SDJ Buzz: Spiel des Jahres 2016

Time to look at the three games nominated for the Oscars of board gaming, the Spiel des Jahres.  If you don’t know, the SdJ is an annual award that is given to the German family game of the year, and has been awarded every year since 1979.  It’s the award that gamers tend to follow the most closely since Germany is such a big player in the board game world.  I’ve been predicting the SdJ winner for the entire history of this blog, and I’m 2-3 in my predictions – I got Hanabi (2013) and Colt Express (2015) right, but was incorrect on Qwirkle (2011 – I picked Forbidden Island), Kingdom Builder (2012 – I picked Eselsbrücke), and Camel Up (2014 – I picked Splendor).  So we’ll see how it goes this year.

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

Codenames is a game designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by Czech Games Edition.  It is the first SdJ nomination for both, though Space Alert did win a special “New Worlds” award in 2009.  Codenames is for 2-8 players and takes about 15 minutes to play.  Basically, players are spies trying to make contact with all of their agents.  The spymaster gives clues, and the team members must figure out what is being referred to by those clues, all the while trying to avoid their opponent’s spies or (worse yet) the assassin.

At the start of the game, 25 cards are laid out in a 5×5 grid.  Two players take the role of spymaster, and are given a key that tells them which cards in that grid belong to their team and the other team, as well as which are neutral and which is the assassin.  On a team’s turn, the spymaster gives a one word and one number answer.  The word is intended to lead players to the right cards, and the number refers to how many cards the spymaster thinks can be found using the clue.  So a clue of “CLOCK 3” means that the spymaster thinks three words relate to the word CLOCK.  If you guess a word correctly, you get another guess, and can keep going for as many guess as the number, plus one.  If you ever guess a neutral or a word for the other team, your team’s turn ends immediately.  If you pick the assassin, your team loses automatically.  The first team to find all of their spies (or the team that doesn’t pick the assassin) is the winner.

Codenames is a party game, and the SdJ jury doesn’t usually go for those.  However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this game made more of an impact than any other family game released in the last year.  It’s the only one of the nominees that I’ve played, and I find it to be  a whole lot of fun.  And this is coming from someone who generally is not a fan of party games.  It’s the only game that EVERYONE predicted would be nominated, and I’d say it’s well deserved.

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

Imhotep is a game from Phil Walker-Harding that was published by KOSMOS.  It is Walker-Harding’s first nomination for the SdJ, though many people thought he should have been nominated last year for Cacao.  In the game (2-4 players, 40 minutes), players are builders in ancient Egypt, trying to transport stones to various sites and erect monuments in order to earn points.

A game of Imhotep plays over the course of six rounds.  In each round, you first reveal a round card.  This will indicate which four ship tokens will be available.  Then each player takes a turn.  A turn consists of taking one of four possible actions – get new stones, place a stone on a ship, sail a ship to a site (and unload them, possibly scoring points), or play a blue market card.  When all four ships have sailed, the round ends and you receive points based on stones in the temple – only the stones visible from above score.  After six rounds, the player who has scored the most points wins.

This seems like a pretty straightforward and interesting game.  There’s not a lot of choices in the actions, but each action leads to some other choices.  Which ship do you load on?  Which ship do you sail?  Where do you sail it?  It looks pretty cool, and I think it’s a good nominee for the SdJ.

image by BGG user Haffner
image by BGG user Haffner

Karuba is a game designed by Rüdiger Dorn and published by HABA.  Dorn is no stranger to the SdJ, with four games nominated over the years.  He has never won the award, but did win the Kennerspiel in 2014 for Istanbul.  HABA is a company primarily known for children’s games, and this is the first year that they have had a game nominated for the SdJ instead of the Kinderspiel.  In the game, 2-4 players are controlling explorers, trying to collect treasures and make it to various temples before the other players.  The game lasts about 40 minutes.

Each player gets their own board, and boards are set up exactly the same way.  Each player has access to the same set of tiles, and one player will draw one randomly.  All players will then place that tile.  You can choose to move instead of place, which you do by discarding the tile and moving as many spaces as there were exits on the tile.  You can pick up any gems along the way.  When an explorer gets to a temple, they score points based on who got to that temple first.  When one player has gotten all four of their explorers to a temple, or when all 36 tiles have been used, the game ends, and the player with the most points wins.

This game looks like a really good puzzle solving exercise as you try to figure out the best placement of tiles in order to score the most points.  However, it’s also one step above multiplayer solitaire.  The metric for MPS is that if you can get the exact same experience without anyone else there, it’s solitaire.  Here, I think that a lot of it is keeping an eye on other people and seeing how long you can push it before racing to the temples, but you really are just doing your own thing.  Nothing you do will affect anyone else.  I do think it looks like a cool game, just not terrible interactive.

Prediction time!  It’s a pretty strong class of nominees this year.  This is the first year in a while where I’m pretty happy with all of the games nominated.  It’s been a tough choice, but I think I’m going to predict that the winner of the 2016 Spiel des Jahres will be


I hate going against Vlaada, but the more I think about it, the more I think that Codenames is not really right for the award.  It’s a party game for one, and it’s a very intellectual one.  I think it’s a great game, and Game of the Year material for sure, but this award is for the best family game, and I really think the jury will go for Imhotep as it has more widespread appeal.  There’s big chunky blocks, there’s a building aspect, and it’s got really simple rules.  I think Karuba does not have enough interaction to be a contender, and I think Codenames may be a touch more complicated than the jury is looking for.  Process of elimination, that means that I think it will be Imhotep.

Take that with a grain of salt.  As I’ve said, I’m under .500 on my predictions all time, so I may not be the expert to listen to when entering your office SdJ pool.  I’d be really happy if Codenames won, I just don’t think it will.  I’ll be back Friday with an overview and my pick for the Kennerspiel des Jahres.  Thanks for reading!


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