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The History of the Spiel des Jahres Part Two: Dawn of the Modern Gateway Games, 2001-2010


Welcome back… In Part One I introduced you to ten of the earliest winners of the Spiel des Jahres winners. I even went back to the very first winner of the Game of the Year – Hare and Tortoise in 1979! I mentioned titans of the board game world, such as Catan (still going strong as ever, 25 years later). I got as far as Torres winning the SdJ in 2000.

In Part Two, I’m going to show you the start of a new century of gaming. I’ll run through the ten Spiel des Jahres winners, from 2001 to 2010. Without scrolling down, how many can you think of, pub quiz-style? How many have you played? I’m going to stick my neck out and say at you – yes, you, reading this right now! – have played at least two of them…

But before we start, why do people bang on about the Spiel des Jahres? It’s the the most coveted board game award around. The Spiel des Jahres is like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The winners are outstanding family-weight games.

Okay, think you’ve got some candidates in mind? Let’s start with the 2001 winner – it’s one of the megastars of the board game world!

2001 – Carcassonne

Carcassonne is one of the most successful board games in modern times. It’s also the game that coined the word ‘meeple’, which means a wooden player piece. Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, Carcassonne is a tile-placement game set in the French medieval walled city.

Players pick a random square tile and add it to a communal landscape. Tiles consist of unfinished walled cities, fields and roads. When you place a tile, the faces have to match the terrain(s) of those next to it, like dominoes. When you place a tile, you decide if you want to add one of your meeples onto the tile. You only have so many meeples though, so pick where to place them with care! You can’t jump in on other players’ cities or roads, but you can try to combine them and steal them, area majority-style!

If ever you place a tile that completes a city, road or cloister and your meeple’s in it, you score it. Once scored, you get to take your meeple back, meaning you can invest it elsewhere on a later turn. There’s also area majority battles occurring, with permanent farmers scoring fields.

Such is Carcassonne’s success, it’s spawned a smorgasbord of expansion packs. It also has a ‘Big Box’ offering by Z-Man Games. This comprises of a combined number of expansions and modules together for a great price.

2002 – Villa Paletti

Villa Paletti is a dexterity game. It’s very simple. Different colour wooden cylinders, ranging in thickness, stand upright at the base. They hold up an irregular-sized flat base. Your turn consists of removing one of the cylinders and balancing it on top of the platform. At some point, you’ll place a new base on top of the higher cylinders, creating a tower of sorts. Don’t knock it down!

There’s a few ways to play; one sees you rolling a die that determines the colour of cylinder you have to move. Sadly Villa Paletti is hard to get hold of in the current market. If you’re hankering after some excellent dexterity games though, don’t worry, I’ve got you sorted! I wrote another blog for dexterity fans: if you like Jenga, then you’ll love these…

2003 – Alhambra

2003 saw another tile-placement game take the Spiel des Jahres crown: Alhambra. Here players compete to build the best Alhambra palace in 14th century Granada. You place tiles in your individual layout, rather than a communal one. The tiles have walls, which restricts where you can place them. Like Carcassonne before it, Alhambra also has a ‘Big Box’ edition, by Queen Games.

Alhambra is hand management and set collection. There’s six types of buildings that go in your Alhambra, ascending in value (points and cost). Mega-points are up for grabs for those with the most of each tile types at three scoring opportunities. On your turn you either pick up currency cards, or pay for a building tile. There’s four architects, and four tiles available at all times, drawn from a bag. To claim tiles, you pay the architect the cost of the tile in their favoured currency. You can over-pay if you’re desperate to claim the building, but if you pay the exact value, you get a bonus turn!

2004 – Ticket To Ride

Ticket To Ride won the Spiel des Jahres in 2004, and it’s the Big Kahuna. It’s one of the best-selling family-weight games of this generation. For many people, Ticket To Ride was their gateway into the wider world of modern board games. You’re a railway tycoon, looking to build tracks between US cities. Everyone starts with secret objectives. By the end of the game, you need to have built a network that links two cities on the map. Succeed and score the objective card (the ticket). Fail, and you lose that many points.

Your turn consists of doing one of three actions. You can take two cards from a public flop (or draw blind). You can play matching cards from your hand, set collection-style, to claim a route on the map. The colour of the cards must match the colour of the route. These net you smaller increments of points, too. Or, you can take more tickets, with new secret goals.

Days of Wonder have published a range of different maps for Ticket To Ride. Some of these are standalone (Europe, Germany). Others require the base game to play (Heart of Africa, Netherlands, Asia and many more). As well as geographical maps, the other games add in extra mechanisms.

