Thoughts on the 2024 Spiel des Jahres Nominations & Recommendations

This year’s Spiel des Jahres winners will be announced on Sunday, July 21. 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, for both the Spiel des Jahres and the Kennerspiel des Jahres (I won’t comment on the Kinderspiel games as I have no knowledge or experience of any of those).

I’ll start off in this blog post with just the main Spiel des Jahres candidates.  We discussed some of these games in a recent podcast episode, but this blog format allows me a little more space to expand on thoughts (or “ramble on” as some might say). So herewith are my thoughts! Might be a bit of a long post, so feel free to jump to a specific game you want to look at. And also feel free to fully disagree with my thoughts – let us know on our Discord!

Spiel des Jahres Nominations

In the Footsteps of Darwin

(Grégory Grard & Matthieu Verdier; Sorry We Are French)

I don’t know a lot about this nomination, as I don’t know anyone with a copy, nor anywhere it can be played online. Not a good start to the blog post. 🙂 So I’ll derive my thoughts here merely from reading the rulebook (which is a pretty good rulebook to be fair), so take these comments with that in mind.

This is a tile laying game with open drafting and tile laying. And it plays in just 30 minutes!  The theme of the game: Darwin has sent you (being too old and too busy himself) to find and document new and wonderful animal species. Mechanically, on your turn, you’re drafting a tile from the central board (animal or character) along the row/column the Beagle ship token is next to, placing it on your own board (triggering stuff), then moving the beagle ship around the main board 1-3 steps ready for the next player. Animals give you points and/or some mitigation tokens or little bonuses. Characters give you slightly more powerful bonuses. 4-tiles-in-a-line lets you write a Publication (some extra VPs).  More than one of the same type of animal lets you develop a “Theory” which gives new avenues for endgame scoring.

And that’s it. Do that 12 times, and score up. Simples!  Of course, the devil is in the detail, and what is on each tile you draft is key to winning, but it’s a quick playing game where you can do pretty much anything and get some points, but getting a winning number of points requires some forethought and planning, using those mitigations just at the right time to grab the perfect tile.

This is very similar in speed and kind of the same style to Captain Flip (see below!), so interesting to see the jury nominated two such games in the same year.

Captain Flip

Captain Flip

(Paolo Mori & Remo Conzadori; PlayPunk)

This game seemingly came out of nowhere; it must have been an early German release but a late English release, as the first I’d heard of it was when it got nominated (as happens with at least one SdJ nominee every year – and they usually end up winning!). I’ve played this game twice now on BoardGameArena, but not in person. It’s a fun, quick game of tile placement to trigger set collection and risk/reward bonuses (you could say ‘push your luck’ but it’s not really pushing much).

Paulo Mori (and his co-designer Remo Conzadori) have put together a classic Mori style of game: One that has super-simple decisions but very clever strategic choices. In this game’s case, it’s one decision – keep the tile you drew, or flip it over (and be stuck with that side); from there develops all the strategy of “well, if I keep this, it boosts that thing, but if I flip it I might get this other thing that gives me even more points… oh ok I’ll flip it and, NO! it’s another BOMBER!  Now I have 3 and I have to get rid of one before endgame or I lose!”.

Paulo Mori does this kind of design SO well, and I’d love to see him get an SdJ win, as his games have always impressed me with how cleverly they are designed, yet also streamlined to within an inch of their cardboard lives. This game embodies the idea the Spiel des Jahres jury seem to want these days – a simple to learn, simple to play game for all the family, yet with some depth to it.

Sky Team

Sky Team

(Luc Rémond; Kosmos / Scorpion Masqué)

A wonderful 2-player-only cooperative game about trying to safely land a plane, where both pilot and copilot have to operate their respective controls independently, yet in silent coordination, without discussion with the other player. I’m sure that happens during real plane landings all the time. “Hey Barry, let’s switch off the comms and just try to freehand the landing, shall we?” 🙂

The game is a very clever use of dice-allocation. You start a round by having a quick conflab about what you might possibly be wanting to achieve this round, then roll your respective dice behind your respective screens (not revealing any information about what you rolled), then away you go, taking turns to place a die on a spot on the central board (“control panel”) to do things like adjust flaps, lower landing gear, engage brakes, radio the tower to clear other planes off your runway, etc. It’s all about unspoken coordination, how to give your colleague information about what dice values you have or don’t have left based on what value die you place, and where you place it. It’s genius. And with all the scenario modules that come in the base box, it has a huge amount of variety and difficulty scaling.

So a great game. And yet… this is nominated for the SdJ, which wants a game that all the family can pick up and play easily? Yeah, I’m not seeing the connection there. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see this game win, but it just doesn’t seem to fit the same style of any of the other nominations (indeed the last time a 2-player-only game was even nominated for SdJ was Balloon Cup, back in 2003). Still, Sky Team remains an odd, but great, pick.


Spiel des Jahres Recommendations

General note: I’ve not played any of these nominations. All thoughts are based on initial impressions of reviews/playthroughs/rulebooks/BGG descriptions.

