2021 Designer of the Year Award

“Slow and steady wins the race”.  You hear that expression all the time.  Do you believe it?  Do you think that consistent excellence can ever beat out a single display of brilliance?  I do.  But if you were judging game designers by the annual awards that are handed out by the dozens, you’d never know it.  After all, they’re all given to the best game of the year, a singular achievement.  But what about the designer who creates multiple great games?  Or a whole bunch of really good ones?  Don’t you think they deserve some recognition?  And aren’t you tired of all these rhetorical questions?  If so, let me cut to the chase and state that it’s (obviously) time for the 2021 Designer of the Year award!

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been writing Designer of the Year articles for almost 20 years now.  As you can probably figure out from the opening paragraph, the idea is to identify which game designers had, in my opinion, the best calendar year in 2021 and to select one of them as my Designer of the Year (DotY).  Again, not the best single game, but the best overall body of work from last year.  That makes it a little harder, of course, but hey, I gotta do something to earn my keep.

So which games are included in this happy little process?  Almost all of them.  I do exclude children’s games, as the criteria for success for those is different and often not reflected in their Geek ratings.  But just about everything else—boardgames, card games, dexterity games, Euros, thematic titles—is eligible.  I don’t include expansions, since I’m trying to recognize truly new creations.  However, spinoffs, standalone expansions, and redesigns of previously published titles are included, although they’re not weighted as heavily as original titles.  So for the most part, just about everything that was published last year is eligible for consideration .

As an aside, 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 anyone who’s ever been part of a collaborative effort can tell you that being part of a successful team is a skill of its own.  So anyone who is listed as a designer of a game gets full credit for it.  It just seems to me to be the most sensible and practical way to approach things.

So what criteria did I use to make my selections?  First of all, the goal is to make the award as objective as possible.  There’s no point in basing things on my gaming tastes, since they aren’t the same as anyone else’s.  Besides, any competent review of last year would have to consider literally hundreds of titles and there’s no way I’m playing that many games!  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 rating (and number of people rating it) on the Geek.  Even though I realize that Geek ratings often include biases, this is still the best objective data available.  The second factor is the game’s performance (wins and nominations) in the annual awards.  Yeah, I know most gamers don’t follow the awards, but they do represent official recognition and, unlike transient ratings, are permanent indicators of how well regarded a game is.  I include the major awards (SdJ, Kennerspiel, DSP, and IGA) and some other notable awards as well.  Games which came out during the latter part of last year won’t be eligible until the 2022 awards are conducted, so I’ve had to project the performance of some of these designs.  That’s not ideal, but the object is to get a ballpark figure for award performance, rather than a precise value, and it’s rare that a designer significantly over or under performs their projections.  The third, and least significant criterion 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 base my designer rankings on; the goal is to have an objective methodology that considers multiple aspects, to allow me to come to a balanced decision.

20 years of articles is a lot, but if a little history is good, a lot has to be better—amiright?  It’s not like I have a fixation or anything (don’t judge me!), but I’ve extended these analyses back through the years, so that the DotY awards actually go all the way back to 1955!  Okay, maybe I do have a bit too much spare time.  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 informative and maybe even a little bit entertaining.

Last year, Scott Almes won his first DotY award, thanks to a dozen well rated games.  A year later, I have no problem with that choice.  The ratings are still strong and his best regarded game, the solitaire sci-fi title Warp’s Edge, also snagged a Meeples Choice nomination.  It was an impressive year and proved that he can design much more than just Tiny Epic games.

But that was then and this is now.  Here is my list for the finalists of the 2021 DotY award—a dozen game designers or design teams that I think had the best collections of games last year, together with the titles they published.  Some of the games are listed in italics; that indicates that it’s a redesign or spinoff of a title released previously by that designer, which means it carries less weight than their fully original designs.  The designers are listed in alphabetical order—let’s check ‘em out.

