One of the interesting things about writing a regular, annual gaming article is how much things can change from year to year. But I think it’s safe to say that I never imagined the world-wide circumstances we all would be facing when the 2020 version of my Designer of the Year entry would be posted. I just hope that everyone reading this is healthy and safe, and making sensible choices. With any luck, this article will help you take your mind off real-world issues for a little while.
So, yes, it’s time for me to designate my Designer of the Year for 2019. What, you may ask, is this thing? Well, here’s the elevator pitch, for those who are new to the series. It came about when I noticed, way back when, that there are a huge number of Game of the year awards of every shape and description. But there’s no formal award for the designers, the talented folks who create these wonderful titles. Nature abhors a vacuum and I’m not that wild about it either, so I decided to fill this one by honoring the person who I feel has published the best portfolio of games over the previous calendar year. That was my intent when I started posting these articles back in 2004 and little has changed since then, so I’m still at it, hopefully providing a small amount of insight and entertainment to the gaming community at large.
Which games are we talking about? Just about all of them. Children’s games are excluded, as that’s a whole different set of designers, and I’m not that familiar with them anyway. But just about everything else—boardgames, card games, dexterity games, Euros, thematic titles—is eligible. I do exclude expansions, since they’re not really complete designs (although spinoffs, standalone expansions, and redesigns of previously published titles are included, albeit at a reduced weight). But everything else a designer produces gets tossed into the pot and affects the final decision.
My goal is to make the award as objective as possible. Naturally, I have my own opinions about games, but there’s no reason why anyone else should care about them. 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), Meeples Choice Award, and the newly minted American Tabletop Awards), and a few national awards. Games which came out during the latter part of last year won’t be eligible until later this year, 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 (The Mind is a good example of a game that produced a lot 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.
Even when I’m not in lockdown, I tend to have way too much time on my hands, so it’s not surprising that I’ve extended these awards into the past as well. In fact, I’ve assigned DotY awards for every year going back to 1955—yup, that’s me, livin’ large! 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 the commentary about the designers, so hopefully you’ll find it entertaining and informative.
Last year, I chose Wolfgang Warsch as my DotY winner. This was a relatively easy decision, as Warsch had an amazing year, with games like The Quacks of Quedlinburg, The Mind, That’s Pretty Clever, and Illusion picking up good ratings and a ton of award wins and nominations. For 2019, however, there doesn’t appear to be a dominant game designer. So the process figures to be more contested and the race should be very close.
Here are the ten designers I think had the best years in 2019, together with the games they published. A few of the titles came out early enough to be eligible for last year’s awards, so here’s the shorthand I use to indicate that. For the major awards, 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. Of the other awards, Golden Geek, a la carte and American Tabletop Award wins and nominations are shown with G and g, A and a, and ATA and ata. When a game is shown in italics, it indicates that it is a redesign or spinoff of a title released previously by the designer.
So that’s the setup. Let’s take a look at the nominees for this year’s Designer of the Year award, in alphabetical order.
Richard Borg – Command & Colors: Medieval; Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare; Siege of the Citadel
Any year with two new additions to the Command & Colors system is a good year and Borg gave us just that with C&C: Medieval and Red Alert. I think these are the tenth and eleventh C&C games, a remarkable testament to the versatility and popularity of the system. Both games have Geek ratings in excess of 8.0 and it wouldn’t shock me if one or both of them picked up an award nomination or two. There’s also the redesign of Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, which came out way back in 1993! Richard, one of the nicest men in gaming and a former DotY winner, has been producing games for over 30 years and it’s great to see that he hasn’t slowed down a bit.
Bruno Cathala – Conspiracy: Abyss Universe; Nagaraja(i); Queenz: To bee or not to bee; Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon; Kingdomino Duel; Ice Team; Kameleo
Every year, regularly as clockwork, Cathala produces an impressive number of well regarded games. Consequently, it’s no surprise that he shows up in my DotY summary just about every time and has taken the big prize twice. There are no blockbusters in this year’s collection, but most of the designs have solid ratings, highlighted by Conspiracy: Abyss Universe, a set collecting card game set in the world of his previously released Abyss. There’s also a 2-player spinoff of the SdJ-winning Kingdomino, as well as the IGA-nominated Nagaraja. There’s not enough for Bruno to compete for his third DotY award, but his consistency is remarkable and there’s no way I’d bet against him showing up in next year’s article.
