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Friday 17 March 2023

Friday Faction: Everybody Wins

Board games have got big recently, as just about any newspaper headline on the subject will tell you, so much so that the headline has become a cliché. Yet there is some truth to the headline, for as long as anyone can imagine board games have always been popular, but board games really, really have got popular—and relatively recently. By recently, we mean the last forty years, and definitely the last thirty years as the board game evolved from something played during our childhoods to something that could be played and enjoyed by adults, who happened to be board game devotees. Then from this niche, the playing of board games as a hobby gained wider acceptance and moved into the mainstream to become an acceptable, even normal, pastime. Pioneered by classic titles such as Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride, board games have got big in the last few years. What these three designs have in common is that they all won the Spiel des Jahres, the German ‘Game of the Year Award’ which recognises family-friendly game design and promotes excellent games in the German market. To win the Spiel des Jahres is the equivalent of winning the Oscar for Best Picture. It is a mark of recognition not just for the game itself, but also for the designer and the publisher, and winning the Spiel des Jahres can mean tens of thousands of extra sales as everyone wants to try out the new critically acclaimed game. So, the question is, “What makes a Spiel des Jahres winner a good game?” It is answered some forty or so times by James Wallis in Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made.

Wallis, has of course, already explored the history of board games in the company of Sir Ian Livingstone with Board Games in 100 Moves: 8,000 Years of Play, but in Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made, published by Aconyte Books, he delves into the more recent forty-three years of the hobby to examine and give his opinion upon every one of the 
Spiel des Jahres winners, from the award’s inception in 1979 to 2022. The majority of them are good, some indifferent, and a few disappointing. Along the way he charts the changes in the hobby over the period as reflected through the awards, although as the author makes clear, this is not an actual history of the Spiel des Jahres award, its jury, and the deliberations it makes each year and the decisions it comes to. Its focus is very much on the games themselves and its tone and style is lighter, more that of a coffee table style book than some dry history. Consequently, this is a book which can be enjoyed by the casual board game player as much as the veteran. Further, the big, bold, bright format means that the book can be put in the hands of someone who does not play board games, and they will not be intimidated by the book itself or the games it showcases.

Everybody Wins is divided up into five colour-coded sections which each explore the different eras of the 
Spiel des Jahres, including the themes, the changes in design, and trends in the hobby in that time, beginning with ‘Opening Moves’ of 1979 to 1985, and going through ‘The Golden Age’ of 1996 to 2004 and ‘Identity Crisis’ of 2005 to 2015, before finding ‘New Purpose, New Direction’ since 2016. Each section opens with an overview of the period. For example, ‘Opening Moves’ explains how the award came to be founded and what it set out to do, which was to highlight, if not necessarily the best game of the year, then the most interesting, the most playable, and the most fun game of year, which had been published in German in the last year, and in the process, to broaden the acceptance of board games beyond just the hobby. Later eras examine the changing fortunes of the award and game design, for example, ‘The Golden Age’ exploring the effect that Settlers of Catan, winner in 1995, had on both hobby and industry, and how the period would not only see the rise of classic game, but also several heavier, more complicated games would not necessarily appeal to a family audience. Each overview is then followed by the winners for that period, every title receiving an essay that details its background, gameplay, the author’s opinion, and more. Notes give both the publisher and current  availability, plus whether or not the game was a worthy winner and is still worth playing now. The occasional sidebar explains particular rule types or gives a thumbnail portrait of a designer and every entry concludes with a full list of the nominees and winners of the various awards the Spiel des Jahres jury has given out over the years, initially special awards, but more recently the Kinderspiel and Kennerspiel awards.

Everybody Wins does not look at the winners of the other two awards that the jury gives out— the Kinderspiel and Kennerspiel awards. Neither are quite as important as the 
Spiel des Jahres, nor do they quite have the same effect on the industry, but where Everybody Wins does come up short is in not looking at the ‘what if’s’ of the Spiel des Jahres. Only once does the author look closely at another nomination for the award, Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island, a nominee in 2011 when Quirkle won. This is less of an issue when what is regarded as a classic won in a particular year, such as Settlers of Catan in 1995, Dominion in 2009, or Codenames in 2016, but what about in 2002 when the stacking game, Villa Paletti won? Wallis tells the reader that, “In no possible sense was this the game of the year.” It would have been interesting to pull the other nominees out and give them the space to explain why they should have won instead. For example, Puerto Rico and TransAmerica in 2002, but also for Niagara in 2005 and later, Keltis in 2008. Later, Wallis does look at ‘The Ones That Didn’t Win’, but this is only a brief overview, primarily highlighting the commercialism of a game or it not suiting the Spiel des Jahres criteria, but there are games here that do fit those criteria, and would have been worthy winners, such as Pandemic in 2009.

Physically, Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made is lovingly presented, with every entry very nicely illustrated and accompanied with an engaging description. One obvious issue with the presentation is the book’s sidebars. Done in white on colour boxes, the text is not strong enough to read without the aid of good lighting.

The response to Everybody Wins will vary according to how much of a board game player the reader is. If the reader is a veteran, this will send him scurrying back into his collection to pull out titles and try them again, checking them against past plays and the author’s assessment. Or scouring online sellers for the titles that he does not have. The more casual player is more likely to pick and choose from the range of titles discussed in the pages of the book, probably looking for the classics and the titles that the author recommends as worth his time and the reader’s time. Whatever way in which the reader responds to the book, Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made is an entertaining and informative primer on the past four decades of the board game hobby and the winners of its greatest prize.

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