Scott Almes:

  • Tiny Epic Dungeons
  • Tiny Epic Pirates
  • Ugly Gryphon Inn
  • Unsurmountable
  • Claim Kingdoms: Das grosse Duell um den Thron!
  • Blast

Almes has a strong follow-up to his award winning year.  Unsurprisingly, the headliners are two Tiny Epic games.  T.E. Dungeons is a cooperative, modular dungeon crawler with a Geek rating of almost 8.0; T.E. Pirates puts the players on the high seas, plundering a rondel.  His other titles are solid as well.  It may not be quite enough to give Scott back-to-back awards, but it’s further proof that he continues to be one of the leading designers in the world.

Inka and Markus Brand:

  • EXIT: Kidnapped in Fortune City
  • EXIT: Nightfall Manor
  • EXIT – Advent Calendar: The Hunt for the Golden Book
  • EXIT: The Cursed Labyrinth
  • Mystery Games: Der verfluchte Geburtstag
  • Stichtag
  • Recto Verso
  • Rock the Bock

A decade after the award-winning Village first brought them world-wide attention, it’s no mystery why the Brands keeps appearing on the DotY pages:  they keep cranking out a whole bunch of good games every year.  In 2021, though, the games themselves largely featured mysteries, including four new EXIT escape room designs and the first title of a new series called Mystery Games.  Regardless of themes, there’s every reason to think that gaming’s first couple will continue to show up on these pages for years to come.

Bruno Cathala:

  • Kingdomino Origins
  • Sobek: 2 Players
  • Oh My Brain
  • Trek 12: Amazonia
  • Nicodemus
  • Mandragora
  • Run Run Run!
  • Monster Clashhh!

Kingdomino Origins, Blue Orange Games, 2021 — front cover

Cathala is one of the most constant names in the DotY articles—he’s won the award twice, made the top 5 six times, and it seems like he gets a nomination just about every year.  This is yet another solid year.  The only thing keeping it from being a great year is that most of his leading games are redesigns:  spinoffs of Kingdomino, Sobek, and Trek 12.  Still, the ratings for all of these are very good, and his highest ranking original title—Oh My Brain, a zombie-themed filler—has good numbers as well.  Well done, Bruno; see you here again next year?

Jay Cormier/Sen Foong Lim:

  • Mind MGMT
  • The Goonies: Escape With One-Eyed Willy’s Rich Stuff
  • My Singing Monsters: The Board Game

Mind MGMT: The Psychic Espionage "Game.", Off the Page Games, 2020 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

The team of Cormier and Lim published their first game a decade ago and since then, they’ve proven to be a steadily prolific pair.  This, however, is their first appearance on the DotY pages.  The clear highlight of their year is Mind MGMT, which is best described as Scotland Yard on massive steroids.  It’s got a Geek rating of 8.1, with almost 1000 ratings—a genuine hit.  Their design based on The Goonies is their take on an Escape Room boardgame.  With any luck, and due to their demonstrated talent, this will not be Jay and Sen Foong’s last Designer of the Year nomination.

Matthew Dunstan:

  • Voyages
  • Adventure Games: Im Nabelreich
  • Adventure Games: The Gloom City File
  • Spy Connection
  • echoes: The Dancer
  • echoes: The Microchip
  • echoes: The Cocktail
  • Nile Artifacts

Game logo

Dunstan is another veteran designer who is receiving his first DotY nomination; he also has about ten years worth of published games behind him, many of them with his frequent co-designer, Brett Gilbert.  Dunstan’s biggest hit from 2021 is Voyages, a highly rated roll ‘n’ write with a nautical theme.  Then there’s two more titles in the Adventure Games series—a popular collection of cooperative designs—plus a new series, echoes, in which the players have to pick up audio clues from the recordings provided with the game.  Clearly, Matthew has been a busy boy and at this rate, we will very likely be hearing from him again on these pages in future years.

