2010 Designer of the Year

by Larry Levy

Five years ago, I began a series of articles on Boardgame News in which I chose the designer who, in my opinion, had the best body of work for the previous calendar year.  Well, BGN may have gone to that big URL in the sky, but, despite the threat of being called out in yet another Board 2 Pieces comic, I’ve decided to continue them on The Opinionated Gamers site.  Hey, what you may call “same old, same old”, we refer to as “tradition”!

Okay, here are the ground rules.  I’m going to consider all the new games released by a designer during 2010 (not including expansions, but spinoffs and redesigns are okay).  I’ll try to cast my net as widely as possible, so euros, Ameritrash, card games, dexterity games, cooperative games, etc. are all eligible.  I admit that I know very little of the world of hardcore wargaming, so the folks who principally create such wargames are outside of the scope of my little competition.  But everyone else is in the pool.  My judgments are based on how I think the designs are viewed by the gaming world at large and how they will be viewed in years to come; as much as I can, I try to leave my own feelings out of it.

The following designers are those who I think had the best crop of games last year—consider them nominees.  They’re presented in alphabetical order, together with their designs.  Since gaming awards are a big plus to any designer’s resume, I use the following shorthand to show the awards and nominations these games have received (keeping in mind that most of these games won’t have had a chance to win an award until later this year).  S, D, and I shows an SdJ, DSP, and IGA winner, respectively; s, d, and i shows a nomination for each of these awards (in the case of the DSP, it shows a top ten finish); and g and G signify, respectively, Golden Geek category winners and the GG Game of the Year.  Finally, games in italics are redesigns or expanded versions of titles that were released in earlier years.

Enough exposition!  Here are the nominees.

Antoine Bauza – 7 Wonders; Hanabi & Ikebana; Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk; Mystery Express; Rockband Manager

The first comment to last year’s DotY article was from Bruno Cathala, who predicted that his countryman Antoine Bauza would be the winner of the 2010 award.  Obviously, Bruno knew what he was talking about, as M. Bauza produced a very impressive stable of games.  The big one, of course, is 7 Wonders, which was easily the hit of Essen, has crashed the top 15 on the Geek, and may very well be the recipient of multiple gaming awards.  But it’s not alone.  Mystery Express figured to be the other major title, but it’s been something of a critical and popular disappointment; still, it has received widespread coverage and has its share of fans, so it certainly adds to the luster of the collection.  Only a few have played Hanabi & Ikebana, but those who have like it a lot; Hanabi in particular has received extravagant praise as a superior and very innovative cooperative game.  The other two titles have nice ratings on the Geek, but very few voters.  It’s a very strong group of games; the question is, is it enough to make Bruno Cathala a prophet?

Bruno Cathala – Mr. Jack Pocket; Ostriches; Sobek; Trollland

Speaking of Bruno, he also managed to release a nice crop of games last year.  The highlight is Jack Pocket, a card game spinoff of his popular Mr. Jack game.  The Egyptian-themed Sobek has gotten decent ratings and Trollland has at least received some notoriety for its theme.  It’s not enough to put him in Bauza’s league, but it’s another solid year for the former DotY winner.

Stefan Feld – The Speicherstadt; Luna; It Happens…; Spiel mit Lukas:  Dribbel-Fieber

Feld is another former Designer of the Year and he continues to be one of the more reliable figures in his field.  Luna has early good ratings and Speicherstadt is well regarded also.  It Happens… lost its scatological origins, but it still wasn’t enough to raise it to much prominence.  The collection may not be quite enough to give Feld another visit to the winner’s circle, but he does deserve to be part of the conversation.

Friedemann Friese – Black Friday; Famiglia; Fauna Junior; Friesematenten; Fürstenfeld; Rummelplatz; Stich-meister; Tadaaam!

Friese has been designing games for almost 20 years, but despite some great successes, he’s never had a year like this.  Eight games!  Is he a shoo-in for the award?  Not so fast, my green-haired minion.  First of all, three of the games are remakes pretty strongly aligned with their earlier versions.  Then there’s Rummelplatz, a party-style game with 9 co-designers that doesn’t figure to help anyone’s candidacy too much.

That leaves us with four titles to consider:  Black Friday, Famiglia, Fürstenfeld, and Stich-meister.  None of these are that highly rated, but each has some strong supporters.  Black Friday has been hamstrung early on with a poor rules translation—its ratings figure to improve.  Many consider Famiglia to be a superior two-player game; it has a very good chance to garner an IGA nomination in that category.  Both Fürstenfeld (an economic deck-management game) and Stich-meister (a wild trick-taker with variable objectives) have gained attention.  It’s a group of designs almost any of his peers would be very happy with.

Friedemann has managed a Knizia-style year—lots of notable titles, but with no blockbusters or flashy ratings.  Will it be enough to give The Man in Green his first DotY award?  We’ll have to see, but he’s certainly in the running.

