As we mentioned yesterday, it’s Spiel des Jahres season. We all know what that means, of course. The three Spiel des Jahres awards are still among the most prestigious in the world, and winning them is still a big deal. We already presented the nominees and jury’s recommendation for the Spiel des Jahres award yesterday, today we’ll have a look at the Kennerspiel. Without any further ado, here we go.
EXIT – Das Spiel (Kosmos)
Seeing EXIT – The Game bei Inka & Markus Brand here is the biggest surprise I’ve had here. Not because I think they’re bad games – the one we played was great – but because of the kind of game they are. First of all, it’s “they”, not “it”. The nomination is for the first three games in the series The Abandoned Cabin, The Pharaoh’s Tomb and The Secret Lab. All three are escape rooms in a box. The players have an hour to go through the various puzzles, find the clues hidden in the box, and escape from <insert game title>. We played through The Abandoned Cabin, and it’s a great experience. The puzzles are tough but logical, the little framing story creates a creepy atmosphere, and the included help system leaves it in the hand of the players how much help they want. It’s as good an escape room as you’re going to get without leaving your living room. My surprise about seeing it here is that it’s really more of a cooperative puzzle experience than a boardgame. There’s no strategic element to speak off, no real rules to follow besides “don’t look through the deck to find solutions”. There’s also the fact that each EXIT game is strictly a one time experience. You can’t play through a second time, and unless you jump through some extra hoops no one else will, either, because you’ll fold and cut some parts. Nevertheless, it’s a really good time, and even if you can’t replay it €13 is a cheaper hour of fun for six people than almost anything else you could be doing.
Raiders of the North Sea (Schwerkraft Verlag)
Räuber der Nordsee is the German edition of Shem Phillips’ Raiders of the North Sea, an extraordinary worker placement game. The players are viking warriors who wish to impress their chief by preparing and executing daring raids across the North Sea. They achieve both things through the use of viking workers, but those guys are somewhat less loyal than usual in a worker placement game, they’ll work for whoever uses them. To use them, players first place the one worker they hold in their hand on one of the board locations and take that location’s action. Then they pick up another worker from another location and take that location’s action, too. This way they’ll always start and end their turn with one worker in hand and take two actions per turn. Workers come in different colors, and some locations only accept workers of the right color, or have a different effect depending on worker color. And all that is only preparing the raid, you still have to execute it.
Terraforming Mars (Schwerkraft Verlag)
If you’re following boardgame news and discussions even a little, you more than likely heard about Jacob Fryxelius’ Terraforming Mars, great success of last year’s Essen fair and boardgamers’ favorite ever since. Terraforming Mars is a scientific game, meaning that the various project cards that advance your terraforming project are plausible and could one day be part of a great plan to make Mars inhabitable. (If we don’t blow ourselves up first.) But it’s not an easy project. You want to produce oxygen, bring up the temperature and collect liquid water on the surface. Many of your projects can contribute to those goals, but many also need the right conditions before you can even play them. And you still need to pay for them with resources you have to get from somewhere. This is hands down the most difficult project humanity can even consider starting in our lifetimes, that makes Terraforming Mars not only mechanically brilliant but also a great example of optimistic science fiction – I feel the world needs more of that right now.
I’ve said it yesterday, I’ll repeat it today: I give up on guessing which game the jury will pick, it’s just not worth it with my success rate. I feelTerraforming Mars would be a certain winner if the prize was awarded by public vote, the other two simply can’t compete with it’s hype. And the hype is deserved, no doubt about it, but the competitors being less publicly acclaimed doesn’t mean they’re less deserving of the Kennerspiel award, just that they’re less known. Raiders of the North Sea is a great worker placement game that might even have somewhat simpler rules than many such games, but the specific way of this game has its own tactical challenges. And the EXIT series may be an odd choice to nominate because it’s an escape room in a box, but it is a great escape room in a box.
That’s a lot of words to say that I have no idea. But we are interested in your ideas! Which game do you think will win Kennerspiel des Jahres? Let us know in the comments. Or complain that your favorite didn’t even make the selection. Which game do you think is missing here? Me, I was disappointed not to see Ulm, not even on the recommendation list. Speaking of which:
The Recommendation List
Captain Sonar (Pegasus Spiele)
Captain Sonar, also known as Heart Attack in a Box, also known as The Best Battleships Game Ever. Roberto Fraga and Yohan Lemonnier created an amazing team game where two teams, ideally with four players each, take their posts on two submarines and hunt each other across the ocean. Each sub has four posts to fill: Captain, Radio Officer, First Officer and Engineer. Each of them has their own part to play, be it controlling this ship, triangulating the enemy or keeping your sub seaworthy, but only if they all work together do they have a chance. Fortunately, you don’t have to be silent to avoid enemy sonar like you see in the movies, because playing Captain Sonar without excited shouting doesn’t seem possible.
The Big Book of Madness (iello / Heidelberger)
We reviewed The Big Book of Madness by Maxime Rambourg already, and there’s really not much to add about the cooperative deck-building game set in a magical school with shockingly lax safety standards. Just a quick reminder why a game we reviewed more than a year ago ended up in this year’s Kennerspiel recommendation list: A game has to be published in Germany to be considered, and the German edition Das Grimoire des Wahnsinns is from this year.
Great Western Trail (eggertspiele / Pegasus Spiele)
Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail is probably the most complex game on the list this year. Driving cattle from Texas to Kansas City to sell your herd there wasn’t easy to start with, and it doesn’t get any easier from managing your helpers to put your very own building along the different routes and contribute to the railway construction. I’m pretty sure there are more moving parts here than in the other games, and Great Western Trail is the only game on the list this year that the jury designated sehr anspruchsvoll (very challenging).
Les Poilus (Sweet Games)
Fabien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez’ The Grizzled is available in Germany under its French name Les Poilus (distribution: Pegasus Spiele). This is a game that goes into an uncomfortable territory where few games dare to tread: World War One, not as a strategy game where the player generals move units around, but on a very personal level in the trenches. It’s a cooperative game where the players are soldiers in the trenches and each round they must play cards that threaten their physical and mental health, including mortar strikes and their own phobias. The rules for Les Poilus are not hugely complex, but coming out of it alive won’t be easy. Les Poilus is great because it shows that a boardgame can broach a difficult subject and at the same time be enjoyable as a game.
And that’s the whole list already. I’ll never understand why the jury decided that the Kennerspiel recommendation list should only have four entries, when so many amazing, complex games are published every year, but it is what it is.