James Wallis, Theo Clarke, Ellie Dix and David Parlett

In September I was thrilled to be asked to join a panel of experts at Tabletop Gaming Live. Our remit was to discuss 41 years of the Spiel des Jahres Award. This is the biggest award for board games around the globe – the German Game of the Year. Not all games are German, but games become eligible the year they are first published in Germany. The idea of the panel was to do a whistle stop tour through the last four decades of winners and, with the help of the audience, pit games against each other to crown the ultimate Spiel des Jahres winning game.

I was in stellar company on the panel. Our leader and host was James Wallis (@jameswallis) game designer and consultant. James writes the Spiel des Jahres column in Tabletop Gaming Magazine. We were joined by Theo Clarke, who used to run Small Furry Creatures Press and diving back into board game publishing, Nick Smith (@TheLudoquist) who owns and runs The Ludoquist board game cafe in Croydon and David Parlett (@DavidParlett) a well-known games writer, scholar and designer who won the first ever Spiel des Jahres prize in 1979 for his game Hare and Tortoise (see below). David is board gaming royalty. It was an honour and pleasure to speak as part of such a great panel. 

Assisted by the audience, the panellists crowned a winner for each decade, then voted on which game should be the ultimate winner. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the panel’s consensus, but before that, I thought I’d give you my personal top 10 favourite Spiel des Jahres winning games.

Number 10: Hare and Tortoise (1979)

Hare and Tortoise is a race game with a difference. Instead of rolling a dice to move, you spend carrots. The further you wish to travel, the more carrots you have to spend, and each move becomes increasingly expensive. There is no restriction to the number of spaces you can move as long as you have enough carrots. There are bonuses for starting your turn on a numbered space that match your position in your race. The further back in the race you are, the bigger the bonus (more carrots). So there is a real advantage to being the tortoise and hanging back to store the biggest bonuses. But you can’t spend too long lagging behind or you may not catch up. You have to get rid of lettuces at special lettuce points as you can’t cross the line if you hold any of these. Those who love a bit of chaos can land on the hare squares which cause random effects (some huge). A game of psyching out opponents, carrot management and early lettuce munching.

Number 9: Scotland Yard (1983)

Scotland Yard is a one vs. many game. The ‘one’ is Mr X – a criminal on the run around London. The ‘many’ are the team of detectives who are trying to find him. The detectives work together in an attempt to corner the wanted man, but they are restricted in their movement around the city. Each detective only has a limited number of taxi, bus and underground tickets. Whenever a ticket is used, it is given to Mr X. Mr X only shows himself once every 5 or so turns. So his movement is largely hidden from the detectives. They must try to predict his movements, even though they know he can listen in on their discussions. The map is lovely. The game is fun. I like it at 2 players, with one playing all four detectives and the other playing Mr X, but it is a lovely game for a family to play semi-cooperatively too. A cat and mouse game of mounting pressure and dwindling resources.

Number 8: Rummikub (1980)

Rummikub is probably the most mainstream of all the Spiel des Jahres winners and probably the one most people have played. It is based on the card game Rummy but uses tiles numbered 1-13 in each of four different coloured suits. There are two tiles of each number and colour. Players take a tile holder (like a Scrabble rack) to hide their hand of tiles from their opponents. On her turn, each player places tiles down, if she is able to. Tiles are placed down in sets of the same number, but different colours, or in runs of consecutive numbers of the same colour. If a player can’t place a tile, she must pick up. In order to play tiles, players may rearrange the tiles already on the board, as long as they are left in a legal set up at the end of each turn. The joy of rearranging the entire board to get a single tile out is immense. Thwacking tiles down a-la-french domino men is also great fun. It’s versatile: you can play as many or few rounds as you like. Play outside if you like – this game is hardy and won’t blow away in the wind. 

