[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]
This is the second installment of a three-part interview. The first installment discussed the composition and mission of the Spiel des Jahres jury. In this portion, I will focus on the games. After all, the award is all about games!
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.”
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: How are the games chosen for consideration?
Tom Werneck: We consider all board games available on the German market – if they come with rules in German. “Available” means that a game should be obtainable in a toy shop or the toy department of a department store. If the only outlet is by mail order, a game is not “available.”
DY: I know that there are guidelines as far as when the game is released, but other than that are there any other criteria about how a game is eligible for the award?
TW: Some manufacturers thought they might have a slight advantage if they would send their product at the last minute in order to raise our awareness for this specific game. But we communicate a certain time span, normally ending in April, so if games arrive later than that, we do not have sufficient time to play and evaluate them thoroughly. Such products will be postponed and included in the next year’s crop. Generally speaking: We consider games that appear in the actual year. However, for various reasons – such as it making no sense to put the “big expensive box” planned as a gift for X-mas on the market in early spring – many games are not yet available when we should have them for consideration. Furthermore, some games are not presented at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg but only at Essen. In order not to miss all of these games, we look at all games from the actual and the preceding year, unless we have awarded them already.
DY: Must the game be made by a German publisher or by a “major” publisher in order to be seriously considered?
TW: Have a look on the list of awarded games. Is Days of Wonder a German publisher? Was it a major publisher? Or take for instance… No – please go through the list yourself.
DY: Must there be a certain number of copies made available?
TW: Since the members of the jury do not share a common apartment but live somewhere between the Northern Sea and the Alps, and since every member has to experience each game, every member has to order a copy. Eleven members equals eleven copies per title…
DY: How do you get the games? Do you go to the store and buy them yourself?
TW: It’s not a secret: The manufacturers or distributors send them (via UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.) as review copies. Some members of the jury feel that they should buy a game if it is produced in a small, limited edition by a do-it-yourself-company. But as a general rule, such games are not designated for the award.
DY: There are certainly more games produced each year than you have the chance to play! How do you choose which games to actually play?
TW: Counter question: How do YOU choose games to play? I assume that you will start on the one which at first sight seems to be most attractive, the one which lures you in. Well, that’s the same way we start a game evening. However, as far as I’m concerned, I’m normally well prepared because I have “investigated” the game and have studied the rules before I sit down with friends to play. Sometimes, there is no need to play a game. I do not have to play every city version of Monopoly if the only change is different names for properties. Such cases reduce the amount of games by some percent – which is not much compared to the roughly 300 to 500 games I get on my desk each year…
DY: What gets a game onto the table for you?
TW: Pure curiosity. I’m eager to see what wonderful idea came to an inventor’s mind and to find out whether I feel the desire to play the game again and again.
DY: Do reviews get you interested in a game?
TW: Not at the beginning. I avoid reading reviews before I have made up my mind. Later I’m willing and open to hearing other opinions. If there are good arguments, it can lead me to revise my own judgment.
DY: When you hear other opinions, is it word of mouth from other gamers or other jury members?
TW: Both, of course. Very often judgment from “other gamers” is as clear and distinct as the opinion of a member of the jury.
DY: Once you’ve decided you’re interested in a game, how many times would you typically play it to be able to judge it for Spiel des Jahres?
TW: There is no general rule. It depends on the complexity of the game.
DY: How many different games do you actually play each year as you consider them for the Spiel des Jahres?
TW: As mentioned earlier, I have to consider between 300 and 500 games per year.
So, now we’ve learned a lot about the award, the jury members, and the games – all that’s left is the voting process! Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of this interview to learn how the award is decided.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor