Every year, there are numerous awards given out for Game of the Year that seemingly fill every need and every niche. There are awards for best family game, best card game, and best gamer’s game. There’s awards given by different countries, different magazines, and different groups of Board Game Geeks. Given all this emphasis on the game of the year, what about the game designer of the year? That was my thinking when I came up with the Designer of the Year award quite a few years ago and enough people found it interesting that I’ve made it an annual ritual.
The purpose of the Designer of the Year award is to recognize the boardgame designer who has released the best body of work over the previous calendar year. So what are the parameters for this award? First of all, I try to keep my own feelings out of it as much as possible. Instead, I try to judge how the hobby as a whole views each designer’s games. Things that I consider are how highly the games are rated on BGG, how many ratings they have, how many major awards and nominations they have won or are projected to win, and how much “buzz” the games are generating. Clearly it’s more of an art than a science, but that’s what makes it a fun exercise.
The second point is that I try to include as many kinds of games as possible. I exclude classic wargames, simply because I know so little about that side of the hobby. But everything else is considered. I usually don’t include expansions, but standalone spinoffs of existing designs are included, although they don’t carry as much weight as completely original designs. A game is a game, so I try to throw as much into the mix as possible.
To give you an idea of my reasoning over the years, here are my selections for DotY since 1990 (the first dozen or so awards were made retroactively). Some years, the decision was too close to call, so I have occasionally made occasional joint awards. For each designer, I’ve listed the major games that made up their portfolio during their award-winning year. If a game is shown in italics, it’s a redesign of a game the designer published earlier.
Year Designer(s) Major Games
1990 Klaus Teuber Adel Verplichtet
1991 Ragnar Brothers History of the World
1992 Reiner Knizia Modern Art; Quo Vadis; Pirat, Revolution
1993 Richard Garfield Magic: The Gathering
1994 Wolfgang Kramer 6 Nimmt!; Big Boss
` Andreas Seyfarth Manhattan; Waldmeister
1995 Klaus Teuber Settlers of Catan; Galopp Royal
1996 Klaus Teuber Settlers of Catan Card Game; Entdecker; Hallo Dachs!
1997 Reiner Knizia Euphrat & Tigris; Titan: The Arena; Mole Hill
1998 Reiner Knizia Durch die Wüste; Samurai; Zirkus Flohcati; Exxtra;
` Honeybears; Katzenjammer Blues
1999 Reiner Knizia Ra; Lost Cities; Stephenson’s Rocket; Schotten-Totten;
` Money; Drahtseilakt; Rheinlander; It’s Mine!; Tabula Rasa
` Wolfgang Kramer Tikal; Torres; Die Händler; Evergreen
2000 Reiner Knizia Taj Mahal; Lord of the Rings; Traumfabrik; Merchants of
` Amsterdam; Battleline; Trendy; Ivanhoe; Vampire
2001 Moon/Weissblum San Marco; Capitol; Das Amulett
` Martin Wallace Liberté; Volldampf; Pampas Railroads
2002 Wolfgang Kramer Pueblo; Mexica; Wildlife; Goldland
2003 Michael Schacht Coloretto; Industria; Magna Grecia; Richelieu; Paris Paris;
` Crazy Chicken; InterUrban
2004 Alan Moon Ticket to Ride; Oasis; Clocktowers; Warriors; Employee of
` the Month
2005 Reiner Knizia Tower of Babel; Beowulf; Palazzo; Pickomino; Poison;
` Euphrat & Tigris Card Game; Head-to-Head Poker
2006 Richard Borg BattleLore; Command and Colors: Ancients
` Bruno Cathala Mr. Jack; Mission: Red Planet; Cleopatra and the Society of
` Architects; Animalia; Du Balai!
