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Best of the rest: 8 Spiel des Jahres winners you haven’t heard of

Winning board gaming's biggest Game of the Year prize doesn’t always mean going down in the history books.

Image credit: Gibsons

The Spiel des Jahres is often seen as the biggest prize in board gaming. There’s a big fanfare over the nominees and winner every year that can translate into hundreds of thousands of extra copies sold.

However, the 'Game of the Year' prize has far more humble roots, dating right back to 1979 when it was established to promote excellence in the German market for family-friendly games. From the outset it was made clear this was a critic's award, chosen by jury consensus rather than a popularity contest.

Overlooked Spiel des Jahres winners

Given the long history of the award and the refinement of player taste and design over that period, it’s unsurprising that most of the older Spiel des Jahres winners have fallen out of favour. But that doesn’t mean that it’s fair. While some of these titles feel clunky and underdeveloped to the modern gamer, others ought to be considered as minor classics or vital stepping stones on the pathway to the current hobby.

Here are eight board game winners of the Spiel des Jahres, all of which can be picked up for bargain prices secondhand or played online, that deserve some modern-day love.

1. Hare and Tortoise

On your marks for this surprisingly thinky race game

Hare and Tortoise was the first board game to win the Spiel des Jahres, and remains well worth playing over 40 years later. | Image credit: Gibsons

What better way to start than with the winner of the inaugural Spiel des Jahres award back in 1979? This race game is still in print and with good reason; it still feels relatively fresh today, and so must have seemed an astonishing piece of innovation to that first jury back in the day. The concept is very simple: a race game without randomness where you pay carrot cards to move, the cost growing higher the further you choose to go.

However, the course is full of wrinkles. You can’t land on spaces with other players, you have to land on at least three lettuce squares, while other spaces reward you with carrots based on their printed value and your race position.

Although it might seem too nakedly mathematical compared to modern games, there’s no doubting that it’s a fascinating and often thrilling dynamic puzzle as the players jockey for position.

Buy Hare and Tortoise on Zatu and Amazon UK.

2. Scotland Yard

The grandparent of the modern hidden movement genre

Scotland Yard was the genesis of the hidden movement genre that includes board games such as Letters from Whitechapel and Fury of Dracula. | Image credit: Ravensburger

Hidden movement games have a chequered history, which includes some acclaimed titles like Fury of Dracula and Mind MGMT. What many gamers might not realise is that all of these games are essentially putting layers of thematic rules on top of this stone-cold classic from 1983. One player is the mysterious Mister X (say it quickly to get the joke) who moves in secret on a point-to-point map of London. The others are the detectives in pursuit, using his modes of transport, each of which goes different distances and routes, as clues.

At first, operating entirely in the dark, the detectives need to spread a wide net and reach good transport nodes, ready to pounce. Mister X has to reveal their position at intervals through the game, and then the hunt is on. Working out where he could be using the transport tickets and trying to position your pawns to box him in is a thinky treat. Mister X, meanwhile, can bluff and double-back as he squirms to escape the net.

A lesson in how less can often be more, Scotland Yard remains well worth your time.

Buy Scotland Yard on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

3. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

A textual puzzle that’s very far from elementary, my dear reader

Part choose-your-own-adventure story, part playable murder-mystery, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective remains singularly unique to this day. | Image credit: Space Cowboys

Another forgotten game with an outsized amount of influence on current trends, this is the precursor to all manner of escape-room shenanigans. Fittingly, given the source material, it looks more like a novel than a game, being full of text pamphlets, newspaper cuttings and a map rather than cards and dice. But don’t be fooled by appearances; there’s very much a game afoot here.

Your job, across ten cases, solo or cooperatively, is to use the chart of London and gazetteer to visit relevant locations, read the accompanying paragraphs from the casebook, then scrutinise text, map and newspapers alike looking for clues that will solve the mystery. This isn’t just picking out words in the text either: you’ve got to do what Holmes is famous for and use everything at your disposal to eliminate the impossible and arrive at the truth.

Often mimicked but never bettered, Consulting Detective will make you feel as stupid now as it did players when it won in 1985.

Buy Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

4. Heimlich & Co.

Keep your friends close and your enemies on the negative scoring space

Heimlich & Co. designer Wolfgang Kramer has won the Spiel des Jahres more times than any other designer - a testament to the excellence of his board games. | Image credit: Amigo Spiel

Sometimes published in English as Under Cover or Top Secret Spies, this remains in-print in German - and you shouldn’t be afraid of picking up a foreign edition as it’s so simple to play. Each player gets assigned a colour in secret, but all the pawns go on the board, with spaces numbered from minus three to 12. On your turn, you roll a die and can move whichever pawns you like, a total of that many spaces. Whenever any pawn lands on a space with the safe token, each colour scores as many points as the space it currently occupies, and the player whose turn it is then moves the safe to another space of their choice.

