What is the "Spiel des Jahres"?

by Moritz Eggert

Transcript of our podcast from 6 May 2006

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This time I'm going to talk about Germany's most coveted gaming award: "The Spiel des Jahres", which means "Game of the year". The "Spiel des Jahres" was founded 1979 and quickly became an important factor in German gaming sales, as publishers found out that the "Spiel des Jahres" logo on a game box would immediately catapult it's sales upwards dramatically. This was already the case with the first "Spiel des Jahres", "Hase und Igel" (Hare an Tortoise) which became incredibly successful with it's elegant and widely appealing theme and beautiful game art, and immediately cemented the reputation of the award as a credible recommendation for a good game. Interestingly enough Hare and Tortoise was not created by a German designer, but by David Parlett, an English designer.

If we look at the competition of the first Spiel des Jahres award we find classics like Acquire by Sid Sackson and Twixt by Alex Randolph, another 2 foreign game designers who were essential in the later development of the "Euro game" phenomenon that began to bloom shyly in these years. In fact there is not ONE German game designer on the list, although most of the games were published by German companies.

If we look just one year later, 1980, we see that the lure of the Spiel des Jahres had already affected the minds of German game designers. Although the winner this year was a relatively conventional but clever game like "Rummikub", we find two names which became much more important later on, the names of Reinhold Wittig with his wonderful dice game "Spiel" and the designer-meister Wolfgang Kramer, with "Niki Laudas Formel 1", a game which only hints at the great games that Kramer would design later on.

The trend for German game designers continued - in 1981 Sid Sackson won the Spiel des Jahres with Focus, but there are already 5 names of German game designers in the list.

The winner of 1982, Sagaland, was co-designed by Sid Sackson and Michael Matschoss, a German; then again a British designer took the lead 1983, with "Dampfross" by David Watts (which is equivalent to the game "Railway Rivals").

A weird choice was "Sherlock Holmes Criminal Cabinet" (Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective) in 1984, but 1984 was the year of crime party games, and this game is certainly an excellent design that is still considered a classic.

Finally the German gaming scene comes to it's own with the first win by a German author - who else but Wolfgang Kramer with his game "Heimlich & Co" in 1985, which is still considered one of his finest games and is one of the most popular Euro games ever. Apart of an Alex Randolph design the whole list now consists of German authors, among them Bernd Brunnhofer by Hans im Glueck who later designed games like "St. Petersburg".

Since then the award mostly went to German author's designs, but not exclusively. Among the notable exceptions are classics like "Liar's Dice" by Richard Borg, also called "the better of the two game designers with the initials R.B.", and Alan Moon with "Elfenland". The award can go to any game published in Germany; it doesn't have to be by a German designer.

The jury, which consists of influential German game reviewers, is proud that most of their selections from way back are still in print, which is very rare if you look at the fleeting game market where most games have a shelf life of 1-2 years.

The Spiel des Jahres is announced in two steps: First there is an "Auswahlliste" (a selection list) which is published way before the winner is announced in a big ceremony. Among German gamers the Auswahlliste is always an incentive to discuss possible winners, there are even competitions where people try to guess the right result beforehand and can win prizes, something I've never heard of the Origin Awards for example. In the last years there has been a definite trend, which has been proven year after year: The Spiel des Jahres usually has to be a family compatible, not too complicated but clever and unique game. The game that is best but a little more gamer orientated (like for example Knizia's "Euphrat und Tigris") will never win the Spiel des Jahres, but has good chances to win the "Deutscher Spielepreis", which is more of a gamers' award for gamers.

The jury itself considers "El Grande" the most complicated game that ever won a "Spiel des Jahres" (it's a Kramer game). This still didn't prevent "El Grande" from becoming very successful, even in non gamer circles. I personally consider it one of the best "Spiel des Jahres" ever.

Being mentioned on the "Auswahlliste" is already a big honour for a game, and most companies will be happy to print already that on the box cover. But why is the award itself so important? The reason is the publicity - the "Spiel des Jahres" is actually announced in the German press, so normal major newspapers will report about it, something that is probably not imaginable in the US. If a mother goes into the toy store (German toy stores usually have a huge selection of board games) asking about which game to buy for her family's Christmas holiday, the store attendant will invariably recommend the "Spiel des Jahres" to her. As German mothers go to the toy stores often and as gaming is a publicly accepted hobby with a good reputation in Germany you can imagine that this really is a recommendation that has an impact on the actual sales of games here.

May your beer never be stale and may your knight's armour never rust,

Moritz Eggert

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