Larry Levy: 2012 Designer of the Year Award

Let’s say you’re a salesman.  Which would seem the fairer method of determining your annual salary increase:  the size of your single biggest sale or the total sales you generated over the course of the year?  I imagine everyone would agree that the first method is a little odd.  And yet, is that any stranger than judging a game designer only by the success of their best published game that year?

That was kind of what I was thinking of when I came up with the idea of the Designer of the Year award a number of years ago.  The purpose is to recognize the boardgame designer who has released the best body of work over the previous calendar year.  I base it on the following ground rules.  First, I try to keep my own feelings out of the decision as much as is humanly possible.  Instead, I try to judge how the hobby as a whole views each designer’s games.  I consider things like how well the games are rated on BGG, how many people have rated the games, how many major awards and nominations they’ve won (or are projected to win–a little crystal ball gazing there), and how much “buzz” their games are generating.  I’m not sure anyone would agree with all of my judgments, but I do try to make the decisions as objectively as I can.

I also try to include just about all of each designers’ output from last year.  I do exclude standard wargames, because I just don’t know that much about that portion of the hobby.  But other than that, everything is considered:  boardgames, cardgames, dexterity games, CCGs…the works.  I usually don’t include expansions, but spinoffs or redesigns of previously published games do qualify, although they don’t carry as much weight as completely original games.  For the most part, if it’s in the Geek, it was published last year, and it ain’t a wargame or an expansion, then it gets tossed in the pot.

Before we get to 2012, let’s take a look back at the previous year.  The competition for the DotY was fierce that year, with Stefan Feld beating out some very talented designers, including Martin Wallace, Vlaada Chvatil, and Touko Tahkokallio.  A year after the award, how have his games held up?  Well, The Castles of Burgundy got three award nominations, has a Geek rating over 8.0, and is ranked #16 on BGG.  Strasbourg got two nominations and has a 7.3 rating.  And Trajan has not only shot up to the 42nd spot on the Geek (with a 7.9 rating), it was also selected as Game of the Year by both the IGA and Games Magazine (that could be a first for that combination).  So if anything, Herr Feld’s case for best designer of 2011 has only gotten stronger over the last 12 months.

For some reason, 2012 looks to be an unusually weak year for designers (and it won’t feature a repeat victory by Feld, since he didn’t publish a single game last year!).  However, that’s the way it works sometimes and it won’t keep us from celebrating the individual who did a better job with their games than anyone else.  So here are the designers I think had the best years in 2012.  They’re listed in alphabetical order, along wih their games.  As usual, only a small number of these titles were released early enough to qualify for last year’s annual awards, but for those games, I use the following shorthand to show the wins and nominations received.  S, K, D, and I shows an SdJ, Kennerspiel, DSP, and IGA winner, respectively.  s, k, 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 is comparable to any other award’s nomination).  Finally, g and G show, respectively, Golden Geek category winners and the Golden Geek Game of the Year.  When I put a game in italics, it indicates that it is a redesign or an expanded version of a title released previously.

That’s enough rules explanation.  Let’s get to the main event.

Richard Borg – Samurai Battles; Abaddon; Cowtown

Samurai Battles is the latest version of the Commands and Colors system, this time set in feudal Japan.  Abaddon is also a miniatures-style game,with a sci-fi setting.  Neither has gotten the chance to get many ratings yet, but both are off to good starts and the former game’s early rating of 8.2 certainly gives it the chance to place high in the rankings.  Unfortunately, there isn’t enough data yet to properly judge Richard’s year, but it is nice to see the C&C system still going strong a dozen years after he introduced it in Battle Cry.

Bruno Cathala Shadows Over Camelot Card Game; Noah; Button Up!; Antartik; Okiya; C’est pas faux!

Cathala’s output displays what will unfortunately become a trend:  a sizeable list of games, all with mediocre ratings.  Noah has gotten a decent reception, but the most anticipated of the designs, the Shadows card game, has not fared well at all.  Bruno continues to be prolific, but this former DotY winner will have to wait for next year to see if he can earn a second award.

