15 Great Designers

This is another article in our “10 Great” series, but we’re going to try something a little different this time.  Instead of selecting 10 great games that fit a particular category, we all voted on who our favorite game designers are.  With such a huge number of successful designers out there, we decided to expand the usual methodology and had everyone vote for their fifteen favorite designers.  There were no restrictions on who could be voted on, or even what criteria to use–we pretty much embrace laissez faire here at the old OG and, surprisingly enough, it works out for us most of the time.  So we just sent out the ballots and let people vote however they wanted to.

The Methodology

Normally, we each vote for 10 items, but there were requests to expand it to 15 choices after the voting had begun.  So to keep from having to make too dramatic a change with our online voting spreadsheet, we came up with a different voting procedure.  Each voter’s top choice was worth 15 points, second place was worth 14 points, and so on, all the way down to the tenth pick, which was worth 6 points, just the same as usual.  But this time around, we let each voter list their 11th through 15th picks and each of these was also worth 6 points apiece.  It was the simplest way of doing things so that the later votes were still worth something.  At the end of the process, all of the points were tallied up and our top picks made the article.

Summary of the Results

Given the complete lack of guidance, it wasn’t at all clear what criteria the voters would use when making their selections.  Based on the results, however, it’s pretty clear that most of us decided to go with “best body of work” when choosing our favorite designers, as opposed to those with a lot of recent success, or a single great design, or any other method.  Almost all of our top 15 have designer credits going back more than 15 years and 10 of them had at least one significant release during the 90’s.  There are some new faces mixed in with the old, however, so it’s an interesting and highly qualified list.

It’s also a list with an extreme lack of diversity.  All told, 30 designers made our top 15 or received an honorable mention.  Almost all of them are white men.  (Inka Brand, who is a woman, of course, is the only female to make either list.  All 30 listed designers are white.  Eric Lang, who is Black, just missed getting an honorable mention.)  Given that our voters focused on the “best body of work” criteria, which means mostly older games, this is merely a reflection of the unfortunate fact that prior to 2010 or so, the vast majority of game designers were white men.  Thankfully, this is changing in the hobby, although perhaps not as quickly as we would like.  The hope is that if we conduct a similar exercise 5 years from now, there will be considerably more diversity in the designers we select.

20 voters participated in the election and 61 designers got at least one vote.  For each designer on the list, we’ll list the number of points received, the number of votes, and the number of Gold, Silver, and Bronze votes received (which is just the number of first, second, and third place votes cast for them).  We’ll also list that designer’s highest rated games, based on their ranking on the Geek.

So, without further ado, here are 15 Great Designers!

Honorable Mentions

A lot of terrific designers came close, but didn’t quite make the list.  So here are all the designers who got at least 30 votes, but finished outside of the top 15.  We also list that designer’s one or two top rated games on the Geek.

27. Richard Borg – 30 points, 4 votes;  Memoir ‘44

27. Stefan Dorra – 30 points, 5 votes;  For Sale

25. Richard Garfield – 31 points, 4 votes;  Android: Netrunner; Magic: The Gathering

25. Rüdiger Dorn – 31 points, 5 votes;  Istanbul; Goa

24. Karl-Heinz Schmiel – 33 points, 3 votes;  Die Macher

23. Inka & Marcus Brand – 34 points, 5 votes;  Village; Rajas of the Ganges

21. Jeroen Doumen/Joris Wiersinga (Splotter) – 36 points, 4 votes (1 Silver);  Food Chain Magnate; Indonesia

21. Donald X. Vaccarino – 36 points, 4 votes (1 Silver);  Dominion; Kingdom Builder

20. Francis Tresham – 37 points, 3 votes (1 Silver);  1830; Civilization

19. Andreas Seyfarth – 49 points, 6 votes (1 Bronze);  Puerto Rico; San Juan

18. Matt Leacock – 50 points, 6 votes (1 Bronze);  Pandemic Legacy; Pandemic

17. Richard Breese – 54 points, 6 votes (1 Gold);  Keyflower; Reef Encounter

16. Michael Kiesling – 57 points, 6 votes (1 Gold);  Azul; Tikal

Our Fifteen Favorite Designers

Here is our list of the fifteen greatest game designers of all time, together with their vote totals and their five highest ranked games on the Geek.

15. Alexander Pfister

59 points, 6 votes (2 Silver, 1 Bronze) 
     Great Western Trail (2016)
     Maracaibo (2019)
     Mombasa (2015)
     Isle of Skye (2015)
     Port Royal (2015)

Pfister is the youngest designer in our list, as his first published game was released in 2010.  He is adept at creating both lighter board and card games, as well as heavier big box games.  His games have won five major game awards, including two Kennerspiel awards.

