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The History of Spiel des Jahres, Part One: The Early Years, 1979-2000

The History of Spiel des Jahres
The History of Spiel des Jahres

Have you heard people talking about the Spiel des Jahres? It’s an annual award, and a rather coveted one, at that. Translated, it means ‘Game of the Year’. Past winners of the Spiel des Jahres tend to go on to be mega hits in the board game world. Nominees of the SdJ trend on Board Game Geek’s Hotness. Win the award outright, and the game could sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Some even break the million sales bracket!

Last year’s winner of the Spiel des Jahres was Just One. Its sibling award, the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoisseur Game of the Year), focuses on more intricate games. Wingspan won the Kennerspiel in 2019. It goes without saying that these two titles are ‘household names’ for board game fans! But how well do you know your board game history? Do you know the past winners of the Spiel des Jahres? Or are you a newer board game fan, looking for award-winning games to add to your collection?

In this four-part series, I’m going to take a look at the winners of this board game award. Join me, dear gamers old and new, as we take a trip down memory lane! Part One sees us start at the beginning. Buckle up – we’re going back in time over forty years, to 1979…

Before We Begin…

The criteria for Spiel des Jahres nominees is that the candidate needs to be a ‘family-weight’ game. (That rules out more complex titles, and genres such as war games or role-playing games.) It needs to have clarity to its rules; they need to be clear, structured, and easy to digest. The game needs to be original, and have fantastic playability. The layout of the board, the box, as well as the rulebook needs to be rock-solid. Trust me: the following games tick all these boxes!

Now, I’m not covering every winner of the Spiel des Jahres. Why not? Sadly, some of the older titles are no longer in print. They’re hard (see also: impossible) to buy brand new. Even the marvellous Zatu can’t stock every single game in existence! It would be a tease for me to tell you about a great game that’s unavailable. The good news is that all the games I mention below are on Zatu’s website. Right, let’s crack on!

1979 – Hare and Tortoise

The first ever winner of the Spiel des Jahres was Hare and Tortoise, by Ravensburger. This is a racing game, which lends itself towards Aesop’s fable. Slow and steady wins the race! In Hare and Tortoise, everyone plays as a hare, trying to be the first to get around a track. You start with a quota of carrot cards. Carrots are currency; the further you want to move, the more carrots you have to pay.

To win, you need to reach the end and have less than 10 carrots left. This is something of a maths exercise! Hare and Tortoise rewards those who can master the hand management mechanism. You also start with lettuce cards that you need to get rid of. You can earn carrots by landing on certain track spaces, which can influence how far you wish to move, turn to turn. For a game that’s 40 years old, Hare and Tortoise has aged rather well.

1980 – Rummikub

The card game Rummy laid the foundations for Rummikub. This is a tile-placement game, where, like Rummy, you aim for set collection to get rid of your tiles. There’s four colours (instead of suits) and they’re numbered 1-13 (instead of picture cards).

If you have a set of three (or four) matching numbers, or a ‘straight flush’, you lay the tiles face-up in front of you. If you can’t lay anything, you have to pick up a random tile (you don’t give one back, like in Rummy). On later turns, you can get rid of your remaining tiles by adding them into your opponents’ sets or runs. You can even split sets to insert your tile, providing each set has at least 3 tiles in it. For example, a red 7 could squeeze into a red run of 4-9, because it would make two separate runs (4-7 and 7-9). In fact, you can readjust sets to try and get rid of as many tiles in your hand as possible each turn. Rummikub is portable, simple to play, and you can play as many or as few rounds of it as you wish with an accumulating score.

1985 – Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is not a traditional board game. No dice, no luck. It’s a co-operative (or solo) experience about solving cases, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-style. The challenge is: can the players solve the crime quicker than Holmes?

Players achieve this by visiting locations and figuring out two key queries. Whodunit, and what was the motive? The game comes with a map of London, a business directory of people, and newspaper clippings. Considering how popular ‘escape-room-in-a-box’-style games are right now, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective was way ahead of its time. It’s still delighting the public, today. And it’s still giving them headaches as they try to beat Baker Street’s finest…

1994 – Manhattan

Manhattan is all about constructing skyscrapers on neighbouring islands. There’s elements of hand management, and area majority/influence. Manhattan takes place over four rounds, and it has a neat twist with regards to how players build. It depends on where they’re sat around the table! Players needs to sit at 90° angles, each along one side of the square board.

Everyone has a collection of small, medium and large tower block pieces. Players pick six blocks to use for the upcoming round. They have a hand of four cards, each showing one square within a 3x3 grid. There’s six islands, all being 3x3 grids. The active player plays a card. They place a block onto the corresponding spot on any island. Their card must sit orientated so it faces the player; they can’t rotate it. Circumstances arise (pun intended, sorry) where you can build on top of opponents’ skyscrapers. After each round, players score for island where they ‘control’ the most towers.

1995 – Catan

Klaus Teuber had a couple of Spiel des Jahres winners before ’95, but Catan is his magnus opus. It’s sold millions of copies worldwide, and for many was their gateway into the hobby. Catan has spawned an array of expansions and standalone products in the last 25 years. There’s even a Game of Thrones Catan: Brotherhood of the Watch variant!