Number 7: Manhattan (1994)

In Manhattan, players build new towers and build on top of pre-existing towers in eight different areas of the board. Each area represents a city block in Manhattan. Players all start with the same number of buildings that are either 1, 2, 3 or 4 stories high, in their own player colour. Each turn, players secretly select the buildings they wish to use during this round – so players need to be able to plan ahead a bit. Within each city block there are nine possible positions to build. Each player has a small hand of cards. One of the nine building positions is marked on each card. To build in a particular position, players must be able to play the card that allows them to do so. One card relates to the same position in each of the 8 blocks. Players place buildings in empty spaces or on top of other buildings, provided that by placing the new building they now own more floors in the building than any other player. The player who has the top most piece in each building is that building’s current owner. At the end of each round, points are awarded for tallest building, majority in each block and for number of buildings. Players have to decide when and where to use their limited valuable pieces. Multiple strategies can be equally well rewarded. I like the tussle for majority and the restrictions of cards limiting optimal plays. It looks terrific and is brilliantly vicious.

Number 6: Colt Express (2015)

Players are bandits all attempting to rob a train – the Colt Express. The train is a little complicated to build, but once completed there is space in the box to keep it constructed (thank goodness). It really adds to the flavour of the game. The bandits can move from one carriage to the next inside the train, or they can climb up onto the roof and run along the top. There is a marshall on the train and if you are ever caught in the same carriage as the marshall you are forced to make a speedy exit to the roof. There are purses, jewels and a strong box to loot; and a round of bullets to shoot. This is a programming game. Each round is played in two phases. To begin with, in turn you select the cards you are going to play. Most go face up, but sometimes you go ‘into a tunnel’ and these cards are placed face down so actions are hidden. There are cards that allow you to move along the train, move up or down between the carriages and the roof, shoot another player, pick up loot and move the marshall. All the cards are placed before any of the actions are executed. You have to try and remember what the other players are doing and predict their actions when the information is hidden. The more you are shot, the more cards you are given that clog up your hand and stop you being able to plan your movements effectively. This game’s a romp. The theme is outstanding and ripples through the game. This should be a go-to game for 5 or 6 players. 

Number 5: Camel Up (2014)

The game revolves around a camel race. But this is not a racing game… it’s a betting game. There are always five camels in the race, regardless of how many players there are. The game plays with 2-8 players. The camels race around a very simple track and when one camel gets to the end, the game is over. There are several rounds of betting during the race. Each time players try to bet on the camel who is leading the race. There are five dice hidden within a pyramid. Each die is the same colour as one of the camels. On a player’s turn she may choose to take a betting card for this leg, place a bet on the overall winner or loser of the race, place an oasis or mirage tile that gives her coins when a camel lands on it or shake the pyramid and reveal one dice. When the die is revealed, the associated camel moves 1, 2 or 3 spaces in the race, as indicated on the die. If a camel lands on the same space as another camel it jumps on its back – hence ‘Camel Up’. The pieces fit nicely together. The top most camel in a stack is leading. If a camel underneath moves, then the camels on its back all move with it. It’s a riotous camel race. Betting is fun. Stacking is fun. Players need to balance probabilities in their minds to work out when and who to bet on. The pyramid is ridiculous but brilliant at the same time. A worthy winner.

Number 4: El Grande (1996)

It is debatable whether El Grande should have won the prize as it is supposed to be awarded to family games and this is probably the most complex game to have ever won the Spiel des Jahres. It’s an area control game, played on a map of the regions of Spain. Each player has a pool of caballeros (little meeple) that she is trying to ready and then place in areas on the board. There are three scoring rounds in the game in which the player with the most caballeros in each area will win points. Players compete for turn order by simultaneously selecting numbered cards. The higher cards go first, but the lower cards ready more caballeros from the pool. Each player chooses a card that gives her a special ability that turn – moving caballeros, scoring a region immediately, or moving the king, for example. The position of the king is important. Caballeros may only be placed in regions neighbouring the one where the king is. The king’s region is out of bounds and cannot be touched. When scoring, whoever controls the region where the king is gets extra points. There’s also a tower that you can choose to throw your caballeros into. The tower is scored before the regions and the caballeros in the tower can move into a region and count towards scoring of that region too. There’s lots to think about. I’d definitely play it with my family, but they are used to heavy games. It’s nastily compelling. I love it.

