The waiting is finally coming to an end! On Sunday, July 16, the jury will announce the winners of Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres 2023. We’re blessed with another year of very strong games and I’m certainly very excited to learn what games will win the two awards.
Nominated for Spiel des Jahres 2023
Before we dive into the individual games, let’s look at some numbers to see some objective measures for them – as far as this is possible. What we’ve got at our disposal are the recommendations to the
S_d_J bot, BoardGameGeek’s average rating and the Bayesian rating. Additionally, I’ve created a poll on BGG where the geeks could have their say:
1–6 players, 30–60 minutes, 8+ years, medium light (1.7)
There’s a lot of buzz going on around this video game adaptation that the jury describes as a “feel-good-game”. It sure feels soothing how the landscape evolves over the course of the game, while presenting an interesting challenge to score as many points as possible. The campaign mode with its unlockable content offers some fresh challenges every time and provides a great excuse to come back to the game again and again.
I definitely had a lovely time playing through the campaign for eleven straight evenings. I even found myself looking forward to incorporating that new tile I just unlocked into my strategy for the next game and chase a new highscore. Sure, for the last game or two it did feel like I was mostly going through the motions just to tick off the last few boxes, but on the other hand: what was the last game you played for eleven days in a row?
But hidden in there is also my biggest concern: for me, Dorfromantik is essentially a solo game. Of course, you can discuss with your group where to place a tile, but that’s true for any solo game – by that logic, they’re all just “co-operative games you can play on your own”.
One final question remains: Will the jury award Spiel des Jahres to another comforting hex-tile-laying game one year after Cascadia? They always claim that they don’t concern themselves with such considerations, and the two games do play out quite differently. Still, the award is meant as an ambassador for the board gaming hobby, so highlighting the breadth of what a game could be beyond plopping hexes on the table yet again can’t be entirely dismissed.
4–8 players, 30 minutes, 8+ years, light (1.0)
The pitch of a party game that allows you to get to know your group, but in a controlled and gentle manner, seems to be a perfect match for a Spiel des Jahres. Of course, there isn’t “enough game” to it for the ‘geek crowd, so don’t be fooled by the numbers above. The jury definitely has a fondness for very direct games that mostly play above the table: in the interactions between the players.
Still, I was a little surprised by the nomination. Whilst the reviews were by and large very positive, the game seems to work best with players you already somewhat know. In a fairly random group, the game can fall flat since you have no reference points to go on about when comparing one player’s answer to another one’s. A Spiel des Jahres should work for anybody, so that caveat seems significant to me and puts Fun Facts at some disadvantage in the competition for the red meeple.
1–4 players, 25–30 minutes, 8+ years, light (1.4)
By my count, this is the forth “random’n’write” game to be nominated for either award over the past decade, and to be honest, I’m not sure what this particular variant adds to the genre. I do find it very elegant how the fact that every players draws a different underground line every round breaks the symmetry such that everybody’s tube map will look different despite following the same cards. But as far as the actual gameplay goes, I found the very similar Voll Verplant to be the more intriguing puzzle. My final grump is that a winning map looks nothing like an actual underground map: the scoring incentivises players to zig-zag through quarters and back and forth across the river, and that’s just not how an efficient public transport system is designed.
This is not to say Next Station: London wouldn’t be a fine game and a deserving nominee, but I’d be fairly disappointed if it did win the award that puts it in line with such giants as CATAN and Carcassonne.
OK, one more complaint, then I’ll shut up: I had a hard time learning the game from the rule book, and I’ve played over 600 different games. How would this fair with the average gamer?
Also, there’s zero interaction between players. (Yeah, I lied, I wasn’t done.) Like, not even a race for completing an objective first or anything. Why would the jury shout from the roof that games are a cultural and social good worth studying and promoting, just to put the spotlight on a game that has players silently ignore each other for half an hour whilst drawing the least efficient tube maps possible?
Again, not a bad game by any stretch, I just don’t see it as Spiel des Jahres material.
Who will win?
Alright, I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise that I don’t think Next Station: London will (or rather: should) win. As I already said, Fun Facts is in some respects the perfect Spiel des Jahres, still my money is on Dorfromantik. It has a couple of things going for itself:
- The jury clearly disagrees with my assessment of it being a solo (only) game, so that doesn’t seem to be an obstacle.
