[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 final installment of a three-part interview. The first installment discussed the composition and mission of the Spiel des Jahres jury and the second portion focused on the games. This last section talks about the actual voting on the award.
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 does the actual voting process for the Spiel des Jahres work? Are there intermediate polls or votes in order to narrow down the field?
Tom Werneck: There are several consecutive steps…
- After Nuremberg Toy Fair and Essen we exchange in our Internet forum what we have seen and found. If one or another member of the jury has missed a game, he or she can order it.
- At the beginning of April, each member has to come up with a list of 20 games he or she finds especially worthwhile pursuing. It is clear and obvious that there are many doubles. However, a great number are named by only one or few members. This draws special attention of the colleagues to these games.
- At the end of April, each member has to send in a list with five games. The first one gets 15 points, #2 gets 10, #3 gets 6, and 4th place gets 3 points and the last earns 1 point. This list states: “If I had to decide now – all alone and not influenced by the opinion of my colleagues in the jury – the award would go to the first game on my list and the other four games should be designated as nominated.” Together with the list, each jury member has to provide a list of games for the recommendation list. The outcome of the accumulated lists is intensively discussed in our internal forum. Of course each member has his or her favorites. In order to promote and protect one’s favorites, each jury member looks intensively for weaknesses in favorites of other members resulting in an intensive and – at least at the end – fruitful discussion. It is like a filtering process which sorts out weaker games.
- One weekend in May designated by a public holiday (“Maria Himmelfahrt”) we meet for three or four days. We call this get-together “Klausurtagung.” We discuss games, and if we have the feeling that one or another has not seen a specific aspect of a game we can play it. The outcome of this private meeting is:
- Five nominations. At the end the winner can be chosen only from among these nominated games.
- A list of games the jury wants to recommend. Usually the list includes between twelve and fifteen games. However, these numbers can float.
- Any decision about a “Special Award” (or “Special Awards” if there is more than one).
- These lists are spread through a press release and you can find them immediately in our newsletter and on our webpage.
- Finally, unless the date collides with a soccer world championship we announce the winner at the occasion of a big press conference at Berlin after the last weekend in June.
DY: How much does your vote change over time?
TW: No comment. Please understand that members of the jury never give insight into their individual decision-making process, nor are internal discussions or opinions published.
DY: For instance, after the final list of nominated games is released, do you go back and try to play those five games again to get a better feel for them?
TW: When the final list of nominated games is released, I DO have a feeling for the games. However, friends and family members pounce on me as they want me to play these games with them.
DY: Is there any jockeying amongst the jury members?
TW: Yes [as answered above]. This kind of jockeying is one of the specific strengths of the Spiel des Jahres since it leads to elimination of games even if they have hidden weaknesses. Or it makes weaknesses visible – and we decide we want to live with them. But at least we know them before we vote.
DY: For example, if you really really like a game, can you or will you try to convince your other jury members to look at that game?
TW: Yes, of course! In addition to the standard process, we use our internal forum for this kind of discussion. Each and every game can be posted and discussed in this forum.
DY: When you vote, do you meet together in person? Or is voting done over the Internet?
TW: Preliminary voting is done via Internet, while the final voting is done exclusively in person.
DY: Who tabulates all the votes?
TW: The speaker of the jury, assisted – and at the same time controlled – by another member of the board.
DY: After the voting is done, are the results kept secret?
TW: Nominated and recommended games and Special Awards are published right away – there is no need to keep these results hidden. But as far as the final voting is concerned: Yes! The reason is very simple. The voting is done Sunday night because we need some time to prepare press releases and so on for the press conference on Monday morning at 10 a.m. After the voting, we sit together with manufactures, inventors, designers and many other insiders who have arrived in time. A thoughtless word by a member could be misinterpreted. To avoid unintended mishaps the outcome of the final voting is kept as a secret.
DY: In other words, after you vote, do you know which game will receive the award before the banquet in July?
TW: First of all, there is no banquet but a press conference. Unless there is a major sport event which could distract the press’ attention, the award ceremony takes place on Monday after the last weekend in June. The fact is that except for the members of the jury’s board, we are as dangled in suspense as the potential winners.
DY: So, are the list of nominated and recommended games a semi-finalist list?
TW: The list of recommended games is NOT a sort of semi-finalist list. We recommend games even if they do not have a chance to win the award (which includes all nominated games, since we do not nominate only games to draw attention on them – they must have the potential to receive the main award). The list of recommendations is like a box of bricks offering a variety of games for different expectations and needs of the consumer (games for two persons, card games, etc, etc).
DY: So the shorter list of nominated games should not be seen as a “Top 5” list of the recommended games, right?
TW: On the recommendation list there CAN be potential award winners, but not necessarily EVERY game on the list has this qualification. However, the jury wants to draw attention to these games because they are worth being recommended. (The problem with this list is that of course we find many more games which would deserve such a recommendation. Quite often we have to make a choice between games of the same category offering similar experience and delight to the player. Believe me – this is a unpleasant and painful decision to make!)
DY: From time to time, the jury gives out special awards. Who decides whether or not a game qualifies for a special award?
TW: The jury. Majority counts. 50% + 1
DY: What is the reasoning behind awarding special awards?
TW: There are games which do fit into the range of expectations connected with Spiel des Jahres combined with the red logo. In order to draw attention to games – or sometimes categories of games we created Special Awards.
DY: I remember special awards for complex games and fantasy games. Are there any other categories that are generally considered?
TW: A Special Award is a very useful tool. It is not restricted to a specific category. Take for instance Rubik’s Cube, which in the early 1980s got a Special Award as solitaire game. There is no “general category.” Any kind of game can be decorated with a Special Award.
DY: Are there any rules as to the frequency that a particular game designer or game publisher can win the award?
TW: One of the most common false assessments is that a game designer or a publisher can get an award. The fact is that we consider games. It doesn’t interest us one little bit who the inventor or the designer or the manufacturer is. It’s the song and not the singer. In the end it is always a person or a company who benefits from the award – but the award goes to the product.
DY: It is often rumored that the award will not be given to a particular publisher two years in a row.
TW: Nonsense. Take for instance Ravensburger with Tikal in 1999 and Torres in 2000; they even had the same inventors.
DY: Are there any rules or traditions that support this claim?
TW: Self-appointed pundits ignore what we do or what we publish. Small wonder that such stupid rumors go the rounds.
[Note from DY: Good thing I’m not one of those gaming pundits, eh? :) ]
I hope that you have found this interview as fascinating as I did in the process of conducting it. The answers provided by Herr Werneck have really cleared up a lot of the questions and misconceptions that I had concerning the award.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor