Tom Rosen: The Kramer Exception

The Spiel des Jahres has a peculiar knack for honoring great designers for some of their worst games.  This would simply be amusing if it didn’t also have a real world impact on the financial incentives motivating these people’s creative output.  Time and again designers that used to create a broad and varied output of interesting releases are encouraged to focus their limited time and energy on an award-winning success.  Obviously the Spiel des Jahres is aimed at a family audience and seeks to honor relatively simple games, but unfortunately in doing so it appears the award diverts designers’ attention from their more innovative and enduring creations.  Wolfgang Kramer is the exception, but unfortunately the only one.

Lost Cities: The Board Game – Das Kartenspiel

This hypothesis originally struck me in 2008 when Reiner Knizia won his first Spiel des Jahres for Keltis.  It was ridiculous.  The man had designed hundreds of games, many of them exceptional and foundational to the hobby, but was being honored for the board game reimplementation of an old 1999 card game.  I think it was widely viewed as a lifetime achievement award for someone that had contributed so much to the world of board games, but it looked awfully silly being attached to the game Keltis.  It’s an okay game, but is patently unoriginal and derivative, and more importantly mundane and forgettable.  The game added nothing new whatsoever to the world of board games.

Knizia had previously designed such enduring greats as Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, Through the Desert, and Stephensons Rocket.  Sure Tigris is too complicated to ever win the Spiel des Jahres, but there’s no way games like Ra and Through the Desert were.  The first is a premiere pure auction game that quickly sets players on divergent paths, making valuation an engaging and ever-evolving affair.  The second is a masterful take on Go that makes it family friendly, accessible, and colorful in the process.  But he was honored for Keltis and what does that inevitably mean?  Of course we now have such classics as Keltis: Der Weg der Steine, Keltis: Das Orakel, Keltis: Neue Wege, Neue Ziele, Keltis: Das Wurfelspiel and my personal favorite Keltis: Das Kartenspiel.  Seriously, a card game version of a board game version of a card game, how meta.

This would be fine because you can just ignore these cash-in titles, but the side effect that you can’t ignore is that it means Knizia is spending time working on these that could be spent on more interesting and memorable designs.  We know he can do this; he’d already proven it long before the award came along.  Keltis was what made this downside of the Spiel des Jahres readily apparent, but it wasn’t the first time the award honored a great designer for one of his worst designs.

Pandamonium

The Spiel des Jahres is as much about looks as it is about substance.  These games do in fact get judged by their covers and thus it was pure genius when AbacusSpiele slapped a giant panda bear on the cover of Zooloretto.  If that is not the cutest and most cuddly award bait you’ve ever seen then I don’t know what is.  And with it, they and designer Michael Schacht struck award gold in 2007, reinforcing the apparent lesson that remaking card games as adorable board games is a winning strategy.  Zooloretto is a reimplementation of 2003 card game Coloretto that turns a quick, clever card game into a bloated, superfluous board game.  It’s certainly not original and has no compelling reason to exist, but sure enough it’s a winner.

Unlike Knizia, Michael Schacht did not have quite so many games to his credit before the Spiel des Jahres came along and honored him for this unfortunate selection, but he did have several designs that were much more impressive and, in fact, well-suited to the award.  Schacht had given us the simple and colorful China in 2005 in addition to the original Web of Power before that, and had also designed the excellent Hansa the year before in 2004.  Any of those would have been perfect selections to honor, but instead we’ve got Zooloretto… and lots of it.  We’ve got Zooloretto XXL, Zooloretto Exotic, Zooloretto Boss, Zooloretto Goodie Box, and of course Zooloretto: The Dice Game, among many other smaller expansions.  I should caveat that Schacht has thankfully continued to devote time and energy to China and Hansa as well so all is not lost.  Both of these are not only clever designs, but also straightforward enough for the family audience that the Spiel des Jahres caters to.

Unfortunately 2007 is another clear example of the award swooping in to honor a designer at the strangest of times for the strangest of selections.  Unlike Knizia, whose award was a decade late, I suppose at least Schacht’s was only a few years after it should have been given.

Other Notables

Knizia and Schacht are some of the most recent and clear cut examples of this trend, but there are plenty of examples to go around.

Andreas Seyfarth winning for Thurn & Taxis in 2006 and Manhattan in 1994 is simply absurd when you stop to think about the game he’ll really be known for 50 years from now.  I know that Puerto Rico is too complicated for the award, but your relevance is undermined if you can’t stop to recognize such an enduring classic, at least with a special award like was done for Caylus and Agricola a few years later.  Trying to make up for it by honoring the eminently forgettable Thurn & Taxis a few years later just compounds the error in my mind rather than fixing it.  It felt very much like a makeup call in sports, but must have confused the hapless families that bought Thurn & Taxis without realizing that.

Alan Moon has won for some good games, but ultimately didn’t win for his very best.  Ticket to Ride was a reasonable selection in 2004, as was Elfenland in 1998 (although the derivation is clear and honoring similar innovations twice seems a bit odd), but his masterpiece was San Marco, which didn’t even get nominated in 2001.  Of course this was the year after Torres and Tikal took the award back to back, which was apparently a commercial failure, so I can understand why the award shied away from the slightly involved San Marco.  On the other hand, San Marco was a gorgeous game, which we know counts for something, and has innovative and engaging gameplay that captivates new players and opens their eyes to how wide open the possibilities of board games truly are.  That’s got to be the kind of game you want to promote.

Zoch Verlag has published many great dexterity games, but the Spiel des Jahres sure picked a funny time to honor one of them.  Not only was it the year that Puerto Rico came out, but it was also not one of Zoch’s better games.  I realize this is a publisher rather than a designer gripe, but permit me the deviation to note that Zoch has also published Bausack, Bamboleo, Hamsterolle, Zopp, and Mord im Arosa, among others.  I think there’s even a Project GIPF hiding in there for someone more clever than me to tease out.  But Villa Paletti in 2002 of all times was the year the Spiel des Jahres decided to endorse the dexterity genre.  Their timing has always been a bit off.

Obviously Dirk Henn’s Wallenstein could never win the award, but instead honoring him for Alhambra in 2003, a pretty board game reimplementation of the card game Stimmt So just distracted him from the clearly great games that he had proven just the year before he could be designing.  Thanks to the Spiel des Jahres though the world now has Alhambra: The Dice Game.  I wouldn’t mind if the award kept being given to a designer’s lesser game if it didn’t inevitably result in this distraction from the great work that we know the designer is capable of.

The Tragedy of the Franchise

Nowhere is this issue more apparent than with Klaus Teuber.  Settlers of Catan is great, but no game is great enough to dedicate an entire career to.  We know Teuber is capable of so much more variety through the related releases of Lowenherz and Entdecker, but ever since Settlers took off, we’ve lost the ingenuity.  I can’t help but wonder what incredible designs and memorable innovations the world is now missing out on because Teuber was incentivized to focus on the Settlers franchise instead of continuing to branch out into new territory.  It could very well be that Teuber with Settlers, Moon with Ticket to Ride, and Jurgen-Wrede with Carcassonne had only the one massive franchise in them and that’s what they were destined to focus their designing careers on.  But it seems more likely to me that they happened to hit it big with these franchises, were motivated to continue developing for these franchises, and consequently didn’t have the time to develop the entirely novel and unique ideas that they might have otherwise had.  It’s a shame when you think about what might have been.

I’m just glad Karl-Heinz Schmiel came up short in 2010 with A La Carte, even though it’s a fun game.  While we’ll never know what we’re missing by motivating Jean-Louis Roubira to focus so much energy on Dixit follow-ups, we can know what we’d be missing by encouraging Schmiel to focus on creating an A La Carte empire to the detriment of his proven ability to produce varied gems like Extrablatt, Die Macher, and Was Sticht.

