Tag Archives: El Grande

Spiel des Jahres Winners – 2017

The 2017 winner of the coveted German Game of the Year or Spiel des Jahres award is Kingdomino.  Kingdomino is a simple little tile laying game with elements borrowed from other games, in particular, Carcassonne and Dominoes.  These are combined to make a well presented family game where players taking it in turns to add to their kingdom by placing dominoes that depict different terrains types.  We have played Kingdomino several times on a Tuesday evening and everyone who has played it has enjoyed it.  Discussing it among the group, everyone has felt that it is a fun, light filler that is very accessible and is a worthy winner.  The Kennerspiel des Jahres was awarded at the same time.  This honours more challenging games and was first introduced in 2011 to make up for the fact that the main, Spiel des Jahres award had moved away from the slightly more involved fare (like El Grande and TIkal) towards lighter, more family friendly games (like Dixit and Qwirkle).

Kingdomino
– Image by boardGOATS

Unusually, this year the Kennerspiel des Jahres award went to a series of games:  EXIT: Das Spiel.  These are cooperative games that reproduce the experience of an escape room by providing a series of puzzles inside a game box.  There are currently five of these games, though the award is for the first three, The Abandoned Cabin, The Pharaoh’s Tomb, and The Secret Lab.  Unfortunately, as a group we rarely play cooperative games and are not huge fans of the modern trend for social deduction type games, which  means we are unlikely to play this soon on a Tuesday evening.  The Kinderspiel des Jahres award was announced last month and went to Ice Cool which is a beautiful dexterity race game with cool little “weeble” penguins and wooden fish pegs.

Ice Cool
– Image used with permission of punkin312

Boardgames in the News: The Best Games Featuring Maps

The “Brilliant Maps” Blog recently listed what it considered “The 28 Best Map Based Strategy Board Games You’ve Probably Never Played“.  Leaving aside the fact that most dedicated gamers will have played many of them, how valid is this list?  On closer inspection it turns out that the list is really just the top twenty-eight games listed on BoardGameGeek.com (BGG) that happen to have a map for the board.  As such, it makes no subjective judgement on the quality of the map and is simply a list of the best games according to BoardGameGeek that feature a map.

Twilight Struggle
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor killy9999

For example, the game with the highest rating on BoardGameGeek.com is Twilight Struggle which is a Euro/war game hybrid and is therefore played on a map.  The map is not particularly picturesque, however, though for those old enough to remember, its spartan nature is strongly evocative of the Cold War setting.  Is it a great map though?  It certainly captures the theme of the game and perhaps, as such, it is indeed a great map.

Terra Mystica
– Image by BGG contributor Verkisto

Unsurprisingly, many of the games mentioned are war games.  There are a fair number of Euro games too though:  high on the list are Terra Mystica at number two, Brass at four and Power Grid at six.  Number ten on the list is Concordia and eleven is El Grande – a game that is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year.  Further down are Tigris and Euphrates, Steam, Pandemic, Ticket to Ride: Europe, Carcassonne and finally, just sneaking onto the list, The Settlers of Catan (or Catan as we are now supposed to call it).  All these games indeed include maps of some description, but overwhelmingly, they are also all well-established “classic” games.  Are they the best maps though?

Amerigo
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Oceluna

There are some stunningly beautiful games that haven’t made the list, for example, Amerigo is played on a beautiful seascape and Lancaster includes a lovely map of the England.  How do we define “map-based game” however?  Clearly, a map is is a two-dimensional play space so that excludes games where the play-area is predominantly linear i.e. “a track”.  But what about games where the map is produced as the game is played?  If Carcassonne is considered a map game, other games where the board is built during the play should also be included, like Saboteur and Takenoko.  What about one of our favourite games at boardGOATS, Keyflower?  In this game, players buy tiles and then use them to build their own personal little village map.  Should this be included too?

Keyflower
– Image by boardGOATS

Ultimately, none of this really matters of course:  a game is a game and it all comes down to how much people enjoy playing it.  One thing is clear though, while a game can be good in spite of the rendering, playing with beautiful components can only enhance the boardgame experience.

Carcassonne
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Topdecker

Boardgames in the News: So, What Are Euro-Games?

