It seems we live in perilous times and each day they keep getting perilouser. In such an age, I’ve heard it said that what we really need is something steady and reliable. Something that’s been with us for years, that has passed the test of time, and which has never let us down. If deep down, that’s what you’re looking for…sorry! All I have to offer you is the 2016 Designer of the Year award!
Most of you reading this know what to expect (including the preceding tomfoolery), but for the rest of you, let me explain. I began writing Designer of the Year (DotY) articles back in 2004 and thanks to a series of weak-willed and easily bribed editors, they’ve continued ever since. The idea behind them is simple. We have a metric buttload of “game of the year” awards, but nothing which rewards the individuals who are responsible for these wonderful creations—namely, the designers. So every year at about this time, I recognize the person who, in my opinion, had the best collection of games over the last calendar year. As much as is humanly possible, I want to keep my personal feelings out of it, so I have three reasonably objective criteria. First, how popular the games are, based on the game’s ratings (and number of ratings) on the Geek. Second, how well the games do in the annual awards. Since many of the designs came out during the latter part of last year, they won’t be eligible until this year’s awards, meaning there’s some projections and guesswork at play, but my track record for this is pretty good (I’ll talk about last year’s exception to the rule a bit later). And third, how much “buzz” the games generating. (A nice example of a game with good buzz is Friedemann Friese’s Fabled Fruit, which has generated a reasonable amount of discussion for its clever twist on legacy games.) I take all those things in consideration, combine them in some mystical way, and try to come up with a good and worthy recipient for the year.
What kinds of games am I considering? As many as possible. I don’t include either standard wargames or children’s games, because there tends to be different design rules for both of those and, frankly, because I just don’t know much about either category. But other than those, everything is eligible: boardgames, card games, dexterity games, party games—games of all complexities and durations. I do exclude expansions, since I kind of like games to be complete the first time around, but spinoffs or redesigns of previously published games are part of the mix, even though I don’t weight them as heavily as completely original designs. My goal is to make the award be as inclusive as possible and I think we’ve had a pretty nice variety of winners in the past.
Speaking of the past, here’s an update of last year’s article. 2015 was an exceedingly close race, but in the end I decided to go with Matt Leacock, thanks mostly to his extraordinary Pandemic Legacy. However, Alexander Pfister, who was one of several designers who was neck and neck with Leacock, then had a remarkable and (to me, at least) completely unexpected run of success with the major gaming awards, winding up with no fewer than four wins for three different games (an historical performance). Given this turn of events, I felt I had no choice but to change my mind and give the award to Pfister instead. I posted a follow-up article on the OG to announce this last fall, but in case your mind was on other things and you missed it, I just wanted to mention it here.
As I mentioned, I’ve been posting articles on this for about a dozen years, but I’ve also gone back in history and assigned DotY awards for every year going back to 1955. In case you’re interested, you can find a Geeklist summarizing the results here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/170779. That list, as well as the eligible games for this year, will include the following shorthand, to show awards and nominations the games have won. 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. A G indicates a Golden Geek game of the year, while a g shows a GotY nomination or a category winner for that award. 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 spinoff of a title released previously.
So that’s the setup. Let’s look at the nominees for this year’s Designer of the Year award, in alphabetical order.
Bruno Cathala – Kingdomino; Kanagawa; A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King; Zany Penguins; Dice Stars; Histrio; Pocket Madness; (Conan)
Cathala was DotY in 2006 and he’s gotten as many nominations for that honor as any designer since then. He was a leading contender in 2015 and this year’s crop is, if anything, even stronger. Eight designs in a calendar year is always impressive (I’m giving Bruno a tiny bit of credit for contributing a scenario to Frédéric Henry’s Conan), but what really stands out is that all of those games are original ones, without a spinoff in the bunch. That’s almost unheard of in this day and age. What’s more, there’s some real potential for awards. Both Kingdomino and Kanagawa have been mentioned as possible SdJ nominees and one of them could even take home the Red Poppel. And even though expansions aren’t usually considered, a superior one like 7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon, which just won the Golden Geek for Best Expansion, could easily serve as a tiebreaker.
The downside to this collection is that there are no real blockbusters. In fact, none of the games even boasts a Geek rating as high as 7.5. On the other hand, none of these titles is an unknown; I keep seeing session reports for all of them, even the lower rated games. So there’s length, depth, and award potential; all that’s missing is a bit of sizzle. Could it be enough to finally give Bruno his second DotY?
