Spiel des Jahres 2015: The right winner?

SdJ 2015The winner of The Spiel des Jahres – the German game of the year and the world’s most influential board game award – was announced this morning.

This year’s main prize went to Colt Express – but did it deserve its win?

As with any awards there are differences of opinion, and the Spiel des Jahres has thrown up unpredicted winners in the past – including last year’s controversial winner Camel Up; a real Marmite game (although in fairness the competition wasn’t up to much last year either).

Having played all three games, here are my thoughts on the 2015 nominees.

The Game

UKGE the gameI had the chance to play this at the UK Games Expo this year and while I enjoyed the experience, it’s hard to know where to start in terms of listing reasons why this shouldn’t have been nominated – let alone have had any chance of winning.

While the name is dreadful (just try finding it on Board Game Geek…), the ‘theme’ is even worse. Essentially, there isn’t one – you get a box of (admittedly nice quality) cards in a dull red/black horror themed pattern that ooze nothing but teen goth design misery and a total lack of imagination. Add to that you have a single design on all 100 cards and you can be left with no doubt that this was thrown together for peanuts.

The point of the Spiel des Jahres is to promote leading family games – games that can be played with younger children. So why have the judges nominated a game covered in skulls? Surely the gameplay must knock it out of the park, right?

Wrong. While The Game works fine, it is far from being a classic. It riffs off the clever co-operative ideas introduces by 2013 (and well deserved) SdJ winner Hanabi, where players are trying to meet a shared goal via their hand of cards – but this time you’re not allowed to say ‘exactly’ what you have.

You have four piles of cards, two starting low and going up – two vice versa. You take it in turns to lay cards, trying to slowly push the piles up in the hope of everyone managing to lay all of the cards in the deck between them. If a card is exactly 10 lower than the previous card played, you can take a pile backwards – so giving yourself more leeway.

This works fine, and is OK to play, but you very soon (in the first few rounds) get into a habit of phrases that give away more than you should: it’s pretty impossible not to. It has nowhere near the level of emergent game play Hanabi creates and, as it is clearly inspired by it, isn’t even half the game. It’s fine, but it’s nothing special.

Machi Koro

Machi Koro boxOn the face of it, Machi Koro looked like a far more likely contender to this year’s crown. It had the benefit of massive hipster buzz at Essen 2013 when released in small quantities, leading to a huge worldwide release after (hence its inclusion this year despite being published in 2012).

The art throughout the game is gorgeous, the components are great and the game ticks those family boxes with ease. and it borrows Catan’s ‘role to see which number generates goods this turn’ mechanism but applies it to individual player tableaus, upping its accessibility to gamers.

But as with the majority of the Japanese hipster games, Machi Koro failed to live up to the hype out of the box. While at first cute to play after a few rounds it starts to outstay its welcome, as the luck of the roll scuppers some and the repetitive play begins to bore others.

In fairness, after a few plays, it was soon reported that a dominant strategy does emerge – but yes, sadly only one. Once players realise the best route to take, how do you not take it? What’s the point of further plays? And we’re not talking rocket science here – it becomes clear very early on that there is one good way to play.

An expansion has since been released that apparently fixes the problem, so if this light dice rolling game appeals to you then by all means don’t be put off. But The Spiel des Jahres is awarded to a game – not to a game and its expansion – which I’m sure the judges realised after extensive plays (although you have to ask, again, why it made it to the final three). Which leaves us with one…

Colt Express

Colt Express stuffLuckily, Colt Express proved to be a worthy winner of The Spiel des Jahres 2015: a fun family game that re-energised a fairly forgotten mechanism, adding a great twist.

The title fits the theme: you’re bandits on a wild west train trying to steal the most loot. And alongside cowboy meeples you get a gorgeous cardboard train to put together.

The cards, chits and rulebook are also high quality (with simple to follow rules) and the box is big enough that once you’ve put the train together, you can keep it safely stored without having to make it up again each time. At about £25, I’d say its value for money.

I got to play this a couple of weeks back, learning it straight from the rules with a group of new players. We were up and running in no time and all had a good laugh playing. The game us built around programmed movement, where players take it in turns to play cards that will later be enacted in the same order to see what happened during the round.

While in other games (such as RoboRally) this can lead to frustration and severe head scratching, Colt Express gets cleverly around two big problems. First, movement is simple (up or down, or left or right) which means players can’t get disoriented. Second, many – but not all – of the cards you programme are played face up, meaning there is slightly less chaos and consequently more people are likely to enjoy the game.

Alongside movement you’ll be shooting and punching each other while grabbing the loot – but it’s the kind of comically cartoony ‘take that’ game I can get behind because the take that elements are full on; you can’t really choose to stay out if trouble, which I think helps more timid players drop their guard and get into the swing of things.

Further boxes ticked include player count (a good spread at 2-6), game length (well under an hour) and replayability (there are individual player boards giving special powers). My only reservation (no pun intended) is the scoring seemed wonky, with the ‘Gunslinger’ bonus seeming wholly overpowered – but this could easily be house-ruled and is very much a minor quibble. A really good game.

But why was this a one-horse race?

In conclusion, I found both Machi Koro and The Game instantly forgettable – so what should’ve been on the nominee list to really give Colt Express a run for its money?

Highly recommended titles this year included Patchwork and Loony Quest – both highly regarded games that seem to tick far more boxes than the other two nominees. Loony Quest is a drawing game that has been receiving great reviews, both for its fun and originality, while Patchwork is a clever tile-laying game that is getting better reviews than any other two-player game I’ve seen in ages.

But I guess the important thing is that a really solid game won the Spiel des Jahres 2015, especially after last year’s rather controversial pick – so congratulations to designer Christophe Raimbault, publisher Ludonaute and everyone involved.