Welcome back to Part Three of our ‘History of the Spiel des Jahres’ series. In Part One we went back to the beginning, looking at the Game of the Year award winners of the twentieth century. In Part Two we explored the winners between 2001 – 2010. There have been some mammoth titles that sit in the Spiel des Jahres hall of fame. Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket To Ride, Dominion, Dixit. These games are the A-List celebrities of the modern board game world!
And so we move on to the next ten years – or rather, the last ten years. You might not have heard of all the games in parts one and two. I’d wager though that you’re familiar with many (or all?) of the games listed here! And if not, then wow – you’re in for a treat. These are some of the most successful ‘Family-weight’ games on the market, today.
This Time Next Year…
If you’re new-ish to the board game craze, you might be sitting quiet, wanting to ask: what is the Spiel des Jahres? It’s an annual award designated to the best ‘Game of the Year’. To get nominated for this award, the game can’t be too complex. It has to have an excellent rulebook that’s easy to digest. The game must be an easy one to teach and learn – but that’s not to say it can’t be difficult to master.
Looking for an amazing gateway game to use as a way to dip your toe into the board game pool? Checking out the Spiel des Jahres winners is a fine place to start. Below are the winners from 2011 – 2019. At the time of writing this, we still don’t know the winner of the 2020 award. But rest assured: this time next year, everyone will have heard of it…
Qwirkle ticks so many boxes for what the Spiel des Jahres judges look for in a game. It’s so simple to set up and teach. You can get up and running about two minutes of the game hitting the table! Designed by Susan McKinley Ross, Qwirkle is like the colourful, abstract lovechild of Scrabble and Dominoes.
This is a tile-placement game, where two to four players add tiles to a communal grid. Six different shapes feature on the tiles, and each shape comes in six different colours. On your turn you add tiles from your hand to the grid. You can add tiles of the same colour or shape to a row or column. No duplicates are allowed per row or column (six unique, maximum). You score points depending on how many are in the line and a bonus for placing the sixth tile. Smart placement score across multiple rows and columns. Once the tiles run out, the player with the most points wins.
Donald X. Vaccarino celebrated earlier Spiel des Jahres success with Dominion. He got another gong for Kingdom Builder in 2012, this time published by Queen Games. Kingdom Builder is not a deck-building game, though. This is about chaining together networks across a communal kingdom.
No two games of Kingdom Builder are alike, thanks to the modular set-up. You pick three scoring objectives (among a deck of ten). Then, you pick four (of eight) boards to tessellate together. When slotted together, these form a widespread, random array of hex-terrains. On their turn, players pick a terrain card. Then they place down settlements within enclosed matching terrains on the board. Settlements have to get built next to earlier existing settlements. Bonuses are available if you build next to special locations.
A standalone sequel for Kingdom Builder got announced in early 2020: Winter Kingdom.
Hanabi by Antoine Bauza might look small, but it is mighty. This is a fiendish and addictive small-box co-op game where you create a fireworks display. Together, you arrange five different types of fireworks cards into numerical order, 1-5. Hanabi’s brilliant twist is that you hold up your hand of four cards so they’re facing away from you. This means you can see everyone else’s cards… But not your own. You have to communicate and work together with a pure minimilist fashion.
You can give clues to your co-gamers about their hand. You can point at their card(s) of the same type (colour or number) and say: “This is a two,” or “This and this are both red.” You can’t say both colour and number in the same clue. You only have a limited number of clues to give, so don’t waste them! The challenge is to score 25/25 – but that requires serious telepathy!
The 2014 winner, Camel Up, is a high player count betting game by eggertspiele. Five camels, and a one-lap race around the pyramid. You don’t play as a rider – but a punter. Players win by earning the most money by betting on the winners and losers! The earlier you claim a bet, the bigger the payout. It’s push-your-luck, personified.
There’s an element of a gimmick with the pyramid itself: it’s a dice shaker of sorts. Each camel has a corresponding d6 die (faces numbered 1-3, twice). Players can shake the pyramid and release one die, moving that camel said spaces forward. If camels share a space on the racetrack, they sit on top of one another. Camels carry any other camels sitting on top of them, too. This adds unpredictable – and often laugh-out-loud – moments, throughout! Camel Up remains one of the most fun and entertaining family games on the market today. And it accommodates up to eight players!
Colt Express is all about the chaos! The 2015 winner of the Spiel des Jahres is a programming game. You plan out your turn-by-turn move using a series of action cards. You’re doing this in simultaneous alongside the other players, though. The theme is a bunch of robbers hijacking a train in the American West, trying to steal the most loot…
In Colt Express you each shuffle and deal yourself a hand of action cards. One at a time, you play one (sometimes face-up, sometimes face-down). After a certain number of cards, you reveal them all, and they get acted out in chronological order. You can punch players so they drop loot, or you could grab fallen goods. You can climb onto the roof of your train carriage. You can shoot opponents, meaning you pad out their deck with useless bullet cards. You can move the US Marshal whose guarding the valuable briefcase. Be warned: the Marshal likes to shoot robbers, you included, too!
