SDJ Buzz: 2012 Spiel des Jahres

It’s that time of year again, where the eyes of the gaming world turn to Germany and the annual awarding of the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year). The SdJ has been around since 1979, and is commonly thought to be the most prestigious award in board games. It’s like the Oscars. Criteria for the award include originality, clarity of rules, ease of play, and quality of design. It is important to note that, since this is a German award, the only games that are eligible are those that have been released in Germany within the last year.

Last year, I dedicated a post to each nominee (as well as a post to the nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres). This year, I’m going to combine the nominees for the SdJ into one post, and will include some uninformed and completely baseless predictions.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The first nominee is Eselsbrücke (English translation: Donkey Bridge). The game was designed by Ralf zur Linde and Stefan Dorra and published by Schmidt Spiele. There’s no English version, though I’m sure there will be if it wins the big prize. The game is for 3-12 players aged 8 and up. It’s a memory/storytelling game where you’re building stories off of cards. There are seven rounds. In the first two rounds, players will take three pictures and invent a story that will help the other players remember the pictures. They’ll then put the cards face down on their board in the appropriate spaces. In the third round, you’ll get more cards for a story. You then pass out the cards from the first round. Players then take turns naming one of the cards from the story (not the one they got). If you’re right, you get the card as a point. If you make a mistake or can’t remember, you’ll lose points by giving up cards (though you can never go negative). If no one made a mistake, the storyteller gets a blocker card on top of their points cards. When a blocker card comes up as you lose points, it means that you can stop giving up points for now (you also give up the blocker). This process repeats through the fifth round. In the sixth and seventh rounds, no new stories are told, just guessed. The player with the most points wins, with ties broken by blockers.

Eselsbrucke seems like a good storytelling experience that seems like it is actually a game. Unlike something like Once Upon a Time, there’s a goal and a limit to how you play. It seems like you have good incentive to tell good stories so you can get blockers, important for limiting your damage as well as breaking ties. It’s also interesting that it’s a memory game, as that genre is not usually seen as having much weight in the gaming industry. But I think the stories will really help people who are traditionally bad at remembering. Eselsbrücke seems like a really good family game, and one that I hope makes the transition to the States at some point.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The next nominee is Kingdom Builder. I actually know something about this one as I covered it on the blog before it was released at last year’s Essen Spiel. As a reminder, this is a game from designer Donald X. Vaccarino and Queen Games. It’s for 2-4 players aged 8 and up, and takes about 45 minutes to play. The game is about building up your kingdom by building settlements across the land. You have one terrain card which you play, then place three settlements in unoccupied matching terrain hexes that are adjacent to settlements you already have. If you build next to a location, you claim a location tile that gives you more actions on future turns. The game ends after someone has built their last settlement. You collect gold based on your proximity to castles, and you also get gold based on three Kingdom Builder cards that will change the scoring conditions for each game.

I have not yet played Kingdom Builder, but I’ve been watching it since last fall. Play seems very simple, and the game looks quite beautiful. A lot of the complaints I’ve heard about the game center on the lack of control you have over where you place and the relative randomness of the game. Scoring comes from three random cards drawn at the beginning, and you only get one card to use when placing your settlements. The one card, however, is reminiscent of Carcassonne where you draw a tile and that’s what you have to work with, so you need to make the most of it. The random scoring conditions are something I’ve come to expect from Donald “Mr. Variety” Vaccarino. It seems to be a style he’s developing, that no two games will ever be the same. I commented in my original post that I didn’t think Kingdom Builder would revolutionize gaming like Dominion, and it hasn’t. Still, an SdJ nomination is nothing to sneeze at.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The final nominee is Vegas. This is a medium box game from alea and designer Rüdiger Dorn. It’s a very light dice rolling game for 2-5 players aged 8 and up that takes 25 minutes to play. Basically, you’re rolling dice to try and earn money at six different casinos. On your turn, you roll your dice, then choose one number and add all dice of that number to its corresponding casino. The next person then rolls, and so on. When it gets back to you, you reroll all remaining dice, and the process continues until everyone has added all dice to casinos. You then look at all casinos, and if anyone added the same number of dice to any one casino as another player, those dice are removed. Players then get paid out – there is at least $50,000 at each casino, with banknotes in denominations of $10k-$90k. The player with the most dice in a location gets the highest present banknote, and everyone else that is still there goes in descending order. After each casino has paid out, you restock the casinos with money and go again. The player with the most cash after four rounds is the winner.

I had heard that this game was pretty light, but after reading the rules, I’m kind of surprised just how light it is. alea is known for some pretty heavy stuff, but even their lighter fare (like Witch’s Brew) doesn’t seem nearly this light. There may be some strategic choices in determining which cash pile you are going for, but you’re still gambling on dice rolling. That’s a big push-your-luck element, which I normally like. However, it doesn’t seem that interesting to me here. The money distribution is a lot like Cash ‘n Guns, which I don’t really like (mostly because I’m always dead by the fifth round).

PREDICTION TIME!

I don’t usually do too well with my predictions. Since I started trying, I got Dominion in 2009, but guessed Roll Through the Ages in 2010 (Dixit won) and Forbidden Island last year (Qwirkle won). I guess I’m glad that Matt Leacock isn’t nominated this year, maybe I’ll have a shot. Wait, he was nominated in 2009 too. Crud.

Eselsbrücke was the only nominee I hadn’t heard of before its nomination. That may be because it’s a German game and hasn’t made it to the States. However, looking through the rules, I really like the concept. My wife is a librarian, and we’re always looking for good story based games. I think this one will encourage more actual storytelling than Dixit, whose main appeal (I think) was the art. Dixit’s recent win may hurt Eselbrücke’s chances, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Eselsbrücke will win the 2012 Spiel des Jahres. I think it has novel mechanisms, good replayability, and really encourages interaction in a way the other two really don’t.

Kingdom Builder has been a frontrunner for a while, and most people were sure it was a lock for the nomination. I think it’s probably deserved. It seems like a really simple gateway game that features a lot of replayability. It may not be the most novel game, but I think that since every game is different than the previous one, it gives Kingdom Builder a good shot. It’s not very interactive, but people bumping into each other on the board should provide some good tension. I strongly considered making it my pick, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won. Vaccarino’s win for Dominion may hurt Kingdom Builder’s chances – the last time a designer won the SdJ for the second time was 2004 (Alan R. Moon for Ticket to Ride). Stefan Dorra has never won – he was last nominated in 2006 for Buccaneer.

I’m putting Vegas down as my long shot. While it’s light and easy to understand, I think it’s probably a little too light and dependent on luck. Like Kingdom Builder, I don’t think it’s very interactive, and it seems more like a race to roll the right numbers. I would be surprised, and probably a little dismayed, to see Vegas win. And it’s too bad – Rüdiger Dorn has been designing games for a while with no wins (last nominated in 2005 for Jambo), and alea has surprisingly never won (though Puerto Rico should have won in 2002 over Villa Paletti).

So there you have it. I’ll be back soon with the nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres. I think I’m going to skip the Kinderspiel this year – listen to the Spiel if you want to find out about those. Thanks for reading!

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