A couple of months ago at our game night, one of the gamers commented that there were a lot of good games from Europe.  This prompted a discussion about “traditional games”, “Euro-games”, “American games” and their relative merits.  Most people know all about traditional games even if they don’t know what gamers mean when they use the term:  traditional games are the games we all used to play as a child including Scrabble, Cluedo and love it or loath it, the dreaded Monopoly.  Some people also include in this list games like Chess, Go and Backgammon as well as traditional card games like Whist, Hearts and Rummy.

Go
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor ManCorte

But the front page of the boardGOATS website says, “We generally prefer to play “Euro” style games,” so, what do gamers mean by “Euro-games” or “Euro style games”?  Well, most of the traditional games we used to play as children were produced by publishers in the United States of America, companies like Milton Bradley (who made Scrabble) and Parker Brothers (who made Cluedo and Monopoly).  Incidentally, both these companies are now part of Hasbro, but the aggregation of smaller companies to form a larger one is a topic that’s been covered elsewhere.  While the “English” market was dominated by big players that concentrated on producing a few top sellers, in Germany there was no such dominance.  The effect this had was that the market consisted of a large number of small manufacturers producing more varied products.

Scrabble
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Susie_Cat

This coupled with the traditionally strong German toy industry encouraged the growth of a culture of families playing games together on a Sunday afternoon. It was in this environment that the annual German Game of the Year, or Spiel des Jahres Award, highlighted a range of games from Rummikub in 1980, Torres in 2000 and Camel Up last year.  Over the years, the red pawn of the Spiel des Jahres logo, has become a mark of boardgaming quality, and for many German families, buying the game of the year is something they do every Christmas.  Therefore, the qualities espoused by these awards heavily influence the concept of the “Euro-game”.

Rummykub
– Image by BGG contributor OldestManOnMySpace

But what are these qualities that make a game “European”?  Well, that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, describes them as characterised by “simple rules, short to medium playing times, indirect player interaction and abstract physical components”.   It goes on to say, “Such games emphasize strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.”  On the whole this is not a bad summary, except that it is not very specific:  how simple are “simple rules” and how long are “short to medium playing times”?  Clearly these features are more about contrast, and although there are lots of different types of games including party games and war games, this comparison is usually between European style ames and American-style Games, aka “Ameri-Trash”.

Last Night on Earth
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Bilben04

Although common, use of the term Ameri-Trash (or Ameritrash) is controversial as some see it as unnecessarily negative, however, although other terms have been suggested none have proved as popular or as persistent.  The term itself is over fifteen years old and was probably originally used disparagingly and applied to genuinely bad American games as a comparison with the much higher professional standards of games in Germany at the time.  Since then, the scope has been expanded and many fans of those American games have adopted the term as a badge of honour.

Merchant of Venus
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

American-style games tend to be long, usually over two hours, and classically involve a lot of luck and often feature dice rolling.  They are often considered to be a lot less “cerebral” or “puzzle-like” and, as a result, are sometimes described as “more fun”.  The reference to “trash” may in part reflect the style of the pieces which tend to include a lot of plastic pieces to go with the dice.  There is also often a lot of direct conflict in American-style games, where European games tend to be much more family friendly with indirect player interaction.  Classic Ameri-Trash games include:  Arkham Horror, Merchant of Venus, Cosmic Encounter and Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game.  Sometimes there is also a book or film tie-in leading to games like Battlestar Galactica and Dune.  Even just comparing the titles with those of classic Euro-games like Puerto Rico, El Grande, Tikal and Agricola, the difference can clearly be felt.

Arkham Horror
– Image by BGG contributor igorigorevich

The most essential part of American-style games is the theme, however, which is often integral to the game mechanisms.  This encourages people fantasize they are part of the action when playing the game.  The miniatures, the long playing times, the complex interwoven rule-set and the interaction (often culminating in players being eliminated) all combine to draw players into the drama of the game.  In contrast, for Euro-games, the mechanisms are the focus, and the games can often be re-themed without much effort.  The theme is therefore used more as an introduction to the more abstract European strategy games, making them more accessible, rather than being an essential part of the emotional investment.

