Kennerspiel des Jahres – An Interview with Bernhard Löhlein, Speaker of the Jury

Well, yesterday you saw the brave (and hopefully not too misguided) attempt by the OG writers to predict the nomination lists for the Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres.  As Larry noted, the predictions for the Kennerspiel were all over the place – mostly because there simply wasn’t a lot of information available on the award.  Since this year is the inaugural year, there were no previous winners to refer to… and the amount of information released about the game was minimal.

Bernhard Löhlein holding the new Anthracite award

In the most recent German-language version of Spielbox Magazine, there was a fairly informative interview with Bernhard Löhlein, the current Speaker of the Jury, which sheds a bit more light on the new award.  Unfortunately, we did not have this information when we made our predictions — but I believe that most of us had the right idea in mind when making our prognostications!  In any event, we’ll soon know how well we did as the lists are to be announced this coming Monday May 23 – details will certainly be found at the Spiel des Jahres website.

Many thanks to Spielbox magazine for allowing us to post this translation, and even more thanks to Patrick Korner for getting the work done in such a small amount of time.  (If any German game companies are looking for an English translator, I would heartily recommend PK for the job!)  For those of you not familiar with the magazine, it is one of the premier print magazines for our hobby.  I am in the process of writing a much more detailed “review” on the magazine which should be published in the coming weeks… DY

Translator’s Note (Patrick Korner): Where ‘pawns’ are referred to, the distinctive red, blue (and now anthracite) pawns that symbolize the various awards (and show up on the winners’ boxes) are meant.

In a previous Spielbox edition’s editorial, we mused about the newly-announced additional main prize that the Spiel des Jahres Jury will be awarding as of 2011. Well, the theory of it, anyways. How things will work in practice is something that Speaker of the Jury Bernhard Löhlein answers in the following interview.

Spielbox: So, a new prize. Will everything (jury, nomination list, main prize, pawn, press conference) now come in threes?

Bernhard Löhlein: There will in fact now be three sets of nomination lists – and also three pawns. Everything else will stay as it is: Two press conferences – one in Berlin and one in Hamburg. And we are naturally still one organization.

Spielbox: There is a separate Jury that awards the Kinderspiel des Jahres (Children’s Game of the Year). Who will choose the third main prize recipient?

Bernhard Löhlein: The same Jury that chooses the Spiel des Jahres, that is, the award that confers the red pawn.

Spielbox: Who is the new award geared towards?

Bernhard Löhlein: The new main prize should help guide those who have been playing games for a longer time and have experience with learning new games. That doesn’t mean the absolute experts, but rather those who don’t feel that the Spiel des Jahres is enough any more. We’ve whetted their appetite with our award choices in years past and they want more.

Spielbox: Likely not with Dixit, but rather with some of the previous Special Prizes. Can the new award be described as the final version of “Spiel des Jahres Plus”?

Bernhard Löhlein: You can look at it that way. We wanted to see with the Special Prizes how a prize would be received by this target group. The success thereof meant we were right. We just chose a new name for the new main prize.

Spielbox: What is it?

Bernhard Löhlein: The new prize is called the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Enthusiast’s Game of the Year). This name fulfils the requirements we had for it: It can’t be confused with the Spiel des Jahres, it can’t devalue the Spiel des Jahres award, and it must be clear for whom the award is intended.

Spielbox: What colour is the pawn?

Bernhard Löhlein: Anthracite (grey) with yellow laurels. This also ensures that, unlike the red pawn, it doesn’t stand out too much.

Spielbox: “Doesn’t stand out too much” seems to mean that all three prizes should be of equal value. The names, however, tend to disagree with this: Spiel des Jahres, Kinderspiel des Jahres, Kennerspiel des Jahres seems to indicate that a Children’s game or an Enthusiast’s game could also be Game of the Year. Will the average consumer be able to understand all of this?

Bernhard Löhlein: Yes, because the name and logo of the new prize provide clarity among a wealth of choices. When the Spiel des Jahres award was started 30 years ago, the industry was much, much smaller. Spiel des Jahres brought many people to the hobby. In the last few years, this has caused a new group to be created that didn’t exist when our prize first began: the enthusiasts. And this group now has an enormous and even for them impossible to fully overview set of game options. Because we want to be able to make recommendations for this group as well, the new prize exists.

Spielbox: Clarity may be the goal, but is it clear that from now on a Dominion or a Torres can’t be Spiel des Jahres any more?

Bernhard Löhlein: These two games actually have quite different challenge levels. According to the game box, Dominion is for 8 and up while Torres is for those 12 and over. That is exactly what has caused consumer uncertainty in previous years. The vast majority of those who buy a Spiel des Jahres want a game that is easy to understand and easy to start playing. And they should be able to rest assured that the Spiel des Jahres is exactly the right game for them, their family and their friends. That’s the only way to attract more and more people to games.

