I’ve been playing Eurogames regularly for over 20 years. Like many gamers, there are certain designers I really like and others I avoid. But what’s interesting is that this changes quite a bit over time. Part of that may be alterations in my tastes. But I think a lot of it is that it’s hard for creative people to consistently maintain a high quality of work over an extended period. In addition, they may switch from creating one type of game (a type I like) to another class of titles that I’m less fond of. Whatever the reasons are, I find that when people ask me who my favorite designer is, one of the questions I have for them is “from when?”.
Something else I’ve noticed when I look back at my years in the hobby is a phenomenon I call the “Hot Designer”. There are short, 2-4 year periods when certain designers are exceedingly productive and produce a huge number of games I love. Knizia had a period like this in the late nineties; Wallace did something similar ten years later, and there are other examples. It’s as if they’re amazingly inspired over those years. The thing is, no human being can continue that level of quality for too long. So the hot periods aren’t extended, but they sure are great while they last.
Anyway, I was thinking about this and I thought it might be interesting to examine the ebbs and flows of various game designers over the years. I’d love to do an objective study of something like this, based on some Geek data or something similar, but I haven’t figured out how that would be possible. So instead, what you’re getting is a list of my favorites from 1990 to the present. That’s less universal, but still should be of interest to folks with tastes similar to mine. More to the point, I think it illustrates how much the gaming landscape changes through time, probably much more so than those new to the hobby realize.
Here’s the methodology of the study. I listed all the games from the past 30 years to receive at least an “I Like It” rating on the OG scale from me and assigned them to their designer(s). I then put a point value on each one; the more I liked the game, the higher the value. I didn’t include games I didn’t care for; there were no negative points assigned to designers for creating stinkers, as I didn’t see the point in penalizing someone for being prolific. I decided to group the games into five year slices, based on the year they were released. Then I summed up the point values for each designer’s games in each period, to determine who my favorite designers were during each 5-year chunk.
I found I played more games in some periods than in others, just due to changing life situations. As a result, the raw point totals across multiple periods weren’t particularly meaningful for the purposes of comparisons. To normalize things, I assigned my favorite designer in each time period a “rating” of 100. Each other designer got a rating proportional to their point total. So if Designer X had a point total that was half the point total of my favorite designer’s, they got a score of 50, and so on.
So let’s look at some results. Here are my top 5 (or so) favorite designers for the five-year periods from 1990 to 2020. I give the rating for each designer, together with their number of “I Like It” games from the period, and also provide some commentary at the end.
I wasn’t active in the hobby during the years these games came out, so they were all older games at the time I first played them. This period was prior to the explosion of more involved titles (what we called “gamer’s games” back then) that we saw during the late nineties. Consequently, there are only a handful of games that appealed to me during this time. As you can see, Knizia was responsible for most of them, including favorites like Medici, Res Publica, and Quo Vadis. Sackson’s and Cornett’s high ratings come mostly from I’m the Boss and The Bottle Imp, respectively. Not a particularly bountiful period for me, but Reiner was clearly my favorite designer during it.
Knizia’s productivity during this period was remarkable and unprecedented for me. 14 favorites in five years! And great games as well, including not only terrific big box titles like Stephenson’s Rocket, Traumfabrik, Taj Mahal, and Tigris & Euphrates, but also excellent card games, like Schotten Totten and Katzenjammer Blues. Now that’s a Hot Designer! Kramer was almost as good, with brilliant designs like Tikal, Princes of Florence, and Tycoon. This was when he first started working with co-designers and two of his favorite partners (Kiesling and Ulrich) both make the list. Rosenberg is represented as well, but as most older gamers know, this is the pre-Agricola Uwe, who specialized almost exclusively in innovative card games like Schnappchen Jagd, Babel, and the uber-popular Bohnanza. These were the titles that were getting played when I began playing with my first games group and what a wonderful introduction to Eurogaming they were!
