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.
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.
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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