13. Rob Daviau

61 points, 5 votes (1 Gold, 1 Silver, 2 Bronze)
     Pandemic Legacy (2015)
     Cthulhu: Death May Die (2019)
     Risk Legacy (2011)
     HeroScape (2004)
     Downforce (2017)

Daviau was one of the first of the major U.S. designers to include concepts from Eurogames in his own designs, dating back to his early days working at Hasbro (his first games came out in 2000).  He will forever be known as the originator of the Legacy game, beginning with 2011’s Risk Legacy.  Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was the top rated game on the Geek for a two-year period and really cemented the popularity of the legacy concept.

13. Sid Sackson

61 points, 8 votes
     Acquire (1964)
     Can’t Stop (1980)
     Sleuth (1971)
     I’m the Boss! (1994)
     Bazaar (1967)

The first of the great modern game designers (his career stretches all the way back to 1946!), Sackson was the dominant American designer during the sixties and seventies and his career extended all the way to gaming’s Golden Age.  Many people consider Acquire to be the first Eurogame and when German publishers of the time looked to improve their product, they used it and the other 3M games as their model.  Sackson’s A Gamut of Games (1969), which contains many original designs by both himself and his friends, is considered to be one of the greatest books about gaming ever written.

12. Antoine Bauza

62 points, 8 votes
     7 Wonders Duel (2015)
     7 Wonders (2010)
     Ghost Stories (2008)
     Takenoko (2011)
     Hanabi (2012)

Bauza will probably always be remembered for 7 Wonders, which was a smash hit and is one of only two games ever to win all three major gaming awards.  Other notable titles of his include Ghost Stories, one of the most popular and innovative of the early cooperative games, and Hanabi, a unique cooperative deduction game which also won an SdJ award.

11. Michael Schacht

75 points, 10 votes
     Coloretto (2003)
     Web of Power (2000)
     Zooloretto (2007)
     China (2005)
     Hansa (2004)

Schacht has been a prolific designer for over 20 years.  He specializes in light and middleweight games.  Web of Power was one of the first “super fillers”, which packs a lot of gameplay into a short amount of time, and remains very popular.

10. Klaus Teuber

76 points, 7 votes (2 Bronze)
     Catan (1995)
     Rivals for Catan (2010)
     Domaine (2003)
     Catan Card Game (1996)
     Starship Catan (2001)

Klaus Teuber is one of the best-selling and highly honored game designers in history.  His crowning achievement will always be Settlers of Catan, which brought Eurogaming to the attention of so many people in so many different corners of the world.  But he is much more than just Catan, as his four SdJ awards will attest.  One of those award-winning games was Adel Verplichtet (1990), which was also an enormous hit and the first German game to have a significant impact outside of Germany.

9. Martin Wallace

78 points, 8 votes (1 Gold, 1 Bronze)
     Brass (2007)
     Age of Steam (2002)
     A Few Acres of Snow (2011)
     London (2010)
     Automobile (2009)

In his 30+ years as a game designer, Wallace’s stock in trade has been games which have both strong themes and sound and innovative mechanisms, making him one of the first designers to effectively mix the strengths of European and American-style games.  His top designs include economic games (such as Brass and Automobile), train games (such as Age of Steam and its many spinoffs), and Eurogame-style wargames (like A Few Acres of Snow).  He continues to be a versatile and prolific designer.

8. Stefan Feld

82 points, 9 votes (1 Gold, 1 Bronze)
     The Castles of Burgundy (2011)
     Trajan (2011)
     Bora Bora (2013)
     Bruges (2013)
     In the Year of the Dragon (2007)

Feld’s design style is among the most distinctive in the hobby.  His games are mechanically-driven and frequently use dice in a clever fashion.  Many feature an innovative action selection system.  His most popular games can be characterized as “Point Salads” and, in fact, that term was first used to describe Feld games.  For a while, he was the de facto Alea “house designer”, as he was responsible for six consecutive Alea big box titles, most of which were extremely popular.

7. Tom Lehmann

92 points, 8 votes (4 Gold, 1 Silver)
     Race for the Galaxy (2007)
     Roll for the Galaxy (2014)
     Res Arcana (2019)
     1846 (2005)
     New Frontiers (2018)

Lehmann is one of the most cerebral of the established game designers.  His games are never long, but they always feature a great deal of depth and multiple interactions between their various elements.  This is amply displayed in his two most popular titles, Race (and Roll) for the Galaxy.  His four first-place votes in our election are as many as any other designer received, an indication of how passionate his many fans are.

