German for “Game of the Year”, the Spiel des Jahres is one of the most coveted and financially rewarding awards in modern board gaming. Azul from super star designer Michael Kiesling took top honors this year. The game looks amazing and it’s on my wishlist, but I haven’t had a chance to play it yet. Spiel des Jahres winners usually hit the sweet spot for me in terms of complexity, interesting design and decisions, play time, and overall fun level, so I’m greatly looking forward to trying it. Some of my favorite games are SDJ winners! But sometimes, the jury selects a game that takes me and perhaps the whole board game community by surprise.
First, let’s determine how a game can even make the short list. A jury of reviewers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland review games released in Germany during the last year. The jury focuses on games that are family friendly, shying away from RPGs, CCGs, war games, and games with mechanics or ideas too complicated for the average family. Some years, the jury issues special awards for complex games, and starting in 2011, the Kennerspiel des Jahres, or Advanced Game of the Year, was introduced. The jury reviews games based on originality, playability, rules, game layout (ranging from insert inside the box to the board and rule book) and, of course, the actual game design and mechanics. Because of this criteria, Magic: The Gathering was never considered. The world’s most famous collectible card game hadn’t yet taken over when released in 1993 and wasn’t available in Germany, so the jury awarded Liar’s Dice the top prize. You may remember Liar’s Dice from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. There’s even a movie tie-in game! Roll some dice, guess how many of a particular number was rolled in total. A good party game and one that doesn’t command your full attention. Modern Art may be a better game, but I have not played it.
Here are 5 years the SDJ Jury was guilty of awarding the wrong game the top prize.
Honorable Mention #1:
It is a true shame that Sid Sackson’s Acquire was only eligible for the first Spiel des Jahres in 1979. It was nominated but fell short, and rightly so, to the outstanding Hare and Tortoise by David Parlett. Acquire is a better game than a lot of the subsequent winners, especially the ones during the early stages of the award. Hare and Tortoise has such a unique design for a race game. The hand management is interesting and challenging, and your strategies will change as the game progresses based on what race position you are in when your turn starts. There is a lot of jockeying for position as you munch your carrots and race to the finish. Acquire is an excellent game about managing and merging hotel chains for big bucks. A true gem and way ahead of it’s time for a game introduced in 1964!
Honorable Mention #2:
Clans by Leo Colovini is a very neat game of hidden movement, bluff, and deduction, but it couldn’t compete with 2003 winner Alhambra by Dirk Henn. Seeing your crazy palace design at the end of the game is very fun. After being out of print for a few years, Clans is getting a new lease on life and re-releasing as Fae later this year
Honorable Mention #3:
You can’t compete when a game comes out and creates an entire genre. Pandemic is an excellent cooperative game about saving the world from disease breakouts but nothing in 2009 had a chance against Donald X Vaccarino’s smash deck building hit Dominion.
2002 was an interesting year. I have not played the winner Villa Paletti, so it won’t make my list. A lot of gamers like to loudly proclaim that Puerto Rico was robbed, but in truth it was far too complicated for the Spiels Des Jahres criteria. If the Kennerspiel Des Jahres had been introduced earlier, there is no doubt Puerto Rico would have run away with that award. I enjoy Blokus quite a bit, but maybe the world wasn’t ready for an abstract game of placing shapes on a grid.
5. 2013 Hanabi over Libertalia
We start the list with splitting hairs. I understand why Hanabi won. It is an extremely unique cooperative game where you work together to build a fireworks display. The kicker? No one can see their own cards, so you need to work together as a team to make sure the cards are played in the correct order. It is a very neat idea from Antoine Bauza. Paolo Mori’s Libertalia is a game of role selection on the high seas. It has a very fun pirate theme and revolves around playing the right role at the right time. The kicker? Everyone starts with the same roles, and everybody gets the same new roles every round. Slight differences arise due to the order players choose their roles. It’s fascinating and one of my top 10 games.
