Larry Levy: 2013 Designer of the Year Award

My goodness, do you realize that this is my tenth Designer of the Year article?  That goes back to when I was writing for the Boardgame News website (the one that Rick Thornquist originated) and even a little earlier.  I guess that makes it an annual tradition.  I always enjoy it and we usually get a nice number of comments, so a few folks must be reading it.  As long as the electrons hold out, I’ll keep writing ’em.

I imagine there are a few first-time readers who are wondering what the hell I’m prattling on about, so let me get to specifics.  Each year, I bestow my Designer of the Year award to the boardgame designer who has released the best body of work over the previous calendar year.  Not the best single game, but the best collection of games.  I try to base this on an objective view of how the hobby as a whole views each designer’s games.  So, for example, how well are the designer’s games rated on BGG, how many major awards and nominations have they won (or are projected to win), and how much “buzz” are their games generating?  As much as possible, I try to keep my personal feelings out of things.

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…the whole shebang.  I’m also agnostic when it comes to nationalities and game genres, so both Eurogame and Ameritrash, along with monster simulations and Japanese mini-games, are all welcome.  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.  But the idea is to consider them all and see who comes out on top.

Since I write this article before all the major awards are given out, I like to look back at the previous year to see if my selection still holds up.  Last year, I gave the award to Uwe Rosenberg, with newcomer Simone Luciani being the runner-up.  How did Uwe’s games do?  I’d say pretty well.  Both Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small and Le Havre: The Inland Port won the IGA award for best 2-player game (in separate years, of course, as the former game came out in the spring and the latter one during Essen).  I’m not sure a designer has ever done that before.  Both games continue to be highly rated on the Geek and the Agricola spinoff just fell out of the top 100.  In addition, Würfel Bohnanza and Bohn to be Wild! both got recommendations from Austria’s Spiel des Spiele.  In contrast, while Luciani’s Tzolk’in continues to be very highly rated (#14 on the Geek) and got mentions for all three major awards, it wasn’t able to win any of them (as it had the misfortune to be up against Terra Mystica).  And his other two designs from last year have pretty much faded from memory.  Based on all this, there’s no question in my mind that even though Luciani had an excellent year, Rosenberg was clearly the best designer during 2012.

Enough with old business; now it’s time to look at last year’s output.  So here are the designers I think had the best years in 2013.  They’re listed in alphabetical order, along with 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.  Finally, g and G usually 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.

Sorry for all the exposition; let’s go check out some designers.

Bruno Cathala – The Little Prince; Le Fantôme de l’Opéra; SOS Titanic; Longhorn; Pentos; Sheepzzz

Cathala is a former winner of the Designer of the Year (DotY) award and shows up most years as a contender.  While his 2013 may not blow you away, there’s some nice stuff here.  First of all, 6 games in a year is impressive, even if they’re all spinoffs of Candyland.  Next, some of the designs listed have generated a bit of buzz, starting with The Little Prince, which does a very nice job of reflecting the charm of the classic children’s story.  Le Fantôme is based on the award-winning Mr. Jack system and its high rating reflects that.  SOS Titanic, on the other hand, is based on the Klondike solitaire game!  The other three games have only been rated a handful of times, although Longhorn boasts a pretty good initial rating.  There’s not enough here to seriously contend for the annual honors, but Bruno continues to crank out an interesting collection of games just about every year.

Mike Elliot – Thunderstone Advance: Numenera; Thunderstone: Starter Set; Lost Legends; Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game; Agent Hunters

The veteran Elliot is no longer an unfamiliar name to gamers, thanks to popular efforts like Thunderstone and Quarriors.  His output last year looks impressive at first glance, headed by Numenera, which boasts a rating of over 8.0 on the Geek, and the Starter Set, which is well over 7.0.  Unfortunately, the former is a standalone expansion to Thunderstone and the latter is a stripped down version of it.  That reduces their impact considerably.  Of the other games, Lost Legends has made a little noise, but LotR Dice Building has been a disappointment.  Overall, it’s not enough to vie for the big prize, but don’t be surprised to see Elliot’s name on these pages again.

Stefan Feld – Bora Bora(di); Amerigo; Bruges(kdi); Rialto(d)

When it was announced that Feld would be releasing four major titles during 2013, his fans kind of lost their minds.  People were shouting that this was amazing, a once in a lifetime achievement!  Obviously, it’s very impressive, but other designers, including Wallace, Kramer, and Knizia, have matched or exceeded it in recent years.  And the effort is less superhuman when you realize that the only reason it occurred was that two of Feld’s designs were delayed from their planned 2012 release!

