You don’t need me to tell you how difficult a year 2020 was for most of us. In addition to the health and financial issues so many had to deal with, it also affected our day to day activities in many ways, including gaming. With lockdowns restricting face-to-face gaming for so many, the number of games released last year were less than usual and fewer of them got played regularly. Still, games were published and each one of them had a designer. So it should come as no surprise to you that no mere pandemic will keep us from bestowing our Designer of the Year Award for 2020!
The Designer of the Year (DotY) has been a regular feature on OG since we launched. The idea is simple: there are several jillion awards each year which honor the best game of the year, but not a single one that recognizes which designer had the best year. So I’m here to fill that void—that’s me, a big void-filler. This article will cite which designers I feel had the best calendar year in 2020 and I’ll select one of them as my DotY. I usually post this in the February/March timeframe, but I decided to delay things a few months since the lockdown meant there was so little data to go on earlier in the year. To be honest, there are still fewer ratings than usual (no surprise there), but I didn’t want to stall too long and I’m pretty confident that the data we do have is giving us an accurate picture of how popular last year’s games were.
Well, that’s all well and good, I can hear you saying (I have very sharp hearing), but what kind of 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.
By the way, I make no distinction if a game has a single designer or if two or more individuals get design credit. It’s impossible to determine who was responsible for what when there are multiple designers and being part of a successful team is a skill of its own. So as long as you are listed as one of the designers, you get full credit for the value of the game. It just seems to me to be the most sensible and practical way to approach things.
My goal is to make the award as objective as possible. I mean, I could base things on what games I like best, but none of you gives a rat’s patootie about that. 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) and some other notable awards. Games which came out during the latter part of last year won’t be eligible for many of these until later this year, so I’ve had to project their performance, but my track record for this is pretty good. The third, and least significant 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.
I actually started writing these articles for other websites prior to OG’s glorious debut and, due to a somewhat unhealthy abundance of spare time, have even extended them all the way back to 1955! Hey, it keeps me off the streets. 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, there was a very tight race and I wound up having three designers share the award. How did they do since I raised them to the pinnacle of their profession? Quite well, as it turns out. Rob Daviau’s big games during 2019 were Cthulhu: Death May Die and the Unmatched Game System; the former is in the Geek’s top 200 and rising fast, while the latter boasts an average Geek rating of over 8.5. Elizabeth Hargrave, the first woman to win a DotY, designed the most notable game of the year in Wingspan; it’s the 20th ranked game on the Geek and has won five Game of the Year awards, including the Kennerspiel, DSP, Golden Geek, and Dice Tower awards. And Simone Luciani’s resume included Barrage and Marco Polo II; the former is on the verge of breaking into the Geek’s top 50 and has two award wins and eight other nominations, while the latter is in the Geek’s top 200. Three great years and I’m pleased to note that the titles for each of these designers continue to get terrific ratings and a good deal of gameplay more than a year after their joint selection.
Here are the ten designers I think had the best years in 2020, together with the games they published. A few of the titles came out early enough to be eligible for last year’s awards (and a few of this year’s awards have already been announced), so here’s the shorthand I use to indicate that: s shows a nomination for the SdJ award, d is a top 10 finish in the DSP voting, g is a nomination for one of the Golden Geek Game of the Year awards, and a is a top 10 finish for the a la carte award (best card game of the year). When a game is shown in italics, it indicates that it is a redesign or spinoff of a title released previously by that 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.
Scott Almes – Warp’s Edge; Tiny Epic Dinosaurs; Food Chain Island; Cosmic Colonies; Almanac: The Dragon Road; Tiny Epic Galaxies BLAST OFF!; Claim Pocket; Claim Kingdoms: Royal Edition; Boomerang: Australia; Boomerang: Europe; Boomerang: USA; Motu
People first began noticing Almes as the designer of the “Tiny Epic…” games. Recently, he has become considerably more prolific and successful, to the point where he made the DotY pages two of the last three years. In 2020, his output exploded and he released a dozen games. There are the requisite Tiny Epic games, but there are also some other game series, such as the Boomerang group and the Claim games. Most impressively, he has five original designs with good to great ratings and a reasonable number of voters, all of which can be considered hits. Warp’s Edge, a sci-fi solitaire design with a Geek rating of over 8.0, is the highlight, but Tiny Epic Dinosaurs, Food Chain Island, Cosmic Colonies, and the first Almanac game have all been successful.
None of these games have gotten a huge amount of coverage and it wouldn’t shock me if Scott wound up the year without any award nominations. But all of 12 of his designs have Geek ratings over 7.0 and that kind of consistency, with that many games, is just plain impressive. This is clearly Almes’ best year as a designer. The question is, is it enough to win him his first DotY award?
