Introducing: the Spiel des Jahres
The Game of the Year.
Quite a title! You might see our team at Board's Edge Games refer to this award around the site as "the Board Game Oscars." And indeed, Spiel des Jahres is German for Game of the Year, and this is the most prestigious award in the board game world, awarded each year in June and July. Why?
The Germans are the granddaddies of the new age board games that we’re all talking about now. German Klaus Teuber pretty much single-handedly reinvented the market with Catan back in 1996. And the Germans have also cornered the awards market with the most prestigious game award out there today, the Spiel des Jahres. It has some serious market power too. A game that is nominated for the award gets massive press and lots of commercial interest. A game that wins gets even more. It is just like the movies and Oscar buzz. All of a sudden, everyone has heard of the game, and everyone wants to play it. According to Stewart Woods in his fascinating book on Eurogames, a Spiel des Jahres nomination can increase the typical sales of a game from 500-3,000 copies to around 10,000; the winner can usually expect to sell to as many as 30 million copies. (See our blog post on board game sales for more stats like this.)
What does it take to be the Game of the Year? It's pretty simple. The awards are decided by a jury of German board game critics. The jury considers games which have been published within the past year in Germany. Note that this does not mean the award only goes to German games. For example, Wingspan is published by American game publisher Stonemaier Games but copies are available across the world in almost two dozen languages, including German. Wingspan won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2019. For a more extensive look at how the games are selected and voted upon by the jury, The Opinionated Gamer published a three-part series of interviews with a judge back in 2009. Find those here: part one, part two, and part three.
The Germans, lovers of organization and structure that they are, have created several Game of the Year awards and variations, all of which are exactingly categorized! Let's start with the three awards:
- Spiel des Jahres (the red pawn). In keeping with our Oscars theme, this one is the Best Picture award. It was first launched in 1979. With this award, the jury hopes to identify games that are perfect for new gamers getting into the hobby. These are not simple games, but they are approachable. The games are selected because they are easy to learn and easy to pick up and play, whether or not you are an experienced gamer.
- Kennerspiel des Jahres (the grey pawn). Translations vary for "Kennerspiel" depending on who you ask, but it's often called the Connoisseur or Expert Game of the Year in English. This was first launched in 2011. The organization describes it as an award that "should help guide those who have been playing games for a longer time and have experience with learning new games. That doesn’t mean the absolute experts, but rather those who don’t feel that the Spiel des Jahres is enough any more."
- Kinderspiel des Jahres (the blue pawn), that is, Children's Game of the Year. This has a separate jury than the adult game awards but follows a very similar process to recognize exceptional children's games. The award was formally launched in 2001 (prior to that, winners received a Special Prize for Children's Games. See below for the Special Prize.)
Got that? Okay, here's where the Germans start to confuse us with two other categories of games: Recommended and Special Prize. Each year in May, the jury publishes a list of games that are nominated for the various Spiel des Jahres awards. At the same time, they publish up to two other lists: Recommended Games and Special Prizes. So what are those?
The jury sometimes finds games they believe are worthy of recognition but not appropriate for the mainstream Spiel des Jahres award. Maybe the game is too complex to be enjoyable by new gamers, or the jury thinks it would only appeal to a narrow market of gamers, but they want to bring attention to it nonetheless. This could be on the list of Recommended Games, or the jury can award a Special Prize.
- Recommended Games. Mostly, recommended games are those that don't have a chance to win the big award, but they are deserving of special attention and fill niches like card games, two-player games, and other categories in which the Spiel des Jahres do not have dedicated awards. One of our absolute favorite Recommended Games is KLASK (2017).
- Sonderpreis ("Special Prize"). Nowadays, the jury is likely to award many of these games with the Kennerspiel des Jahres instead, but there are still exceptions. Pandemic Legacy Season 2, for example, won a Sonderpreis in 2018 (link in German only, sorry!). There is not a Sonderpreis every year. (Remember the Rubik's Cube? Yep, Sonderpreis 1980!)
We love the Spiel des Jahres. These games are well thought out, well hyped, well covered, and tend to be popular for a reason. This is our favorite place to start for game recommendations, and many of the previous award winners are played often in our Board's Edge Game family households. Try one!