Whither the International Gamers Award

The IGA nominations are out again for the German-style multi-player games. In the past I’ve refrained from commenting on them in my blog for a variety of reasons, but the list of nominations is interesting this year – not least because for the first time, it seems like they are making some effort to distinguish themselves by selecting quite a few off-mainstream games.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the IGA, at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of guys who vote on games they like. This is not to denigrate the contributions to the hobby that some have made; Mike Siggins particularly is a person I have great respect for. But, I searched the IGA website to try to find defining information such as a mission statement (other than a rather generic and meaningless “pick the best games”), list of criterion for game inclusion (other than just the dates of publication), goals of some kind, or rules or guidelines for how the committee was selected, but couldn’t. I’ve always been under the impression that, despite the presence of a few continental Europeans on the jury, it’s sort of a nativist answer to the Spiel des Jahre (which has become increasingly irrelevant to the “serious” gamer) or Deutcher Spiele Preis (which has not); but this is speculation on my part. In reality, in the past the IGA has added little, if anything, to the awards landscape, being essentially an English-language relay for the DSP, except neither as reliable nor as transparent, and conveying significantly less information.

This year, though, things are a bit different; not many of these games are going to make an impact on the DSP. Is this a good or a bad thing? Let’s check it out by handicapping the games. I’m going to ignore the 2-player category for two reasons: a) there is a strange dichotomy in the nominees that I can’t quite get my head around, and b) I haven’t played enough of the games.

Antiquity
Antiquity has no chance to win. It’s a $100+ game, and it’s long. Simple as that; you can’t win the IGA without broad-based support on the jury, and this won’t get it for practical reasons. While quite sympathetic to the new bias for small-press games, issues of quality aside this probably is too far off the mainstream of the IGAs traditional eurogame beat, too much of a niche game, and too expensive and generally unavailable to have been a serious nomination.

Carcassonne: The City
Being a part of the Carcassonne franchise, I don’t think this one has a realistic shot. For me, Carcassonne jumped the shark with Builders and Traders, and around here, The City just didn’t have any legs, as it tried unsuccessfully to lever the fundamentally non-threatening Carcassonne into more of a “gamer’s game” package. I’ll stick with Hunters and Gatherers.

Diamant
This is too light to win, although its chances are not zero. That this nice but featherweight (and overpriced) game was nominated while the novel and genuinely interesting Saboteur was passed over is disappointing. Not that Diamant is a bad game, which it isn’t … but it’s just not one that’s going to leave much of an imprint on the landscape. Perhaps the IGA mistakenly thought that they, like the Spiel des Jahre, might get a cut of the retail price.

Around the World in 80 Days
This is also too light to win. It has a very distant outside shot, but I would be amazed. Another game that’s a bit above average, but nothing special, and as a family game it seems out of place in this crowd.

Keythedral
This is an interesting game, but I’m not sure what it’s doing on the list, especially with Breese’s better Reef Encounter also nominated. A conflicted brain-burner. No chance; all but the most extreme Breeseophiles on the jury will go for Reef Encounter first, and Breeseophobes will avoid either (but Keythedral especially).

Louis XIV
For me personally, this is the winner, although not by a huge margin (and there are games that were not even nominated that I think are better still). Whether the game has serious replayability is an open question, but it’s interesting and unusual, and the theme is passable. But given the lack of interest the jury showed in Traders of Genoa a couple years back, that they typically go for true big-box games (last year’s Saint Petersburg being an exception), and the occasional mental block people have on the whole shields thing, a Louis XIV win is improbable I think.

Reef Encounter
Unquestionably Reef Encounter will appeal to the jury. It’s a throwback to the late 90s and so has a nostalgia appeal to long-time gamers, it’s a pretty good game, and it’s just elitest enough (only available in limited quantities and extravagant prices … but not too extravagant, and it has an impending reprint) to swing votes. All in all a very strong contender. While I certainly don’t think it’s the game of the year, if it wins it will be (given the reprint) probably the best choice the IGA has ever made in terms of doing something meaningfully different and trying to draw attention to a good but underexposed game.

Shadows Over Camelot
You probably know what I think of this game. If I had to make a bet, though, I think this has the best shot at winning, albeit not by a lot in a field that’s a bit more open than usual. Days of Wonder is trendy, the buzz hasn’t quite had a chance to fade yet, and it’s possible the jury won’t play enough to get to the seriously problematic back end. The IGA picked San Marco a couple years back, which was about the 12th-best game in the category that year, and a Shadows pick would ultimately be similar. I don’t think Shadows rises even to the level of being average, but I’d overall give it a very slight edge over Reef Encounter for two reasons. Firstly, the IGA tends to reward broad-based support, and Shadows has better market penetration than Reef Encounter. Secondly, Shadows is closer to the somewhat lighter weight class that the IGA generally prefers.

