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Spiel des Jahres 2012: Have the awards jumped the shark, and are the winners getting less complex?

Ender Wiggins
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By now most people have seen the official nominees for the 2012 Kennerspiel des Jahres and the 2012 Spiel des Jahres, along with the games that weren't nominated to win but were still recommended by the jury. You've probably also come across the usual circus of discussion that typically follows this announcement, with many folks voicing the usual criticism that the nominations are a joke, out of touch, irrelevant, or ridiculous. I'm not going to join this circus, but I would like to offer a contribution to this discussion, and I'm especially interested in exploring the criticism that the complexity of the winners is decreasing over time.

The Awards in General: How important are they?

First of all, folks somewhat new to gaming may wonder why these awards are even regarded as being a big deal to begin with, and how relevant they are. That's a fair question, given that they are German awards. The question becomes even more pressing considering that it's quite rare that deeper strategy games get nominated. No wonder that each year inevitably we see a repeated discussion about the apparent irrelevancy and idiocy of these awards.

In actual fact, these awards are a big deal, although we should be honest from the outset and simply concede that they very likely are not at all going to be of high relevance to the serious hardcore gamer who wants to see his favourite heavy strategy game from the past year being recognized. Sorry folks, that's just not going to happen at the Spiel des Jahres, because that's just not what they're about! These awards are specifically geared to family style games, and so in general the nominees and winners are games that need to be fairly accessible to the average consumer, and have to be suitable for the mass market - the average German consumer and German mass market that is. We need to recall that the eurogame revolution in the 1990s originated in Germany, and even today that's still where the heart of the gaming industry is to be found. Furthermore there are other awards in Germany that recognize more complex strategy games, the Deutscher Spiel Preis being the most notable one, which typically crowns as winners what we commonly dub as "gamers games", including Agricola (2008), Caylus (2006), and Puerto Rico (2002). In contrast, the Spiel des Jahres is specifically geared toward a slightly different market, at a threshhold not far removed from what we often call "gateway games". With this in mind, it shouldn't at all surprise serious gamers that many of the jury's choices are not challenging enough by the standards of strategy veterans in the gaming hobby.

So why are they important then? Even if they're perhaps not of the greatest relevance to the serious strategy gamer who has advanced well beyond the threshold of gaming, they are certainly relevant to a slightly different market that's looking for something easier to play. In fact, the Spiel des Jahre awards have a huge impact on sales, especially in Germany, but also far beyond its borders. A publisher whose game wins the coveted Spiel des Jahres award has the luxury of including the winning logo on his products, and this credential will inevitable correspond to a huge increase in sales, one source suggesting it can generate sales of up to a half a million copies world wide. From the perspective of the designer and publisher, winning this award is the equivalent of a small coup in the gaming market, and they can count on it continuing to drive significant sales in years to come. This by no means does a disservice to the gaming community; on the contrary, while serious strategy games may seem to get the cold shoulder from the Spiel des Jahres jury, what these awards do accomplish is help introduce many new folks to great games for the first time, and as such they play an important role in expanding the hobby game market.

The Awards This Year: What got nominated?

So what then about the awards this year? In recent times the folks behind the Spiel des Jahres award have taken a slightly different approach, by adding a Kennerspiel des Jahres category in addition to the traditional Spiel des Jahres category, in order to accommodate games that are slightly more complicated and yet worthy of recognition. The first beneficiary of this new award category was 7 Wonders in 2011, which beat out the other two nominees, Strasbourg and Lancaster. Perhaps the first hint of this concept was already evident in 2006 and 2008, when Caylus and Agricola were each awarded a special prize for Best Complex Game.

The nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year are Adam Kałuża's mountain climbing game K2, Andreas Steiger's entry in the Kosmos series Targi, and Inka and Markus Brand's novel take on the worker placement genre Village, which features graveyards to help you deal with the mortality of your meeples and of course earn points. As an aside, it's good to see Kosmos getting back into the limelight, with two of their other games making the recommended list for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category as well.

The nominees for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category in 2012 are Stefan Dorra and Ralf zur Linde's Eselsbrücke, Donald X. Vaccarino's Kingdom Builder, and Rüdiger Dorn's Las Vegas. Kingdom Builder is already quite widely known, and Vaccarino's enormous success with Dominion certainly has done his designer credentials no harm. The other two titles might be somewhat unfamiliar for many gamers, but the designers are all established veterans whose names many of us will recognize.

In addition to these nominees, the jury also have the habit of recommending a number of other titles that weren't nominated but are still worth recognizing. I won't repeat them all here, but suffice it to say that you'll find a complete list here:

Kennerspiel & Spiel des Jahres 2012: All the Nominees and Recommended Games

The Awards Over The Years: Is complexity decreasing?

As happens almost every year, you'll see detractors and critics pan the nominees and recommendations, suggesting biting criticisms ranging from accusations that the jury are out of touch with modern gaming, that the typical family gamer is evidently getting more stupid over the years, that the jury that dispenses the awards is clearly corrupting the definition of a family game, and that the Spiel des Jahres awards have jumped the shark. We've already made a case for the fact that the awards need to be evaluated for what they are: not as a set of Grammys for the greatest and best games in the eyes of geeky hardcore gamers (which, let's face it, is most of us), but to recognize quality games that can be picked up and enjoyed by your typical family with granny and the kids. Oh, and let's not forget that some of the hardcore gamers are going to enjoy them as "lighter" games, "gateway" games, or "fillers" too!

But having said that, is there any truth to the contention that the complexity of the award winners is decreasing over the years? I decided to find out, by using the average BGG weight as a guide. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the average BGG weight is determined by BGG users who vote using a 1-5 scale (Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, Heavy), from which an average is calculated. As a relative scale of comparison, it can be quite useful despite its criteria being somewhat nebulous and hard to define, because for the most part it is the same people who are making comparisons and assigning these values.