Rüdiger Dorn – Goa; Il Vecchio; Vegas(sd); Waka Waka

Something of a comeback year for Dorn, who hadn’t released much of interest since 2008’s Diamonds Club.  Vegas earned a couple of nominations and had a real shot at winning the SdJ.  Il Vecchio is pretty well rated and the re-release of the much beloved Goa includes a few rules refinements.  Waka Waka, though, proved to be a watered down version of Jambo, with watered down ratings to match.  In an ordinary year, this collection would barely gain notice, but given the competition, Herr Dorn is in the conversation.

Reiner Knizia – Indigo(r); Qin; Keltis: Das Würfelspiel; Spectaculum; Einfach Genial: Das Würfelspiel; Rondo; Kreuz & Quer; Piranhas; Gravitas; Singapur

Knizia returns to the DotY pages for the first time since 2009 and the above list of games are the highlights of his very large output.  Unfortunately, like Cathala, there is more quantity than quality on this list.  None of the games has a Geek rating as high as 7.0.  Indigo and Qin have gotten the best early reviews and the former got a recommendation from the SdJ.  But there’s not much here that harkens back to the glory days of the Good Doctor.  At least Reiner makes the list this year, but that’s as far as he’ll get.

Corey Konieczka – Descent: Second Edition; Rex

Timing is everything in life.  FFG’s Konieczka has been a contender for the title for the last 5 years, so you’d think that a weak year like this one would be an excellent opportunity to finally grab a DotY award.  Alas, Corey only released two games last year and both were redesigns of other designers’ games.  Now one of them, Descent, is going great guns on the Geek and should soon crack the top 25 and Rex, the redesign of Dune, has also been well received.  But both games are strongly rooted in their original releases, so this doesn’t represent enough new design work to rank too highly.  So once again, it’s Wait ’till Next Year for Mr. K.

Peter Lee/Rodney Thompson – Lords of Waterdeep; Dungeon Command

Lee and Thompson are a pair of veteran designers from Wizards of the Coast who decided to venture into the realm of Eurogames last year.  The result was Lords of Waterdeep, one of the hits of 2012 that cracked the Geek’s top 30.  They also released Dungeon Command, a customizable miniatures game more in their comfort zone, which also got very good ratings.  It’s the first collection of games we’ve seen that’s worth getting excited over.  Will it be enough to earn these two wizards Designer of the Year?

Simone Luciani – Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar; Sheepland; Urbania

Luciani is a young Italian designer who had a couple of minor credits to his name before he burst forth with three titles last year.  Sheepland and Urbania have gotten decent ratings and a little bit of attention, but the reason he’s being discussed in this article is the Mayan themed Tzolk’in.  The “game with the gears” has a rating well above 8.0, is certain to break the Geek’s top 20, and will be a strong contender for several Game of the Year awards.  It’s enough to put this previously unknown game author squarely in the running for DotY.

Uwe RosenbergAgricola: All Creatures Big and Small(I); Le Havre: The Inland Port; Würfel Bohnanza; Farmerama; Bohn to be Wild!

An unusual year for Rosenberg.  First of all, he usually only releases one or two games a year, so a quintet like this represents a real, uh, bonanza.  Second, the two big titles are both two-player spinoffs of his earlier designs, which would usually cost him quite a few points during the judging.  But ACB&S is a reasonable departure from Agricola and Inland Port shares almost nothing with Le Havre but its theme.  So he gets close to full credit for those two games, which is good news for Uwe, since the first won an IGA award and the second has an excellent chance of getting nominated.  Würfel Bohnanza is an innovative dice game that has gotten some good reviews and while Farmerama’s ratings are low, it has sold well in Europe, thanks to its connection to a very popular online game.  Bohn to be Wild is yet another Bohnanza standalone expansion.  Rosenberg even found time for some publishing, as his company Feuerland Spiele released one of the big hits of last year, Terra Mystica.  So there are nice achievements, along with some caveats, for the Bean Man; do they translate into his second DotY?

Michael Schacht – Africana(d); Zooloretto Würfelspiel; Mondo Sapiens; 5 vor 12; Call to Glory; Dr. Gloom

The pattern we’ve seen with other established designers, like Cathala and Knizia, continues with Schacht.  At least Africana gained a nomination and sports a rating close to 7.0, but there isn’t much else here.  Spinoffs dominate, including Call to Glory, a multiplayer version of Crazy Chicken.  If Herr Schacht, the 2003 DotY winner, wants a return to glory, he’ll have to wait for next year.