Reiner Knizia:

  • Witchstone
  • Mille Fiori
  • Whale Riders
  • The Siege of Runedar
  • Lost Cities: Roll & Write
  • Equinox
  • HIT!
  • Art Robbery
  • Family Inc.
  • Heckmeck am Karteneck
  • Tutankhamun
  • Into the Blue
  • Whale Riders: The Card Game
  • High Score
  • Viking See-Saw
  • L.A.M.A. Dice
  • (3 other titles)

Cover Witchstone final

The Reinerssance continues, as, after a prolonged slump, Knizia has re-emerged as one of the world’s leading designers over the past 5 years.  Even by those lofty standards, though, this is an extremely strong year for The Good Doctor.  19 designs is a lot even for Reiner and there’s consistent quality to go along with the quantity.  Witchstone is the highest rated game on the list; it’s a tile-layer in which the players use their cauldrons to generate actions, as well as to mix their point salads.  Mille Fiori is another well ranked game, which combines card drafting and board play.  I fully expect both these titles to receive some major award nominations.  Whale Riders and Runedar are original games with Geek ratings in excess of 7, while the same is true of both the roll & write version of the golden oldie Lost Cities and Equinox (which is a redesign of the old favorite Titan: The Arena).  As you can see, there’s a lot more games on Knizia’s resume, but the big difference as compared to years past is almost all of them have solid ratings.  Reiner has made the DotY shortlist for the last four years, but hasn’t quite made the leap to earn his seventh Designer of the Year award, which would break the tie for most awards he currently shares with the immortal Sid Sackson.  Could this finally be the year?

Eric Lang:

  • Ankh: Gods of Egypt
  • Bloodborne: The Board Game
  • Marvel United: X-Men
  • A Song of Ice & Fire: Greyjoy Starter Set
  • Disney Sidekicks
  • Cyberpunk 2077: Afterlife – The Card Game

Ankh: Gods of Egypt, CMON Limited, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

Lang is another regular visitor to the DotY pages; he’s won one award and has narrowly missed a few others.  2021 was another excellent year for our favorite Canadian designer.  Ankh, a dudes-on-the-map title where the two trailing players merge their positions midway through the game, has proven to be very popular and will no doubt garner a few award nominations.  Bloodborne, a cooperative combat design that‘s a port of a well known computer game, is also very highly rated.  There’s also a standalone expansion for the previous year’s Marvel United, as well as the latest starter set for the Song of Ice & Fire game system.  You know what, if you design a bunch of games that have high ratings and are likely to earn some nominations, it sounds like an awfully good formula for grabbing a DotY award.  Eric certainly qualifies; maybe this will be the year in which he snags award #2.

Alexander Pfister:

  • Boonlake
  • Great Western Trail (Second Edition)

Boonlake, Capstone Games, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

Pfister is yet another former DotY winner.  Only two of his games were published last year, but both are big hits.  Boonlake, a card driven, action selection game, sports a high rating and will almost certainly get some award nominations.  GWT’s rating is stratospherically high, but, alas, it’s the redesign of what is probably Pfister’s best known game.  Still, the new version does have some differences from the original and the rating is really, really high.  It’s good enough to get Alexander a mention here, but a second win will have to wait for another year.

Eilif Svensson:

  • Bad Company
  • Riverside
  • Doodle Dash
  • Capital Lux 2: Pocket

Game box front

Norway is quite the boardgaming hotbed.  Kristian Østby, who earned a DotY nomination a few years ago, lives near Oslo.  Svensson, Østby’s frequent design partner, also hails from Norway and this year, it’s his turn.  Bad Company is a dice game themed around recruiting and utilizing gang members.  Riverside is a roll and write in which the players are tour guides.  Doodle Dash is a time-based drawing game and Capital Lux Pocket is a stripped down version of Eilif’s earlier drafting card game.  All four games have very good ratings.  This is yet another illustration that clever and innovative designers can be found in every corner of the world and we are much the richer for it.

