Below are the reactions of some of our writers to the SdJ nominations.
Chris Wray: When I heard the nominees this morning, I was struck by how much the SdJ has changed since I started following it several years ago.
I’ve written material the length of a book — literally — on the history of the Spiel des Jahres and its winners. And this year’s nominations, when combined with last year’s, have my interest in the award waning. I may even break apart my beloved Spiel des Jahres collection to make room for other games.
From my vantage point, the SdJ has become less and less about awarding innovative, family-weight games, and more about trying to predict what ultra-light game will become popular in the coming year. It feels like the ghost of Colt Express is haunting the award: faced with a winner that just wasn’t that popular, the jury appears to be engaging in a multi-year correction of trying to validate itself by picking games with more mass market appeal. (Or, if one were being cynical, the correction is about trying to pick games that will give them enough of the revenue they earn by licensing their logo onto game boxes.)
I don’t blame them, necessarily, even if I think their strategy is a poor one long term. But as a commentator on such things, I think it is pretty clear that the award is changing: we now have enough data to posit that many wildly popular winners of years past (Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and especially Dominion) might not hit the right notes for today’s jury. And given the turnover in jury membership, that is unsurprising: it is literally not the same group of people as just a few years ago.
I get the purpose of the SdJ — nobody needs to comment and tell me I’m missing the point, because trust me, I’ve written that article a few dozen times — but there is just nothing for me personally to be excited about in this year’s SdJ nominations. I used to be the award’s target audience.
But now it has veered too light, too repetitive, and too predictable for even me. And given that I, as a reviewer, seek to represent the lighter (and maybe even lightest) weight wing of this hobby, that means that the SdJ is now probably entirely too light for hobby gamers. I’ve long pushed back on the fact that the award wasn’t for gamers. But now maybe that’s true.
MicroMacro — which everybody is thinking of as the presumptive winner — was a bust with me. I was amused enough by the early cases, but I do not appreciate being hunched over a large poster (and that’s what this is) with a poor excuse for a magnifying glass (which is all they include) trying to answer intentionally obtuse questions to a fixed puzzle (which, to me, makes it not a game). The novelty wore off quickly, and given that the “game” could easily be done better, I doubt MicroMacro will be with us in a few years.
I have not played the other nominees. I’m excited for The Adventures of Robin Hood, I suppose. I’m less excited for Zombie Teenz Evolution because I didn’t care for its predecessor game (Zombie Kidz Evolution) and I don’t see much difference having read the rules.
I think it is cool that all three games are cooperative games. But in many ways, that fact proves some of my points above. And none of them, at least to me, seem to be groundbreaking cooperative games: these aren’t Pandemic or Hanabi.
I’m more impressed by a couple of the Kennerspiel nominees, but again, the jury is veering ultra-light. The BGG weight for Fantasy Realms is 1.76, a score lighter than many (if not most) of the SdJ winners of the past. I adore both Paleo and Lost Ruins of Arnak, but I don’t believe that Fantasy Realms (which has been out for a few years, just not in Germany) ever made much of a splash where it was released, so I fail to see why it deserves a nomination in Germany now.
Eric Martin: “I used to be the award’s target audience” is a quote that also applies to me, but that statement remains true to this day. I greatly enjoyed playing MicroMacro: Crime City with my son, who roleplayed as a detective throughout the cases we played together, and I’m not bothered by this design not being a game.
To counter Chris’ statement, I don’t think the Spiel des Jahres has ever been about “awarding innovative, family-weight games”, but rather has consistently been “about trying to predict what ultra-light game will become popular in the coming year”, with the SdJ award contributing to that game’s popularity. The jury wants to pick something that casual game players might not have heard about otherwise, but will likely enjoy.
Like Chris, I’ve yet to play the other two nominees, so I can say nothing about them.
Chris Wray (Redux): Far be it for me to argue with Eric Martin, who I consider one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable voices in the hobby and industry. But his suggestion that the SdJ has not always been about innovative family-weight games is unsupported in the historical record and contradicted by the jury’s own statements. If somebody had said that this wasn’t all about innovative games in the family weight range when I was writing my SdJ series, I would have been a bit taken aback, and frankly, I’m a bit taken aback to see it suggested here years later.
