[In 2009, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Tom Werneck, a long standing member of the Spiel des Jahres jury. This interview was initially hosted on BoardgameNews, but has been lost in the ether since BGN went down. In the buildup to this year’s SdJ announcement, which will happen next Monday, I thought it would be a good time to give the interview a new home. The only edits that have been made to the interview are to fix some temporal references (to the 2009 SdJ award) that no longer make sense. — DPY]
Well, it’s about that time of year, the time for all of us to think about this year’s Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) possibilities! As you likely know, the Spiel des Jahres is an annual award given out in Germany to recognize the “Game of the Year.” The award is given out in early summer – but the time to start talking about the possible candidates starts each Spring as the last set of major releases eligible for the award have just come out at Nuremburg.
In 2008-2009, I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the SdJ jury members and learned a lot about the award and how things work behind the scenes. I have continued one of these conversations over e-mail and compiled those conversations and email threads into a question-and-answer format interview. The majority of my information has come from an extended email conversation with Tom Werneck, a jury member for the Spiel des Jahres since the initial award was given in 1979. I thought that having an extended conversation with Herr Werneck would be valuable as there are many questions and misconceptions about the award here in the United States. I think that a lot of that stems from the fact that there is a language barrier, and until recently, there hasn’t been an easy way to translate what little German information is available to English. I’m hoping that my conversation here will shed some light on the award and the process of giving the award to the “Game of the Year.”
“Spiel des Jahres” translates directly as “Game of the Year.” The initial Spiel des Jahres award was given in 1979 to Hase und Igel, the classic race game by Ravensburger and David Parlett. For an interesting look at the history of the award, I would recommend taking a look at the SdJ homepage. Admittedly, most of the site is in German, but there are a few pages which have been translated into English, including a bit of information about the award itself. I think some of the reason why people have had misconceptions about the award is because there really hasn’t been any other information available on the award other than this webpage. Additionally, the list of winners can be found on the SdJ website. As you click on each year’s results, you will see the winner at the top of the list followed by the Nominated games (Nominiert für das Spiel des Jahres); these four or five games are the other finalists for the award. If there is a special award for the year (Sonderpreis), these special awards will be listed after the nominated games. Further down, you will see the list of recommended games (Empfehlungsliste Spiel des Jahres). Finally, the remainder of the list are the awards for the Children’s Game of the Year (Kinderspiel des Jahres). The subject of this interview is Tom Werneck. He is one of the original Spiel des Jahres jury members, serving on the committee since the original award was given in 1979. He is also a well-known and well-respected game critic in Germany. In addition to serving on the SdJ jury, he is also the Chairman of the Bavarian Game Archive (Bayerische Spiele-Archiv), a group founded in 1996 to promote the playing of board games. One of the great features on the Spiele-Archiv site is the photo gallery, which is an area that has portraits (taken by Herr Werneck himself) of important personalities within the gaming world. It is a great resource to check out to get a chance to see what some notable people look like. There are areas for journalists, game designers, SdJ jury members, game company bigwigs and others within the photo gallery. I will publish my conversation with Herr Werneck in three parts:
- The first installment will talk about the origins of the award and the jury members responsible for deciding which game gets the award.
- The second piece will focus more on the games themselves – how the games are selected for consideration.
- Finally, the third part will discuss the actual voting process for the Spiel des Jahres.
If there are any follow up questions, I will try to field them as best I can…
A side note: I have made minor spelling changes, punctuation edits, and other changes (such as sentence structure and verb tenses) to Herr Werneck’s responses. Though his English is very good, it is not his first language – and I have done my best to bring his message to you as clearly as possible. All of the changes were reviewed by Herr Werneck prior to publication here.
As a final note, please note that this conversation pertains only to the Spiel des Jahres. The Kinderspiel des Jahres is a separate award with its own jury (and the Kennerspiel did not exist in 2009!). While the topic of the interview was only on the main SdJ award, much of this also applies to the Kinderspiel des Jahres. Per Herr Werneck, “As far as the procedure goes, Kinderspiel des Jahres is an exact replica of Spiel des Jahres with one little difference: There are only three jury members, supported by an advisory council of three persons qualifying through special knowledge and/or experience with games for children. These members do not have to be game critics but they must be as independent from trade and industry as any member of the jury.” Now, let’s get on to the good stuff!
Dale Yu: What was the reason that the Spiel des Jahres was started?
Tom Werneck: It was a vision. We had in mind to establish an impact so strong that we could force the manufacturers to come up with far better games compared to what we actually faced on the market in Germany. (If I speak of “Germany” it should be understood that Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland always is included.)
DY: Was the motivation simply to raise awareness (or sales) of board games?
TW: The originators of Spiel des Jahres were – and still are – game critics. We are responsible to our “customers” which are the readers of our columns. There is no responsibility to either trade or industry. So our aim was to focus on good games. The fact that trade or industry would benefit from our decision was willingly tolerated, since we know that companies can only invest in better products if they had earned money before. Nevertheless – the key to our success was that we were and still are totally independent from trade or industry.
DY: Who or what company was behind the initial idea for the Spiel des Jahres?