Phil Walker-Harding:

  • Llamaland
  • Super Mega Lucky Box
  • Summer Camp
  • Explorers
  • Adventure Games: Im Nebelreich
  • Adventure Games: The Gloom City File
  • Snakesss
  • Neoville
  • Platypus
  • Tetris

One of Australia’s leading designers is a frequent visitor to the DotY pages.  2021 might have been his best year yet.  Llamaland is a tile placing game themed around growing crops to feed cute llamas.  Summer Camp is a deck builder in which you’re trying to earn merit badges.  Super Mega Lucky Box and Explorers are both flip-and-write designs.  Each of these titles are well received family games with fine ratings.  The same is true of the two latest installments of the popular Adventure Games series.  There are no blockbusters here, but there’s consistent quality and a lot of it.  Could this be the year in which Phil takes the leap from nominee to award winner?

Mathias Wigge:

  • Ark Nova

Cover

Wigge is a first time designer and they usually don’t get DotY nominations, just like designers with only one game in their portfolio don’t usually get the call.  But when that one game is the most acclaimed title of the year, which Ark Nova appears to be, exceptions must be made.  No matter how you slice it, Ark Nova is a gaming phenomenon.  Its Geek rating is an astonishing 8.7 (that’s Gloomhaven territory!); by the time you read this, it will probably be in the Geek’s top 50 games and an eventual spot in the all-time top 10 seems very likely; I project that it will receive multiple game of the year awards; and people just can’t seem to get enough of it.  It will be interesting to see if Herr Wigge turns out to be a prolific designer or just a one-hit wonder.  In the meantime, though, there’s no question that he’s one of the leading designers of last year.

Kevin Wilson:

  • A Gentle Rain
  • Batman: Shadow of the Bat
  • Mortal Kombat X: The Miniatures Game
  • BACON!!!  The Card Game

A Gentle Rain. Mondo Games, 2021 — cover art by Chris Bilheimer

Wilson, who started out as one of Fantasy Flight Game’s house designers, has been designing games for almost 20 years.  During that time, he’s gotten several DotY nominations.  2021 was another solid year for him.  A Gentle Rain is a well rated solo game.  Shadow of the Bat is based on the Adventures Universal Game System that Kevin originally used for several of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games; it sports a sky-high rating.  Mortal Kombat X also uses a previously designed system, the miniatures-based Universal Tactics System.  And how can you resist a game named BACON!!!?  Wilson remains one of the better thematic designers around.

So that’s our collection of nominees for 2021.  I think it was a good year, with many designers doing exemplary work.  However, I felt that three of these individuals were really head and shoulders above the others.  They are Knizia, Lang, and Walker-Harding.  So which will it be?  An all-time great making his way into the winner’s circle for the first time in 16 years?  One of the best of the thematic designers taking his second award?  Or one of the top designers of family and middleweight games grabbing his first award?

The past couple of years have featured highly contested races, but in the end, it wasn’t all that close this time.  And I have to say that it’s nice to have a dominant designer every now and then.  So, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the Designer of the Year for 2021 is…

REINER KNIZIA!!!

Yes, the Good Doctor is all the way back!  He narrowly missed taking the award during each of the past couple of years, but in 2021, he left nothing to chance.  19 games, almost all of them with good ratings, most of them original designs, and several which figure to grab some award nominations.  Witchstone and Mille Fiori have already taken their place next to Knizia’s enormous collection of evergreens and there are plenty of other titles to delight Reiner’s many fans.  So for the first time since 2005, Reiner Knizia finishes at the top of the DotY list; as was mentioned earlier, it’s his seventh award, the most of all time.

Lang and Walker-Harding both had very good years, but simply couldn’t match the avalanche of Reiner titles.  Lang takes second and Walker-Harding nabs the third spot, his first appearance on the DotY short list.  Wigge’s marvelous debut is enough to earn him fourth place and fifth goes to last year’s winner, Almes.  Congratulations to all five designers.

So there you have it…another fine year of gaming goodness, with one of the greatest designers of all time finishing on top of the pack.  What will next year bring us?  Will Knizia blow us away with yet another amazing year?  Will one of this year’s nominees take the next step and finish on top?  Or will it perhaps be a new name, coming out of nowhere to claim the award?  There’s no telling what the future will bring, unless maybe you’re a Witchstone wizard.  Barring that unlikely possibility, I’d say your only option is to check us out next year at about this same time, when, once again, all will be revealed.  Until then, good gaming to you all!

