SdJ Re-Reviews: Series Conclusion

Camel Up was the last entry in our Spiel des Jahres series.  Though there is one winner I haven’t yet written about (Colt Express by Christophe Raimbault and Ludonaute), I decided it would be best to wait several months before drafting anything.  The holiday season is the first real test of a Spiel des Jahres winner’s reception in the German marketplace, so we don’t yet know how Colt Express has done.  Nor do we know how last year’s title will shape the jury’s decision next year.  In the meantime, Dale reviewed the game a few months ago, and there is an excellent publisher’s diary over at BGG.  

Writing the game histories was my favorite part of working on this series.  I had the opportunity to interview the designers of the vast majority of games that have won the award, and I owe my thanks to the designers that generously answered my questions.  Along the way, I learned a few fun details about the award’s impact, as well as some insights into the game design and publishing process.  I think sharing those details is a fitting way to end the series.

Regarding the award’s impact:

  • Winning the Spiel des Jahres greatly raises a game’s visibility, and the winner gets a massive boost in sales.  I obtained sales information on 26 of the 36 games in the series.  The total sales of those games was about 113 million, although a large part of that is attributable to Rummikub (>50 million copies), which was popular before the SdJ.  The median winner has more than a million units sold, and the lowest sum we know about is Torres (298,000 copies).
  • For context on what it means to sell that many copies, a game is a big success in this industry if it sells 5,000-10,000 copies.  Most games never even come close to that.  Popular, non-SdJ-award-winning games often don’t cross 50,000 units in sales.  For example, Wolfgang Kramer told me that Princes of Florence has sold 30-40,000 copies (and that game won several major awards, is still in the BGG 100, and has been in print for almost a decade-and-a-half).  That said, while 113 million is an impressive sum for the games, I believe Monopoly alone has sold more than 275 million copies, so there’s room for improvement.
  • Winning almost certainly means the game will get a worldwide release.  Only three winners — 1987’s Auf Achse, 1992’s Um Reifenbreite, and 2008’s Keltis — weren’t released in English.  (Um Reifenbreite is arguable, since the game it was based on was released in English.  And Lost Cities: The Boardgame is basically the English-language version of Keltis.)
  • Winning almost certainly means the game will be in print for a long time.  By my updated count, 31 of the 37 winners are still in print.  (Out of Print: Focus, Dampfross, Adel Verpflichtet, Um Reifenbreite, Mississippi Queen, and Torres.  But Focus could be reprinted as soon as this year, and I’ve heard rumors of the same happening to Torres.)
  • At least 24 of the 37 games have some sort of expansion or spinoff.  Since Catan’s 1995 win, all but two do, Torres and Hanabi.  And Hanabi is debatable given its mini-expansion at Essen this year, or even Hanabi Deluxe.  
  • Several leading designers and publishers credit the Spiel des Jahres for driving innovation in the hobby.  Wolfgang Kramer lists the award as one of the driving forces of innovation, and Jay Tummelson (founder of Rio Grande) said in Going Cardboard that it was a key factor.

Lessons for game designers:

  • Perseverance is apparently the key to getting a game published.  Most games — including several really popular ones — were turned down by at least one publisher before they were printed.  Several of them were first released in a very small print run, and a few were even self-published.
  • More designers reported the need to slim a game down rather than to build it up.  Catan, for example, was originally an amalgam of Catan, Lowenherz, and Entdecker.  Klaus Teuber and his developers only thought the game worked when he broke it into three separate titles.   
  • Development is extremely important in game design: very few of the games had a final product that resembled the initial idea.  Many of the biggest changes came from publishers, who sometimes spent years developing the game.  Where would Carcassonne be without the meeple added by Hans im Gluck?  Would Heimlich & Co. have worked as a race game?  Would Hanabi have been nearly as successful if it had remained a competitive game?  Game designers aren’t the only ones who make games great: the developers do, too.  

