The Spiel des Jahres is the board game award with the most prestige. Once a game is given the nod, its sales skyrocket, the game is sold in places like Wal-Mart or even small gift shops. The award has been given every year since 1979, and if you were to look across the winners, there would be notable games that most everyone would recognize. And today we wanted to look at favorite winners since the 2021 winner was recently announced (congratulations to MicroMacro: Crime City and its designer, Johannes Sich).
Before we get into the choices, it’s worth mentioning that we only chose from the winners of the Spiel des Jahres, not the two offshoot awards, the Kinderspiel des Jahres (children’s game of the year) nor the Kinnerspiel des Jahres (connoisseur/expert game of the year). These separate awards do not have the same number of winners as the original award, so we stayed true to the title.
The Best Spiel des Jahres Winning Board Games
Chosen by Dylan:
Tikal may be one of the heaviest games to win the Spiel des Jahres. It uses the tried and true action point allowance system Kramer and Kiesling are known for, giving a player 10 points to use on their turn. There is a novel sense of exploration through theme and mechanics that Euros do not tend to provide. And while it may be a Euro, like fellow award winner El Grande, this is a high-interaction game through area control. The focus of different temples and their growth shifts around as the majorities shift from player to player. Tikal also features a fascinating scoring system where a player takes their entire turn, scores based on the current state of the board, and then the next player does the same. As opposed to everyone scoring simultaneously, Tikal provides scoring opportunities that cannot be replicated in nearly any other game. Part of me was worried this would be lost in time due to its age, but the reprint from French publisher Super Meeple sparked an interest in the game who weren’t gamers around the 1999 release.
Chosen by Tony:
How do you not choose the granddaddy of deck builders as the best Spiel des Jahres game? Back in 2008, game designer Donald X. Vaccarino took the tabletop world by storm with the release of Dominion. The card drafting genre (not to be confused with 7 Wonders “pick and pass” drafting mechanics) wasn’t really a thing until Dominion came around. Sure the theme is 100% pasted on, but that doesn’t matter. Gamers, rightfully so, fell in love with the mechanics and how fresh and compelling they were. It’s fun, intuitive, and offers a wealth of replay value as expansions have been released at a steady pace. Not only that, but Dominion spawned an entirely new class of tabletop games that can all thank their existence to this one amazing title.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (review)
Chosen by Brandon:
Originally released in 1982, the 1985 German translation of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD) took the Spiel des Jahres ceremony by storm. The announcement received a record-breaking thirty-minute standing ovation and caused so much joyous chaos that in the aftermath, several attendees reported expensive items missing, such as wallets and jewelry. And now, as fog rolls onto the London streets, you (as a representative of the Baker Street Irregulars) must pick up the scent of this unsolved crime. Okay, did I get carried away there? Sure. But that’s what a game of SHCD will do to anyone excited by narrative adventure, mystery, and deduction. SHCD has since spawned additional collections, reprints, reimplementations, and brand-new content as recently as 2020. I dare say that even Sherlock himself would have a tough time deducing when this stunning design will fail to have something new to give. Any self-respecting sleuth would jump at the chance to match wits in The Great Game against the master detective.
Chosen by Spencer:
Codenames has been the party game for over 5 years now. While it has inspired a lot of similar games, some of them very good, none have come close to replacing it. Codenames, and its many versions, is by far my most played game ever—easily over 200 plays. It offers an accessible experience that is as good with non-gamers as it is with casual gamers as it is with heavy gamers. Its flexibility allows for a mix of player types on the same team as well as teams with different amounts of players. 2 on 2 feels distinct from 4 on 4, but both are great. Without being in the rules, Codenames produces immense amounts of table talk and hilarious trash-talking. There are so many “highs” in this game from someone choosing the assassin to some downright impossibly clever clues that result in miraculous comebacks. Even when I think I don’t feel like playing Codenames, I always enjoy my time with it, and I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.
