Suppose you wanted to determine what your best meal from all of last year was. Would you base it on the entirety of the meal—the appetizer, salad, entrée, sides, drink, and dessert? Or would you rank it according to the single best bite of each meal?
Most likely, you’d choose the first method and consider every aspect of the meal. Why, then, do we so often judge a game designer’s success for a year on the basis of their single best game?
It was questions like that one (not all of them centered around food) that led me, about 15 years ago, to come up with a new kind of gaming award. Not another Game of the Year, but the Designer of the Year, given to the individual who created the best collection of games published during the previous calendar year. The concept was reasonably popular (meaning that no one said it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard of), so I’ve been cranking out articles every year listing who I consider to be the leading designers of the year, along with the individual I pick as the Designer of the Year (DotY).
I want this honor to be as inclusive as possible, so I cast my net wide when it comes to the games considered. 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, I just don’t know that much about either category. But other than those, everything is eligible: boardgames, card games, dexterity games, and party games; Euros and thematic designs; fillers and monster games—just about everything listed on the Geek. I do exclude expansions, since those really aren’t complete games, but spinoffs or redesigns of previously published titles are included, even though I don’t weight them as heavily as completely original designs. Include everything in the designer’s portfolio from that year, other than the exceptions noted, toss ‘em in the mix, and see who comes out on top.
If this was just Larry’s DotY award, it wouldn’t be that interesting (I doubt many of you share all of my gaming tastes), so as much as possible, I want to keep my personal feelings out of the decision-making. Consequently, I’ve come up with three reasonably objective criteria for each game I’m including in the analysis. First, how popular the game is, based on the game’s ratings (and number of ratings) on the Geek. Second, how well the game performs in the annual awards. Since many of the designs came out during the latter part of last year, they aren’t eligible until the awards coming out later this year. So there’s some projections and guesswork at play, but my track record for this is pretty good. And third, how much “buzz” the game is generating, where I consider buzz to be the attention the game is getting above and beyond its popularity (legacy games are good recent examples of titles that are generating a reasonable amount of buzz). I take all those things into consideration, combine them in some mystical way, and try to come up with a good and worthy recipient for the year.
Last year, I made Bruno Cathala and Uwe Rosenberg the joint winners of the award. Do those look like good choices one year after the fact? I think so. Cathala’s Kingdomino won the SdJ, was Game Magazine’s Game of the Year, and picked up a couple of other nominations. His Kanagawa has an average rating on the Geek of over 7.2 and four of his other games have decent ratings. For Rosenberg, A Feast for Odin is in the Geek’s top 30 games and snagged five nominations. The revised edition of Agricola has a sky-high rating, while the Family Edition of the ‘Gric is doing just fine. Both Cottage Garden and Bohnanza: The Duel have ratings over 7.0 and the latter game got an a la carte nomination. So I have no qualms about last year’s selection.
I’ve had so much fun doing this every year that I’ve also gone back in time and assigned DotY awards for every year going back to 1955. Yeah, I know, way too much free time! In case you’re interested, you can find a Geeklist summarizing the results here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/170779. I’ve included some gaming history for many of the years, to go along with my commentary about the designs, so I hope many of you will find it entertaining and informative.
Here are the ten designers I think had the best years in 2017, together with the games they’ve had published. A few of the games have already received award nominations, so here’s the shorthand I used to indicate that. s, k, d, and i shows an SdJ, Kennerspiel, DSP, and IGA nomination, respectively, while r shows an SdJ recommendation and g indicates a Golden Geek nominee. I also base my selection on the projected future performance in these other awards as well: the Dice Tower awards, the a la carte award for best card game, and the Meeples Choice Awards. When a game is shown in italics, it indicates that it is a redesign or spinoff of a title released previously by the designer.
Alright, enough blather! Let’s look at the nominees for this year’s Designer of the Year award, in alphabetical order.
Scott Almes – Tiny Epic Quest; Problem Picnic; Claim; House of Borgia; Dicey Peaks; Island Hopper; Coaster Park
As you can see, Almes isn’t just the Tiny Epic guy anymore. The highlight of his collection from last year is still Tiny Epic Quest, the fifth game of the popular series, and it sports a healthy rating on the Geek. But Problem Picnic and Claim both have ratings over 7.0 and House of Borgia is also doing pretty well. So he’s no longer just an epically one-trick pony. It’s not enough to compete for the big prize, but Scott has shown that he’s a designer worth watching in the years to come.