6. Friedemann Friese

103 points, 12 votes
     Power Grid (2004)
     Friday (2011)
     Fabled Fruit(2016)
     Fauna (2008)
     Power Grid: Factory Manager (2009)

Beneath Friedemann Friese’s ever present green hair lies one of gaming’s most original minds.  A mix-and-match gaming sandbox (504), one of the first exclusively solo designs (Friday), and a game in which the roads build themselves in a mind-bending fashion (Fresh Fish) are but a few of the titles which could only have sprung from his brain.  Easily his most successful design is Power Grid, which began life (as a game called Funkenschlag) as a mash-up of a crayon rails game, an auction game, and an economic game; Power Grid is his streamlined version of this and remains extraordinarily popular.

5. Vlaada Chvátil

124 points, 10 votes (3 Gold, 2 Silver)
     Through the Ages (2006)
     Mage Knight Board Game (2011)
     Codenames (2015)
     Galaxy Trucker (2007)
     Dungeon Petz (2011)

Chvátil burst onto the gaming stage in 2006, with his brilliant Through the Ages, a complete Civ game played almost exclusively with cards.  It was also the first indication to most of us of the burgeoning gaming scene in the Czech Republic.  Chvátil has shown himself to be a most versatile designer, creating monster heavyweights like TtA and Mage Knight, real time delights like Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert, and party-style titles like the SdJ-winning Codenames.

4. Alan Moon

163 points, 17 votes (5 Bronze)
     Ticket to Ride (2004)
     Airlines Europe (2011)
     Union Pacific (1999)
     San Marco (2001)
     Diamant (2005)

Moon’s design career stretches all the way back to the 1970’s.  He specializes in middleweight games which can be enjoyed by both families and more seasoned gamers.  His signature achievement are the Ticket to Ride games, with the original title widely considered to be the greatest Gateway game ever created, and the 15 some odd spinoffs all full of new ideas that keeps fans coming back for more.  He has won SdJ awards for both TtR and 1998’s Elfenland.

3. Wolfgang Kramer

171 points, 16 votes (1 Gold, 2 Silver, 2 Bronze)
     El Grande (1995)
     The Princes of Florence (2000)
     Tikal (1999)
     Downforce (2017)
     Colosseum (2007)

Kramer is probably the most honored and popular of the great German designers.  He has won 5 SdJ awards (more than any other designer) and 5 other major awards.  El Grande is the top rated pre-2000 game on the Geek and Tikal (one of only two games to win all three major game awards) was the first of the very popular Action Point Trilogy designs.  His extremely productive 20+ year partnership with Michael Kiesling continues to flourish, as their 2020 designs of Renature and Paris are both receiving enthusiastic reviews.  This, more than 45 years after Kramer’s first published game!  The man is ageless.

2. Uwe Rosenberg

184 points, 16 votes (2 Gold, 4 Silver, 2 Bronze)
     A Feast for Odin (2016)
     Caverna (2013)
     Agricola (2007)
     Le Havre (2008)
     Fields of Arle (2014)

Few designers have re-invented themselves as successfully as Uwe Rosenberg has.  During the late 90’s, he was a very popular designer of innovative card games, highlighted by his massively successful Bohnanza.  Then, after a period of relative quiet, he suddenly re-emerged with Agricola, a strategic boardgame completely different than anything he had done before and all it did was become the top rated game on the Geek.  It was the first of numerous meaty boardgames from Rosenberg, all of them highly acclaimed.  Lately, he has returned to lighter fare, many of which utilize polyominos.  What kind of game will the talented Herr Rosenberg turn to next?

1. Reiner Knizia

219 points, 20 votes (4 Gold, 3 Silver, 1 Bronze)
     Tigris & Euphrates (1997)
     The Quest for El Dorado (2017)
     Ra (1999)
     Samurai (1998)
     Modern Art (1992)

Knizia was the clear #1 choice of our voters.  His point total was 35 more than any of his competitors and he was the only designer to be mentioned by all 20 of our voters (the next highest total was 17).  And small wonder:  from 1990 to 2010, he was unquestionably the dominant designer in the world.  His impact continues to be felt today–of the top 1000 games on the Geek, no fewer than 25 of them were designed by Knizia, an astonishing number, particularly since most of them are more than 15 years old.  The past few years have seen a renaissance in Knizia’s work, which is very good news for the many fans of this all-time great.


Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber: I have a really hard time with questions such as this, because among other things I know many of these folks personally (including the honorable mentions, 12 of them).  So I decided to go with an objective (mostly) approach.  For many years, I’ve calculated a happiness metric – time x (rating-5).  This, for me, approximates the amount of joy I’ve received from a given play of a game, or all my plays of a game – or all of my plays of all of the games from a designer.  So I used this metric to make my selections.

The problem was – and is – that there really isn’t a clear difference between the design who finishes 10th and 11th using that metric.  Or, for that matter, 15th and 16th, after Larry changed the rules.  (For example, Andreas Seyfarth was 15th on my list with 579 happiness; Wolfgang Kramer was 16th with 576 happiness.)  So, alphabetically, I thought I’d list some of the other designers who have provided me with lots of happiness, but who aren’t listed above: Bernd Brunnhofer, Günter Cornett, Franz-Benno Delonge, Jean du Poel, Hisashi Hayashi, David Hecht, Dirk Henn, James Hlavaty, Rudi Hoffmann, Doris Mattäus & Frank Nestel, Helmut Ohley, Leonhard Orgler, Peter Prinz, Ragnar Brothers, Alex Randolph, Shun Taguchi, Kenichi Tanabe, Corne van Moorsel, Aaron Weissblum, Reinhold Wittig, and Klaus-Jürgen Wrede.

Simon W: wow. It feels almost criminal to have Richard Garfield outside the top 15 after the enormous impact of Magic the Gathering, which got me (back) into gaming in my adulthood. And Richard Breese – such an innovative designer and the inventor of worker placement. I guess it’s such a subjective thing to vote for, there are some designers I would never have imagined seeing in the Top 10 either. Very interesting!

Tery N: I had a really hard time voting for my top 10 designers. There are two designers whose games I will generally buy without trying them, because most of the time I will really like them – Uwe Rosenberg and Alexander Pfister, so voting for those two was easy. After that it got really hard, because it was hard for me to decide if really loving only one game from a designer should rank higher than liking a few of someone else’s games. I finally ended up with number of games I like as my metric. Interestingly I had to check out who the designer is for a couple of my favorite games, as I had no idea.

The good part of the stress of choosing is that it reminded me of a few older, classic games that I really like that I haven’t played in a very long time, and I look forward to getting those to the table.

Larry: I was a little surprised with the results of this election.  With so many new and talented designers out there, I thought quite a few of them might get some support.  I even modified the way I usually rate my favorite designers, to give greater weight to the kinds of games I’m more likely to play today, as opposed to how I rated them when they first appeared.  But most of our voters decided to use best body of work as their main criteria, which, in retrospect, was the most obvious way to go.  The result is a group of veteran and extremely talented designers and I can hardly quibble with that.

As it turned out, my picks tracked the group’s selections fairly well.  The group’s top 9 all appeared on my ballot.  My top 7 were Wallace, Rosenberg, Knizia, Simone Luciani, Kramer, Feld, and Chvatil and all but Luciani wound up in the OG top 9.  I’m well aware that my love of Luciani is considerably greater than that of my fellow OGers, but he didn’t finish that far away from an honorable mention.  For just about all of our top 15 designers, if I hear that they’ve created a new game, I’m immediately interested, and that’s as good a definition of a great designer as any.

James Nathan: I didn’t vote, but some discussion we had behind the scenes after, to be frank, we realized the white, male dominated list that had resulted, prompted me to want to add my thoughts.

I hadn’t initially voted, as “favorite designer” has never been a question that clicks for me, as even the most popular designers have felt like “one hit wonders” to me. That is, I love Age of Steam, but I don’t own any other Bohrer games and only one other Wallace game – Steam! I adore Agricola, but only own other Rosenberg games for sentimental reasons. (At this point, Feld might be worth my personal vote, as I own and enjoy Strasbourg, Notre Dame, and Bruges, but that seems like a low enough percentage of his designs, and I don’t especially enjoy the others, so where does that rank?)

In the past, when I would look at the games I owned and enjoyed and tried to look for common publishers, designers, or mechanics, I always came up empty of any thread tying them together. It was a mental exercise I did because people ask and I wanted to have an answer, I like looking for patterns, and, well, it helps in deciding what new games to buy!

