2015 Designer of the Year Award: Upon Further Consideration…

As most regular readers of this website know, every February I post my Designer of the Year article, in which I choose the person who I feel created the best collection of games during the previous calendar year.  One of the criteria that goes into that selection is how well the titles do with the various Game of the Year awards, many of which aren’t announced until late in the year (in fact, the winners of the IGAs weren’t revealed until this week).  I could delay the article until all the information is available, but that wouldn’t be any fun—nothing is less newsworthy than a 2015 award that’s posted in September of 2016.  So what I do instead is estimate how the awards will turn out.  This has worked very well over the years for two reasons:  first, my projections are usually pretty good; and second, even when they’re not, the DotY decision isn’t such a close one that they become the determining factor.

In 2015, however, neither of those things happened.  Hence, this follow-up note.  In order to set the stage, let me summarize my February article.  2015 was an amazing year for designers, quite possibly the best we’ve ever seen.  After reviewing the record, I concluded there were four designers with more or less equally stunning portfolios:

  • Eric Lang (Blood Rage, Game of Thrones Card Game, XCOM: The Board Game)
  • Matt Leacock (Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, Thunderbirds)
  • Simone Luciani (The Voyages of Marco Polo, Grand Austria Hotel, Council of Four)
  • Alexander Pfister (Mombasa, Isle of Skye, Broom Service)

I finally decided to give the award to Leacock, based on the enormous buzz and significant impact of Pandemic Legacy.  The others finished in a three-way tie for second place.  I didn’t anticipate that the results of the Game of the Year awards would do much to affect that decision.

So what’s happened since I posted that piece?  Pandemic Legacy hasn’t done quite as well with the major awards as most thought it would and Pfister’s games have done a lot better than anyone could have expected.  Check it out:

The SdJ’s were announced in July.  Codenames won the big prize, but in what most considered at least a mild upset, Isle of Skye beat out Pandemic Legacy for the Kennerspiel award.

Next were the DSP’s.  This time, it was Mombasa’s turn to win.  Pandemic Legacy finished fourth and Pfister was the only designer with two top 10 games, as Isle of Skye wound up seventh.

Finally, the IGA Multiplayer award came down to a head-to-head matchup between Mombasa and Pandemic Legacy and the former game won rather handily.  Isle of Skye also got a nomination.  Bruno Cathala’s year also got better, as his 7 Wonders: Duel won the 2-player award and his Raptor was nominated.

So what we have is an historic year for Alexander Pfister.  Three of his 2015 games won major awards and no one else has ever done that in a single year.  Ever!  He wound up with four major wins in all and I’m pretty sure that’s a record as well.  And, oh yeah, his fourth 2015 title, Oh My Goods!, also got some pretty good reviews.  It’s a Golden Year for Herr Pfister and there really can’t be any doubt that he is 2015’s Designer of the Year.

Now, in the rare instances when I’ve had to make changes following the awards season, I’ve simply let the newcomer join the originally named designer and declared co-winners of the award.  After all, you hate taking something away from someone.  But I don’t think I can do that this year and maintain any semblance of credibility.  As remarkable an achievement as Pandemic Legacy was, Pfister’s year just wound up being too good.  So he’s the sole winner and Matt Leacock will just have to try again next year.  Sorry, Matt.

So belated congratulations to Alexander Pfister, who is now officially the Designer of the Year for 2015!  It was an amazing 12 months and the honor is richly deserved.  And while I’m at it, let me redo my rankings for the other leading designers of last year.  Again, this was an astonishingly great year for designers and any of these other seven individuals would have had a strong chance to win the award in a normal year.  Here are the final rankings, with their leading games in parentheses.

  1. Alexander Pfister (Mombasa, Isle of Skye, Broom Service)
  2. Simone Luciani (Voyages of Marco Polo, Grand Austria Hotel, Council of Four)
  3. Eric Lang (Blood Rage, Game of Thrones Card Game, XCOM: The Board Game)
  4. Bruno Cathala (7 Wonders: Duel, Raptor)
  5. Matt Leacock (Pandemic Legacy, Thunderbirds)
  6. Vlaada Chvatil (Codenames, Through the Ages: A New Story)
  7. Daniele Tascini (Voyages of Marco Polo, Council of Four)
  8. Andreas Pelikan (Isle of Skye, Broom Service)
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7 Responses to 2015 Designer of the Year Award: Upon Further Consideration…

  1. Chris Wray says:

    I’d still have gone with Leacock. Mombasa, Isle of Skye, and Broom Service are all fine games, and I enjoy them all, but will we be talking about them in five years? I highly doubt it. In fact, Broom Service already feels like it has gone out of fashion (if it ever even was in fashion).

