Well, I guess it’s that time of the year again. As you all know, there are several jillion awards for Game of the Year, from different organizations or representing different nations. But there’s no formal award for the designers, the talented individuals who create these marvelous games. That’s why, for the last 15 years or so, I’ve been designating a Designer of the Year (DotY), the person who I feel has published the best portfolio of games over the previous calendar year. No one’s called the Internet Police on me yet, so until they do, I’ll keep following the process and handing out awards.
When I first started doing this, I based it on two tenets. First, to make the award as inclusive as possible. So I include most kinds of games, including boardgames, card games, dexterity games, Euros, thematic designs—pretty much anything that you’d find on the Geek. There are two notable exclusions: classic wargames and children’s games. The design skills for both of these tend to be different than for other kinds of games and, besides, I’m not that knowledgeable about either category. I also exclude expansions, since they’re not really complete designs (although spinoffs, standalone expansions, and redesigns of previously published titles are included, albeit at a lower weight). Everything else, though, is fair game.
The other concept is to make the award as objective as possible. As fascinating as my opinions might be to me, basing things on my likes and dislikes makes little sense. So I use a methodology to evaluate each designer’s creations, based on three criteria. The first is how popular the game is, based on the game’s ratings (and number of ratings) on the Geek. The second is the game’s performance (wins and nominations) in the annual awards. These include the major awards (SdJ, Kennerspiel, DSP, and IGA), other notable awards (the Golden Geeks, Dice Tower, a la carte (best card game), and Meeples Choice Award (MCA)), and a few national awards. Games which came out during the latter part of last year won’t be eligible until the 2019 awards, so I’ve had to project their performance, but my track record for this is pretty good. The third criteria is 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 a good instance of games that were generating a reasonable amount of buzz recently). Those are the factors I consider; the end result is a Designer of the Year that I hope most people can agree is a good choice.
Last year, I chose Michael Kiesling as my DotY winner. It was not exactly a controversial choice, as Kiesling had a remarkable year. If anything, the decision looks better in retrospect. Azul continues to get widespread play and is rated as one of the Geek’s top 40 games. It also won the SdJ, DSP, Meeples Choice, and As d’Or awards, along with several other nominations. Heaven & Ale also won one of the MCA awards and garnered a Kennerspiel nomination as well, while maintaining a high rating. Riverboart’s rating is strong as well and it picked up an MCA nomination. Years like Kiesling’s make my job easy and it’s hard to imagine anyone strongly disagreeing with the choice.
Since my interest in gaming includes the past as well as the present, I’ve cast my gaze back in time and assigned DotY awards for every year going back to 1955. Hey, more things for people to disagree with! 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 twelve designers I think had the best years in 2018, together with the games they’ve had published. A few of the games came out early enough to be eligible for last year’s awards, so here’s the shorthand I used to indicate that. S, K, D, and I shows an SdJ, Kennerspiel, DSP, and IGA win, respectively, while s, k, d, and i shows a nomination for those awards. Other awards are represented as follows: an “a” for the a la carte, sds for the Spiele des Spiel (Austria’s game of the year award), AsD for the As d’Or, and tt for the Tric Trac award (the last two are national awards for France). When a game is shown in italics, it indicates that it is a redesign or spinoff of a title released previously by the designer.
Well, that’s enough exposition. Let’s look at the nominees for this year’s Designer of the Year award, in alphabetical order.
Scott Almes – Heroes of Land, Air & Sea; Tiny Epic Zombies; Boomerang; Tiny Epic Defenders (Second Edition); Claim 2; Best Treehouse Ever: Forest of Fun; Claim Kingdoms
With his second consecutive appearance on the DotY pages, Almes has confirmed his position as one of the leading boardgame designers in the world. Adding further evidence to that is that his most prominent design is not one of his Tiny Epic games, but Heroes of Land, Air & Sea, a 4X title. Tiny Epic Zombies and the second edition of T.E. Defenders also have good ratings. It’s a solid year; the question is, is it enough for Scott to take the next big step and compete for the top prize?
Inka & Markus Brand – The Rise of Queensdale; 3 “Exit: The Game” titles (Sinister Mansion, Catacombs of Horror, Mysterious Museum); Word Slam Family; Word Slam Midnight
The Brands have come up with a reliable strategy for generating DotY nominations: a highly rated game, plus several more releases of their ever popular Exit: The Game escape room titles. This year, the standalone game is Queensdale, a competitive legacy game that appears to have successfully carried out that difficult combination. The Exit games continue to be well rated, quite an accomplishment in itself after a dozen different versions. It’s not enough to vie for the top spot, but no one will be surprised if gaming’s favorite couple appears on next year’s pages.
