Larry Levy: Designer of the Decade

Last month, an article appeared in Fortress: Ameritrash (http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/FortressAmeritrash/~3/ycZvKTSjzlI/4988-corey-konieczka-best-designer-of-the-last-ten-years) in which the author, Gary Sax, makes the case that Corey Konieczka, one of Fantasy Flight Games’ leading designers, is the greatest game designer of the past 10 years.  It’s certainly a compelling claim.  Regardless if you are a fan of his games or not, Konieczka has consistently cranked out high-rated titles year after year.  My Designer of the Year articles lend credence to this, as there was a 5 year period (2007-2011) where Konieczka was one of the top five designers four times.  It’s a very impressive group of games.

But there have been some other very good designers over the past 10 years as well.  So rather than take this author’s word for it, I thought I’d carry out an analysis to answer the following question:  who was the Designer of the Decade?  Which game designer has produced the best group of games over the previous 10 years?

I have my own views about this, but as is my wont, I figured I’d try to answer this objectively.  So here are the ground rules I set for the analysis.  The period under consideration is from 2005 to 2014, which conveniently stretches between the midpoints of the previous and the current calendar decades.  Every non-expansion game produced by the designer over that period is eligible.  I’ll use the Geek’s definition of “non-expansion game”; basically, if it’s eligible to get a Geek Game Rank, it’s included.  I’m going to exclude standard wargames, because the designers of those games really are different animals.  But other than that, my goal is to consider as many designers from that period as I can.

Obviously, I could expend a great deal of effort on this, but I’d rather do a quick and dirty analysis with some thought behind it and then argue about the results.  I decided to base the analysis on two criteria:  popularity and awards.  For the former, I chose to use the Geek’s Game Rank.  This isn’t a perfect measure—for example, it includes a built-in bias against older games.  But I figured for a simple measure, it’s about as accurate as we’re going to get.

The way this worked is I assigned points to each game based on its current Game Rank, using the following schedule:

Game Rank

Points

1-25

10

26-50

9

51-100

8

101-150

7

151-200

6

201-300

5

301-400

4

401-500

3

501-750

2

751-1000

1

Most of the games released in 2014 haven’t had enough time to reach their eventual Game Rank, so for those titles, I estimated the result, based on the game’s current average rating.  I didn’t bother trying to adjust for the older game bias, figuring it would mostly even out.

For awards, I assigned each game a number of points from 0 to 5, based on how well it performed in the annual gaming awards.  I considered the following awards:  SdJ, DSP, IGA, Golden Geeks, Dice Tower, a la carte, Meeples Choice, Spiel der Spiele, and Tric Trac.  I put a greater emphasis on the major awards (SdJ, DSP, and IGA) and gave more credit for award wins than nominations.  If a game got any award mentions it got at least 1 point; 5 points was reserved for games that performed fantastically well, with several wins (like Agricola or 7 Wonders); and the in-between cases were assigned points in proportion to these extremes.

Finally, I added the two values together to give me a score between 0 and 15 for each of the designer’s games.  I then summed up the scores for all of their games to give me a measure of how successful the designer was during the decade.

When I looked at the scores, four designers were well ahead of the rest.  They were, in alphabetical order, Stefan Feld, Konieczka, Uwe Rosenberg, and Martin Wallace.  So I’ll devote the rest of this article to analyzing the case for each of these four men.

Before I reveal the point totals, let me give some summary data for each designer.  Here is the number of eligible games, the number of games earning at least 1 point, and the titles of games earning at least 10 points for each designer.