Relic Runners
– Image by BGG contributor cnidius

But things are not as simple as that.  The nature of modern boardgaming encourages cross-fertilisation.  There are more highly-themed, strategy-games available now and more long, strategic games with miniatures – these are sometimes referred to as “hybrid games”.  For example, games produced by the Days of Wonder (based in the USA), like Ticket to Ride and Relic Runners have a lot of plastic pieces, though the games themselves are quite strategic and generally run for no more than an hour.  Similarly, games like Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Space Alert use real-time and a sound-track to draw the players in, yet they are both short (Escape takes just ten minutes to play) and have no player elimination.  Vlaada Chvátil’s Dungeon Lords series of games, also have a lot of theme, but are also playable in a manageable time-frame, have a lot of strategy and a reasonably streamlined set of rules.

Dungeon Lords
– Image used with permission of BGG
contributor PaulGrogan

Confusingly however, “hybrid” has more recently also come to mean games that include some sort of mobile device application (and thus require a smart phone, tablet or similar).  Now, lots of games have Apps that help them a long a little (e.g. One Night Ultimate Werewolf), but games like Alchemists and XCOM: The Board Game don’t really function properly without them.  The question is, are these still boardgames?  In truth, they are a sort of hybrid computer-boardgame, but the point is, however appropriate the name, it is all about the game and the other people playing:  the bottom line is, if you enjoy playing it, it doesn’t matter what it is called.

Alchemists
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Mouseketeer

Boardgames in the News: Spiel des Jahres Awards

This week, Colt Express won the Spiel des Jahres Award.  Although it may seem strange, this German award is highly sought after and is the most coveted award in the world-wide world of boardgames.  The reason for this goes back nearly forty years when the “English” market was dominated by companies like Milton Bradley (who made Scrabble) and Parker Brothers (who made Cluedo and Monopoly).  These concentrated on producing a few top sellers, however, in Germany there was no such dominance.  So, the German market consisted of a large number of small manufacturers producing more varied products.  This, coupled with the traditionally strong German toy industry, encouraged the growth of a culture of families playing games together on a Sunday afternoon.

Spiel des Jahres
– Image from spieldesjahres.de

It was in this environment that the annual German Game of the Year, or Spiel des Jahres Award, began in 1978, with the stated purpose of rewarding excellence in game design, and promoting top-quality games in the German market.  The red pawn of the Spiel des Jahres logo, has since become a mark of quality, and for many German families, buying the game of the year is something they do every Christmas.  Thus, the award has been such a success that it is said a nomination can increase sales from a few hundred to tens of thousands and the winning game can be expected to sell up to half a million copies or more.

El Grande
– Image by BGG contributor Domostie

Over the last fifteen years, years, the Spiel des Jahres has generally gone from highlighting games like El Grande, Tikal and Torres (1996, 1999 & 2000), to rewarding lighter games like Dixit, Qwirkle and Camel Up (2010, 2011 & 2014).  The problem was particularly brought to light in 2002 when Puerto Rico, arguably one of the best games ever made was not rewarded because it was perceived as too complex.  The problem reared its ugly head again in 2008, but this time the jury awarded Agricola a special “Complex Game” award.  These two games are widely considered to be the pinnacle of “Euro-Games”: between them they’ve held the top position on the BoardGameGeek website for the best part of ten years, yet neither were awarded the top prize. The problem was that these games were not mainstream enough for the German family game market:  they were too complex for those families making their annual purchase. On the other hand, for frequent and dedicated boardgamers, these Spiel des Jahres games are too light.  So, for this reason, the Kennerspiel des Jahres or “Connoisseurs’ Game of the Year” was introduced in 2011 and for more serious gamers, this has largely superseded the Spiel des Jahres.  This year it was awarded to Broom Service, a reimplementation of Witch’s Brew which was itself nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2008.

Adel Verpflichtet
– Image by BGG contributor Henco

The Kennerspiel des Jahres is not the only prestigious award available to strategy games however.  In 1990, the German magazine “Die Pöppel-Revue”, introduced the Deutscher Spiele Preis or “German Game Prize”.  This is announced in October every year at the International Spieltage in Essen.  In contrast to the Spiel des Jahres, the Deutscher Spiele Preis has gone from rewarding lighter games like Adel Verpflichtet (aka Hoity Toity, in 1990) and our group’s current favourite filler, 6 Nimmt! (winner in 1994) , to highlighting games like Russian Railroads and Terra Mystica (in the last two years).