Chosen by Chris:
Given the evolution of board games over the last few decades, nostalgia is often the only reason to mention a game first published 44 years ago. That is definitely the case for my pick of Rummikub, which was the second game to win the award way back in 1980. Like many Spiel des Jahres winners, it’s a light and quick-playing game that is geared toward families. It’s also a luck-filled, blind-drawing puzzle more than it is a proper “game.” But as I mentioned earlier, this is purely a nostalgia pick from a time before the hobby dominated my consciousness, and games were often played as a minor part of a gathering and not the sole reason for the gathering itself. Rummikub rarely hits my table these days, but it’s still fun as a competitive puzzle so long as you don’t get too preoccupied with winning. In many ways, the game can be broken before the first turn, which is clearly an issue and one of the primary reasons why a game like this would never win the SdJ in modern times. Rummikub is by no means the best Spiel des Jahres winner, but it’ll always hold a special place in my evolution as a gamer. (Plus: My kids like to play with the tiles, which keeps them distracted while I’m playing newer, better games. That alone makes Rummikub a vital part of my library.)
Chosen by Jason:
Out of all the types of games I like to play, fast and fun party games are at the top of my list. Just One ticks a lot of boxes in this category, making it easy to teach, set up, and get the good times rolling. On top of all of this, it is incredibly accessible, regardless of someone’s gaming expertise. So you can have a fun time and laughs in a group with your grandma and your best friends. In fact, I have a great story to share from a few years ago. We attempted to play just one with way more people than you are supposed to, something like 10. So of course you would think words being eliminated would happen left and right. Well lo and behold, on one particular round, we managed to shock ourselves with not a single repeated word. It was hilarious and needless to say the guesser got their word correct.
El Grande (review)
Chosen by Tahsin:
If you had looked me up in 1995 and told me I would find this title to be a superb game of area control/majority and action drafting, I would have assumed you were looking for the war games club. The truth is, El Grande comes from an era of games as dry as the Monegros Desert in Spain. There’s little dressing up the action, but each turn raises the heat amongst the competitors trying to impress the king with their Machiavellian maneuvering. With mechanisms that encourage backstabbing, feints, and watchful eyes across the table, El Grande brings the wonderful experience of heavy conflict in a scaled-down, accessible package with multiple layers of control. It’s one of those games that introduces players to the core of what area majority games are all about and leaves the players wanting it all the more.
2-5 Players • Ages 12+ • 60-120 minutes • Out of Print
Ticket to Ride (review)
Chosen by AnnaMaria:
2004 winner Ticket to Ride is the game that brought me into modern hobby gaming. I’d taken a tabletop hiatus since college, delving deep into video games and the occasional game of cribbage, but my sister brought Ticket to Ride: Europe over one night while on a visit. “You HAVE to try this and tell me if you like it as much as playing games when we were kids.” The verdict: a resounding yes (we played 3 times that evening).
Ticket to Ride stands up today, particularly as a gateway for folks that played classics like Cluedo or Sorry as a kid. The basic workings (collect cards, use them as payment to lay trains on the tracks, and fulfill routes composed of places connected by trains) are very straightforward. Later versions only change a few things from this formula, keeping it very accessible. I’ve also heard from parents that say it’s a great way to combine family game night with a geography lesson! We just picked up the Anniversary edition of Ticket to Ride: Europe and I’m excited to lay it out for our next game night—this Spiel des Jahres remains evergreen.
Chosen by James:
I haven’t played a lot of the Spiel des Jahres winners but one of my first hobby board games was Carcassonne and it remains one of the ones my wife and I still enjoy playing. What makes Carcassonne work so smoothly is there’s very little game destroying analysis paralysis. You grab a tile and you place it. There are usually only a few places it can go and then you decide if you want to drop a meeple down on that tile to score points later. It’s straightforward and perfect for those who want some short-term and long-term goals but without becoming overwhelmed by choices. This is a game that has a lot of expansions to customize the game as well as several reskins if provincial France isn’t your goblet of wine. The modular nature of the board provides innate replay value as the random draw of tiles builds up a different landscape each time. And by the end of each game, you can look across your co-built land and feel a sense of accomplishment.