Knizia. Spiel des Jahres. Some other thoughts, but only rarely. I'm not that much of a big thinker, you know - but I love games.
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Spiel des Jahres - Guessing the Nominations

Laszlo Molnar
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On Monday the nominations for Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres will be out. Last year, not knowing enough about the new system (3-3 games in two separate award categories, one for beginners and one for more experienced players, still not really gamers’ games; one common pool of recommended games for the two categories) I made my predictions which games would be nominated and win. My guesses weren’t that bad; I guessed the Kennerspiel winner correctly and guessed 2 of the 3 nominated games for Spiel des Jahres correctly.
This year things are not that easy. Partly because there just too many games that I haven’t played from the 2011/2012 crop and partly because I can’t find many outstanding games in the list that I think would have a chance (they are original enough, family-friendly/accessible, have a nice replayability, sold in a big box, scale well, published between last May and this April in Germany – and they are fun) .
Still, I try do do my best…

Spiel des Jahres:
I should select 3 titles but I can’t. And one of the reasons for this is that I just don’t know enough of the German versions of these games – quality, rulebook etc. But let’s give it a try.
One of the possible Spiel des Jahres nominations goes for Takenoko which has a lot going for it. It’s family-friendly, looks great, has a cute theme, is luck-dependent enough but still you can feel a little control and are making meaningful decisions all the time. But it has some things going against its chances as well: one is that while it’s as light as Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, it’s not as beginner-friendly. What do I mean? In the best gateway games you usually have a very limited array of possible actions to take on your turn – place the tile and place or don’t place a meeple; draw a card or place trains etc. – while in Takenoko you have to choose 2 from 5 possible actions – after rolling the die which has quite possibly given you the task of choosing 1 from 5 possible actions. I don’t say it makes the game very complex or too complex for Spiel des Jahres; I just don’t think it a perfect gateway because of this. Another possible problem: the English rulebook is very poorly written and the FAQ is quite long; I just don’t know if these problems exist with the German rulebook as well. If they do, these two problems together might make Takenoko the Tobago of this year (Tobago, however original, family-friendly and great-looking, was not even nominated just because of its poorly written and confusing ruleset in the first editions).

What else? Kingdom Builder is obviously a strong contender. It looks good, it’s quite original, I guess it’s simple enough for Spiel des Jahres (note: last year the jury said Dominion would have been Kennerspiel des Jahres if the category existed back then) and it honors repeated play. Unless the jury members were turned away by the first play and Dominion-expectations it has a strong chance to be nominated.

What else? There are 3 more titles I’m thinking about, not sure about either. Santa Cruz is a nice, interesting game, probably light enough for SdJ. Also it’s interesting and fun for the whole family. This year hans im Glück is back in form after a few weaker years and the jury might honor it with a nomination.

And there are the dark horses, the games the average geek doesn’t necessarily play. But the jury likes diversity as it’s not a „best euro of the year” prize. One of the possible contenders is Pictomania from Vlaada Chvátil – this drawing game gets rave reviews everywhere; the only warning sign is that they say it’s a bit hard to get the rules first. The other dark horse is actually a 2010 game, Cornerstone Essential, but it was released as Turmbauer only last October in Germany. It’s an original mix of different game elements – even including some dexterity; too bad they say the German rules are poorly written which might kill its chances.

Some possible recommendations (note: last year SdJ and KdJ had the same pool for recommendations, but I’m listing those games here that might have a very small chance to get nominated for SdJ) :
Africana – The Spiel des Jahres jury likes Michael Schacht and Africana is a good family game. I don’t think this one gets nominated but it is more possible than with any of the titles below.
Rapa Nui – Might be the first time since Klaus-Jürgen Wrede won with Carcassonne that the jury mentions his name – in the list of recommended games.
Kalimambo – Looks like a game that could get a recommendation but I don’t know enough about it to decide.
Vegas – is the lightest Alea game ever. It’s fun but it’s really simple, almost a direct-to-PnP that has the “depth” of games like Pickomino or Loco! so while I don’t think it gets nominated it might grab a recommendation.
Indigo – Looks beautiful but isn’t a lot more than a Ta Yü/Metro-like game with tantrix-like geometry. Might be recommended but definitely not nominated.
Kreuz & Quer – is another title in the long line of Take it Easy!-like Ravensburger/Knizia games that started with FITS which was nominated for SdJ. I’d guess it won’t get a recommendation but it might.
Waka Waka – Looks nice but right now it has rather low ratings. I don’t know if it’s because gamers were expecting Jambo: The Board Game from this or because it’s poor. If the former, it might have a chance to be mentioned as a nice family game.
Mondo Sapiens – As Mondo was recommended last year I guess this one won’t get a recommendation this year.

Kennerspiel des Jahres:
What about Kennerspiel des Jahres, the category most geeks are looking at? Based on last year’s games and what jury members said it should be noted that it’s not an award for complex games; it’s an award for games that require some previous board game experience. They mean games like Tikal, El Grande, Vikings or Dominion would have won Kennerspiel des Jahres if this category existed back then.

So I’m really not sure if Ora et Labora or Trajan has a chance to be nominated. They might be nominated as they are critically praised and really good games but they might be still too complex for this category. Looking at the list of eligible games it seems another gamer favorite (not counting the “it’s broken” crying), A Few Acres of Snow won’t be nominated because it’s strictly 2-player. And don’t even think of games like Eclipse, Quarriors! and Mage Knight as they are really not the games the jury is looking for.

So what about the other games? It’s hard to predict especially as there are lots of games that I haven’t played and don’t know how fun they are – being fun is one of the key factors when you are talking about Spiel des Jahres. This is what puts a question mark to games like Hawaii (I told you Hans im Glück is back in form; Hawaii also has a really nice replayability, but is it fun enough for the general crowd? I don’t know) and Coney Island (which, I believe, isn’t fun enough for the prize, although I haven’t played it yet). Hawaii still has a little chance to be nominated.

What else? Last Will has a fun theme (while the mechanism isn’t that original) and isn’t even language-dependent; I’d say if it has a good rulebook it might be nominated. And then there is Santiago de Cuba, which is a fun game with dice. Is it too light for the prize? It has a 2.2 weight rating at BGG but that might be partly a result of lots of Cuba fans giving the game a weight rating. The 8-page rulebook might be long and ‘complex’ enough to scare beginners away so I’d guess it can be nominated only for the KdJ.

There are a few more games that might get a nomination although some factors are working against them – still, they might appear among the recommended titles. For example Village would be a strong contender but I’m not sure a family-oriented award can go to a game that has things like “let’s bury grandma before the cemetery is full”. Another game about village life is Helvetia which has nice ideas and a complexity that just fits KdJ – but its first edition had a bad rulebook, its artwork is not fully functional and even its theme doesn’t really please Swiss people – and the head of the jury is Swiss.
Then there is Fortuna, designed by the designer duo behind Cuba and the Spiel des Jahres special award-winning World Without End – but based on the ratings it might not be another winner this time. Finally there is the question of Discworld: Ankh-Morpork: is it too random and/or too offensive, confrontative for the award? I guess a lot depends on the personal taste of the jury members, although they might feel it’s time to mention a Martin Wallace game somehow.

edit: someone mentioned Power Grid: The First Sparks to me. It might get a recommendation, I'd say. Even though it's not as deep or good as the original, for a non-gamer it's possibly more enjoyable than Power Grid and the theme is more fun. Hey, it might even get a nomination (well, it has a small chance), and if it does, it will be nominated for Kennerspiel des Jahres, however light it is compared to the original.

So, the nominations are out on Monday. I’m curious…
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