The Spiel des Jahres association aims to increase the visibility of board and card games in society. The annual prizes awarded by the club are recognized worldwide - and there are other commitments to improve the perception of games. Nevertheless: the club's work is far from being well received everywhere, especially with the hard core of the scene, the Spiel des Jahres eV sometimes has a difficult time. The expectations of the fans are sometimes enormous: Oscar awards, red carpet, pompous presentation, it has to be loud and really bang.

As a board game author or publisher, you can hardly generate much more attention in this country or even around the world than through the awards of the association Spiel des Jahres. There is even talk of the “Oscars” in the board game segment – ​​the joy in the summer months is huge when it comes to the award ceremony. It has become a tradition for bets to be placed on the titles in the social media and internet forums prior to the nominations and awards.

Association wants to “promote board games across society”

Every year around the Game of the Year Awards it feels a bit like watching a battle against windmills. The association puts its idea of ​​an award ceremony on its feet - and voices from the scene criticize the award winners, the jury's decisions, the type of award, and the media work. The formats are old-fashioned, there is not enough glamor - especially the direct look at France leaves some fans at a loss when there with the As d'Or a board game award ceremony is celebrated with pomp and glory in front of a large audience. In this country everything is a number sober - maybe two or three. But that's not a coincidence.

In an interview, club chairman Harald Schrapers reveals why Spiel des Jahres eV does what it does and why it does it in its own way.

A paradox of perception is evidently central here. Just because critical voices are particularly loud in social media or in internet forums, they do not predominate. "There are a few voices on social media who do not agree with the award-winning games or the way the awards are presented," says Harald Schrapers, assessing the overall opinion. Some of the arguments put forward are even “worth considering”. The focus of the association's work is its mission: "to promote board games across society," says Schrapers. In any case, the chairman of the club dismissed the “Oscar” party against this background: “For the award ceremony, this also means in the future not to bring a spectacle to the stage, but that the games and the authors are the focus.”

Harald Schraper's game of the year_c_Daniel Elke
Had answers to many questions: Harald Schrapers – he is the chairman of the Spiel des Jahres association. Photo: Daniel Elke

That may come as a surprise, after all, scene connoisseurs in particular are now used to some special effects when it comes to multimedia board game formats: podcasts or videos appear to be partly plastered with auditory and visual stimuli - and you hardly know it any differently from film, radio and television. The standard of comparison for the presentation of a game award ceremony is limping if the focus is not on the award, as fans would like, but on the performance of authors and publishers, as Spiel des Jahres eV would like. As much as one can criticize this, one thing is clear: the appreciation of a work should be the focus of the award ceremony.

Independency

The fact that you don't want to produce expensive events, but use resources sparingly, is also based on an understandable idea. "The development of the game of the year is a success story because the jury is undeterred by its great independence and its quality criteria when selecting the games and at the same time is open to changes," explains Harald Schrapers. This cannot be dismissed out of hand: If you have your event paid for by sponsors, in the worst case you pay for it with your independence. In the industry, many things are changing quickly, which could have a negative impact if you were to use them without thinking: With the Swedish Embracer Group, a large corporation has long had its fingers in the pie - how conceivable would such a sponsor for a game of the year be, for example? Event? Exactly. Big money often comes with big risks.

The sobriety of Spiel des Jahres eV can therefore also be seen as its great strength. It may even be the independence that has given the award its prestige over the years. Schrapers explains it like this: “The game of the year also bases its recognition on the fact that the award is presented independently of the industry. Because of this, changes in the industry will not affect the awards.”

It is obviously wrong that nothing has happened at all. "The last major innovation was the creation of the Kennerspiel des Jahres, which has long been established," explains Harald Schrapers when asked about the developments the club has undergone. "The form of the award ceremony has also been regularly adapted to new requirements over the decades," says Schrapers. This year it had been moved from Monday morning to Saturday evening.

