2016: the Year of Decision. After so much anticipation, we finally select a winner. Who will it be? Will bombast and glitz win out over quiet competence? Will it be a front-runner or someone unexpected? Last time, for the first time in history, a man of color was selected; could this happen again? Or might, at long last, a woman actually win this great honor?
All will be decided in 2016. And the best part is, you won’t have to wait long to find out the result. See, I’m going to tell you the winner right now. In fact, I’m the only one who can. Because it’s time for the 2015 Designer of the Year award!
What, did you think I was talking about something else? :-)
For the past dozen years or so, I’ve been handing out what I call the Designer of the Year award. This honors the game designer who has what I consider to be the most impressive portfolio of game creations released over the previous calendar year. Not the single best game—there are zillions of Game of the Year awards. Rather, I want to look at each designer’s total body of work and cite the individual who had the best collection of games. My goal is for this to be an objective award and not be based on my personal feelings about the designs. I have three main criteria: 1) how well the designer’s games are rated on BGG; 2) how many major awards and nominations they’ve won (or are projected to win); and 3) how much “buzz” their games are generating. It’s not exactly a science, but there is a method to my madness.
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, party games…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 isn’t a wargame or an expansion, then it’s eligible for consideration.
For those who like to skip to the last page of the book they’re reading, here’s a spoiler: 2015 was an extraordinary year for designers. Probably the strongest I’ve ever seen. I try to limit the number of nominees each year to 10 or so, but this year, I couldn’t whittle it down any lower than 15 designers. Usually I list the designers in alphabetical order, but there were many cases last year of a pair of designers who created some notable games together, but one member of the team created additional games independent of his partner. The less productive member of the pairing often had a year worth citing, so in those cases, I listed the partner with the larger portfolio first, directly followed by his co-designer. It just seemed to make the article flow better.
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), while r shows an SdJ recommendation. Other awards considered in my evaluations include the a la carte award for best card game, the Golden Geeks, 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.
Finally, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ve actually pored through the history books to retroactively select Designers of the Year all the way back to 1955! You can find the list, along with a write-up for each year, in the following Geeklist: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/170779 As soon as this article is posted, I’ll update it to include this year’s winner.
Okay, that’s enough gaming palaver, even for me. Let’s check out the DotY nominees for 2015:
Bruno Cathala – 7 Wonders: Duel; Raptor; Mission: Red Planet (second edition); Queen’s Necklace; The Little Prince: Rising to the Stars
Cathala is a regular visitor to the DotY page; in fact, he won the award in 2006 and finished second to Eric Lang last year. This year’s collection might be even stronger than his previous one. 7 Wonders: Duel has already climbed into the top 20 on the Geek, with a rating of over 8.2. It definitely figures to get some award nominations and has an excellent chance at taking the 2-player IGA or the a la carte. Raptor, an asymmetric 2-player challenge, has also done very well, while the redesign of Mission: Red Planet, first released a decade ago, sports a rating of almost 8. Could this be the year when Bruno finally grabs that elusive second DotY?
Antoine Bauza – 7 Wonders: Duel; The Little Prince: Rising to the Stars
Bauza, another former DotY winner, was the co-designer for two of Cathala’s games, and therefore will finish behind his countryman no matter how things play out. Still, 7 Wonders: Duel is an impactful enough title that he deserves a mention as one of the year’s leading designers.
Vlaada Chvatil – Codenames; Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
Chvatil might be the best designer never to have won a DotY award. The principal reason for that is that he rarely releases more than two titles a year and as good as Vlaada’s games are, it can be hard to compete with the guys who are cranking out half a dozen or so. This year is no exception, but the games are so special, he has a real shot at the award. Let’s start with the marvelous Codenames, the game for all occasions, which has zoomed into the top 20 on the Geek and continues to rise. It’s a strong contender for the SdJ and should get a bunch of other nominations. Add to that the reboot of Through the Ages, which adds a bunch of small changes to the original, all of which, in the opinion of most, are improvements. All it’s been able to achieve is a rating well over 9, after 1000 votes! If both games were originals, Chvatil would probably be a shoo-in, but even with discounting the TtA redesign, it’s a very strong year. Will it finally be enough?