Deutsche Spiele Preis
– Image from bordspil.is

Boardgames in the News: 20 Years of Catan and El Grande

It seems to be the year for anniversaries: arguably 2015 celebrates significant anniversaries for two of the greatest games in boardgaming history.  We are not talking about Monopoly here (though there has been a lot written about the 80th anniversary of the brand).  The games in question were both released in Germany in 1995:  The Settlers of Catan and El Grande.   The first of these, Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan, is widely known amongst gamers and many non-gamers, and is often cited as being responsible for the “gaming revolution”.  The base game of “Settlers” (or “Die Siedler”) and its expansions have appeared in thirty languages and sold more than twenty-two million copies worldwide.  At Spielwarenmesse, The International Toy Fair at, Nürnberg, Kosmos and Mayfair unveiled a new look for the entire line of Catan games.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

The press release explains, “The new look will strengthen the Catan brand both domestically and internationally.  The new cover art utilized by all partners will provide a visual continuity throughout the world.  This new look is more vibrant and alluring with overall improved presentation and splendidly clean branding. The new packaging cries out… CATAN!”  It goes on to say, “As part of the growing expansion of the Catan® family of products, the base game will simply be called CATAN® in all countries and languages, along with a unification of the game’s graphic design in all territories and languages.”

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by BGG contributor herman_the_german

There are a couple of curious things about this, firstly, when Kosmos released the game twenty years ago, it was just going to be called “The Settlers” (or rather “Die Siedler” since it was released in German first).  That was until Blue Byte published a computer game by the same name, so Kosmos decided they wanted something more unique and identifiable and made up “Catan”.  Secondly, aside from the the editions released in English by Mayfair Games (who went its own way with original art and component design), the brand has already been “unified” in its look!

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by BGG contributor degamer

The second of the games mentioned above is El Grande, which was first published in Germany by Hans im Glück.   Like “Settlers” the year before (or “Catan” as we must now call it), in 1996, Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich’s El Grande was awarded both the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis.  Although it is less widely known than its predecessor, El Grande is hugely respected by gamers often cited as “still the best area control game”.  It is so highly thought of that it continues to be higher on the BoardGameGeek ranking than The Settlers of Catan and many other well known and hugely popular games including Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic and Dominion.  These games are all continuously reprinted, but sadly, the nature of boardgames means that many good titles go out of print.  Unfortunately, El Grande is one such game; it had fallen out of favour with its publishers and has not been reprinted in English or German since the Decennial Edition, ten years ago.

El Grande
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor garyjames

There are a number of reasons why games like this go out of print.  Firstly, much as we hate to admit it, boardgaming is a niche market:  Hasbro recently proudly announced that Monopoly has sold 275 million copies over the eighty years, but compare this with the estimated 450 million Harry Potter books sold in a fraction of the time.  In turn, these make Catan’s 22 million copies look positively paltry by comparison and for games that fail to make the jump to the wider market, the first print run is often only a few thousand.  Whether or not one of these games gets a second print run depends on demand and sale-speed of the first impression, and ultimately, whether or not the publisher thinks it can secure a good return.  Factors that affect this, obviously include the mark-up and the Recommended Retail Price (or RRP, sometimes known as Manufacturer’s Recommended Sale Price or MRSP).  Games that have language dependent components usually suffer here.

El Grande
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor DrGrayrock

There are two main markets:  Germany and USA.  We in the UK benefit from the fact that the USA nominally speak the same language as us, but otherwise, the UK boardgame market is relatively small-fry.  Anyhow, for this reason, games are commonly released primarily in English and German, however, the margins are clearly much larger if the same game can be released to both markets with minimal reworking, and companies like Z-Man Games have made a name for themselves translating the best European games for the English market.  Other companies (e.g. Zoch, Queen and R&D Games) release games as “international” editions which include language independent components and rule booklets in multiple languages.