Klaus Teuber and Alan Moon just missed the top 5. I’ve played a reasonable number of Teuber’s designs over the years and enjoyed some of them (Lowenherz is in my all time top 10), but for the most part, his design style doesn’t particularly match my tastes and he never appeared in any of these lists for any period.
There were so many designers with collections of games I loved during this period that I had to expand the list to include 9 of them. These days, Dorn is better known for creating Istanbul (2014), but back in the day, he was definitely the Hot Designer for a couple of years, with terrific games like Goa, Jambo, and Louis XIV getting plenty of play. The partnership between Moon and Weissblum began (and pretty much ended) during this period, and they teamed to create some great designs, like San Marco and Capitol. Alan had some fine solo titles as well, such as Clippers and Ticket to Ride. Wallace really came of age at this time, thanks to wonderful rail and historical games like Age of Steam, Pampas Railroads, and Struggle of Empires. Kramer was still going strong, with Maharaja and Wildlife being the highlights for me. Knizia slipped out of the top 5 and his move towards lighter designs was not a positive one as far as my tastes were concerned, but Amun-Re is still one of my favorites. Friese and Seyfarth both made the list with a small number of great games (Funkenschlag and Power Grid for the Man in Green, and Puerto Rico—my all-time favorite game for a long time—and San Juan for Andreas). And Schacht burst upon the scene, with Industria and Hansa being the highlights.
Designers missing from the previous period’s top 5 include Rosenberg, who was preparing for his reinvention as a designer of big box games; Kiesling, who just missed making the list; and Ulrich, who pretty much vanished from the scene after he stopped co-designing games with Kramer in 2000.
Wallace dominated this period more than any other designer has done for me, before or since. He did it with a huge output and also some great games, including the brilliant Automobile (one of my 10 favorite games of all time), Brass, Steel Driver, and London. He was unquestionably the Hot Designer of the time. Chvatil came out of nowhere (actually, the Czech Republic, which at the time we thought was nowhere, but which has turned out to be quite the gaming hotbed) to contribute Through the Ages—my all-time favorite game—as well as a few other delights like Space Alert and Dungeon Lords. Feld began his marriage-made-in-heaven with Alea and the result was fabulous titles like Macao, In the Year of the Dragon, and Notre Dame. Knizia had one last burst of creativity before disappearing from these lists; the biggie for me was Medici vs. Strozzi, a very intense, highly underrated 2-player affair, although I also enjoyed Blue Moon City. Gerdts invented the concept of the “rondel” and we were all the richer for it; I loved Navegador and had fun with Imperial as well. Rosenberg began his reinvention and Agricola, Le Havre, and Gates of Loyang were all top notch creations. And Lehmann, a designer I’d followed since the early 90’s, finally hit the big time, but while the rest of the gaming world was smitten with Race for the Galaxy, the game of his I truly loved was Phoenicia.
The turnover from the previous period was pretty high. After his hot period, Dorn basically fell off the map for several years. Weissblum’s post-Moon career was limited and not of much interest to me. Moon and Kiesling both made my top 10 for the period, but neither was high enough to make the list. Friese and Kramer just missed the top 10. Seyfarth had a couple of designs in this period, but hasn’t released anything since. Schacht has remained active, but I’ve grown less interested in his work, and he’s produced nothing I’ve cared for in the last 10 years.
It’s the Uwe and Stefan show, as those two veteran designers dominated my ratings. Neither could be characterized as a Hot Designer; instead, they just continued the solid work they had done earlier (and would do in the future). The big hit with me from Rosenberg was Ora et Labora (one of my all-time top 10 games), but I also enjoyed Fields of Arle, Caverna, and a bunch of his lighter stuff. Feld scored with the terrific Castles of Burgundy, as well as with Trajan and Bora Bora. Luciani was a newcomer, heralding the new breed of Italian designers, and I fell in love with The Voyages of Marco Polo, Grand Austria Hotel, and Tzolk’in. Tascini was Luciani’s principal design partner during this period. Cramer was another new name and was kind of a mini-Hot Designer for me; after his first published game (Glen More) was released in 2010, he followed that up in rapid succession with favorites like Lancaster, Helvetia, and Rococo, marking him as a designer to follow.