Some numbers

James Fehr kindly pointed out that the average BGG weight of this year's crop of Kennerspiel nominees is 2.5, and the Kennerspiel recommended games is 3.0, while the average BGG weight of this year's Spiel des Jahres nominees is 1.7, and the Spiel des Jahres recommended games is 1.6. So how do the numbers for this year's crop compare with earlier years? Well, I looked them up, so you can see for yourself:

2011 1.7 Qwirkle
2010 1.3 Dixit
2009 2.4 Dominion
2008 1.6 Keltis
2007 1.9 Zooloretto
2006 2.3 Thurn and Taxis
2005 1.8 Niagara
2004 1.9 Ticket to Ride
2003 2.1 Alhambra
2002 1.2 Villa Paletti
2001 1.9 Carcassonne
2000 2.9 Torres
1999 2.9 Tikal
1998 2.2 Elfenland
1997 1.7 The Mississippi Queen
1996 3.1 El Grande
1995 2.4 The Settlers of Catan
1994 2.0 Manhattan
1993 1.3 Liar's Dice
1992 2.0 Um Reifenbreite
1991 1.8 Wacky Wacky West
1990 1.9 Hoity Toity
1989 1.7 Café International
1988 1.6 Barbarossa
1987 2.0 Auf Achse
1986 1.5 Heimlich & Co.
1985 2.8 Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
1984 2.2 Dampfross
1983 2.0 Scotland Yard
1982 1.3 Enchanted Forest
1981 2.4 Focus
1980 1.8 Rummikub
1979 2.0 Hare & Tortoise

Note that while perceptions of "weight" may have changed over the years, the figures in the above list are all based on what people from recent years think about the weight of the games mentioned, so these numbers are a fair reflection of current opinion. The 4000+ votes that combine to give the 1995 winner Catan an average BGG weight rating of 2.4 are all from the last decade, and probably the vast majority are from the last number of years when BGG membership has grown significantly. Having 4000+ people suggest that Settlers of Catan's weight is on average between "light medium" and "medium" is a fair indication of what people today think about its complexity.

Admittedly the average BGG weight ratings of newer games is somewhat unreliable, especially if they haven't had many users assign them a weight rating yet. In comparison to Settlers of Catan, last year's Spiel des Jahres winner Qwirkle has an average BGG weight rating of 1.7 that is based on only 300+ votes. This means that these voters think it's between "light" and "light medium", slightly leaning toward the latter, but for the most part these are the same people who contributed to Settlers of Catan's weight rating of 2.4 . So despite the smaller sample size, this result is still based on enough data to give a reasonably good point of comparison, and it's quite safe to conclude that most people think Qwirkle is "lighter" than Settlers of Catan by comparative degree of 1.7 to 2.4.

Some conclusions

So what does this mean when we look at all the numbers going back to 1979? Would earlier winners not stand a chance of being nominated today, and are the awards being dumbed down, as some have suggested? I don't think so. It could be argued that the three heavier-weights on the list, Torres (2.9), Tikal (2.9), and El Grande (3.1), were out of character from previous years rather than the norm. It's clear that since its inception, the vast majority of Spiel des Jahres award winning games had an average BGG weight of 2 or less, with a few notable exceptions being the three just mentioned. Over the last 25 years the only other winners that have an average weight greater than 2 are Catan (2.4), Dominion (2.4), Thurn and Taxis (2.3), the last two of which were both fairly recent winners! In that regard a fairly good argument can be made that the games nominated and recommended for the Spiel des Jahres award this year and in recent years are quite in line with previous years - aside from the three years when the jury opted for more complex titles. If the complainers had been around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they'd have had reason to complain about the lightweights that were recognized at that time too! Could the "problem" of decreasing complexity be less real than we imagine?

As for this year's Kennerspiel nominees and recommended titles (average BGG weight of 2.5 and 3.0 respectively), they nearly all appear more complex than previous winners, if their current numbers are any indication of their complexity. In that respect adding a separate Kennerspiel category seems to be a good move, in order to recognize games that ordinarily might be considered just beyond the kind of complexity that the jury is looking for in winners of the Spiel des Jahres award. At the same time it's still true that the Kennerspiel games are a long way from being hardcore strategy games. And that's fine, and I doubt that the jury would want it any other way, because recognizing complex strategy games is what other awards are for, whereas the Spiel des Jahres awards are still intended to be a family oriented award geared towards the mass market, with the Kennerspiel going to slightly more advanced games that are just a step up above the usual complexity of the winners. I expect we'll see this trend continue in future years, and I see no reason to complain about it, because it only helps make it possible for a greater variety of games to get recognition.

A Proposed Perspective

So what does all this mean for gamers and how we should view these awards? Well, let's try to be fair when we assess the Spiel des Jahres awards, because we don't help anyone by using the announcement of these nominees as a platform for game snobbery. Instead, why not treat them with some respect, recognizing that they're not firstly of all geared towards folks like most of us. Maybe it's the critics who are the idiots, rather than the jury who are very much achieving what they've always tried to do. Perhaps there's a higher road for us to travel, and that's to be grateful for how the Spiel des Jahres awards accomplish exactly what they set out to do, which is to bring great and accessible games to the family market. And let's be honest, even the hardcore strategy gamers among us need something lighter to play once in a while, even if it is with grandma or the guys at work. And maybe, just maybe, when the occasion suits, there's even a Spiel des Jahres winning game that's just right for us.

Join the discussion: Do you think that the complexity of the Spiel des Jahres nominees and winners has changed over the years? And in your opinion, how relevant are these awards for the gaming industry today?
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