Rüdiger Dorn – Steam Time; Karuba; Da Luigi; Tausch Rausch; Tschakka Lakka
Dorn’s return from Designer Purgatory continues with this solid collection of titles. Steam Time, a time-traveling themed WP game, is well rated and has gotten solid reviews. It wouldn’t shock me if it got an SdJ recommendation or a top 10 finish in the DSPs. Karuba is a Take It Easy-style game in which the revealed tiles can be used in two different ways and the players are racing through the jungle. The group isn’t enough to put Rüdiger among the DotY contenders, but it’s nice to see that last year’s Istanbul wasn’t a last gasp and that we can once again count on Dorn to provide us with continuing delights.
Phil Eklund – Pax Pamir; Neanderthal; High Frontier (3rd edition); High Frontier Lite
Eklund’s designing career goes all the way back to 1988, when his Lords of the Sierra Madre had master reviewer Mike Siggins waxing rhapsodic in the pages of Sumo. His games are like no one else’s, far from approachable, and feature massive amounts of research into obscure history or hard-core science. This is his first visit to the DotY pages because this is the first time he’s released more than one game in a year. And happily, there’s quality as well as quantity. Pax Pamir extends the system from his popular Pax Porfiriani to 19th century Afghanistan. Neanderthal is a battle between three prehistoric human species. And the High Frontier spinoffs find the players exploring the solar system. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill Eurogames! It’s still not enough to compete for the top spot, but I’m happy to be able to recognize one of gaming’s most unique talents.
Bruno Faidutti – Raptor; Mission: Red Planet (second edition); Warehouse 51; Queen’s Necklace; Attila; 3 Monkeys
Do you realize that Bruno’s been designing games for over 30 years? Pretty impressive. Last year was a good one for the Dean of French Designers. I already discussed Raptor and Mission in my comments on Cathala, who co-designed them. Warehouse 51, which posits a bankrupt America auctioning off the magical relics it has gathered over the years, is classic Faidutti, with a colorful theme and chaotic gameplay. Bruno shows no sign of slowing down and that’s a very good thing.
James Kniffen – Forbidden Stars; Star Wars: Armada; Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game Core Set
Kniffen is the latest of a long line of successful FFG in-house designers. They certainly do a good job of growing their own, don’t they? Clearly, Mr. Kniffen specializes in the sci-fi end of things. Both Forbidden Stars and Star Wars: Armada have ratings well in excess of 8 and are ranked in the Geek’s top 200. The Core Set developed for the X-Wing miniatures game James helped design three years ago has an even higher rating. It’ll be very interesting to follow the career of this new FFG star and see if he might grace the DotY pages a few more times, like so many of his brethren.
Eric Lang – Blood Rage; XCOM: The Board Game; A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (2nd edition); DC Dice Masters: Justice League; Dungeon & Dragons Dice Masters: Battle for Faerun; Marvel Dice Masters: Age of Ultron; Marvel Dice Masters: The Amazing Spider-Man; DC Dice Masters: War of Light; Yu-Gi-Oh! Dice Masters
Lang was the DotY last year based on a large collection of very popular thematic games. If anything, his portfolio this year is even more impressive. Nine games! And most of them with a rating of at least 7.7 and all of them at least 7.0. That’s just insane. Should we just call off the rest of the proceedings and give Mr. Lang his second consecutive award?
Not so fast, Avengers Breath! A cursory glance at Eric’s list shows that no fewer than six of the designs are Dice Master games. The Dice Master series is a family of dice-drafting games based on the system first introduced in Quarriors, a 2011 title by Lang and Mike Elliot. Each of the games features different characters, some unique dice, and a few tailored rules. But mechanically, the titles are pretty similar. Naturally, something like that isn’t nearly as impressive as six independent games designed from scratch and as a result, their value when judging the quality of Lang’s year is considerably reduced.
Even taking that into account, it’s still a remarkably good year. The highlight is Blood Rage, which is kind of a thematic sequel to Lang’s earlier, and much more Eurogamey, Midgard. This Viking-themed design has already climbed into the Geek’s top 25, with a sky-high rating of over 8.3. The redesign of the Game of Thrones card game has a rating almost as high, while the XCOM Board Game is also well regarded. Combine that with the still sizable boost from the Dice Master games (after all, six titles is six titles), and back-to-back DotY titles remains a strong possibility. But don’t place your bets just yet, kids—there are still a lot of heavy hitters to be considered.
