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 Rosenberg – Agricola: 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!