Inka and Markus Brand – Rajas of the Ganges: The Dice Charmers; Andor: The Family Fantasy Game(d); Exit–The Cemetery of the Knight; Exit–The Enchanted Forest; Exit–The Deserted Lighthouse; Exit–The Sacred Temple; Exit–The Gate Between Worlds; Exit–Advent Calendar; Dinner for One; Murano: Complete Edition
Year after year, the Brands prove that the family that designs together, shines together! Inka and Markus Brand, gaming’s first couple (with the occasional assistance of their kids) keep cranking out quality designs. The highlight this year is the Rajas of the Ganges dice game, which is based on the boardgame, but is fairly different mechanically. Their spinoff of the Andor franchise has also done well (the award mention is for the DSP Best Children’s award, but as the game’s title implies, this is a game for the whole family). Then there are no fewer than seven Exit games, all of them well rated. The workings of these games are all identical, of course, so their impact on the DotY is considerably reduced, but it’s still remarkable that the Brands are able to consistently fill this series with so many ingenious ideas. It’s not quite enough to put them into serious consideration for the award, but it’s still a fine year and I expect to continue to see this team in contention for the DotY for many years to come.
Bruno Cathala – Trek 12; Velonimo; Mosquito Show; Cleopatra and the Society of Architects: Deluxe Edition; Gold River; Jurassic Brunch
There are only a few certainties in this world: death, taxes, flame wars on Twitter, and Bruno Cathala once again receiving a DotY nomination. Bruno is here again, with another nice collection of designs. Trek 12 is a roll & write with a Geek rating of 7.6. Velonimo and Mosquito Show also have good ratings. The deluxe edition of Cleopatra is well ranked, but it’s only a mild redesign of the original 2006 title. And even though I don’t include it in the analysis, Bruno’s year is enhanced a bit by having Dragomino be a Kinderspiel nominee. Cathala has earned two Designer of the Year awards and there’s not enough here for him to garner his third, but his output continues unbated. I have no reason to think he won’t be represented in next year’s article as well.
Rob Daviau – Pandemic Legacy: Season 0; Unmatched: Cobble & Fog; Unmatched: Jurassic Park – Ingen vs. Raptors; Unmatched: Little Red Riding Hood vs. Beowulf; Unmatched: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Betrayal at Mystery Mansion
Daviau won his first DotY award last year and he’s back with another strong collection of games. The third and final season of Pandemic Legacy leads the way, with a sky-high rating and the promise of multiple award nominations. Then there are four new standalone expansions to his popular Unmatched system, all of which have ratings well in excess of 8.0. He’s hurt by the fact that none of these titles are original ones, but it’s still a very impressive array of gaming goodness. Could the Father of the Legacy Game make it back-to-back Designer of the Year awards?
Stefan Feld – Bonfire(g); The Castles of Tuscany; Merlin: Big Box
Feld has three DotY awards, but the last one was in 2013. 2020 was one of his better years since then. Bonfire, one of Stefan’s heaviest recent games, has a Geek rating of 8.0, a Golden Geek nomination, and the promise of further nominations to come. Castles of Tuscany, which bears some similarity to Feld’s earlier classic The Castles of Burgundy, is considerably lighter, but has also performed well. And the reprint of Merlin contains some new material. It’s not enough to get Feld back in the winner’s circle, but it’s still a fine year.
Friedemann Friese – Faiyum(g); Feierabend; 5×15; The Fight; Terra: Deutschland
2020 was particularly hard on designers who own small, independent publishing companies, since distribution partners were often hard to come by. That description matches Friese and his company 2F-Spiele, so it’s nice to see that the Man in Green was able to manage the hardships and have quite a good year. Faiyum, a deck-builder set in Ancient Egypt that has been very well received, was a Golden Geek Game of the Year nominee and I’d expect that more nominations are in its future. Feierabend, about workers trying to maximize their leisure time, has also done well. Friedemann also proved himself to be a good gaming citizen during the height of the pandemic by generously providing a couple of innovative print-and-play games in 5×15 and The Fight. Surprisingly, Friese has never won a DotY award and there’s not quite enough here for him to contend this time around, but years like this show he could still achieve it some time in the future.
Reiner Knizia – My City(s,g); Schotten Totten 2; GOLD; Sumatra; Marshmallow Test; Space Worm; Dragonland; Kajko i Kokosz; L.A.M.A. Party Edition; KaZock; MEOW; Chicken; Ice Tumble; Phantom Seas
Knizia has won 6 Designer of the Year awards, the same as Sid Sackson; no one else has more than 3. His last victory was 15 years ago, but the fact that he’s made the DotY shortlist for the last three years shows how good he’s been recently. 2020 was another strong year for the Good Doctor. The legacy-ish My City is the unquestioned highlight—it’s highly rated and was a finalist for both the SdJ and Golden Geek awards, with more nominations probably coming. Schotten Totten 2, which is fairly different than the original title, has also done well, with a Geek rating above 7.5. As usual, there’s no shortage of other games—15 in all. One major design and a ton of supporting ones can be a winning formula. Could it be enough to win Reiner his record-breaking seventh award?