Still, four games is four games and all of them have met with considerable success.  Three of them sport ratings over 7.5 and the weak sister, Rialto, still has a healthy 7+ rating.  The three games released last spring each got at least one major nomination and Amerigo is a fairly safe bet to add one or two more to the total.  They are popular, critically acclaimed, and highly played.  Should we just stop now and give Herr Feld the award by acclamation?

Well…the fact is that even though the games have all been well received, none of them is a blockbuster.  Bora Bora has cracked the Geek’s top 100, but it won’t go any further and none of the other games figure to rise that high.  The nominations are nice, but none of the games have actually won anything.  Feld’s impressive year is lacking that one cherry on top that would have sown up the DotY for him.  Can he still be beat?

Hisashi Hayashi – Trains; Sail to India; String Savanna; Patronize

Hayashi burst on the gaming scene in 2009 with his delightful String Railway.  He still focuses mostly on games dealing with trains, but as you can see from the above list, he’s exploring other genres as well.  The highlight from last year is still Trains, AEG’s reprint of Hayashi’s 2012 effort to combine deckbuilding and a train game.  So few people got to experience the original OKAZU Brand version that I’m mostly considering this to be a 2013 game.  Sail to India, a typical Japanese “mini” game, has also gotten good ratings.  String Savanna, an attempt to come up with a family version of the String games, has met with less acceptance, at least in the U.S.  Japan is one of the hottest spots on the globe for game design right now, so it’s great to see a new talent like Hayashi-san ramping up his annual output.

Michael Kiesling – Coal Baron; Nauticus; Sanssouci

Kiesling, of course, has been Wolfgang Kramer’s favorite design partner for the last 15 years, but this year he even has a solo design, Sanssouci, which, unfortunately, has only gotten so-so ratings thus far.  His more traditional work with Kramer has been better received, with Coal Baron outscoring Nauticus (it wouldn’t surprise me if it got at least one major nomination).  Just another fine year from the sometimes underrated, but always reliable Kiesling.

Wolfgang Kramer – Coal Baron; Nauticus; Expedition: Famous Explorers; Flash 10; The Walking Dead Card Game; Primo

2013 was Kramer’s fortieth year of designing games (his very first design, Tempo, the predecessor of Daytona 500 and Top Race, was published in 1974) and this ageless wonder just keeps rolling along with another nice crop of games.  Coal Baron and Nauticus, the two Kiesling co-designs, are the highlights, but Expedition: Famous Explorers, a redesign of his classic ’96 game Expedition (itself a revision of his earlier Wildlife Adventure) has been well received.  Flash 10 and Primo are lighter fare, while The Walking Dead Card Game is a redesign of 6 Nimmt! (what, no zombie bulls?).  I’m not sure there’s enough here for Wolfgang to challenge Feld, but his output is certainly good enough to rank him, once again, as one of the leading designers of the year.  The man shows no sign of slowing down and we are all the better for it.

Ludovic Maublanc – Rampage; Le Fantôme de l’Opéra; SOS Titanic

Maublanc is another of the cadre of reliable French designers who almost always work in pairs.  Rampage, the monster-themed dexterity game co-designed with former DotY Antoine Bauza, has done well on the Geek.  The other two designs, created with Cathala, are also notable.  Will Maublanc put it all together one year and cruise to a DotY title, as some of his co-designers have?  Only time will tell.

Paolo Mori – Augustus(sd); Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game; Memento

Mori has been around awhile and is best known for efforts like UR, Pocket Battles, Libertalia, and Tom Vasel’s favorite game, Vasco da Gama.  This is his most productive year to date, thanks mostly to Augustus–aka Roman Bingo–which was a finalist for the SdJ, got a DSP mention, and finished second in the a la carte award for Best Card Game (to Hanabi).  It’s not enough to compete for the big prize, but as always, it’s nice to see Italy represented on the DotY page.

Andrew Parks – Star Trek: Attack Wing; Canterbury

I think of Parks as young designer, but he’s actually been around for 10 years (anyone remember Ideology?).  His best known design is 2011’s Core Worlds, but this is his first appearance on the DotY pages.  The fact that he only produced two games last year isn’t a problem, as Attack Wing boasts a superb Geek rating of over 8.2 and Canterbury has gotten solid ratings as well.  Attack Wing is based at least in part on mechanics first used in last year’s Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game, so I’ll charge a small demerit for that, but this is still a very nice showing for Mr. Parks.

