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Musings: Enthusiast's Game of the Year

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

20 May 2011 . . .

"The possible advantages of such a split (Family Game of the Year, Card Game of the Year, Strategy Game of the Year, ...), which, above all, would facilitate the jury's work face more significant disadvantages. The industry, media and the inexperienced game consumers are fixed on the "Spiel des Jahres" brand and a subdivision would dilute the information and only lead to a flood of confusing labels, causing more harm than good. The riveting target on the shelf would be replaced by the question, Which of the many "Games of the Year", then, is right for me?"

Which games critic has had the temerity to suggest that multiple Spiel des Jahres award categories, of which there are now three, might dilute the value of the award? Can you guess who it was?

No, none of them. Instead, this comes from the Spiel des Jahres website itself, not the current website mind you, but one which can still be found via the Wayback Machine.

Now by adding to the normal award and the special award for children, the new Enthusiast's Award of the Year (the German "Kennerspiel" term is clearer), the jury has abandoned its own first thoughts on the matter. But is this wisdom?

Certainly it would be good to see recognition for more sophisticated games, which outside of the aberrant Tikal and Torres years, has not happened, but for whom is such an award designed? Not for those who write about games or attend multiple game events each year or even those who subscribe to games magazines or websites. No, it is likely that these hardcore players have no need of such an award and in fact, if the normal award is to continue to be a party game without strategy along the lines of a Dixit and the enthusiast's game more along the lines of a Carcassonne the only change in their eyes will be that now they have not merely one, but two objects of scorn.

On the other hand if there is somehow an increasingly large group of frequent players who are nevertheless not in the above category, then by all means let us have an award to serve them. The number in such a group seems difficult to put one's fingers on, though if the choice of the party game Dixit saw a shortfall in the usual sales numbers, it might be counted as the difference and a group that the jury wishes not to lose in future, even if for only one year.

But is this really what is driving the jury? Or is the curious remark in the above quote that separation would make the jury's job easier actually all too telling? And apparently it has not been all that easy. After last year's proceedings, we read the disgruntled blog posts of one jury member who reported that in the late stages he was not able to vote for any of his favorite games of the year and even worse, was forced to choose from a slate of games, none of which he even liked! One imagines that the discussions became rather heated – gamers being rarely meek in their opinions – and possibly even offputting. One of the ladies of the jury even subsequently submitted her resignation, despite having been there only a couple of years. Were there external reasons or did all the contentiousness have something to do with it?

If the primary motive behind such a change has not been changes in the market, but rather trouble in the jury, this is a classic case of a tail wagging the dog. Because as far as anyone can tell the attention and effect of the award has never been greater. Maybe there are things we don't know. But if it's not the case, it makes about as much sense as a successful corporation changing its product line just because the board is tired of that particular product. If the product is selling and the board is not happy, it might just be best to change the board.

There will probably be a lot of implementation issues around this new award as well. In particular, with such a vague description, how can one be sure in which category a particular game fits? If the jury was trying to avoid arguments, they may instead have just opened an even larger can of worms. It will get worse too, as the years go by, because there will be appeals to previous years and whether certain straddler games properly fit into this category or that based on what was selected in the previous years and also whether these precedents were valid at the time or not. In addition both awards will have a full slate of nominees before the final winners are announced. In a lean year is it going to be possible for a single game to be nominated for both awards? How confusing for the market would that be.

What might the jury have done? One thought is that if they want to continue their recent foray toward party games like Dixit, which they have done at least twice before with Barbarossa and Villa Paletti, they might just go ahead and announce a Party Game of the Year Award. This would create a much clearer line and still deliver a useful service to consumers. Party games are played by just about everyone, including strategy players, but in a rather different way and it's quite a different market. Of course it wouldn't be necessary to award this every year if there is no party game of note. Along that line the jury might also consider that if they really have so much difficulty agreeing on a suitable game that it has simply been a lean year and that they just not give an award that year. Of course that would mean giving up their 20% of the manufacturing price on every game bearing the sticker, but with hundreds of thousands sold every year they can't be that hard up for money. And this award is supposed to be about excellence first, not the benjamins, right?

The final thought is that what the award has done best over the years is to find that new, exciting quality that a game brings to the world, that makes it both fun to play and bequeaths a gift to the games world. It's the move-without-roll quality of Hare & Tortoise, the multi-player deduction of Scotland Yard, the open-ended storybook nature of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, the pick-up-and-deliver of Auf Achse, the elegance and interaction of Settlers of Catan, the accessibility and world-building of Carcassonne, and the programming nature of Dominion, to name but a few standouts, that have lifted game design and production above the ordinary. Innovative and fun qualities like these are what the jury must search out and recognize wherever they find it, regardless of the complexity or lack thereof in which it is found. In doing so they serve their highest and noblest purpose. But by forcing themselves to do this twice rather than once per year they have doubled their task rather than lightened it.

The finalists for the 2011 Spiel des Jahres are to be announced Monday, May 23. A look at past winners of the award.


by Rick Heli