Phantom Ink

Phantom Ink

(Mary Flanagan & Max Seidman; Pegasus Spiele / Resonym)

A “thinky party word game” is how I think I would define Phantom Ink.  Your team of “mediums” is trying to guess a secret word based on a question (on a selected card) the “spirit” is answering; you get one letter at a time, so you can start to deduce the answer based on possible words that could fit an answer to the question using the revealed letters. (The example the game gives is “what colour is it?” could be answered with just the letter “Y” revealed, as it’s probably going to be “Yellow”.)

It’s a clever concept, and the podcast’s own Sam Freeman really likes this game. I’ve yet to play it, but I really like the idea of the deduction bit of trying to guess a word that fits based on the question – like a slowly revealing crossword clue! The SdJ jury certainly do nominate party games from time to time, but not that often. I wonder if this was just a bit too fiddly for an SdJ-level nomination?

Harmonies

Harmonies

(Johan Benvenuto; Libellud)

I love the look of this game.  So pretty!  And yet… there’s something about it that’s not quite clicking enough for me to want to play it.  I wouldn’t say no to trying it (I’ve just started a game of it on BGA [alpha version]), but I have some kind of weird visceral reaction to games with a truck load of small pieces that need organising in specific ways before the game can even begin.  But that’s not a knock on the game, just me personally. 🙂

In this game, you’re trying to build landscapes to help attract animals to the habitats. Really you’re collect stones (habitats) to place on your player board (including stacking onto already-placed stones) to complete patterns on cards (landscapes) to trigger gaining you tokens (animals).  The hitch? Once you have an animal on a stone, you can’t stack any more stones on top of that pile, which restricts future pattern creation.  It’s the old “how long do I just build out for, and when do I start intentionally going for claiming these patterns to get animals (points) which will then slow my ability to get more” – that’s quite the quote!  A tried and trusted mechanism, with the twist of having the patterns be 3D.

The artwork on the cards has quite a Takenoko feel, with the 3D hex terrain bits with pretty pretty artwork behind.  The stones are not hexes though, they’re just slightly-off-shaped circle discs (with some decent heft to them!)  In fact because you draft the stones from distinct piles on a central board, and are building up your own little area with them, it looks a bit like Azul and Takenoko had a baby (not a panda baby, alas).  The constantly adapting habitats you’re creating, merging, adapting, etc, give some interesting strategy during play, I’d say.  But, as I also say, I’ve not played this yet.  I guess as long as someone else sets it up, I’d be game…  But overall, it looks like a classic SdJ nomination, and its popularity right now is such that I’m surprised it didn’t make it to the actual nomination list.

Passt nicht!

Passt Nicht!

(Thomas Weber; Schmidt)

Meaning “Doesn’t Fit” in English, this one looks like a classic German card game, with numbers and colours…. and that’s about it.  There are a lot of really great little card games in this vein, and from the brief English translation I found (there’s no official English release yet) this one sounds like “a more complex Uno”.  The idea is that you’re trying to shed out your hand, but not before you’ve built up a decent number of cards in personal piles, which score positive points, whereas cards left in your hand at the end of a round score negative points, so you want to be first to go out ideally. On your turn you have just 2 choices: Play a card to the discard (uno-style matching colour or number) – shouting “FITS”, or play a card to a personal pile (you can have up to 5 piles, one per colour), which cannot match the top card of the discard pile – shouting “DOESN’T FIT”. You also can’t play to a specific personal pile if the top card of that pile you want to play in matches the top of the discard, thus allowing you to somewhat screw your neighbour by blocking a pile they might want to play in on their turn (but as you can’t see opponents’ hands, that’s more of a lucky step than good planning).

There are also some Joker cards which are wild, but can never be played to personal piles (but are worth -10 if still in hand at the end of a round).

And that’s the whole game – keep playing rounds until someone hits 50vp.  It is kind of ideally suited for the SdJ weight of game, and I can see this one being a fun end-of-night filler to just throw down on the table for a quick play, but not sure it is SdJ good (so I understand it not being in the actual nominee list). One I’d like to try out though, as I like quirky little card games like this; I bet my kids (who love Uno) would love this too.

Schätz it if you can

Schätz it if you can

(Ralf zur Linde; Moses)

A weird title, mixing the German word Schätz (meaning “Guess”) with the rest being in English. So “Guess it if you can” is a quiz game where you are trying to guess the order of certain things, like “Does the Eiffel Tower weigh more than the Titanic?” or “Is a clarinet longer or shorter than a grass snake?”  It doesn’t require you to know the answers, just be convincing in what you do answer, as the next player in turn can either let your guess pass (giving you 2 points) or challenge it (giving them 1 point for a correct challenge, else they lose a point and you get 2 points). Each of the 75 question cards that come in the box (and increase in difficulty) have 9 items to eventually sort, but you start with just 2: the first player has to sort those 2 items into order. The next player then either accepts that answer or challenges it (as explained above), then the card shifts up a notch, and that player then has a 3rd item to include in that sort order; play continues until all 9 items on the card are all sorted, ending the round.  You play rounds equal to the player count, and most points is the winner.