- Maybe being a solo game isn’t all that bad? Maybe it’s time to highlight this part of the hobby? But then again, Harald Schrapers, chair of the jury, wrote a whole editorial on how he’s “totally not interested” in solo gaming (spielbox 2019/7).
- From a social aspect, maybe the strongest draw could be the promise of bringing video gamers into the analogue tabletop world. As an ambassador for the hobby, this could be the most valuable asset of them all.
Nominated for Kennerspiel des Jahres 2023
Let’s take a look at the same metrics as above, but for the Kennerspiel nominees:
The numbers clearly favour Planet Unknown to win Kennerspiel des Jahres 2023. Will the jury agree with the wisdom of the crowd?
1–8 players, 45 minutes, 8+ years, medium light (1.8)
This one was a bit of a surprise to the algorithm, but not because it was nominated, but on what list. It had a 0% Kennerspiel score, and unlike some other decisions by the algorithm, in this case I agreed with its classification. The cartoonish appearance and the lack of player agency during large portions of the game seem much better suited for a Spiel than a Kennerspiel. And indeed, when presenting the longlist in ascending order of difficulty, the jury mentioned Challengers! as the simplest amongst the Kennerspiel recommendations, i.e., the one that would have been most likely to leap over to the other award. Having played this game now with more players, I do see where the jury is coming from: there’s a lot of details going on that aren’t intuitive on first playthrough. What’s worse: In the usual setting, where one player explains the rules to the rest of the group, you might have up to three head-to-head battles with new players left entirely to their own devices and being confused what’s the difference between “gaining the flag”, “in flag possession” and “on flag loss”.
So, while I do think that this game plays out like a Spiel for skilled players, it presents the barriers of entry like a Kennerspiel for casual players, and that’s what matters most for the classification of the award type.
But once that barrier is cleared, I think this is quite an exceptional game, certainly in the sense that there isn’t really anything like it out there. The jury mentions that this is a Kennerspiel that creates a party game atmosphere, and I think once you buy into the mindset and let go of control of your team, it’s really entertaining to come up with interesting combos, just to see your team completely fail to execute your brilliant strategy on the pitch.
Of course, there’s a lot of luck and randomness involved, which can lead to frustrating moments, but this is a game that plays out so quickly that it’s not a bug but a feature. There really are a lot of clever little design decisions in there which make this game sing. I’m certainly already excited to see how Challengers! 2 will stir up the formula.
2–4 players, 60–90 minutes, 14+ years, medium (3.0)
This is the second edition of a game that itself re-implements Edo Craftsman Story, a game that is almost a decade old. In a time that’s dominated by the cult of the new and where a second print run is the exception, it’s nice to see so much appreciation for a game past its initial hype cycle.
I haven’t played IKI yet, so don’t have much to say about the gameplay. The jury points out how the mechanics actually capture the spirit of being a trader in Japan at the time, which sounds like an intriguing proposition.
The last thing I’ll have to say is that the complexity seems on the upper end of what the jury would consider for a Kennerspiel. Not out of the question, but it does make a win for IKI less likely.
1–6 players, 60–80 minutes, 10+ years, medium light (2.2)
Another game I haven’t played, but the buzz is quite strong. The combination of tile laying and tech tree seems fresh enough. Opinions are split on the central carousel that determines what tiles are available to each player every round – both if it was necessary to blow up the price of the game like this and whether calling it the Lazy S.U.S.A.N. space station is a clever pun or a little trite.
By all means, the reviews are strong and both weight and length seem to hit the sweet spot of a Kennerspiel, so Planet Unknown is definitely a strong contender.
Who will win?
I think it’s clear that all three nominees are very strong and have a realistic chance of winning – none of them would be a big surprise. But in the end I’ll go with the title that had the strongest reviews and was the frontrunner right from the start: Challengers! It’s the most unusual game amongst the nominees (which isn’t necessarily something the jury cares about, see the very safe picks from last year), but I think in many respects it can push the public’s perception of what a board game can be and do, which is something the jury cares about deeply. (At least I interpret their choises this way… 😉)
Let’s see if this bet-against-the-odds will pay off for me. We’ll be wiser on Sunday! I hope you’re as excited as I am. 😎