Other interesting facts:

  • The prize has gone to a German design team in 21 of the 37 years, Americans in 8 years, the French in 3 years, and the British in 2 years.  Canada, Israel, and the Netherlands each have one win.  That said, sorting some of the designers is a challenge.  I counted the Randolph/Matschoss as German, since Matschoss was German and since Randolph was a difficult person to categorize.  (He was an American citizen, educated in Switzerland, who started game design in Japan, but spent most of his life in Italy.)
  • Spiel des Jahres winners often see a sharp fall in price after their win.  They are discounted by retailers as a loss leader to get people into the shop.  Last year I bought a new copy of Camel Up from Germany for about $13 USD, and a copy of Hanabi for about $3.75.  

As a final note, I’d like to take a moment and comment on the Spiel des Jahres in our modern hobby.  Each year, both when the nominees are named and the winner is recognized, BGG lights up with commentators criticizing the award and the games that have won it.  Most of this criticism is driven by a misunderstanding of the award’s purpose.  As Tom Felber, chairman of the jury, explained at BGG.CON last year, dedicated gamers are not the target audience, but rather German families.  

The Spiel des Jahres is perhaps best described as the “gateway game” award, seeking to recognize titles that have the chance to bring the joys of gaming to people that don’t play very often.  And with that goal in mind, it is easy to see the Spiel des Jahres award as a remarkable success, one that has introduced tabletop games to millions of people.  Many gamers — including myself — are here because they once happened upon an SdJ-winning title.  I see no reason to think that won’t be the case going forward, and that’s why I love the red pöppel.


Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber: There are two threads on BGG that regularly amuse me each year.  The first, and slightly less amusing, is the outrage – OUTRAGE – that (insert SdJ winner here) won Spiel des Jahres over (insert SdJ non-winner here), and the belief that the Jury does not act in a rational – or predictable – manner.  I’ve been – for my own amusement – trying to predict the SdJ winner prior to the nominations since 1998, other than 2003 (when I didn’t make a prediction) and 2002 (when I only made a prediction after the nominations were announced).  Out of the 16 SdJ contests I’ve tried to predict before the nomination were announced (some before nominations were even made, back when the award was simply announced), I’ve managed to guess 10 out of 16.  And I’m sure someone more closely tied to the German market could do significantly better.  The jury has always been clear about what they’re looking for; at most, there have been slow shifts in emphasis over time.  It’s not – as the wildly varying opinions throughout this series show – what any one person would pick as their favorite from among the serious possibilities, but instead the best overall pick for the German family market.

My favorite threads, however, are the prediction threads.  Mostly for the wishful thinking and lack of understanding of the eligibility requirements.  But there are always predictions of games that make no sense to me, even when you have a group familiar with the awards; when the Opinionated Gamers predicted the Kennerspiel des Jahres, one of the top choices was Five Tribes – which I felt (correctly, as it happened) didn’t stand a chance because of the real possibility of extended cogitation in the game.  I could just as easily have been wrong – but that wouldn’t have changed the amusement; it would simply have been my predictions which were entirely off-kilter.  And really, that’s where much of the amusement comes from – we’re all trying to predict the actions of a handful of folks most of us have never met – something of an Oscar party for gamers, in a sense.

Larry:  The SdJ’s have never spoken to me.  The winning game is rarely a favorite of mine, particularly recently–of the games chosen this century, only Hanabi is a title I’d ever suggest.  But as Chris points out, I’m not the target audience, so there’s little reason to expect these games to appeal to me.  More to the point, the award does a tremendous job of publicizing the gaming hobby, not only in Germany, but all over the world.  The introdution of the SdJ’s in 1979 was one of the turning points of the German game industry and has played a huge part in the growth of gaming worldwide.  And the enormous amount of discussion that always surrounds the lead-up to and announcement of the awards can only be good for the hobby.  For both historical and current reasons, I’m very glad the SdJ awards exist.


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5 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews: Series Conclusion

  1. reixou says:

    The was a recent interview (mid December) from Ludonnaute recently (in french) where the CEO states that the sales of Colt Express are now in the 250 000 + scale.

    Thank you for this series of article which where well structured, informative and entertaining. They will now serve as reference which I think is the highest praise I can find.

    Congratulation !

  2. Jacob Lee says:

    “Writing the game histories was my favorite part of working on this series.”

    The game histories were my favourite part to read so great job of writing those up!

  3. This was a great series to follow – thanks for all the work. Any thoughts on doing re-reviews of the KdJ winners?

  4. mac72 says:

    I really enjoyed this series of articles. Thanks a lot!

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