Rob Daviau – Cthulhu: Death May Die(ata); Unmatched Game System; Machi Koro Legacy; ShipShape(ATA); Heist; Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit
While Daviau will probably forever be known as the Father of the Legacy Game, he has been producing quality games for 20 years, including many that have no legacy aspects whatsoever. 2019 was a showcase for his versatility, as it was a very strong year, but almost all of the designs were non-legacy ones. Leading the charge are two major thematic hits: Cthulhu: Death May Die, a bit-o-licious co-op, in which the players are fighting both the Elder Gods and their own insanity; and the Unmatched Game System, a fighting game in which legendary characters such as King Arthur, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, and Bigfoot square off against each other. The latter title is a redesign of Rob’s own Star Wars: Epic Duels (from 2002!), but the heart of a game like this is the uniqueness of its characters and their abilities, so it’s pretty close to being a new design. There’s also the legacy version of the popular dice-roller Machi Koro; ShipShape, which grabbed the ATA award for best casual game; and the real-time electronic game Heist. There’s a lot to like here, with strength at the top, as well as throughout his portfolio. Is it enough to give this veteran designer his first DotY award?
Elizabeth Hargrave – Wingspan(K,D,i,g,ATA); Tussie Mussie
One of the nice things about our hobby’s recent explosion of interest is that it has allowed heretofore unknown designers to burst into prominence. We’ve seen that with some recent Designers of the Year, such as Pfister and Warsch; this year’s shooting star appears to be Hargrave. After all, her first published design, Wingspan, is nothing short of the most renowned game of the year, with two major Game of the Year awards, a high Geek rating (it’s currently BGG’s 21st highest rated title), and thousands of fans. It truly is a gaming phenomenon. Elizabeth also produced another title, Tussie Mussie, which is quite light, but sports a nice Geek rating of its own. There have been years in which a single dominant game is enough to propel its creator to Designer of the Year status. Might this exciting newcomer be able to manage this rare feat this year?
Reiner Knizia – Babylonia; The Quest for El Dorado: The Golden Temples; L.L.A.M.A. (s,a,ata); Battle Line: Medieval; Chartae; Tajuto; Axio Rota; Aristocracy; Lost Cities: Auf Schatzsuche; Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection; 7 other designs
The Good Doctor’s comeback continues, with yet another year chockful of new releases. The highlight is Babylonia, an abstract that has reminded more than a few Knizia fans of titles from his earlier classic tile-laying trilogy. There’s also a standalone sequel to his popular Quest for El Dorado; the SdJ finalist card game L.L.A.M.A.; a redesign of another of his classic earlier titles, Battle Line; and over a dozen other titles. Now well into his sixties, Reiner keeps cranking out quality games by the bushel. He won his sixth, and to date, last DotY award way back in 2005; could this be the year in which he finally wins his seventh?
Eric Lang – Cthulhu: Death May Die(ata); Victorian Masterminds; Starcadia Quest; A Song of Ice & Fire: Tabletop Miniatures Game – Baratheon Starter Set; Quarriors! Qultimate Quedition; plus 3 Dice Masters titles
Lang’s recent run of success has made him one of the most productive designers in the world. This is amply reflected on the DotY pages, as he has one award and has appeared on the shortlist for the past five years, an extremely impressive streak. 2019 was another good year for the Canadian designer, with the highlight being Cthulhu: Death May Die, that he co-designed with Rob Daviau. Starcadia Quest is a new campaign for the Arcadia Quest system, and there’s a new starter set for A Song of Ice & Fire—both are rated highly on the Geek. Victorian Masterminds, though, has only gotten mediocre ratings. It’s a measure of how hot Eric has been lately that this fine year isn’t quite up to his usual standards, but I have no reason to think we won’t be talking about his portfolio in next year’s article.
Simone Luciani – Barrage(g,ata); Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan; Masters of Renaissance: Lorenzo il Magnifico – The Card Game
Luciani’s work during the last decade has established him as one of the premier designers in the world, with hugely successful titles like Tzolk’in, Voyages of Marco Polo, Lorenzo il Magnifico, and Grand Austria Hotel to his credit. He can also be viewed as the Dean of Italian designers, filling a similar role to what Bruno Faidutti did with French designers for so many years, as he has consistently released quality titles with a wide variety of Italian co-designers. 2019 was an efficiently impactful year for him, as all three of his games were notable ones. Barrage’s excellent gameplay managed to overcome the firestorm over its faulty Kickstarter components; remarkably, its Geek rating is currently at 8.0, despite a sizeable number of disgruntled backers giving the game a 1 rating. I’d expect it to garner a few award nominations in the coming months. Marco Polo II retains the core mechanics of the 2015 game, but many other details were changed. It has done extremely well and the majority of reviewers rate it as superior to the original. And Masters of Renaissance, a middleweight with an innovative marble-driven action selection system, has gotten solid reviews; despite its title, mechanically it has almost nothing in common with the original Lorenzo. Simone has come very close to grabbing the DotY award over the years. Might this finally be his time?