The very first criteria on the jury’s website is: “Does [the game] have a completely new concept or does it bring existing elements together to create a new experience?” Simply put, originality is what they claim to be their first concern, even if it may be the first among equals. And that is supported by history: the jury has, at times, sought to use the award to advance innovation in certain classes of games, including, in one case, games on the heavier end of the spectrum. The SdJ has always been about innovation, and it wouldn’t have driven the growth of the hobby if that weren’t the case. The award was literally founded, at least in part, to award innovation in game design.
In their public statements, both in their retrospectives and in their annual press releases, the jury has always emphasized that games must be original, impactful, and have an appeal to families (not just gamers). I’d say there is decidedly a line between those noble goals and the nomination results we’ve gotten the past couple of years. And that is my criticism today, which is a repeat of my criticism last year, when I noted that the jury has failed in their duty to find the intersection of what German families would like and what gamers would like.
But I’ll add another criticism: the line between the SdJ and KdJ has become so thin as to become meaningless. I said this last year, but now that I’ve studied the data a bit more, it bears repeating: I’m hard pressed to find any semblance of a line — or even a range — that distinguishes games in the two categories.
The Spiel des Jahres has an unmatched historical significance in the gaming hobby and industry. But as somebody who has written about the award considerably, I can’t help but feel that the current jury is failing to live up to the legacy they have inherited.
Brandon K: I think this is kind of what happens when you have a worldwide pandemic and games are slow to get to marketplace due to production slow downs, slow down in desire to design, slow down in the ability to play test and most of all the inability to market games the old fashioned way, via well attended conventions (which I’m kinda happy about, thought maybe this year would change things on that front, but I appear to be wrong).
Chris worries about games of the past being nominated if they were released now, and I think that’s a valid point. Another point would be that these current games would probably never be even recommended in the days of yore (speaking of SdJ only). I know that sometimes we can be guilty of looking at things through rose tinted glasses, but I don’t know where or how anyone makes the argument that Micro Macro is anywhere nearly as well designed and important as a Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne, or even El Grande, which was way heavy for an SdJ nominee, but was a wonderfully done important German design that influenced most everything after it.
There really seems to be a shift in what the jury values over the years. I don’t know what is driving it, maybe it’s the games, or maybe it’s the money involved in gaming now, I don’t know. The SdJ now seems to be on par with most of the other Awards that pop up that seemingly don’t want to award important games as much as they want to award a game that they can slap their logo on to make some money from it. Which is a shame, as I did hold the SdJ jury up as kind of a beacon of games tastemakers. It just appears they would prefer to be less tastemakers and more of a commercial award.
All in all this is probably in part because of the huge shift in gaming away from the “gamer” realm and more into the casual gaming that has been moving over the past few years and more than partially brought on by a worldwide pandemic and families looking for things to do. Micro Macro is the perfect time waster in game box form. It’s a Where’s Waldo, for those families who grew up with that and looked for something to do during the pandemic. It really offers no challenge other than being able to sit and look at a map long enough to find the right clues, and if you can’t, just take the hint and move on.
I love lightweight family games, I’ve long said that my family would probably be a perfect example of an American family who the SdJ is perfect for, but even we have not been terribly impressed over the last couple years. Heck, it’s to the point I would prefer Colt Express.
That all said, I think the KdJ is probably in line, although I’ve still not played Fantasy Realms, so I can’t speak of it, but I was kind of amazed at some of the recommendations and their weight.
Larry: When I first discovered German games, the SdJ’s were in the midst of a 6-year period where heavier games were being rewarded. So the late nineties had winners like Settlers, El Grande, Elfenroads, Tikal, and Torres. Not exactly heavyweights, but much heavier than any recent award winners. I had no reason to believe things would change, but they did (I remember feeling betrayed when they chose Carcassonne in 2001). The award has gotten steadily lighter over the years and now it seems as if only party-style and uber-light designs need apply.
