Why My Picks Will Win the SdJ: A Collective Analysis

We’ve told you which games the Opinionated Gamers think are going to win the Spiel des Jahres this year, but we also thought it might be interesting to let you know why some of us feel that way.  So here are some brief analyses about our reasoning.  I’ll get us started off.

Larry Levy:  Asara, 7 Wonders

I’m picking Asara to win the SdJ, but I actually think all three nominated games have a shot at the award.  Qwirkle has already demonstrated what a great gateway game it is and the fact that it can literally be taught in a minute is a big plus.  Despite its simplicity, it has real depth, particularly with two players.  But it’s totally themeless and abstracts have not fared well with the SdJ.  Another negative factor is the difficulty of providing an expansion should the game win—what will they do, add a seventh color?  Sure, Qwirkle Cubes already exists, but the reviews for that haven’t been kind.  So while a Qwirkle win wouldn’t shock me, I think it’s decidedly the dark horse in this race.

Forbidden Island, on the other hand, I give a fighting chance to win.  Its complexity is pitched at just about the perfect level for where the SdJ is these days.  It’s attractively themed and the gameplay is perfect for both families and mixed groups of gamers.  Expansions should be a breeze (the game itself is practically an expansion of the original Pandemic).  No cooperative game has ever won the SdJ, but this would be a great way to introduce that genre to the broad German public.  However, this is a smaller game and the jury often seems to prefer more elaborate and expensive games in bigger boxes.  After Dixit, an unusually small card game, won last year, I can see the jury wanting to return to something beefier.  So I give the Leacock design reasonable odds, but it’s not my frontrunner.

That would be Asara, which feels like a rather classic SdJ title.  It’s nicely sized, gorgeously illustrated, and thoroughly bit-o-licious.  It has the kind of theme Germans seem to like, while the rest of us roll our eyes.  The main issue is that it’s a little more complex than most recent SdJ winners, but the fact that the jury placed it in the standard category (rather than the more complex Kennerspiel) would seem to answer that objection.  At its heart, it really is a fairly simple design, particularly with the Beginner’s rules.  And yet, the game is quite engaging and works at many levels.  Obviously, the jury has always liked Kramer.  The game already comes with its own expansions and you know that Kramer and Kiesling probably have a bunch of additional ones already designed (that’s been their history).  If it loses, it will probably be that the jury is seeking something truly basic, but I think the signs point to yet another win for this celebrated design team.

On the other hand, I don’t see the inaugural Kennerspiel des Jahres being a close contest at all.  I think 7 Wonders is an overwhelming favorite.  It’s clearly the most popular new game of the year, for very obvious and genuine reasons.  The only thing that could have kept it from winning an award was the fact that it might be difficult for a group of newbies to learn it from out of the box.  By assigning it to the more complex half of the nominees, the jury has neatly sidestepped this issue.  In fact, it almost seems as if the Kennerspiel was designed with a game like 7 Wonders in mind.  It’s short, fun, attractive, well themed, and handles every number from 3 to 7 players effortlessly.  It was the 700 pound gorilla entering the nomination stage and absolutely nothing has happened that would lead you to believe that it won’t sweep to an award.

Certainly 7 Wonder’s competition does nothing to make you doubt its chances.  Neither game has inspired much buzz.  Lancaster has just been released, so there isn’t much of a track record.  It’s size and appearance bode well, but it’s also the most complex of the nominees.  Designer Matthias Cramer (Glen More) is clearly a rising star, but it will be his namesake accepting an award this year, not him.  After repeated recommendations, it’s nice to see Stefan Feld finally get nominated, but there’s nothing about his Strasbourg that makes you think it will be able to stand up against the juggernaut that is 7 Wonders.

I look at it this way.  The two games that far and away were considered leading SdJ candidates over the course of the year were 7 Wonders and Asara.  The jury could have easily nominated them in the same category, but they chose to separate them.  That seems very suggestive to me and increases my confidence that they will be the two award winners this year.

And for those who like to mix their gaming with numerology, if the prizes go as I have predicted, it will be the first win for Antoine Bauza, the third win for Michael Kiesling, and, incredibly, the sixth win for Wolfgang Kramer.  1, 3, 6…how many times have we gamers seen those triangular numbers appear together in a game?  It’s fate, my friends.

