Yesterday, we started to choose the masterpiece of a bunch of different game designers. That is, which game is that designer’s most notable one? The idea is to make this be an objective list and to keep our personal likes and dislikes out of it. Anyway, here’s another 20 or so designers and the games we think stand out for each of them.
Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge & Peter Olotka – Cosmic Encounter
Joe: The Eon team designed a wide variety of very innovative games during their peak – but none which stands out nearly so much as Cosmic Encounter. While it’s certainly possible to make an argument for Dune as their greatest achievement, Cosmic is clearly their masterpiece.
Dominique Ehrhard – Joe: Condottiere; Larry: Serenissima
Joe: While it’s often easy to pick the masterpiece from a designer, as any definition of masterpiece you care to use points to the same game, with some designers different definitions lead to different answers. You can make an argument for the best known game from a designer, or the one with the highest average ratings on boardgamegeek, or the best seller, or the game that best exemplifies the designer. You can even make an argument for a masterful design that doesn’t happen to meet any of these criteria.
But with Ehrhard, most of these items point to Condottiere, at least for me. Serenissima is an interesting game – but Condottiere has remained in print for most of two decades, and is a very good game in its own right.
Larry: The underrated Ehrhard has been creating fine games for over 20 years and he’s still going strong. There are two obvious candidates for his masterpiece. Five years ago, I would have gone with Condottiere, which has been reproduced numerous times, always with slightly tweaked rules. But I feel its star has dimmed recently. The other candidate is Serenissima, which has always been admired. Its re-release last year by Ystari (also somewhat modified) brings it back into the popular consciousness and confirms its status as Ehrhard’s masterpiece.
James Ernest – Joe, Matt, Dale: Kill Doctor Lucky; Larry: Button Men
Joe: While I can see the case for Button Men, Kill Doctor Lucky strikes me as the definitive James Ernest game – and therefore his masterpiece. It’s not my favorite of his designs, but it’s a wonderful example of his original concept of very inexpensive games, where players use pieces from other games – but one that’s lived well beyond his initial implementation.
Larry: Somehow, the words “masterpiece” and “Cheapass” don’t seem to go together. Ernest’s objective from the beginning wasn’t to make great games, but to make reasonably good ones that were extremely affordable. So I’m kind of at a loss to choose one of his games that stands out. That said, Button Men is quite elegant and it’s always been considered a clever design, so that’s my pick.
Matt C: Sounds like Larry needs to pick up the deluxe version of Kill Doctor Lucky to make him happy. While I have played Button Men to death back when it was an online web site, I have to give the nod to Kill Doctor Lucky as the more creative (and therefore more deserving) masterpiece.
Friedemann Friese – Power Grid
Joe: In researching this article, I was astonished to discover that there are more than 25,000 copies of Power Grid listed as owned on boardgamegeek. Given that BGG numbers represent only a portion of copies in the wild – albeit a higher percentage, for Power Grid, than for many games – this is an amazing accomplishment; it represents Spiel des Jahres-level sales without the imprint, and is perhaps the greatest testament to the influence of BGG. It is also, coincidentally, one of many pieces of evidence that Power Grid is clearly Friese’s masterpiece.
Bruno Faidutti – Citadels
Larry: Bruno’s created an awful lot of games and many of them have been very popular. But I think there’s a strong consensus that Citadels is the game he’ll be most remembered for.
Stefan Feld – Larry, Joe, Dale: Castles of Burgundy; Matt: In the Year of the Dragon
Larry: Even though Feld has had success starting with his very first designs, his most acclaimed games have been two of his most recent ones, Castles of Burgundy and Trajan. I’m going to go with Burgundy, as the more popular and accessible of the two, although Trajan would be a reasonable choice as well.
Matt C: I think Trajan has too much of everything, and I (sadly) haven’t played Castles of Burgundy, but I’m still going to chime in and posit In the Year of the Dragon as my selection. It does a masterful job of making you enjoy yourself while the game seems to punish everything you do.
Dale: I agree with Burgundy, but recently I’ve gotten Bruges to the table a number of times, and I think in a few years, Bruges might be the winner here…
Mike Fitzgerald – Mystery Rummy 1: Jack the Ripper
Larry: Without question, Fitzgerald is best known for the Mystery Rummy series and the most highly regarded of those is the first one, Jack the Ripper. Wyatt Earp, which is also an “honorary” Mystery Rummy game, is worth considering, but Ripper is a fairly easy choice.
