The World Cup Final of board game awards: Spiel de Jahres vs The Dice Tower

The Golden PooFor 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)

SdJ 2015The 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

dice tower awardsThe 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.

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.