Brian Leet:  Asara, 7 Wonders

I’ll stick with the headline and keep this brief. If 7 Wonders doesn’t win KdJ I’ll be gobsmacked. Of the three SdJ nominees I had originally put Asara at the top of my list. I think Qwirkle just won’t engage as an abstract. I think the nomination is all the jury intends in terms of giving it attention. Forbidden Island is a more difficult one. I buy the argument that the jury may go this way, particularly as it is an even more accessible version of a very good and popular game. But, in the end Asara is to me the epitome of a German game. It provides tension, interesting decisions, a short play time, simple concepts and scoring and all wrapped in a beautiful package.

Ted Alspach: Qwirkle, 7 Wonders

I’m not going to spend time writing why Asara and Forbidden Island shouldn’t win, but instead focus on Qwirkle, which has one thing neither of those games has: Addictiveness. I know a ton of non and casual gamers who LOVE Qwirkle. Their eyes light up when they first start placing the tiles. As soon as a game is finished they want to play again. It’s a game that you can pull out time and time again and enjoy. When my mom came to visit a few years ago, I taught her how to play and before she left for home she had ordered a copy for herself…and this is someone who owns pretty much no games except those designed by me (I give her a slight discount, ’cause I’m a good son). If a few of the jury members are stricken with Qwirkle fever, it’s going to be hard to sway them by the competition. It’s a worthy, 21st century followup to Rummykub (another game my mom likes…huh…).

If 7 Wonders doesn’t win the KDJ then Germany really *is* a foreign country. ’nuff said there.

Matt Carlson:  Qwirkle, 7 Wonders

Looking at my predictions, I’m clearly due for some good luck. I went with Qwirkle somewhat as a long shot although I like Forbidden Island a lot. I haven’t played Asara. Qwirkle seems to me to be what the judges might like in a family game – ignoring the metagame of worrying about expansions or abstracts, this is not a dry abstract. As for the other category, I’ve only played 7 Wonders but I quite enjoy it’s versatility.

Jeffrey Allers: Forbidden Island, 7 Wonders

Because I did not pick Forbidden Island as one of my nominees, but assigned Qwikle with a star, I am effectively splitting my decision by giving my “bonus pick” to Forbidden Island.  Either way, I respectfully disagree with my colleagues who picked Asara, and even though Larry’s segment is as fun to read as always, I don’t believe in a SdJ “number code” nor the requirement that the winner be a bigger-boxed game that can handle multiple expansions. 

In fact, there seems to be a contradiction in Larry‘s thinking.  He continues to look at Asara as the “classic SdJ” selection, yet many of the winners–especially from Kramer and Kiesling–were not ever followed up by expansions.  It is also clear–especially with the division into two categories–that the time of those kinds of jury selections are over.   This jury, I believe, takes their mandate as gaming evangelists seriously and is interested mainly in exposing the general public (read: simple rules) to the width and breadth of the hobby rather than the same-old same-old.  The variety demonstrated in the 3 nominees is a sign:  yes, the “classic German boardgame” is represented in Asara as an homage to the great Kramer/Kiesling duo and the genre they helped define, but this will be a selection highlighting a “first.”

It will either be the first win for a solo woman designer in the history of the award (but only because the game is addictive and not because of who the designer is), or it will be the first modern cooperative game to win the trophy (I am not counting Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, as that is really a different type of game).  I am now leaning toward the latter, as Forbidden Island has a great combination of bits, short rules and playing time, and the added bonus that parents can help young children play the game (it is cooperative, after all).  This is a genre that has gained a foothold in the hobby over the past 5 years, a bandwagon that the Jury cannot help but finally jump aboard…better late, than never.

As for 7 Wonders….another well-deserved “first”, this time for Bauza, and I have no doubt that the talented Cramer and Feld will have their day.

Dale Yu: Qwirkle, Strasbourg

Well, I didn’t even have Qwirkle on my initial list because I wasn’t aware that it was eligible for the award this year!  That is probably the biggest disadvantage that us non-German prognosticators have:  we’re unable to see what’s actually available in the stores while browsing!