Wolfgang Kramer – Renature; Paris; Jubako; Don Carlo(a); Alle Neune
I realize that age is just a number, but did you know that Wolfgang Kramer will turn 79 in just a few weeks? And yet, here he is, as one of the ten best designers in the world, almost half a century after he had his first game published. The man is a wonder. Renature is a tile-laying game, while Paris is a city builder. Both are area majority games which have been well received by both reviewers and players. Jubako is a Japanese-themed abstract, while Don Carlo is a spy-themed card game that finished 9th in last year’s a la carte voting. It’s a very solid portfolio that shows that Herr Kramer continues to be as productive as ever, even as he approaches his ninth decade on this planet. Long may he continue!
Shem Phillips – Viscounts of the West Kingdom(g); Raiders of Scythia
Phillips has established himself as a first-rate designer over the past half dozen years, first with his “North Sea” trilogy of games and most recently, with his “West Kingdom” trilogy. Viscounts is the latest of the West Kingdom titles and, with its unique take on deckbuilding, is at the heavier end of the gaming spectrum. It’s on the verge of climbing into the top 200 games on the Geek and has already won a Golden Geek nomination, so it’s one of the major titles of the year. Raiders of Scythia is a reasonably extensive redesign of Phillips’ first hit game, Raiders of the North Sea, and, like Viscounts, has a Geek rating in excess of 8.0. Shem’s games have always been very popular; if he can continue to build up his productivity, he might well become a regular on the DotY pages.
Uwe Rosenberg – Hallertau(g); New York Zoo; Sagani; Fairy Trails; Excalibohn
Rosenberg released Agricola 14 years ago—time flies, huh? Since then, he has had a pretty much uninterrupted run as one of the leading designers in the world. Along the way, he’s earned three Designer of the Year awards and been in the DotY top 10 in many other years, but this is his first mention since 2017. There’s a lot to like in this crop of games. He leads off with Hallertau, the latest of his heavyweight Harvest designs; it’s got a great Geek rating and its Golden Geek nomination is no doubt the first of many. New York Zoo, another of his polyomino games and Sagani, a tile-layer that builds upon the ideas from his earlier Nova Luna, both are well rated middleweights. He adds a couple of other lighter titles, including yet another Bohnanza spinoff. It’s a very nice group of games, but is it enough to get Uwe into the winner’s circle once again?
So that’s the list for 2020. Given how bizarre a year it was, it’s actually a fairly strong group of candidates. But four designers definitely stand out: Almes, Daviau, Knizia, and Rosenberg, with very little to separate them. I can see the beads of sweat forming on your collective brows now; after a three-way tie last year, I couldn’t possibly be thinking of having a four-way tie this year, could I?
Nope! It’s close, but I finally decided that one name really did stand out for me. So it is with great pleasure that I announce that the Designer of the Year for 2020 is…
This was definitely a tough choice. Despite some very nice titles, none of Almes’ games were blockbusters; certainly nothing like Daviau’s Pandemic Legacy 0, Knizia’s My City, or Rosenberg’s Hallertau. And there’s a very good chance that none of his games wind up getting any kind of mention in the annual awards. But I couldn’t ignore both the quantity and the quality of his portfolio, including no fewer than five original designs with very good ratings and a half dozen others with a Geek rating in excess of 7.0. It’s the kind of year the Designer of the Year award was meant to highlight, so I’m delighted I’m able to do so. Great job, Scott!
The others were so close. As I mentioned, each had that one big game as a highlight, but none of them were able to back it up with solid secondary titles (Daviau’s games had the ratings, but he was hurt because they were all spinoffs). It’s impossible to separate them, so call it a three-way tie for second place between Rob, Reiner, and Uwe (I have to have my ties appear somewhere, right?). The Brands finish in fifth, with yet another solid, Exit-filled year.
So 2020 gives us the excitement of a first-time DotY winner, a designer who’s paid his dues and had a breakthrough year. What will 2021 bring us? Another new name? A grizzled veteran? Maybe both??? The only way to find out is to check with us next year when we do it all over again!
Thanks, Larry! Always a fun read. I always like to play a game of not reading the winner and going through each designer’s description carefully to see who I predict will win. I did not guess correctly this time, but then I also did not play any of S. A.’s games (was not even familiar with his name).
As I was reading Bruno Cathala’s intro I was a little surprised. I’ve played several of his designs over the past twenty years, but don’t own a single one. I’ve never found any of his games to match my tastes, I guess. But I have spent a good chunk of time over the past few months researching civ-type attack & conquer games and Cyclades plus expansions has risen to the top of my list. I think I might go all in and get the full package.
Thanks for the kind words, Jacob. Yeah, Cathala has been incredibly productive over a 20 year career. Most of his designs fall into the lighter or middleweight category, but he’s also fully capable of creating a heavier game from time to time. I played Cyclades a few times when it first came out (a dozen years ago!) and it’s certainly interesting. It didn’t really stick with us (so many good games were coming out in those days), but it’s retained its popularity and continues to have a good reputation. Sounds like a good choice!