Richard Garfield – Magic: the Gathering
Joe: As much as I’d like to make the case for Rocketville – in no small part for the potential to drop jaws in the process – and as much more as I personally enjoy King of Tokyo, there really is no doubt that Magic is Garfield’s masterpiece. There’s just no way to argue against a game which not only spawned a whole genre, but which has remained in the public eye for two decades and counting.
Matt C: I’m not going to argue the selection, but I think that RoboRally deserves at least a comment, before going with the obvious choice. I’ll also point out that Magic: the Gathering would not be as strong a choice if pure sales success wasn’t a component, and that the game does require a certain level of rules fortitude.
Liga: I would like to say that Richard’s masterpiece is RoboRally, one of my favorite games ever, or King of Tokyo, that has an huge potential as a gateway game, but of course Magic: the Gathering is a game that influenced the games history in a way that only Dungeons and Dragons was able to do before. It is not accidental that many designers are pointing out Richard Garfield as their Master and Magic: the Gathering as the game they would like to have designed.
Mac Gerdts – Larry, Joe: Imperial; Matt: Navegador; Liga: Antike
Larry: Gerdts, who is probably associated with a single game mechanism (the rondel) more than any other designer, has two standout games in his ludography: Imperial and Navegador. Their ratings on the Geek are almost the same and they both have rabid fan bases. But I think there’s a reasonable consensus that Imperial, the earlier of the two, is the more renowned game and represents the better choice as his masterpiece.
Matt C: Well, poo. I like Navegador much better than Imperial. However, I have to concede that I haven’t played Imperial nearly as much. Consider my Navegador nomination as coming from a less qualified judge and leave it at that.
Liga: I really prefer Imperial or Navegador that are better designs, but I think that Antike has to be pointed out as Mac’s masterpiece, since it started a new genre bringing out the rondel mechanism.
Thorsten Gimmler – Geschenkt (No Thanks)
Joe: Gimmler had a lot of interesting games published in a brief period of time – from 1999 through 2007 – but unfortunately wasn’t able to sustain that level of success. But this makes it very easy to pick out his masterpiece – and the brilliantly simple Geschenkt is clearly that game.
Matt C: I like this game so much I felt obligated just to write that I agree No Thanks had to be his masterpiece. (I even did a search to find Gimmler on the list just to do so…)
Larry Harris – Axis & Allies
Joe: While Harris has designed other systems, not to mention a wide variety of Axis & Allies games, there’s really no question that the original Axis & Allies is his masterpiece.
Hisashi Hayashi – Joe: String Railway; Larry: Trains
Joe: While Trains is almost certainly going to prove to be a more popular game, it remains a refinement of Dominion. String Railway, while not my favorite design in the String series, is an amazingly innovative design, and one that’s already sparked three successful designs. As such, I believe that, at least for now, it’s clearly his masterpiece.
Larry: String Railway is unquestionably the design that put Hayashi on the map. But I sense today, four years after its release, it’s admired more for its clever concept than for its gameplay. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Trains will very soon become Hayashi-san’s masterpiece. It may be a derivative of Dominion, but it’s one of the best spinoffs of that game I’ve seen. It’s already quite popular and the new edition, the first to be widely available in the West, will be released in a few months. I think Trains will be a major hit very shortly, so that’s the design I’m going with.
Dirk Henn – Larry, Dale: Showmanager; Joe: Alhambra
Larry: Alhambra, Henn’s SdJ winner, is a perfectly reasonable choice. But for many gamers, Showmanager is the design that first brought Henn to their attention. It was innovative (it might be the first game to feature progressively diminishing costs for drafting) and has a great theme. It was republished a couple of years ago, so it’s once again available. It’s a close call, but I think Showmanager is Henn’s masterpiece.
Joe: I think Larry’s letting his preference get the better of him in this instance. I can understand this – I love Showmanager – but Alhambra, the Spiel des Jahres winner and enjoyable design in its own right, is clearly Henn’s masterpiece in my opinion. If one wants to make an argument for another design, Shogun is Henn’s highest ranked game on BGG – but given that it’s simply a reimplementation of Wallenstein, I don’t think it can squeeze past Alhambra.
Dale: Clearly Showmanager for me. Atlantic Star is still good, but it’s harder to say that “I can’t work with these ships!” as you clear the board…
Rudi Hoffman – Café International
Joe: While Sid Sackson’s designs have their fans still, and even Alex Randolph is still reasonably well known for a game designer, Rudi Hoffman – who had a similar impact on the field in Germany at the same time Sackson and Randolph were redefining the US market – is almost completely overlooked. Café International has the highest rank on BGG, and won the Spiel des Jahres, and as much as I wish his other designs had found a greater audience, I can’t imagine any other choice for his masterpiece.