Given the permanence of the new Kennerspiel award, it makes me think that the Spiel des Jahres will become more focused on light games geared towards families or at least a lower age boundary for gamers.  Whenever people around here (in America) ask me to describe the SdJ, my answer is something like this:  “The award is given to the Game of the Year in Germany – where games are a MUCH bigger deal than here.  Anyways, it’s the sort of thing that many families get at Christmas, and the sort of game that they can open up and start playing in about 10-20 minutes.”   Since 2001, only Dominion has strayed from this generalization… (Carcassone, Villa Paletti, Alhambra, Ticket to Ride, Niagara, Thurn and Taxis, Zooloretto, Keltis, Dixit).

The fact that the Kennerspiel now exists to recognize the more complex games is a signal (at least to me) that the simpler games will rule the SdJ.  Given that assumption, Qwirkle has all the components to take home the win – to outline them:

  • It’s simple to learn – probably no more than 2 minutes to teach someone how to play tiles and how to score
  • It is an engaging game that does not have much downtime
  • It is nice to look at – the simple but brightly colored graphic design catches the eye of even a casual passerby
  • Gamers of almost any age can play it – when it first came out in the US in 2006, I was able to play it with my then five-year-old son.  It is officially listed at 6+
  • It has expansion/spin-off potential – this has already been seen with Qwirkle Cubes
  • It has a modest price point, MSRP in Germany appears to by 29.99 EUR though online retailers have it at 20-22 EUR at this time.  This will put the holiday sale price at 15-20 EUR which makes it an inviting game to give as a gift.
  • It is published/distributed by Schmidt Spiele which has the capacity to meet the increased demand should the game win and which has the distribution infrastructure already in place to get those games to market

As far as the other two candidates go, I think that Asara will prove to be too complex win the SdJ this year (though I think that it is certainly deserving of the award) because I feel that the jury will want to make sure the separation between the two awards is clear.  If they award the Spiel des Jahres to a game of similar complexity to the new award, the public will have a hard time distinguishing between them!   Forbidden Island is a good game, though not one I prefer as I’m not the biggest fan of the cooperative game.  Having said that, the game is much lighter than Pandemic (another cooperative Leacock game which also received a nomination), and more suited for families.  However, I still think that it is too complex of a game to win the award this year.  Maybe in a different year it would win, and it would be a nice way to spotlight the cooperative style game… but the need for separation between the two awards makes me think that it will be a runner-up.


As far as the Kennerspiel goes, I’m changing my choice.  I know it’s too late to change my vote as far as our internal Opinionated Gamers contest goes, but having had the chance to play Strasbourg a few more times, I think that it would be a great choice for the initial Kennerspiel des Jahres.  (And, I think someone should give at least some pitch for why either of the other two games should win!  Sadly, I still haven’t been able to play Lancaster – heck, I don’t think I’ve even been in the same room / city / state as a copy of the game – so all of my supposition could be for naught as I know absolutely nothing about one of the three finalists!)

7 Wonders had always been on my radar as a potential award winner, but I do think that it is not a complete shoe-in for the Kennerspiel any more.  While I never had problems with the cards, I have come across a few gamers that were “Race-for-the-Galaxy confused” with the iconography on the cards.

Strasbourg is a well-crafted game which gives the players a lot of important decisions in a fairly short (60-90 minute) game.  Though previous interviews with SdJ folks tell me that these sort of things don’t play a role in the awarding of prizes, I think that Pegasus might be “due” for an award.  They have been in the process of trying to build a strategy game line in Germany for the past few years.  (In the past, Pegasus had done more of the fantasy / sci-fi stuff.)  I think that winning the Kennerspiel would help bring attention to Pegasus’ strategy line.  Also, the company has been close for the Spiel des Jahres with this being the third consecutive year to have a nomination, so it’s clear that the jury has been mindful of the good games coming from Pegasus.

Only a few more days to wait!

Larry Levy (again)

Just wanted to add a note to answer Dale’s plea about Lancaster.  I just got to play it and I am quite impressed.  If I wasn’t convinced that 7 Wonders was such a shoo-in, I would give it a definite shot to win the Kennerspiel.  Based on one play, it’s a fine design and a good choice by the jury as one of the nominated games.