Daniele Tascini –  Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar; Sheepland

Tascini made his debut last year by working with his friend and countryman Simone Luciani on these two designs.  Since Luciani was the solo designer on a third game, Tascini can’t possibly finish ahead of him.  But Tzolk’in is such a strong title that he could well finish high up in the final reckoning.  In any event, it’s a wonderful showing for a first-time designer and it’s great to see such exciting new talent coming out of Italy.

Ignacy Trzewiczek – Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island; The Convoy

Poland’s Trzewiczek has been cranking out excellent games for a while now, including Stronghold and Prêt-à-Porter, but this is his first visit to the DotY page.  Crusoe, a very challenging cooperative game, is the highlight, as it features a rating well above 8.0.  He’s also done well with The Convoy, an asymmetric two-player card game.  It may not be enough to contend for the top spot, but hopefully, it’s the first of many appearances here for this talented designer.

Donald X. Vaccarino – Infiltration; Gauntlet of Fools; Monster Factory

Vaccarino, the only designer I list where I include his middle initial (it just doesn’t sound right without it), had his most prolific year, but suffered a similar fate to several of the other designers on this list.  Infiltration was his most successful title, but it still falls short of a 7.0 rating.  After the award-winning Kingdom Builder, we know he’s more than a one-hit wonder; let’s see if he can make an impact on the DotY page in future years.

Martin Wallace – Aeroplanes; Dr. Who: The Card Game; P.I.; The Hobbit Card Game; Clash of Wills: Shiloh 1862

Wallace has not only been a regular participant on the DotY pages, he’s finished first or second for the past four years.  Once again, he’s back with a large collection of titles, but this time around, neither the ratings nor the heaviness of the designs are there.  As we’ve seen with several other nominees, there’s nary a 7.0 rating in sight, with Aeroplanes, a highly polarizing member of his Transportation Trilogy, faring the best.  Fans of Dr. Who and The Hobbit will no doubt appreciate Martin’s sojourn into lighter and more accessible games, but so far, his fans on the Geek do not.  Wallace’s chances for a fourth DotY award in future years probably depend on whether he will ever return to the heavyweight games that earned him such acclaim.

Those are the designers I felt had the best years during 2012.  As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t the strongest of years, but there were still some pleasant surprises along the way.  Although many familiar names fell out of the running quickly, there was one who stood out.  So I’m happy to announce that the Designer of the Year for 2012 is…


A fairly strong collection of games, combined with one major award and the good prospects of at least one more nomination, puts Rosenberg over the top.  Viewing his two highly rated designs as closer to independent games than as 2-player spinoffs was the key to his victory.

Second place goes to Simone Luciani.  If it turns out that Tzolk’in dominates the Game of the Year awards, I’ll re-evaluate this decision and might wind up giving him a share of the award.  But with no indication that that’s the most likely outcome, he’ll have to live with runner-up status for now.  Still, that’s a very impressive achievement for a new designer and I can’t wait to see what other ideas the team of Luciani and Tascini gives us in future years.

After those two, the remaining top spots go to the Lee/Thompson team, Tascini, and Trzewiczek, in that order.  Congratulations to all the talented men who gave us such interesting games over the course of last year.

So Rosenberg wins his second Designer of the Year award, with stiff competition from Italy, the U.S., and Poland (not to mention the Czech publishers who released Tzolk’in).  Gaming is stretching out into more and more corners of the world and that’s obviously a great thing.  Which country, and which designers, will give us the most memorable collection of games next year?  The only way to find out is to check this space again 12 months from now, when we do it all again!

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24 Responses to Larry Levy: 2012 Designer of the Year Award

  1. gschloesser says:

    Great list of designers and games, Larry. I enjoyed your analysis and commentary. While Rosenberg certainly had a good year, I feel it was a breakout year for Simone Luciani. I thoroughly enjoy two of his three releases, one of which — Tzolk’in — will likely be a favorite for one or more of the major awards.

    • huzonfirst says:

      If one of Luciani’s other designs had made more of an impact, Greg, he might well have been my selection. As it is, if Tzolk’in manages to win a couple of major awards, he will certainly wind up sharing the title with Rosenberg. Really impressive for a totally unknown designer–and his partner Daniele Tascini wasn’t chopped liver either.