Urs Hostettler – Tichu
Joe: While I can’t argue that Tichu is not Hostettler’s masterpiece, I do have to put a good word in for my two favorites from among Hostettler’s designs, Tyranno Ex and Hotel Life. The former is one of the best games I’ve played at appropriately discouraging beating up on the weak player in a multiplayer wargame (or near-wargame), and the latter is one of the greatest experience games I’ll like ever play, offering interactions between guests anywhere from amusing to hilarious.
Larry: Kremlin is obviously worth considering, as is the ridiculously popular (at least in Europe) Anno Domini. But I gotta go with Tichu, the overwhelming favorite of today’s card game aficionado.
Steve Jackson – Larry, Matt: Illuminati; Joe: Munchkin
Larry: Another battle of popularity vs. quality. Munchkin has allowed Jackson to add a few wings to his house and they still keep cranking out new versions. But I have a hard time calling a game based around a series of in-jokes a “masterpiece”. Illuminati, on the other hand, was a terrific, innovative game in its day and still plays well. I think it’s clearly Jackson’s most notable game.
Joe: I like Illuminati; in contrast, I don’t really care for Munchkin. But Munchkin is clearly Jackson’s masterpiece; while it’s not as well rated, this is largely a result of being many, many times more often played than Jackson’s other designs – and thus exposed to far more people who don’t care for the game (such as me). But Jackson has clearly tapped into something strong here, and in my mind that clearly cements Munchkin’s role as his masterpiece.
Matt C: I’m afraid I’m with Larry here. I’ll play Munchkin if I have to, but it is a broken game to me. It is far too easy for the game to play to a standstill. I’ll admit Illuminati can run dangerously close to the same problem, but due to the scheming built into the game I don’t see it as the same flaw.
Chad Jensen – Joe: Combat Commander: Europe; Larry: Dominant Species
Joe: I’ve never played any of Jensen’s designs, so this truly isn’t influenced by personal preference. While I can easily see the argument for Dominant Species, I see the Combat Commander system – which has spawned a popular sequel and multiple expansions – as being the masterpiece between the two.
Larry: Even though I’m not a wargamer, I know of Combat Commander’s excellent reputation in that field. But I still feel that Dominant Species is the better choice as Jensen’s masterpiece. Essentially, it can be supported by both wargamers and non-wargamers, while CC:E is restricted only to the former.
Tom Jolly – Wiz-War
Joe: Wiz-War is the obvious choice for Jolly, but the point is driven home by this: both the latest edition of Wiz-War and the previous editions – which for reasons I’ve never quite understood have different entries on boardgamegeek – outrank any of Jolly’s other designs.
Liga: Wiz-War is one of the best games ever and is, of course, Tom’s masterpiece. I would like to point out also Disk Wars, one of the first “miniatures games” without miniatures. Something that now is quite common but was not so trivial in 1999.
Susumu Kawasaki – R-Eco
Joe: Does Kawasaki belong on this list? You can make an argument in either direction, but as she’s one of the designers whose name I look for, I strong-armed Larry into including her. But picking her masterpiece is nearly impossible; R-Eco and Traders of Carthage have comparable ratings, ranks, ownership, number of ratings, and impact. But in the end while either would be a reasonable choice, both Larry and I opted for R-Eco.
Thanks to loyal reader Jason Sugiuchi’s helpful comment, we corrected the mistake we originally made about Kawasaki’s gender. Thanks again, Jason.
Philippe Keyaerts – Matt C, Larry: Small World; Joe: Vinci
Matt C: One could make a case for Vinci as it was first, and my personal favorite Keyaerts game is Evo, but Small World takes Vinci and makes it so much better I have to go with the more recent “version” of the game. I have to bow to its ability to cater to euro-gamers, casual gamers, war gamers, and even gaming newbies. Sure, they might all have games they prefer, but somehow Small World is sufficiently playable to each to be common ground.
Joe: While Vinci is my personal preference, I think it also stands out as Keyaerts’ masterpiece. Small World has certainly proven the bigger hit – but at it’s heart it’s a refinement of Vinci. Personally, I credit 80% of the success of Small World to Vinci – and thus have no difficulty in choosing it.
Well, we’re about halfway through, which means we still have plenty of great designers to consider. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some real heavyweights, including Knizia, Kramer, and Moon, and answer the question, “What’s their masterpiece?”.