Uwe Rosenberg – Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Glass Road; Sissi!: Die Bohnenkaiserin

Rosenberg gives us a strong follow-up to his 2012 win.  The biggie, of course, is Caverna, which still maintains a stratospheric 8.5 average rating after almost 2000 votes.  There will certainly be some Game of the Year nominations in its future and a win or two is by no means unlikely.  Although it’s clearly inspired by Agricola, some basic concepts have been changed and an awful lot of additional stuff added, so I have no problem labeling it as an independent game.  And don’t overlook Glass Road, which is well rated and could easily compete for the Kennerspiel next year.  Sissi! is yet another standalone expansion of the venerable Bohnanza.  Uwe is the first nominee we’ve encountered who looks like he can truly challenge Feld for the top prize.  Will it really come down to these two and if so, who will win between these two designing giants?

Mike Selinker – Pathfinder Adventure Card Game; Veritas

Selinker is a veteran designer who’s worked a good deal with James Ernest.  But a solo effort has turned out to be easily his most popular game:  the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, a cooperative fantasy-themed quasi-deckbuilder, where the player characters grow in ability after each session.  It’s average rating of over 8.0 has earned it a spot in the Geek’s top 40.  Veritas (co-designed with Ernest) has decent ratings as well.  Selinker’s inclusion continues an interesting trend this year, of established designers getting their first mention on the DotY pages (just like Mori and Parks).

Martin Wallace – A Study in Emerald; Field of Glory: The Card Game; The Witches

Even though Wallace has continued to crank out titles over the past couple of years, since the appearance of the ill-fated Few Acres of Snow, they’ve been considerably lighter than what we’ve come to expect from him.  So his many fans have been delighted with the return to heavier fare in A Study in Emerald and its ratings show it.  Field of Glory is a very simple (but not necessarily straightforward) card game version of the miniatures classic; its ratings are so-so, but that hasn’t stopped it from gaining some very vocal fans.  Witches, on the other hand, is much more of a family game (and not a very successful one, I’m afraid).  Even with Emerald’s success, this won’t be enough to snatch yet another DotY, but with some very interesting sounding and meaty games already announced for next year, there’s every chance that Martin will be in the running for the 2014 award.

So there’s the list of designers I felt had the best collections of games during the previous year.  It’s an interesting collection, with some new names and familiar faces.  But if you were paying attention, you realized that it pretty much came down to a two person race.  And even that one didn’t turn out to be all that close.  So I’m pleased to announce that the Designer of the Year for 2013, perhaps to the surprise of no one, is…


Sometimes, the obvious answer is the right one.  Feld produced four major titles, all highly rated and widely played, and will probably wind up with something like 8 major nominations.  That’s just a tough combination to beat.  So Feld’s much anticipated annus mirabilus ends with him holding his third DotY award, an achievement matched by only Sackson, Knizia, Kramer, Randolph, Teuber, and Wallace.  Congratulations!

Rosenberg follows his win last year with a strong second place finish, far ahead of the rest of the pack.  Third place goes to the ever youthful Wolfgang Kramer, with Parks and Cathala rounding out the top 5.

So perhaps no surprises this year, but who knows what 2014 will bring?  Whatever it may be, I’ll be here at just about this time next year to let you know which designer gave us the best group of playthings to delight us.  I hope you’re all here to join us as well!

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19 Responses to Larry Levy: 2013 Designer of the Year Award

  1. Larry, is there a list of all the previous winners somewhere?

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    I think there needs to be a Geeklist!

    • huzonfirst says:

      Martin and Jeff: A Geeklist is certainly something I can put together. Let me see if I can get something created tonight. I’ll post a link to it in a comment to this article when I do. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • jeffinberlin says:

        I think it would be good to include all nominees with the games they produced that year. You can, of course, include any of your comments along with it, but I’d especially like to see your summary of the winner(s) included.

  3. Felix says:

    It is surprising to me how little anyone stands out here. Feld’s four games were all misses for me. And Uwe’s Glass Road just felt like an unnecessarily more complex Witches Brew which just leaves him with derivative games. But no one else has a DOY resume either.

  4. Yeah, I was one of the folks floored by the prospect of 4 big box Feld games in one year (and of course I bought them all). But really none of them panned out as really great games. Even among Feld games. And they’re all on the for-sale pile. This year has transitioned Feld from an auto-buy to a wait-and-see.

    • huzonfirst says:

      I like all four of them, Curt, but only Bora Bora really stacks up with Feld’s best, IMO. And I’m a big Feld fanboy. I’m particularly annoyed that Brugges doesn’t seem to have a strategic aspect (which doesn’t seem to bother the game’s fans); it seems like it could have been much better if you had any guarantee you could follow through on a plan of action. We also wonder if there’s a bit of a dominant strategy in Rialto (acquiring the green buildings that beef up your hand). I’ve enjoyed Amerigo so far; it remains to be seen how well it holds up after repeated plays. I won’t turn down any of the games and still consider it a successful year for Feld, but Bora Bora might be the only one that gets significant play a year from now.