Number 3: Azul (2018)

Last year’s winner, Azul, is a beautiful tile-laying game. It’s pretty tiles featured in my Top 10 Games with Cool Components video. There’s something about those chunky tiles… It’s very satisfying to delve into the bag and swish them about. Great production quality. Each round, tiles are pulled out of the bag and placed at random on several circular wheels. On your turn, you can take all tiles of one colour from a wheel or take all the tiles of one colour from the centre. When tiles are taken from a wheel, the remaining tiles on that wheel are placed in the centre.  The tiles you take must be placed on one of five rows on the left of your own player board. At the end of the round, for any row that is complete, a tile may be slid over, on the same row, into the tile wall on the right of the player board. Players are restricted to placing tiles on the correct colour. Each time a new tile is placed in the wall, the tile scores points according to the number of connected tiles in the row and column. The game ends when at least one player has completed at least one row in her tile wall. There is some additional end game scoring for completed rows, columns and colours within the tile wall. The tile-drafting mechanism is great. It’s stunning to look at. All information available to everyone, so players need to stay aware and balance optimising their own boards with preventing others from optimising theirs.

Number 2: Dominion (2009)

Dominion started a whole new game mechanism – deck building. In the box there are 25 different action cards, but there are multiple copies of each one. Each game starts by players randomly choosing which 10 action cards they will play with. There is huge replayability because the set-up changes each time. Each game also includes victory cards and treasure cards. Players start with identical decks of 10 cards – 7 bronze coins (treasure) and 3 low-point victory cards. Each turn, draw the top five cards from their personal shuffled deck, they play one action, if they have one and then they can buy cards with treasure, if they are able to. The actions will give players different sorts of advantages – more card draw, more treasure, more actions to play – for example. Some cards let players attack others by giving them curses, reducing hand-sizes, or by trashing or stealing their cards. Some cards offer protection from attacks. Players must choose how to spend their treasure – on action cards, better treasure cards (silver and gold) or on victory cards. Whenever cards are used, they are placed into a personal discard pile which cycles round into the players decks again, so every card will be used many times. Each player is building her own deck with the ultimate aim of acquiring the best victory cards. The game finishes when all the province cards (the most valuable victory cards) have been taken or when three other piles of cards have run out. This is a firm family favourite in our house. It probably gets played more than any other game – often several games back-to-back. Each game allows different strategies to form. Balancing treasure, actions and victory cards in your deck is tricky but fun. Dominion was featured in my video about games that are good for older and younger children.

Number 1: Railway Rivals (1984)

Aah, Railway Rivals. This one has a very special place in my heart, which is why it claims the number one spot. As a child, this was always our favourite game. I have many memories of long family afternoons all huddled around a Railway Rivals map with bits of wet tissue everywhere and pen all over everyone’s hands. Railway Rivals was designed and created by David Watts, who was a geography teacher from Wales. He designed the game as a way to engage his students in geography. He produced many different maps of parts of the British Isles and since the originals, lots of other maps have been created by fans around the world. Recently I did an audit of the Railway Rivals maps that my parents and siblings own. We have 38 between us, though several are duplicates. In Railway Rivals, each player has a different colour pen with which they build up their own rail network across the map. Wet erase pens are best, because whilst you do get very messy, at least you don’t rub off everyone else’s lines when you lean on the board. The first phase of the game is building up railway lines, trying to get to as many towns as possible and connecting your line to others so that you have the best coverage possible across the board. Players roll the dice to determine how much track they can draw on their turn. Then in phase 2, players race trains on their lines. Each race occurs between two towns, randomly chosen by dice throws. There’s something very satisfying about building up your own route and then racing on it. You might be going the most bizarre way between two places and paying to use other people’s tracks, but so may your opponents. It’s a fantastic network builder – a blank canvas on which to create your rail empire. Routes may be expensive, but nothing is inaccessible. My fellow panelist, Theo Clarke, owns the rights to Railway Rivals and I spent much of the afternoon trying to convince him to reprint it. I think he was convinced! Watch this space.

So what was the verdict of the people and the panel at Tabletop Gaming Live?

1979 – 1989 Winner: Railway Rivals

1990 – 1999 Winner: The Settlers of Catan

2000 – 2009 Winner: Carcassonne

2010 – 2019 Winner: Codenames


And, despite my vote going to Railway Rivals, the overall winner was…
The Settlers of Catan (now just called Catan).

Catan got the votes because it, more than any other game, has pulled so many people into the hobby. It’s an excellent game. So many good ones to choose from out of the Spiel des Jahres winners.

Ellie Dix, David Parlett, Theo Clarke and Nick Smith