As an example, these are items on one of the sample cards shown on boardgamegeek, asking you to arrange events in world history chronologically (each new one being revealed in the next player’s turn): Columbus discovers America; American Declaration of Independence; Congress of Vienna; Geneva Convention; End of the Roman Empire in Germany; Civil Rights Act; October Revolution in Russia; Oil crisis; Fall of the Berlin Wall.

This sounds like an interesting mix of Wits and Wagers vs Liar’s Dice vs Timeline, constantly thinking whether to challenge the previous player’s answer, or just go with it and try going for points yourself. An intriguing concept. And another example of a SdJ-recommended party game; party games don’t often get into the nominee list, but it’s nice to have one on the recommended list that sounds like it some some slightly unique things. I guess it didn’t make it onto the actual nominee list because it’s that bit more complicated for families to play – younger children likely won’t know enough about some questions’ relative sizes of things to play well.

Fun gimmick: The box has the scoretrack as part of it, with little clips per player to record score – much like how Dixit does it. It’s always nice to see the box used as part of the game. However the 2nd edition of the game comes with points chits to use an alternative – seems some players weren’t happy using clips on the box to score with!

Trekking Through History

Trekking Through History

(Charlie Bink; Game Factory / Underdog Games)

A followup of sorts to the publisher’s previous “Trekking the World” and “Trekking the National Parks”, and one of the few Kickstarter games on the SdJ list this year, this is a set collection game. It also has a literal time track (player furthest back on the track is the next player to go, but on an actual clock!).

The game revolves (no pun intended) around building trips through time, from the early ages of mankind, right up to the present. This is done by purchasing cards (representing some event in history) by spending “time” on that time track; the cards also gain you tokens which go on your player board (which are all asymmetric and you choose one at the start to use), and which can give you bonuses for filling various rows / spots. You ideally want to get lots of cards in chronological order, representing a single trip, because then, when you want or have to create a new trip, you score the current trip based on how many cards are in it – the longer the trip, the more points it’s worth.

It feels like a game that would probably be best at 3, for the variance of the card market but also the downtime between turns.  2 player might be a little too non-interactive, and 4 players might mean the market is too volatile to allow any planning between turns. But I would have to play it to know for sure.

And it includes an apparently great solo mode! Woohoo! 🙂

Again, I can see why this is on the SdJ recommended list, and for the second game in a row, it’s akin to a more complex version of Timeline (but this one being much closer to that game thematically).  It’s a simple game, with some interesting strategic choices to be made during the game, but also with a lot of tactical play required to adapt to the changing market and wanting to fill your board for bonus points.  I think it might have missed the nominee list just because it doesn’t quite have enough uniqueness to stand out strongly to the jury, but it looks like a pretty fun game.

Trio

Trio

(Kaya Miyano; Cocktail Games)

The 2nd small-box card game on the recommended list, and another with just numbered cards. This is infact a reprinting of an older (but still quite recent) game Nana, with different artwork on the cards (which is quite fun/quirky).

A memory game, where you’re trying to build your hand such that you can get 3 of a kind (a Trio). You do this by asking an opponent – or yourself – what the highest, or lowest, card they have in their hand, which the have to reveal to everyone. You can then ask another (or the same) player the question again, and if they reveal the same number as before, you can keep going – but if it’s not the same number, that’s your turn done. If you manage to reveal 3 of a kind this way, you get to grab those 3 cards and put them aside.

Optionally, before asking someone about their hand, you can choose to flip over one of the cards that are laid out in the centre of play at the start of the game, and then ask an opponent a question. If you mismatch when asking, the flipped card from the centre is flipped face-down again, but otherwise it can be used to make a trio.

There are 2 variants you can use to affect when the game ends: Easy mode ends the game when any player has claimed 3 trios, or if anyone gets the trio of 7s. The “spicy” mode only ends if someone can claim two trios that add or subtract to 7 (e.g. the trio of 6s and the trio of 1s).

So this is basically a gamery version of Go Fish. But that’s not to be disengenuous to it – it seems like a fun little card game. I don’t tend to like memory games much, but I don’t think this is too much of a problem in such a light game.

It feels like Trio might actually be too simple for SdJ; sure you can play it as a family, but is it that good to be even on the recommended list? Is it different enough from all the other small box card games.


My Pick for the Winner

Phew! That was a lot more writing than I’d planned. Hope y’all enjoyed the somewhat deeper-than-podcast dive into those games.  But who would I predict to win?

Who I think will win

Captain Flip – I’m going for what has happened in almost all recent years: the game I hadn’t heard about on the list ends up winning. Also, it’s a perfect fit for the SdJ weight and family-friendly style. And I’d love to see Paolo Mori win. 🙂

Who I would want to win

Sky Team – I think this is by far the best game of the 3 nominees, with a lot of gameplay variation from all the modules, and such an interesting and unique gameplay and theme. As such I think it deserves a win, however I also think it’s too heavy-weight a game – not to mention being 2-player only – for the SdJ jury to seriously consider letting it win.