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The History of the Kennerspiel des Jahres: Connoisseur Board Games 2011–2020

Istanbul Board Game Review

Welcome to Part Four of this series, where we look back at the past winners of the Spiel des Jahres! In this blog, we’re taking a look at the sibling award to the SdJ – the Kennerspiel. The Kennerspiel des Jahres, translated, means ‘connoisseur’s game of the year’. It’s not a family game, such as Spiel winners like Azul or Ticket To Ride. These are complex games, with layers of strategy to them.

The Spiel des Jahres used to be the main event, but on occasion, the judging panel gave out one-off awards. They were like honorary nods, acknowledging fantastic games. Titles that were too complex to qualify as a SdJ nominee or winner. But they were titles that were too good to pass by without praise.

Games like Caylus (2006), Agricola (2008) and World Without End (2010) won special ‘complex’ awards from the committee. In 2011, the Kennerspiel was born and now it remains as a permanent, annual award. Here in Part Four we’re going to take a look at the winners of Kennerspiel from the last ten years. (If you’d like to discover the previous winners of the Spiel des Jahres, click here to read Parts One, Two, and Three.)

2011 – 7 Wonders

Antoine Bauza won the very first Kennerspiel des Jahres award with 7 Wonders. This has proven to be such a popular game, played at game nights all over the globe. Up to seven players draft cards to try and build their own man-made Wonder of the World.

Players start with a hand of cards, and many of them are appealing for set collection! But they can only keep one of them, which they then activate into their tableau. They have to give their hand to their neighbour (so they receive a new hand of cards, too). You pick a card from those, pass the cards, and so on. It’s rather simple, in essence! The intricacies lie in that to play certain cards, you need to have access to core materials. Some might be on cards you yourself already own. You can also buy materials off your neighbours, but they cost coins.

7 Wonders Duel (a two-player version) came out in 2015. It’s regarded as one of the Top 20 board games of all time (according to Board Game Geek rankings, at the time of press).

2012 – Village

Village, by Inka and Markus Brand, is a worker placement game. It features a morbid-yet-fascinating ‘death’ mechanism. 2-4 players are competing families in a ye olde medieval village. You’ll want to train your family members to take on various careers within the village. One might go into village politics. Meanwhile, another could become a master craftsman who makes wagons. One might join the church, while another might go off to seek their fortune, like Dick Whittington!

The catch is that to do things in Village, it takes time. And time is a resource you have to spend! If you spend beyond a certain threshold, it means one of your family members dies. (You have to remove that meeple from the board.) But don’t worry! Death is an important part of Village. A book chronicles the lives of important villagers who lived and died in this settlement. In fact, the more of your family members that die and end up in the chronicle, the more points you earn! It’s a neat twist, because in most games players are rather protective of their workers. In Village, when they ‘die’, it can be a good thing!

2013 – Legends of Andor

It came as a surprise to some when Michael Menzel designed Legends of Andor. Menzel’s better known for being a superb board game artist. (He did the art for Legends of Andor too, and it doesn’t disappoint!) This is a co-operative game set in a fantasy world. Players are heroes with asymmetrical powers trying to fight a dragon.

The game comes with five scenarios, each with different hoards of monsters invading a kingdom. They encroach towards a castle in an area movement point-to-point manner. The players have to tackle the monsters as the narrative and events unfold around them. Scenarios are replayable, but nothing beats the first time for initial surprises and reveals. The scenarios are different though, with many components being scenario-specific. Good news then that there’s a bucket-load of expansions and add-ons for Legends of Andor in case you catch the bug!

2014 – Istanbul

After Village, Pegasus Spiele won once again with Istanbul in 2014. This is a pick-up-and-deliver-style ‘race’ game by Rüdiger Dorn. You create a modular grid of 16 tiles that make up the Turkish bazaar and backstreets. Players (merchants) aim to travel around the markets to be the first to collect five rubies.

On your turn you move to an adjacent orthogonal tile, and do the action there. You might collect coins, cards or goods (and you can trade some of these in for rubies). The trick is that you have four assistants with you, and you have to drop one off each time you visit a location. This means if you want to use that assistant again, you have to revisit that location, to pick them back up. In some ways, Istanbul has traits of ‘Snake’ to it – the old Nokia mobile phone game!

2015 – Broom Service

Broom Service is a reskin of an older game called Witch’s Brew (the former being more like a card game equivalent). Alexander Pfister collaborated with Andreas Pelikan and Ravensburger to design Broom Service. It’s a pick-up-and-deliver, hand management game, themed around witches delivering potions.

Up to five players compete to score points over seven rounds. At the start of each round, players pick four cards (from their own deck of 10). These cards range from acquiring potions, to moving and dropping off potions. The clincher here is that each card has two strengths to it: a ‘brave’ part, or a ‘coward’ part. Playing a card and picking the coward option guarantees the player something basic. But if they’re plucky and pick the brave option, they get a far more efficient power. Only one player can be the bravest, though – this being the last player in turn order to play that card.

