SDJ Buzz: Spiel des Jahres 2015

It’s time for my fifth annual roundup of the Spiel des Jahres nominees.  For those who don’t know, the Spiel des Jahres is an annual award given to the Game of the Year in Germany.  It’s basically the Oscars of our hobby, and is probably the most prestigious award we have.  There are three awards – the SDJ goes to the family game of the year, the Kinderspiel des Jahres goes to the children’s game of the year, and the Kennerspiel des Jahres goes to the more advanced game of the year.  I already did my rundown of the Kinderspiel games, so this time, I’m going through the Spiel nominees.  Something different this year – I’ve actually played all three games, so I sort of know what I’m talking about.

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

Our first nominee is Colt Express, from designer Christophe Raimbault and published by Ludonaute.  This is a 2-6 player game in which players are all trying to rob a train.  But you’re not working together – it’s like a bunch of bandits just showed up at the exact same time, and all of them want as much cash as they can get.

image by BGG user ludo naute
image by BGG user ludo naute

The game comes with 7 wooden pieces representing the bandits and the Marshall, 6 character sheets, 132 cards, and 32 loot tokens.  The most striking component of the game, however, is the cardboard train on which the game will be played.  At the start, loot tokens are distributed throughout the train, and each player gets a character with the corresponding 10 card deck.

The game plays over five rounds, and each round is divided into two phases.  In the Schemin’ phase, players will take turns playing an action card into a common pile.  These cards will be played face up or face down, depending on the set up of the round.  You could move left or right on the train, or even switch levels (inside or on the roof).  You could punch another cowboy in your spot, forcing them to drop their loot and flee.  You could shoot someone, adding a bullet card to their deck.  You could pick up loot in your space.  Or, you could move the Marshall, potentially driving another cowboy up to the roof and giving them a wound.  You could also choose to not play a card, and instead draw three from your deck.

In the Stealin’ phase, you flip over the deck and start actually playing the cards.  One by one, a card is revealed and resolved.  Odds are very good your plans will have gotten screwed up at some point.  Once all cards have been played, you move on to the next round.  Once the fifth round has been played, add up your loot.  The player who fired the most bullets gets a bonus $1000, and the player with the most cash is the winner.

I have to say that I love this game.  It’s very simple.  It’s very quick.  The theme is fantastic.  And it has some really cool components – not just the cardboard train, but there are a bunch of useless cardboard bits you can use to set the scene (cacti, armadillos, etc.).  It’s an introduction to programmed action games, and ends up being fairly chaotic in the second phase.  If any board game deserves a movie version, I think this is it – I’d love to see a movie about a botched train robbery where six different bandits working independently all showed up to rob the exact same train at the exact same time.

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

Our second nominee is The Game: Spiel…so lange du kannst!, from designer Steffen Benndorf and published by Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag (NSV Games).  The Game (which is what I’ll call it, just be aware that if you ever want to find it on BGG, you need at least a little of the subtitle) is a 1-5 player game about playing cards as close to in sequence as you can.  Spiel so lange du kannst means “play as long as you can”, and that’s the object.

The Game comes with 102 cards.  2 of these cards have number one and an arrow pointing up.  2 of these cards have number 100 and an arrow pointing down.  And the other 98 are numbered from 2-99.  Each player gets 6-8 cards, depending on the number of players.  The 1s and 100s are used to indicate the four piece.  On your turn, you must play at least two cards into the stacks.  Cards on the one stacks must be in ascending order, while cards on the 100 stacks must be in descending order.  The one exception is if you have a card that is exactly ten in the other direction, you may play that to dial the pile back.

image by BGG user JackyTheRipper
image by BGG user JackyTheRipper

Here’s a picture as an example.  The 1 piles show 30 and 33, while the 100 piles show 50 and 63.  You have 24-32-39-49-73-79-90.  The 24, 79 and 90 cannot be played right now.  Well, they could, but you’d have to skip a bunch of numbers.  The 73 could be played on the 63.  That pile is descending, but 73 is 10 in the opposite direction.  The 32 could go on the 30, which skips 31, but it’s OK to skip a few.  You could play the 39 before the 49, but that’s a good combination to hold onto for later.