The Kramer Exception

Wolfgang Kramer is the exception.  Kramer has actually taken the prize five times for Heimlich & Co. (1986), Auf Achse (1987), El Grande (1996), Tikal (1999), and Torres (2000), but unlike everyone else who only wins for their worst games, Kramer remarkably won for his best.  El Grande is his masterpiece and it actually won the Spiel des Jahres back in the day.  Knizia received his lifetime achievement award 12 years later, but Kramer won the prize in the prime of his designing career.  El Grande is the seminal area control game and the foundation on which so many derivative games have followed.  Unlike the derivative Keltis, Zooloretto, and Alhambra, El Grande is an original and enduring design that has had a significant lasting impact on the world of board games.  The Spiel des Jahres got it right with one designer, although it just serves as a greater contrast for all the times they’ve gotten it wrong.

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28 Responses to Tom Rosen: The Kramer Exception

  1. EricK says:

    “Trying to make up for it by honoring the eminently forgettable Thurn & Taxis a few years later just compounds the error in my mind rather than fixing it.”

    I find Thurn and Taxis to be the strongest game in the last eight years among Spiel Des Jahres winners and it’s the only one that I still play regularly (don’t care for deck building or else Dominion would be my first choice). One of the better choices IMO.

  2. Ted Alspach says:

    Tom, this was a fantastic article, highlighting and dissecting a number of the issues with the SDJ. However, I think you overreached with Alan’s San Marco. While it is probably my favorite of his games, it is only that for 3 players, and while TTR will never see our table much, it is an amazingly solid and rich game. I think it’s interesting that TTR is paralleling Catan in that we really haven’t seen what we might because of the focus on TTR expansions/derivations.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    Well-written article, Tom–has some bite to it, which is good for discussion, even if one doesn’t agree on every point.

    I would, for example, disagree that Klaus Jurgen-Wrede has focused too much on Carcassonne spin-offs. He seems to have consistently brought an original design to the market every year since his SdJ success. None of those are derivative of his hit game, and some are clearly attempts to push the envelop of game design (Anasazi with its interesting albeit fiddly setup, for example). It’s just that none of them have received much attention from gamers, although Rapa Nui is quite good.

    It’s sad to see all the spin-offs crowding out other people’s designs on store shelves as well, but I’ve gotten used to that happening at the cinema as well, and have to bypass the multiplexes showing “Fast & Furious 16″, etc. for a small independent cinemas showing films that are a bit more innovative and tell a better story. We need more of those kinds of places in the gaming hobby!

  4. Tom, I question your reasoning as several points throughout this piece:

    • “Andreas Seyfarth winning for Thurn & Taxis in 2006 and Manhattan in 1994 is simply absurd when you stop to think about the game he’ll really be known for 50 years from now.” Yes, because in 1994 it was clear that Seyfarth would design something far more awesome in 2002.

    • “Trying to make up for it by honoring the eminently forgettable Thurn & Taxis a few years later just compounds the error in my mind rather than fixing it. It felt very much like a makeup call in sports, but must have confused the hapless families that bought Thurn & Taxis without realizing that.” Except that for German families, the reference to Thurn & Taxis – as well as the game’s setting and goal – would be clear and immediate. (For reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thurn_und_Taxis) Plus, as the other Eric notes above, Thurn & Taxis is a fine design that has held up well over the years.

    • You call out the SdJ jury for not giving the prize to Through the Desert, but simultaneously note that “Ticket to Ride was a reasonable selection in 2004, as was Elfenland in 1998″, 1998 being the same year that Through the Desert was nominated for the award. So was Elfenland a bad choice for that year or reasonable?

    • Web of Power was on the SdJ selection list in 2000, so it did get a pat on the back.

    • You describe Ra as a “pure auction game that quickly sets players on divergent paths, making valuation an engaging and ever-evolving affair”. That description alone should tell you why the game didn’t have a chance. Families would be baffled by all the “divergent paths” lying before them without a clue as to what they’re doing and why. Looking over the list of SdJ winners, I spot a few with auction variants, but none that include auctions in the main game (although I haven’t played everything, so I could be wrong). Auctions are tough going for casual gamers because you have no clue how to evaluate lots, which leads to potentially disastrous games. Besides, I know plenty of gamers who love Ra now but who hated it the first time (or the first five times) they played. That’s not the history of a SdJ winner. You need to feel like you did something in the first game, in addition to feeling that you can do better next time.