TW: As explained in the answer to the second question, there was no organization behind us. We were only a handful of game critics – competitors, of course – driven by the common and convincing idea to create a powerful award. Since there was no organization, we had to establish an association to make sure that the group would follow clear rules and to avoid misunderstandings or abuses.
DY: I think the most misunderstood point of the Spiel des Jahres for Americans is this – what are the criteria for awarding the Spiel des Jahres?
TW: There is a strong difference between an industrial test institute and a cultural award. If you intend to test a car or a dishwasher, you can establish criteria which can be measured and compared. For a cultural award like the Spiel des Jahres, there can be only soft criteria. Take for instance music: Could you rate Beethoven higher than Mozart? Pink Floyd 42 points higher than Dire Straits? As a critic you can point out that you personally prefer game A rather than game B. Unless there are knock-out factors as for instance: Game C is not based on a new approach – we have seen the idea before. Or: The “improvement” compared to predecessors is so poor that the game is not worth being pursued any further. Or: There is a tremendous mismatch between the quality of the game and the market price. Or: The rules are lousy, incomplete or are liable to be misunderstood. Or… However, there are criteria – soft criteria, but criteria. • Genuineness and authenticity. • An appeal to play the game again and again. • Comprehensibility and clearness of the rules. • Faultless and convincing course – (that a game should work properly, that the way the game works corresponds to the dress-up and that the system will not collapse even in untypical situations). • If it is not an abstract game, the story should match the basic game concept. • Presentation and equipment should be functional and correspond to the basic game concept. Since we do not “test” games but rather express our individual preference, we do not talk about the “Best Game of the Year” but we call it “Game of the Year” followed by “Kritikerpreis” which stands for “critic award”.
DY: Is there a mission statement that describes what type of game the jury is looking for?
TW: Apart from the indicated criteria: NO! A mission statement would give guidelines to inventors and/or manufacturers of games. Each one would try to fulfill the requirements, thus leading to a reduced variety of new ideas. We want to encourage creativity. We want to see new and interesting approaches. We want to be convinced by the attractiveness and power of a game rather than finding a game that could fit into a statement-box.
DY: Thanks for the background information on the award. But I’d like to learn more about the people behind it – can you describe the composition of the jury?
TW: Critics, specialized on games.
DY: How many members are on the Jury of the Spiel des Jahres?
TW: The number is not given. The number has varied between seven and about twelve, and even these numbers are not fixed. However, if there would be only a handful of members in the jury, one strong character could dominate. On the other hand, experience states that the quality of decision-making does not improve once a certain number of members in a group has been reached. The communication suffers if each member wants to contribute extensively and must be heard.
DY: Is there an attempt to have a balance amongst the jury members (in terms of geographic location, type of work they do, gaming experience, etc.)
TW: Certainly not. What counts is qualification and readiness to contribute actively.
DY: How are new jury members chosen?
TW: Members are appointed to join the jury. Clipping services, mouth-to-mouth, word, Internet and other sources ensure visibility of those who write about games or work for a broadcasting or TV station. So we know “who is who” and keep a watchful eye on potential candidates.
DY: Are there any special qualifications for being a jury member?
TW: Each member qualifies by:
- Working as a game critic in a daily newspaper, periodical, or other printed media or for a broadcasting or TV station.
- Publishing regularly. The reader must have the chance to compare the critic’s standards with his own opinions. Prerequisite for this is that the reader does not find one or two big articles in a paper but a regular column, for instance weekly or twice a month.
- A clear, distinct opinion. Even if a so-called game critic would write about a game weekly it would give no guideline to the consumer if he/she would only copy the manufacturer’s blurb.
- Last but not least, to ensure the credibility and integrity of the jury, being totally independent from trade and industry is indispensable. Therefore, a game inventor or a consultant or someone who is involved in product management or artwork or in any other respect can’t be a member of the jury
[Note from DY: For a more detailed look at the current jury members, you can see their short biographies (written in German) online, and there are nice portraits of the jury as well.]
DY: Is there some special ceremony (with white or black smoke from the chimney when they choose the pope) when choosing the new head of the jury?
TW: If you consider a standard press release and the fact being published on our website as white smoke…
DY: Is there any limit to how long someone can serve on the jury?
TW: No. However, each member has to prove with a detailed yearly report that he/she continuously fulfills all requirements.
DY: How often does the jury physically get together each year?
TW: The places where we have official meetings:
- International Toy Fair (Nuremberg) [in February]
- Private meeting in May (different locations)
- Award ceremony (Berlin) [in June/July]
- Spielertage (Essen) [in October]
DY: When the jury does convene, is it for discussion of games only?
TW: No, additionally we have to appoint new members, discuss politics and policies, strategic issues, further development of the award, and last but not least the use of money to achieve our goals since the object of our efforts is to extend the acceptance of board games in family and society.
DY: Will some of the stronger candidates get played amongst the jury members?
TW: We discuss – and if we feel the need to play a game among us – play all potential candidates.
Well, hopefully this first part of the interview starts to shed some light on the motivations behind the Spiel des Jahres award and the jury members responsible for it. Tomorrow, the conversation will shift more to the games themselves.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor