When I read Tom’s article last week, I immediately disagreed with it, and responded to him with some of my disagreements. But it wasn’t until he suggested that I write a rebuttal that I realized – there’s a reasonable and objective way to measure whether the effect he suggests exists – and whether, in fact, Wolfgang Kramer is the exception. This eliminates the personal bias that I feel Tom brought to his article, and focuses the response on the claims Tom made.
Tom had two primary claims in his article:
- “The Spiel des Jahres has a peculiar knack for honoring great designers for some of their worst games.”, and
- “…it appears the award diverts designers’ attention from their more innovative and enduring creations. “
So, do these assertions hold?
The place we’ll need to go for objective data is BoardGameGeek. But how do we measure these claims? The claim that designers see some of their worst games selected for the Spiel des Jahres is easy enough to measure – where does the Spiel des Jahres winner fall, in ratings, among the designer’s offerings? Since a Spiel des Jahres award brings exposure to a game, we’ll ignore rank (which is significantly impacted by the number of ratings), and just use average rating, for all games with at least 100 ratings. If Tom’s claim is true, one would expect Spiel des Jahres winners to hold a low position among a designer’s games in average ratings – particularly given that BGG tends to look for (and thus rate higher) heavier games than the Spiel des Jahres jury.
To determine whether the award diverts designer’s attention away from their more innovative and enduring creations, we’ll look at the 5 years _before_ the designer won the award, and the 5 years (or time available) _after_, to see how their output has been effected, and look at whether their design with the highest average rating – presumably their most innovative and enduring creation – came before or after their first Spiel des Jahres award. (We’ll use their first award, among those with multiple awards, because it’s something we can look at for all winners, not just repeat winners, and because if such an effect exists it would presumably begin from the moment they’ve won the award.)
As Tom’s article focused on more recent winners – 1994-present – we’ll look in the same range.
Spiel des Jahres 1994: Manhattan
Spiel des Jahres 2006: Thurn & Taxis
Andreas Seyfarth has never been a prolific designer; not including expansions or new editions, he’s only released five games with 100+ ratings.
Manhattan rank: 4th of 5
Thurn & Taxis rank: 3rd of 5
Neither of these is his “worst” game. And in fact, both have a higher average rating than his other major release, Waldmeister, which falls just short of 100 ratings.
Five years before Manhattan: No games released.
Five years after Manhattan: No games released.
Five years before Thurn & Taxis: Puerto Rico, San Juan
Five years after Thurn & Taxis: Airships
Highest average rating: Puerto Rico (released _after_ Manhattan)
The data here is mixed. Seyfarth’s “best” game clearly was designed after he won the Spiel des Jahres, but on the whole his limited published content makes it difficult to say that the award has had any significant impact upon his work.
Spiel des Jahres 1995: Die Siedler von Catan
(Three previous awards)
Teuber has 43 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Settlers rank: 1 of 43
Clearly, this is accepted as Teuber’s _best_ design, not his worst.
Five years before Settlers: Adel Verpflichtet, Drunter & Drüber, Vernissage, Der Fliegende Holländer
Five years after Settlers: Löwenherz, Die Siedler von Nürnberg, Catan Card Game, Starfarers of Catan, Entdecker, Die Ritter von der Haselnuss
Highest average rating (besides Settlers or Settlers derivates): Löwenherz (released _after_ Settlers)
The data here is fairly clear. While Teuber had two Spiel des Jahres winners in the half-decade prior to Settlers, even ignoring Settlers derivatives his published designs after Settlers are the ones more appreciated on BGG.
Spiel des Jahres 1996: El Grande
Spiel des Jahres 1999: Tikal
Spiel des Jahres 2000: Torres
(Two previous awards)
Kramer has 66 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
El Grande rank: 1 of 66
Tikal rank: 3 of 66
Torres rank: 6 of 66
All three of Kramer’s designs rank very high among his offerings on BGG.
Five years before El Grande: Big Boss, Expedition, 6 Nimmt!, Top Race, Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix, Columbus
Between El Grande and Tikal: Haste Worte?, Tycoon, El Caballero, Take 5!, Magalon
Five years after Torres: Maharaja, Hacienda, Mexica, Gulo Gulo, Pueblo, Goldland, Wildlife, Australia, Tanz der Hornochsen!, That’s Life!, Sunken City, Who’s the Ass?, Saga, FBI, Vampire
Highest average rating (besides El Grande): The Princes of Florence (released _after_ El Grande)
Kramer had success both before and after his aware. However, the most interesting effect here is the _number_ of releases before and after his impressive Spiel des Jahres streak – in the five years prior to El Grande’s win – after he’d already won two awards – he had six games published. In the five years after, he had _15_ games published. Tom gave Kramer as an exception to his hypothesis, but this data suggests one real advantage of the award – greater demand for the designer’s games.
Spiel des Jahres 1997: Mississippi Queen
Mississippi Queen (and the expansion, The Black Rose) are Hodel’s only published games, so there’s no useful data here.
Alan R. Moon
Spiel des Jahres 1998: Elfenland
Spiel des Jahres 2004: Ticket to Ride
Alan has 49 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Elfenland rank: 14 of 49
Ticket to Ride rank: 3 of 49 (behind two Ticket to Ride sequels)
Definitely two of Alan’s better games, as BGG sees it, not his worst.
Five years before Elfenland: Reibach & Co., Freight Train, Mush
Between Elfenland and Ticket to Ride: Union Pacific, San Marco, Capitol, Santa Fe Rails, Clippers, Europa Tour, 10 Days in Africa, New England, Das Amulett, 10 Days in the USA, Canal Grande, Andromeda, Wongar, King of the Elves, King’s Breakfast, Mammoth Hunters, Lumberjack, Gold und Rum, Time Pirates
Five years after Ticket to Ride: Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries, Ticket to Ride: Europe, Ticket to Ride: Märklin, Incan Gold, 10 Days in Asia, Diamant, Skyline 3000, Ticket to Ride: The Card Game, Walk the Dogs, Gracias, Surf’s Up, Dude!
Highest average rating (besides Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride derivatives): Airlines Europe (released _after_ both Elfenland and Ticket to Ride)
If you want to make a case for a designer’s innovation being negatively impacted by the Spiel des Jahres award, this is the best case so far. But at that, the data doesn’t really support that conclusion; Alan had much more success and innovation in his published designs the five years _after_ Elfenland won than in the five years preceding – and more in the five years after Ticket to Ride won than in the five years preceding Elfenland. It’s only when you compare the period after Elfenland to the period after Ticket to Ride that you can make any claim that the Spiel des Jahres award has had a negative impact. And even that’s questionable; it’s notable that Airlines Europe – which, while derived from a much earlier game, shows significant innovation in its development – is a post-Ticket to Ride design.
Spiel des Jahres 2001: Carcassonne
Wrede has 20 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Carcassonne rank: 2 of 20 (behind Carcassonne: Winter Edition)
Clearly not Wrede’s worst game.
Five years before Carcassonne: None
Five years after Carcassonne: Carcassonne: The City, Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, The Downfall of Pompeii, Carcassonne: The Castle, The Ark of the Covenant, Mesopotamia, Carcassonne: The Discovery, Die Fugger, Krone & Schwert, Dragonriders, Anasazi
Highest average rating (besides Carcassonne or Carcassonne derivatives): The Downfall of Pompeii (released _after_ Carcassonne)
Frankly, Carcassonne put Wrede on the map; he’s had his greatest success with the game, but he’s had a wide variety of games published in the years since Carcassonne, and the award has undoubtedly helped him to see so many of his games hit the market.
Spiel des Jahres 2002: Villa Paletti
Payne has not had any noteworthy designs published other than Villa Paletti.
Spiel des Jahres 2003: Alhambra
Henn has 17 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Alhambra rank: 5 of 17
While not acknowledged by BGG as his “best” game, Alhambra is far closer to his “best” than his “worst”.