Games of Colt Express can become unpredictable, but that’s part of the fun. Your scripted array of cards might work, if only they weren’t interrupted. But the spanner in these works are the other players’ cards! They impact the state of the train so much between your actions. Embrace the chaos… Enjoy the ride!
Vlaada Chvatil’s Codenames might be the most popular party game in modern gaming history. Forget Cards Against Humanity, or Dixit. (Okay, maybe not the latter; Dixit was a Spiel des Jahres winner in 2010, we still love you, Dixit!). All the cool kids are playing Codenames by Czech Games Edition, these days.
And it’s easy to see why. Codenames is a game where two teams go head to head to identify their code words in among a communal grid. 25 random words get arranged, and then a representative clue-giver from each team look at a card. On it is the arrangement of the words within the grid that are the blue team’s words, and the red team’s word. They take it in turns to give their team clues so they can identify their words, first. For example, they could analyse the grid and say, “City: three.” (They’re saying there are three words that have ‘city’ in common, and all three of them are their team’s words.)
But look out! If you give out mixed signals or vague clues, your teammates might not read your intentions. They might end up helping out the other team! There’s also one ‘Assassin’ – a word neither team want to pick…
Bruno Cathala is the master of many mid-weight family game. (Five Tribes, Jamaica, 7 Wonders Duel, and the recent Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon, to name but a few!). Justice was served when Cathala won the Spiel des Jahres in 2017. Kingdomino is one of his more simple designs, but that’s why it’s so brilliant.
Kingdomino consists of you building a kingdom of dominoes. These aren’t numerical dominoes, but ones with different terrains on them. Players draft tiles and then arrange them into their own kingdoms (which have to stay in a 5x5 grid). You score terrains by counting their size and multiplying it by the crown symbols within it. I challenge you to find a better gateway game that takes 60 seconds to teach and 15 minutes to play!
Azul has gone on to become a modern classic. Michael Kiesling is the brainbox behind this design. This game is not only simple to teach, it also looks drop-dead gorgeous. The Starburst-sized tiles are a kind of bakelite; they’re not mere cardboard. They make a wonderful clacking noise when jangled in the cloth bag! They’re meant to represent Portuguese decorative azulejo wall tiles. And boy-howdy, do they look wonderful.
Players draft these tiles, with the aim being to collect enough of one pattern to fill in a grid. It’s like Sudoku – once you’ve filled in one tile, it can’t repeat on the same row or column. This means you’ll collect tiles willy-nilly in the first half, and then feel the pinch in later rounds! Such is Azul’s wild success, it’s spawned two sequels already – Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra, and Azul: Summer Pavilion. Both scratch the same itch, with tile drafting being the core mechanisms.
Just One, the winner of the 2019 Spiel des Jahres, is now known as being one of the best party games around. Repos Production have struck gold here. It’s such a simple idea – it personifies everything that a Spiel des Jahres winner should be. You can teach it to anyone in under 60 seconds.
Just One is a co-operative word-guessing game. Players take it in turns to be the active ‘guesser’. They hold a card facing away from them so everyone else can see it but them. On it are five words numbered 1-5; they pick a number, which then becomes their clue word. Everyone else has to write down a one-word clue for that word, without conferring. (The game comes with dry-wipe stands and pens.) The guesser looks away and everyone reveals their clues. Any duplicates get removed, leaving behind only unique clues. The guesser then has one guess at what their word is, based on the clues that remain!
2020 – And The Winner Is…
At the time of press, the 2020 winner of the Spiel des Jahres remains unannounced. Three nominees wait, toes and fingers crossed, as the judges make their decisions. The shortlist for the award got announced on May 18, 2020. The nominees are:
- My City (Reiner Knizia)
- Nova Luna (Uwe Rosenberg and Corné van Moorsel)
- Pictures (Daniela and Christian Stöhr)
My City is 24-episode legacy game with tile-placement. Players personalise their own metropolis as it progresses through the ages. Nova Luna (Latin for ‘new moon’) is a tile-placement game. It has a selection system not dissimilar to Patchwork, but is its own game. Pictures is a party game with deduction elements. Players have to recreate pictures using items like wooden blocks, stones or shoelaces!
We know from past years that all three of these games will leap up into ‘current hotness’. The winner of this year’s Spiel des Jahres (announced at some point in June/July) will see sales fly off the shelves. Which of these three will it be? Will it end up at a games night near you soon?
That’s that for Part Three… But did we tell you about Part Four? There’s a sister award to the Spiel des Jahres, called the Kennerspiel (the ‘Connoisseur’s Game of the Year’). This award is for heavier, more complex games. Some of the recent Kennerspiel winners are so hot they’ll burn your fingers! Click here to find out about the history of the Kennerspiel…