Kristian Amundsen Østby – The Magnificent; Trails of Tucana; Kung Fu Panda: The Board Game; Offshore
Norway’s most successful designer had a solid year in 2019. The star of the show is undoubtedly The Magnificent, a circus-themed dice drafting game that has gotten quite a bit of critical acclaim. Trails of Tucana, a flip-and-write title, also sports a nice rating, while the other two games have also done fairly well. (By the way, Østby’s frequent design partner, Eilif Svennson, collaborated on all of these games except for Kung Fu Panda.) Østby and Svennson consistently produce interesting titles every year; with just a little uptick in volume, they might well become regulars on the Designer of the Year pages.
Alexander Pfister – Maracaibo(g); Expedition to Newdale; Würfel-WG
Pfister burst onto the scene with a remarkable and award-filled year in 2015. It led to him being named as Designer of the Year, against extraordinarily difficult competition. Since then, he’s proven to be anything but a one-year wonder and last year was another fine one for him. The big title, of course, was Maracaibo, which has to be considered the most celebrated of last year’s gamer’s games. It sports a very high rating, features a large fan base, and I’d be shocked if it doesn’t win at least one major award. Expedition to Newdale is also well rated, but it’s almost a straight port of his earlier Oh My Goods! from card game to board game. His other design, Würfel-WG, a dice game based on a popular German comedic novel (The Kangaroo Chronicles), hasn’t made much of an impact (it probably doesn’t help that there isn’t an English version available yet). So, much of Alex’s year depends on his one big game. Is that enough to give him his second DotY?
Wolfgang Warsch – The Taverns of Tiefenthal(d,g,ATA); Wavelength(ata); Twice as Clever; The Mind Extreme; Subtext; On a Scale of One to T-Rex; Blue Banana
Wow, our recent out-of-the-blue Designers of the Year are really represented this year! In 2018, Warsch went from unknown to the hottest thing going in record time. Last year, he followed up with another really strong collection, indicating he may be here to stay. It started with Taverns of Tiefenthal, his alliterative, deck-building follow up to the previous year’s award-winning bag-builder, Quacks of Quedlinburg; it’s already picked up several Game of the Year nominations. Wavelength is a highly rated party-style game. Twice as Clever is a very well received sequel to 2018’s That’s Pretty Clever, while The Mind Extreme is a somewhat less successful twist on the phenomenon that was The Mind. There are also three other party games to round things out. It’s the second powerful year in a row for Wolfgang; could it lead to back-to-back DotY’s?
So those are the nominees from last year. There are some really good collections, but no dominant designer. Years like this are always tough ones to judge, but that’s why they pay me the big bucks. There are many ways this could have played out, and I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be a controversial choice, but I’m pretty satisfied with it. So it’s with great pleasure that I announce that the Designers of the Year for 2019 are, in alphabetical order:
Yeah, I can already picture the charges of indecisiveness that will no doubt appear in the comments section. But all three of these designers were so close together in how I graded them. Making things even more complicated, they accomplished things in entirely different ways, so comparisons were difficult. Hargrave’s value comes almost entirely from one huge hit, the most acclaimed title of the year. Daviau has two major designs, together with four other well regarded games, giving him the largest portfolio of the trio. And Luciani scores with three big titles. I couldn’t pick between them all, so a three-way award seemed like the best way to go.
And it doesn’t hurt that with this decision, some great history is made. Luciani becomes the first Italian-born designer to be named DotY. It’s also nice recognition for a decade’s worth of remarkable releases. Daviau, who has been producing great games for 20 years, goes back even further; he was one of the first mainstream American designers to be influenced by German game design, so his accomplishments (including his legacy games) stretch from the past into the present. And, perhaps most significantly, Elizabeth Hargrave becomes the first woman to win a Designer of the Year award. It’s been a male-dominated hobby, in terms of designers, publishers, and players, for so long, but the times, they are a-changin’. So after 65 years, it’s nice to finally see a female designer get recognized.
There were two other designers who were very close to this trio, so I could have almost made it a five-way tie! (Wouldn’t that have been a popular decision?) Reiner Knizia, with another huge crop of games, just missed out. And Wolfgang Warsch came so close to making it back-to-back, representing a fabulous beginning to his design career. Having a callow youth and a grizzled veteran on such an even basis shows that gaming remains in very good hands as we enter the 20’s.
So congratulations to all three winners. Rest assured that I will be back again next year, even though none of us know how long this current situation will last. But I’m sure we will have new games, played in some fashion by happy gamers. And that means yet another edition of the Designer of the Year award. See you then, and everyone, please, be smart and stay healthy!