Larry Levy: 2014 Designer of the Year Award

As you probably know, they just announced the winners of the Golden Geek awards over on the Geek.  I hope a lot of you participated in the voting.  This year, Aldie and his merry crew added even more categories.  So for this set of awards and similar ones, we now select the best games (in various genres), best publishers, best artists, even the best podcasts.  But what about the people who are the principal creative force behind these games:  the designers?  Why does no one reward the best designer of the year?

That was the question I asked myself about 10 years ago, when I started posting my Designer of the Year articles.  The idea is to recognize 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.  My criteria include how well the designer’s games are rated on BGG, how many major awards and nominations they’ve won (or are projected to win), and how much “buzz” their games are generating.  As much as possible, I try to keep my personal feelings out of things.

I also try to include as many types of games as possible.  I do exclude standard wargames, because I just don’t know that much about them.  And I leave out games which are strictly for children, because that’s an entirely different aspect of the hobby.  But other than that, everything is considered:  boardgames, card games, dexterity games, CCGs…the works.  I 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 the Geek said it was published last year, and it ain’t a wargame or an expansion, then it gets tossed in the pot.

Over the years, the parts of the world where these prolific designers come from has been expanding and that trend increased last year.  Originally, you could pretty much focus on designers from Western Europe (including Britain) and the U.S.  Then, we began seeing multiple designers from the Far East.  Now, the Slavic countries are coming to the fore.  There doesn’t seem to be any portion of the globe which isn’t represented in the world of gaming and that’s very exciting.  Moreover, there used to be just a handful of designers who produced more than 3 or 4 games a year.  That number is growing as well, as there are more full-time designers supporting an ever increasing demand for quality titles.  That makes this award more wide open than ever.

So let me list the dozen designers that I think had the best collection of games in 2014.  I’ve listed them in alphabetical order.  As usual, only a small number of these titles were released early enough to qualify for any of the annual awards, but for the ones that did, 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 indicates a Golden Geek Game of the Year nominee or category winner, while G shows the Golden Geek Game of the Year.  Other awards considered in my evaluations include the a la carte award for best card game, the Dice Tower awards, the Meeples Choice Awards, and Austria’s Spiel der Spiele.  When a game is shown in italics, it indicates that it is a redesign or an expanded version of a title released previously.

Okay, let’s get started.

Ted Alspach – Castles of Mad King Ludwig(g); One Night Ultimate Werewolf(g); Ultimate Werewolf

Alspach has sure come a long way from when he was only known for cartoon meeples.  His breakthrough came last year with the popular Suburbia and he’s followed it up with the top rated game from Essen, Castles of MKL, which just got a nomination for Game of the Year by the Golden Geeks, along with runner-up for best Strategy Game.  He also continues to do well with various incarnations of Werewolf, including his expanded version of Akihisa Okui’s extremely clever One Night Werewolf.  As long as he keeps cranking out games like this, Ted’s first visit to the DotY page won’t be his last!

Bruno Cathala – Five Tribes(g); Abyss(g); Madame Ching; Haru Ichiban; Desperados of Dice Town; Dragon Run

Cathala has made frequent appearances on this page and this year he’s given us another strong collection of games.  Five Tribes is ranked around #80 on the Geek and was selected as a runner-up for the Golden Geek Game of the Year, as well as being picked as best Strategy Game.  I expect it’ll grab some other award nominations later in the year as well.  Abyss also has a nice rating.  Madame Ching is his third major design, although its ratings are considerably lower.  Even the lesser known Desperados has 250 ratings.  Will it all be enough to give Bruno his second DotY award?

Rüdiger Dorn – Istanbul(Kdig); Faulpelz; The Hobbit: Enchanted Gold

Almost all of Dorn’s qualifications for this award come from the reception to Istanbul; that’s what a major award and a bunch of nominations can do for you.  It won’t be enough to take the big prize, but it’s great to see this terrific designer’s return to success.

Mike Elliot – Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men; Marvel Dice Masters: Uncanny X-Men; Shadowrun: Crossfire; Thunderstone Advance: Worlds Collide; Quarriors! Light vs. Dark; Sangoku

Elliot’s half-dozen designs are all well rated, but his case is hurt by the fact that four of the games are spinoffs of some of his earlier titles:  the two Dice Master games and the Light vs. Dark game are derived from Quarriors, while Worlds Collide is made up of selected cards from earlier versions of Thunderstone.  Still, there is original work in each of these games and the titles have been well received.  And six games is six games.  If you want to see if this translates into a high finish, or even a DotY win, read on.

Michael Kiesling – 7 Steps; Abluxxen(i); DOG Cards; Mensch ärgere Dich nicht: Das Kartenspiel

More and more, we’re starting to see the talented Kiesling as a separate entry from his better known design partner, Wolfgang Kramer.  This year, it’s due to 7 Steps, an abstract he co-designed with Reinhard Staupe.  But it’s still his joint efforts with Kramer that make up the bulk of his candidacy; primarily, the delightful Abluxxen (also known, sadly, as Linko), which, in addition to its IGA nomination, won the a la carte award and the Spiel der Spiele.  Year in and year out, we can always expect to find some notable designs from gaming’s longest running partnership.

Gun-Hee Kim –  Tales & Games: The Hare and the Tortoise(g); Abraca…what?; Chosŏn; 7 Kingdoms

Kim is the latest designer from the Far East to grace the DotY pages—this time, we have one who hails from South Korea.  The highlight of his 2014 portfolio is Hare and Tortoise, a hidden identities race game that was originally published in Korea in 2011 (as Royal Turtle), but which had so little visibility in that form that I have no problem considering it to be a 2014 design.  It just won the Golden Geek for best Children’s game.  Chosŏn is also well rated, but it’s quite similar to Kim’s earlier game, Koryŏ.  The game getting the most buzz is probably Abraca…what?, an innovative deduction game.  Kim is certainly a designer that bears watching in the future and it’s nice to see yet another country get a DotY nomination.

Wolfgang Kramer – Abluxxen(i); Col-or-Form; DOG Cards; Mensch ärgere Dich nicht: Das Kartenspiel; 6 Nimmt! Jubiläumsausgabe

Just like Ol’ Man River, Kramer just keeps rollin’ along.  In addition to the three co-designs with Kiesling, Wolfgang gave us a speed game with an interesting twist (Col-or-Form) and the 20th anniversary edition of the classic 6 Nimmt!.  And with several games already announced for 2015, the man shows no sign of slowing down.  Kramer is an international treasure and as long as he keeps making ’em, we’ll keep playing ’em.

Eric Lang – Arcadia Quest; Warhammer 40,000: Conquest; Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men; Marvel Dice Masters: Uncanny X-Men; Kaosball; Quarriors! Light vs. Dark; Generation Hex

Lang is one of the large number of Fantasy Flight designers (including those currently and previously with the publisher) who are making a significant impact in the world of gaming.  This collection of games, however, goes well beyond anything the now independent designer has ever created.  Start with Arcadia Quest, a miniatures-heavy dungeon crawl that sports a Geek rating of 8.2.  Or Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, a 2-player Living Card Game with a rating of 7.9.  The three co-designs with Mike Elliot (the two Dice Master games and the Quarriors design) are all spinoffs, but are nevertheless doing very well.  Four of Lang’s games were nominated for the Golden Geeks and Avengers vs. X-Men wound up as a runner-up for Best 2-Player Game.  It’s a true gaming explosion from an already prolific designer, with both quality and quantity.  The question is, is it enough to win a Designer of the Year award?

Richard Launius – Run, Fight, or Die!; Draco Magi; Alien Uprising; Till Dawn; Cthulhu’s Vault

Launius might well be considered the Father of the FFG-style of game design, thanks to his 1987 game, Arkham Horror.  That was his only design credit for a couple of decades, but he returned to game design after retiring from his full-time job and 2014 was a particularly bountiful year for him.  Run, Fight, or Die! and Draco Magi sport nice ratings; the other three less so, but it’s still an impressive quintet of games.  It’s good to see this influential designer return to the fold with such a vengeance.

Tom Lehmann – Roll for the Galaxy(g); Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age; Ciúb

2014 was the Year of the Dice for this former DotY winner.  Roll for the Galaxy, the dice version of his classic Race for the Galaxy, is doing extremely well and figures to grab an additional nomination or two (it was already nominated for the Golden Geek Game of the Year).  Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age is a sequel to Matt Leacock’s Roll Through the Ages, which reduces its impact a bit.  And unfortunately, Ciúb, a Yahtzee-style title with lots of specially designed dice, hasn’t gotten much ratings love.  Galaxy is the main draw here, but it’s not enough to give Tom a repeat visit to the DotY winner’s circle.

Andrei Novac – Progress: Evolution of Technology; Praetor; Versailles

Novac is the lead designer for NSKN Games, based in Romania, giving us yet another spot on the globe that has been represented on the DotY pages.  All three of his games are doing reasonably well.  It’s a nice achievement for a young designer, even if it won’t be enough to compete for the big prize.

Uwe Rosenberg – Fields of Arle; Patchwork(g)

It’s another strong year for Rosenberg, even though he only has two titles this time around.  Fields of Arle, his latest Harvest game, has a sky-high rating of 8.4 on the Geek.  Patchwork is a lighter title, but has still been very well received.  It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the two games generated a passel of award nominations.  Uwe once won a DotY with but a single game; of course, that game happened to be Agricola.  Is it possible that this twosome could give the Bean Man his third Designer of the Year award?