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8 Responses to Why My Picks Will Win the SdJ: A Collective Analysis

  1. Paul Lister says:

    This SDJ speculation from the OP is timely if a bit strange to me. If a parallel were to be drawn with the film industry i’d speculate that most of your (and my own taste) in games is more Sundance and Cannes , (arty, well crafted, intelligent) rather than than Oscar nominated main stream stuff – it seems strange to have so much coverage of an event thats irrelevent to most Geeks. Why spend so much thought and effort in writing about this when you guys have so much more interesting stuff that you have (and do) share with us? The SDJ is of passing interest, specualting as to whether Asara is going to impress a German judge more than Qwirkle is not what makes the Opinionated Gamers an interesting read.

  2. Larry Levy says:

    I can’t speak for anyone else, Paul, but for me it’s interesting and relevant because the SdJ awards are such an enormous part of our hobby. When I was more of a film-goer than I am today, I followed the Oscars with some interest, not because the results affected me or influenced my choice of movies, but because it was a major event with a lot of history behind it. I view the SdJ’s in much the same light. Additionally, not everyone who reads this site (nor everyone who writes for it) are exclusively proponents of what are often called Gamer’s games. Many folks are fans of SdJ-type games and they deserve a forum as well.

    The other thing, for me personally, is that the SdJ award is a horserace I like to handicap. My success rate is only so-so, but I enjoy predicting which games will win, I have my own theories (like many other people) about what a “typical” winner is, and it’s fun when I actually guess right. So since this is an activity I (and many of the other OGers) would be doing anyway, why not share our thoughts with our readership?

    Never fear, it’ll all be over in a few days. Then we’ll be able to return you to your regularly scheduled gaming opinions!

  3. Tom Rosen says:

    I picked 7 Wonders (duh) and Forbidden Island. I’ll be shocked if Dale’s Strasbourg pick is right. I did finally get to try Lancaster the other day (with Larry) and it’s definitely my favorite game from 2011 so far, which I realize sounds like damning with faint praise coming from me, but it was actually good. So good that I’m eager to play again sometime soon. I did so utterly horribly in my first game that I can’t help but want to try again and improve.

    As for the SDJ, I feel like Forbidden Island will win, but it’s a tough race and one that I could easily see going any of the three ways. Qwirkle seems less likely because it is abstract, harder to expand (although spin-offs are obviously possible), and seems like a game that already gets a big bump from simply a nomination. Asara is certainly a traditional pick, but it’s Matt Leacock’s third try and third try’s a charm, right? Maybe Forbidden Island is too small or too cheap, but it does have great components and it seems like it’s high time for a cooperative game to win, and what coop game is more family friendly than this one?

    Lastly, as to Paul’s point, it’s a good one, but for some reason, even though my favorites like Dominant Species and Antics could never ever be in the running for this award, I still enjoy thinking about, predicting, analyzing, etc. the SDJ. It’s always a mystery and often a surprise, frequently disappointing but also frequently entertaining. Plus it’s hard to deny that the whims of the jury have a major impact on the industry and may be worth paying attention to for that effect if nothing else.

  4. Larry Levy says:

    Just to add to what Tom is saying, on the off-chance that Dale and the rest of the gaming world are correct about Strasbourg (it’s got a good rating on the Geek) and Tom and I are wrong, these are six damn good games that the jury has nominated. So none of my usual carping about how the jury made their selections; they did a great job this year, which I think only further justifies our talking about the SdJ’s. No matter what happens on Monday, there will be two good games receiving awards.

  5. garrylloyd says:

    I’m sticking by my pre-nominations prediction that Forbidden Island and 7 Wonders will win. I’ve played all the nominees bar Lancaster (which I picked up this week so should get to play soon) but I just think the jury will think a co-op game that is very family friendly makes a change from the usual SDJ contenders and 7 Wonders is just a fantastic game that gamers enjoy but is not too far removed from the original award that it might attract the family that is looking for something on the next rung up in complexity.

  6. Nils Meissner says:

    Spiel des Jahres 2011 was announced: Qwirkle
    Kennerspiel 2011 is 7 Wonders as (almost) expected

  7. Ted Alspach says:

    It’s so awesome to be right all the time….you’d think I’d be used to it by now…

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