Masterpiece, Part 1

There was an interesting geeklist on BGG recently (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/156885) asking everyone to name a designer, and the game you consider to be his or her masterpiece. While the subjective question is interesting, we thought it would be more interesting to think about the question objectively – which game from each designer stands out the most? So Joe Huber and Larry Levy put together an initial list and started a discussion on the matter. One thing which surprised both of us – since we often fail to see eye to eye about games – is that we agreed far more often than we disagreed. So we thought it might be interesting to bring the discussion to the broader spectrum of Opinionated Gamers. Matt Carlson, Liga, Dale, and Jeff Allers also chimed in with their thoughts on the matter.

One difficulty in turning this into an article was deciding which designers to include and which to leave out. In general, we aimed to include every designer with enough published games to facilitate a discussion. As you’ll see, that turned into quite a voluminous list. You have our apologies in advance if we didn’t cover your favorite designer.

Obviously, a key concept is how each of the authors defines the word “masterpiece” for this exercise. To help you interpret our reasoning, here are definitions from each of us:

Larry – For me, a designer’s Masterpiece is the game that most people would agree is his or her best, based on its popularity, impact, and quality. I didn’t really give an advantage to games where the designer was the only creator; I viewed those as equivalent to their joint designs.

Joe – There are a number of different factors I consider. Popularity is one piece – but not just popularity among gamers, but also popularity among the broader public. Quality of the design is a factor, but there’s a natural tendency to view personal opinion as quality, or popular opinion as quality, rather than indicative of quality. One thing Larry didn’t mention which is a consideration for me is that a masterpiece should be representative of a designer’s work. Finally, I tend to view a solo design with more weight than a joint design, in choosing a masterpiece.

Matt – I had a similar approach to Larry, considering games based on impact, popularity, and quality in roughly that order. I also ignored any co-designing issues so I wouldn’t have to look them up. However, like Joe, I tried to take into account how the broader public might have received a game. Thus, several of my selections are a bit less complex than others chosen by Larry and Joe. I also came to the discussion later in the process, so I only chimed in when I felt I had something significant to say (or couldn’t help myself).

Liga – I think trying to mix what is a masterpiece for the general market and for the games community is not easy. Interviewing designers, I discovered they are famous for games I was not aware of. So I’ll try to point out games that got a wide response in the gamers community and also games that, for me, are milestones because they created a genre or launched a new design concept.

Dale – I’m a bit late to the party as I’ve been caught up with a few projects of my own.  But this is a fascinating list, and I’ve added my comments where they seem warranted.  For me, the Masterpiece of a particular author is the one I feel has the most impact to the hobby – whether that be through innovation, for critical acclaim, for general popularity, etc. 

Okay, here is the Masterpiece List.

Antoine Bauza – Larry, Joe, Liga: 7 Wonders;  Dale: Ghost Stories
Larry:  Ghost Stories put Bauza on the map and Hanabi is much admired. But 7 Wonders, which swept the awards in 2011 and is still widely played, is the obvious choice.

Liga:  I totally agree with 7 Wonders as Antoine’s masterpiece. It is the only game, after Tikal, able to get all the 3 main awards (SDJ, DSP and IGA) and is a sure evergreen.

Dale: I will buck the trend and go with Ghost Stories – though 7 Wonders is a close second.  As far as cooperative games go, Ghost Stories was the first co-op that caught my eye, both in terms of complexity as well as being harder to quarterback.

Richard Borg – Larry, Joe, Liga: Memoir ’44;  Dale: Liar’s Dice
Larry:  I’m picking this Commands & Colors game, mostly because its setting makes it the most popular, even though Battle Cry was the first from the series and C&C: Ancients has a considerably higher rating on the Geek.

Joe:  This one’s a hard pick. I do think Larry’s right in singling out Memoir ’44 among the C&C games – but in my mind there’s a case to be made for Liar’s Dice. In the end, however, I’ve come around to Larry’s thinking that Memoir ’44 – and via it, the C&C system – better represents a masterpiece.

Liga:  I agree with Joe and Larry. Memoir’44 is Richard’s masterpiece. C&C: Ancients is most appreciated by gamers, but the setting and materials are not as great as Memoir’44.

Dale: Liar’s Dice. Classic game, almost every gamer I know is familiar with it.

Inka & Markus Brand – Larry: Village;  Joe, Liga: La Boca;  Dale: Star Wars: Angriff der Klonkrieger
Larry:  Village was the first of the Brands’ large number of designs to truly stand out and is the clearcut choice. If La Boca had wound up winning the SdJ, as many predicted, it might have supplanted it in time. But that won’t happen, so I suspect the Brands will be best known for Village for quite a while.

