With the Spiel des Jahres announcement coming in the next few weeks, I thought I’d use The Eleven to take a look at the first eleven SdJ winners. This list is organized chronologically by date of award.
1979: Hare & Tortoise was initially published in 1973 by Intellect Games, designed by David Parlett. Ravensburger printed a German edition in 1978, titled Hase und Igel (Hare and Hedgehog), and that is the edition that won the very first SdJ. Hare & Tortoise is a racing game where you have to spend carrots in order to move. You can decide how far you want to go, but you need to spend carrots to move. At the start, you’ll have enough carrots to finish the race, but you have to spend more the farther you want to go. This means you’ll run out and need more. There are number spaces that will allow you to gain carrots as long as you are in the position in the race specified by the number; carrot spaces, which give you carrots if you don’t move on your next turn; lettuce spaces where you can discard a lettuce card (these must all be discarded before you can finish the race); tortoise spaces, which can only be reached by moving backwards but give you lots of carrots; and hare spaces, which give various benefits or penalties based on your position in the race and a die roll. The player who reaches the finish line wins.
This is not a game I have played. Racing games are not always my favorite, but this one looks like it has some fun elements, and not a whole lot of randomness. The hare spaces are the only spots where luck plays that much of a factor – otherwise, the strategic decisions are all yours. It looks pretty interesting, I’ll have to try to seek it out sometime.
1980: The first time I looked at the SdJ list and saw Rummikub, I was amazed that I had been playing a winner for years. Originally released in 1977, this Ephraim Hertzano design has been a game I’ve owned for a while, but haven’t really played since I got into hobby gaming. It’s a vvariation of Rummy that uses tiles instead of cards. Players begin with 14 tiles on a rack, and on a turn, may play as many tiles as they wish and end with a draw. The first time you play, you must play at least 30 points worth of tiles – that is, all played tiles must add up to at least 30. You play tiles in sets of like numbers in different colors, or in consecutive numbers of the same color (at least 3). After you’ve played your thirty points, you may begin playing off of other sets – adding an 8 to end of that 4-5-6-7 on the board, or adding the red 3 to an existing set. You can also split up sets that have already been played – if there’s an orange 4-5-6-7-8, you can separate the 4-5 and add an orange 6 to the end, creating a new run. The round ends when someone has played all of their tiles. Other players gain points equal to the numbers of the tiles on their rack. You play to a set target score, or a specified number of rounds.
Rummikub offers some good challenge. It’s a puzzle as you try to work out the best way to get rid of your tiles. Unfortunately, that leads to massive analysis paralysis problems. The 30 point rule can also be massively frustrating because it’s feasible that it will take forever to be able to play. In fact, most games I’ve played have had one person who just could not get over that hump. When they finally did, they either got rid of all their tiles, or nearly all, and someone won before they could play again. Still, it’s not a bad game, there are just better ones out there.
1981: Focus was the only SdJ win for Sid Sackson, and it came from a game that was first published in 1963. It has also been known as Domination. The game (2-4 players, 45 minutes) started out simply as a variant on Checkers, with the original board being a checker board that has the corner squares removed. On a turn, a player takes a piece, or stacks of pieces, and moves it as many spaces as the number of pieces in the stack. When you land on a stack, it is captured – the top piece determines which player can move it. When a stack exceeds five pieces, the bottom pieces are removed, with a player’s own pieces ready to enter the game at another time, and opponent pieces captured. Stacks can be split as the game goes on. The game ends when one player can’t make a move – the other player wins.
I first read about this abstract game in Sackson’s 1969 book A Gamut of Games. You don’t really need a mass produced copy – all you really need is a checkerboard and 18 different colored pieces per player. It seems interesting enough – I’d have to play it to see what I really think.
1982: Enchanted Forest marked the first time that a Spiel des Jahres winner was given to a new game. Designed by Michael Matschoss and Alex Randolph, this is a treasure hunt game for 2-6 players that takes 30 minutes to play. Thirteen trees with treasures underneath are laid out around the board, and you are trying to locate specific ones. This is a roll and move game where you roll two dice, and either move the total in one direction, or move the total of one die in one direction and the other die in another. If you land on another player, they are sent to the village. If you land next to a tree, you can peek. If you think you know where the specified treasure is, you can head to the castle. If, when you get there, you are correct, you claim the treasure card. If not, you don’t show anyone, but go back to the village. The first person to claim three treasures wins.
Besides Rummikub, Enchanted Forest is the only one of this list I have played. The game has a very strong memory element to it. There aren’t a lot of trees, but they’re spread out and the target treasure changes when someone claims one. I thought it was fun enough, but this one is definitely a kid’s game. It would probably be more of a contender for the Kinderspiel des Jahres these days.
1983: Of the eleven games on this list, it’s possible that Scotland Yard has had the most lasting impact. This 1983 game was designed by a team of six people (Manfred Burggraf, Dorothy Garrels, Wolf Hoermann, Fritz Ifland, Werner Scheerer, and Werner Schlegel) and was published by Ravensburger. It’s for 3-6 players and takes 45 minutes to play. One player is Mr. X, and the rest of the players are working together to try to catch him. Mr. X moves secretly, marking his moves on a pad of paper and announcing how he is moving (bus, train, automobile, or ferry). Every so often, Mr. X reveals where he is. If he is caught, the agents win. If the players make their 22nd move and Mr. X is still at large, Mr. X wins.