Spielbox: We hope that the Jury, when making its selections, relies on its own assessments of complexity rather than relying on what’s on the box. But if the red prize means “easy to learn and play”, then shouldn’t it be called the Familienspiel des Jahres (Family Game of the Year)?

Bernhard Löhlein: That wouldn’t work. Firstly, because “Family” in this context would be confusing and limiting. Would only families be allowed to play the game then? Secondly, because the Spiel des Jahres is now a trademark that is known and valued worldwide. We can’t and don’t want to give that up. And so a Spiel des Jahres will stay what it always was: a messenger to hopefully convince many of the cultural and sociable value of games.

Spielbox: The red pawn’s wings, which used to span the full breadth of games, have now been clipped by the new award. Red’s value has been decreased but is still called Spiel des Jahres. To defend this in the name of keeping a well-known trademark sounds more like business interests rather than game culture evangelizing – did the Jury lack the courage to make a clean break? Did the Jury discuss matching the names to the target groups?

Bernhard Löhlein: Objection! The red pawn is absolutely not being devalued. Quite the opposite, it can now breathe even more freely. Ultimately, both sides will benefit from the new prize: The experienced gamers as well as the casual gamers. Tying the keeping of a name that has gained the trust of the consumer together with business interests is something I find far-fetched. Especially since the introduction of the Kennerspiel doesn’t involve a major change, but rather a transparency necessary for all who are interested in games. As a result, the group never even thought about finding a different name for the Spiel des Jahres.

Spielbox: Do experienced gamers even rely on something like the Kennerspiel des Jahres? Can the success of the “Plus” Special Prizes not also be explained by a misunderstanding on the part of the consumer?

Bernhard Löhlein: I don’t think that anyone bought World Without End without knowing what to expect. The “Plus” did, however, result in some irritation about whether this “more” in the title should also be understood qualitatively. It is, of course, not. We have now set aside this misunderstanding. The Kennerspiel is not meant primarily for those who have deep roots in the gaming scene. We are doing this for those who have a good understanding about games, who read reviews and seek out specific games. And this group, that is growing all the time, is absolutely thankful for the recommendations.

Spielbox: How will you decide which colour the various games will be eligible for?

Bernhard Löhlein: We discuss our game experiences on a nearly daily basis. In that general discussion it already becomes clear which game is to be assigned where. The nominations made during our convention at the end of May then make the decisions final. It is clear that the dividing line between red and anthracite needs to be relatively flexible depending on the year.

Spielbox: Which games on previous nomination lists would fit on the Kennerspiel des Jahres lists?

Bernhard Löhlein: Examples from previous years would include Puerto Rico, Maharaja, Himalaya or Stone Age. But some of the games recommended in previous years would have also made the list; Pillars of the Earth, Vikings or Galaxy Trucker, for example.

Spielbox: Thank you for the discussion. We wish you much success.

This interview originally appeared in Spielbox Magazine Issue 2/2011 – German Edition. The interview was carried out by Matthias Hardel and has been translated here by Patrick Korner. Permission to reproduce (and translate) has been kindly given by Spielbox Magazine, Barbara Nostheide, Bernhard Löhlein and Matthias Hardel.

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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15 Responses to Kennerspiel des Jahres – An Interview with Bernhard Löhlein, Speaker of the Jury

  1. Randy Cox says:

    Ol’ Bernhard sure was patient with the interviewer. I mean, come on, it’s all about the little sticker and the business of the “Spiel des Jahres” logo, so of course they’re not going to call one “Family game of the Year” and the other “Nerd game of the Year.”

    The interviewer didn’t seem to lament that splitting out kid games relegates those games to be effectively ineligible for the Game of the Year. Same should be true with the Nerd Game of the Year–it’s ineligible for the big award it appears, and that’s OK.

  2. Jake Di Toro says:

    I’m somewhat surprised that Stone Age would be in the Kennerspiel des Jahres. Something like that leans more towards the original SdJ being “Family”.

  3. Brian Leet says:

    I’m also struck by the aggressive tone of the interviewer’s questions. It seems to me that the jury has both acknowledged and addressed in one stroke the fact that some very good games are just a bit too complex to be considered a gateway to the industry. Creating a way to recognize them in the framework of the existing awards program I think is only good for the continued growth of the hobby.

    • Thygra says:

      I agree with Dale. In the German original interview, the interviewer was questioning, critical, trying to get to the bottom, but he was not aggressive from my point of view.

  4. Dale Yu says:

    @Brian – well, the one thing I’m not entirely sure of is the actual tone. Not that I’m saying that PK’s translation isn’t 100% awesome, but it’s hard (IMHO) sometimes to convey tone and nuance when translating between languages.

    I think that we won’t really be able to see what the award is about until we have a few years’ worth of winners and nominees to see what falls where. Also, it looks like Herr Löhlein suggests that there will be some flexibility based on the year — thus, a game that straddles the line might end up on the red list one year but on the anthacite list in a different year — all dependent on what else is out that year.

