SDJ Buzz: Spiel des Jahres 2014

It’s time for the Spiel des Jahres, the annual award given to the German Game of the Year.  This is the board game world’s equivalent of the Oscars – it’s a very prestigious award that can lead to astronomical growth in sales.  Every year, the picks are roundly criticized as being irrelevant, and that they don’t reflect the real world of games.  And every year, it’s still all anyone can talk about, which kind of defeats those criticisms.  So yes, exactly like the Oscars.

Ever since 2011, I’ve used this space on the blog to take a look at the nominees, and make an ill-informed and entirely baseless prediction on who I think will win.  I’m 1-2 here, picking Forbidden Island in 2011 (Qwirkle won), Esselsbrücke in 2012 (Kingdom Builder won), and Hanabi in 2013 (that one I got right).  So, let’s see how I do this year.  On with the nominees!

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Our first nominee is Camel Up from designer Steffen Bogen and published by eggertspiele (Z-Man is the publisher in the US).  This is a 30-minute betting/racing game for 2-8 players.  Five colored camels correspond to five colored dice that are placed in a cardboard pyramids.  The game is played over a series of legs, until a camel crosses the finish line.  During a leg, each player will alternate taking one action each until all dice have been removed from the pyramid.  Actions you can take include taking a leg betting tile (meaning you hope that camel will be in the lead at the end of the leg), placing a desert tile on the track to possibly influence camel movement, taking a pyramid tile (which also allows you to shake a die out of the pyramid and move the corresponding camel), or secretly betting on the overall winner or loser.

A scoring occurs whenever a leg is complete, with players gaining Egyptian pounds.  When a camel crosses the finish line, the game ends and the players who successfully bet on the winner or loser gain money based on how early they made their bet.  The player with the most money wins.

Camel Up seems like a very light racing game where you don’t have too much control over the camels.  Sequence of play seems to be important – you’re waiting for the right moment to take a leg tile, and you’re trying to figure out who’s going to win or lose before anyone else does, and you’re trying to time your dice rolls (though you can’t know when that’s going to happen).  The pieces look really cool – some nice cameeples that stack up if they land on the same space, and a diceamid (which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before – a cool design that allows you to shake the dice up, and then only spits out one).  Not having played it, I think it looks like a pretty good nominee for the SdJ – simple enough to understand with some luck pushing and subtle strategic elements to keep it interesting.  It’s also the only nominee to originate in Germany.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The next nominee is Concept, by designers Gaëton Beaujannot and Alain Rivollet.  Repos Productions is the publisher (Asmodee in the US).  Concept is a party game for 4-12 where you are trying to get others to guess a word by placing cubes on certain areas of a board.  A team (neighbors) draws a card and determines which word to use (easy, hard, or challenging).  They then begin placing markers around the board.  A green question mark pawn is placed to identify the main concept – maybe it’s a person, or a liquid, or a building.  You can use green cubes to clarify the concept – maybe it’s blue, or round, or made of wood.  Other pawns and cubes are used to identify and clarify sub-concepts.  When any player guesses the word, they get a double VP token, and each team member gets a single VP token.  Play then rotates to the next pair.  The game is over when all double VPs have been taken.  The player or players with the most VPs wins.

Concept takes the idea behind games like Charades and Pictionary and puts a new twist on it – all the icons you need are right there on the board, you just have to figure out the best sequence to get people to guess it.  And it does seem like a good mental exercise for people – a puzzle for the clue givers as well as the solvers.  However, I don’t think this goes much past an activity.  The scoring seems pretty dumb – the guesser gets two points, and the team always gets one point each.  I think it might be better if the team were competing with each other, and the player who placed the last clue marker gets the point.  Kind of like Password.

I don’t generally like party games, so I’m probably biased.  As clever as this game may be, I don’t really think it warranted a SdJ nomination.  Ever since going down to three nominees, it seems that the committee is always coming up with these eyebrow raisers – Vegas two years ago, and Qwixx last year.  I think this one is probably better as a nominee than those two, but I think it probably would have been a better  for the recommendation list.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Finally, there’s Splendor.  This one seems like it’s been a frontrunner for a while, being the only one of the three nominees that most people predicted.  This 2-4 player game by Marc André and Space Cowboys is a game about gem trading.  Players take turns taking one of four actions.  You can take three gems, each of a different color.  You can take two gems of the same color (but only if there are at least four available).  You can spend gems to claim a card from the array.  Or, you can reserve a card to buy later, thus claiming a wild gem.  Cards that you claim could get you points, but will give you discounts on future card purchases.  Also, if you have acquired enough discounts, a person will come to you after your turn and give you three more points.  The game is over after someone has gotten 15 points and everyone has had an equal number of turns.  The person with the most points wins.

Splendor is the only game on the SdJ list that I have played.  It has some quality poker chips that represent the gems, and has some nicely illustrated cards.  The gameplay is ridiculously simple, but there are a ton of meaningful decisions to be made.  I really enjoyed it, and actually played twice back to back.  It plays very quickly, and I really enjoyed it.  I heartily concur with the decision to include it on the nominee list.  I think the only thing that might keep it from winning is the cover – that guy looks a little sinister.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – my prediction.  And I’m falling in line with the majority here when I say that SPLENDOR will probably be this year’s winner.  I know it’s the only one I’ve played, but honestly, I was thinking it would win since before I played it.  As I mentioned, it’s been the frontrunner for a while.  That’s not necessarily an indicator of success (La Boca was a frontrunner last year, and didn’t even get a nomination), but I think it helps.  Camel Up would be the only other game that I think could take it, but I think the theme of that one will make it seem more like a Kinderspiel game, even if slightly more complex than a typical nominee in that category.  I don’t give Concept much of a shot – of course, anything could happen, but I just don’t think this one will be able to sway the committee.  When Dixit won in 2010, I think the jury was specifically looking for a party game – two were nominated that year.  I’m not sure Concept got nominated over, say, Love Letter, but I don’t think it will win.

So, to recap:

  • Splendor is a great game, and I think it’s your winner.
  • Camel Up looks like an interesting concept for a racing game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won, but I don’t think it will.
  • Concept is the long shot.  It looks like an interesting activity, but not too much of a game.

We’ll see how I did when the winners are announced on July 14.  Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!


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