Joe:  While Village is easily the highest ranked of the Brands’ games on BGG, I don’t think it’s their masterpiece. It’s really too early to elevate the just-released La Boca to masterpiece status, but I’m going to anyway. Though I must admit I’m also tempted by the game which would be my personal choice, Monster-Falle.

Liga:  Village got a lot of attention in the year of its release, but I’m not so sure it will become a real evergreen. It lacks that something special that makes a game really outstanding and I’ve not been surprised it wasn’t able to get the IGA award.

Dale: I don’t know if the Brands have enough games to really consider for this, but I’d actually have to go with Star Wars: Angriff der Klonkrieger.  It’s a Kosmos release and is a fun family oriented cooperative game.  I’ve gotten as many hours of enjoyment from this one as all the others combined so far.  If I had more experience with La Boca, that might get the nod, but I haven’t played it enough to say yet.

Richard Breese – Larry, Joe, Liga: Reef Encounter;  Dale: Keythedral
Larry:  Maybe in a year or two, I might change my mind in favor of Keyflower. But right now, Reef seems like the proper choice.

Liga:  Reef Encounter is a really outstanding game: full of great ideas and a really innovative mechanic. It is something unique in the gaming world. It’s funny that Richard’s masterpiece will be not a title in his famous Key series.

Dale: Keythedral has always been my favorite of the Key games – Keywood is a close second, but it’s just too brutal at times.

Bernd Brunnhofer – Joe: Saint Petersburg;  Larry, Matt: Stone Age
Joe: While we’re trying to look at each designer’s masterpiece from an objective viewpoint, I must admit that some subjective thinking inevitably slips in. Nowhere, for me, is this more true than with Brunnhofer; I must admit that I was shocked, looking on BoardGameGeek, to discover that Stone Age has nearly twice as many copies listed as owned as Saint Petersburg. I think I’m so surprised because I don’t see Stone Age played any more than Saint Petersburg, in spite of being a more recent game. But I’m still sticking with Saint Petersburg – which, if less popular on BGG than Stone Age, is still extremely popular – as the game which Brunnhofer will be known for in the long run – though I’ll admit I might well be wrong.

Larry: Even though St. Pete is the game that won the awards, I think Stone Age is Brunnhofer’s true masterpiece. It remains widely played and is viewed more favorably than its older brother.

Matt C: I’m a huge fan of St. Petersburg, as I think it gives an excellent introduction to euro-style games without being overly complicated. However, after playing Stone Age quite a bit on my iPad, I can see this one going the distance. The use of dice can make the game more attractive to more casual gamers, and I find the theme to be much more compelling than in St. Petersburg. While gamers will put up with a pasted-on theme, when teaching more casual gamers I prefer a strong theme when I can get one.

Günter BurkhardtKupferkessel Co.
Joe: Burkhardt is a designer who did not have a great reputation initially, as Lang lebe der König and Edison & Co. (to name just two of his designs) did not go over well with gamers. But he’s continued to put out many designs, and apparently they sell well enough to keep him in reasonable demand. None, though, has been a big hit, making it much more difficult to choose a masterpiece for him.

So, then, which game to choose? There are really four choices in my mind – Darjeeling, Maori, Kupferkessel Co., and Vom Kap bis Kairo. And, of those, I believe Kupferkessel Co. is the game most likely to stick around; it’s already remained mildly popular for a decade, and it is representative of Burkhardt’s designs.

Kris Burm – Joe: GIPF;  Larry: DVONN
Joe: While GIPF might not be Burm’s most beloved design – it’s his iconic design, and the one his most popular series of abstracts is named for. There’s certainly a reasonable debate between the originator of a popular series and the most successful member of the series; in the case of Borg’s Command and Colors series, the most successful game feels like the right choice. But here, GIPF has been extremely successful in its own right, which in my mind raises it to the rank of his masterpiece.

Larry: This is a tough one. I’m going with DVONN because it won both the IGA and Games Magazine’s Game of the Year awards. I could just as easily go with YINSH, which has a higher rating and more voters on the Geek. Honestly, I don’t know; I don’t have a very good feel for abstract games.

Marcel-André Casasola-MerkleAttika
Joe: With Casasola-Merkle, there are really only three reasonable choices – but you can make an argument for any of them as his masterpiece. Meuterer (which eliminates Verräter from consideration) might well be the most iconic design from Adlung, but I think the natural bias against a card game as a masterpiece limits the strength of the argument. Taluva does not have this issue, and is a perfectly reasonable choice – but not the one either Larry or I made, as we each opted for Attika.