      • I agree Bora Bora is the best, but it has a similar problem to Bruges (and Macao): the key is the people, and collecting a complementary set, but a strategy requires knowing what people will come out and you can’t know that.

        • huzonfirst says:

          True, but the issue seems much worse in Bruges than it does in Bora Bora or Macao. Maybe it’s because in the latter two games, the cards you collect will still be useful, even if they don’t wind up being as valuable as they could have been, whereas in Bruges, a card without the appropriate matches could easily wind up being worth next to nothing. Or maybe it’s just my faulty perception. But you make an interesting comparison of the three games.

          • Bora Bora might be even worse than Bruges, considering that you can only play ONE man and ONE woman per turn. If you have more than one (wo)man, you have to choose which to use. If you get matching ones, then bully for you–you can combo them, otherwise too bad so sad. But nothing you can do to plan for it. At least in Bruges you know what you can get out of each card, and use it. Obviously you’re not going to play a card that grants scoring for guilds/professions before you have any, but most are good for SOMETHING.

            • seisyll says:

              I’m not a big fan of Bora Bora or anything, but it seems odd to criticize this mechanic of the game. Just because many games let you combo off endlessly doesn’t mean that Bora Bora should. That’s just not its angle. The one man and one woman rule sets an important restriction within the game – you need to either get more of the same man/woman tiles, to allow your extra end-of-turn actions to be more potent, or you need to find some green cards in order to open up your extra actions a bit more.

              Players of worker placement games seem to often value extra actions over potent actions. But we all understand the value of six wood sitting there in Agricola. I feel like Bora Bora places more emphasis on supercharging your actions (through god cards, tiles, accumulating shells/tatoos) rather than supplying you with extra actions. So it makes sense why extra actions are harder to come by in the game.

              • I already said Bora Bora is the best of the 4 Felds this year. So my criticisms are really only in the context of Larry’s criticisms against Bruges. But Bora Bora DOES let you create man/woman combos. Having matching man/woman tiles is a snowballing effect. That’s typically been the deciding factor in my games. They’re not necessarily “instead of” green cards.

              • seisyll says:

                Ok – I’ll stay out of it. :)

  5. Eric says:

    Bruges can be played in well under an hour and plays like a super-filler making the luck tolerable similar to something like San Juan. Perhaps the upcoming Bruges expansion will reduce the luck factor for those who are bothered by that.

  6. Tom Rosen says:

    Of course I have to say that I can’t believe Caverna isn’t italicized!

    Also, Amerigo is my favorite of the 2013 Feld games by a large margin (once the cube tower is fixed) and I think it will have the most replayability and longevity in the years to come. Only time will tell I suppose.

  7. DLE says:

    Looking over the list elicits a big yawn. Given the designer firepower listed, that’s a huge letdown. Coal Baron is about the only game I’m interested in playing.

    The most that can be said about Feld is that he had four chances to outdo Castles of Burgundy and he didn’t. I don’t think anyone will be playing any of his 2013 titles in 2015 as much as CoB has been played in 2013. That speaks for itself.

    • huzonfirst says:

      I’m not sure it does. After all, Burgundy is Feld’s most popular game and represents a pretty tough act to follow. I don’t think it’s fair to say the man’s year was a failure because none of his games was as good as the 11th ranked game on the Geek.

      But, as I said in the article, it’s true that none of Feld’s games was a blockbuster. I hope to be playing Bora Bora and Amerigo at least a little in 2015, but in my Cult-of-the-New world, it very well may not happen. Then again, there are very few 2 year old games that get played by us today–that’s one of the consequences of all the good new titles that appear every year.

  8. Brett Myers says:

    Regarding Mike Selinker’s “solo” work on the Pathfinder game:

    • huzonfirst says:

      Thanks for pointing me to this, Brett, and good for Mr. Selinker for sharing the glory. But I share the view of some of the commenters that any creative effort is the result of numerous people. That’s certainly true of movies and books and I think it’s also very true of games. Even if there isn’t the obvious joint effort as there is for Pathfinder, you have the developers (who, for most German games, at least, don’t even appear in the credits), the artist (who often has a huge impact on the quality of the game), the playtesters (who frequently make vital suggestions and sometimes actually suggest critical rule changes), and on and on. Each person adds their own efforts to making a successful game, so I have no problem citing the designer for their critical contribution, just as I have no problem viewing the director as the person most responsible for a movie. I understand exactly what Selinker is saying and I agree with his basic point, but the same thing could probably be said for all the games I cited in the article. So if and when I choose Mike Selinker as my Designer of the Year, he’s just going to have to accept the accolade with grace, even though the truth is that there are dozens of other people who made all those games a success.

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