Corey Konieczka – Space Hulk:  Death Angel; Runewars

FFG’s Corey Konieczka is on quite a roll.  Every year, he comes up with at least one smash hit.  In 2010, it was Runewars, which sports a rating of over 8.0 on the Geek and is threatening to edge into the Top 25.  The Space Hulk: Death Angel cooperative card game has done pretty well in its own right.  There are too many designers with strong resumes this year for a 2-design showing to grab the big award, but Mr. K has a very good chance to be among the top finishers for the third time in four years.

Wolfgang Kramer – 11 nimmt!; Asara; Merchants of the Middle Ages; Seeland; Tikal II

Kramer, who is approaching his 70th birthday, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.  A number of people have already predicted that the tower building game Asara will win the SdJ.  Tikal II and 11 nimmt! are spinoffs of award-winning games (with the former getting solid ratings), while Merchants is the long awaited remake of Die Händler.  Seeland is a nice little tile-placing game set in the Netherlands.  It’s the kind of year most designers would kill for, but it’s more or less business as usual for Kramer.  Much will depend on how well Asara does in the annual awards.

Jason Matthews/Christian Leonhard – Campaign Manager 2008(I); Founding Fathers

Matthews and Leonhard, after their earlier success with 1960, give us two more historically-inspired Euros.  Both have solid ratings and Campaign Manager won the IGA award for best 2-player game last year.  It was a particularly fine year for Jason, as his Twilight Struggle reached the top spot on the Geek.  In the meantime, the duo’s look at American history from its origins to the near present have them in the conversation for Designer(s) of the Year.

Michael Rieneck – 18 Ghosts; Der Pate; Die Säulen der Erde:  Das Kartenspiel; Rummelplatz; Saustall

Rieneck made his reputation for the adroit way he was able to come up with gaming versions of literary subjects.  He is now branching out and his large collection of designs from last year runs the gamut from abstracts to trick-takers and from party games to deductive brain-burners.  Unfortunately, the one thing all his games have in common is that they haven’t had enough time to make much of a splash, at least in the English-speaking world:  as of this writing, none of the titles has garnered as many as 100 ratings on the Geek.  The early results are promising (particularly for 18 Ghosts and Saustall) and there have been some favorable reviews, but at this stage, there isn’t enough evidence to put him in the running for the award.  Still, this is a talented designer who might well be in contention in the near future.

Martin Wallace – Age of Industry(I); First Train to Nuremberg; Gettysburg; London; Moongha Invaders

Wallace won the last two DotY awards and was absolutely dominant in 2009.  If he’s slowing down any, it isn’t by much.  For starters, we have the IGA-winning Age of Industry, which was strongly based on his earlier Brass, but is still its own game.  Then there’s the card-based London, which is steadily climbing toward the Geek’s top 100; Nuremberg (a nicer looking version of the previous year’s Last Train to Wensleydale); another innovative wargame in Gettysburg; and the imaginative dice-fest Moongha.  As always seems to be the case with Martin, the ratings are strong across the board.  Can he possibly make it a three-peat?  He’s sure giving it the old college try, but the competition is stiffer this year.

That’s my list of nominated designers.  Before I reveal the winner to an anxious world, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the one designer who is notable by his absence.  That, of course, would be Reiner Knizia, who has won six previous DotY awards and whose enormous output makes him a prominent name in these lists just about every year.  Reiner didn’t have a bad year so much as he just didn’t seem relevant.  For the first time since I entered the hobby almost 15 years ago, there was almost no buzz about any Knizia game.  It really was quite startling.  There wasn’t even anything to criticize, there was just…nothing.  I’d be very surprised if this occurs again next year, but in the category of Man Bites Dog, we now have a Designer of the Year process without a mention of the Good Doctor.

But you didn’t come here to find out who didn’t win; you want to know who did take the honors.  It was an unusually good year and the fight for the top spot was spirited.  But in the end, one name stood out.  So I’m happy to announce that the Designer of the Year for 2010 is…


The great likelihood that 7 Wonders will capture at least one major gaming award, together with a fine supporting portfolio, is what put him over the top.  It’s a remarkably rapid rise for this young designer, who released his first game in 2007 and only came to prominence the next year with Ghost Stories.  But now, he has captured the coveted DotY and made good on Bruno Cathala’s prediction from last year.  Congratulations.

The top four finishers all had very good resumes.  Martin Wallace winds up as the runner-up, just missing out on extending his streak.  Friedemann Friese is a strong third and Wolfgang Kramer is fourth.  Americans finish out the honors, with Corey Konieczka and the team of Matthews and Leonhard coming in fifth and sixth, respectively.

I notice that 2011 is off to a great start already.  With any luck, I’ll be back next year at this same time and we can do it all again.

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16 Responses to 2010 Designer of the Year

  1. ReiXou says:

    That was sure based on the game Antoine had in the pipe last.

    Congratulation buddy, and as always, thanks Larry for the analysis which as always seems pretty good to me.

  2. bruno cathala says:

    good choice, larry ;-)

  3. David Reed says:

    I agree with your pick, Larry.

