The award goes to…

For the last 4 years the Brainwaves podcast has covered all sorts of news stories. Regular listeners know we frequently break out the awards homburg to report on the most recent accolades bestowed upon the tabletop gaming world. From the Spiel des Jahres to Uk Games Expo the number of awards we see each year can feel overwhelming. Is it good to give these awards? What value do they give to the consumer?

A common cultural touchstone when it comes to Awards is of course the Oscars. Given out once a year to the best in films, or at least that’s the idea. Every year the Oscars attract controversy, most recently due to the altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock.I am not in a position to comment on this, nor does it really have any bearing on this preamble. No, the Oscars attract controversy due to issues like a lack of female nominees for best director, lack of diversity across selections, pushing some awards out of the ceremony and giving them out behind the scenes and so on. Still an Oscar is coveted by actors, directors, producers, marketers, and given weight by the response of the public.

Spiel des Jahres icon
The icon that everyone wants on their game

That’s the key to awards isn’t it? The public reaction. Boardgame awards are no stranger to controversy either: it’s the wrong game, its the wrong category, the lack of diversity in nominees and so on. Still the public (I include myself here) put great faith in awards as a guide for the best in the hobby.

Boxes of games can be festooned with the accolades they have secured. They proclaim this site or that organisation says this is totally worth your time and more importantly your money.

There are awards in all industries recognising the achievements of those within it. Ultimately though companies use those awards to crow about how much better they are than the competition, to secure new work, to make money.

Let’s not pretend that awards are just about the kudos. Of course designing a Spiel Des Jahres winning, or even nominated, game is a huge feather in a designer’s cap. I have a lot of respect for anyone who manages to design a game that stands out in an increasingly crowded field. In the end though the main benefit of awards is a financial one. The designer is likely to have more games accepted, the publisher can fund other projects or expand their company.

With so many games coming out every year the idea of having someone else sift through all the games and point to the best is a useful service we, critics, can provide to our audience. The bigger awards we put our trust in do this on a grand scale. We look to them to provide a filter to the thousands of games that hit the shelves every year, to shine a light on new names in design and publishing. The Spiel des Jahres is open and honest about its process, sometimes brutal in its assessment of modern games, and in doing this has gained my respect, if not always my agreement.

A seal of approval? Only if it carries weight.

It’s the less well established accolades I think we all need to be more cautious of. Those given out by content creators or newly established award committees need to establish that trust with their audience. I’ve spoken about the trust issue with criticism before, and the importance of being honest in your opinions even when they are negative. Without establishing that relationship, if you just put out an accolade and shout ‘surprise’ then why should anyone put any faith in that opinion? Establishing process, showing your hand and why you think these games are the best, being forthright in your honesty. These all go towards building your position within the hobby landscape.

I am personally very dubious of any award where the publishers have to submit games. UK Games Expo does this and it has always felt a bit odd. Here is the biggest UK convention handing out awards that should have some weight to them, but the nature of the submission process leaves me feeling dubious about the accolades handed out. I would much rather see something more akin to the Spiel Des Jahres, a national prize handed out by judges who are deeply familiar with the world of boardgames. I can dream.

As the hobby grows review channels, conventions, trade organisations are all getting into the awards game. We’ve even done it ourselves. Would I love a ‘Giant Brain award’ to appear on a box some day? Yes of course I would. However I want it to provide value to the customer and the publisher. If you don’t have trust in us then the value of “Giant Brain Recommends” on a box is utterly meaningless. Awards need gravitas, they need meaning. Without that they are merely a cheap, shiny trophy on a shelf. Hollow and easily broken.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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