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Behind the Scenes at the Spiel des Jahres

RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

13 June 2008 . . . All of the Spiel des Jahres (the German game of the year award which is shortly to be announced) prognosticators should be aware of something new this year. The long time jury member Ernst Synes has retired. Replacing him is the relatively youthful, at 39, Udo Bartsch. He has been a game reviewer in German newspapers and worked with Fairplay, a games magazine which also has a prominent web presence, particularly around Essen Spiel time. There has actually been a sample of his writing (translated into English) here on the site since 2003.

Perhaps more significantly, Herr Bartsch is known as a Vielspieler. Translating literally to "many player", this is a term that in Germany contrasts with NormalSpieler, or "normal player". These two terms, which in English gamerspeak might be rendered "gamer" vs. "non-gamer" distinguish between those of us who are playing games all the time – say once a week or more – and probably always acquiring new games as well as frequently reading about them on the Internet versus those who like games, but play on a much more occasional basis.

Whether this should be significant for a jury member has been raised as a question in German gaming circles. Are hardened gamers good judges of what the best games are? Especially for an award like the Spiel des Jahres, whose functions have been previously discussed? Might they not over-value complex games and disdain the simpler ones?

It does appear that in many areas the true aficianadoes tend to the heavier and more complex. In wine, for example, many start out with white or white zinfandels, but after some years all seem to end up with complex reds. I have noticed similar phenomena in beer – light to dark – and have even heard of similar things in chocolate. I think this is natural. One wants variety in anything and the process of participation is an evolutionary one – "what is the best available?" the ultimate question. Like a Swiss pocketknife, a product which offers complexity probably offers more solutions or scratches more itches than one that is not. But on the other hand, does this mean one cannot still appreciate quality in less complexity? Can the Cabernet Sauvignon devotee still praise a crisp, ethereal Chardonnay? Can the Cuba and Puerto Rico expert still have fun with and see value in Settlers of Catan or even a Clue: the Card Game?

I can say that in my case, despite having now played (and commented upon) over 1300 different titles, most certainly. I've played and certainly enjoyed both of the latter titles within just the last few weeks, yet I can say the same about the former two titles as well. My feeling is that an important consideration is expertise. The non-gamer may know what he likes and doesn't like, but not having played as many games or thought as deeply about their mechanisms, may not fully understand why. On the other hand, a Vielspieler has a better chance of knowing when a mechanism has been mis-applied (a game depending on die rolls, say, that uses too few of them) or when a game is using a mechanism in the wrong place (creating, for example, a petty diplomacy problem). Moreover, an experienced gamer can usually spot the potential for such problems even if they don't happen to rear their ugly heads in any of the playings. But I think not all gamers are necessarily like me. Some appear to have chosen complexity and never looked back. Or perhaps this is backwards: it's possible that complexity was all that they were ever seeking and it just took a while to locate. Some probably come into the hobby that way without even needing to evolve there.

But what about Herr Bartsch? Do we know anything about his tastes? As it happens we do for he is a boardgamegeek member and in fact we have his ratings there, at latest count an impressive 1239 of them. Among his tens – there are an even dozen – are Agricola, Puerto Rico and Funkenschlag, none of which are any surprise. Possibly surprising is also the rather more complex Titan, – a likely first for a jury member – for which he also owns the micro-badge. On the other hand, also there are The Settlers of Catan and Ra. In terms of how his ratings compare to others on the site, the games he rates lowest compared to others are Cleopatra and the Society of Architects and Container which probably says he's not one to be swayed by great bits. Games he rates higher than others include Runes, Avalanche, Akaba, a la Carte, Wie ich die Welt sehe... and Monopoly, which are mostly older titles and might be indicating a nostalgic feeling for the games of youth. (Let's hope that the last one doesn't encourage Hasbro any, though they hardly need it.) Overall indications are that the jury have made a fine choice in Udo Bartsch who bears love for all kinds of games and will probably do an excellent job in his new role.


by Rick Heli