Moon and Kramer just missed the top 5, Moon doing so with the last design of his that’s really clicked with me, Airlines Europe. Chvatil and Gerdts also made the top 10, as did a couple of new designers, Alexander Pfister and Hisashi Hayashi.
Wallace dropped down pretty far; his hot period seemed to end with A Few Acres of Snow (2011) and after that, his games just didn’t appeal to me for quite a while. Dorn had a bit of a comeback, but it wasn’t quite enough to get him into the top 10. Knizia cratered and he stopped being a designer I paid attention to, which, given how brilliant his earlier games were, was a totally shocking development.
Luciani is the dominant figure over the last 5-year period we’ll look at. He is my current Hot Designer, although that’s based more on steady brilliance over the past decade, rather than a 2 or 3 year burst. His big titles this period were Barrage, Lorenzo, and Marco Polo II. Rosenberg and Feld just keep rolling along, although both did so by releasing fine games every year, rather than producing any blockbusters. Uwe’s highlights were A Feast for Odin and the 2-player Caverna: Cave vs. Cave, while Feld favorites included Oracle of Delphi and Forum Trajanum. Pfister blossomed into greatness; his excellent work this period included Blackout: Hong Kong, Great Western Trail, and Maracaibo. And Wallace returned to form, thanks to games like Anno 1800, A Handful of Stars, and the second edition of London.
Kiesling just missed the top 5. The rest of my top 10 for the period featured several of Luciani’s co-designers (including Tascini, Virginio Gigli, and Flaminia Brasini) and the New Zealand design team of Shem Phillips and SJ Macdonald. Friese, Lehmann, and Chvatil also provided some highlights.
Cramer pretty much dried up for me, after his nice run during the previous period. Kramer, Gerdts, and Dorn were largely invisible. Knizia began producing more notable games, but few of them interest me; my previous favorite designer is still not one who does much for me.
As for what the third decade of this century will bring, who knows? By all appearances, Luciani and his co-designers will continue to be strong for me, but it remains to be seen which other designers will rise in my rankings, including, I’m sure, some new ones. This steady infusion of new blood is the great thing about gaming and one of the reasons this is such a terrific hobby.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, although if it’s one I’ve drawn, you might be lucky to get a couple of dozen out of it. Still, I thought a pair of graphs might do a good job of illustrating how some of my favorite designers have fared over time. Each of the graphs shows the designers’ rating over the six periods of this study (each period is identified by its last year on the x-axis). Each graph summarizes the ratings of four designers over time.
First, let’s look at some of the earlier designers: Knizia, Moon, Kramer, and Rosenberg.
Knizia’s plummet from the heights of the 90’s is well illustrated here. Kramer’s decline is almost as dramatic. Moon has his peak during the third period, but eventually drops off. Rosenberg doesn’t start out until the second period, is representative early on, and then comes on strong during the last two periods. Even including his pre-Agricola slump in Period 3, he’s probably the most consistent of the four displayed designers.
Next, here are the trends for Wallace, Dorn, Feld, and Luciani, who made their impact during the later periods.
Wallace has been strong for much of the last 20 years, but he definitely slumped during Period 5. Dorn’s peak in Period 3, so out of line with the rest of his output, labels him as the quintessential Hot Designer. Once Feld hit his stride in Period 4, he’s been consistently excellent. And Luciani didn’t make his mark until 2012, but he’s been brilliant since then.
I assume that this variability of which designers work best for me isn’t unique and that many of you have noticed something similar with your own favorites. It’s true that the rise and fall of different designers over the years can make tracking my anticipated games a greater challenge than if things were more static. But it’s well worth the effort, as the joy I get from discovering a new title is the same whether it comes from an established designer who has delivered in the past or from a new name. And it’s that enjoyment that’s important, not the name on the box. After all, as the old song tells us, “the fundamental things apply…as time goes by.”