The association had presented the awards as an evening event on the sidelines of the Brettspiel-Con in Berlin, and the ceremony was streamed on the Internet at the same time. The main point of criticism in this regard was that this excluded media representatives who were usually not on duty on a Saturday evening, while at the same time the “content creators” present had hardly done any media work worth mentioning. The argument can be twisted and turned: it is rare for journalists nowadays to simply drop their pencils on their desks just because the weekend is tempting. News is 24/7, sometimes you just take a break.

At the same time, however, it is also true: there must be a really good motivator for weekend appointments, otherwise you do without or fall back on agency material. The question that is not so easy to answer is whether the topic of board games can be better disseminated through classic media or through scene actors via YouTube, Twitch, Spotify and Co. It may even be the combination of standard reports on TV and radio and the often benevolent detailed reporting by influencers. However, the following would then apply: Youtuber and Co would also have to do justice to their “mission” – a challenge for purely leisure activities.

The Spiel des Jahres eV is obviously aware of the problem - so such a date decision does not seem to be set in stone. Harald Schrapers: "We will discuss the framework dates for the 2023 award ceremony within the association this autumn before we inform the publishers and the trade press". In terms of timing, it was anyway a decision of the Berlin Con to offer the public meal on the same weekend that the award ceremony for the Spiel des Jahres eV takes place.

The jury as a reflection of games journalism

There is also some criticism of the composition of the jury for the Spiel des Jahres association: Mostly white men over the age of forty. Here and there you can find a woman. A development can be felt, you just don't see it yet.

"Ultimately, the composition of the jury is always a reflection of those who deal with board games as a journalist," explains Harald Schrapers. "While the proportion of female games authors is currently stagnating at a low level in my observation, there is a slowly growing number of women in games journalism." A guest critic is therefore always invited to the podcast format “The Playful Quartet”.

One could now come up with the idea that the club should readjust with fixed quotas in order to increase diversity in the juries. In essence, however, it is not about personal details, but about decisions. Schrapers: “There are no rules of proportional representation for the composition of the jury, there is not even a fixed number of members. Demonstrably publisher-independent critics who have the time and the ability to accurately and accurately filter out the best games from the large number of new releases are appointed.”

It goes without saying that it is a good thing for a jury to be made up of many people, emphasizes Schrapers: “We attach particular importance to transparency. The decisions of the jury members should be well justified and comprehensible. And that works because all jurors are able to convey reasons and value judgments in their reviews with great expertise and comprehensibility.”

And then there is another challenge that every other volunteer should be familiar with from their everyday work: You need to be willing to do unpaid work that takes time away from everything else – family, free time, possibly even a job. Without the willingness to volunteer, there would be no Spiel des Jahres club, said Harald Schrapers, chairman of the club.

“We attach great importance to the fact that new jurors are aware in advance of what to expect. And everyone is committed with a lot of energy.”

Play multiple times a week - not just the good stuff

The jury members play several times a week, explains Schrapers – “with increasing frequency when it comes to the decisions in May”. That takes by far the largest part of the work and is a lot of fun with most games. "In addition, I work on the board, but this is kept within the time frame, since we have been supported by a full-time managing director for several years," he explains about his office. "Otherwise, in addition to the classic association tasks such as cash audits, there are also working groups that deal with our project funding, for example." The club structures are not set in stone. "If it makes sense, they can be changed," says Schrapers.

In any case, there is no cherry picking in everyday jury work. Where players like to do without in their free time, the experts still have to step in: "If there were fewer mediocre games, we could concentrate on the really good ones with even more fun," says Harald Schrapers, even if that's more of a whining at a high level.

The board of directors leaves no doubts about the question of the board game as a cultural asset: "Yes, they were from the start," Schrapers clarifies. At least if you follow the common cultural terms and definitions. The cultural property debate is therefore not a particular challenge in terms of classification as a cultural property. Schrapers goes on to explain: “But the implementation is difficult because the board game only very rarely makes it into the features section. Especially in Germany, parlor games have been anchored as a casual pastime for so long that the wider cultural aspects of gaming are often overlooked.” The approach is recognizable: playing is central, not just the material behind it. 