    7 Wonders is brilliant, though I am starting to hear some grumbles from fellow gamers about perceived imbalance between the various wonders. Still, I have played it 15 times since last November (and taught it an additional 5 times in games I haven’t played), which is remarkable for a time of year when I don’t get in all that many games. I would gladly play it almost at any time, which is saying a lot.

    I’m still waiting to give Ikebana a try, but Hanabi is interesting enough to make me very happy that I snagged a copy of the game when I was in Montreal last summer. As you put it, a very solid twist on cooperative play.

    Thanks for your analysis in this article.

  4. Lacxox says:

    I don’t think it’s a usual year for Wolfgang Kramer. I think he hasn’t had a good year like this in the past, say, half dozen year.

  5. Tom Rosen says:

    I was really expecting you to go with Friedemann there. Hell, I even might have gone with Friedemann for 2010! And that’s saying something since I don’t really enjoy any of his games, but the quantity and quality last year was through the roof. Bauza makes sense though, although in my mind he peaked so early with Ghost Stories :)

  6. Larry Levy says:

    Tom, despite Bruno’s prediction of Bauza, Friese was the early favorite once it became apparent how many games of his were going to be released. But Game of the Year awards are a big part of the recognition process and the only one of Friedemann’s games that figures to even garner a nomination is Famiglia. Meanwhile, 7 Wonders is a heavy favorite to snag at least one award and Wallace already has an IGA award in hand. That, and the fact that the ratings for Friese’s games are nothing special, meant that this wasn’t to be his year after all. It’s too bad in a way, as he’s a fine designer and the stars seemed aligned, but the competition this year was too strong.

  7. Hey, it’s me :D
    Thanks :)

  8. Tom Rosen says:

    That’s a good point. If awards and nominations figure heavily into the result, then Bauza is the clear choice over Friese. I could certainly see 7 Wonders winning the DSP and possibly the Golden Geek too, and while I don’t imagine it will win the SDJ or IGA, I would expect nominations for both (or at least recommended for SDJ). Against all that, Friedemann faced a serious uphill battle.

    However, given your previous discounting of Imperial 2030 and Mr. Jack in New York (of course I remember), I think you’re giving Age of Industry (and it’s IGA) a bit too much weight. Remember, you’re the guy who thinks me and all my expansions/remakes are crazy.

  9. Larry Levy says:

    Age of Industry only got half credit because of its status as a redesign. If both it and Nuremberg had been original designs, Wallace probably beats out Bauza. I had kind of discounted Wallace when I started my review, because I didn’t think his 2010 matched his previous two years, but when I looked at his portfolio, I realized it was actually quite strong.

  10. Mike Chapel says:

    I didn’t even have to read the nominees, I knew exactly who you were going to pick. I’m assuming the SdJ will also be as predictable this year.

  11. Martin Leathwood says:

    Larry Excellent article and summary of the year . As usual I’m way behind you experts but I like 7 Wonders and hope to play some more of his games at the Gathering. Martin Wallace continues to amaze -= I own and love Brass and Wensleydale do I have to buy Age of Industry and Nurenberg as well ??? Nor certain the Governemnet will approve !!
    Haven’t tried any of FF’s crop as I missed Essen for the first time in 12 tears through illness.
    Martin Leathwood

  12. Doug Adams says:

    Knizia is not relevant? He did come out with Jaeger & Sammler, and Keltis das Orakel – both strong titles. There is also another 20 other designs, as well as several electronic games. As usual, anything he comes out with is worth a play.

  13. huzonfirst says:

    Doug, Jäger und Sammler is a tweaked version of the previous year’s Zombiegeddon. Sure, better components and possibly a more attractive theme, but that’s probably not Knizia’s doing. I’ll give him a little more credit for Keltis das Orakel, but it’s still obviously based on his SdJ title.

    Those two did get some buzz, but only in the last month or so. During the 2010 calendar year, it was like Reiner suddenly didn’t exist. It was spooky.

    “As usual, anything he comes out with is worth a play.”

    I used to agree with you, my friend. But here are the non-children’s games I show as his original titles last year: Buzz It; City Skyline; Neuron; Penta; The Hobbit. I’ve heard a tiny bit about The Hobbit. But I haven’t heard a blessed thing about the others. That’s just not the way things usually work with the Good Doctor. And I don’t expect it to repeat. Hell, there’s probably more anticipation over his upcoming Star Trek game for WizKids than there was for last year’s entire output combined. But even the greats have a bad year from time to time and Knizia happened to have one in 2010.

  14. Doug Adams says:

    “But even the greats have a bad year from time to time and Knizia happened to have one in 2010.”

    Big call! I’m very happy with the new Knizia’s I played in 2010 … if that was a “bad” year, I can’t wait for his next good one ;)

  15. Peter McCarthy says:

    Good article. Now if only I could have a chance to play 7 Wonders since it’s been really hard to get.

  16. jeffinberlin says:

    “I’m assuming the SdJ will also be as predictable this year.”

    hehe–is it ever predictable? Remember Tobago? :-)

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