I’m perfectly fine with that, because, outside of the historical aspect, I lost interest in the SdJ’s a long time ago. The Kennerspiels have potential, but most years, they’re also lighter than the types of game I prefer. To be honest, I thought this was a good group of games that got nominations and recommendations this year. You can call it low expectations, but it’s true that I view it as a victory when games that I have at least some interest in playing get mentioned.
Eric Martin: I’m happy to be argued against, and I agree that my comment about the SdJ jury being consistent “about trying to predict what ultra-light game will become popular in the coming year” is incorrect when looking at all the winners since 1979 — but for me I stop considering titles prior to 2001, that being the reset year in which the jury chose Carcassonne after selecting Torres the previous year.
The six-year period from Catan in 1995 to Torres in 2000 is the aberration, and aside from Dominion in 2009, I think the SdJ jury has been fairly consistent over the past two decades, and I can easily imagine Hanabi, Keltis, Qwirkle, Niagara, and yes, Villa Paletti being nominated for — or even winning — the award today.
To address Brandon’s concerns, the SdJ jury addresses the question of revenue from the award on its website:
“The jury works on a voluntary basis, members receive no financial compensation for their games-related activities, testing, evaluating and discussing new releases. They only receive expenses – travel, accommodation and sundry costs – when they are travelling in their capacity as jury members: to the annual ‘Spiel des Jahres’ awards ceremonies, selected trade fairs and conventions as well as internal committee meetings. For activities in excess of their normal duties, such as executive board activities, co-ordination of the children’s game jury and speaking appearances, jury members are paid a sum of 20 Euro per hour, pre-tax.”
“The revenue serves exclusively to finance the work of the jury and the greater task of promoting games within society and the family. The association has a full-time managing director, operates a headquarters, undertakes extensive public relations work with its publications and events, funds an annual grant for new games designers, supports the ‘playing for tolerance’ initiative, organises internal games scene meet-ups with events such as the ‘Board Game Critics’ Day’ and finances further activities which advance the position of the board game in society. With the incentive programme, launched in 2012, ‘Spiel des Jahres’ subsidizes projects on a large scale, which are undertaken by societies, educational institutions, church groups, local authorities and private individuals with the objective of promoting games as a cultural asset. Although the association has idealistic motivations, these are not recognised by the tax office as tax-privileged purposes in a legally required sense. That is why ‘Spiel des Jahres’ must also pay tax.”
Brandon K: Yes, I am aware that no one is getting rich off putting the red Pöppel on game boxes, but it seems to be becoming far more of a branding, than something that actually means anything. I am glad to see that the income is being used for the greater good of gaming, but maybe the need for funding for those projects has kind of caused some of this. Having to put the red Pöppel on game boxes that are going to sell versus taking a risk with games that are innovative.
Chris Wray (Part III): Eric makes a good argument above about the award veering lighter after Carcassonne, but I still think they had a nice decade and half streak where they found an intersection between gamers and the mass market (to which I offer credit to the leadership of Tom Felber). I also think there were a few games in there at least as heavy as the KdJ nominees of today: not just Dominion, but also Niagara, Thurn & Taxis, Kingdom Builder, and Colt Express.
But here’s a fun thought experiment: what would have happened if the SdJ jury had awarded games like Villa Paletti several years in a row? I think SdJ would have awarded itself into irrelevance. I believe that’s what it is doing now. Have new gamers even heard of Villa Paletti? The answer is surely “no.” I’ve been going to game nights and conventions for more than a decade and I’ve literally never seen anybody other than myself bring it to play!
Just One was wildly popular, so I’ll forgive it (arguably) being the lightest SdJ winner. But Pictures is possibly the least original SdJ winner in the 40+ years of the award’s existence: it is just Barbarossa and Dixit with different (and worse) components. And now we might be on the cusp of a MicroMacro win? I would have never supposed that Where’s Waldo with more obtuse questions was a serious candidate for the SdJ, but that’s the strange world in which I find myself.
