Commentary on the games of 2016

Tuesday, 24. May 2016

“We’ve got a list.” – After an almost ten-month selection process and a three-day closed meeting, we’ve done it: for the 38th time the “Spiel des Jahres” critics’ jury presents to the game-playing public a selection of exceptional games. The aim of our recommendations and nominations is once again to condense the year’s releases into a manageable number of high-quality games and to show the highest possible variety of different systems and mechanics. It’s our aim that every player will find a game on the list that suits his or her taste and demands.

24 games have made it onto this year’s recommendation lists in our three well-known coloured categories: blue is for children’s games which are chosen by a separate jury, red marks games for everyone and charcoal-grey is for those who have a little more experience in learning and applying games rules. The nine-person jury for the “Spiel des Jahres” and “Kennerspiel des Jahres” awards have put 14 games on their lists. These games originate from all across the world. As in previous years, new, original and exciting systems and mechanics appear alongside well-trodden design paths. The jury has included a number of very communicative and co-operative games and there is an important trend towards games which tell stories.

For the “Kennerspiel”, the jury has nominated two innovative game systems which have almost literary qualities. “Pandemic Legacy” and “T.I.M.E. Stories” are both co-operative challenges which are a little different to the norm and which can take over your entire evening. Here, the qualities of a TV series are transmitted to the gaming table: in-depth stories are developed over a number of episodes. The game “Pandemic Legacy” mutates constantly, almost like an organism. The game’s board and rules transform during play. In “T.I.M.E. Stories”, players travel back in time to experience adventures and solve puzzles. Both games contain narrative surprises which “consume” them, so they can’t be played over and over again like a classic game – and indeed like the third nominated Kennerspiel “Isle of Skye”: players are attracted to this well-known Scottish island with whisky and sheep. Despite a very early publication date, the game has been returned to time and again, without wearing it out at all.

Solving puzzles and cracking codes is also a theme for other games on our recommendation lists. With “Codenames”, “Spyfall” and “Krazy Wordz” the jury is emphasising the communicative collaborative experience, for larger groups too. In the two other games nominated in the “Spiel des Jahres” category aside from “Codenames” – “Karuba” and “Imhotep” – all players are involved in the action at the same time and there are no long waits to take your turn. Thematically, the three nominated games take players into the world of an undercover agency, on an expedition into the jungle and to the building sites of the monuments of ancient Egypt. Looking at the list, it’s worth noting that a classic children’s publisher like “Haba” has suddenly advanced into the area of family games, while publishers usually known for more challenging games are now producing children’s games.

In the charcoal category, the jury has recognised games belonging to an already-existing games family, such as the purely two-player “7 Wonders: Duel”, “Pandemic Legacy” or the recommended dice game “Qwinto”. With “Blood Rage” there is a surprising discrepancy between the game’s outwardly aggressive appearance and its actual atmosphere of play. And “Mombasa” is another game on the list which in terms of its difficulty level is a grade above that which the jury would normally assign to the “Kennerspiel.”

They jury hasn’t always agreed on the age recommendations and game length specified by the publisher, namely when these didn’t correspond to their own experiences. And let us say this again: the “Spiel des Jahres” jury also evaluates games’ rulebooks. It’s clear that some publishers place a lot of importance on carefully written and formatted rulebooks. The jury found other games so exceptional that they were able to overlook smaller problems with the rules. But unfortunately we have had to exclude some very good games this year because of their incomprehensible rules. Often, less than perfectly structured and phrased rulebooks for games from foreign publishers aren’t improved in translation, just adopted wholesale. Another observation: in the view of the jury, electronics and digitalisation don’t always combine well with board games.

There are still two months to wait. The winner of the “Spiel des Jahres” and “Kennerspiel des Jahres” awards from the three nominees in each category won’t be announced until Monday 18th July 2016, at the awards ceremony in Berlin. Once again it will be broadcast via Live-Stream. Until then we wish you lots of fun playing games.

Tom Felber
Chair of Spiel des Jahres