For those who aren’t in the know, the Spiel des Jahres are the Oscars of board gaming, only with a lot more credibility and less dresses. In Germany, winning is a big deal, because it really is a nod to being something above and beyond just a good game, to being a great game – and that can really drive up sales. Previous winners have been games which have changed how the industry and the hobby have functioned, like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. Recent winners include game-changing designs like Dominion and the genius of Seven Wonders.
Also, if you don’t know, we’re currently in a gaming golden age, so in 2011 the SdJ expanded from one category to three: kids games, general, and the Kennerspiel, which is like the board game geek’s games, the connoisseur’s game. That way they can include games that are brilliant in the general category, even though they might not bust your brain with their brilliant strategy of cube assembly. That said, Seven Wonders won the Kennerspiel in 2011, though some might call it quite light (the gorgeous describing fun of Dixit won the general). Both of those were highly deserved and I own both. 2012 it went to Village and Quirkle, respectively. Quirkle was noteworthy because again, like Dixit it was very family friendly – easy to teach, quick to play and full of symbol matching that was good for kids and brains.
Because they now have three categories, the jury can only nominate three games for each. The jury also recommends some games they think were of a high standard, because again: GOLDEN AGE, and because three is hard to get to. It’s a hell of a thing to get on that list. So let’s talk about them.
On the Kennerspiel list, we have some usual suspects: Brugge and The Palaces of Carara are both games about history, and about trade, and Brugge is an action-chosing game not unlike Puerto Rico and Race For the Galaxy, but with personalities and genius card matching. Carara has an insane spinny-thing in the middle but it is also familiar territory in that it is about balancing how much you benefit others to get what you need yourself, and multiple paths to victory in buying and selling. These games are probably great but I’m less interested in them then the third name on the list: The Legend of Andor. It’s important for two reasons: one, it’s co-operative, and two, it’s about telling a story.
From the blurb it seems not unlike Runescape or Descent, telling the tale of brave adventurers heading on a quest, but without a GM to foil them – instead they face a combination of the usual collaborative board game randomness and resource juggling, but also a story deck that builds a narrative. Exactly how that’s achieved I have yet to see but it’s interesting as hell. More and more storytelling games are coming out (look at Mice and Mystics, for example, which is effectively an RPG) and here is one not just on the SdJ list but on the KENNERSPIEL Des Jahres. A storytelling game that ranks with Settlers and Seven Wonders in elegance and design AND strategy? That’s amazing. It’s also, perhaps an indication of a trend: as the golden age grows, more and more of us are playing, and less and less of us like competition – and love stories.
Am I seeing what I want to see? Well, then consider this: two of the three general games are also collaborative. Quixx is a fast-paced dice game where you have to sort of get yahtzee, but all together, and other people can help you when it’s your turn. And Hanabi is a mind-bending card game where you can see everyone’s cards but your own, and you have to try and give limited clues to your friends so you all play your cards in the right order and on the right piles. Again, nothing against Augustus, the third entry, which is like super bingo: pulling random things out of a bag to match sets on cards, but you have to choose which cards to finish and which to abandon – it’s just not collaborative, so doesn’t prove my thesis.
I also want to mention La Boca, a game where two people work together to assemble blocks to fit the prescribed pattern – but they sit opposite each other and can only see their side of the object they are creating. It’s on the Recommended list from the judges, and like Hanabi is a game about communication: those who do it better, win more. And about teamwork, even if each team competes with others. I think this is a really interesting trend that looks at what we can use games to do – to not just teach maths or problem solving, but how to actually be better human beings, and celebrate those things.
Of course, this is just this year. Next year, it could be all cut-throat backstabbing Werewolf clones. But it’s definitely worthy of note that this year, half the games on the list are collaborative, and one of them is about telling a story. That has my attention. Oh yes.
Not all of these games are out in English yet, but you can read all about them on Board Game Geek. I also accept review copies.