4. 2011 Qwirkle over Forbidden Island
I enjoy Qwirkle by Susan McKinley Ross, but I was shocked to see Forbidden Island nominated and not win. Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island is a wonderful introduction to cooperative gaming, and was a nice follow up to the his more complex Pandemic. Qwirkle is an abstract tile laying game of trying to match 6 tiles in a row of 1 color or 6 tiles in a row of 1 shape, scoring points as you play tiles. Forbidden Island throws a team of adventurers on a sinking island. Working together, the players must use their unique powers to collect artifacts then escape to the helicopter.
3. 2007 Zooloretto over Jenseits von Theben (Thebes)
Zooloretto is Michael Schacht’s follow up to his more streamlined Coloretto. It builds on the core set collection and press your luck of Coloretto while adding in a few extra ways to get points, and it replaces the card game with a fun zoo animal theme. However, Jenseits von Theben, lately altered and remade as Thebes, is a fantastic game of archaeology. It introduced me to the time track, where player order shifts during the game depending on the actions you take. Want to dig at an ancient site for artifacts for 12 weeks? Go ahead! I’ll spend my time traveling between London, Paris, and Vienna researching the ancient cultures to make my archaeological digs more efficient. Thebes is a top 5 game for me, even despite how lucky some digs can be. The luck goes hand in hand with the theme, and you can take some extra time studying as a way to increase your chances of finding ancient treasures. Thebes is another game that has been in and out of print, so if you can find it for a good price, grab this great game from Peter Prinz!
2. 2008 Keltis over Witch’s Brew
2008 was another interesting year for the jury. Witch’s Brew and Stone Age came out to good reviews and it looked like the jury would have a tough choice. Maybe that’s why Keltis was selected over either of them for Reiner Knizia’s SDJ win! Keltis is a multi player version of Lost Cities and shares similar scoring and design. Players use cards to move stones up tracks, gaining points the higher up the track they go. If this type of game play interests you, I recommend Lost Cities: The Card Game instead. Stone Age is one of the first worker placement games and is an accessible gateway game to the hobby. Personally, I don’t care too much for worker placement as a genre, so I never gave Stone Age a chance, but I am in the minority. Witch’s Brew, on the other hand, adds some unique twists to the classic trick taking card game formula. Similar to Libertalia, Witch’s Brew is a role selection game were all players have access to the same 12 roles, but can pick and use which roles to use during a round instead of having uniform roles. A player starts a round by proclaiming that he is a particular role. (Shouting, “I am the Wizard” is mandatory and great fun) In turn order, if another player has that same role card, they can proclaim to be the Wizard, or they can cede Wizarding to the original Wizard and immediately get a small benefit. At the end of the round, the last player who has claimed to be the Wizard gets a larger benefit…but if you have claimed to be the Wizard early in the round and someone else claims it away from you, you get nothing! It’s a great game of bluffing and reading your opponents. I really wish this game won so I could find an English language version. I have translated a German copy because the English version was over $300 on Amazon! I’ll take the 26 Euro game, thank you very much! Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister revisted Witch’s Brew, adding a board and movement mechanics to the game and released the new game as Broom Service. They received their much deserved praise with a Kennespiel award in 2015.
1. 2014 Camel Up over Splendor
I think this one shocked the board game community the most. Splendor was a smash hit out of the gate and was touted early on as a SDJ front-runner. Marc Andre captured that magical formula of simple, easy to understand rules, a reasonable playing time, and tough, interesting decisions that impact the game every turn. Steffen Bogen’s Camel Up, in contrast, was a fun betting activity with a lot of luck and dice rolling. It led to some laughs and I enjoyed my one play of it, but one game was certainly plenty. I frequently return to Splendor.
Do you think Azul deserved the win this year? Did any previous winners take you by surprise? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you follow me on Instagram, you can easily tell that Smash Up is one of my favorite games. It wasn’t even considered!
Check out all the games on BoardGameGeek for in-depth information and reviews. What a great resource for gamers!
This week I’ll be streaming a number of Spiels des Jahres winners, pull up a chair and follow CheeseViking Games