Feld:  21 games, 18 with points, 5 games with 10+ points
          Castles of Burgundy, Trajan, Bora Bora, Bruges, Notre Dame

Konieczka:  17 games, 15 with points, 5 games with 10+ points
          Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures, Eldritch Horror, Battlestar Galactica,
Descent (2nd edition), Star Wars: Imperial Assault

Rosenberg:  29 games, 15 with points, 5 games with 10+ points
          Agricola, Le Havre, Caverna, Ora et Labora, Fields of Arle

Wallace:  43 games, 23 with points, 3 games with 10+ points
          Brass, Steam, A Few Acres of Snow

There are some interesting trends here.  First, notice the remarkably high percentage of published games that earned points for Feld and Konieczka.  Both designers have had a huge proportion of their games earn a high Game Rank.  For Feld, two of his games got nominations while falling outside of the top 1000, but that still means that over 75% of his published designs from the period are top 1000 games, a mighty high ratio.  In fact, 14 of those games (or 2/3 of his titles) fall within the top 500.  Those numbers are even more impressive for Konieczka.  15 of his 17 games fall inside the top 600 on the Geek and 13 out of 17 (or more than 75%) lie within the top 400.  That’s just incredible consistency.  Both of these designers have much higher percentages of scoring games than either Rosenberg or Wallace.

The other fun fact is that Wallace has accomplished his success in a different manner than the other three.  Stefan, Corey, and Uwe have very similar numbers of point-scoring games and 10+ point games.  Rosenberg has produced more games over the period than the other two, but the total is still in the same ballpark and the additional titles are almost all uber-light ones.  Martin, on the other hand, is the most productive of the four designers, as he has designed many more games over the last 10 years than the other three and has considerably more point-scoring titles.  The other side of the coin is that his percentage of high-ranked games is much lower than Feld’s or Konieczka’s and he has the lowest number of 10+ point designs.  There are a variety of reasons for this (for example, Wallace probably has the widest range in the titles he produces, but their coverage is more limited than those of the others since most of them are self-published), but it’s interesting to note that there’s more than one way of earning points in my system.

One final note before I reveal the point totals.  I suspect that some readers will view Rosenberg’s ranking with a little bit of suspicion, because so many of his highly ranked “Harvest games” bear strong similarities to each other.  After all, you could argue that Agricola begat Caverna, All Creatures Big and Small, and even Fields of Arle, and that Ora et Labora was derived from Le Havre.  I guess I give this argument a little bit of credence, but the only adjustment I think I’d make is to let it serve as a tiebreaker against Rosenberg in case he’s involved in a tight fight for the top spot.  The fact is, even though there are strong similarities between the cited games, they all play and feel pretty differently.  And it’s not like similar complaints haven’t been made about the other designers, mostly by those who don’t care for their games.  For example:  all of Feld’s games are point salads, with crazy dice mechanisms; Konieczka creates nothing but Cthulhu spinoffs, with the focus on pretty minis; and Wallace always focuses on unforgiving designs with plenty of loans and death spirals.  I don’t agree with any of these assessments (although I acknowledge there’s a little bit of truth to all of them), but you still hear them made.  So I don’t really have any issues with giving Uwe full credit for his many highly rated games, despite some surface similarities.

Okay, here are the results for each designer.  Rather than list the totals for each game, I think it’s more instructive to sum up all the Game Rank points, then sum up all the Awards points, and list the totals along with the grand total.  That shows where each designer is getting his points from.  So when we do that, here’s what we get.

Feld:  90 + 29 = 119 pts.
Wallace:  85 + 24 = 109 pts.
Rosenberg:  78 + 29 = 107 pts.
Konieczka:  93 + 9 =102 pts.

They’re grouped pretty closely together, but Feld winds up on top by a reasonable margin.  So by this measure, at least, the Designer of the Decade is Stefan Feld.  Is there anything more to say about this?

Maybe there is.  The problem with the analysis is that there’s an inherent bias in award performance against FFG-style games.  Of the three major game awards, the German-based SdJ and DSP pretty much ignore those designs and they rarely receive nominations from the IGA’s.  The gap is starting to narrow, as the Golden Geeks and Dice Tower awards are starting to mature, but it’s still true that a Eurogame designer will get many more nominations and awards than a similarly talented FFG-style designer.