Mike Elliot – DC Dice Masters: Justice League; Dungeon & Dragons Dice Masters: Battle for Faerun; Marvel Dice Masters: Age of Ultron; Marvel Dice Masters: The Amazing Spider-Man; DC Dice Masters: War of Light; Yu-Gi-Oh! Dice Masters
Elliot was Lang’s co-designer for all of the Dice Master games. It’s pretty wild for the author of six highly rated games to be consigned to DotY also-ran status, but that’s the effect of the discounting for such similar titles. The prolific Elliot is a regular visitor to the Designer of the Year pages and one of these years, he’s going to put it all together and grab his own award. But not this time.
Matt Leacock – Pandemic Legacy: Season 1; Thunderbirds
Leacock has had quite an impressive career as a game designer. Pandemic is perhaps the most popular cooperative game ever designed. He also was a finalist for the SdJ award for three consecutive years, a remarkable achievement. But even with all that, nothing he has done can come close to the impact that Pandemic Legacy has had. Not only is it the game that finally interrupted Twilight Struggle’s 5-year reign as the #1 title on the Geek, but it managed to do that less than 3 months after it was released And even after 6000 ratings, it still sports an average rating of over 8.6. We’ve never seen anything like that and I’m not sure we ever will. It remains to be seen how that translates into gaming awards, but I’m not sure you’d lose too much money if you bet on more than one piece of hardware when it was all said and done.
If that was all that Matt had to offer, he would still easily earn a place on the DotY page. But there’s also Thunderbirds, a cooperative game based on the beloved marionette series from the sixties. This has been somewhat overshadowed by its more famous cousin, but its rating is almost 8.0 and given the huge popularity of its theme, there’s every reason to think it will continue to do well. That’s a sizeable 1-2 punch and thrusts this first-time nominee into contention for the whole ball of wax.
Rob Daviau – Pandemic Legacy: Season 1; V-Wars
Of all the less productive members of design teams cited in this article, the one who may have gotten the toughest break is Daviau. After all, the thing that has gotten people so excited about the Geek’s latest #1 game is its legacy aspect and Rob is the Father of Legacy Gaming. Unfortunately, Leacock also has a strong supporting game in his portfolio, while Daviau only has V-Wars, which has only received 2 ratings to date. There’s no question that Rob is one of the leading designers of the year, but he will finish behind his co-designer this time around. Still, it’s wonderful to see this veteran designer reach the top of the gaming world and, by all accounts, there’s plenty more to come.
Simone Luciani – The Voyages of Marco Polo (rDI); Grand Austria Hotel; Council of Four; Monsters’ Tower
Luciani burst onto the gaming scene three years ago, thanks to the wonderful game with the gears, Tzolk’in. That helped him achieve a runner-up spot for the DotY that year, but his most recent crop of games might be even better. Start with Marco Polo, a worker placement dice game that was the most honored design of the 2014-2015 award season. Two major awards and a top 50 ranking will definitely catch the attention of the Designer of the Year committee (that would be me). Grand Austria Hotel, a somewhat lighter game that features dice drafting and set collection, is also highly rated and has garnered a bunch of very favorable reviews. When you add the solid Council of Four into the mix, you have another great collection of games and another leading contender for the DotY. I did say it was a ridiculously strong year, right?
Fun fact: the two Luciani games that were not designed with his usual partner, Daniele Tascini, are GAH (co-designed with Virginio Gigli) and Monsters’ Tower (co-designed with Antonio Tinto). Gigli and Tinto are two members of the foursome of designers known as Acchittocca, best known for creating Egizia a few years back. Guess it pays to network!
Daniele Tascini – The Voyages of Marco Polo (rDI); Council of Four
Tascini has been Luciani’s co-designer for his two huge hits, Tzolk’in and Marco Polo. The latter’s sizeable impact on 2015 is enough to earn Daniele a nomination.
Alexander Pfister – Broom Service (K); Mombasa; Isle of Skye; Oh My Goods!