El Grande
– Image by BGG contributor Domostie

Obviously, it is much more difficult to release a multi-lingual edition if key components include significant text.  It is also much easier to translate a game if the only change needed is the box and the rules; El Grande clearly fell foul of this.  However, so did The Settlers of Catan, and that didn’t do so badly.  So there are obviously other factors, including game play, accessibility, approachability, appearance and marketing.  There is no question that the trading dynamic and controlled randomness in Catan are key parts of its success as they keep everyone involved between turns, but timeliness is probably the real key:  it was perhaps just the right time for a family game that felt a bit different.  So, by the time El Grande came along, well, everyone was playing Settlers, and as a result, El Grande didn’t make quite the same impact.

El Grande
– Image by BGG contributor Bernaar

That doesn’t mean it is less of a game though, so it is great news that Hans im Glück has recently announced the long-awaited return of El Grande, this time in the form of a Big Box with upgraded components.  The Big Box is a collection that, like the Decennial Edition ten years ago, will contain all the expansions that have been officially released over the years.  Z-Man Games has also confirmed that it will release a parallel Big Box in English; Dutch publisher 999 Games will be doing the same in Dutch and have also mentioned a “Jubileumuitbreiding”, or “anniversary extension”.  Clearly anniversaries are to be celebrated, especially if it means older, well-loved games become available once more.

Boardgames in the News: The Hobby Grows and Grows

In the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, boardgames were only available from toy shops, and the range was limited to a relatively small number of “traditional” games, like Chess, Monopoly, Game of Life or Cluedo.  With the appearance of bigger, supermarket-like stores like Toys “R” Us in the 1980s and 1990s, a wider range became available and, occasionally, games like the early Spiel des Jahres winner, Rummikub, made their way onto our shelves.  As children grew up, they might graduate into playing Risk and eventually move onto longer, more complex games like those produced by Avalon Hill.  However, if you liked playing games, but war themes were not for you, it was quite difficult to find good alternative games to play.  They were there though:  games like Acquire and the 18xx railway games had been about for a long time, but these were the exception rather than the rule and were still an acquired taste.

Rummikub
– Image by BGG contributor OldestManOnMySpace

In contrast, in Germany, games like Scotland Yard were starting to become readily available and genuinely very popular.  The success of the Spiel des Jahres, which rewarded good games like Ra, El Grande, Tikal, and the 1995 winner, The Settlers of Catan, meant that boardgames were receiving a lot of publicity in Continental Europe.  The characteristics of these “German Games” (or “Euro Games”) typically include balance, with only a small amount of luck, and lack of player elimination.  As the market developed, beautiful boards and lots of wooden pieces also became an essential component.  Unlike war games, “Euro Games” tend to be less confrontational and much more suitable for family gaming.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

In the 1990s, UK designers like Alan R. Moon and Richard Breese started publishing small numbers of “designer games”.  These were often largely assembled by hand and generally had a limited print run.  For example, only 1,200 copies of Elfenroads (precursor to the later, Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland) were ever made and Keywood, the first of the highly acclaimed “Key Series“, was hand-made and had a print-run of just 200.  Given the exclusive nature of these games, it was not surprising then, that many teenagers either gave up on boardgames or moved on to collectable card games, like Magic: The Gathering or Role-Playing Games.

Elfenroads
– Image by BGG contributor dougadamsau

So it was with the growth of the internet that “Euro Games”, or designer boardgames became available to people in the UK.  Firstly, this was because it enabled people to find out about the games that were available, with sites like UseNet and eventually BoardGameGeek in 2000, providing a valuable source of information.  Secondly, internet shopping made “German Games” much more accessible.  The growth of the hobby meant an increase in boardgame publishers, and the appearance of designers like Reiner Knizia who were sufficiently prolific and successful to make a living from designing games.  Over the last fifteen years or so, the hobby has grown and grown and games like Carcassonne and The Settlers of Catan are now available in Waterstones and WHSmith, there are regular comments in The Guardian, there are repeatedly TV appearances, and boardgame cafés are sprouting up all over the place.  The question is, will it continue to grow, or have we reached a high water line?

Ernie
– Image from boardgamegeek.com