Five years before Alhambra: Wallenstein (first edition), Atlantic Star,
Five years after Alhambra: Shogun, Alhambra: The Dice Game
Highest average rating: Wallenstein (second edition) (released _after_ Alhambra)
(Or, if you don’t count it, Shogun – also released after Alhambra)
Frankly, Henn’s period of greatest innovation was back in the early 1990s – long before he won the Spiel des Jahres. It’s hard to argue that winning the award has significantly impacted his output; the largest effect has been to bring more of his early db Spiel games to a wider audience.
Spiel des Jahres 2005: Niagara
Liesching has only two games on BGG with at least 100 ratings, another case of insufficient data to prove or disprove Tom’s hypothesis.
Spiel des Jahres 2007: Zooloretto
Schacht has 48 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Zooloretto rank: 9 of 48 (Aquaretto ranks #2, Zooloretto Mini #5)
Once again, Schacht’s Spiel des Jahres winner is viewed as being far closer to his “best” design than his “worst” one.
Five years before Zooloretto: China, Coloretto, Hansa, Dschunke, Richelieu, Magna Grecia, Crazy Chicken, Industria, Mogul, Rat Hot, California, Paris Paris, Fist of Dragonstones, Der Elefant im Porzellanladen, Coloretto Amazonas, Architekton, The Hollywood! Card Game, Diabolo, Sushi Express, Hispaniola
Five years after Zooloretto: Aquaretto, Mondo Sapiens, Zooloretto Mini, Baldora, Africana, Mondo, Felinia, Industry, The Golden City, Coney Island, Shanghaien, Call to Glory, Zooloretto: The Dice Game, Gold!, Bürger, Baumeister & Co., Crazy Creatures of Dr. Doom, Boss Kito
Highest average rating: Web of Power (released _before_ Zooloretto)
On the whole, there’s no evidence that Schacht’s innovation has suffered in the least as a result of winning the Spiel des Jahres. Of his top 10 games, five are post-Zooloretto, four are pre-Zooloretto, and one _is_ Zooloretto.
Spiel des Jahres 2008: Keltis
Knizia has 169 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Keltis rank: 60 of 169 (Keltis: Das Orakel is the highest ranking of the Keltis derivatives at #16)
Not only is Keltis not Knizia’s “worst” – it’s comfortably in the top half.
Five years before Keltis: Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (Deluxe Edition), Amun Re, Ingenious, Ingenious: Travel Edition, Carcassonne: The Castle, Whoowasit?, Blue Moon City, Razzia!, Blue Moon, Ribbit, Tower of Babel, Schatz der Drachen, Cheeky Monkey, Merchants, Palazzo, Medici vs. Strozzi, Pickomino, Genesis, Poison, Beowulf: The Legend, Geowulf: The Movie Board Game, Duell, Times Square, Great Wall of China, Risk Express, Mago Magino, Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon, Marco Polo Expedition, Euphrates & Tigris Card Game, King Arthur: The Card Game, Lord of the Rings, Minotaur Lords, Alles Tomate!, Bunte Runde, Easy Come, Easy Go, Tal der Abenteuer: Die Schatzsuche im Himalaja, Toppo, Code Cracker, Gravediggers, Reiner Knizia’s Amazing Flea Circus, Queen of the Cupcakes, Dead Man’s Treasure, Fish Eat Fish, Head-to-Head Poker, Dragon Parade, Double or Nothing, Escalation!, Little Italy, Pirates!, Spy, Battleship Express, Mmm… Brains!, Figaro, SuDoku: Das Kartenspiel, King Arthur, Penguin
Four years after Keltis: Keltis: Das Orakel, Priests of Ra, Keltis: Das Kartenspiel, Qin, Ra: The Dice Game, Jäger und Sammler, Indigo, FITS, Star Trek: Expeditions, Modern Art: The Card Game, Keltis: Das Würfelspiel, BITS, Keltis: Der Weg der Steine, Yin Yang, Abandon Ship, Samurai: The Card Game, Big Five, Speculatum, Heckmeck Barbecue, Callisto, Ingenious Challenges, The Hobbit, SWAT!, Genial Spezial, Mini FITS, Zombiegeddon, Buzz It!, Scary Tales: Snow White vs. The Giant, Scary Tales: Little Red vs. Pinocchio, Ramses Pyramid
Highest average rating: Euphrat & Tigirs (released _before_ Keltis)
While the data for other designers looked at so far does not point to a negative consequence from winning the Spiel des Jahres, here there’s a clear case to be made for it. While most of Knizia’s gamer-oriented designs date from the late nineties, his published games in the years before Keltis’ release have been _much_ better received on BGG than in the years since. Personally, I suspect this is more coincidental than intentional – but the data is clear.
