When the Spiel des Jahres Fails You

Stick 'em up!
Stick ’em up!

Last year I wrote a defense of the Spiel des Jahres’s relevance and importance as an award. But I wrote it when it looked like Splendor was the clear victor for the award. I wrote it before Roll for the Galaxy was shut out of the Golden Geeks, and before the 2015 nominees for the Spiel des Jahres were announced, leaving me with no horses to back.

How do I feel about the Spiel des Jahres when my favorites are out of the running?

Well, much the same as I did last year.

First, a short discussion of the nominees for this year and why I’m disappointed. Of the three nominees, I have played one, Colt Express, and only once. While I liked the components of Colt Express and thought the game was okay, I thought it was missing something that would make it great. Namely, I felt there is a disconnect from the most fun part of the game (moving around the train, shootin’ at and punchin’ the other bandits, avoidin’ the marshall) and the goal of the game: grabbin’ the loot. Using an action to grab loot is what wins you the game, but it’s not the fun thing to do, and the difficulty of doing the daring thing (grabbing the briefcase on the locomotive) does not seem commensurate with the reward. (I had a similar problem with Rattlebones: the most fun part of the game–swapping the sides of your dice–isn’t what’s rewarded.)

So I didn’t like Colt Express. And the other nominees don’t excite me. While I’ve not played them, I’ve looked into both games, and they just don’t seem like my cup of tea. Machi Koro seems like the worst part of Catan (without Catan’s well-balanced mitigating factors), and The Game looks like something that has been done (and awarded) before, only in a less appealing package. I like the recommendations list better: I love One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Loony Quest is very good, and I could cheer on Andrew’s advocacy for Patchwork, even if my top choice, Witness, wasn’t even recommended. (I’m still holding out for a special prize a la Lord of the Rings.)

The Kennerspiel des jahres award looks more up my alley. I’ve not played any of the nominees yet, although Elysium and Orleans seem like games I would enjoy. I’m disappointed Deus isn’t included in the running (and that Roll for the Galaxy isn’t released in Germany and so is ineligible for the award), but such is life.

The defense of the Spiel des Jahres against people who disagree with the nominees is usually “Well, the award isn’t for you, GAMER, so go find an award that is for you.” But I admitted last year that the Spiel des Jahres is for me–so what do I do when I disagree with the nominees?

Well, from a practical standpoint, not a thing. The jury is losing not even a wink of sleep because FarmerLenny of iSlaytheDragon disagrees with their choices for nominees. And, ultimately, while I enjoy when things I like to win awards, at the end of the day, unless I am the publisher or creator of something, awards mean very little for me. I buy what I think I’ll like regardless of the awards listed on the front of the box.

But my thoughts are a little more nuanced in the case of the Spiel des Jahres. While I often disagree with the nominees the jury chooses, I’m rarely disappointed in the winners. Last year I thought Splendor was a shoo-in–and, indeed, it is still the game I would choose to win, now having played the nominees. But you know what? Camel Up is still a great game, and it’s one I would have passed over if it hadn’t received the award. I played Villa Paletti (which won the award in 2002) for the first time recently. I only bought it because I found it cheap in another BGG user’s auction in which I was already buying something, and since it was a Spiel des Jahres winner, I thought it might be worth a shot. And while the other game I bought languishes, unplayed, in my small games drawer, I’ve played Villa Paletti close to ten times and can’t wait to play some more.

This consistently has been my experience with the Spiel des Jahres winners. Regardless of how fun they look to me, they are often some of my most played games, either because I love them or because someone I love loves them. My brother-in-law explained the concept of Dominion (2008 winner) to me, and it sounded boring. Dominion is now my most-played game by a long shot and vies with El Grande (another winner) for my favorite game of all time. (I just acquired the ninth–ninth–expansion for Dominion and haven’t tired of it yet.) Rummy on a board sounds just okay, but playing Ticket to Ride is a tense blast every single time, and it still sees frequent play in my family. Carcassonne received upward of thirty plays before it entered hiatus, and it’s entering rotation again, fresh as ever. While I usually purchase games that look good to me regardless of the accolades (no number of Golden Geeks will make me rebuy Love Letter), I usually buy games that have been awarded the Spiel des Jahres regardless because the award so rarely steers me wrong.

This, mind you, is in spite of my misgivings about the games in advance. In this year’s case, I already think Colt Express is just mediocre, and I’m not interested in Machi Koro or The Game. But you know what? Whichever game wins I will likely give another shot. And given my experience with the award in the past, I (or those I play games with most often) will probably like it, and probably like it for a long time to come. Because despite being a reviewer and being very much in tune with my tastes, there are still games that surprise me. (As mentioned above, Villa Paletti is one of them.) And with the Spiel des Jahres jury members playing each nominee twenty or more times–which is more than I’ve played them in forming my negative opinion of the nominees–I can be assured that each game has legs, at least with some groups.

So here’s my thought: when the Spiel des Jahres fails you, it just might be waiting to surprise you. This, at least, is the hope I have for this year’s award, whichever game wins.

What about you? What do you think of this year’s nominees? Sound off in the comments!

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Interesting musings, Andrew. Can you let us know your source for the claim that each nominated game is played 20 times? I ask because in the interview below with a Spiel des Jahres judge, he states that “There is no general rule [about how many times a game is played to judge it for the Spiel des Jahres]. It depends on the complexity of the game.”

  2. I can see what you mean about the fun part of Colt Express being the shooting, punching, and messing up other players’ plans. And even though loot is the sought-after way to get points and win, in our games it seems the players that get the $1,000 reward for being the top gunslinger win most of the time (or pretty close). So there is a solid reward for shooting a lot.

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