Daryl Andrews – Sagrada(g); Fantasy Fantasy Baseball; Shop ‘n Time; Tower of London; Space Invaders Dice!; Outpost: Siberia; plus 8 other games
One of the fun things about our hobby is that “regular people” (i.e., gamers like us) can become established designers. Andrews is a case in point. The affable Canadian’s first design (The Walled City) came out only a few years ago, but last year saw him get a remarkable 14 games published! I suspect an awful lot of hard work went into that meteoric rise, but it’s still a great story. Daryl also has a genuine hit among that large output, as Sagrada is extremely popular and has already snared a Golden Geek Game of the Year nomination. Fantasy Fantasy Baseball and Shop ‘n Time (an innovative app-assisted game) also have pretty good ratings. Many of the other titles are very light ones, the kind that don’t get much attention from the Geek crowd, but 14 games is still awfully impressive. It’s certainly enough to get a listing on the DotY pages, so great job, Daryl!
Inka & Markus Brand – Rajas of the Ganges(g); EXIT: The Game (6 separate titles); Scotland Yard: Das Kartenspiel
The Brands have established themselves as one of the leading design teams in Europe. Last year, their EXIT: The Game series, which simulate escape rooms, won the Kennerspiel, so they released six more entries for it. The ratings for them range from good to excellent. The highlight of their year is Rajas and this worker/dice placement design is rated highly and is starting to gather nominations. Overall, there’s not quite enough to seriously contend for Designer of the Year, but I’m sure this won’t be the last time we hear from gaming’s first couple.
Isaac Childres – Gloomhaven(i,g)
Over the last 20 years, it’s been almost impossible to win the DotY with just a single game released; even getting nominated is pretty hard. But if you’re only going to have one game, something like Gloomhaven is what you want. More than a year after its publication, with over 12,000 ratings, it still has an average Geek rating of over 9.0, a remarkable achievement. In January, it became only the seventh game to be ranked #1 on the Geek. It’s already picked up a couple of nominations and it’s the favorite to win the Golden Geek, Dice Tower, and Meeples Choice awards. And needless to say, it’s generated an awful lot of buzz. Gloomhaven is only Childres’ second game, but it’s undoubtedly last year’s biggest hit. Will this one stroke of brilliance be enough to make him Designer of the Year?
Rob Daviau – Pandemic Legacy: Season 2(g); Downforce; Stop Thief!; Indulgence; Mountains of Madness
Daviau will always be hailed as the creator of the legacy concept and, clearly, the second season of Pandemic Legacy (a top 40 game and rising) is the highlight of his portfolio. But he’s doing other things as well. One main focus from 2017 is his work on updating older designs, such as Kramer’s Top Race (Downforce), the 80’s card game Dragonmaster (Indulgence), and the electronic deduction game Stop Thief!. All have been well received. It appears that Rob is just hitting his stride as an independent game designer, making it likely that we will be seeing his name on these pages for years to come.
Michael Kiesling – Azul(g); Heaven & Ale; Riverboat; Reworld; Haste Worte? Jubiläumsedition; Torres
Kiesling has to be one of the most underrated designers of all time. Look at how many great games he and his design partner, Wolfgang Kramer, have given us over the past 20 years. But because of Kramer’s giant shadow and because he’s created very few designs on his own, Kiesling is rarely considered to be one of the all-time greats. Maybe that will start to change this year. Azul, a solo design, has a rating close to 8.0 and is one of the leading contenders for the SdJ; a bunch of other nominations will no doubt follow. Heaven & Ale, a gamer’s game that has gotten enthusiastic reviews, should do well with the major awards, and it and Riverboat are both well rated. He even has some efforts with his old design partner, and Reworld and the 20th anniversary of the first K&K game, Haste Worte? are both doing fine. Could this be the year that Kiesling is finally able to step away from Kramer and be recognized for his own greatness?