Larry: Eric is absolutely right when he points out that the late nineties were an aberration for the SdJ’s. It came about due to the extraordinary popularity of Settlers and the good sales of the next year’s surprise selection, the unusually heavy El Grande. It ended abruptly when the 2000 pick, Torres, sold abysmally. The jury reorganized and went back to focusing on lighter, more family-friendly games. So it’s wrong to hold up this 6-year period as a standard for the SdJ’s. I only mentioned it because I discovered German games during this period, so the shift for the jury had more impact to me than it did for most.
Still, I’m not sure I completely agree with Eric that the games considered for the award today are of the same weight as the ones cited before Settlers and after Torres. It’s a matter of degree, but I do feel the SdJ nominees are lighter than they ever have been. This is particularly obvious when you consider the games which were nominated, but didn’t win, games which the jury felt were worthy of consideration of an SdJ award. These include designs like Puerto Rico and Maharaja, for heaven’s sake–titles that wouldn’t even manage a KdJ nomination today. So yes, there’s no question that the awards have trended toward lighter designs in recent years.
However, I don’t share Chris’ apocalyptic view. The jury is made up of smart and very well connected individuals who have a clear objective for the award. It may not match up with the desires of many gamers, but it seems to be working for them. There’s no question that as the number of people interested in board games has expanded, there’s a big push towards lighter and more accessible games. The jury is simply adjusting to accommodate these changing tastes, as they routinely do. And for the people who count on the SdJ’s to inform them, there seems to be no loss of confidence. For example, I’ve seen many folks express their love of MicroMacro and their satisfaction that it got nominated. I predict the SdJ’s will continue to shape the industry for years to come, even as more seasoned gamers continue to ignore it.
I also can’t agree with Chris’ contention that there’s no line between the SdJ’s and the KdJ’s. While I will grant you that what the jury considers to be a “connoisseur’s” game appears to be a moving target, there is no way that you can say that Niagara is of the same weight as Lost Ruins of Arnak. Both Arnak and Paleo feel like very appropriate nominees for the KdJ and even though the award lacks consistency, I’m still glad it’s around to put a spotlight on middleweight designs that have no chance of getting SdJ recognition.
One final point: if you really want to use the SdJ’s as a guide to some good heavier games, check out the KdJ recommended titles. From the very beginning of the award, these lists have included very good games and the majority of them are medium/heavy or outright heavy designs. This year, I was very surprised (but totally delighted) to see them recommend Barrage; if you had told me right after that game’s ill-fated Kickstarter campaign that it would eventually get an SdJ mention, I would have said you were nuts. But there it was, a testament to the game’s brilliance and the jury’s good judgment. I don’t think the jury gets enough credit for the quality of it’s KdJ recommended games, so I wanted to mention it here.
Chris Wray (Part IV): Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
Both awards are doubtlessly getting lighter. And though I only show the winners above (with the exception of 2021, which is an average of the nominees), it is worth noting that had I plotted out the KdJ nominees, they often veer into the SdJ territory. Once again, Fantasy Realms is a 1.76!
The jury is making the band of games they award exceptionally narrow. If they want to keep the reputation they’ve built over 40 years, I see that as an unsustainable restraint. This was never going to be the heavy award, but they’ve veered into a territory that will just lose the market of core gamers.
Eric Martin: I would argue that the SdJ jury is concerned only about the market of core German gamers, and MicroMacro: Crime City suits this market to a densely-packed T.
Game designer Jeffrey D. Allers has mentioned on the OG mailing list that wimmerbilderbücher — that is, “swarming picture books” — are incredibly popular in Germany and have been for decades. Someone pointed out to me that author and illustrator Ali Mitgutsch, who has been creating these types of books since the late 1960s (two decades prior to Where’s Waldo? becoming a trend), turned 85 in 2020 and was apparently all over the German media, and a game based on this concept makes perfect sense as something to highlight for a German audience. It’s a new way to think about games, using material that will likely be familiar to everyone in the (German) market for a game this holiday season.
