Spiel des Jahres 2018

I’m away on holiday right now, so enjoy this translation of my article about the Spiel des Jahres award ceremony.

It is 10 a.m. Outside, the sun is busily turning asphalt into black goop. True to cliché we are hiding away in the air conditioned premises of the Swissôtel Berlin. The Spiel des Jahres award ceremony is about to begin. It is arguably the most prestigious award this industry has to offer. Although some do not hesitate in advance to mention their profound indifference to it. Usually unprompted. Or how little relevance the award has to them: the connoisseur. It’s true, though. If you don’t work in the industry, you are unlikely to be affected by the consequences of the award. But getting that big red token on your game box (affectionately called Pöppel in German) or the black one, to a lesser extent, as well means a big deal to a publisher and an author. “Our contact at the printers has already been warned. If we get the award, they will get the go ahead today and the new print run will start tonight.” Thorsten Gimmler of Schmidt games confides to me. He admits to being nervous, even though Schmidt publishes two of the three nominations for Kennerspiel. Then again, Asmodee was in the same boat in 2016 but still went home empty-handed that night. But Gimmler and author Wolfgang Warsch have reason to be happy today. Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg gets the nod and beats out Heaven & Ale, which many had already considered too complex for the award; as well as the lighter Roll & Write game Ganz Schön Clever (also by Warsch at Schmidt Spiele). As the winner is revealed there is a triumphant cheer coming from the front row, where authors, publishers and various representatives are seated. Emotions are running high. And why wouldn’t they? This is recognition by your peers and the press. For an author this is the foot in the door with any big name publishers.

Something that Matt Leacock brings up as well as we chat afterwards. This award holds a special significance, of course. Even if his Pandemic games and the Forbidden series (Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert and later this year Forbidden Sky) have won numerous awards and sold very well. It’s the fourth time he has come to Berlin, and for the first time he gets to carry home a huge wooden ‘Pöppel’ for the Sonderpreis 2018 for Pandemic Legacy Season 2. He will have a great time explaining it to border patrol at the airport, since it’s easily big and heavy enough to bludgeon somebody to death with it. He is still proud to be associated with cooperative games. It’s no small feat to create as big a hit as Pandemic after all. Rob Daviau, his co-creator in the sensational and highly recommended Pandemic Legacy series, agrees. He has yet to experience that Leonard Nimoy moment where he wants to distance himself from his most popular creation. He popularized the Legacy idea of permanent changes in a board game through play. While he has had a prolific career before, to most interviewers he remains ‘that Legacy guy’. We talk briefly about his last game ‘Mountains of Madness‘ and why it didn’t quite find its audience. This is surely in part due to the deluge of games released each year. But it also seemed that players didn’t quite know how to deal with the unusual tone of the game. A mixture of a solid cooperative game and whimsy. A term for which there is no direct translation in German. This is so amusing to Daviau that he puts it in a tweet. It didn’t quite feel with people’s expectations. Lovecraft is supposed to be dead serious after all. How can such a game be whimsical? Or even have a sense of humour? The emotions you experience seemed incompatible. Because that is what games are really about: emotions. Rules, components and concepts are supposed to lead the group towards a specific emotional experience. At least that is how Leacock approaches designing games and the success of Pandemic and the jury’s Sonderpreis proves him right.

Today’s big winner, though, is Azul by Michael Kiesling. While almost unanimously predicted to win, many had hoped – myself included – that the little game that could: The Mind would win out in the end. Because when it comes to emotions, this game delivers. As the quick introductory video during the ceremony amply proves. Laughter, joy and a shared howl of frustration when the wrong card hits the table. A representative of publisher NSV mentions that all European licenses had already been sold before the nominees had been even been named. Afterwards they even managed to license the game in the US and Taiwan. To that end The Mind doesn’t really need the sales boost, that winning the award would bring for the rest of the year. Our even beyond. But Luxor by Rüdiger Dorn and Queen Games also miss out this time. As impressive and ingenious the card play mechanism may have been in the eyes of jury member Martin Klein, there was little to be done against the highly polished product development of Azul. The delicate balance of depth and accessibility won out. The two levels of peacefully playing side by side, as you optimize your tableau and the shrewd moves that push a bunch of negative points on another player are representative of the modern board game in 2018. But Martin Klein disagrees vehemently with my explanation. The Spiel des Jahres Award doesn’t go to the most representative game of the year, or even the best one. The market is simply too layered for that. The award may be try to capture something of that year’s Zeitgeist, but what the jury is really looking for is the game that can best serve as this year’s calling card for the hobby. It should be an entry point for the overwhelmed new gamer out there. The game that is most likely to intrigue and generate interest in the hobby. It’s the game most likely to – as pretentious as it may sound – promote board gaming as a cultural good. Which is why the jury’s decision to vote for Azul, while far from daring, is entirely consistent with its aims. It’s a game that is unlikely to scare off new players. It allows for discoveries and surprises even after multiple plays. Azul’s ease of play might encourage an inexperienced gamer to give those other big, ominous game boxes standing on that game shop’s shelf and promising fun and excitement a try.

After the ceremony Azul’s designer Michael Kiesling ist hard to get ahold of in the press room. He shows up for a handful of interviews, but later and much to the disappointment of podcasters, bloggers and YouTubers, he has practically disappeared. It’s not quite clear why. Maybe he doesn’t like this level of attention. Maybe breakfast didn’t agree with him. But as the first board game media people are packing up to get on their hour-long drives back home, others stay behind and digest the experience. Members of established media are rubbing shoulders with what are effectively unpaid interns. Of course there’s a little bit of resentment bubbling to the surface, when some grab all the review copies they can, take a few bites from the open buffet and then hurry out the door again. It’s a very specific kind of conflict within this hobby that surfaces here. One that puts any cooperation between publisher and reviewer on par with fraud, if reviews do not explicitly mention the use of a free review copy. Even being present at an event like this one makes people anxious that there might be reviewers and publishers are somehow in cahoots. Or that there is some kind of insider circle of cool people that purposefully keep out others. As board gamers this kind of exclusionary clique behaviour is something of a sore spot. You can always obsess over it and grow bitter.

Or you can just let go of all that baggage and see that this is all about celebrating a product that allows people to learn about each other, as Matt Leacock puts it. Or that lets your work as a reviewer lead you to meet one of your closest friends, as Martin Klein has experienced it. Games may be about emotions, but play is about people. Every interaction, be it at the table, at an event like this one, in an interview or in online comments is an opportunity to connect with somebody.

The Spiel des Jahres award is a professional milestone for an author and a publisher. For board game media people it’s a chance to network and allow for better coverage in the future. But for the gamer in each of us this award is a focal point. Three nominees that you can show to the uninitiated. Games that you can enjoy, think about and even argue over. Because they are a figurehead and an invitation to this hobby.

So when are you and I going to sit down for a game?

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