Still, they usually come down to the same thing: "Why wasn't my product nominated." Publishers go through a lot of hassle to enter the awards, and with that hassle comes a not inconsiderable expense as well. This makes the question fairly natural.
So, here's my general answer:
If my little spreadsheet (see how we've come full circle? That's talent baby.) is to be believed, I received 301 entries for the awards this year. There are 20 award categories (now - the number has expanded as the awards have expended), each with six slots for recognition (counting Honorable Mentions); except for Product of the Year, which has 12. This year we also added five more slots to recognize great games, but we'll come back to that.
That's 126 slots available (131 if you'd rather count the Judges' Awards, which haven't been announced). By my count that means 60% - give or take a tad - will not see an award no matter how good they are. But of course there's far more to it.
Each category has 5 slots to fill with nominations. Your product isn't competing for 126 openings. You're competing 20 times for 5.
That's less than a 2% chance that you'll be recognized for anything.
So, if you don't get a nomination, does it mean that we didn't like your product, or that we think you need to change anything? No, it just means that 2% is a really small number, and there's not room for everything, no matter how much we like it.
I'm going to use Penny for My Thoughts as an example. I choose it because I'm familiar with the publisher and the author, and based on dealing with them in the past I trust them not to take my words the wrong way or find offense. The reason I have this trust is because it's come up with them in the past. Not that they questioned a nomination, but because my love of Don't Rest Your Head helped cost Spirit of the Century a much deserved nomination back in 2007. I've learned a lot since that first year, and it's a mistake I wouldn't make again, but their response to my admission was far more understanding than I deserved :)
So, Penny for My Thoughts was one of my favorite entries this year. I know it is because of those Judges' Awards. Each judge had to pick one game to give it to, and found myself torn between three, one of which was Penny. Its a fantastic game. It's well-written, fun, interesting, and different. Exactly the sort of thing I look for first in a nomination, and I couldn't recommend it more. Yet it didn't get a single nomination.
So, why is that?
Well, it's because it never quite seemed to make it. There's no doubting it's a good game, and worthy of recognition, but it always seemed to fall just short. Something always seemed to just edge it out. When it failed to make the final cut in Best Writing, the place I felt it best belonged, it became clear that the game, no matter how much I wanted it to, wasn't going to quite make it.
The fact disappoints me quite a lot, but I don't really think its the wrong choice. Finding a place to put it on the list means knocking out another game that deserves its place just as much.
Judges decide on nominations (at least in my experience) by mutual assent, not through arbitrary voting. If we don't all believe it needs to be on the list, it isn't, and by doing this we've created the most diverse list of nominations that I've seen in my time with the awards.
126 slots, 96 unique nominations. That's amazing to me, and I think it's a real testament to the work of the judges I worked with this year and the system we used. It's easy for one favorite product to completely dominate the awards, or for a handful to see nomination over and over again in a dozen categories. It's harder, and in my opinion better, for the judges to look at every product and honestly recognized their individual strengths in each category, rather than see a single much-loved product and nominate it over and over again until something sticks.
The downside of this, of course, is than many products that were really exceptional only received one - or a small handful - of nominations. That doesn't mean that the dominating products from previous years were better with their larger number of nominations, but is rather a reflection of the judges' dedication to putting the right product in the right place, and of the exceptional number of truly outstanding products that we received this year.
I want to thank everyone who gave me the opportunity to do this again this year, it's been quite an honor, and it's something I enjoy more than I can say. I hope this does something to explain why good games don't make the list. Choosing these games - making sure the right games make it into the right place - is harder than it seems. It's disappointing to see good games go without the recognition they deserve, as much to us as to the fans of the games that don't make it. As often as not, we're fans ourselves.
I think great strides are being made toward spreading the love around, and have absolute confidence that the awards' new leadership and new judges will be able to make use of all these new tools we've begun using to continue that trend. The Judges' Awards themselves are a great representation of this; a chance for each judge to pick just one thing that didn't quite make it, that they wish had.
I can't wait until they're announced so I can talk about them more.
Just to head off the questions, no - Penny wasn't my Judges' Award. I'm not allowed to say what that is until the ceremony. For that I was forced into a tie breaker, and I chose the game I had the most fun with in actual play. Sadly I didn't get a chance to playtest Penny, but the guys who taught me [my Judges' Pick] made it one of the best times I've had playing a game the entire year. Maybe it was the group, maybe it was the game facilitating the fun, but I had a blast, and I had to put my award where I found the fun first-hand.