As you might imagine, it’s a race to the end of the scoring track, but the winning pawn might not even be a player colour. It’s a game rife with bluff and mystery, as you attempt to manoeuvre your pawn into prime position without revealing which one it is and leaving it open to sabotage by other players. Yet, at the same time, positioning all the pawns and the safe itself is a fascinating exercise in spatial strategy and mental calculation. It’s a brilliant bundle that easily scratches multiple itches on every fast-paced play.

Buy Heimlich & Co. on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

5. Thurn und Taxis

Making postal runs across Germany fun since 1516

Thurn und Taxis' postal theme might not seem all that exciting, but it's perfect for fans of Ticket to Ride and other route-making games. | Image credit: 999 Games

This is the most recent Spiel des Jahres winner on the list, having won in 2006, but it’s been regrettably sidelined because, as a route-building game, it’s been superseded by mass-market goliaths like Ticket to Ride. But the SdJ jury seems to love route-building games as a whole, and Thurn und Taxis still occupies a unique, fun niche.

You’re making postal routes across 16th-century Germany, but the catch is that you can’t claim all the stops on your path. Instead, you have to choose all the spaces in one province, or one space in each province.

There’s a slew of other smart innovations besides, such as the way players have a choice of special powers each turn but can only choose one. Plus palm-sweating push-your-luck, as a bum draw can collapse the route you’ve been carefully cultivating over several turns.

It’s a delicious stew of interlocking concepts that’s far more exciting than the dull theme and clunky name would suggest.

Buy Thurn und Taxis on Zatu.

6. Hoity Toity

Dune, the eurogame

Hoity Toity, also known as Adel Verpflichtet, is all about trading antiques - with the option to nick your opponents' valuables, too... | Image credit: Peng

Also known as By Hook or by Crook, or its German name Adel Verpflichtet, you’ll often hear this described as a fancy version of rock-paper-scissors, but that bland representation wholly fails to do justice to the astonishing amount of angst this game can generate every turn.

Players are competing antique collectors who must choose each turn whether to buy antiques at auction or display their collection at home. In either instance, their money or antiques can be stolen by other player’s thieves and those thieves, in turn, can be caught by other player’s detectives.

What makes this work is that there are plenty of clues at every stage as to what players are likely to do. If you’ve built a great collection, you’ll want to display it for points. If you’ve got gaps, you’re more likely to go to auction or set a thief to steal a rival’s prime exhibit. Except that everyone knows what you want to do and everyone knows that everyone else knows and proceeds to tie themselves in knots trying to second-guess what’s going on.

The fallout of each reveal is often hilarious and thrilling in equal measure, as players race for a photo finish at the end of the scoring track.

Buy Hoity Toity/By Hook or by Crook/Adel Verpflichtet on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

7. Manhattan

An unexpectedly vicious battle of skyscraper control

Manhattan is one of few older Spiel des Jahres winners to have seen a modern revamp in recent years. | Image credit: FoxMind

Originally released in 1994, tower-building board game Manhattan is one of the few Spiel des Jahres winners on this list to have had a modern makeover and reprint, with fantastic transparent towers in pastel plastics. It looks wonderful on the tabletop as the growing spires race for the sky, even if the colour stacks can be a bit confusing. This is important because the owner of a tower is the player with the piece on top, but you can only top a tower if you can place a piece big enough to tie for the most storeys overall.

Each round you have to pre-select what pieces are available to you from a dwindling pool, and your placement options are limited by cards in your hand. This sets up a fascinating battle of one-upmanship, where placements are sometimes obvious and sometimes deliciously difficult, and you’re never sure who’s going to be crowned the master builder until the last tower piece goes down. If there was ever an abstract board game for folk who don’t like abstracts, it’s this.

Buy Manhattan on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

8. Railway Rivals

Two races in one box

Surprise! Classic train game Railway Rivals was originally published by Warhammer maker Games Workshop, and features precisely zero orcs or Space Marines. | Image credit: Games Workshop

Would you believe that Warhammer behemoth Games Workshop once made a train game? Here’s the proof and, as it turns out, it’s a very good train game too, that took home the gong in 1984.

Railway Rivals is a very strange beast by modern tastes, partly because it’s a little clunky with gameplay divided into two distinct phases and a few fiddly rules, but mostly because the second phase is essentially a roll-and-move race game, except with trains.

Before you click away in fury, the key to this minor classic is the first phase where players indulge in a different race, one to try and link cities on a hex map by drawing on it with dry-wipe pens. When it comes to race time, with start and finish determined by random card draws, you can use your own lines for free, but you have to pay to use those of your rivals.

Winning thus needs both a dose of luck and some clever route-planning, but either way, cheering the choo-choos as they steam full ahead to the finish line never gets old.

Buy Railway Rivals on Amazon UK, or have a look on eBay.

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