20 is a pretty big number. If you do something 20 times, it’s something of an accomplishment. It can be hard to do; there are a lot of games I really like that I haven’t managed to play 20 times. So it’s kind of notable. Which is why it’s crazy to realize that this is the twentieth Designer of the Year column I’ve written. On the one hand, it’s sobering to realize I started this 20 years ago and I wasn’t exactly a kid when I began. But the good news is I still enjoy the process and look forward to it every year, so there’s every reason to believe I’ll continue writing them for a good long while.
So that might be mildly interesting to those of you who have been steadily reading these articles of mine. But if this is the first time for you, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking about. So let me (belatedly) explain. The purpose behind the Designer of the Year (DotY) articles is the same today as it was 20 years ago. After all, there are literally dozens of annual awards given out for the best game of the year, but there’s nothing that honors the talented individuals who design those games. So way back when, I decided to start my own award to honor the designer who did the best job with the games they released during the previous calendar year. They key thing is that this isn’t for the best single game, but for the designer who had the best overall body of work from last year.
You might be thinking that’s a lot of ground to cover and you’d be right. So obviously, we need some ground rules. First, what games am I including? A whole bunch. 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 every other game that comes in a box—boardgames, card games, dexterity games, Euros, thematic titles—is eligible. I don’t include expansions, since I think the emphasis should be on 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.
The next question is, what criteria do I use to make my selections? My main 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 here’s the methodology I use to evaluate each designer’s creations. There are three criteria. The first is how popular the game is, based on the game’s rating (and the number of people rating it) on the Geek. Yes, this isn’t perfect, but it’s still the best objective data available. The second factor is how well the game does—in terms of wins and nominations—in the annual awards. 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. As they say, flags fly forever and so do award wins. 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 2023 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. An example of a game that got a little bit of buzz last year is Foundations of Rome, which got a whole lot of attention due to the sheer size of its physical production. 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.
I’ve been writing these articles for 20 years, but with all the information available from days gone by, there’s no reason to limit things to that. So in my far too copious spare time, I’ve extended these analyses back through the years, so that the DotY awards actually go all the way back to 1955! Wow, that’s even before we had TikTok! 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.
In 2021, Reiner Knizia had a great year and it was enough to earn him his seventh Designer of the Year award, the most ever. He released almost 20 titles, most of which were highly rated, and he pretty much cruised to victory. The highlights of his output were Witchstone, Mille Fiori, and Whale Riders and all got award nominations, in addition to their very good ratings.
Will the Good Doctor have enough left in the tank to have a repeat victory? The only way to find out is to comb through this year’s data and see who winds up on top. You will not be surprised to learn that more and more designers are putting out impressive portfolios every year. This year, for example, over two dozen people got serious consideration for the award, so a bunch of folks had good years that just missed making the list. Still, I was able to narrow it down to the ten designers/design teams that I think had the best collections of games last year. I’ve listed them here, together with the titles they published. Letters in parentheses after the game indicate that it’s gotten some recognition from the annual awards that have been announced already. Here’s what these codes mean: s shows a nomination for the SdJ or Kennerspiel award, r shows it’s one of the SdJ/KdJ recommended games, and g indicates it either received a game of the year nomination or was a category winner for the Golden Geek awards. 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.
That’s enough exposition for now. Here are the finalists for the 2022 Designer of the Year award.
- Splendor Duel (g)
- Sea Salt & Paper (r,g)
- 1001 Islands
Cathala’s consistency over the years is just astonishing. He has been a DotY finalist for 10 of the last 11 years. In most of those years, he made the short list (top 5 or so) and he’s won the award twice. This is yet another strong year for Bruno. Splendor Duel is an excellent two-player version of the venerable Splendor (and fairly different from the base game); it’s already snagged a Golden Geek nomination and I’d make a heavy wager that it wins at least one Best 2-Player game award. Sea Salt & Paper is a well rated card game and Orichalcum is 4X-like dice game. 1001 Islands is not a new salad dressing, but a redesign of The Little Prince and Kyudo is a retheme of an earlier roll-and-write called Monster Clashhh. There’s very good ratings, award recognition, and the strong possibility for future awards. Bruno is making a strong case here; will it be good enough to give him his third Designer of the Year award?