Board games and video games: apples and pears

Those who report on parlor games also have a task in this regard: What could be done better? "Confidently promote your own cause and don't get cornered with video game comparisons," says Schrapers. "Apples are apples and pears are pears."

Games politics
Promotion of video games as a role model? At Gamescom, politicians regularly step in: here Dorothee Bär, Armin Laschet and Tobias Hand. Photo: Volkmann/Archive

In fact, video games are often used as a comparison parameter in the discussion of cultural assets, but even then not everything is as good as it seems. “Computer and video games are of the utmost importance as a cultural asset, as a driver of innovation and as an economic factor,” said Angela Merkel – then Chancellor – attesting to the status of the games in 2017 at the opening of Gamescom. One result: a lot of thoughts about a cultural aspect that had to be evaluated primarily from the point of view of funding and must continue to be so. Culture is where money goes. One problem: who is behind so many video game masterpieces is usually completely unknown. There is usually not a lot of cultural debate in the evaluation of graphics, gameplay and playing time in the average game tests in the world. Different industry, similar problem - only the pots of money are more lavish, but still less lavish than some actors would like. 

With its social approach of shared experiences, the board game scene seems to be much closer to the concept of cultural assets, but dealing with it is very often missing. This becomes clear when it comes to political or social issues that authors and publishers use as a framework for a board game. Criticism for questionable content isn't a good selling point, so instead, they dodge into fictional worlds. This is also noticeable in the Spiel des Jahres association: "The Spiel des Jahres jury takes a critical view when there is an escape into fantasy worlds in the game in order to avoid current or historical topics and their social implications," says Harald Schrapers . The opposite is even the case: "It's often good for a board game if it ties in with real living environments in a contemporary form - without template-like platitudes." 

Top position in German board game journalism

Board game journalism, if it even exists, could educate? "Yes, of course," says Harald Schrapers. Not only does it exist, it is now even supported: “Spiel des Jahres eV pursues the approach of promoting the exchange of quality standards and new ideas for games journalism. That's why I developed the concept for the "Day of Board Game Critics", which we now hold every two to three years with great response and for which we create extensive documentation in image, sound and writing." The average quality of reviews? Nothing can be elicited from Schrapers: “We cannot answer the question. We're a gaming jury - it would be presumptuous for us to give ratings to reviews."

Board games scene food
The actors of the scene can be self-confident: How popular the hobby is can be seen every year in Essen, among other places. Photo: Volkman

However, Germany plays a leading role in the industry, and even more: “All in all, German-language board game journalism is one of the world's leading,” says Schrapers. As an example, he cites the specialist magazine “Spielbox”, which is published in German and English and is “the world's most important specialist magazine for analogue games, even 40 years after it was founded”.

Like the Spiel des Jahres association, board game reviews and the portals and formats behind them are also developing. What publishers, actors and consumers can do to support quality? Harald Schrapers explains: Take your time and allow more room for care”. The best review isn't the one that comes out first.

"Critics who try out a game in a variety of constellations with fellow players who stand for different approaches deserve more attention in a time when the media is accelerating, more viewers, more readers, more subscribers," says Schrapers: "It is also important that everyone involved is careful not to blur the lines between game criticism and promotional campaigns. Good and serious games journalism stops when independence from the publishers is in question”.

With all the criticism of the Spiel des Jahres eV, there is a realization about a scene that is in constant change anyway. And with all the justified criticism, which - expressed constructively - can drive improvements, everything revolves around another central question: How wrong can a club be doing its thing if it has been active for well over 40 years and is recognized for its work?

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Last updated on 25.09.2022/XNUMX/XNUMX / Affiliate Links / Images from the Amazon Product Advertising API. * = Affiliate links. Images from Amazon PA API