2007 Stefan Feld In the Year of the Dragon; Notre Dame
` Tom Lehmann Race for the Galaxy; Phoenicia
` Uwe Rosenberg Agricola
2008 Martin Wallace Tinners’ Trail; Steel Driver; After the Flood; Toledo
2009 Martin Wallace Automobile; Steam; Rise of Empires; Last Train to
` Wensleydale; Waterloo; God’s Playground
2010 Antoine Bauza 7 Wonders; Hanabi & Ikebana; Mystery Express
So that’s where the award has been–let’s see where it’s going. Here are the ten designers that I think had the best group of published games in 2011. They’re listed in alphabetical order, together with their designs. Only a few of the games came out in time to qualify for last year’s annual awards, but for those designs, here is the shorthand I use to show the wins and nominations received. S, D, and I shows an SdJ, DSP, and IGA winner, respectively (with the S notation signifying either the classic SdJ or the new Kennerspiel); s, d, and i shows a nomination for each of these awards (in the case of the DSP, it shows a top ten finish); r shows an SdJ recommendation (the award is so influential that even a recommendation by the jury carries a good deal of weight); and g and G signify, respectively, Golden Geek category winners and the GG Game of the Year. Finally, as in the list of past winners, games in italics are redesigns or expanded versions of titles that were released in earlier years.
Before I start talking about the designers that did make this list, let me once again discuss one that didn’t. For the second year in a row, Reiner Knizia is absent from a list that he used to dominate. At least this year there was some buzz about his designs, but the principal recipient of that, WizKids’ Star Trek: Expeditions, had a disappointing showing. There was also BITS, the sequel to FITS, but there was hardly anything else, making 2011 Knizia’s worst year in 15 years or so. However, before we start holding benefits for the Good Doctor, let me point out that he’s off to a roaring start in 2012, with about a dozen titles being announced already. That’s hardly surprising, as these designer booms and busts are often determined by the vagaries of publisher delays. So the chances of Reiner being represented in next year’s DotY list are extremely good, as they should be.
Here, then, are the leading designers of 2011:
Vlaada Chvatil – Mage Knight; Dungeon Petz; Pictomania
Chvatil has been a reliable source of very good games every year since he burst onto the scene with his iconic Through the Ages back in 2006. But this is the first time since then that he’s given us multiple meaty games during the same twelve month period. Mage Knight has a sky-high rating and has already cracked the top 30 on the Geek. Petz is also doing very well and has an excellent chance of grabbing one or more award nominations later this year. Even Pictomania has a solid rating, despite being basically a party game (which don’t tend to do well on the Geek). It’s a very strong collection and puts the Czech Republic’s most famous gamer in serious contention for the DotY award.
Matthias Cramer – Lancaster(sd); Helvetia; Mieses Karma
One of the most welcome trends this year is the performance of new designers. Cramer followed up with a big year after debuting with the well regarded Glen More in 2010. Both Lancaster and Helvetia have done well and the former even managed two nominations. Karma has been more of an afterthought, but the year was good enough to put this newcomer in contention for the award.
Mike Elliott – Thunderstone: Dragonspire; Quarriors!; Star Trek: Fleet Captains
Elliot isn’t a new name, but he’s a newcomer to this award. The veteran CCG designer had his mainstream breakthrough with Thunderstone in 2009 and its follow-up Dragonspire has already crashed into the Geek’s top 100. Fleet Captains is another hit and has an even higher average rating. Quarriors got a big buildup and hasn’t really lived up to it, but it still sports a decent rating. The fact that Dragonspire is a spin-off hurts Elliott, but there’s no question that this is a notable output; perhaps this will be his first of many visits to the DotY pages.
Stefan Feld – The Castles of Burgundy(rdi); Trajan; Strasbourg(sd)
Feld’s been on quite a roll recently and this is probably the strongest year of his career. Both Burgundy and Trajan sport Geek ratings in the 7.9’s, with the former game garnering three mentions by major awards and a top 50 ranking. Strasbourg’s ratings aren’t quite as good, but it also snagged two nominations. With Trajan having an excellent chance to grab one or two nominations later this year, this is a powerful triumvirate by Herr Feld. Will it be enough to earn him his second DotY? We’ll soon find out.
Friedemann Friese – Power Grid: First Sparks; Friday; Spring Fever; Fauna Kompakt
Friese had a huge year in 2010 and follows it up with this solid showing. Both the slimmed down, prehistoric version of Power Grid and the solo deckbuilder Friday have good ratings and their share of fans. It’s not enough to vie for the title in a strong year, but the Man in Green continues to impress.