John D. Clair:
- Dead Reckoning (g)
- Ready Set Bet (g)
Back in 2016, Clair had his first successful game release with Mystic Vale. Since then, he’s steadily produced interesting designs. 2022 is probably his most successful year to date. Dead Reckoning is a pirate game with a little bit of everything, including exploration, deckbuilding, and attacking. It’s rating is sky-high and it’s already gotten some attention from the awards. Ready Set Bet is much lighter, but this horse racing and betting game has been a sizeable hit. John’s first inclusion on the DotY pages is a strong one and I’m willing to, uh, bet that it won’t be his last.
Rob Daviau/Justin Jacobson:
- Return to Dark Tower (g)
- Unmatched: Hell’s Kitchen
- Unmatched: Houdini vs. the Genie
- Unmatched: Jurassic Park – Dr. Sattler vs. T-Rex
- Unmatched: Redemption Row
Daviau, a former DotY winner, had no legacy games in his 2022 portfolio, but instead focused on his other specialty, redesigning older thematic designs, as well as providing new standalone expansions of his wildly popular Unmatched game system. Jacobson, the owner of Restoration Games, which published each of these titles, was Rob’s co-designer for all of them. Return to Dark Tower, a fairly extensive redesign of 1981’s Dark Tower, has been a big hit, bringing modern design concepts to the fun and enjoyably gadget-filled original. All of the Unmatched expansions have excellent ratings, although as spinoffs of the original game, the algorithm discounts their impact considerably. Still, if you bunch together enough such games with ratings north of 8.3, it adds up. It’s a nice collection of titles that puts Daviau on the DotY pages yet again, and gives Jacobson his first mention.
- Next Station: London (s,g)
- The Guild of Merchant Explorers (g)
- Village Rails
- My Shelfie
- Adventure Games: Expedition Azcana
- echoes: Die Violine
- echoes: The Cursed Ring
- Vivid Memories
- Dice Hospital: ER – Emergency Roll
- The Gardens
Like many game designers, Dunstan’s resume is an interesting one. He’s originally from Australia, but I believe he’s currently living in Prague. He’s also a former research chemist, which is pretty intense stuff. However, one look at Matthew’s output from last year should convince you that his chemistry days are far behind him. Leading off his terrific portfolio is Next Station: London, a flip-and-write game which was just named as one of the SdJ finalists. Guild of Merchant Explorers is a networking game with an exploration aspect; it’s also a Game of the Year nominee. Both Village Rails (a card-based train game) and Aquamarine (a roll-and-write sea exploration design) have solid ratings. There’s also new titles in his Adventure Games and echoes series, as well as a bunch of other well regarded games. All told, he released 11 designs last year, with good ratings and some award recognition. That’s a pretty powerful combination; could it represent enough good chemistry to earn Dunstan his first Designer of the Year award?
- Marrakesh (g)
- New York City
In 2022, Queen launched the Stefan Feld City Collection and this is the first batch to appear. Must be nice to have so many great older games that a publisher is willing to release deluxe redesigns of them. Marrakesh, however, is a brand new game and is very highly rated. Amsterdam (the redesign of Macao) and Hamburg (the new version of Bruges) both have strong ratings; New York City (the twist on Rialto) isn’t rated quite as highly, but its numbers are still pretty good. Each of the redesigns have some substantial differences from the originals, but there’s no question what the source of each of these games are, so they get the usual redesign penalty. However, it’s still an impressive group of games; maybe not enough to give this designing great his fourth DotY award, but a year that Stefan should be proud of.
- Mindbug (r,g)
- SolForge Fusion
- King of Monster Island
- Dungeons, Dice & Danger
- Creature Feature
- Dice Hunters of Therion
- Sailor Moon Crystal: Imposterous
Garfield, of course, will always be known as the creator of the Collectible Card Game concept, as well as the designer of such classic CCGs as Magic and Netrunner. In recent years, he’s been more active and has found success with a wider variety of titles. Last year was a particularly good one for Richard. Mindbug, a non-CCG dueling card game, leads the way, with excellent ratings and an SdJ recommendation. SolForge Fusion, a quasi-deckbuilder that’s labelled a “Hybrid” card game (you take two purchased decks and shuffle them together to play) has similarly high ratings. King of Monster Island is a cooperative version of Garfield’s earlier hit, King of Tokyo, which is reasonably different than the original game; it’s also done well. Dungeons, Dice & Danger (the first of the new, non-Stefan Brueck developed Alea games) and Creature Feature have Geek ratings over 7.0. There’s a lot to like here from the veteran designer. Richard was my Designer of the Year way back in 1993 for Magic: The Gathering. Could he add another award to his collection, 30 years later?
