For many years The Spiel des Jahres, or German Game of the Year Award, has been the undisputed gold standard for the games industry.
It was first awarded in 1979, so has history, while the winners see a massive swing in sales – making it worth entering for any publisher. And as Germany has long been the spiritual home of modern board gaming, what better place to turn than Europe for the awarding of the industry’s top prize?
But for a decade or so now there have been rumblings from the West: a rising growth in gaming from the US led first by Board Game Geek and now The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel’s little media empire that, despite the odds, has seen the world’s least humble former missionary attain cult status (and make an enviable living from it too).
In 2007, in typically modest fashion, Tom declared all other board game awards rubbish and set about setting up his own board gaming Oscars, calling them The Dice Tower Awards. So, eight years on, has the Dice Tower toppled the SdJ – and if it hasn’t, is it ever likely to do so?
The Spiel des Jahres (SdJ)
The SdJ is judged by a jury of German board game critics. Publishers enter games for consideration, as long as they have been available to the German public during the previous 12 months.
The main award is for the best family game, because in Germany the hobby is very much still a family one. There is a separate award for children’s games (the Kinderspiel), while since 2011 there has also been the Kennerspiel award (roughly translating to ‘connoisseur’ – meaning more advanced than a family game).
Many of the award winners from over the years are considered genuine classics. Early winners included Hare and Tortoise (1979), Rummikub (1980) and Scotland Yard (1983), while 90s winners included Manhattan, Catan and El Grande. More recent classics to bag the SdJ include Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Dixit, Qwirkle and Hanabi – a list of titles I’m sure no one could argue with.
There have been some choices that seemed odd – in both good and bad years for design (some heads are still spinning at last year’s win by Camel Up) – but generally the SdJ winners are hanging around in the 1,000 games on Board Game Geek, proving their longevity as well as their quality.
The awards themselves are announced at a summer press conference, with the nominees invited along (and from what I can tell most go – designers and publishers). It isn’t a showy event, but it is professional; a typically German understated breakfast. People really want to win this thing!
As a non-German it can be a good wake-up call for games not already out in English, while the vague ‘family game’ description means anything from a little card game to a big box board game can win. The decisions create debate, which is surely the point, while they normally pick a strong set of winners (the Kenner has been won by the likes of Village, 7 Wonders and Istanbul).
The Dice Tower Awards
The Dice Tower Awards are also chosen by a group of gaming journalists and enthusiasts, but the bias is very much towards the American, English speaking gamer (as should come as no surprise).
It now has a total of 14 awards, from Game of the Year right down to ‘small publisher’ and ‘new designer’ – with no less than 11 different titles scooping awards this time around. Over the years, only 7 Wonders and Dominion have won the big one for the Dice Tower and also bagged a German gaming award.
All eight of the Dice Tower Game of the Year Award winners so far are highly regarded on board Game Geek, with only Small World having fallen out of the top 100 (just) since its 2008 win. Impressively, all the rest remain in the BGG Top 30. The first winner was even Race for the Galaxy – my favourite game.
Despite a seemingly strong roster, the list feels a bit too ‘Ameritrash big box’ to be taken seriously outside of the states. But The Dice tower is very much an American production – so arguably, as with the SdJ feeling German, this is the way it should be.
But with thematic games Star Wars X-Wing, Eclipse and Dead of Winter winning three of the last four awards they’ll soon be handing the awards out of the back of a pick-up, rather than at the Dice Tower Convention – where those that have been on the voting panel (and mostly Tom, of course) take centre stage rather than the actual winners. For the ‘Best Art’ award, they didn’t even read out the artist names…
As a non-American some of the lesser awards can throw up some interesting names in the nominations, but as their positions in the game rankings suggest the games nominated and picked tend to be largely predictable. But if they’re the best games for this audience, there is absolutely no harm in that either.
And the winner is… The SdJ (by miles)
I’m sure you noted the, erm, ‘hint’ of sarcasm when it came to the Dice Tower Awards. But when you come out and criticise every other award, and say you’re going to make your own – then create something as bland as The Dice Tower Awards – you deserve it.
Despite the restriction of being for families, since 2007 the SdJ has gone to games as diverse (and brilliant) as Qwirkle (abstract), Hanabi (co-op, cards), Dixit (imagination, party) and Dominion (genre creating card game). The main Dice Tower Award has gone to eight big box gamer’s games – six of which have fantasy/sci-fi themes (and two of those essentially re-themes of older games). If they read ‘Dork Tower’ rather than dice tower, I don’t think anyone would turn a hair.
By having such a huge range of awards, The Dice Tower panellists can hide their prejudices for what they ultimately want (minis and spaceships and dice) by dishing out minor silverware on all sides. But the problem with this is that the more awards you have, the more watered down they become – people outside of the winners’ families only ever really remember the BIG winner. And with Tom always seeming to want more of everything, you can only see more – not less – awards in the future.
But don’t think I’m saying The Dice Tower Awards are without worth. As already mentioned, these are all highly ranked games on Board Game Geek and a lot of people get a lot of joy out of them (including me in some cases). I don’t think most of them are worthy of awards, but if they help new gamers choose them over opting for some Kickstarter crap then more power to them!
In the end I see it as a cultural difference: a country, in Germany, that never gave up on board games – versus a country, in America, that is seeing its nerds and geeks start to become justified in their hobby as it starts to go mainstream. Both these things are awesome, but when you step back one of these looks (and is) a lot more mature than the other.
As a Brit its easy to fall into either group – and I happen to have ended up more on the European side of the fence. But I’d like to think that even if I hadn’t I’d still see the SdJ as the more meaningful award. Quirky, yes – but more interesting for it.