(I’ve chosen to coin the term “FFG-style game”, rather than use the more standard term “Ameritrash” for a couple of reasons.  First of all, “Ameritrash” inspires strong emotions in a lot of people, which can bias them one way or another.  More significantly, I don’t think AT is a particularly well defined term, as it seems to mean different things to different people.  Whereas, I’m pretty sure most gamers will understand what I mean by “FFG-style games”:  highly thematic designs, with themes based on science fiction, horror, and fantasy, and which frequently include elaborate miniatures.  I think it does a better job of describing the kinds of games I mean.)

A reasonable question is, if the awards are biased, why include them in the analysis at all?  Well, for one thing, every measure is biased to some extent, including Game Rank.  Geek users are a fairly varied group, but I’m sure you’ve all noticed that certain kinds of games get more ratings love than others.  So it’s just a good thing to include multiple aspects of game quality in our analysis, so that it can be as rounded as possible.  The other thing is, even if you take the bias against FFG-style games into account, for whatever reason, Konieczka’s performance with the awards just isn’t very good.  So we should probably take that into account to some extent, just not as much as the initial analysis did.

I guess I could have tried to come up with some sophisticated way of balancing the two portions of the point totals.  But the intent is still to make this a quick and dirty analysis.  So my first thought was just to halve the total award points for each designer and then add the resulting figure to the Game Rank points.  As it turned out, this produced a more reasonable looking result, which takes award performance into account, but not too much.  When I carried out the calculations, I got the following results:

Feld:  90 + 14.5 = 104.5
Konieczka:  93 + 4.5 = 97.5
Wallace:  85 + 12 = 97.0
Rosenberg:  78 + 14.5 = 92.5

So what conclusions can I draw from the second, and probably superior ranking system?  I’m still pretty comfortable picking Feld as my Designer of the Decade.  His Game Rank total is just behind Konieczka’s and his performance in the gaming awards is much better, beyond the ability of a simple bias to explain.  On the other hand, Konieczka does have the highest Game Rank total of any designer, so if you really think that award performance is close to irrelevant, I could see someone choosing him as the best of the last ten years.

So after looking at the data, I think it indicates that Stefan Feld is the Designer of the Decade.  Corey Konieczka, the subject of the F:AT article that inspired this, is also a reasonable candidate.  Martin Wallace and Uwe Rosenberg have some pretty impressive portfolios as well.  Give me the output from the last 10 years of any of these designers and I think I’d be pretty happy!

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6 Responses to Larry Levy: Designer of the Decade

  1. Doug Faust says:

    My rebuttal to people who do these sorts of analyses and list FFG designers so prominently is that the games they work on are very often co-designed. If you take a game like X-Wing and count it as Corey Konieczka’s design, but then in the same analysis you also count it as Steven Kimball’s design, James Kniffen’s design, Jason Little’s design, Brady Sadler’s design, and Adam Sadler’s design, you’re in essence weighting X-Wing as a game that’s six times more important than a game designed by a single designer. And that’s just not fair.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    I understand your point, Doug, but I don’t know how else to handle it. Certainly, I’ve never given Kramer less credit for his many co-designs than another designer (say, Knizia) who almost always designs by himself. The analysis also gives the same credit for a light game, that the designer might have polished off in a week, and a very intricate title, that might have taken the better part of a year (assuming that they have comparable Game Ranks). There’s just too many variables to try to consider for a quickie analysis, so I only went with my two factors.

    I would also point out that X-Wing is the extreme example. Quite a few of Corey’s most popular designs were solo efforts and in almost all of the other ones, he only had one or two co-designers.

    Finally, note that in Konieczka’s most recent collaborative efforts (including X-Wing), he is by far the most senior FFG designer in the credits. It’s not therefore hard to imagine that he might be the lead designer, or at least doing more than his fair share of the design work, while the more junior members are gaining experience in their craft by assisting him. That’s total speculation, but I don’t think it’s an outrageous supposition. It also illustrates the slippery slope we can encounter once we try to apportion what percentage of a game to credit to each co-designer.

