Thoughts on the 2024 Kennerspiel des Jahres Nominations & Recommendations

As I said in my previous post, this year’s Spiel des Jahres winners will be announced on Sunday 21st July, and in advance of the announcements, I thought it might be interesting to have a bit of a deep dive analysis / exploration into all the games the jury put on the nominee and recommended lists.  This post will cover the Kennerspiel nominations and recommended games. Let’s dive in!

Kennerspiel des Jahres Nominations

Daybreak

Daybreak

(Matt Leacock & Matteo Menapace; Schmidt / CMYK)

The first of two nominations on this list for Matt Leacock, and what feels like a classic Leacock co-op game (co-designed with Matteo Menapace). This is a game of trying to fix the planet’s climate by developing clean energy and technology, while also carefully balancing the needs and demands of a growing population which keeps adding dirty emissions into the climate unless you can get them some clean alternatives. Crisis cards come up each round which being messing with your well laid plans, so you also have to plan to try resolving those before they help push the global temperature to disaster.

Ideologically, it’s a super theme (and one that is quite in vogue right now – a lot of games are coming out with a very ethical theme on them). Mechanically, it’s very familiar to a lot of Leacock’s other co-op games. There’s not really anything in the design to limit an alpha player taking over, but to me that’s not a negative; I’d just avoid playing with people who might do that.

As such, I’m not entirely sure there’s enough new here to warrant a KSdJ win, but I’m happy to be proved wrong. Getting a co-op game to win the award is a rarity in itself, but getting a Matt Leacock design to not just be nominated but also win would be great to see.

The Guild of Merchant Explorers

The Guild Of Merchant Explorers

(Matthew Dunstan & Brett J. Gilbert; Skellig Games / AEG)

This has often been described as “a flip & write without the writing”. That is quite an apt description; this game has all the hallmarks of a “random & write” style game – flip a card, ‘draw’ the pattern on your board to get points for things, hopefully beat other players to shared goals but otherwise no real other player interaction. The thematic idea of the game is that you’re exploring around a map, trying to connect sea routes to new cities, explore sunken ships for treasure, found new cities you’ve reached, etc. Mechanically, you’re placing cubes to match a flipped card’s pattern (quite how that fits thematically I don’t know – maybe it’s indicating prevailing winds that limit where you can sail to?).

The crux though, which makes this game a little more interesting than just “build routes based on patterns” is that at the end of each round, all your cubes are removed – only your cities remain. The next round you can then build off any of your cities – thus expanding your city network is key to allowing more exploration in future rounds.

It’s nice to see one of Dunstan’s & Gilbert’s joint ventures getting a nomination, although I do wonder if it is quite “next-level” enough to fit the Kennerspiel; its BGG weight is only just above 2 out of 5, putting it very close to some of the (non-Kenner) SdJ nominees of recent years, and indeed this game is a lighter weight (according to BGG users) than Sky Team, which is on this year’s SdJ list! The jury obviously don’t need to give any credence to what crowdsourced complexity a bunch of BGG users have given a game, but it does bring up the question of how exactly they decide which game goes in which award section. Also I feel Dunstan & Gilbert have had “better” games in their portfolio in past years that didn’t even get on the SdJ/KSdJ recommended list, let alone nominated. That being said, fair play to them for creating a game that has clearly impressed the SdJ judges.

Ticket to Ride Legacy–Legends of the West

Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West

(Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock & Alan R. Moon; Days of Wonder)

Matt Leacock’s second nomination in the same year! Ticket to Ride won the SdJ back in 2004 (for co-designer Alan Moon), so seeing its “descendant” on the list 20 years later is actually pretty exciting to see. Also – a legacy game (explaining Rob Daviau’s co-design credit)! I fully realise that legacy games rarely get SdJ nominations, but this one I think has a decent chance, being so closely related to a previous winner.