Players are settlers on the island of Catan. The aim is to build a network of cities connected by roads, all worth points. You’re rewarded with adjacent resources to your settlements or cities, if dice rolls match said terrain’s number. Set collection is key, but so is trading resources with your opponents. It’s this latter mechanism – the banter and the dodgy deals – that’s made Catan such a global, household name.

1996 – El Grande

Some consider El Grande to be the (el) granddaddy of area majority games. Designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich, there’s so much to enjoy as you scuffle to control Spain. It might look more beige than your granddaddy’s slippers, but El Grande is nine rounds of sheer strategical delight.

Players bid for turn order using their hand of cards. Highest goes first, but lowest gains you more soldiers (that you can later send out into regions of Spain). Each round there’s five action cards to pick for drafting, first-come, first-served. These offer unique ways to add your soldiers to the board, or move to soldiers around. There’s also a mystery tower you can drop soldiers into. These quantities get revealed at scoring intervals. Players pick in secret where to deploy them (on a wheel mechanism similar to combat in Scythe). Each region gets scored in a first, second, third manner. El Grande is simple in concept, yet offers wonderful decisions throughout.

1997 – Mississippi Queen

Mississippi Queen is a pick-up-and-deliver racing game for two to six players. Here you’ll be in charge of your own steamboat, trying to pick up two passengers, and transport them downriver. The set-up is a modular one, with the river ‘board’ comprising of hexes. Some hexes are islands, so boats will have to sail around them.

Each boat has two dials – one is for movement, and the other is a coal supply. On a player’s turn, they they get to move x spaces according to their movement dial. They can increase or decrease this by one for free, or pay a coal to jump up or down an extra number. Boats can also turn 60° for free, or again, pay coal to turn further angles. Passengers wait on islands, and boats have to dock at a speed of one to arrive there to pick them up. If a boat reaches the edge of the river, that player rolls a die. This determines which direction the next hex board clips into place. Mississippi Queen got a reprint in 2019, which now also includes The Black Rose expansion in the box.

1998 – Elfenland

Elfenland is a point-to-point movement game, with a hand management mechanism. It’s designed by Alan R. Moon. Sound familiar? He’s the maestro behind colossal hit Ticket To Ride. In some ways, Elfenland feels like a logical precursor. Players are young elves, looking to traverse a map of 20 cities. The aim is to visit as many cities as possible over four rounds.

Players get dealt a hand of eight transportation cards. (These include unicorns, giant pigs and magic clouds; you know, standard vehicles for elves.) You’ll take turns drawing four public transportation tiles (and a secret one). Then you get to place your tiles on a road between any two cities. The map’s split into terrains, and certain vehicles find it easier or tougher to pass along that terrain. Once the tiles are down, then players get to play their hand of transportation cards. They’ll try to plot a route, trying to match the transportation tiles, aiming to visit as many cities as possible. It can be a bit ‘take-that’ at times, if you place tiles to scupper your rivals!

1999 – Tikal

The turn of the century saw back-to-back success for design duo Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. First up was Tikal, which featured an action points system. Players are rival archaeologists exploring a Central American jungle. Hex tiles get revealed, and then players bid to claim them. This auction comprises of paying in victory points!

Once you’ve claimed a tile, then you place it onto the board, adjacent to another tile. Firstly, you have 10 action points to spend in any fashion of your choice. You can introduce new archaeologists into the board. You can move them around, discover temples or treasures, or claim temples. Some locations get claimed in an area majority manner, while set collection occurs with treasure tokens. Such was the popularity of Tikal, it spawned a ‘Mask Trilogy’. The other two games in it are Mexica and Java (the latter got reimplemented by Cuzco).

2000 – Torres

Kramer and Kiesling teamed up again to win the Spiel des Jahres a year later with Torres. In fact, due to Torres having echoes of Tikal to it, some people class it as an unofficial member of the Mask  Trilogy. Both Tikal and Torres are quite a bit ‘heavier’ than the modern-day winners of the Spiel des Jahres.

Torres is about building rival castles in a restricted communal grid. It comes with plastic, square castles pieces that sit on top of each other. Like Tikal, you have (five, not ten) action points to spend as you wish each turn. You have a series of knights that move around the grid. One action point allows them to climb one level of a castle, for example. Another allows you to place out a castle square. (To modern board game fans, Torres might sound a bit like Santorini.

Castles can only be as high as there are squares in that castle. After four rounds of five actions each, scoring occurs. If you’re highest in a castle, you score the level of your knight multiplied by the total squares in the castle. (So if your knight was at the third tier of a castle with four contiguous squares, that’d be worth 12 points – 3x4.) It’s rather abstract – you want to control the highest points, or have presence in big castles!

That’s it for Part One! Join us for Part Two where we explore the next ten winners of the Spiele des Jahres, from 2001 to 2010. If I were a betting man, I’d say it’s almost certain that you’ve played at least two of them already…