The American Tabletop Awards appeared out of nowhere from my perspective. Their origin story on their own FAQ page is very vague: discussions began among an unnamed group of people in December 2018 who wanted a North American version of the Spiel des Jahres, to highlight great games for an American audience by a diverse, experienced committee. Said committee was selected (by this same unnamed group) in May, 2019, and four months later they announced their first slate of winners and nominees for 2018-2019.
Don’t get me wrong–they really did recruit a diverse group with some really good people whose opinions I respect (e.g., Ruel Gavriola, Suzanne Sheldon). But it’s not like they put out a call for nominees, nor did they establish any set procedures for joining. “There is no application process. Members may be nominated for consideration by another member in good standing…” etc etc.
All this follows the precedent set by the SdJ way back in 1979 (see the interview with jury member Tom Werneck in an Opinionated Gamers interview in 2011)–but that doesn’t make it any better. Brittanie Boe was on the Committee for the first three years, but now she’s left and Jess Fisher has joined. Why? How?
I mean, come on, guys, it’s 2021: if you’re going to anoint yourselves as arbiters of “the best in Tabletop” some more transparency would give you more credibility.
Then let’s look at the games that ATTA has chosen. Remember, they want to highlight great games for an American audience. The ATTA has four categories:
Totally fine way to split up the field, love it. Now let’s look at what games won in each category since 2019:
I should point out that the ATTA also hedges their bets with two “Recommended” and two “Nominated” titles in each category as well–but we all know getting the most VP is what counts.
Overall I am in agreement with ATTA’s choices in the Early and Casual categories All of them, as well as their Recommended and Nominated niblings (and I’ve played almost all of them) are excellent choices–and they’ve picked some lesser-known games (like Kabuto Sumo and Shadows: Amsterdam) that definitely deserve a higher profile.
But the Strategy and Complex categories…oh sister where art thou? Root and Wingspan were clear and obvious choices, but as for the rest, the committee seems to favour games that pile mechanic on mechanic with little thought to theme or emotional engagement over games with innovative gameplay and narrative that emerges from both mechanic and theme.
Cascadia? Sure. A safe choice. Hardly innovative though in either theme or mechanic. Both The Initiative or That Time You Killed Me would have been bolder choices and neither was even recommended nor nominated.
Taverns of Tiefenthal? Really? A classic mechanic-salad with bland theme over Pax Pamir, an innovative game with things to say about 19th-century colonialism?
Lost Ruins of Arnak? Really? A blinged-up AAA Indiana-Jones clone–another mechanic salad, natch–over Sleeping Gods, one of the most emotionally-rich and innovative exploration games to come out in the last few years?
Dominations over Jaws of the Lion? The fact that Heros of Land, Air, and Sea was even shortlisted?
I know, I know, I’m never going to agree with every single choice. I’m not knocking the ATTA Committee–they are experienced and knowledgeable. But if they really want to highlight the best of what Tabletop has to offer–at least at the more complex end of the Tabletop spectrum–I think they need to give their collective heads a shake and focus on games that don’t just revisit worn-out thematic and design tropes.
And…I dunno…maybe open up just a leedle more so people don’t think the ATTA’s are only a product of groupthink? Just sayin’.