Vlaada Chvátil – Star Trek: Frontiers; Codenames: Pictures(g); Codenames: Deep Undercover
Chvátil might be the best designer never to win a DotY, although quite a few readers believe he’s been robbed of the honor by the heartless author of these words on a number of occasions. Sadly, this won’t be the year things change for our favorite citizen of the Czech Republic. He starts off strong with Star Trek: Frontiers, which boast an 8.0 rating and is sufficiently different from its inspiration, Mage Knight, to warrant full credit. Codenames: Pictures was just selected as the best family and party game by the Golden Geeks, but, of course, it, and its smuttier brother Codenames: Undercover, are strongly derived from last year’s Codenames. It’s a good year, just not good enough to bring home the big prize. Happily, I’m sure Vlaada has plenty of good games left in him and he may put it all together yet!
Stefan Feld – The Oracle of Delphi; The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game; JÓRVÍK
Feld won his third Designer of the Year award in 2013, but he hasn’t made an appearance to the DotY page since then. So this is something of a comeback for him. Oracle of Delphi has solid ratings and could well scare up a major nomination or two. Perhaps I’m being charitable in giving him full credit for the Castles of Burgundy Card Game (it really is kind of different than the boardgame), but even Stefan’s closest associates would concede that JÓRVÍK is just a Viking-themed version of his earlier Die Speicherstadt. There’s not enough here for a fourth return to glory, but it’s still good to see this master designer back in form.
Friedemann Friese – Fabled Fruit; Power Grid: The Card Game; Fuji Flush; America; Terra on Tour; Bau!
It was a fascinating, buzz-filled year for the Man in Green. Both Fabled Fruit, his non-destructive spin on legacy games, and Fuji Flush, which began life as an anonymous gift to many unsuspecting attendees at the Gathering of Friends (including yours truly), had people talking. Add to that interesting spinoff games like the Power Grid card game and America and there’s much to like. What’s missing is particularly high ratings. I’m afraid that that will keep him from claiming his first DotY award. But Friedemann keeps swinging for the fences; one of these years, he’s bound to connect.
Corey Konieczka – Star Wars: Rebellion(ig); Star Wars: Destiny
The Force was clearly with FFG’s Konieczka last year and his fan’s new hope is that it may lead to his first DotY. SW: Rebellion is the top-ranked design from 2016 (it’s #5 on the Geek) and that was reflected in its IGA nomination last year and its third-place finish in the Golden Geek voting. Finishing behind Scythe and Terraforming Mars in the GG’s may dim the enthusiasm for it a bit, but it’s still clearly one of the top games of last year. Meanwhile, SW: Destiny, a collectible dice and card game, also boasts a great rating and an enthusiastic fan base. Will those two titles be enough to finally lead this designing great (who has so many appearances on the DotY pages) to the promised land? Hopeful he is!
Eric Lang – The Others; Arcane Academy; Bloodborne: The Card Game; D&D Dice Masters: Faerûn Under Siege; Marvel Dice Masters: Civil War; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Dice Masters; H.M.S. Dolores
Lang has been a designing force since 2014; he won the DotY that year and was one of the top finishers the following year. He released another impressive list of games last year. The apocalyptic miniatures game The Others is the big entry. There’s also the three latest Dice Masters games (I’ve only included the ones that feature starter sets), all of which boast high ratings, but which receive a significant discount in their contributions, since the Dice Masters system, developed back in ’14, is the real star here. Even taking that into account, it’s a nice portfolio, but is it enough to give Eric his second DotY?
Alexander Pfister – Great Western Trail(g); Broom Service: The Card Game; Port Royal Unterwegs!
Pfister follows up his remarkable 2015 with a pretty strong 2016, based almost entirely on GWT, which is rated very highly on the Geek and has to be considered a frontrunner for several major awards. The rest of his collection isn’t much—a couple of spinoffs of some of his earlier hits—but if Great Western duplicates Mombasa’s award performance from last year, he might have a shot at rare back-to-back DotY awards. No matter how that turns out, it looks like this exciting new designer is not just a one-year wonder.