What I finally settled on was, well, Dale Yu, our head honcho here on the blog. Not as a designer, but his development work on Suburbia and Dominion, and contributions to Agricola and a bit of Age of Steam? Heck, even the Carrera games, like Flizz & Meiz! He was a person I would keep an eye on for future involvement in game design/development, as a guidepost for things I might like. (His brother, Brian Yu, is in a similar boat with designs like Geister, Geister, Schatzsuchmeister; Out of Sight; and, as my well worn copy can attest, Pictionary: the Card Game.)

These days my tastes generally align specifically with the Japanese doujin trick-taking scene, and it’s easy to rattle off that my favorites are 新澤 大樹 (Taiki Shinzawa), 梟老堂 (Fukuroudou), and 横内宗幸 (Muneyuki Yokouchi).

I also want to highlight couples like Aiko and Toru Oyama, as I adore their Madrino, am quickly loving Rise of the Metro, and while I can’t get the full experience of Wordon without being fluent in Japanese, an English mock-up showed its promise.

One last word for Tom Russell. While she falls closer to the “one hit wonder” for me right now (I am fully enamored with Northern Pacific), each of her designs is worth a look for me. There’s always something new, unique, and risky taking place; even when a game doesn’t reach the point that it earns a place on my limited shelves, it’s worth the experience.

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11 Responses to 15 Great Designers

  1. Jon says:

    Interesting article – would be interesting to see another list based upon games published since maybe 2015 or first game published since 2010 – to give a voice to some of the up and coming designers and see if board game design is more diverse.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    That might make for an interesting article, Jon. Definitely worth considering.

  3. Jimmy Okolica says:

    Interesting question… I always love Larry’s Designer of the Year awards but hadn’t thought of my favorite/best designers of all time…. Interestingly, my answers are very different if I rank them by best to favorite. My top 3 are the same (Knizia, Rosenberg, and Lehmann) but then the order changes significantly (although most of the names remain the same). Luciani moves up from barely making the list to #4 while Sackson moves down from #4 to barely making the list. Other than Luciani, the only designer that made my list but wasn’t mentioned anywhere above was Mac Gerdts.

  4. Nathan says:

    I guess I’m also questioning the diversity of the voters. I look at Eric Lang’s body at work and I wonder how in the world is he not in here and then I see 14 white guys.

    • Federico says:

      You will find very few “american” (and I don’t mean the nationality, more the general game category) in this list, and this is probably why you don’t find Eric.
      I for one would have done a completely different list (one with Garfield at the top and Bruno Faidutti somewhere), but you can’t really discuss taste. And my list would have been completely dominated by white males, too. Because it’s true, diversity is very limited in the “german” designer category, and we should really do something to take down whatever barrier is preventing women and minorities to succeed in this world.
      But all these designer made great games and deserve to be there…

      It’s just a matter of taste.

  5. huzonfirst says:

    Nathan, all I can tell you is that our voters are very much Eurogamers and that’s not the sort of game that Lang usually designs. He is an extraordinarily successful designer, but that doesn’t mean his games will appeal to all people. I’ve known most of the writers on this site for many years and I can say with complete confidence that the color of Mr. Lang’s skin did not affect a single voter’s judgment. Whether you find that convincing or not is beyond my control.

  6. Jacob Lee says:

    Not many sites pay homage to the old school designers better than this one.

  7. Florian says:

    If you are aware of the extreme lack of diversity, will you counter this list with another one that uses a methodology that will lead to a more diverse list?

  8. huzonfirst says:

    One of the ideas we were kicking around as a follow-up to this article was a list of more recent designers; hopefully, that would be a more diverse group. There are some other possibilities. But I think if you go through the Geek and look for designers with a significant body of work, you’ll find it to be overwhelmingly populated by White men. That’s unfortunate and I think it’s in the process of changing, but as matters now stand, I think if most gamers put together a list like this, it would show a similar lack of diversity, simply because of the history of our hobby. I don’t like that fact, but I’d be lying if I tried to deny it.

  9. mdiroma002 says:

    I’m new to the euro game space and look forward to looking into/paying homage to the veteran designers listed here. It’s intriguing to me that people I would consider notable are not mentioned anywhere on these lists. e.g. Vital Lacerda, Thank you to all of the contributors for this work.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Welcome to the wonderful world of Eurogames! We did this article mostly because it was a fun project, but it was also to help inform gamers like you, who may not be as aware of all these more established designers than more veteran Eurogamers. Because we wound up placing such an emphasis on a designer’s body of work, newer designers like Lacerda didn’t rate as highly in our poll. I hope you’ll be able to play some of the great games mentioned in the article–I think you might be in for a treat!

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