Tom Felber, Jury Chairman of the Spiel des Jahres Award

The Spiel des Jahres is awarded by a jury of German-speaking board game critics for games that have been released in Germany, yet it carries a lot of weight and prestige to board game hobbyists around the world. What are the key factors and events that have led to its widespread appeal?

Strangely enough, one factor is maybe, that it is not meant for hobbyists. The target audience is everybody. Most people like to play games, they like to have fun together. But a lot of them have made bad experiences with bad games. The enemies of boardgame-culture are not computer games. The enemies of boardgame-culture are bad boardgames. There are too many games in the stores, and the jury is trying to help honesty. Key factors are the independence, credibility and the passion of the critics. We stand completely outside of the game industry. It is all about good games and nothing happens out of consideration for certain companies or persons. And jury members still do this work for no money.

You're starting a tour of North America to promote the Spiel des Jahres award. What would make this a successful trip for you?

I wouldn't call it a tour to promote the Spiel des Jahres award. "Spiel des Jahres“ is not a business-matter for me. I am on a private trip including the "Gathering of Friends“ in Niagara Falls and visiting friends in California. The "tour“ was an opportunity to combine the private trip with the possibility of explaining the background of our Spiel des Jahres-award to people in the American toy and game industry. We get more and more attention and requests from people in the US. And strangely there is a lot of incorrect information and missunderstanding around. So for me it would make a successful trip, if after this "tour“ more people in the US were aware what Spiel des Jahres really is and what we do.  

Aside from your time spent at our networking events, how else will you be spending your time on the trip?

Private visits and playing games with old friends.

Can you tell us about one of the more controversial nominations of the award?

No, I am sorry, I can’t. What happens inside the jury, stays inside the jury.

But in general a lot of controversial discussions inside the jury are based on concerns about the degree of violence in topics of individual games. Is it possible or appropriate to have fun with games when it comes to topics like aggression, war, violence etc?

In 2011, SdJ started the Kennerspiel (connoisseur) game award; do you see the market expanding to the point that another award category would be added? If so, what are some of the categories that might exist in the future?

No. Three awards are enough. The less prizes, the more powerful. We want to get coverage in as many newspapers and magazines as possible. If there were too many prizes and too many games it would become to complicated and less interesting for the journalists to write about us. We are journalists ourselves, we know that you must write stories to a point. There is no point in promoting five awards at the same time. Again: "Spiel des Jahres“ is not a prize for the scene and the hobbyists, it is a prize for the main audience, for everybody.

Let me explain the following: One of the main reasons to introduce The Kennerspiel was to protect the "Spiel des Jahres“ from getting to complex. For me the black „Kennerspiel“-pawn is like a "bodyguard“ of the red pawn. All the jury members are passionate boardgamers themselves and they also love innovations and complexity. But a lot of these excellent games overburden most people. Before the introduction of the Kennerspiel there was always a certain danger to elect a very good game even it was too complicated for the main audience. It happened with "Dominion“. The Kennerspiel was also introduced to prevent such cases in the future.

When you go back to 2001 and Carcassone being selected as SdJ winner, up to 2013 and Hanabi, how have the SdJ nominees changed?

The nominees change from year to year in all directions. There is no pattern. It always depends on what is available on the market in the specific year. There are strong years and weak years. Games, which even didn't get a nomination in one year, would have been easily elected as "Spiel des Jahres“ if they were published in an other year. Of course, the election of "Hanabi“ was a big milestone because of the size of the box. This wouldn't have been possible ten years ago. That’s the most obvious change, that small games can be elected nowadays.

How is the SdJ jury selected? How did you become chairman?

Through democratic elections. Even in Germany there are not a lot of people walking around  reviewing boardgames on a regular basis who are independent from the industry. Sometimes new faces appear and make themselves a name. New critics are nominated and elected with a democratic process by the current jury members. And there is a nomination and election for the chairman too.

What other toy and game industry awards do you acknowledge and respect?

I wouldn't call us "industry award“, we see ourselves as a critics award for consumers. For me that is a difference and one of the main reasons of our success. We had requests for cooperation from other awards in the past, but for us it is a no-go, because most of them don’t share our independence and philosophy. I respect other awards and their ways to approach the challenges. But when I am honest, they have no relevance for our work and our discussions. Only playing the games ourselves has relevance.

Do you have a personal favorite game that never received a nomination or recommendation from the SdJ jury?

King of Tokyo.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

I drew my own cowboy- and indian-characters on little papers, named them, cut them out and played with them in very dramatic stories.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no such thing as a typical day in my life. I am a journalist, I mainly work as criminal- and court-reporter, but I also write about travelling, cars and games. There are at least five different kind of typical days: 1. Sitting in a courtroom, 2. Talking to people to get information, 3. Travelling, 4. Playing games, 5 Driving and testing cars. Out of 365 nights a year I sleep not more than 150 at home.

Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you are today?

I grew up in a very catholic worker-class-family in a small village in Switzerland (but not in the mountains) near Zurich with four sisters and three brothers. This taught me that the most important things in life are human relationships and it made me an Atheist.   

What is one mistake you have made, and what did you learn from it?

I am making mistakes the whole time on a daily basis. I play for example to many bad games. But I can’t stop doing it, because I have to play them as a jury-member. And I am always full of hope. So it looks like I don’t really learn anything from it.

What do you read every day, and why?

I read lots and lots and lots of rulebooks and I read at least five different newspapers, because it is my job.

What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

Gadgets, app or pieces of software are not very important for me. I try to get the real-life-experience. I even don’t have a digital diary book. I still write all my appointments by hand. It might sound surprising for you, but I have not one single game-app on my cell-phone.

When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I laugh out loud every day, sometimes about myself. As a court-reporter you are often surrounded by death, blows of fate and sadness. It gives you a different feeling for importance and teaches you to enjoy the beautiful sides of life.

What inspires you?

People. Mostly people who think for themselves and don’t believe stupid things, only because they are common and permanently repeated.  

(To read this interview in Japanese, visit http://gamereview.cocolog-nifty.com/)