Uwe Rosenberg – A Feast for Odin(g); Cottage Garden; Agricola (revised edition); Agricola: Family Edition; Bohnanza: Das Duell
To the short list of certainties in life, it looks like we’ll have to add “an annual Rosenberg blockbuster game” to the already chronicled “death” and “taxes”. Last year it was Odin, which features sky-high ratings, along with a real shot at one or more major awards. But Uwe gave us much more than that. First, there’s Cottage Garden, another polyomino-based design, which has been well received. Then there’s the redesigns, including the revised edition of the ‘Gric, which has even higher ratings than Odin, plus the simplified Family Edition. Even the venerable Bohnanza got a 2-player version released last year. That’s a cornucopia of delights that would satisfy even a hungry Viking!
Unfortunately for fans of the Bean Man, the evaluation of his portfolio is more complicated than that. For one thing, Odin’s path to DSP or IGA victories is far from straightforward; I get the sense that it may have been overtaken in the handicapping by designs like GWT and Terraforming Mars. Even more significant is the question of how much weight to give to the spinoffs. Was a reasonable amount of challenging design work necessary to convert the base games to the revised titles? Or did it just require a bit of tweaking and culling (a charge most easily aimed at the Agricola Family Edition)? Different people could come to different answers to these questions, making the question of how to judge Rosenberg’s year a difficult one. At stake is whether there’s enough here to give him his third DotY award or if these issues cause him to fall short.
Phil Walker-Harding – Imhotep(s,d); Sushi Go Party!; Archaeology: The New Expedition
Australia’s Walker-Harding, who began self-publishing his designs 10 years ago, has taken the time to learn his craft, so he consequently now makes fairly regular appearances on the DotY pages. Imhotep, a finalist for the SdJ, was his big title last year, although the standalone expansion to Sushi Go! is also ranked in the top 200 games on the Geek. Phil has shown himself to be prolific as well as talented, so I suspect this is not the last time we’ll see him here.
Kevin Wilson – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past; Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift; Arcane Academy; Awesome Kingdom: Mines & Labyrinths; Little Circuses
Wilson, who, like his occasional design partner Eric Lang, is an ex-FFG designer, had a nice year last year. His TMNT title and Perdition’s Mouth, both nicely stocked with miniatures, are very well rated. There’s not quite enough here to challenge for the top spot, but he continues to reliably crank out thematic games year after year.
So those are the individuals I felt had the best collections of games last year. It may not stack up to what we saw in 2015—unsurprisingly, since that was a year for the ages—but it still represents a nice year for designers. Like 2015, the race for the top spot is very close, but I think I’ll handle it a bit differently this time around. So I’m happy to announce that the 2016 Designer of the Year award goes to…
BRUNO CATHALA and UWE ROSENBERG!!!
I try to avoid giving joint awards, since it seems like a bit of a cop-out, but there were three good reasons to make an exception this year. First, it really was a close call between these two. Second, the nature of their portfolios were very different, so that it would be easy for one observer to rate Cathala higher, while another could make just as strong a case for Rosenberg. Impressed by a big collection of original games? Then Bruno’s your man. Put more importance in blockbuster designs? That points to Uwe. Similarly, if you think that Rosenberg’s spinoff games are substantial departures from the designs they were derived from, you would favor him, while if you’re a fan of even Cathala’s lower rated games from last year, it would push you toward him. There were so many ways of evaluating the two men and I found myself going back and forth between them. Finally, more so than usual, the way the major awards play out could really be important and there’s just no way to be sure of the results. Cathala could win the SdJ, which would obviously boost his year tremendously, or he could wind up without even a nomination. A Feast for Odin could easily grab one or two major awards, adding much luster to Rosenberg’s case, or it might wind up back in the pack. Taking all of this together, it seemed as if the most appropriate outcome was to let these two great designers share the honor this year.
It basically came down to a two-man race, but Corey Konieczka was still a solid third; he was about one good design away from fighting for the top spot. Alexander Pfister follows his win last year with a fourth place finish, thanks to the greatness of Great Western Trail. Eric Lang winds up fifth, continuing his impressive run of DotY placements.
So Rosenberg wins his third Designer of the Year award and Cathala adds a second trophy to his collection, 10 years after he landed his first. As always, it was fun working through it all and you can be sure that I’ll be here talking about the 2017 DotY twelve months from now!