Transcript of our podcast from 20 June 2008

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Spiel des Jahres 2008, some thoughts

by Moritz Eggert

Hi, my friends - when you listen to this, it will be probably only a couple of days until the Spiel-des-Jahres in Germany is announced. Or, if Tom and Sam are late, it WILL already have been announced.

I won't go into details about what the Spiel-des-Jahres is - it has been talked about often enough on the show. Suffice it to say that it is the most important game award in the world as it has unequalled public recognition in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and further, and also has a strong influence on the actual sales of a game. Until the SdJ is announced, there is incredible buzz around the gaming scene - there is even a "SdJ-Toto" where one can win prizes guessing the correct winner.

Let's look at the games this year and talk about their pros and cons.

After a long and gruelling selection process only 5 games remained, and these are:

"Suleika", by Dominique Erhard, "Keltis" by Reiner Knizia, "Wie verhext" by Andreas Pelikan, "Blox" by a team of designers led by Wolfgang Kramer and finally "Stone Age" by Michael Tummelhofer.

I have played 4 of these games and have heard a lot about the 5th one, so I can talk a little about the chances of each game.

In "Suleika" you place little carpets on the square board and then try to move a customer represented by a pawn via die roll to where you have the biggest connected stretch of carpets to score points. And that's it - with this sentence I have explained all intricacies of the game completely. I have to say I was very underwhelmed with Suleika - it might be a nice kid's game, as there is little to no decision making, but Spiel des Jahres? Well, everything can happen, but this would be by far the dullest game to ever win the coveted award.

"Wie verhext" (Witch's Brew) is a nice chaotic card game that actually emulates some elements of american style games. Several witches try to score points by buying various alchemical materials with some clever twists in the card play. It is an enjoyable game, but probably a tiny bit too "gamerish" and special to appeal to a large audience, and the luck factor might also turn off some.

"Blox" is a very elegant abstract game that uses cards to limit your otherwise too varied options each turn. This might actually turn some hardcore abstract gamers off, but like "Verflixxt" it manages to make the otherwise dry proceedings dynamic and interesting. I enjoyed Blox quite a lot, but for a family game it is probably too hardcore, but we will see.

Now to the 2 games that have the most chances in my opinion. "Keltis" (not to be confused with "Celtis" on Boardgamegeek, a game with only 2 ratings) is a kind of "Lost Cities" variant that is surprisingly not called "Glorified Racko". Why hasn't anyone devised a game called like that, just as a favour to Sam from the Dice Tower? But I digress...The game has the relatively low rating of 6.5 on Boardgamegeek, which - if you take away the usual point for over-enthusiastic raters, you all do that, don't you - is actually only 5.5 points. I heard some good things about this game, and even though it is at its heart an abstract game like always with Knizia, who has never done a really thematically convincing game in all his life, the theme is kind of family friendly and at least not offputting.

Theme and internal consistency are the greatest merits of "Stone Age", the 5th and final game in the selection. It takes some concepts from "St. Petersburg", but succeeds in making the game less harsh on non-experts than the former. As a manager of a Stone Age tribe you try to score points by various collecting strategies, some of which are very gamey and probably slightly over the top complexity wise for the average family player. Or how would you explain to to your daughter that actually letting your tribe die of hunger might be a winning strategy if played in a group that doesn't counteract it!

Most gamers I talked to were pretty sure that "Stone Age" deserved the prize the most and I agree as well, but like other similar games who were the best crop of the year in the Spiel des Jahres but in the end didn't get it, "Stone Age" might be just that little notch too high in complexity. It is an engrossing game and non-experts have a chance too win, but it might take just a tad to long to explain it to a non-gamer.

So if the Spiel des Jahres is predictable like most of the time, "Keltis" or - god beware - "Suleika" will win, and "Stone Age" will later manage to grab the "Deutsche Spielepreis", which is basically a recommendation from gamers to gamers.

But the cards have been mixed anew; the "Spiel des Jahres" jury has a new member, Udo Bartsch, who has probably a less conservative outlook on the gaming scene than most other jury members. Udo is an active boardgamegeeker and well-rounded gamer, which means he plays all styles of games, not only Eurogames. Hey, he even lists Titan as one of his favourite games of all time! Let's forget about his relatively positive rating for Monopoly here...

He represents what I would call the new gamer type - somebody who has grown up in the 80's and has sampled all kinds of games, from roleplaying games to Euro Games. What repercussions this will have has yet to be seen, but one can already guess that it will slightly shift the attention of the jury to perhaps more unusual games, who knows.

If Boardgamegeek ratings would determine the SdJ there would be one clear winner, "Stone Age", with a rating of 7.7, followed by "Suleika" 6.9, "Wie Verhext" (Witches Brew) 6.8, "Keltis" with 6.5 and finally, strangely enough, "Blox" with only 5.9, which is really surprising regarding the actual quality of that game.

So will the geeks have guessed correctly? We will see when the SdJ is revealed to the people and great discussions and lamentations will surely follow.

Even in South Korea, in Tom and Sam's little monastery on the hill, where little kids frolic and build little origami orcs to while away the time.


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2008, Westpark Gamers