If you’ve not played the original Ticket to Ride… well, put simply, you draw cards to get colour sets to build train links to get points and complete ticket journeys around the US. It’s a classic, and a worthy SdJ winner back in 2004.  This new legacy edition starts on the US east coast with only part of a map visible.  As games go on, you’ll reveal more map, and more rules changes, and maybe some other fun stuff is revealed too – I don’t know for sure, as I’ve yet to play it – listen to Joel’s comments on it on recent podcasts for more non-spoilery detail of the legacy bits.

The downside is, this one is pretty expensive. But it is fairly family-weight friendly – I could easily see playing this with kids, especially as it starts off its first game even simpler than base TtR, and holding their hands as the complexity gets added on game to game.


Kennerspiel des Jahres Recommendations

Botanicus

Botanicus(Vieri Masseini & Samuele Tabellini; Hans im Glück)

On the face of it, this game sounds great – building your own botanical gardens, keeping flowers and plants watered, making sure the gardener you hired is doing his or her thing properly, and enticing in visitors to… erm… give you victory points (sure, that sounds real thematic). But looking at just the components and reading the overviews of the mechanisms… I don’t know. Initial impression: it sounded a bit too simple, and really dry (no gardening-pun intended). So I dove into the rulebook (which was not easy to find in English, Hans im Glück!) to find out what makes this game KSdJ-recommendation worthy.

First up, props to the game for coming with tuck boxes for storing the components in, instead of plastic ziplock baggies; a nice touch there. I also love the fact each player gets an Action Flower token. Many a time I’ve thought flowers are all full of action potential, just waiting to be tapped, and here’s my chance to see it in action! Also, kudos to the rulebook writer/editor: It’s really nicely laid out and explained, with relevant pictorial examples throughout. Here, have some victory points for your efforts, rulebook writer & editor!

The game’s goal is described thusly: “Your goal is to achieve more Victory Points than your opponents” – so a standard euro then – “…by completing tasks, advancing along the tracks,” – so leaning heavily into being a euro then – “… and cultivating a beautiful garden for final scoring.”- So a euro game through and through I guess. But what more is there?…

Well, there’s not a lot innovative here, but what is present all fits together very nicely. On a turn, you can optionally pay to move your gardener, and/or play a garden card (for its action or just to get cash); then you must move your action flower to the next action column and pick one of that column’s actions. Actions do things like let you plant flowers, water them to grow (level up), move your gardener (for free this time), draw more garden cards, or claim an animal (just for VPs). Your choice of flower action will also determine your turn order for the next turn, so turn order is constantly jostling around. You can also fulfil visitors’ demands during your turn for even more VPs! Keep playing turns until everyone reaches the end of the action track, reset for another round of turns along the action track, then score up, where you get – you guessed it – more VPs, for your highest level plant in each full column in your garden. That’s it. Pretty simple sounding for a euro.

The only slightly unthematic things I spotted? You can’t water a plant that’s reached the max level 4. I’m not an expert gardener, but I’m pretty sure not watering fully mature plans will still mean they’ll eventually die…

So yes, this is a quintessential euro game of action selection, hand management, resource gathering, recipe fulfilment, and gaining victory points, but it does it in quite a charming way. It might not be the most innovative game on this list, but it sure is pretty-looking, and carries off what it does with a certain charm and grace. It is almost a perfectly balanced mix to fit the KSdJ category.

Forest Shuffle

Forest Shuffle(Kosch; Lookout Games)

Well, what more do I need to say about Forest Shuffle that we haven’t already said in many podcasts? (looking now at how much I wrote below: apparently still a lot!) This game is just lovely. Artwork: Stunning. Gameplay: Great fun. Price point: Superb. Availability: …well, it’s between printings right now so that’s not so good, but you can play it for free on BoardGameArena. It’s an all-round great game, with a lot of hype and popularity behind it (hence being temporarily unavailable to purchase).

What is it, you ask? Have you not listened to the podcast at any point in the past 6 months? Well, just for you: You’re building up a forest, in which you need trees to attract other flora, fauna and fungi. In practice, that means either drawing 2 cards from the clearing board or deck into your hand, or playing a card from your hand into your tableau, paying for it by discarding other cards from your hand into the clearing (where other players might pick them up on their turn.) It’s a balance of playing just the right cards to build your points engine vs risking discarding cards other players might really want.

