Without much fanfare, 2018 marked the 40th edition of the Speil des Jahres. There are now forty games that have had the title of Game of the Year bestowed upon them by German-speaking board game critics, and the winner can expect to become one of the best-selling games in the world.
Although there were some international hits in the early days of the award, it was really in the 1990s that it became an international icon. With the huge mainstream appeal of games like The Settlers of Catan, award-winners began carrying their award on the box lid. The Spiel des Jahres became a mark of a good game. But of those forty winners, which ones were the best? Which were the most important? Which ones are still fun to play today? After forty years, this seems like a good time to take inventory of the ten greatest games to win the Spiel des Jahres.
What do I mean by "greatest"? I admit that it's kind of a slippery term, but lots of these games are great for a lot of different reasons. For the purposes of this list, I'm going on the current visibility of the game, the impact it had on the hobby, and how well it has held up over the years. And of course, it's about personal favorites too. I've played the majority of the winners, although many of the earlier winners are hard to find, or available only in German. I mostly stuck with games with which I'm very familiar, with one semi-exception.
10. Villa Paletti (2002)
Let's start with the most unconventional choice on my list. For most people Villa Paletti registers as something of a minor game. It is the last pure dexterity game to take home the award, and it's one I find highly underrated. I love the act of moving pillars from lower floors to higher ones, and it manages to stay accessible for people who have only ever played Jenga. It cuts a great pose on the table too. But I put it here mostly because of the impact its win had on the hobby. At the time many gamers expected the mega-hit Puerto Rico to take home the prize, in spite of the fact that the SdJ had generally gone to family games in past. The truth is that for several years the award had been swinging somewhat more complex. Games like Tikal and El Grande are pretty accessible, but they were a step up in complexity from previous winners. Puerto Rico was yet another step above that, a truly complex design that rewarded repeat plays and heavy analysis. It was also a more staid game thematically, with sober colonial ships and stuffy visuals that stood in stark contrast to the colorful visual appeal of Villa Paletti. Giving the award to the more family-friendly game was in retrospect a course correction, a mission statement that the award would not be following the hobby market down the road of complexity. The split between German games and Euro games happened right around this time, and this award is as good a place as any to place that bifurcation.
9. Scotland Yard (1983)
Aside from 1980 winner Rummikub, Scotland Yard is the early winner that the most people have heard of. A one-versus-many hidden movement game, Scotland Yard was a crossover hit in the US market. It has given birth to many children, all of them more complex than Scotland Yard but none with the same mainstream appeal or success. Unlike most winners from this era, Scotland Yard has stayed in rotation with families around the world. I confess my own experience with this game is limited to the very attractive mobile app, and not much experience at that. But its impact and influence is obvious, and it remains one of those games that conjures memories for children of the 1980s and 90s.
8. Carcassonne (2001)
Ten years ago putting Carcassonne this low would have felt unthinkable. It was one of the biggest SdJ hits in the post-Catan world, and it produced tons of expansions. It's not hard to see why either. Resembling nothing so much a slightly more complex version of dominoes, Carcassonne strikes that great balance between competition and cooperation. You can screw with the other players pretty effectively, but you also need them to help score points. It was for years one of the most affordable SdJ winners, making it a very appealing gift. With some distance, there are elements that hold it back a little. It is a slow game with more than three players, and the base set by itself has a weird tile mix, with too many roads. The result is a game that really required an expansion or two to come into its own. But its age allows it some smart design choices. I have always liked how it has the player draw a single tile and place it, because today people would be more tempted to deal hands of tiles. This complicates the decision making just a bit too much for my taste, at least in a game like this. As a casualty of the split between original publisher Hans im Gluck and American distributers, Carcassonne was unthinkably out of print for a couple years. But it's back now, and still showing newer games how to get the job done.
7. Dixit (2010)
The first of two "party" games on the list, Dixit has been a grower for me. In its original form, I found it rather simplistic and abstract. The players all are given cards with dreamy illustrations on them, and are tasked with trying to match those cards to a short description given by the main player. It shows the influence of games like Apples to Apples, but where other party games are raucus and goofy, Dixit has a pensive streak. Like many games on this list it has been heavily expanded, and like Carcasonne this has really helped the game become something special. The available variety of cards means that players with imaginations will never run out of new things to see. It is also a terrific game to play with children, encouraging kids to consider the perspectives of others and having little to no language to read. Lovely and idiosyncratic, Dixit has proven itself to be a worthy winner.
6. Codenames (2015)
In general I wanted to give games a few years before adding them to this list, but after just three years it's obvious that Codenames is a bona fide crossover hit. It is also a really strong design, embracing the subjectivity of word connotations to make an intelligent and unique game. Everyone who has played remembers those moments where you realized your teammates were thinking of a different definition of "chicken," or where you had to find something in common between "Moscow" and "spaghetti." Its flexibility with player numbers and affordable price also makes it appealing for just about everyone. There have been other versions, but none have approached the challenge and purity of the original, the best word game I've ever played.