    • San Marco is also too involved, and the player range is 3-4, which kills it as a SdJ possibility.

    • Knizia’s last “big” game was Amun-Re in 2003, so you can hardly blame the Keltis win for him shunning more complex designs. He’d already been shunning them for years.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Thanks for your comments Eric.

      -I’m not saying that they should have predicted Puerto Rico in 1994, but rather that they should have given PR a special prize in 2002. I’m simply pointing out that it’s yet another example of the award going to a great designer, but not for his or her great designs. It’s an amusing trend and Seyfarth is a perfect example of it.

      -I’m amazed how the Thurn & Taxis fans are coming out of the woodwork now because I can’t remember anyone saying anything nice about it before this week.

      -Elfenland was a reasonable choice in 1998, as I said. I think Through the Desert would have been a good choice too. But again, Through the Desert is part of the larger discussion of how Knizia was recognized by the Spiel des Jahres for one of his least significant games. I know it’s not a designer award and is a given to a game each year as compared to the other releases that year, without any knowledge about the future obviously, but in retrospect it’s fascinating to see how off the mark the award has been and how it unfortunately appears to warp designer incentives.

      -I disagree with the commonly held belief that Knizia stopped designing “big” games after 2003. I think Blue Moon City was a “big” game in 2006. But you are right that Knizia stopped doing interesting work before winning the award, unlike the other designers who stopped doing interesting work after winning the award. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the award still had an impact on Knizia’s trajectory since winning it would presumably be an important goal, in terms of financial benefit and personal validation.

      • Whoa there, Sparky – I didn’t say that Knizia “stopped doing interesting work”; I said that he was “shunning more complex designs”. Personally I enjoy Keltis and I love the game with the Neue Wege, Neue Ziele expansion. I’ve enjoyed a number of his other simpler/more streamlined designs as well, although by no means have I played them all. (Few humans could.) Someone can be a hardcore gamer without liking hardcore games, and generally I fit into that category.

        And perhaps you just never poked a stick into the Thurn & Taxis hive before now. I played a lot of T&T on BSW a few years ago, all two-player, and the game is intense and challenging. Not everyone’s a fan, sure, but the game does have its supporters.

  5. Nice article. You made a point in the intro that kinda got lost by the end, namely that Kramer is exception to getting diverted from original goals after winning the award. By the end you suggest that Kramer is the exception because he won the award in his prime. But the designer has no direct control over that. I think it bears emphasizing that he continued to innovate and output gamers games well after winning the award. And there was no data given to back this up. But consider games like:Maharaja, Colosseum, Hacienda, Cavum, and even to today: The Palaces of Carrara. It will be a sad day indeed when we lose influx of new Kramer games.

  6. Hi all,

    It was an interesting read leading to an interesting debate.

    I would tend to second Eric here. He makes good points, I think.

    One issue that we have with SDJ is that it is mostly an award for family games. We, gamers, tend to prefer gamers’ game, by definition :) So, there is very little chance that the SDJ can be given to a game that we, gamers, place above the others.

    All in all, this discussion stresses once more the suspicious look that we give to the SDJ. On a personal level, I think we, international audience, give too much attention to this award (maybe an international award should exist, but where would it come from, I don’t know?). One big issue that I have with this price is with language. Take Queen Games’ Kingdom Builder. It is widely agreed that English and French rules are appaling (I don’t know for other languages, but I have little hopes. Only German rules are probably ok). I can’t think of any reasonable prize that would be given to a game that includes rules and cards that don’t make any sense when you read them (and I can show you some French cards that are really garbage).

