The Spiel des Jahres (or simply SdJ) is the German Game of the Year Award. Running since 1979 the SdJ has been awarded 37 times to date, with the majority of the games still either in print or easily available second hand.
The SdJ is awarded to games considered family friendly, so really anyone can play – they’re not aimed at gamers, although many of them are still enjoyed by them (hence the term ‘gateway game’ – as in a gateway to the wider hobby).
I’ve played 21 of the winners, including 17 of the last 20, so feel reasonably well placed to rate them. The only one I’d consider very highly regarded I haven’t played is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is apparently worth checking out if you’re into deduction games (especially as it accommodates one to eight players).
I found it pretty easy to cut the list to 15, but it was tricky from there. Alhambra missed out because it’s a little too fiddly and divisive; Qwirkle because personally I find it too light and wouldn’t play it ahead of the others; Tikal because for me it’s only really great with four players and then it’s pretty long; Kingdom Builder because, again, it’s divisive; and Liar’s Dice because it’s so light and already so well known to non-gamers.
My Top 10 Spiel des Jahres winners (year won in brackets)
10. Carcassonne (2001) 2-5 players,
It doesn’t seem right not to put the game that introduced the world ‘meeple’ to the world on the list, so here it is. But it is here on merit – this simple yet infinitely replayable tile laying game see players creating a beautiful map of the mediaeval French countryside, scoring points for controlling roads, castles and areas of countryside. When you place a tile you can place a meeple on a section of it to try and claim it – but clever play from others can see them join their own areas with yours so as to share or even steal the points. This is a great game to introduce to new players as it’s almost guaranteed to look and feel different to other things they’ve played, while being simple to teach and looking great on the table. And it has spawned a whole host of expansions if you get bored of the original base game.
Unique games are rare nowadays, but Hanabi brought something new to the co-operative card game genre: everyone can see your cards except you, but you all have to play your cards in a particular order if you want to win the game. Ignore the ‘race the clock’ comment on the box – this is a thinker’s game, where the clues you give and receive are vital to working out what cards you have, as well as what to play and when. A fantastic and original game that is only so low on my list as I tired of it quite quickly – although I know a lot of people who are still happily playing it long after its release and after many plays.
The first of several route building games on the list, Elfenland’s twist is that you’re collecting your pieces from the towns on the board rather than putting them down: the player who collects the most pieces of their colour in four rounds wins. You do so by drafting movement cards (dragons, unicorns, pigs etc) that let you traverse different terrains between towns; but players place transport tiles on each route and only one is valid per route that turn. The theme is totally pasted on yet appealing to most, while the tactical challenge Elfenland offers is a fun one – right up to six players (although it’s not good with two). You can even mess with each other a little bit, as you can create ‘trouble’ on a route to help slow down a player who is taking a bit of a lead. Not one for advanced players who always want a big challenge, as each round is largely the same, but a good gateway game and a great step up for casual gamers and youngsters.
This area majority game is certainly the most lengthy, abstract, strategic and gamery on the list, but still has a relatively low rules overhead and should be understood by anyone 12 or over. Players play cards to first decide turn order and claim influence cubes; then play a second card to do an action and then place some of those influence cubes on the board. The trick is the higher the initiative card you play, the less cubes you’ll get – while the better the action you take, the less you’ll be able to place on the board. A really smart, if a little dry, game.
Now more than 20 years old, Catan (formerly Settles of Catan) shows no sign of losing its appeal – especially for new board gamers coming into the hobby. And why not? It’s the most interactive of the big gateway game titles and is a fun mix of trading, network building and card play – with a bit of random dice action thrown in. It’s the game that spawned the phrase ‘wood for sheep’ too, which needs to be recognised. And is a game where players truly need to interact with each to get the best out if it – and more importantly keep the game from lasting too long. Thanks to some hidden points you never quite know who is winning and it ends when someone hits 10 points, which can add a nice tension late on. One knock is the 3-4 player restriction, but there’s an expansion which takes it to 5-6.
Very different from any other SdJ winner, and in fact very different from most other games, this is a party-style game. The active player says a word or phrase to describe a picture on one of their hand of cards – and then each player finds a card in their own hand they think best matches the word/phrase. These are shuffled before each player guesses which picture was the original. As the describer you will get a point for each player that guesses correctly – but only if at least one player gets it wrong; so you want to be cryptic, but not to everyone! Great fun, very simple, but does need the right crowd to shine (thinking of a word or phrase can really throw some people).
4. Dominion (2009) 2-4 players,
This game brought ‘deck building’ into the board game hobby; the importance of which can be seen in the sheer number of games that have borrowed the mechanism since. You start with a deck of 10 boring cards which you largely use to ‘buy’ more interesting ones, with the aim of buying the most victory point cards. The twist is the victory point cards clog up your hand as they don’t do anything else, so buying them is weakening your buying power. The theme is paper thin and the cards a little boring to look at, but they’re incredibly functional and the game’s depth and replayability make up for any lack of visual appeal. It also has a host of expansions available.
Manhattan’s gaudy board doesn’t suggest it’s going to be great, while the chunky plastic pieces hint at its age – but my word, this is a great game. It’s a clever mix of hand management and area control, with players playing cards to place sections of skyscraper into a grid (in various sizes – you all start with the same spread of buildings) to try and control blocks of the city. The rules are simple and there’s a bit of luck in the card draw, but underneath this is a very clever tactical game. But be warned – Manhattan is all about screwing over your opponents to take the most points, so is not for those who don’t enjoy a bit of confrontation.
Probably the most controversial pick on my list, this is one of my favourite games but is regarded by some to be an unworthy SdJ winner. The ‘German postal service’ theme is uninspiring and the components are a little on the beige side, but the game itself is a clever route building/set collection board game. And it’s still in print 10 years on, so it has clearly found an audience. A mix of Elfenland and Ticket to Ride, the trick is to place post offices in all the towns as quickly as you can – but at the same time scoring bonus points for completing certain tasks as you place them on the board. You’ll get points for completing all the towns in one region, or for placing lots of offices in a single chain – but if at any time you can’t continue a chain you lose your progress. A really good, if really German, light euro game with an extra map and a different way of playing available as an expansion for those who want more variety.
1. Ticket to Ride (2004) 2-5 players,
around 60 minutes
Talking of set collection route building games, there were far fewer complaints when Ticket to Ride took the prize a few years earlier (maybe the bright plastic trains made it more palatable). The twist here is that each player is trying to complete train routes they have on secret cards, but the routes on the board are limited – meaning you may get frozen out of a city if you don’t place trains fast enough. But as you don’t know other people’s routes, you don’t know where the congested areas may be. Clever, simple, but engaging and different on each play, for me Ticket to Ride is still king of the gateway games – and has seen a number of extra maps come out that add all sorts of interesting twists to the base game.
So what do you think? What have I missed? What’s your personal Top 10? I’d love to play all the winners that have eluded me thus far, so am certainly open to recommendations of earlier winners.