So those are my twelve nominees.  It’s a pretty strong year, with highlights from every corner of the world.  But in the end, one name stood out.  And so, with the muted strains of the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background, I’m happy to announce that the winner of the Designer of the Year award for 2014 is…

ERIC LANG!!!

As I mentioned in his entry, Lang’s output featured both quantity and quality, a large group of games with very high ratings.  It’s just a flat-out impressive collection.  And Eric may not finished yet:  the Geek shows no fewer than seven announced titles for him during 2015 (although it should be noted that five of them are Dice Master games).  We could be witnessing the beginnings of a dynasty!

Second place goes to Cathala, thanks mostly to Five Tribes and Abyss.  Rosenberg’s pair of 2-player games earns him third place, just ahead of Lang’s frequent design partner, Mike Elliot.  Dorn and Alspach flesh out the top 6.  Congratulations to all these fine designers.

So for the first time since 2007, we have an American winner of the Designer of the Year award.  Will this prove to be a trend?  Have the great thematic game designers achieved a level of productivity to match that of their Euro cousins?  And what other areas of the globe will provide us with new designers in the years to come?  The only way to find the answers to these questions is to check out next year’s article, when we once again recognize the best designer of the year.  See you then!

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7 Responses to Larry Levy: 2014 Designer of the Year Award

  1. reixou says:

    Thank you for the work Larry, as every year.

    To be sure I would have bet A LOT that this one for Bruno Cathala this year. In France at least both Abyss and Five Tribes where huge successes and, yes, he had another 4 releases this year – maybe not very welll distributed in the states.
    But probably you’re right and you made good points, Eric Lang deserve it as much.

    NB : we have the As d’Or / Game of the year tonight in France (Cannes festival) and both Abyss & 5 Tribes nominated. 5 Tribes probably will probably win the “Gamer’s game award” (and Abyss lose probably to Colt Express or Machi Koro for Game of the year).

    For next year, I would bet that Roberto Fraga should be in a good place (Pingo Pingo at Iello, Doctor Panik at Repos and Polaris at Matagot all look fantastic from the prototype.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Good to hear from you again, my friend. You’ve been around for the Designer of the Year series from the very beginning and I always like to see what you have to say.

      I understand why you might have thought that this would be Bruno’s year. Although both Five Tribes and Abyss have been well received throughout the world, I can easily believe that they were even more popular in France. It actually was a very good collection of games for Cathala, probably good enough to win in some other years. But Lang had such a strong output that he stole the prize away.

      I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for Fraga next year. Eric Martin has already outlined some of the games he’ll be producing and it does look impressive.

  2. um, Eric is not American, he’s Canadian. You could mention that he’s the only designer of African heritage as well.

  3. huzonfirst says:

    Thanks for correcting me, Jennifer–I had no idea Lang was Canadian! According to his Geek bio, he lives in the beautiful city of Toronto. I guess I just assumed he was from the U.S. because of all the years he spent with FFG. Off the top of my head, the only other prominent Canadian designer I can think of is Bill Payne, the designer of SdJ winner Villa Paletti. But I’m sure there’s plenty of other designers I’m either forgetting or am not aware of. To all my good friends in Canada, please forgive me–I had no intention of slighting your wonderful country.

    I think I’m kind of happy that it didn’t occur to me to mention Eric’s race. One of the many terrific things about our hobby is the fact that it’s almost entirely color-blind. However, the fact that Lang is one of the very few black game designers does make it more noteworthy. I’m not aware of any internal or external pressures that would be responsible for something like this, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present. At any rate, I’m glad you brought it up; hopefully, it becomes a non-issue as we see more designers of every race and nationality in the future.

    • Larry, congrats on not only your highly anticipated annual tradition, but on keeping tabs on who’s who in the gaming world.

      And have you ever published your own personal opinion on DOTY? That is, who you feel deserves the trophy each year, based on your own taste in games.

      One Canadian, who is now a US citizen, but who retains that je ne sais quoi, above-the-fray, almost Spock-like Canadian objectivity, is Greg Daigle (Hawaii).

      • huzonfirst says:

        Thanks, Jared, always great hearing from you. You know, Greg Daigle is a dear friend and we’ve been roommates at the Gathering for more than 10 years. And I had no idea that he was Canadian!

        As for my own personal DotY, I guess that would be fun to do. But opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one (okay, I cleaned that one up a bit!). I think an objective analysis (or as objective as I can make it) of who the best designer is is far more interesting than my personal thoughts on the matter. But y’all are giving me some interesting ideas for working this article in the future!

  4. huzonfirst says:

    By the way, I got a note from a reader named Lance Coffee wondering if it would also be fun to have a Publisher of the Year award. I can see where that would be a much bigger task than the DotY, since there are *so* many publishers these days and some of them produce a ton of games every year. But it’s still an interesting idea, so maybe I’ll think about it. If anyone else has any ideas about something like this, I’d love to hear them!

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