5. Adel Verpflichtet (1990)
The early years of the Spiel des Jahres are strewn with also-ran German games with very German titles. Most of these, like 1987 winner Auf Achse, have a nice Teutonic charm, but register as mainly pleasant. Adel Verpflichtet, most recently sold in the US as Hoity Toity, is another matter altogether. The players are antiques collectors, snobby rich people who acquire pieces through means both fair and foul. This is done through what amounts to two-tiered game of Rock Paper Scissors, and it's a hoot. Adel Verpflichtet was the first of those "weird" German games to make a splash in the US. It was never a true hit, but it had a big cult following, and primed the American market for future German designs. I have often reflected how out there Adel Verpflichtet must have felt for American gamers in the early 1990s. There aren't any actual turns, for crying out loud. But it has aged remarkably well, and has never really been replicated to my knowledge. It may be out of print right now but it's worth it to track down a second-hand copy.
4. El Grande (1996)
Easily the "biggest" game on this list, El Grande is something of an anamolous winner. It's probably the most complex game to ever win the award, and the dour visuals make it look like a chore. But it's one of the most revolutionary winners as well. It single-handedly reinterpreted the conquest game for a German market, codifying the genre that we know now as "area control." Players are Spanish nobles, using cards that represent court intrigue and dirty tricks to remove influence from different parts of the map while adding their own. It almost feels like a smack in the face of more passive European designs, because while the players are thematically being underhanded, the conflict is both real and volatile. El Grande is a cutthroat game of conflict, but one that totally changed the rules for what was expected from a game like that. It remains the class of its genre, and you could even credit it with some of the ways that American conflict designs have been rethought in the last couple decades. None of its decendents have taken away from El Grande, which remains as nasty and compelling now as in 1996.
3. Dominion (2009)
El Grande may have redefined a genre, but Dominion is the rare game that invented a new one. It's the Big Bang of deckbuilding games, giving birth to lots of children who have never figured out how to make the genre any better. Donald X. Vaccarino created something that captured the combo-tastic joy of CCGs and the heady process of building a deck without resorting to blind buys or booster packs. It's also a compulsively addictive game, and it's easy to knock out two or three games in a single sitting. Not that Dominion is perfect. Its medieval setting barely qualifies as trying, and the illustrations, especially in early sets, are dire. It's also, to this writer, a somewhat repetitive game, and I've not played it actively since about 2011. But its longevity is at this point inarguable. It is a favorite of gamers and neophytes alike. Not only that, but its impact was remarkable. Besides inventing a new genre, it redefined how we think about expansion content, and put Rio Grande Games in a position to basically quit making every other kind of game. Not many games are big enough to get their own shelf at game stores, but Dominion has asserted its dominance on the hobby, and it's hard to imagine board gaming without it.
2. Ticket to Ride (2004)
There are so many things about Ticket to Ride that make it one of the greatest SdJ winners. The way it reappropriates a classic game (in this case, Rummy) to make something new, its smart use of the classic three-choices turn structure, the amazing production, all of those things are wonderful. But I like it because it strikes such a great balance between risk and reward. Do I go for the big points now and risk not being able to do what I want later? Will someone else take the spot on the board I want? Can I adjust to what other people are doing? These are the questions that great games are made of. In my early years in the hobby, Ticket to Ride was my favorite game. I've played so much now that I thought I was done with it, but it has lived on in the form of its mobile app, easily the best one for a board game I've ever played. All of the alternate versions have proven the versatility of the original design (Europe is the best version, for the record), but the original remains a classic. After almost fifteen years, it is the go-to first purchase for countless burgeoning hobbyists.
1. The Settlers of Catan (1995)
What else could it be? It would be intellectually dishonest to give the top spot to any other game. The Settlers of Catan belongs in the pantheon of really important hobby designs, alongside Acquire, Dungeons & Dragons, and Magic: the Gathering. In the online hobbyist world its status has diminished somewhat, but to me this says more about the hobby than about the design itself. It embraces luck and interaction to an extent that makes a lot of new gamers uncomfortable. A potent combination of heavily abstracted civ-building, trading, and good old fashioned gambling, the island of Catan is still worth visiting every now and then. Part of that comes from the expansions, many of which took the experience in bold directions, but the base game on its own is still something pure and beautiful. And yet the game is also essentially its own dev kit. It allows for huge amounts of player creativity in tweaks, designs, and deal-making. Those are the sorts of things that elevate a game from great to all-time classic, and after years of enjoyment I still find myself wanting to settle this wonderful island all over again.