2005 – Niagara

2005’s winner, Niagara, is out of print. It’s a pick-up-and-deliver game, about sailing down a river and picking up gems on the shorelines. And yes, Niagara involves a waterfall! In fact, this uses the box itself in an innovative manner, to create a physical drop. Players use hand management to play cards to sail against the current. At the end of turns, plastic discs enter the fray, mimicking the water flow. They push canoes ever-closer to the waterfall’s edge…

It saddens me that you can’t buy Niagara brand new at the moment. While Flamme Rouge is not a like-for-like replacement, it shares some similarities. There’s no pick-up-and-deliver, but it uses hand management for movement. Flamme Rouge is a Tour de France race game, where you control two cyclists along a route. A SdJ winner it’s not, but it’s still great fun!

2006 – Thurn and Taxis

Thurn and Taxis by Rio Grande Games is another Spiel des Jahres winner out of print. This is a network-building game about the postal service across Germany bordering countries. It involves hand management and playing cards to extend your route. Some people compare it to Ticket To Ride, which has outsold it in vast quantities. Thurn and Taxis does raise the stakes a bit in comparison to TTR, though. You have to add a city to your route every time or lose the entire route…

It’s not unheard of for out of print games to get a new print run. Who knows? Designers Andreas and Karen Seyfarth might tweak the rules (along with the dry theme?) and it might get a reprint or reimplementation. It is a Spiel des Jahres winner, after all…

2007 – Zooloretto

Zooloretto is a tile drafting game by Michael Schacht about building your own zoo! Aww, that sounds super-sweet and charming. Be warned. This game is like sticking your hand into a tiger’s mouth: it’s got teeth!

You’ll score through set collection means, by keeping matching species in enclosures. On your turn you can either draw a new tile and add it to a truck, or you can take a truck. There’s risk and reward here. The longer you leave it before claiming a truck, there’s a chance the other players won’t play ball. They’ll put awkward tiles on the same truck, forcing your hand. Your zoo only has so much space, and if you take excess animals that you can’t house, they’ll score minus points. It can get quite competitive!

Zooloretto isn’t available on Zatu at the moment, but its predecessor, Coloretto, is. It’s the card game version, also by Schacht. It shares all the same mechanisms of Zooloretto and plays in about 15 minutes.

2008  – Keltis

Keltis, the winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 2008, is by Reiner Knizia. In many ways, it is a reimplementation of one of Knizia’s older games, Lost Cities (KOSMOS, 1999). Lost Cities is a two-player only set collection card game. (Lost Cities also got a board game sibling later on, which bumped up the player count). Hand management is key; you have to build up sets of cards that increase in value. Keltis is a card game for 2-4 players, but it’s failed to crawl out from Lost Cities’ shadow. Lost Cities has proven to be the more popular and successful game.

One of the main differences between Keltis and Lost Cities: The Board Game is to do with movement. In Keltis, players can play card values either up or down. Meanwhile, in Lost Cities you always have to play a higher-value card.

2009 – Dominion

Dominion has become a colossus of a name in the deck-building genre of board games. The concept is simple. Your starting deck of cards allows you to do certain basic actions. You’ll spend these cards to get better cards, and these then allow you do better, more efficient actions. You’ll spend those to get even better cards… It’s a positive snowball effect.

You shuffle your default ten-card deck and draw five of them. You can spend certain cards to get upgrades, or actions that, say, let you draw more cards into your hand. This means your turns can chain combos, and earn you mega-points! Part of the game is ‘thinning your deck’ – getting rid of the weaker cards from it. In theory, this maximises the use out of more powerful cards.

Since winning the Spiel des Jahres in 2009, Dominion has spawned countless spin-offs and expansions. The base game, at least, a gateway experience for the genre. If you want tonnes of variety and complexity, check out the expansions!

2010 – Dixit

Dixit is more of a party game and was the 2010 Spiel des Jahres champ. Players have a hand of cards with wonderful, wacky artwork on it. It’s dream-like, a glimmer of surrealism, and the cards could have multiple meanings. The active player (the storyteller) picks one of their cards in secret. They say a sentence or phrase that summarises that card. Everyone else picks one of their own cards that they feel best suits that phrase. All the cards get shuffled, and then revealed. Everyone bets on which card belonged to the storyteller.

The catch is that the storyteller doesn’t score if everyone (or no one at all) guesses their card. If that’s the case, everyone else scores. If only some people guess correct, then the storyteller scores. Players score points every time someone guesses their card.

It’s safe to say that Dixit has gone on to become Libellud’s darling, this past decade. There’s no less than ten different Dixit products available to buy on Zatu’s site! Ten! There’s 84 cards in the base game, and a bucket load more in the beautiful expansions.

Was I right? Had you played at least two of these? That’s it for Part Two. Join me for Part Three where I lead you through the next ten years of Spiel des Jahres winners, up to 2020. There’s some absolute A-List games coming up, proper heavyweights. These games demand attention and respect!