  7. badgeguy says:

    Tom,
    I think you missed another opportunity with Dirk Henn; Stimmt So to Alhambra re-themed to New York to New York the Card Game. This is an almost identical path as Knizia’s with Lost Cities, but there is the dice game version of Alhambra to kick it up a notch.

  8. Danny Webb says:

    I came here to say almost exactly what Eric said, so I could just leave it at that. I will say, though, that though I disagree with your thesis and much of its support, it is easy to see how someone could reach the conclusion you have come to. As an award aimed at families and focused on the sale of games and health of the industry, the SDJ will never be completely in-step with hobby gamers. The few times “gamer’s games” were picked were complete failures on the sales front, and most of the games you suggest should have won the award would have done even worse.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      I completely agree that it’s an award for family games, not more complex games. I think I acknowledged that throughout the piece and worked to incorporate that point thoroughly. I just think it’s interesting how the award has a habit of picking each designer’s worst family game and ignoring their best family games. It’s also unfortunate how it skews the incentives for those designers following a win and in order to achieve a win.

      • nickbentley1000 says:

        What if, however, families value games differently than hobbyists? If so it’s entirely possible that what’s “worst” to a hobbyist is “completely awesome” to non-hobbyist. For that reason, the Knizia pick might be perfectly reasonable even if it seems senseless to us hobbyists.

        • nickbentley1000 says:

          Corroborating this idea is that Knizia has a reputation for testing and tweaking the bejeezus out of his games, using playtesters in his test market. If a Knizia game is a certain way, it’s usually because he wants it that way, and he wants it that way because some target market really likes it that way. It’s just that we’re not in the target market.

  9. I have to disagree on so many points here.
    It can be a long discussion which game is the best of which designer, but the truth is, that the Spiel des Jahres Jury is not looking at that. They look at all games of a given year, and they pick the best to represent the year and support the cultural activity of gaming. They do that without looking at companies, game size, or author.
    If 1994 had nothing better then Manhattan so it be. If the best game in 2008 for the Family was Keltis, then it is just a side note that it was the first time for Knizia to win it.
    And several times the best game of an Designer won. Or would you think that Dominion is a bad choice for Donald?

    • Tom Rosen says:

      I think it’s too early to tell with Donald. Hopefully he has lots of interesting designs ahead of him.

      I do not agree that the award picks the game “without looking at companies, game size, or author.” I believe we can see from their selections over time that they, at the very least, look at the first two.

  10. Many thanks to Eric and Matthias for their very good comments. The biggest error of Tom: He obviously thinks that SdJ is an award for honoring a game designer. It is not. See Matthias’ comment.

  11. Marcel says:

    Nice article, Tom. While I agree with you on many points, there are also points on which I disagree. Some of my disagreement has already been voiced by others, so I’ll just add two points.

    I think Zooloretto is a great family game and a worthy winner of the award. I am sure my kids would not have cared at all about Coloretto, but we have enjoyed Zooloretto many times. And while I try to influence the companies putting out all those expansions and spin-offs by voting with my wallet (i.e. I don’t buy them), I seem to be in the minority.

    And on the subject of Alan Moon: I do believe Ticket to Ride is his best game ever (and if that isn’t, it’s SDJ nominee Union Pacific and certainly not San Marco). Furthermore, I’m not sure the SDJ award has stopped him from doing “heavier” designs, I feel his strength has always been in designing games that appeal both to families and to “gamers”.

  12. Tom Rosen says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I’m glad that folks find this such an interesting topic and I appreciate all of the discussion.

    Obviously each game will have its particular fans and it would be easy enough to find a different person to defend each of the different games that I mention as examples. But I think the underlying point stands, which is that, for all the good that the award has done in promoting board games to a wider audience, it has also had a readily observable negative impact on creativity and innovation.

    It’s also just a weird, and I think interesting, quirk of fate and history (given what else is created in any given year and that this is an award for games rather than designers, as folks have noted) how often the award happens to recognize extremely talented designers for their least worthwhile creations.