Corey Konieczka – Mansions of Madness; Gears of War; Rune Age
FFG’s Konieczka been in the top 5 for Designer of the Year three times in the last four years, a remarkably consistent record. His releases last year give him a good chance of adding to that. Mansions broke into the top 100 on the Geek; Gears of War boasts a rating just under 8.0; and Rune Age has a nice rating and a good deal of buzz. Is this the year Corey finally takes the big step and wins all the marbles?
Michael Rieneck – Santiago de Cuba; Fortuna; Einfach tierisch
When it was announced that Rieneck would have two interesting sounding games coming out at Essen, it sounded like he might make a run for his first DotY. However, Fortuna has been something of a disappointment, while Santiago de Cuba’s ratings are good, but not great. So nothing too exciting this year, but as always, a good showing from this reliable designer.
Michael Schacht – Mondo(rd); Coney Island; Gold!; Dino-Deal
Schacht’s output includes three nice lighter weight games, with the addictive Mondo snagging a couple of nominations. None of these will be the second coming of Zooloretto, but it’s good to see this former DotY winner continuing to produce quality titles.
Touko Tahkokallio – Eclipse; Walnut Grove; Principato
Of all the designers with big breakout years, none has made a bigger splash than Tahkokallio. In fact, his performance this year is more than a little reminiscent of what Vlaada Chvatil did five years ago when he shocked the world with Through the Ages. Like Chvatil, Touko hails from a country (Finland) that up to this point has not been associated with gaming at all. And also like the Czech, he went from a few obscure designs to perhaps the biggest megahit of the year; in this case, Eclipse, which sports a sky-high rating and has already zoomed up to the #7 spot on the Geek. And if that wasn’t enough, Walnut Grove is also making a nice showing. Do we have a new designing star in the firmament? Only time will tell, but there’s no question that for the first time, Finland has a countryman strongly in the running for the Designer of the Year.
Martin Wallace – A Few Acres of Snow(Ig); Discworld: Ankh-Morpork; Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861; Zeitalter der Vernunft; Volle Scholle; Old Men of the Forest; Schlacht am Buffet
Wallace’s amazing hot streak continues, as 2011 gave us another sparkling set of new delights. Leading the way was the hugely innovative IGA winner Few Acres, which brought deckbuilding to the world of historical designs. Discworld, while much lighter, has also fared well. Plus, there’s a bunch of other original games and redesigns (Zeitalter is a somewhat streamlined version of Struggle of Empires). With a major award already in his pocket and a sizeable supporting cast, will this be Martin’s third DotY in four years?
Those are the nominees and I have to say it’s one of the strongest group of hopefuls I’ve seen since I started doing this. Chvatil, Feld, Konieczka, Tahkokallio, and Wallace all have portfolios powerful enough to win in an ordinary year. But, as perhaps you’ve heard before, there can only be one. So, after due consideration, I’m happy to announce that the Designer of the Year for 2011 is…
It wasn’t a straightforward decision, but having a trio of games with excellent ratings and which will likely have multiple nominations apiece is just too strong a combination to overlook. So Feld walks away with his second DotY award.
Wallace, once again, was close–really close. I definitely considered having the award be shared. But when I asked myself which designer most people would say had the better year, I figured I’d get more “Feld” responses than “Wallace” ones. Still, you have to tip your hat to Martin, who now has two first place and two second place finishes over the last four years. And oh yeah, just before that streak started, he released a little game called Brass.
After that, I list Chvatil, Tahkokallio, and Konieczka, in that order. Tough luck for all of them, as those are a really strong set of games to wind up in the 3-5 slots. And to put the final exclamation point on the Year of the New Designer, I’ll put Cramer sixth. It’s a very intriguing mix of old and new names and I expect to see more great things from all of them.
So after a three-year vacation to England and France, the Designer of the Year award returns to its accustomed home in Germany. Will it stay there next year? Or will a yet unknown designer come out of nowhere to claim it? Check this space again twelve months from now and I’ll let you know!