It almost seems like a tradition: every year, the jury of the German Spiel des Jahres award publishes their list of nominees. And every year, the same kind of discussions come up like clockwork: why is game X not on the list? Why IS game Y on the list, it’s three years old? How can THAT be the best game of the year?
TLDR: The “Spiel des Jahres” is specifically for the German market and it isn’t the Oscars of board gaming, it’s the UNESCO heritage awards. Let me explain …
A Little Bit of Context
Board gaming as a hobby has exploded in the last 10-15 years. Sure, there were board games long before, but there is a noticeable amount of people that joined our hobby in recent years. Just think about all the podcasters and YouTubers whose first non-children game was Battlestar Galactica (2008), Spirit Island (2017) or Viticulture (2015). Board gaming has become a huge industry with single Kickstarter gathering millions of dollars, professional board game YouTubers, and even larger supermarkets carrying board games as part of their normal offering. But it wasn’t always so …
Germany has a long tradition of board games and the German market for a very long time was much stronger than the board game market anywhere else in the world. Still, in the 80s and up to the mid 90s, toy stores usually only carried games for small children or the usual suspects of Monopoly, Game of Life, Risk and Cluedo. If you were lucky and lived close to one of the big city, you might have access to a single store that carried a wider selection of games, but a lot of people didn’t. There was little incentive for stores to carry anything else than the classics because who would buy them?
In came the Spiel des Jahres. A handful of journalists and other interested people decided to form an association and create the award. Their goal was not to figure out what the objectively best game was (an impossibility anyway) but to promote the cultural good of board gaming by awarding a game as “the game of the year”. They established a logo and name that the public would – over the years – learn to recognise and publishers could put on their box while taking license fees for the use of that logo / name to fund the association. And they did this with remarkable success: I remember a time where whenever parents or grand parents wanted to gift a game for Christmas, they went to a store and picked up whatever got the award that year. They often didn’t have any interest or experience in board games themselves, so having the recognisable logo on the box really helped to not end up buying something that would only get played once. Sounds strange? Imagine nowadays you would have to buy a VR game for someone else and you neither have access to the internet nor any interest in VR yourself. You too would probably also pick whatever got an award you recognise.
Availability and Range
For much of the 80s and 90s, it was almost a tradition to get gifted the Spiel des Jahres winner from someone, anyone in the family. For the award to have any impact, it necessarily had to fulfil a number of criteria: it had to be available for purchase in Germany (ideally in time for Christmas) even in non-speciality stores, affordable, appeal to a wide range of people, … but also it needed to be different. As I said, a large number of people got every or most of the Spiel des Jahres winners. So if you got 3-4 in a row, you wouldn’t want to end up with either 4 Hanabi or 4 Tikals. I remember Tikal in particular as a quite controversial winner because it was considered too heavy at the time. But it definitely broadened a lot of people’s horizons what board games could do.
Over the years, the Spiel des Jahres has been awarded to some absolute bangers while other picks had people scratching their heads. 1990’s Hoity Toity, 1993’s Bluff, 1995’s Catan, 2000’s Torres, 2001’s Carcassonne were all pretty much revelations at the time they came out. But there were also 2002’s Villa Paletti, 2005’s Niagara, 2008’s Keltis that were all quickly forgotten, at least in my circle of friends. But if you pick any 5 consecutive winners, you pretty much have a solid collection where you have something to play with anyone from your aunt to your gamer friend.
Effects of the Spiel des Jahres
There are more subtle effects as well. In some cases, games (at least according to rumours) were awarded the Spiel des Jahres not solely because that particular game was the best of the year but because the author or publishers had over multiple years done an amazing job to enrich the hobby. I guess in that sense the Spiel des Jahres IS kind of like the Oscars.
In the early years, getting the Spiel des Jahres often increased the number of copies sold by one or two orders (!) of magnitude as it would be stocked in every toy store in Germany as well as larger convenience stores. It also drove the price down considerably, widening the potential audience. I personally know at least one author who had done an amazing job creating wonderful games for over a decade to much critical acclaim but never that much of financial returns. If I remember correctly, winning the Spiel des Jahres was sort of like winning the lottery for him and his name literally became a household name.
Over the years, the bandwidth of games and interests grew, so the Kinderspiel des Jahres (games for children) and Kennerspiel des Jahres (sort of for people with active interest in the hobby that know/play a lot of games) were added. And also with those, discussions started almost immediately why not this game or that game won. The simple answer is: because a jury of an association that created itself thinks that game will for the most people have the biggest positive impact on the hobby. It’s not for the person that is on BGG, it’s not necessarily for the casual or non-gamer either. The jury considers the whole population of Germany and what game could boost the hobby overall the most. If a game for example hadn’t had a wide German release yet, it’s not eligible.
Compared to Deutscher Spielerei
Still, the Kennerspiel in particular was always in a weird place. On the one hand it has a broad mission similar to the Spiel des Jahres but on the other hand shall appeal to a small segment of the hobby. There are other awards with other goals. Sticking with German awards, a lot of mid- to heavy-gamers prefer the Deutscher Spielepreis to the Spiel des Jahres. It’s an award created by the people that manage the SPIEL game convention in Essen and is not awarded by a jury but by players voting. There have been some controversies regarding this in the past as well, but the list of nominees speaks for itself. Past winners include: Ark Nova, Lost Ruins of Arnak, the Crew, Wingspan, …
It’s a great list for enthusiastic gamers, but definitely not a recommendation for the general public. I still remember the family I bought my copy of Wingspan from. They were shocked by how complex the rules were as they had been told it’s “a nice game about birds” and had given up. It almost sounded like they had given up on board games in general due to the experience. So while Wingspan is a great game, as a Spiel des Jahres it might have done more harm than good. But as a Kennerspiel des Jahres, it was better positioned between mass appeal and mid/heavy gamers. This just to illustrate that the jury of the Spiel des Jahres has to consider many, many aspects besides the quality of a game itself.
Nowadays, I own more games that were nominees of the Deutscher Spielepreis than the Spiel des Jahres (sold off most of those over the years). But the Spiel des Jahres still remains probably the most important board gaming award. Not only for the immense role it played in getting the hobby to where it is today, but also for continuing to bring gaming to the masses. It’s still doing what it set out to do: award games that strength the hobby, not award the “best” game. So if you’re wondering “why is THAT game nominated?”, it’s probably because of that.