On the 19th of July, three winners of three prizes in board games will be announced to the world. There’s a lot riding on this decision: millions in extra sales, critical acclaim, future design and publishing contracts. But unless you’re heavily involved in the gaming hobby, the chances are you’ll never have heard of the prize that carries such import - the Spiel des Jahres, or “Game of the Year”.
The name gives you a clue as to why: it’s a German prize, awarded yearly since 1978 by a jury of game critics and industry veterans from the German-speaking world. Tabletop gaming, it turns out, is a big deal in the Germanic world, where it’s very common for families to enjoy a game together in the evening. It was the source of the revolution in board game design and popularity that swept the West, starting with Klaus Teuber’s Catan (one of the most beloved classic board games), which won the award back in 1995.
MicroMacro: Crime City ($29.98 at Amazon (opens in new tab)) walked away with the grand prize during Spiel des Jahres 2021. This hidden object game portrays a seemingly peaceful world of cheerful cartoon characters, but more than a dozen murder and crime cases are hidden amongst the chaos - and your job is to find them.
Spiel des Jahres nominations focus on the family end of the gaming market, spotlighting board games for families that excel in originality, playability and clarity. And as gaming has become more popular, it’s expanded into two subcategories besides the main award: the Kinderspiel for children’s games, and the Kennerspiel for more complex hobby games.
Even getting a nomination is a big deal and can increase the sales of a game by many thousands of copies. And they’re almost unfailingly worth playing, as well as often highlighting some hidden gems that have escaped wider attention. So here are this year's nominees across the three awards for your consideration (if you’ve seen some of them before, that’s because they only come into consideration for the award when a German edition is published).
Spiel des Jahres 2022 Nominees
Cascadia’s magic is its extraordinarily wide appeal. It’s straightforward to play: each turn you select a pair of pieces, an animal disc and a terrain tile, and fit both into your growing landscape, putting the animal into a terrain hex where it can thrive. Your goal is to satisfy one of several scoring conditions based on the patterns of hexes and animals you create. But those conditions range from the simple, for family play, to far more fiendish combinations that will challenge hobby players well-versed in board games for adults.
As such, it can satisfy almost anyone, especially given the appealing wildlife theme and great art. And the top of the mountain is a fun solo campaign of increasing difficulty, so you can even play it alone.
More and more clever games are coming out of Japan, a fact that’s been recognised with this nomination. This is a ladder game where you get a hand of numeric cards and have to get rid of them by laying down sequences. But there are two catches. First, you can’t rearrange your hand, only turn it upside-down, putting different values uppermost. Second, you can’t play a sequence unless you can beat the previous sequence and, if you can’t, you have to pick up cards from it instead, making it weaker while potentially adding new sequences to your hand.
With bright art and easy, fast gameplay, but full of challenging decisions around timing, sequencing, and hand management, this has all the potential of a breakout hit now it’s been brought to wider attention.
The award isn’t just about strategy games, and party board games often do well (Just One scooped the prize in 2019, for example). Top Ten is hoping to replicate that success with its formula of ranking the results of crazy questions. Each round posits a situation, like "what kind of threat level might cause James Bond to give up a secret code?" Players then get a secret card from one to ten and have to come up with a scenario that fits the situation according to that value on a scale. The round leader then has to do their best to get the answers in the right order. Cue lots of ridiculous answers and even more ridiculous groupthink as players try to second guess how everyone else might respond to the prompt.
Sadly there’s no English edition of the game available yet, but plenty of people are playing it already with translation apps.
Kennerspiel des Jahres 2022 Nominees
Cryptid is a game that’s almost as odd as the mysterious cryptids it has the players hunting. Essentially, it’s a game of logical deduction based on clues. Each player has a unique pointer toward which hex on the map the peculiar creature is hiding in, but only by taking all the clues together can the location be found. So on your turn, you pick a player and a hex and ask them if, according to their clue, the beast could be hiding there or not. This slowly gives you the information you need to work out what other players’ clues are, and thus be the first to deduce the hiding place.
The result is a fascinating combination of misdirection and deduction. Cryptid is fast and fun… so long as no one accidentally gives a wrong answer to their question.
Boosted by the 2021 Dune movie, this game set in Frank Herbert’s universe is a great translation of the novel’s political machinations into a strategy board game. It’s a wonderful combination of worker placement and deck building with several novel twists. Representing one of the noble houses from the series, you’ll send agents out to do business with factions like the Guild or the Fremen, or to tussle for territory on the planet’s surface. Cards are dual-use, depending on whether you play or discard them, adding a new layer to hand management and there’s an abstract but exciting multi-way battle to thrill over each turn.
Juggling cards, resources and the military leaves you with a very varied and richly strategic game, with the popular theme being the icing on the spice cake.
Another deck-building game, Living Forest casts players as nature spirits trying to resist fires encroaching on the sacred forest. The main engine of this is a fun push-your-luck mechanic where you keep drawing cards from your deck, with each adding resources you can use to buy new cards, move, or put out flames. But if you get too many “solitary” icons, your draw is over and you can take only one action instead of two.
Atop this engaging base, there’s some good strategic and tactical decision-making as you try to put together an effective deck and stay on top of the spreading flames. This is a game with wide appeal, simple enough for family play but satisfying enough for hobbyists.
Kinderspiel des Jahres 2022 Nominees
The smorgasbord of names that this game rejoices under (Auch Schon Clever/Ganz Schön Clever Kids/Clever Junior) is indicative of the problems of publishing in different languages. But also of following on a hit game with a kids’ version. In this case, the original is Ganz Schon Clever, the game that started the current craze for roll and write games (think Yahtzee but with more strategy). This version takes the same concept of rolling dice, choosing one to fill in a sheet where you’re trying to collect sets of party favours, and leaving the remainder to your competitors. It’s a nice introduction to probability and pattern matching for kids, wrapped up in a theme they will enjoy. Will it pip the others as one of the new must-have board games for kids? We'll have to see.
Much like the game above - also with multiple names and by the same designer, too - this is a stripped-down version of an acclaimed adult game. In this case, that game is Quacks of Quedlinburg, where players buy tokens to put into their bag and then draw them to try and get chains of complementary effects without getting too many cherry bombs that can end their turn. That risk versus reward setup is a brilliant concept for kids, marrying lots of strategy and excitement together. Here, the bag contains food that players will feed to their mount to power it to a race to the finish line.
Of the three nominees this year, Magic Mountain is most suitable for younger kids. It’s a cooperative, marble-run type affair where players draw coloured marbles from a bag and set them rolling down the board, which consists of a series of branching paths that the marble will take unpredictably. On the board, there are apprentice and witch figures that will block a marble, causing them to be moved to the next tier down. The aim is to have all the apprentice figures reach the bottom before the witches do.
What we're left with is very simple to learn, fast to play, and with fun tactile elements. Plus, the cooperative aspect means kids can play without fighting.
For more tabletop recommendations, don't miss these cooperative board games, the top board games for 2 players, and these essential board games for kindergarteners.