The object of The Game is to play all 98 cards.  Once the deck is emptied, you only have to play one each turn.  If there ever comes a time when one player cannot play the minimum number of cards, it’s over.  Count up the remaining cards to see how well you did.  If you score zero, you win.  Less than ten is excellent.  I’ve never scored less than 23.

Every year, the SDJ comes up with a head scratcher of a nomination.  This is it for this year.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a really good game.  It’s simple, it plays quickly, and it’s honestly a nice dumb experience that you can’t devote too much thought to.  It’s quite challenging without being overly complicated, and that’s a good thing.  The problem is that it’s not Spiel des Jahres material.  The art is kind of creepy for a family game nominee, and honestly, there’s nothing really special in the production.  I do not own this game, but I was able to use my Walking Dead Card Game cards to try it out.  It’s really just a set of mechanics in a box.  I think there are better choices for nominees out there.  This is the type of game I would be happy to see recommended, but as a nominee, this is a silly choice.  I’ll talk more about this issue a little later.  To sum up – good game, bad nomination.

image by BGG user stooge
image by BGG user stooge

The final nominee is Machi Koro, designed by Masao Suganuma and published in Germany by KOSMOS (IDW distributes it in the US).  The game is one of the Japanese invasion, originally published in 2012.  It’s a 2-4 player game about building a city.

The game comes with 108 cards, 72 money token and two dice.  At the start of the game, you have two starting cards on the table in front of you – a wheat field and a bakery.  You also have four landmarks that need to be constructed.  A marketplace is created with all fifteen cards in supply stacks.

image by BGG user EndersGame
image by BGG user EndersGame

On your turn, you roll a die, then check to see if any of your cards produce anything.  The number that triggers each card is located on top.  Blue cards trigger whenever anyone rolls a particular number.  Green cards trigger only when you roll the number.  Red cards trigger only when someone else rolls the number.  Purple cards only trigger on your turn.  After any income is collected, you can buy one card from the marketplace or construct one of the four landmarks in front of you.  Each landmark has a special ability that unlocks when it is completed.  If you are the first to complete all four landmarks, you win.

This game draws a lot of comparisons to Settlers of Catan with the resource production, and to Dominion as you are building an engine.  But it’s also a unique experience all on its own.  The art is great, gameplay is very accessible, and there’s always something to engage your attention as you play.  This is a very good family game.  When I played, I got to play with the first expansion which adds some more variety to the deck, but even in its base form, it’s a very good game.

OK folks, it’s time for my official prediction.  As I mentioned, I’ve actually played ALL THREE nominees this year, so I feel like I have a more informed opinion than I usually do.  I’m dismissing The Game because, as good as it is, I think it’s missing a lot of the essential pieces that a Spiel des Jahres winner should have.  So, that leaves Colt Express and Machi Koro.  I’ve been going back and forth on this, but I’m going to finally say that the winner of the 2015 Spiel des Jahres will be COLT EXPRESS.  I think Machi Koro is great, but I think Colt Express edges it out because it feels like a more unique experience.  Plus, you can’t underestimate the power for cool components.  If Machi Koro wins, I think it will be an acknowledgement from the jury about the influence of Japanese games, and I think that’s OK.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it wins.  I would be quite surprised if The Game won, but my prediction this year is for Cole Express.

Take my prediction with a grain of salt.  In the last four SDJ predictions, I’ve been 1-3.  I picked Forbidden Island in 2011 (Qwirkle won), Eselsbrücke in 2012 (Kingdom Builder won), Hanabi in 2013 (got that one right), and Splendor in 2014 (Camel Up won).  We’ll see if I can get to .400 this year, or whether I drop to the Mendoza line.  What do you think?  Let me know, and thanks for reading!


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