Luke Hedgren: Looking at Chris’ chart above, it seems to me that the presence of the KdJ has allowed the SdJ to skew lower on the complexity scale. In the past, they had to pick one game to encompass all needs. Now, they can cover both bases. Why does the SdJ need to hit the hobby market when the KdJ can suffice?
Simon Weinberg: (a) I love Pictures and so does everyone who I’ve played it with. On the contrary I’m not a fan of Dixit but understand it’s appeal.
(b) what’s wrong with Colt Express? It’s one of the most popular quick games at my club.
(c ) Both Codenames and Just One are in my opinion fantastic party games and well deserved successful and innovative designs.
So..sorry Chris, I can’t agree that the jury are losing their touch. But I do agree that there is more call for lighter, quicker games. You only have to look at most publishers websites to see that they are preferentially looking for 60 minute games.
Jeff Lingwall: 1. Chris’s graph and Luke’s comment are fascinating- by splitting the award, the jury no longer needed to draw innovative, somewhat heavier games into SdJ, because they could reserve them for the KdJ. Of course, the trend even before the introduction of the KdJ was already towards lighter games, from the graph, and the KdJ itself has then trended lighter and lighter. Chris’s note on Fantasy Realms highlights this – this is not a particularly heavy or complex design. The card interactions can be intricate, but there’s nothing particularly hefty to the rules or actions. 2. Larry appears correct to note the 90’s were somewhat of an “aberration”, I wonder if that was a result of innovation in the overall market rather than a sequence of odd choices by the jury. 3. When I reflect on the history of the award, I have to put it in context of my family. We’re probably as close to what I consider the target market for the 90’s era “aberration” winners as could be assembled. We have six kids, between ages 2 and 15, who have all been gaming their entire lives. We play games regularly together, and they play games with each other regularly. The slightly heavier Spiel winners have often been great successes here, but the ultra-light winners have typically been reserved for “company” games when we need something to fill half an hour with friends. So we’ve played, e.g., Colt Express, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and so on together, while games like Dixit, Codenames, and Just One come out mostly for guests. The kids often enjoy a somewhat deeper family game, and the SdJ itself isn’t trending towards rewarding that audience. Perhaps we need the SdJ for parties, the KdJ for game groups, and the GFdJ, for Gamer Families ….
Chris (In Conclusion): For the avoidance of doubt, I have nothing against the jury picking exceptional games on the lighter side of the spectrum. My complaint is that, by narrowing the range of their winners, they’ve restricted themselves to games that aren’t all that original, because not every year will have a highly original game on the light end of the spectrum, as 2020 and 2021 show. And in doing so, they will find themselves picking games that are not at the intersection of the preferences of the mass market and gamers. And in that regard, they risk losing some of their biggest fans and proponents. (I also think it is a bit of an error to think the mass market doesn’t want medium weight games.)
Would Carcassonne win today? I hope it would. But I think it wouldn’t. When I wrote the SdJ series, my working conclusion was that either Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne would win a SdJ playoff: put all of the winners against each other and see which game would come out on top. Today, I think the winner would be Just One. I adore that game… but I don’t think it holds a candle to Carcassonne or TTR.
And I do think the SdJ-KdJ distinction is all over the place when looking at the nominees. We here at the Opinionated Gamers are a well-connected and highly experienced bunch. And in the last two years, we have had ten games on both of our SdJ and KdJ prediction lists. In other words, there were nearly a dozen games where we couldn’t even tell which category they’d fall into. This was most pronounced last year, when this group called The Crew for SdJ, and it instead won the KdJ. But even this year some of the games ultimately nominated made both lists. So this isn’t a problem that exists just to me: the publicly-available track record shows the writers on this site are just as confused as I am. The only difference is that I’m one of the few admitting it!
The SdJ is still far ahead of most other game awards. Maybe it will stay that way. But as I asked above: what would have happened if, in the mid-2000s, the jury had kept picking games like Villa Paletti? I posit the award would not have retained its popularity. I think we’re about to see a real world version of that experiment.