wife have a home and a few pins in storage and on loan in Northern Virginia while they explore Europe from Germany.
Disclosure: The writer is a pinball addict and Holger bought him a beer once.
© Pinball News 2012