The little twist: Once there are more than 10 cards in the clearing, everything in the clearing gets discarded. So you can plan well to discard stuff you don’t want but your opponents do, and have it unceremoniously dumped into the trash before they get hold of it. Also the endgame timing is variable – it’s driven by seeded “Winter” cards that sit somewhere in the last 3rd of the draw deck; as soon as the third winter card comes out, it’s instant game end – and then some slightly laborious calculations to score up – one of only two real minor negatives I have about this game.

My other minor negative is the dominant Wolf/Deer strategy. Yes, it is very strong, and if you let another player run away with lots of deer and wolves, you can pretty much call it game-over. But the recently released Alpine Expansion does help with that by diluting the deck more, and making other strategies more viable to compete with it. Also, keep an eye out for the next expansion, Woodland’s Edge, which is apparently due to be released in time for Essen Spiel this year, which should hopefully also reduce the Wolf/Deer strat even more.

Quite how Forest Shuffle didn’t make the nominee list, I don’t know, although personally I think it would be a better fit for the base SdJ (I can see the jury’s argument of being Kennerspiel-level though I guess, that it has quite a bit of fiddly scoring at the end, and the decision space is pretty big).

Ritual

Ritual(Tomás Tarragón; Strohmann Games / T-Tower Games)

This has a really strikingly lovely box cover. That’s about the sum total of information I could find about this game from my usual sources of information: beyond its BGG entry description, which is that it’s a coop game played over 3 rounds, where players can’t talk to each other, I could find scare little about it (other than its own website which merely offers a web-based timer – more on that later). Thank goodness for a written article online I found (in English)! So this game’s discussion here is going to be based heavily on what that writer says (so here’s hoping they knew what they were talking about!).

This is a cooperative game which is, at its core, about communication (how to communicate through actions alone), emergent-group-think, and selflessness. What does that all mean? Well, to explain in brief: The game is about trying to fulfil ‘recipe’ (ritual) cards with coloured gems, and once 3 players have completed one card each, the group can move on to the next level – yes, this is – in the vein of The Crew – a game where you play multiple ‘games’ with increasingly challenging levels of play.

Filling 3 cards with the right coloured gems seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, the twist is: to fulfil recipes with gems, you will eventually have to take some from other players, or get them swapped from the central pool, and there are only so many gems of each colour available in total, so not every player can fulfil all (or even any) of their recipes. You have to be willing to ‘take one for the team’ by giving away gems to help another player reach their own goal, which means you are probably willingly sacrificing your chance to personally complete a recipe card.

Gems are “moved around” the group through one of the possible actions you can take on your turn: Take a gem from the player on your left; give a gem to another player; place a gem onto a ‘swap’ card in the central play area; swap a gem another player placed on a swap card for a different gem. That’s it, that’s the sum total of how you inform other players what you want/need. Because, and here’s the key thing to note: There’s no talking allowed! Everything you communicate must be via the actions you take. And if that wasn’t enough, to add to the pressure, each round (level) is timed – more time (7 minutes) in the lower levels of course, but that reduces as the levels increase.

The latter rounds have a group goal (out of a possible 6) you all also have to achieve, but only one person knows what the goal is. Communication through action suddenly becomes more complex, and this is where you can start to see how metagaming similar to The Crew comes to the fore: Why did that person just take that gem from me when I was clearly so close to finishing my card? What end goal might they be indicating we need to complete through what they took? It starts to get very mind-gamey. Then in even later rounds, you have to achieve more than one goal, but you must also complete them in a specific order.

In summary, this sounds fascinating to me. I really liked The Crew (although half of that was the uniqueness of it being a cooperative trick taking game), and Ritual sounds different yet still familiar enough that it could be right up my alley.  The Crew won the KSdJ in 2020, so perhaps Ritual didn’t make the final nominee list because of how “similar” it is in its innovation. But from the sound of it, if you like games in which you have to develop a meta-understanding with the group you’re playing with, this could be a winner for you.