    To get into the weeds for a moment though, I did want to mention that I was most surprised that Thurn & Taxis, of all the games I criticized, has so many fans. After around 10 plays, I couldn’t imagine that game having any staying power or memorable virtues. I’ve since been told offline that the theme is particularly appealing to a German audience, which apparently has a much greater affinity for mail delivery than I ever would have expected.

    • > I was most surprised that Thurn & Taxis, of all the games I criticized, has so many fans. After around 10 plays, I couldn’t imagine that game having any staying power or memorable virtues.

      I reached the same conclusion after two plays.

    • W. Eric Martin says:

      Tom writes: “But I think the underlying point stands, which is that, for all the good that the award has done in promoting board games to a wider audience, it has also had a readily observable negative impact on creativity and innovation.”

      No, I don’t think that point stands at all. I’ve noticed no “negative impact on creativity and innovation” as a result of the SdJ going to whichever games it goes to. Knizia had already scaled down to more straightforward family games; Schacht is still doing connection-based designs with Valdora and Africana; Moon has stated in an interview (which I can’t find now) that if he comes up with a design that he thinks won’t sell a bunch, then he doesn’t go any farther with the design; as Jeff pointed out, Wrede has continued with a variety of releases; Seyfarth has released nothing new in years, so who knows what he’s doing; Henn (and Queen Games) have been cycling through his designs for years, so it’s not like the SdJ win for Alhambra changed anything.

      As for games from other designers and publishers, some are innovative, others are twists on already released games or game mechanisms, and still others are knock-off designs, which is no different than what was going on five, ten or fifteen years ago.

      • huzonfirst says:

        Eric, I mostly agree with what you’ve said here (and I strongly agreed with your earlier post). The only example I would take exception to is Dirk Henn. Prior to Alhambra’s win, he was averaging about one original release a year. After Alhambra, it was practically all remakes. Maybe he just ran out of ideas, but it’s also possible that he realized he could make a living off of the royalties from Alhambra and the new Queen versions of his older titles. Either way, it does seem as if his output was significantly affected by his SdJ win.

  13. Craig Massey says:

    I’m not sure how I missed this article the first time around, but thanks to Dale for drawing my attention to it in the OG 2013 – What You Missed article. Thanks for the interesting article Tom, but I find thesis main thesis to be way off base and find myself agreeing with Eric and others comments. I think that we as the serious hobbyists project onto the SdJ what we want out of the award and as a result see patterns, conspiracies, snubs, and impacts that just aren’t there. The award for any given year is just that. Saying that Game X winning the award in whatever year is a nod to a designers career output seems to ignore the stated goal of the jury.

    Oh and for the record count me as a huge fan of Thurn & Taxis. At this point, it is probably the SdJ winner that I have played the most. It is an example of a game that really fits the aims of the jury and as such it was an extremely worthy winner. I’d go as far as to say that both it an Manhattan are much better options for the SdJ than Puerto Rico which is a great game for the hobbyists, but an awful choice for the SdJ. Thanks again for a thought provoking article Tom. Glad I caught it the second time around.

  14. jeffinberlin says:

    A few more thoughts after revisiting this:

    Perhaps the real “Kramer Exception” is that he was fortunate enough to win the SdJ between ’97 and 2000 while the SdJ jury was briefly going “heavier” with their picks. As was pointed out, sales wasn’t as good and they quickly reverted back to more mass-market-friendly titles, only recently adding special awards for more complex designs again.

    The other exception is that, for one reason or another, he does not feel the need to endlessly tweak his designs or mechanisms the way some other popular designers do. He did come out with a board game version of his hit card game “6 Nimmt,” but even his “11 Nimmt” card game was a different game. Perhaps his games just aren’t as expandable as others’, that they are “self-contained and complete units” rather than new game endlessly variable SYSTEMS (like Settlers, Carcassonne, Dominion, etc.). Or maybe it’s just not his style.

    Whatever the reason, it’s true that Kramer is an exceptional game designer.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Ugh! Typos: “sales WEREN’T” and “..self-contained and complete unites rather than endlessly variable systems…”

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