Struggle of Empires
Well, you either like Martin Wallace games or you don’t it seems. I like Age of Steam but am not generally a fan. Regardless, due to the length, and the free-for-all and wargamey nature of this game, I believe it has no chance to win. Age of Steam was mainstream enough to euro sensibilities to be a plausible contender (it didn’t win); I don’t think this one is, and you need across-the-board appeal to win the IGA.

Ticket to Ride: Europe
Maybe. TtR:E would be a better choice than a number of other games on the list, and it could get the required broad support, but would overall be a disappointing pick for a number of reasons, not least because the IGA desperately needs to distinguish itself from the other awards and one would hope that a “best of year” award might point you to a genuinely great game that you would not otherwise have tried. Most IGA consumers at this point are going to have heard of TtR:E and know whether they want to play it or not. I’d consider this a possible but dark horse candidate, and even though it’s a good game it possibly should have been excluded on the grounds of being a “system” game.

Ubongo
No chance. The nature of the game will turn off too many jurors, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, you need across-the-board support to win.

Ys
This one is probably the most plausible dark horse candidate. Greg Schlosser is a big fan I think, and that may carry some lobbying weight. It’s accessible, and while it’s a niche game it’s still generally available. Again, given the weakness of the field, Ys does OK – somewhere around 5th – but this is not a “best of year” type game, not by a far cry. I could come up with some way to spin it so that it comes out ahead of the other nominees, but even in a weak field I have to work at it. A sympathetic candidate, and really not a bad game, but it would ultimately not be a good choice.

Given the sense of weakness that the nomination list conveys, it raises the obvious question: what was missed? As it turns out, rather a lot.

Probably the most profound thing is that not even one of three very good to excellent Knizias were included – Palazzo, Tower of Babel, and Razzia!. And that’s just the really good stuff; one could make arguments for other games (like King Arthur) over some of the entries. That none were even on the nomination list raises serious questions about whether the IGA is borrowing another feature of the Spiel des Jahre, an almost pathalogical anti-Knizia bias. The omission of Razzia! is perhaps understandable given its Ra heritage, but it’s not a straight reprint and Diamant, Ticket to Ride: Europe, and Carcassone: the City are all highly derivative games. But not including Palazzo or Tower of Babel given some of the stuff that was nominated is mystifying.

Other titles that are inexplicably missing, again given the weakness of the field, are Shadow of the Emperor, Candamir, Mall World, 1825 Unit 3, Revolution, and Friedrich. The number of small-time publishers on the list is laudable, but why give spots to both Reef Encounter and Keythedral? The latter is a nice game, but nothing truly special (never mind the eligability time frame questions), and if you want another small-press game, Mall World is to me a stronger game and deserved to take its place. Candamir was not great in its original German incarnation, but the new Mayfair edition is vastly improved and easily deserved a slot over Carcassonne: The City (among others), and would have focussed on an American company beating a German company at its own game. 1825 Unit 3 is a system game, but so is Ticket to Ride: Europe, and again, 1825 Unit 3 is a very good game – although perhaps for the 2-player list. One could make a very strong case for Revolution: The Dutch Revolt and Friedrich also, especially considering the inclusion of the similarly-lengthy Antiquity and similarly-wargamey Struggle of Empires. All would also have helped tremendously in giving the nomination list some breadth, while currently it, like the Spiel des Jahre has become of late, feels to me like a victim of group-think.

And what about some of the very nice small-box stuff like Geschenkt, Saboteur, or even Garten-Zwerge e V? Perhaps there was some fear that the voting system would have essentially gaurenteed a Geschenkt win, but it would have been nice to see a few of the good small-box games recognized (esepcially since Diamant, a small-box game at a big-box price, was included).

It is a certainty that whatever wins the IGA (I’d handicap Reef Encounter or Shadows Over Camelot, with Ys as a dark horse and Ticket to Ride: Europe as a darker horse, Louis XIV the game that perhaps should win, and no other pick being at all credible), there will be a handful of fairly mainstream releases that I felt were significantly better that weren’t even nominated. While I definitely respect the list’s focus on smaller game companies, and in that sense I feel it’s a significant step towards making the IGA at least somewhat relevant, given the apparent parameters of selection (i.e., that a number of games from major publishers were included) there are simply too many games on the list that are no better than average, and too many excellent and interesting games omitted entirely.

What does all this mean for the IGA? In an industry rife with meaningless awards, the purpose or relevancy of the IGA has never been clear. Given that until now it has done little but echo (with less information) the more prestigious, useful, and reliable Deutcher Spiele Preis, the IGA has yet to find the angle that will make it of interest, at least on the euro-style end (the “historical” end is another matter, and of some interest given the CSR Award‘s recent difficulties). The new emphasis on some decent, off-mainstream games is a step in the right direction, but it’s obviously now a bit conflicted and still not there in terms of achieving both credibility and a clear audience. While giving an award to Ys or Struggle of Empires or Antiquity might set them apart from the crowd of people lining up to honor Ticket to Ride, it’s not clear who the audience for an award that recognized these games would be, or if that audience would need or pay any attention to such an award in the first place.

2014 addenda: Ticket to Ride: Europe won. Sigh.

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