Beer Pioneers

Bier Pioniere(Thomas Spitzer; Spielefaible)

This game wins the prize for “most classic euro-looking box cover of the year”.  I mean, look at it – it’s a pure wonder to behold, harkening back to the artwork from classics such as Saint Petersburg, Castles of Burgundy, or indeed just any euro game with a grumpy aristocrat on the box cover. At least this guy has a wry smile on his face. I love it (and I’m not being sarcastic here; this kind of artwork gives me real nostalgic vibes for some of the great euros of old).

But looking beyond the surface, what do we find here?… “Develop and improve your small home brewery into a large brewery.” Ok, so winner of the “most euro-game-sounding description of the year” also goes to this game. And the box itself isn’t that big – maybe it’s just a small-medium sized game?  Open the box, however, and what we find is a load of tokens and chits and boards and cards – make no mistake, this is a full-on heavy euro.

At its core, this is a race to 20VP (which triggers game end). To do this, players take actions to develop their engine (brewery) and sell stuff (complete beer contracts) for victory points. So far, so standard euro, so what’s unique about this game to get it a KSdJ recommendation? I’ll try to keep rules overview to a minimum here, as there’s a lot going on, but here goes…

Each player will play 5 (or maybe a couple more) actions per round, of which each type of action is likely to be taken just once or maybe twice in the round. The most significant actions being taken will be placing one of  your two workers, or your truck, on the main board to take board-actions. Workers have experience levels which can be upgraded during play, and most worker spots also have a strength, and those two values combine to possibly provide a bonus action too (from a bonus action sideboard of more actions). It’s a sea of potential actions! The board actions are the usual euro-fare of upgrading things on your board, playing out cards from hand, gaining money, and exchanging resources for VPs, money or new cards.

The game seems like a classic euro case of “do this, to allow you to do that, which will allow you to improve X, which will get you more of that, which will eventually reward you with points”. All the actions seem quite intertwined with each other, and you have to decide what path to go with to improve your VP-generating engine.

But… there’s not a lot that seems innovative here at all. The theme is nice, but certainly not unique (see Heaven & Ale, Distilled, Taverns of Tiefen Thal, and quite a few others of recent). The worker “strengths” are nice, but has been done before (e.g. Caverna, where your dwarves can level up their experience, or Trickereon, where each worker has a different strength). The player board having locked areas you will want to unlock to better utilise actions has certainly been done in a lot of games (e.g. Terra Mystica). Multiuse cards, where you have to decide which part of a card to activate, is veritably old-school these days (e.g. La Granja, Oh My Goods!, and so on). And the “get X to get Y to get Z to convert into VP” is almost every euro game’s raison d’être.

So why did the jury pick this “generic euro” for a KSdJ recommendation? Honestly, I don’t really have any real inkling into why. Maybe no other decent mid-heavy weight euros were published in Germany in 2023, and they felt they had to include something in this genre? But that seems somewhat unlikely… Maybe this game is surprisingly more fun than the very average sounding rules and pastel colour scheme give it credit?  I do hope so, because this game seems on the face of it to be something I’d really enjoy, but from my reading of the rules, and quick watch of a tutorial/playthrough video, it seems like “judging a book [game] by its [box] cover” was an apt way to evaluate this game. Compared to Botanicus (above), that game is a veritable bloom of colour, on the board and in the rulebook. This game is a dry beige-fest in comparison.


My Pick for the Winner

Who I think will win

Daybreak – This was really tough to pick; all the nominees have pros and cons that either give them the edge for the win or eliminate them from being a valid choice, but at the end of the day, Daybreak seems like the most “KSdJ-appropriate” game. Plus it’s about time a co-op game won KSdJ, and Matt Leacock too.

Who I would want to win

Ticket to Ride Legacy–Legends of the West – For two reasons: One, I’d really like to see Matt Leacock win a SdJ. Second, I’d love to see a legacy game getting a win (props to Rob Daviau!). And Alan Moon get another win after so many years since his last win. 🙂 Sure, it’s an expensive investment, but maybe a win would allow higher-volume print run and thus lower print cost? Here’s hoping.