One year ago, only gaming insiders had ever heard of Alexander Pfister. But 2015 was a huge breakout year for him. It started with a surprising Kennerspiel award for Broom Service, the boardgame version of co-designer Andreas Pelikan’s earlier Witch’s Brew. Mombasa, a superior gamer’s game set in Deepest, Darkest Africa, has earned excellent ratings and near-universal praise; it wouldn’t surprise me if it picked up a couple of major award nominations later this year. Isle of Skye is also well regarded, thanks to its innovative auction system. Even the lighter Oh My Goods! (also, and perhaps preferably, known as Royal Goods) has gotten some nice reviews. That’s getting your name recognized in a hurry. It’s also the way to push yourself to the front of the DotY list. Could Pfister possibly leap from unknown status to Designer of the Year in just twelve months time? I guess we’ll soon see!
Andreas Pelikan – Broom Service (K); Isle of Skye
Pelikan’s major award for Broom Service and the nice ratings for Isle of Skye qualify him for a nomination. He isn’t a terribly prolific designer, but he’s been releasing solid titles for the better part of a decade.
So those are my top designers for this most extraordinary of years. There’s probably eight of them who would have a legitimate shot at winning during a more typical year, which just shows how insanely deep the accomplishments were. But for this list, there are really four names that stand out:
- Eric Lang, with his nine designs, led by the highly ranked Blood Rage;
- Matt Leacock, with the #1 game on the Geek, plus a second highly rated one;
- Simone Luciani, thanks to Marco Polo’s two majors, plus two other well rated games;
- Alexander Pfister, with the KdJ, a top-rated heavyweight, and two other solid titles.
This has got to be the most closely contested award since I started doing this and picking a winner is probably the toughest choice I’ve had to make. The four top candidates are so tightly bunched that I needed an alternate way of viewing them to choose a winner; a tiebreaker, if you will. But I came up with one and I’m satisfied with my choice. So in what may be the best year for designers we’ve ever seen, the winner of the Designer of the Year for 2015 is…
To break the logjam among the top four contenders, I decided to ask, “5 years from now, who will we think was the dominant designer of 2015?”. Would Lang’s half a dozen Dice Master games impress us? Probably not, even if Blood Rage continues to grow in stature. What about Luciani? The highly decorated Marco Polo is a strong argument, but in five years it will probably be just another leading Euro, like its stablemate Russian Railroads—an evergreen, perhaps, but lacking in pizzazz. And Pfister? Broom Service’s impact is already fading a bit and Mombasa probably isn’t enough to keep him remembered five years hence. No, the name that will stand out is the man who gave us the #1 game in our hobby, one that scaled the heights in such an extraordinarily short period of time, and which has literally the entire gaming world buzzing. The designers who will be thought of as dominant in five years time are Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau, and Matt is the one with the second major game in his portfolio. That may not be my best method of determining a DotY, but I think it makes for a fine tiebreaker. And it gives us a very worthy winner for 2015.
So Matt Leacock, who had never been nominated for the DotY before, finally separates himself from the crowd at the top and walks away with the big prize. As for ranking the remaining designers, I’m going to declare a three-way tie for second place between Pfister, Luciani, and Lang. (After expending so much effort to figure out the winner, there’s no way I’m going to go to similar lengths to separate the remaining guys.) Fifth place goes to Cathala, for yet another strong year. Chvatil comes next and how unlucky is this guy—he gives us two great games and it isn’t even enough to get him a top 5 finish! Tascini is seventh and Daviau, the man who put the “legacy” in Pandemic Legacy, is eighth. I’ll mention once again that any of these fellows might have been a leading contender in an ordinary year. But last year was far from ordinary.
One final note. If you have any doubts that gaming reaches to every corner of the globe, I will point out that our six top designers come from six different countries! We have an American, a Canadian, an Italian, a German, a Frenchman, and a Czech. I think that’s marvelous and I look forward to including even more nations in future years.
So 2015 is an historically great year for designers and we have a new name to add to our DotY list. If 2016 is half as good as last year was, there will be a bunch of happy gamers. And you can bet that I’ll be here 12 months from now, to let you know who I think is the new Designer of the Year. See you all then!