    I’ve said this in other forums, but my problem with the praise being heaped on Mombasa, Isle of Skye, and Broom Service is that they aren’t really all that original. Sure, they have fresh combinations of mechanics, but I don’t know that any of them are so special as to stand above the crowd. Have they advanced the hobby? I don’t think so. Once again, they’re fine games, but there are plenty of fine games, and I strongly feel ties should go to originality.

    I think time will be the judge. From my vantage point, time tends to be much kinder to the more original game. We’ve seen this before: Le Havre won a major gaming award back in 2009, but that’s just not played that much anymore (in fact, it might even be OOP/between printings right now). Hindsight is 20/20, I acknowledge, but I’d guess that either Dominion or Pandemic have made the bigger impact on the hobby and are better loved by gamers.

    • I’d be curious to hear what you guys think about Pandemic Legacy in relation to Risk Legacy, which looks like it predates it by a few years (not sure what other legacy games are out there at this point, but that’s the other main one I’ve read about and recall).

      I’ve not played either, but would the one have come to fruition without the other coming first? I wonder if the argument for Pandemic Legacy’s originality or advancement of the hobby is perhaps overstated if it’s hanging on the previous game’s coattails, so to speak, but maybe it’s a different enough experience that the game styles aren’t as similar as I might expect by seeing “Legacy” in both titles.

      In some ways I would probably be more impressed by a legacy game that didn’t rely on a prior brand’s popularity as it’s starting point (maybe that’s a paradox as legacy would imply something coming before, though something like Seafall seems to be an example of a self-contained game with legacy elements). By that I mean that Pandemic was already a very popular game/franchise before the legacy version came out, so it already had a pretty significant backing and game framework on which to build. To me the newest iteration doesn’t seem any more innovative than someone like Pfister re-imagining mechanics in different (perhaps better) ways.

      • huzonfirst says:

        You’re correct that the first legacy game was 2011’s Risk Legacy. That was the true groundbreaking design and was rightfully praised as such. Although Pandemic Legacy plays pretty differently than the earlier game (it’s cooperative, for one thing), it doesn’t particularly do much to advance the legacy concept, just adapt it for a different kind of game.

        There are still reasons why Pandemic Legacy was more of a big deal than Risk Legacy. The heart of the earlier game was still Risk and memories of childhood games makes that poison to many. Many gamers are also turned off by such an aggressive game of conquest. The biggest factor was how popular Pandemic is. All those factors combined with the highly intriguing and attractive legacy concept to make an unprecedented smash hit.

        Given that there was only one true predecessor before its appearance, I think it’s still fair to call Pandemic Legacy innovative, particularly since it was such a different kind of game than Risk Legacy. But for me, the bigger factor was the game’s massive popularity. It isn’t always the first appearance of a concept that makes the real impact; the market usually has to be convinced of its appeal. Caylus wasn’t the first Worker Placement game (it actually came out 7 years after the first such game), but WP didn’t become a big deal until Caylus’ release. Pandemic Legacy wasn’t the first legacy game, but it’s the one that will change the market for years to come. That’s definitely a factor in measuring how much weight to give to a game for something like the DotY.

        Like you, I’m looking forward to a legacy game with a design that starts from scratch. Risk is still Risk, which limited my attraction to the first game. I’m not a huge cooperative game fan, so I wasn’t chomping at the bit for Pandemic Legacy either, although I have to admit I’ve enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I’m wondering if SeaFall might prove to be the game that really gets me excited. Time will tell.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Thanks for the comment, Chris. I completely agree that Pandemic Legacy is 2015’s Game of the Year, by a pretty significant margin. But, as I’m sure you know, the purpose of the Designer of the Year award is to honor the designer with the best *collection* of games, not the single best one. And I think, taking everything into consideration, Pfister’s four designs pretty easily rank him above Leacock’s two, particularly when performance with the major awards is included.

