12I am a bit belated in writing my Kennerspiel des Jahres (KDJ) follow up, following up on my original post about the Spiel des Jahres nominees. And I must admit, part of that lateness is due to me being pretty disappointed in the nominees. I’ve written many time before how there are always great games among these nominees, and in fact I own nominees or winners from the last 5 years. So to see this year’s slate and not have any of them sound compelling is a bit of a let down. Perhaps, understandably, 2020 was not a great year for games. At a certain level I wonder if publishers held back any games simply due to the world situation. It was not a great time to market a game due to the lack of conventions that typically debut a game with a splash. It was also not a great time to sell games when folks were stuck at home away from their gaming group and likely without an audience to play them with.
In a nod to the fact that board games were mostly virtual this last year one of the nominees Lost Ruins of Arnak is available on Board Game Arena to play online. For this reason it is the one game of the three nominees that I have tried. But also for this reason, because I don’t love online games, it didn’t make the best first impression. Lost Ruins of Arnak is a very well produced game about exploring ancient ruins, think Indiana Jones. It uses deck building, and old favorite mechanism of mine and worker placement, a less favorite mechanism. Essentially you have two explorer pawns that you place on different ruins sites to get resources, in addition to your deck which also generates resources and the icons used to travel to the different sites with your pawns. The game has gotten a lot of buzz because of the synergies you can create between these two systems, and how well balanced they are. But playing online it all felt like a lot of solitaire resource management and conversion, and it was not terribly exciting. Let me explain. The game has a three tiered system of artifacts. Gems are better than arrowheads, and arrowheads are better than scrolls. You need these resources to defeat monsters that come out when exploring new sites, and to move up your tokens on a research track on the right side of the board. The experience of playing the game online mostly felt like filling out recipes of different resources to do something… not terribly exciting. I could write a whole blog about how much I hate “tracks” in games. There is very little that is exciting about moving a token further along a track, unless that ALSO allows you to do more interesting things in the core of the game. An abilities track that lets you feel more and more powerful? I’m totally on board. A scoring track that lets you get more and more points… that can leave me feeling cold. There is some unlock of abilities here as moving the research track gets you assistants that provide additional powers. But these powers are… often just more resources. Not terribly exciting.
I will give it another try in person, as I think these solitaire games are the worst online. The only interaction between players is taking the sites that they wanted to explore with their pawns, or racing up the track more efficiently to get more points. It is a game where I could walk away for the other three players’ turns and not miss much. When it’s online it is doubly easy to do so as there isn’t a live player sitting across from me narrating their turn. This also makes it more difficult to learn as I am not watching the players build these synergistic combos that make the game exciting. It is worth another shot but this is not a way I’d recommend playing it.
Another game that was nominated continues the theme of cooperative games being nominated this year, with 50% of all 6 games falling into that category. Paleo has players trying to survive as cavemen overcoming dangerous obstacles together. The unique approach here is that all players have their own deck of hazards that they are trying to tackle. This removes a common complaint about cooperative games where one player can “quarterback” other players’ turns and dictate what they should do. There is still a good spirit of cooperation however as players can always use their action to help another player tackle their challenge. The game has 7 levels of challenges to work through and some fantastic if overproduced components to give it a great look on the table. The main criticism levelled at the publisher is that the caveman characters that represent players in the game are utterly whitewashed, despite that not being historically accurate or remotely inclusive to a growing board game audience. To their credit the publisher has heard this criticism and plans to address it in any future printings of the game. This is yet another sign that euro-centric board games are becoming less and less acceptable in the hobby. I haven’t tried Paleo but would be happy to give it a shot and explore the unique player deck approach.
The final game that was nominated is a bit of a technicality, in several different ways. Because it is a German award the KDJ focuses on games released in Germany. Fantasy Realms was released in German in 2020, but actually hit the US market in 2017. In that sense it’s not new and exciting for US audiences, and in fact doesn’t appear to even be in print over here. It is kind of the reverse situation of the currently Germany only Robinhood game nominated for the regular Spiel Des Jahres. The other technicality is that the game doesn’t really seem complex enough for the description of the KDJ, which is “expert game of the year.” In Fantasy Realms you are trying to build a combo-tastic hand of cards to score the most points. Each card has conditions for when it scores, and requires other cards in your hand to score the most points. A Queen for example scores if you have Kingdom cards, and a Knight might score for having other enemy cards to slay. The gameplay is dirt simple with players drawing one card a turn or discarding one card a turn. The only wrinkle is that players can draw from each other’s discards, which is also the only point of interaction in the game, as players try to pay attention to what each other is doing and avoid discarding cards that might help another player’s combo. The scoring of the game can take about as long as the game itself as players need to walk through the conditions on each card to see how it scored points. I am honestly curious to try this one, but it doesn’t seem like it has enough complexity to qualify for this tier of the award. I suppose it’s not terribly family friendly as the scoring and combos get into the weeds a bit, and definitely scratch more of that expert gamer itch, but with the simple gameplay I am surprised to find it nominated here.
If I had to pick a winner I would guess that Lost Ruins of Arnak will take the prize. However, while I will give that one another shot, and wouldn’t pass up a play of the other two, I am not really excited by any of them. Perhaps it was just a bad, year, or maybe my tastes are changing, but it is a bummer to not have a shining star from these nominees.