I hear about this game all the time in conjunction with one vs. all games like Fury of Dracula, Nuns on the Run, the bioterrorist variant of Pandemic, and so on. Having not played, I don’t know how well it works, but the game is still being played 30 years on, so it must have some good things there (there’s even an iOS app for the game). I’d say this was probably one of the better choices in the early years of the award.
1984: Dampfross was the 1983 version of a 1973 train game called Railway Rivals. Schmidt Spiele published the SdJ winner that was designed by David G. Watts. It’s a 2-6 player game that takes 90 minutes to play. You build a railroad network by rolling two dice and placing that many points worth of track (different terrains cost different points). You also have to give VPs to other players if you get too close to their track. Connecting cities earns you points. When all cities are connected, there’s a race phase. The dice are rolled to determine start and destination cities, then players decide how they want to get there (or even if they don’t want to participate). You have to pay other players to use their tracks. Once routes have been decided, you roll and move until someone wins. The winner gets 20 points, and second place gets 10. Continue until someone has reached an agreed upon number of points (usually 200-250).
This seems like a very clever mix of game mechanics. There’s the familiar route-building that is present in most train games, but then there’s the racing element that makes the route building that much more of a big deal. The big thing here that you don’t see in train games is the random element – you roll dice to both build track and to race. I don’t know if I’d like this or not since dice are not generally my friends in this type of thing, but I think I’d really like to try someday.
1985: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was a 1981 game whose 1984 edition (by KOSMOS) won the SdJ. It was designed by Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, and Gary Grady, is for 1-8 players, and takes an hour to play. The game provides a case book with 10 mysteries to be solved, and you get clues along the way. The goal is to solve a mystery quicker than Holmes could.
From what I’ve read about the game, there’s not really much of a game to it. It’s more like a puzzle where the goal is to do the best you can. It seems like an odd choice for SdJ in that respect. I guess you can get the whole family involved, but it doesn’t seem very replayable – you can do each mystery once, and then that’s it. I’m sure it’s all very well done, but this seems like one of the odder selections the jury has made.
1986: Heimlich & Co. was first published in 1984, and Ravensburger’s 1986 version won the SdJ. This marked the first of five SdJ wins for Wolfgang Kramer. The game is for 2-7 players and takes 30 minutes. This is a hidden identity game where each player has a secret spy, and are trying to get it into the best possible position on the board to be the first to score 42 points. Movement is done by rolling a die and moving any combination of spies to adjacent spaces. Scoring is triggered when a spy lands on the location with a secret file.
This game (later republished as Top Secret Spies) seems to be a pretty light experience, and entirely dependent on reading your opponents. There’s no way to know who controls which spy, and you have to use logic to figure out what your opponents are doing. It doesn’t really look like something I’d like, but it does look like something that would be pretty easy to play and quick.
1987: Wolfgang Kramer followed up his win in 1986 with another win, this time for Auf Achse (also known as Convoy). The game was published by FX Schmid, is for 2-6 players, and takes an hour to play. Players are trucking across Central Europe, trying to fulfill contracts. You start with three contracts, telling you where to pick up goods, how many, where they’re going, and how much you’ll get. Further contracts are acquired through auctions. Trucks can only carry six goods, but a trailer can be purchased to increase that number. Movement is done with a die roll, though you don’t have to move exactly the number rolled. The game ends when a player has fulfilled all contracts, and the player with the most money wins.
This looks like a standard pick-up-and-deliver game with what looks like some very nice truck pieces. I have no idea how it will work, not knowing what the contracts actually look like. I dislike the idea of bidding on contracts, but hey, that’s just my own bias. This is probably not something I’d seek out to play, though I’d play if given the opportunity.
1988: Barbarossa marked the first of four SdJ wins for Klaus Teuber. It was published by Altenburger Stralsunder Spielkarten-Fabriken, is a game for 3-6 players, and takes an hour to play. The game adds some artistic elements, as players will be sculpting items out of clay at the beginning for others to guess. Players then move around the board, either by rolling or paying jewels. Then, depending on where you land, you can get more jewels, give points to the others, ask a question about a letter in the name of the objects, or ask yes/no questions about objects. If you guess correctly what an item is, you can stick an arrow in it to indicate you get points (5 for being first, 3 for second). The game ends win the end of the scoring track is reached, or when the last arrow is used.
I had heard about Barbarossa in conjunction with the Cluzzle party game from Northstar Games, but didn’t know much about it. It seems like a very clever game, almost partyish in execution but still with some strategy involved. I think components would be difficult in the long run as you have clay – however, I bet you could just keep replacing it with Play-Doh every now and then. I think this is something I’d like to play sometime.
1989: Finally, we have Café International. This 1989 game was published by Mattel, designed by Rudi Hoffman, takes 45 minutes, and is for 2-4 players. The game is all about seating customers at a restaurant, following gender and nationality guidelines. Chairs are shared between tables in many instances, and points are scored every turn. The player with the most points at the end wins.
This game is kind of an abstract with a theme pasted on. It has drawn some criticism for stereotyped people in the nationalities, but also has its defenders. It doesn’t seem very deep, and probably is pretty dependent on luck of the draw. I’d be willing to give it a try, but it doesn’t excite me.
And there you have it. I was surprised as I went through these games how many of them are roll and move games. Different variations on the mechanism, but still. Weird.
I’m calling this Part I, but am not planning to continue the series in the next few months. I may do it again in a year, when it’s SdJ time again…we’ll see. Thanks for reading!