x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

State of play at the Spielwarenmesse International Toy Fair

Board games, toy robots, model railways, bouncy balls and whole lot of fake Lego. Nuremberg's annual toy fair isn't your average trade exhibition, but with about a million products on display, it does offers a good idea of might be on Christmas lists come December.

The fair had a whole hall devoted to wooden toys. Courtesy Spielwarenmesse
The fair had a whole hall devoted to wooden toys. Courtesy Spielwarenmesse

Most trade fairs can be described as somewhat depressing affairs, places where tired men in drab suits cram into soulless exhibition halls on the outskirts of cities, exchange business cards and pretend to be interested in each other's pressure valves or computer processors or whatever else it is being displayed.

In Nuremberg last week, at the annual Spielwarenmesse International Toy Fair (which closed on Monday), things were a bit different. Although the world's largest toy trade fair (each year about one million products are displayed and there were some 79,000 visitors in 2011) still functions as a trade show, where businessfolk show each other documents full of figures and graphs in the hope of signing deals, the fact that this goes on while they're surrounded by colourful toys makes it a peculiar spectacle to behold.

Across 12 halls, the fair covers almost every child's plaything imaginable (with the exception of video games). There's an entire hall dedicated to wooden toys, where Geppetto-like craftsmen sit alongside more established brands such as Brio (the makers of those classic wooden trains, now expanded to include airports and metros).

There's another hall for board games, from updated versions of classics to brand-new ideas dreamed up in board-game laboratories across the world. Naturally, there were plenty of franchises among these, with obvious names such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings sitting alongside new upstarts such as Angry Birds (seemingly intent on infiltrating every corner of mankind). Nestled among the kid-friendly titles was the worrying Fifty Shades of Grey: The Party Game. "This is huge in Sweden," said the distributor. Quite.

Dubious book-to-board adaptations aside, the volume of physical toys and games on display should have assured those worried that kids are only interested in animated pixels these days. Elastic band-powered cardboard planes, remote-controlled cars, bouncy balls - they were all there, with shop owners and distribution managers "having a play" to deduce their sales potential.

But gaming has obviously moved with the times, too. The buzzword of this year's fair was Toys 3.0, basically those that utilise the power of smartphones or tablet computers. Ravensburger, the long-established German maker of games and jigsaw puzzles, was showcasing a version of its popular Scotland Yard board game in which an iPad could be used to locate clues. Another stand had a game called HolograFX that, utilising a dark box, glass panel and smartphone with the right app, allowed users to put on their own hologram-style show.

Perhaps the most impressive was RoboME, made by the same people behind the hugely popular Robosapien. Basically a voice-activated plastic robot with a dock for an iPhone or iPad where its head should be, RoboME can be configured via its app, from its face and voice to how it interacts with its surroundings. As it goes, it learns how to master tasks and picks up words and sentences. It can even be controlled wirelessly from an iPad.

Unsurprisingly, RoboMe (which is due out for Christmas at a cost of around US$90 [Dh330], according to the guys at the stand) won the fair's Special Award Toys 3.0 prize.

Something called a Bumm Bumm Ballon, in which a balloon is poked with plastic rods until it bursts, won the SchoolKids 6-10 years award.

Even in the model railway hall, there were impressive upgrades to one of the oldest toys around. Among the stands displaying beautifully detailed trains chuffing through detailed miniature towns, the manufacturer Fleischmann was showcasing a series of railways in which everything could be controlled wirelessly via an iPad.

One of fair's most fascinating aspects was the worry about copycats, with a distinct fear in the air that a factory in Shenzhen could soon be mass-producing counterfeit versions of the toy you've spent years developing. This concern was underlined by the huge number of Chinese-made Lego copies on display, with names such as Block Tech and Legio, boasting their compatibility with "other leading bricks".

As such, most of the bigger companies such as Hasbro and Mattel had their wares displayed behind closed doors, away from prying cameras, with appointments a prerequisite to get inside. Having now visited both a weapons fair and a toy fair, I can honestly say it's easier to have a picture taken of yourself holding the latest bazooka than it is to photograph whatever the manufacturer of Barbie has lined up for Christmas.

The Middle East had a presence, albeit minor, with the Burj Khalifa featuring in model format on several stands in the Hobbies hall. One of the Lego copies (strangely called Dr Luck) had a buildable Burj Al Arab.

Speaking of Lego, the "Toy of the Century" took over a giant area to display its product lines, including the new fantasy Legends of Chima play theme and further additions to its film franchises, such as one with the forthcoming Lone Ranger. Beyond that was Mattel, believed to be showing the Superman toys to come out in time for Man of Steel.

It may have been a bizarre sight: an enormous trade fair displaying almost every forthcoming toy on the planet yet without a child in sight. But in a few months' time, these bouncing, talking, buildable, playable, iPad-controllable products will be in the hands of those they were designed for.