Bruno Cathala – Imaginarium; Micropolis; Jurassic Snack; Scarabya; Kiwara; Magic Fold; Loser; C’est pas faux: Patates & ninjas
Cathala, a two-time DotY winner, may have had as many appearances on these pages as any designer. As is always the case, there’s a large number of titles and, as is also usually true, the vast majority of them are original games and not redesigns. What’s lacking this year, though, are terribly high ratings. Imaginarium, a worker placement game set in a Steampunk universe, is the leading title, but while none of his games are flops, there really isn’t anything that seems to have garnered too much excitement. Bruno will have to wait until next year to see if he can add to his Designer of the Year total.
Stefan Feld – Carpe Diem; Forum Trajanum
Feld has won three DotY awards, with the last coming in 2013, but since then, he hasn’t seriously challenged for the top spot. It won’t happen this year either, but his two designs are both well regarded. Carpe Diem, a middleweight tile laying game with an interesting scoring mechanic, and Forum Trajanum, a more involved heavyweight also set in ancient Rome, each have Geek ratings hovering around 7.5. Herr Feld keeps cranking out interesting games; if he has a year with an extra title or two, he might manage that fourth award yet.
Richard Garfield – KeyForge
Perhaps the most buzz-worthy game of the year came from veteran designer Garfield. The man who created the collectible card game concept with his classic Magic: The Gathering turned that idea on its head with KeyForge, which doesn’t permit deckbuilding and where every purchased deck is unique. Its ratings are good, it’s got the entire gaming world talking, and it’s sure to pick up a few award nominations. It’s possible that there might be a little bit more sizzle than steak here, but the game is getting widespread play, so it’s nice to see that Mr. Garfield can still come up with ideas that get people excited.
Michael Kiesling – Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra; Cuzco; Outback; Okavango; Ghosts of the Moor
The previous DotY winner followed it up with a solid 2018. The highlight is Stained Glass of Sintra, the sequel to Azul. It uses the same tile selection mechanism as the SdJ winner, but the rest of the game plays differently and quite a few gamers prefer it to its older brother. Cuzco, the remake of 2000’s Java, has good ratings, and there are some other games in his portfolio, including Ghosts of the Moor, the remake of Verflixxt!. It’s not enough to let Kiesling compete for back-to-back crowns, but it’s certainly corroboration that this all-time great shows no sign of slowing down.
Reiner Knizia – Yellow & Yangtze; Blue Lagoon; Lost Cities: Rivals; Heckmeck Deluxe; Stephenson’s Rocket; Lost Cities: To Go; Sakura; Forbidden City; Brains: Burgen & Drachen; Kartel; Clickbait; Karate Tomate
There can no longer be any doubt: after a long absence, the Good Doctor is back and we gamers are all the better for it. Knizia made the DotY short list last year and his output in 2018 is just as strong. Highlights includes Yellow & Yangtze, based on his all-time classic Tigris & Euphrates; Blue Lagoon, a popular original abstract game; Lost Cities: Rivals, which has elements of Lost Cities and Ra, but is pretty much its own game; Heckmeck Deluxe, which includes the original game’s expansion; and a new version of the 20-year-old Stephenson’s Rocket. The large number of redesigns hurts Reiner’s case a bit, but there’s still a lot to like here. Might it be enough to give him his seventh DotY award, more than anyone else?
Eric Lang – Rising Sun; A Song of Ice and Fire: Tabletop Miniatures; Warhammer 40,000 Dice Masters: Battle for Ultramar; Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers Infinity; Munchkin Collectable Card Game
Lang won the DotY back in 2014 and he’s been a designing dynamo since then. Once again, he gives us a juicy collection of well rated games. Heading the list is Rising Sun, a dudes-on-a-map game set in mythical feudal Japan, which has cracked the Geek’s top 50. A Song of Ice and Fire is a miniatures wargame set in the world of A Game of Thrones; it boasts a sky-high rating. Plus, there’s a few more Dice Masters games, the series that dates back to ’14. Year after year, Lang delivers with both quantity and quality—will this be the year when he finally repeats as Designer of the Year?
Phil Walker-Harding – Gizmos; Gingerbread House; Imhotep: The Duel; Dungeon Raiders (2018 edition)
Australia’s Walker-Harding makes regular appearances on the DotY pages. He’s back this year, thanks to the highly appealing Gizmos, which is quite literally an engine building game, and Gingerbread House, a tile-laying game set in the world of fairy tales. A 2-player version of Imhotep and a new edition of his earlier Dungeon Raiders adds to his collection. There’s no question that Phil has established himself as one of the top designers in the world; might he one day take the next step and seriously contend for a DotY award?