    For me, I think that the new award is a positive thing. I have no issues with the SdJ leaning towards the “family” or “uncomplicated” end – as I have found that I enjoy those sorts of games a great deal. Adding the new award simply gives me more recommendations for games that I might like – with the added benefit that they are subdivided by complexity.

    I’m awaiting the announcement of the lists on Monday to see how the jury decided to split the games this year. I’m kind of on the fence now about 7 Wonders. I thought that sort of game would be a lock for the “red” list… but I see it at the same level as Himalaya or Stone Age, so maybe it ends up on the “anthracite” list instead!

    And, now that I know that it was qualified for the list, I’d definitely change one of my votes to Qwirkle. And give it at least one of my three stars. That’s definitely what I would see as an SdJ-type game.


  5. patrickkorner says:

    Just to add a quick comment: I actually toned down my initial cut of the interview translation as it seemed too harsh! :)

    Germans are a pretty direct people so it’s probably not that unsurprising that the questions got pointed in places.

    The biggest thing I took away from the text is that the new KdJ isn’t intended for the hardcore gamers. Rather, it’s intended for just plain ‘gamers’, while the SdJ is intended to bring new blood into the hobby. So SdJ is the gateway, KdJ is for those who’ve already passed through the portal and have decided they like what they see.


    • Charles Waterman says:

      In my opinion (after 5 years traveling and living in this wonderful country) Germans *are* more direct in their speech than Americans – and much more accepting of asking and answering critical questions. Doesn’t make them unfriendly, just more interested in analysis and debunking. YMMV.

      • Charles Waterman says:

        I also think that the original Spiel des Jahres is not aimed at “simple” games. They seem, rather, to be going after games that can be *learned and begun playing somewhat quickly*, but that have enough gaming enjoyment as to make a strong addition to anyone’s game library – gamer or casual gamer.

  6. bart says:

    I too think that SdJ is not aimed at simple games as some say, look at El Grande or Tikal, admittedly these are not heavy games like let say Roads & Boats or 1830 but they are not simple games either. I agree that in the last few years games that won SdJ were lighter than El Grande but I don’t see it as a set trend or deliberate policy of jury to award only lighter games, they just award good games and one year it will be something lighter and in another one something heavier but I don’t see “heaviness” as an important factor, quite opposite, I think it’s irrelevant. Therefore I wouldn’t be suprised had Inca Empire end up as this year’s SdJ and Poseidon as Kennerspiel des Jahres (as an award for more complex games than SdJ). That’s how I see it based on the history of SdJ and not only last few years.

  7. Mik Svellov says:

    Jake, the SdJ has always been ‘family’.
    The biggest exception, I believe, was during the period from El Grande to Torres, both that was due to a strong troika of 3 hardcore gamers who were able to pursuade the remaining jury to follow their line. After Torres, where troika left, the award has been ‘back to normal’ – with the notable exception of Dominion, which probably should have been receiving a grey pawn!

    Brian, I didn’t find the tone agressive at all.
    But maybe that’s because I am so used to read the antagonistic opinions of the other big German magazine, FAIRPLAY, that anything from spielbox pales in comparison.

  8. Larry Levy says:

    As Mik said, there’s no question that El Grande and Tikal are no longer the kinds of games that could win an SdJ. Both came from the five-year period of the late nineties where the jury, inspired by the extraordinary popularity of Settlers (itself an unusually involved SdJ pick) and encouraged by three of its members, pushed the envelope of SdJ-acceptable games. After the very disappointing sales of Torres, the three members left and the jury went back to its usual patterns, beginning with Carcassonne. Dominion is a bit of an exception, but the rules themselves are very simple. Still, it might well have been a KdJ game had that award existed that year.

    I’ve seen Thurn and Taxis cited before as an “exception” and I don’t really understand it. It’s just not that complex a game, comparable with other SdJ winners like Alhambra and Drunter & Druber. Certainly it was considered the odds on favorite to win the year that it did. If it turns out to be the model of future KdJ winners, then the SdJ will truly be relegated to ultra-light games like Dixit and Niagara. I guess we’ll just have to see how the jury positions these two awards (and wait several years for the patterns to start to develop).

  9. Thygra says:

    Larry, it was a jury member who told me some months ago that Thurn & Taxis was “not a good SdJ”, because it was too difficult for unexperienced gamers. For gamers like us, it sometimes is not easy to understand which kind of game is good for unexperienced gamers …

  10. Larry Levy says:

    I believe it, Andre. I’m just saying that it’s an indication of a direction towards even lighter games from the jury. They clearly feel that earlier winners like Auf Achse, Adel, Drunter, Alhambra, and Thurn and Taxis are too involved for their target audience. I trust that the jury knows its business, but since these are clearly not difficult games, I wonder if this represents a shortened attention span from the average SdJ buyer or a desire from the jury to appeal to an even broader audience.

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