- The Guild of Merchant Explorers (g)
- Village Rails
- Vivid Memories
- Dice Hospital: ER – Emergency Roll
- The Gardens
- Labyrinth: Team Edition
Gilbert is a British designer who frequently collaborates with Matthew Dunstan. Five of Brett’s games last year were with Dunstan, with the only exception being Labyrinth: Team Edition, which is a cooperative version of Max Kobbert’s classic design. This is Gilbert’s first DotY mention, but given how prolific and successful he’s been over the years, I’ll be quite surprised if it’s the last one.
- My City: Roll & Build
- San Francisco
- Hot Lead
- Gang of Dice
- Ninja Master
- Galaxy Cat Extension
- Soda Smugglers
- (6 other titles)
As I mentioned earlier, Knizia won his seventh DotY award last year. He released no fewer than 19 games during 2021 and he’s back again with a 2022 crop that’s almost as big (15 titles). But what a difference a year makes! Reiner’s 2021 portfolio was full of games with very good ratings and lots of award potential. This year, though, only My City: Roll & Build and Hot Lead sport Geek ratings in excess of 7.0 and the former design is based, at least somewhat, on his earlier My City. San Francisco has gotten some buzz (although its rating is nothing special), but honestly, based on the data, Reiner’s 2022 is much more about quantity than quality. It’s still a year that most designers would kill for, but sadly, Knizia will not be hoisting the DotY trophy for the eighth time. This is by no means the end of the Reinerssance, however, and I’m sure the Good Doctor will provide us with a big batch of games to take his shot at the award next year.
- Frostpunk: The Board Game
- Terracotta Army
- Nemesis: Lockdown
Kwapinski is a Polish designer of thematic games who is making his first visit to the DotY pages, although, to be honest, that’s probably an oversight on my part, as he’s had some very good years in the past. But his 2022 was so good that it was impossible for him to escape notice. Frostpunk, a cooperative post-apocalyptic city builder based on a popular video game, has sky-high ratings. So does Nemesis: Lockdown, a stand-alone expansion to his hugely successful 2018 sci-fi horror title, Nemesis. Terracotta Army features the fascinating sculptures from China’s Qin dynasty, transported to a well-rated WP game. And Knockdown is an arena fighting game with the goal of, well, knocking down your opponent. It’s an extremely impressive collection of games. Is it possible that Adam’s first Designer of the Year mention will result in him winning it all?
- Revive (g)
- Come Together
Norway’s Svensson is being featured on the DotY pages for the second consecutive year and it’s largely thanks to the very popular Revive. This is a varied design that includes exploration, deck-building, and some technology research. It’s ratings are excellent, it’s already been nominated for a Golden Geek award, and I anticipate quite a few more award mentions in the future. Eilif also scored last year with Come Together, a groovy worker placement game in which the players do their best to perform well at the music festivals from the Summer of Love. Every year, we seem to get more sweet gaming music from Norway and we’ll probably see more of the same next year.
So that was the year that was. Ten designers with great collections of games and quite a few others who just missed out. It’s a pleasing mix of new faces and veterans who have been here before. There were a lot of impressive portfolios, but one name really did stand out. So, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the Designer of the Year for 2022 is…
Dunstan really did do it all last year. A big group of games, high ratings, award nominations, and the promise of future award success. That’s pretty much the way you draw it up, so it’s a fairly easy win for the Aussie designer. His margin of victory is such that I don’t actually need to know whether or not Next Station: London wins the SdJ—even if he doesn’t win the most prestigious award in gaming, his year is good enough to be last year’s dominant designer.
Garfield’s strong year is enough to earn him second place. Cathala finishes third, adding yet another mention on the DotY short list to his resume. First-timer Kwapinski finishes fourth, Feld winds up fifth, and Clair takes the sixth spot.
So congratulations to Matthew Dunstan for winning his first Designer of the Year award. So what will we see next year? A repeat performance? A big year from an all-time great, or perhaps a newcomer no one has heard of before? There’s no point in playing a game if you know the result ahead of time and the same is true for the DotY award. All you can be sure of is that I’ll be here again next year, letting you know which designer is the greatest in the land. See you all in this same spot a year from now!