    The funny thing is, the most common complaints I’ve received over the years with my annual DotY selections is from folks who want the designer of a single great game recognized (like Vaccarino with Dominion). However, when I originally selected Leacock, there were quite a few comments saying that it should have gone to a designer with more games produced in 2015! And naturally, now that I’ve announced my updated pick, there are comments criticizing it on the Geeklist where the all the DotY picks are summarized. None of this is surprising, of course–people have a right to their opinions and it’s great that it’s so easy for them to express them publicly. And if the choice of best designer was a slam dunk every year, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of writing the articles. However, while I thought my original choice of Leacock was an excruciatingly hard one, because of how the major awards played out, I’m much more comfortable with my revised selection of Pfister. Just my opinion, of course, but fortunately, in this one instance, mine is the one that counts! :-)

    • Chris Wray says:

      It is a fair point that Pfister had an impressive portfolio of three award-winning games, whereas Leacock had only two titles, one of which (Thunderbirds) hasn’t caught much traction in the marketplace, and both of which haven’t caught much traction with award juries. (It is worth noting, however, that Thunderbirds has a higher average BGG rating than either Isle of Skye or Broom Service.)

      I’m not saying Pfister is a bad choice; I’d have gone with Leacock, but I completely understand why you went with Pfister. He’s had a phenomenal year. It has been a while since we’ve seen one designer so completely dominate the game awards.

      My comments go more to the recent heap of praise on Mombasa and, to a lesser extent, Isle of Skye. Have these games really generated that much excitement among gamers? I know there may be individual people that really enjoy them, and they’re sitting on my own shelf, but looking at the marketplace, I don’t see how these won. And I said before, I fail to see how either game will stand out in the long term.

      Bluntly, I thought the same thing about the Voyages of Marco Polo last year, and it won both the IGA and the DSP. It was certainly a fine game, but once again, not likely to have a long-term impact.

      We might just be reaching a point where the DSP and IGAs have grown apart from a large swath of the hobby (arguably even the largest swath). That’s not surprising: the SdJ did that several years back. It is only more notable for the DSP and IGAs in that they are the awards for gamers. The DSP and IGA seem not to put much of a premium on originality, and they often go with the more mechanically-driven point-maximization games. Those types of games are certainly a big part of the hobby, but I don’t think they’re driving the hobby’s growth, nor do I think they are driving its future.

  3. huzonfirst says:

    I agree with most of what you say, Chris. In fact, in my original DotY article, I made the distinction between excellent games like Marco Polo and Mombasa and genre-changing ones like Pandemic Legacy. I also agree that the awards don’t always take massive innovation into account. I thought the SdJ jury missed a golden opportunity when they didn’t pick PL for the Kennerspiel.

    But you have to ask yourself how much should an award reward innovation. It should certainly be a factor, but I don’t think it should be the only one. There are many great games that did nothing to advance the hobby–they were just damn good games. I have no problem with titles like that winning awards.

    You also have to consider how rare these massively innovative games are. Wolfgang Kramer was once asked if there was anything he hadn’t yet accomplished in his career that he’d like to do and he said he had yet to design a game that created a genre. Now Kramer has to be considered one of the greatest designers of all time and he’s published hundreds of games. So the fact that he hasn’t come up with one of these titles makes you realize how uncommon they are. On the one hand, you can say that shows that such games should be prized even more than they are. But it also means that it’s understandable that the voting criteria doesn’t necessarily focus on such relatively rare games.

    In the end analysis, I tend to take a similar approach with my own personal ratings that the major awards do. I admire innovation and much prefer games that do something a little bit different. But there are other factors that are more important to me. Based on my tastes, Dominion and Pandemic Legacy are good games, but not great ones. That doesn’t take anything away from their impact or the courage of their designers. But there are just other games I enjoy to play more and that’s the principle thing that goes into my ratings.

  4. seisyll says:

    Wow – when you mentioned in an earlier comment that Pfister still had a chance, I thought I was just being placated! Congratulations to Mr. Pfister! In the last month, I’ve actually become quite enamored of Oh My Goods – his revision of the original rules to open it up to a more strategic crowd was a bold move that seems to have paid off. I think it illustrates a very interesting facet of this designer – he interacted with his players and was able to save one of his games by reacting.

    To me, he’s not a designer that innovates so much as one that distills the essence of beloved mechanics. Oh My Goods is a distilling of multi-use cards with the tableau-building of Uwe Rosenberg. Definitely a staple for me from now on!

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