  2. Ben (chally) says:

    It is a fascinating year from a designer award standpoint. This year has produced many great games (it has filled my game shelf with more titles than any other single year), but almost all of those games were the lone output of their respective designers. Moreover, not one of my top games from this year comes from a designer who is currently a “household name” (although I do rate a few favorably – notably Dorn’s Il Vecchio and Breeze’s Keyflower). Many of the best games were produced by up-and-comers in the industry, which excites me for the future of the hobby.

    • huzonfirst says:

      It’s not that unusual for the blockbuster games each year to be the only title released by their designer, Ben. That, to me, is what separates my Designer of the Year from the various Game of the Year awards. It’s a very different skill to produce one great game and to produce multiple significant titles.

      I do think you may be selling one designer short. I know that you’re a big fan of Archipelago, and its designer, Christophe Boelinger, is pretty well known, thanks to earlier blockbusters like Dungeon Twister and Earth Reborn. His design credits go back to at least 2000. He may not qualifty as a “household name”, but he is by no means a newcomer. It is true, though, that Archipelago was his only release last year, so that does fit the pattern.

  3. Dale Yu says:

    I can agree with Rosenberg – even without his help on Terra Mystica. And I think that Sheepland is underappreciated and would not have been sad to see Tascini win

  4. Jacob says:

    I guess it’s reasonable that all contenders had to produce at least a couple of games last year. But my favourite games came from designers who only made one like CO2, Snowdonia and Legendary. I was hoping to see some mention of those designers. That was a fun read!

  5. Doug says:

    I may be biased (and we all are, aren’t we) but I’d give it to Reiner this year. Qin, Rondo, Indigo and Kreuz und Quer have all been very well received by groups over here. Really enjoyed the two Uwe two player spin offs though. Tzolkn and Sheepland were fun.

    • huzonfirst says:

      I’ll give you credit, Doug–you remain true to your Knizia! I’m glad you found four of his games that you enjoy so much, but let’s just say that a look at the Geek ratings indicates that you rate them considerably higher than the rest of the gaming world. Not that that should affect your admiration for them. For what it’s worth, I rather like Qin (but haven’t played any of the other games you mention).

  6. David says:

    I really like Rosenberg, so I can’t quibble too much with your decision, but, as others have suggested, I probably would have given the nod to Luciani. I thought Tzolk’in as a pretty impressive game; especially since I went into it skeptically thinking that any game that had to rely on something as obviously gimmicky as those giant gears couldn’t be that good — man, was I wrong! I haven’t gotten to play the other two, but friends have really enjoyed Sheepland too. That sort of excitement for a new designer’s work gets some points in my book.

    I also have to put in a plug for Ignacy, who I think deserves more love. I can see why he wouldn’t win with only two games, but I thought both were very good. I’m a fan of coops, and I absolutely loved Robinson Crusoe.

    As always, I really enjoyed your summaries. It’s fun to look back at the year in gaming. Thanks for another great article!

  7. Pete says:

    Not putting Chris Dupuis in with Lee/Thompson is a slap in the face. He worked on Dungeon Command extensively.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Mr. Dupuis is in no way being dissed, Pete, just like no disrespect is being shown to Kevin Tatroe, who also worked on the Dungeon Command games. The fact is that neither gentleman was associated with Lords of Waterdeep in 2012, and that’s the game that got the high ratings. The combined effect of both games got Lee and Thompson the mention, but the biggest factor was the success of Waterdeep.

  8. lambolt says:

    Uwe Rosenberg, is this some kind of windup? (coming from a huge fan of his work I am not a basher).

    • huzonfirst says:

      Not sure what you mean by “windup”, Lee.

      • lambolt says:

        Because he hasn’t done anything of note, those 2P versions of his big games are nothing special, and are obviously just trims from games he already did, tweaked slightly. The problem is 2P Agricola and Le Havre crap on those games by a very great height, and to be honest, despite the new ones being quicker, it’s not like the full games with 2P are that much longer. He’s just taken a puzzly bit out of the main games and cashed in. I don’t begrudge him that, but to make him designer of the year when so many other big releases have come (including ones that don’t even interest me, so I’m not grinding an axe on anyones behalf) just feels … bizarre, to me. I guess that’s why we all have different opinions but this one feels so far out of left field, I don’t know what to make of it.