It’s a game of cat and mouse. Do you gamble, or play safe?

2016 – Isle of Skye

Another win for Alexander Pfister in 2015, but as a solitary designer, this time. Isle of Skye is a superb tile-placement game, set in the Scottish Highlands. This is like Carcassonne on steroids!

Players compete to build their own ‘tile of Skye’ (sorry, couldn’t resist). Your island gets scored in different categories across six rounds. Each round, players get three tiles and to each they allocate a secret price. (They also trash one of the three.) The prices get revealed and then players take turns to buy a tile off their rivals. Then players can buy their own tiles, should they wish. They have to pay the cost they set, before adding their claimed tiles to their island. The psychology involved in pricing your tiles is superb. You need money, so you want to price tiles high – but not too expensive to scare people off! But if a tile is valuable and you want it, is it worth pricing people out of the market? With modular scoring systems in play, no two games of Isle of Skye are the same.

2017 – Exit – The Game

Exit – The Game had some stiff competition for the Kennerspiel in 2017. (It beat Raiders of the North Sea and Terraforming Mars. Impressive!) Exit, by KOSMOS, is actually a series of games. The elevator pitch is ‘an escape room, in a box’.

Inka and Markus Brand have created a winning formula here. Each Exit game has the same structure: it’s a co-operative game where you solve a series of clues against the clock. You begin with nothing but a booklet and two decks of cards, but don’t look at the cards yet! They’re further clues, and you ‘unlock’ more cards, the further you progress. Once you solve an answer, it will be a series of three icons/digits/numbers, and so on. The game comes with three wheels, and if you rotate and align them in the right way, it reveals further clues.

The Exit games are one-time experiences – like actual escape rooms. At around £12 though, they’re excellent value for money.

2018 – The Quacks of Quedlinburg

2018 was an incredible year for designer Wolfgang Warsch. He came bulldozing in like a steam train, out of nowhere! He earned not one, not two, but three nominations. The Mind was a runner-up to Azul for the Spiel des Jahres. His roll and write game, Ganz schön clever, was runner-up in the Kennerspiel. And then there’s his game that won, The Quacks of Quedlinburg.

Quacks is a bag-building game, where players push their luck to build the best potion at a wizard’s fête. You start with basic ingredients, like any deck-building game. You draw them blind out of your bag, one at a time. Then you add them to (while also progressing around) your spiralling cauldron. You can stop any time you like and play safe. But if you draw too many cherry bombs, your potion explodes! If you don’t blow up, you earn points and cash to spend on new ingredients to add to your bag for the next round. Quacks is simple, addictive fun and a worthy winner of the Kennerspiel.

2019 – Wingspan

Elizabeth Hargrave is now a household name in board games, thanks to Wingspan. Published by Stonemaier Games (Viticulture, Scythe, Tapestry), Wingspan is a gorgeous-looking game. As you might have guessed by the name, it is about attracting birds to your wildlife reserve.

Wingspan sees players using hand management to play birds into an engine-building tableau. You can score points in different ways, with possibilities for combos galore. Many cards’ abilities dovetail with one another. Calming artwork? Components (eggs) that look good enough to eat? A dice tower that looks like a moss-covered bird box? Wingspan oozes table presence.

Any Kennerspiel des Jahres worth its salt is quick to release expansion material. Wingspan is no different. The base game features American birds, but the European Expansion flew onto shelves in late 2019. (I don’t need to tell you which region those birds are from!)

2020 – And The Winner Is…

At the time of press, there’s a shortlist for this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres, but not a winner… yet. The three games nominated are:

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale is part of the Roll Player family of games. (In Roll Player, players draft dice to build abilities for a Dungeons & Dragons-style character.) Cartographers is a pencil-and-paper flip and write game. Cards get flipped instead of dice rolled (like Welcome To…). As a cartographer, you have to fill in your grid and claim land for the queen.

The Crew: The Quest For Planet Nine is a trick-taking card game, but with a twist. Usually trick-taking games see players compete, trumping cards played earlier in the round. The Crew is a co-operative sci-fi game, where you’re all working together! There’s over 50 ‘missions’ in the box, which increase in difficulty.

The King’s Dilemma is a legacy game. Up to five players are in a king’s court, making decisions for the good of the kingdom. You have to respond to Dilemma cards as they get revealed, and negotiate with the other players. There are consequences in The King’s Dilemma. These not only progress the story – they create multiple possible endings. Will you remain true to your promised vote? Or will you betray everyone?

Whichever games wins will earn the right to wear the Kennerspiel winner’s badge with pride. As you can see, it will sit alongside excellent, successful, well-respected company!