Bruno Cathala – Larry, Liga: Shadows Over Camelot;  Joe, Dale: Mr. Jack
Larry: There’s a number of games that could be chosen here. Certainly, Mr. Jack is a well regarded game. I just think there’s a lot of admiration for the traitor mechanic in Shadows. It really stretched the boundaries of what could be accomplished in a cooperative game, so I think that’s viewed more as Cathala’s masterpiece.

Joe: I sympathize with Larry’s choice here – the choice of Cathala’s masterpiece is a close one. But I have to go with the game I continue to see played, which is clearly Mr. Jack. Shadows Over Camelot certainly had some impact when it came out, but I’ve seen Mr. Jack have significantly more staying power.

Liga: Even though I consider Mr. Jack a great game, I have no problem in pointing to Shadows Over Camelot as Bruno’s masterpiece. It is the title that made the semi-cooperative genre famous, many years before the boom of collaborative games, and it’s still one of the best games ever. I also like Cyclades a lot; it’s a great design piece I think is still underrated.

Vlaada Chvatil – Larry, Joe, Liga, Dale: Through the Ages;  Matt: Galaxy Trucker
Larry: Chvatil has designed a ton of great games and I could see some sentiment for Galaxy Trucker. But Through the Ages is one of the great game creations and is as widely respected today as when it was first released. It’s got to be his masterpiece.

Matt C: If you’re talking to gamer-types (which is likely the only people who will read this column), Through the Ages is a great choice. However, in the more casual gaming circles in which I run, (admittedly, also more youthful) you would be hard pressed to get something past the popularity of Galaxy Trucker.

Liga: It was a really hard choice here because I think Mage Knight is Vlaada’s real masterpiece, but Through the Ages has such a wide impact in the gamer community (and in Vlaada’s career) that it has to be considered his masterpiece.

Leo Colovini – Larry, Joe, Liga: Cartagena;  Dale: Carolus Magnus
Joe: Colovini has released a lot of games, and none has been a tremendous hit with BGG. But it’s not difficult to pick out the masterpiece among his works. While many of his designs have a very abstract feel to them, Cartagena feels less abstract and as such is more widely accessible.

Liga: Leo’s got several good titles and probably the best one is Carolus Magnus. The game that brings Leo most royality is probably Inkognito which hasn’t gotten much success in the gamer community, but I agree with Joe that the one that can be considered his real masterpiece, for many reasons, is Cartagena.

Dale: Carolus Magnus is the choice for me.  It is still my go-to game when I have only three players at the table. 

Günter Cornett – Joe: Hey! That’s My Fish!;  Larry: Flaschenteufel
Joe: Personally, I would love to declare Flaschenteufel as Cornett’s masterpiece; it’s a wonderful design, and one of my favorite games. But Hey! That’s My Fish! has been a far bigger hit, and is a very impressive design in its own right, making it a clear choice in my opinion.

Larry: Do we go with the more widely played and accessible Fish or the older classic Flaschenteufel? The common meaning of the word “masterpiece” leads me to pick the latter, which is one of the great 3-player trick-taking games ever.

Rob Daviau – Larry, Dale: Risk Legacy;  Joe, Matt: Heroscape
Larry: Daviau has designed a lot of good games for Hasbro, but Risk Legacy was something special. The audaciousness in creating a game that uniquely changes with each play, and to be able to pull it off so adroitly, makes this his masterpiece in my opinion.

Joe: While I’ve not played Risk Legacy, from what I know of it I can understand Larry’s choice of it as Daviau’s masterpiece. I just see Heroscape, which I believe has already had a greater impact and – well, legacy – as the superior choice.

Matt C: As much as I admire Risk Legacy, I have to go with Joe on this one. The audacity of the Heroscape line creating a reasonably complex little wargame with marvelous plastic minis, pretty terrain, point-buy units with unique features, and all at a “discount” mass-market price – makes for a very compelling game.

Dale: The innovation behind Risk Legacy forces me to choose this as his masterpiece.  I think that we will soon see an entire line/genre of games in this Legacy style where the game changes as it’s played…

Franz-Benno DelongeTransAmerica
Larry: Delonge, who was taken from us too soon, created a wide variety of games. While I’m not sure any stand out, TransAmerica was the most honored and continues to get play today. I think it fits the definition of masterpiece better than any of his other designs.

Joe: When thinking of a designer’s masterpiece, there are a number of different ways to approach the problem, each potentially leading to a different answer. But a key criterion in my mind is – how much is the game associated with the designer. And based upon that, I believe Larry’s suggestion of TransAmerica is clearly correct.

Gary Dicken, Phil Kendall & Steve KendallHistory of the World
Joe: While the Ragnar Brothers have designed many interesting games, History of the World – more than twenty years old now and still being played, in one form or another – is clearly their masterpiece, even if I’d rather Canal Mania be recognized as such. But History of the World has stayed in print via many different editions, and in spite of its length continues to be played today.