        • lambolt says:

          “Viewing his two highly rated designs as closer to independent games than as 2-player spinoffs was the key to his victory.”

          this for example I don’t understand. Agricola in particular couldn’t be any more of a 2 player spinoff if it was called “Agricola, the 2P spinoff”. I just don’t get it.

          • lambolt says:

            They’re not my cup of tea really but I think the LoW/Dungeon Command team have a much stronger case, Tzolkin I’m “meh” on but it’s had remarkable success. What about some left field nominations like Eklund for Pax P, or the japanese guys that did Love Letter, and RRR etc, Terra Mystica’s named designers not even nominated, the guys behind the LCGs that seem to have taken over this year, Android, Star Wars etc, Andean Abyss was pretty unique
            (to be fair, maybe I missed an article where you discussed lots more and have already narrowed down to your final list).

            • Ben (chally) says:

              I think you missed the point of Larry’s opening analogy, Lee. For the purposes of this particular honor, releasing multiple games in a season seems to be a threshold requirement. Moreover, Larry’s qualitative criteria depends on how well something was received by the (niche) masses, not simply how much Larry liked it.

              So releasing one game like Pax Porfiriana gets you nowhere. First, it is one game. Second, it has really not reached very many gamers. Third, those gamers it has reached are not nearly as positive about it as the masses are about a game like Tzolk’in.

              Like you, my personal preferences for a Designer of the Year award would be different. For instance, I would love to see an award that focuses on the designers’ contributions to game design generally (an award that rewards innovation and influence, irrespective of the merits of the game(s) in which they appear). But that’s not Larry’s award.

              • lambolt says:

                OK that’s fair enough, but Lords of Waterdeep and Dungeon Command would fit the mulitple games criteria? (LoW not for me, but I can see why DC is popular for both the AT and Euro crowd). I guess I just don’t see the merit in Uwe’s 2P games, which really are just spinoffs of an existing design. Agricola in particular. I just don’t think Uwe should even be in the discussion, much less win it. Who would you have picked Ben?

        • huzonfirst says:

          I respect your feelings about those 2P games, Lee, but all I can say is that it’s not the majority view. Both games are well rated (the Agricola one in particular) and ACB&S won the IGA award for best 2-player game last year. I’ve played the Le Havre one and it has almost nothing in common with the original Le Havre. Many who have played the Agricola 2P feel that it is also different from the parent game. Rosenberg has absolutely used the names of these games to help market them, but that’s just smart business; I see no reason to penalize him for it.

          Ben did a good job of explaining what the award is about. The idea is not to have yet another Game of the Year award, but to look at a designer’s full body of work for the year. There’s no minimum requirement for number of games, but for a single game author to win, his game would have to completely dominate both the ratings and the awards. The only time that happened in the last 20 years or so was for Agricola, and that was in a weak year for designers. Usually, it’s hard to get mentioned with anything less than 3 games; this year was a poor one, so we have a lot of 2 game designers in the running. Rosenberg released 5 games, including an award winner, another likely to get nominated, and two other games that at least have had some buzz surrounding them. It wasn’t an overwhelming year, but as I said, the competition wasn’t fierce either. If Tzolk’in does really well with the annual awards, I’ll make Luciani co-DotY, but for now, I’m pretty satisfied that Rosenberg had the best group of games last year. But I appreciate the arguments you and others have made; one of the purposes of articles like this one is to get people talking, so opposing views are always welcome.

          • lambolt says:

            That’s fair enough Larry, and thanks for taking the time to reply in detail. Totally agree that the discussion is often the most interesting part of any writing about gaming, and it’s good when opinions can differ without resorting to flame wars :)

  9. Simon says:

    how many of the games listed did you play? Or is the list entirely based on the ratings on BGG?

  10. How is simply re-hashing a bunch of BGG ratings considered any sort of “opinion”?

    • Doug says:

      :-) I think you have to respect that Larry likes playing and talking games.

      This is all subjective, which is why I grabbed my pitchfork and screamed “Reiner!”

  11. Simon Weinberg says:

    Nice article Larry. I appreciate it’s fully personal but it would be great to see a more “official” award for Designer of the Year. Highlighting new designers who are showing a major talent is definitely a worthwhile endeavour…

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