On May 23, 2011, the nominees for the coveted Spiel des Jahres prize were announced. The SDJ (German Game of the Year) is one of the most prestigious awards in the board game industry – essentially, it’s the Oscars for us. Since its inception in 1979, games that have won the award include Hare & Tortoise, Rummikub, Focus, Enchanted Forest, Scotland Yard, Railway Rivals, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Top Secret Spies, Auf Achse, Barbarossa, Café International, Hoity Toity, Drunter und Drüber, Um Reifenbreite, Liar’s Dice, Manhattan, The Settlers of Catan, El Grande, Mississippi Queen, Elfenland, Tikal, Torres, Carcassonne, Villa Paletti, Alhambra, Ticket to Ride, Niagara, Thurn and Taxis, Zooloretto, Keltis, Dominion, and Dixit. The winner of the award typically gets a big bump in sales around the world, but especially in Germany. Games eligible for nomination have to have been released in Germany within the last year.
There are three separate awards for the SDJ: the regular Spiel des Jahres, typically geared towards family games; the Kinderspiel des Jahres (kDJ), an award for children’s games; and the brand new Kennerspiel des Jahres (KSDJ), which is to be awarded to the best complex game of the year. I’m going to start a series here where I talk about each of the games that have been nominated this year, which I’ll close with my predictions. I’ve actually played two of the games, so I’ll be sure to give reviews as I cover them.
We’ll talk about the regular SDJ first, and the first nominee is Asara. Asara is the only one of the three nominees that was originally published in Germany, coming from Ravensburger. The game was designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. Wolfgang Kramer holds the record for most SDJ wins, with five – two of these were on his own (Top Secret Spies and Auf Achse), one was with Richard Ulrich (El Grande), and the other two were with Kiesling (Tikal and Torres). Asara was released in 2010, is for 2-4 players aged 9 and up, and takes about 45 minutes to play. In the game, you’re an architect trying to construct the most magnificent towers.
The board for Asara looks pretty unique. It’s made up of five squares and four triangles. The triangles are double-sided, with one side to be used for the advanced game. There are 100 tower component tiles, including 20 foundations, 20 sections, 25 windows, 20 pinnacles, and 15 illuminated windows (only for the advanced game). There are four score markers, a year tracking piece, four privacy screens, 52 Asari coins, and 45 cards. Each player gets 9-8-7 cards (with 2-3-4 players), as well as 20 Asari plus more depending on their place in the player order. 7 foundations, 7 pinnacles, 7 sections, and 8 windows are placed in their market areas, with the 15 illuminated windows in a face down stack in front of the House of Lights in the advanced game.
On your turn, you do two things – place an agent and take an action. To place an agent, you place a card into an empty space. If there are no cards in the section, you can place any color. If there is already a card in the area, you must follow suit. If you don’t have that color, or don’t want to follow suit, you can play two face down cards instead. You’ll then take the action for that space. Here are your options:
- Buy Tower Components: There are four market areas. If you place a card in one, you can take one component from the area and pay for it, depending on the color of the component. Brown costs three, green costs four, red costs five, black costs six, and white costs eight.
- Build and Expand Towers: The Builder’s Circle in the center of the board has seven spaces, marked 1-7. That number represents the total you must pay, and also the total of components you can use in tower construction. So, if you’re on 1, you only pay 1 Asari, but can only use one component. Using 7 costs more, but allows you to use 7 components. All components in a single tower must be of the same color, and each completed tower must consist of at least a foundation and a pinnacle. In a single turn, you can work on as many towers as you want, but towers must be complete by the end of your turn. You can add more sections and windows in future turns. You get a point for every component you use.
- Collect Money: You have to place in the lowest available space (8-10-12), and then you get that much money.
- Pay a Bribe: Place a card in front of the House of Spies and pay 3 or 5 Asari. You can then look through one reserve stack (the components not currently in a market) and take one for yourself, paying the regular cost.
- Earn Caliph’s Favor: Whoever has the Caliph’s Favor token will be the start player during the next year.
In the advanced game, there are two additional actions:
- Recruit Agents: Pay 0-2-4 Asari and draw two new agent cards.
- Purchase Illuminated Windows: Pay 4 Asari and draw the top three windows, keeping one and putting the other two on the bottom of the stack; OR you can pay 10 Asari, draw 5, keep two, and put the rest on the bottom. These are placed on top of windows in the towers.
Play passes after each player takes their action. After all players have played all cards, the year ends and a scoring occurs. You get 1 point for each completed tower, 1 point for each piece of ornamentation on a completed tower, and 1 point for having the Caliph’s Favor token (plus 1 point per illuminated window in the advanced game). You’ll then set up for the new year by removing all cards from the board, redealing to each player, filling market spaces with extra components, and pay each player 20 Asari. After the fourth year scoring, the game is over and an endgame scoring occurs. The tallest and second tallest tower of each color get points, as do the tallest and second tallest overall tower, the largest and second largest number of towers, and every 10 unspent Asari. If you have the most points, you win.
So that’s it. It seems very simple to understand, but I have no idea how it will work in practice. The art is gorgeous, and I think it will be very quick once people figure out what they’re doing. I had heard about the game prior to its SDJ nomination, but really didn’t know much about it. The pairing of Kramer and Kiesling doesn’t excite me like it does some people, but this game seems more interesting than Tikal, Torres, or even Artus (their other recent offering that I covered a few posts ago). I’m definitely more interested in trying it out after reading up on the rules. Rio Grande should be publishing it sometime in the near future – they seem to get all of these types of games. I’ll give some more thoughts on what I think its chances are when I give my SDJ predictions. Next time, the second nomination for the SDJ. Thanks for reading!