Rüdiger DornGoa
Larry: There’s quite a few candidates from Dorn’s lush period (2001-2005), including Jambo, Genoa, and Louis XIV, but Goa has always had the best reputation, and its reissue last year only cemented its status as his masterpiece.

Stefan Dorra – Joe, Larry: For Sale;  Jeff: Medina
Joe: Generally, “masterpiece” tends to imply a heavier game. But for Dorra, choosing a heavier game would clearly be incorrect. Dorra’s designed a larger variety of interesting games – but it’s his lighter games which have most stood out. And none have stood out so much as For Sale, still arguably the ultimate filler more than 15 years after its initial release.

Jeff: I finally had the opportunity to play Medina this weekend, and I must say that this game is the most impressive Dorra design I have played. It fits in with the classic Knizia tile-laying games of the time period quite nicely, but is still very original. And the 3-D wooden bits by Hans im Glück makes this one of the most beautifully produced games I have ever played. It finished second in the Deutsche Spielpreis in 2001 and has won various international awards. The production standard set in the 2001 edition must be one of the reasons it has never been reprinted. Still, this game has “masterpiece” written all over it!

Jeroen Doumen & Joris Wiersinga – Larry: Antiquity;  Joe: Indonesia;  Dale: Roads & Boats
Larry: My initial thought for the designers behind Splotter Spellen was their first major release, Roads & Boats. But Antiquity seems to be the choice of the true Splotter aficionado and remains their highest rated game. Indonesia is a reasonable choice as well.

Joe: While the Splotter team has designed a wide variety of games, there are clearly only three choices for their masterpiece. There’s Antiquity, Larry’s choice – it’s the highest ranked and rated of the three on BGG, and certainly has the scope and depth of a masterpiece. Neither of us chose Roads & Boats, but I can certainly see an argument for it. Still, my choice, both initially and after giving it more thought, is Indonesia. It’s the most accessible of the three – but clearly still a game with the feel of a masterpiece.

Dale: Roads & Boats – for me, the first humongous complex monstrosity is still the best.

Jean du PoelCarabande
Joe: Jean du Poel has designed a wide variety of games, but unfortunately he doesn’t always manage to convey the rules he intends. It’s not a surprise, then, that his biggest hit – and clear masterpiece – has been a game with almost no rules: Carabande.

Did that give you something to think about?  Hey, we’re only getting started!  Check in again tomorrow, when we consider the games of Stefan Feld, Mac Gerdts, Dirk Henn, and many others and decide:  which was their masterpiece?

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8 Responses to Masterpiece, Part 1

  1. lambolt says:

    erm, Uwe Rosenberg, Agricola?

  2. huzonfirst says:

    We’ll be doing this over 4 days, Lee. Rest assured that we’ll be considering Herr Rosenberg eventually!

  3. Dale Yu says:

    Yes, this is going to take all week!

  4. Jacob says:

    After reading this list (thanks!) I had to go to the geeklist and add Ignacy Trezewiczek because Pret-a-Porter is pretty cool. It’s the only one I’ve played, but his designs are always interesting to read about.

  5. ianthecool says:

    Wow, Dale just always has to be different hey?

  6. William Baldwin says:

    I finally got to play Roads & Boats at ORIGINS. I like the others in the line and own 3. Roads and Boats had everyone doing the exact SAME THING. I was told that changes with the expansion, but at their price point, that is a horrible thing. To me, Roads & Boats was definitely not worth even owning. I say this with a great fondness of Dale Yu… but what did I miss?

    • huzonfirst says:

      Sounds like a case of groupthink to me, William. There is certainly more than one path for winning any game of R&B. Besides, since everything is communal and not personally owned, aggressively “stealing” units built by your opponents can be very rewarding if they don’t take proper precautions; that definitely mixes things up among experienced players. The game plays wonderfully without the expansion, but it’s got an enormous learning curve. I hope your first bad experience doesn’t keep you from trying it again–if you like other Splotter games, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t like R&B once you get to know its intricacies a little better.

  7. willibready says:

    Actually, I was the only one that felt that way… we were learning from a guy that said it was his favorite game. However, my main point remains true… we were all trying to do the same thing. The stealing thing was a bit eased as (new players usually do this in games, especially with strangers) and the R&B lover did a couple of the “steal” actions. However, this is not something I like in games… especially without compensation. If the only attraction to this game is: a) figure out the building puzzle the best using the terrain and b) steal at the right time, then I am out. Especially when we all seem to be doing the same thing. What am I missing?

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