Donald X. Vaccarino
Spiel des Jahres 2009: Dominion
Spiel des Jahres 2012: Kingdom Builder
Vaccarino has 6 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings.
Dominion rank: 2 of 6 (Dominion: Intrigue is #1)
Kingdom Builder rank: 3 of 6
Five years before Dominion: None
Between Dominion and Kingdom Builder: Dominion Intrigue
One year after Kingdom Builder: Infiltration, Gauntlet of Fools
Highest average rating (Besides Dominion, Dominion Intrigue, or Kingdom Builder): Infiltration (released _after_ Dominion)
Much as with Wrede, Vaccarino burst on to the scene with his Spiel des Jahres winner. But unlike Hodel or Payne, it has just been the start. There’s nothing to suggest that winning the award has had any negative impact to his innovation.
Spiel des Jahres 2010: Dixit
Roubira has 4 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings, but only one (Fabula) is not descended from Dixit. Dixit was his first published design, and took two years until it achieved wide release in Germany and won the award. As a result, there’s not enough information to make or refute any claims relative to Roubira.
Susan McKinley Ross
Spiel des Jahres 2011: Qwirkle
Ross has 2 ranked games on BGG with at least 100 ratings, the other one being Qwirkle Cubes – a follow-up to Qwirkle that was released before Qwirkle made it to Germany. Again, there’s not sufficient data to make a case in either direction.
So, having reached the present day, let’s look at the data.
Five designers have insufficient data to make any definitive claims about. That leaves nine designers to consider.
Claim #1: The Spiel des Jahres has a peculiar knack for honoring great designers for some of their worst games.
The only designer you could reasonably make this claim for is Seyfarth, for whom Manhattan is a below average game according to BGG and Thurn & Taxis is precisely in the middle. For Teuber, Kramer, Moon, Wrede, and Vaccarino, the Spiel des Jahres was awarded to their best design, as designated by BGG. For Henn, Schacht, and Knizia, the award was for a lower rated game from their oeuvre, but still firmly in the top half of their designs.
One out of nine does not a knack make.
Claim #2: It appears the award diverts designers’ attention from their more innovative and enduring creations.
Once again, there is one designer for whom the data fits in with Tom’s claim. Here, it’s Knizia. Looking at his history, you can reasonably argue that his post-Spiel des Jahres output does not measure up to his pre-Spiel des Jahres output. Of course, much of this may have to do with how much he accomplished prior to winning the award – but regardless of the cause, the data is clear.
The other data here – while it fails to point to designer’s attention being diverted – is less definitive. For Wrede and Vaccarino, the fact that their first design won the award means that the fact that their “best” non-SdJ designs came later really doesn’t mean much. Seyfarth is close enough to the same camp to also drop from the discussion.
That leaves six designers. For four of them, their game with the highest average rating on BGG (besides their winner) came after they won the award. For two – Knizia and Schacht – their game came earlier. For most designers, the years following their win not only saw an increase in the number of designs they had published, but also more of their highest rated games on BGG.
So, while Tom was right to call out Kramer as a designer who didn’t match his claims, neither do Teuber, Moon, Wrede, Henn, Schacht, or Vaccarino. And neither Seyfarth nor Knizia fits into both claims. And it’s nearly impossible to apply the first claim to Hodel, Payne, Liesching, Roubira, or Ross. You could claim that winning the award has diverted them from game design as a whole, I suppose, but looking at the games they designed none of them won for a game in the sweet spot for BGG, so unless you posit that had they not won they would have started moving in that direction with their designs, I don’t think that holds either.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that the real issue at the heart of Tom’s article is that – other than for Kramer – the games which have won have not been games Tom enjoys, and he’s not fond of the proliferation of titles which often result from a Spiel des Jahres win. But that makes for a far harder central point to write an article about.