I recently had the honour to be tasked with donating most of the 2023 Spiel des Jahres, Kinderspiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres nominations and longlist titles to good causes on behalf of Spiel des Jahres. Being curious about the association and their selections, I decided to play some of the games myself. As a result, I wanted to share with you more about the Spiel des Jahres association and how I think its goals are reflected in the games they select.
Spiel des Jahres is a so-called registered association in Germany. That is sort of like a non-profit registered company in the UK. It's a very popular way to register for sports or other amateur clubs, as well as charities. It provides a legal framework to function in, as well as some additional protection and obligations.
However, what Spiel des Jahres is better known for is its annual award, which was first given out in 1979. The award goes to analogue tabletop games in German-speaking countries that were released in the current or previous year. In 2001, the association also awarded the Kinderspiel des Jahres, specifically for children's games. In 2011, the Kennerspiel des Jahres, the connoisseur's game award, followed. Winners don't get any cash rewards, but are able to use the award under licence to promote the game. It is said that the red pawn on a board game box leads to several thousand more copies being sold. So it's commercially very lucrative for board game publishers.
But don't forget that Spiel des Jahres is a not-for-profit organisation. The license fees are all reinvested. They are used to finance the work of the jury, who don't get paid. The fees pay to operate the organisation's headquarters and for public relations work. The income funds an annual grant for new game designers and supports the Spielend für Toleranz, tolerance in play, initiative. Those are just some examples.
There is often a misconception in the modern board game hobby that the purpose of the Spiel des Jahres is to choose the best game of the year. Instead, the organisation wants to grow the list of games that the general public recognizes and is happy to play. Everyone knows classic games, such as Monopoly or Ludo. The goal is that titles such as Catan, which won the award in 1995, are also known by the general public.
So while many awards elect the best game of the year for veterans in the hobby, one that has clever mechanisms or is otherwise outstanding and worthy of an award, the organisation promotes modern hobby games to society in general. They choose games that are likely to "convince as many people as possible of the value of games as a cultural and leisure medium" as Spiel des Jahres puts it. These games don't necessarily appeal to veteran hobbyists. Instead, they appeal to the general public who find it hard to find their way through the huge range of classic and modern hobby games.
Even though Spiel des Jahres can't claim to be solely responsible for the popularity of award winners among non-hobbyists, games like Catan have definitely benefited from the organisation's work. By promoting modern hobby games to the wider society, the public has accepted that a game bearing the laurel-wreathed playing pawn logo is suitable for them and most likely also their family. So when a publisher adds the logo to their board game box, they not only market the game itself, but also the hobby in general.
And I can really see the goals of Spiel des Jahres reflected in the nominated and longlisted games that I have played so far. The main thing that struck me was how easy they were to learn. Yes, I have more experience in the hobby and am used to a wide range of rulebooks and game complexities. So it is no surprise that I found the games easy to learn. However, I still feel that I could teach pretty much all of the games to someone who at least knows Monopoly, except maybe Kennerspiel des Jahres games, which are a little harder to teach and learn.
A lot of the games have very few rules. You can pretty much start playing them in maybe 10-20 minutes. Some games might require you to learn a few extra things during the game, but overall you can get started really quickly. That's a huge bonus. People outside our hobby are less likely to want to sit down and read lots of rules and go through pages of setup. They just want to start playing.
The other thing that struck me was the low complexity. As I said, the rules overhead is low. So there isn't much complexity there. Even the number of choices players have on their turn is low. That means there isn't much complexity there either. Despite all of that, the games still have a lot of depth. It's a case of simple rules leading to a large decision tree. At the same time, the limited choices avoid analysis paralysis.
It is really wonderful when you pick another box from the stack of nominations and longlisted games and see that it fits the same trend of simple rules and limited choices that create a really interesting and varied game. So, no, none of the games I have played are necessarily the best game of the year, in the traditional sense of other awards. Don't expect anything complex here that takes several hours to play.
That's not a bad thing though. In fact, how the Spiel des Jahres chooses the games it puts forward for an award is a good thing. I am now able to help colleagues at work or family members who have heard that I love modern games and want a game recommendation. I can trust that a game with the red pawn on the box is going to be a suitable suggestion. I also know that a blue pawn is great for families with younger kids. Even when there is someone who has a bit more experience and wants to try something more challenging, I can pick something from the list of grey pawn games. For anyone else, I c