Reiner Knizia – The Quest for El Dorado(s); Voodoo Prince; Modern Art; Medici: The Card Game; King’s Road; Amun-Re: The Card Game; Khan of Khans; Schollen Rollen; plus 7 other games
Well, look who’s back! No one has done better in the DotY awards than Knizia, who not only has won it 6 times (tied with Sid Sackson for most wins), but has also been first runner-up an amazing 8 times. But all of those were prior to 2010, when Reiner started focusing more on reprints of his earlier stuff and ultra-light designs. Now, however, there are signs that the Good Doctor has returned to the fold. El Dorado was one of the finalists for the SdJ and is well rated. Voodoo Prince continues in the tradition of innovative Knizia trick-taking games, while King’s Road is a standalone version of Imperium, originally released as part of his New Games in Old Rome collection. There are also card game versions of earlier classics like Medici and Amun-Re, reprints of all-time greats like Modern Art, and a bunch of other stuff. It all makes for a very nice year and a welcome return to these pages by one of the greatest designers of all time.
Eric Lang – The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire; Arcadia Quest: Inferno; Ancestree; Secrets; plus 4 Dice Masters Games (Guardians of the Galaxy; Superman/Wonder Woman; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–Heroes on the Half Shell; Iron Man/War Machine)
This is the fourth straight year on the DotY pages for Lang (he won the award back in 2014) and since he always seems to combine a large output with very high ratings, it’s not hard to see why. Last year was no different. His big hit is Corleone’s Empire, and this “thugs on a map” design has been well received. Arcadia Quest: Inferno is a standalone expansion to the original AQ that has sky-high ratings. There are also two new designs and four new Dice Masters titles in his portfolio. It’s an intriguing mix of original games and tried and true titles; will it be enough to give Eric his second Designer of the Year award?
Matt Leacock – Pandemic Legacy: Season 2; Pandemic: Rising Tide; Mole Rats in Space
Leacock is best known for his cooperative games and last year, he gave us three such titles. That includes the sequel to his brilliant Pandemic Legacy, and even if it hasn’t quite matched the heights of the original, it’s still one of last year’s highest rated games. Pandemic: Rising Tide moves the action to the Netherlands, with flooding replacing disease, but it’s still getting lots of love. And Mole Rats is Matt’s latest family-oriented co-op design. With the two main titles being based on earlier games, it leaves him a bit shy of vying for the top spot, but if Matt keeps upping his output, we could easily see him competing for DotY in the near future.
Uwe Rosenberg – Nusfjord; Caverna: Cave vs. Cave(i); Indian Summer; Bohnanza: 20 Jahre
Over the last 5 years, Rosenberg has had two first-place, one second-place, and one third-place finish in the DotY awards. So seeing him here again is no surprise. Nusfjord is a little more approachable than his earlier, monster worker-placement titles and gamers have responded favorably. Cave vs. Cave has a similar theme to Caverna, but this well-rated 2-player game has mostly new mechanics. There’s also Indian Summer, another of his polyomino designs, plus the 20th anniversary version of his brilliant Bohnanza. Uwe keeps cranking them out and we keep putting him on the DotY page, so everyone’s happy!
So those are my ten nominees. The last couple of years, the competition was very close, but this year, the decision seemed more straightforward. And while we all like an exciting finish, there’s nothing wrong with a clear-cut result once in a while. So I’m extremely happy to announce that the winner of the 2017 Designer of the Year award is…
I really do try to make this as objective a process as possible and keep my personal feelings out of it. But I have to admit, I was very pleased when the algorithm indicated that Kiesling was the winner by a fairly comfortable margin. This is a designer who never seems to have gotten his due, because almost all of his games were created in partnership with an all-time great like Kramer. But the pair has created so many great designs over the years that it seems as if Kiesling should be getting more credit. And last year, working mostly apart from Kramer, his titles shone, leaving no doubt that this is a world-class designer. One who can now add a Designer of the Year award to his many accomplishments. Congratulations!
Eric Lang finishes second, keeping his hot streak with the DotY alive. Isaac Childres finishes third, with Gloomhaven being the dominant game of the year. The rest of the nominees were kind of clustered together, so I’ll just cite those three designers, even though you had to be impressed with the huge portfolios of Knizia and Andrews.
So that’s it for this year. I hope you enjoyed reading this and didn’t find my analysis too insane. It was great fun as always and I’ll be ready to do the same thing again twelve months from now!