  3. lambolt says:

    “The problem with the analysis is that there’s an inherent bias in award performance against FFG-style games”

    that and the arbitrary ratings you’ve assigned to games based on a ranking that is also based on arbitrary scales (albeit thats based on a large number of people rating, so at least there your claim about bias against AT style games, or rather, predominance of Euro style gaming on BGG makes sense)

    but try changing the numeric values you assign to your rank “categories” and then try changing the categories to not be grouped in 25s. You will get different answers quite often I think. Based on this ‘analysis’ (quotes used not to disparage but only to highlight the arbitrary nature of it) you can really only say “those 4 guys made a lot of games that were well received on a particular site, that you can argue or not reflects a wider opinion (I’d argue that it’s probably not the case, in general)”.

    Also, everyone has their own idea of what designer of the decade does, should or even could mean. One great genre changer? Lots of high quality titles, a small number of “big hitters”, “truly innovative”. How long is a piece of string. People like Nate Hayden have not necessarily been prolific but several of his recent games (Pablo, Cave Evil, Mushroom) are pretty unique in some way and go beyond the cookie cutter approach of someone like Feld, skilled though he is with the “BGG milquetoast cookie dough”, if I can pile on with an easy slight…. even Rosenberg (and Agricola is our goto game at home) can hardly be accused of outlandish innovation, whatever the ludological pedantry about whether Le havre is or isnt like Agricola, no sane person is going to be able to argue strongly that Agricola, Le Havre, Loyang, Caverna, Arle are not all in several ways cut from the same cloth. Should that diminish or not his output in the decade, thats for everyone to decide themselves (Breese I think is also in this category), I’m not that familiar with all of Coreys games but Wallace of the other 3 at least seems to be the one who really sits down to a subject matter and tries to tackle it in an honest way, even if it doesnt always come off. Jensens put out a pretty good catalogue even if I think his euro games are all flawed in ways that keep them from really being on par with his wargame output.

    Surprised Chvatil didnt get a look in, that doesnt really pass the smell test, even if none of his stuff stuck with me, youve got Dungeon Lords/Pets, Galaxy Trucker, Tash Kalar, Mage Knight, Through the Ages, Space Alert which I would be hard pressed to imagine does not stack up to the “AAA” titles of the other lot.

    Well, “X of the X” articles are always a bit of fun, and everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, so good on you Larry as always

  4. huzonfirst says:

    All reasonable points, Lee. Which merely justifies (in my mind, at least) my decision to go with a simple analysis. If I tried to introduce any of the things you mention, we’d be arguing about the details of it till the Agricola cows came home. So I just went with Game Rank on a roughly logarithmic scale, which I think was good enough to show me the dominant designers.

    As for Chvatil, it’s true that he has some extremely highly rated games (two in the top 10, a total of five in the top 100). The trouble is, he just doesn’t publish as much as the other guys. He released only 14 designs in the ten year period and only 8 of them scored points. In the revised scoring method, that gives him 65 points, which puts him well behind the other four.

  5. lambolt says:

    It would have been interesting to look at worldwide sales but I don’t know if publishers really like to wang that info round too freely, I bet stuff like Dominion would probably come out ahead of all the stuff these guys have done.

    If you do away with the numbers and pick based on your own subjective appreciation of the contenders (even the ones not on your original list), and your own preference for whether volume or consistency or “game changing” unique titles go, who would you choose as a matter of curiosity?

    I hope we can all agree that if you go back into the previous decade, Knizia would be the choice!

  6. huzonfirst says:

    For my own personal designer of the decade, Lee, it comes down to a very tight race between Feld and Wallace. I think I’d go with Feld, although if you ask me tomorrow, I might pick Martin instead. Rosenberg is a solid third pick. Other designers that have given me great pleasure over the last 10 years include Chvatil, Knizia, Gerdts, Kramer, Dorn, Moon, and Lehmann.

    And yes, the clear winner for me for the years 1995-2004 would be Knizia. I suspect he’d also be the selection of the points method, although I wouldn’t rule out Kramer and his multiple SdJs. But Reiner’s output for most of that 10-year period was nothing short of astonishing.

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