Martin Wallace – Brass: Birmingham; AuZtralia; Wildlands; Lincoln; Brass: Lancashire; Moa; Exodus: Paris Nouveau; Book of Dragons (Wallace contributed Dragon’s Bluff to this game system)
It’s been a good five years since Wallace has graced the DotY pages, a considerable gap for one of the greatest designers of all time. But his output this year shows that it was worth the wait. Brass: Birmingham, a reasonably significant reworking of his classic design Brass, leads the way; it has already climbed into the Geek’s top 20 games and might crack the top 10 before it is through. There’s also a plethora of brand new delights: AuZtralia, an economic game that blithely combines choo-choos and Cthulhu; Wildlands, a card-driven, miniatures-based battlefest; Lincoln, a fast-paced CDW simulation of the American Civil War. All are popular and well rated. The lighter Moa and Brass: Lancashire, a mild redesign of the original Brass, also add luster to his year. It truly is an excellent collection, easily Martin’s best year in almost a decade. The question is, is it enough to give him his fourth Designer of the Year award?
Wolfgang Warsch – The Quacks of Quedlinburg(K,d,sds); The Mind(s,d,a,AsD,tt); Ganz schön clever(k); Illusion(a); Fuji; Brikks
Warsch’s rags to riches story is remarkable. At this time last year, he was an almost total unknown, with only two minor designs to his credit. He then saw four of his games published in the first three months of 2018. Then, came the remarkable news that three of those games had been nominated by the SdJ jury. The Quacks of Quedlinburg wound up winning the KdJ, but The Mind and Ganz schön clever were considered serious contenders for their respective awards. The Mind, which also won France’s As d’Or award, was one of the most buzz-worthy titles of the year, thanks to the debate if it even was a game, while Ganz gained renown as the most gamerly example of a roll ‘n’ write to date. As you can see from his list, there were quite a few other award nominations for the four games. Warsch then polished up his year by releasing a couple of other well regarded games in Fuji and Brikks. It was an incredible story and just as incredible a year. But dramatics aside, is it enough to gain this formerly unheralded designer the DotY prize?
Cole Wehrle – Root
Wehrle is a young designer whose initial efforts—including such meaty designs as Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic, and John Company—have met with considerable success. However, he took it to a whole new level last year with Root. The animal-themed asymmetric game was probably the most talked about design from 2018 and is steadily rising up the charts. It will undoubtedly be the recipient of several award nominations and stands an excellent chance of winning some of them. A single game is almost never enough to capture the DotY, but Root’s impact is such that Cole still gets a mention as one of the leading designers of the year. It will be interesting to see what the future will hold for this talented individual.
That’s the list for 2018. Last year, the choice was a fairly obvious one, as Michael Kiesling was clearly the dominant designer. I imagine many of you thought it would be the same this year, but the race turned out to be closer than expected. Still, once the process was carried out, one individual emerged as the clear cut winner. So I’m happy to announce that the Designer of the Year for 2018 is…
Warsch’s year got off to such an amazing start that I thought this would be a slam dunk, but Martin Wallace wound up making a serious play for the award. However, in the end, all those great games and Warsch’s phenomenal performance in the awards proved to be too much. So congratulations to Wolfgang. It’s the final chapter in what was a storybook year.
Wallace is a strong second-place finisher, with a portfolio that would have been good enough to win in many other years. After that, Eric Lang finishes third, giving him five consecutive years of making the DotY shortlist, which is a remarkable run. Scott Almes winds up in fourth place and living legend Reiner Knizia finishes fifth.
So that’s the result for this year. A great young designer comes out of nowhere to claim the top spot, beating out a time-honored veteran, so there’s both continuity and new blood for the future. Will the Circle of Life be so dramatically represented in 2019? The only way to find out is to check us out again at this same time next year!
I wouldn’t have trusted anything you said in the future if Warsch wouldn’t have won. I certainly didn’t spend as much time with any other designer’s games.
I would have put Knizia in third place, but otherwise, can’t exactly disagree with anything else.
Lang, Almes, and Knizia were all closely bunched together in my analysis, Felix. So it was close to being a three-way tie for third.
A great article, Larry! He was certainly a breakout genius this year!
‘Tis a fair cop… I would’ve probably put Knizia third, but otherwise a fair selection. Root remains a breakout title, though.
How can anyone who creates an abomination such as The Quacks of Quedlinburg be heralded as a good designer? Has the boargaming world gone crazy? When have we changed from gamers to gamblers?
Anyone else on that list would have been a better choice. Anyone.