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7 Responses to 2021 Designer of the Year Award

  1. Olivier Reix says:

    Concerning Matthew Dunstan, you also might want to mention Bubble Stories which recently won the Children Game of the Year award in Cannes, France. Beautiful children game ! (not sure if it is out in the US or Germany though)

    And I might have mentionned Antoine Bauza and Paolo Mori, both with 2 strong designs last year : Oltree & 7 Wonders Architects for Antoine / Fairy Tale Inn and Blitzkrieg for Paolo.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Hi, Olivier. As always, I value your perspective on this. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I don’t include children’s games for the DotY (if I did, the award would look *very* different). Dunstan’s portfolio usually includes a number of children’s games and he was responsible for at least two last year. If he had been close to making the short list, I could have used his award for Bubble Stories as something of a tiebreaker. But as good as his year was, he wasn’t that close to the five that did make the list.

      And both Bauza and Mori were considered in the analysis. In fact, Bauza was the last designer I eliminated when I made the list. In both cases, they were hurt by the fact that their most successful design was a spinoff of one of their earlier games (7 Wonders Architects for Bauza and Blitzkrieg for Mori). Both of them had good portfolios, but there were a lot of designers who had good years last year and they just didn’t quite stack up.

  2. cbrandt300 says:

    Am I seeing a famlification of games and designers?

    • huzonfirst says:

      Chris, I don’t think it’s a secret that, overall, games have been trending to be more accessible and lighter over the past few years. That’s reflected to some extent with the DotY, as the last several winners have had more than their share of family games. Still, the top 5 this year included Lang, whose games are pretty heavy, and Wigge, who was able to make the short list in spite of authoring only one game (Ark Nova) that is quite meaty. It’s impossible to say if this will continue in future years, although, as always, it’s usually easier to produce a large number of games if they’re lighter (since heavy games take longer to design and longer to develop). I haven’t changed my methodology, so next year’s winner could very well be a purveyor of involved titles. We’ll just have to see how it works out.

  3. Jacob says:

    Thanks for another interesting writeup, Larry!
    Reiner is amazing. I remember when I first got into the hobby he was up there with the best designers like Kramer and Teuber. This was over twenty years ago. So many new, younger designers from many countries (not just Germany) are at the top of the field now and Reiner is still ranked among the best. I like seeing him continue to be recognized with awards. He has made our hobby so much better. He deserves our respect.
    On another note, is there a way to see sales figures for board games? It’s just another bit of info that could be considered on top of BGG ratings, etc.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Jacob. Looks like I got into the hobby about the same time as you and back then, Knizia was easily my favorite designer. I still love most of those older games and am lucky enough to still be able to play them. He’s been doing this for over 30 years and is still as productive as ever. Pretty remarkable.

      I have no idea about how to obtain sales figures, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are folks who have access to that information. I believe the Geek does list number of times played for each game, but, of course, that’s based only on what the users actually log, so who knows what biases could be introduced. Besides, I could play a game and hate it, so what does that prove? I could conceivably see adding “number of times played” to the methodology in the future, but right now, I’m content using the average Geek rating, despite all its potential flaws.

      • Jacob says:

        I like Knizia now more than I did then. I was more of a Kramer guy although I owned a lot of Reiner’s games (still do). Of all things that describe Reiner’s style the thing I like most is he intentionally keep scoring low. I think I realized I liked that about him when I was first faced with Russian Railroads. I think that was the game that used the highest scoring numbers I’d ever seen before.
        I don’t log my plays on BGG and I’ve always thought the ones that do are often the ones who are submitting repeat plays. So a game might not have nearly as many different players in the their number of plays. Or does the BGG number account for this? Always been my assumption it doesn’t.
        Now I’m curious to read an article about sales numbers for board games. Obviously, the ones that get reprinted are the envy of every designer. Wingspan, for example, big money maker. I guess the only ones that would know are the publishers themselves and an article would require interviewing each company. Needs to be a paid gig.

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