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Thrower’s Tallies: Top Eight Designers

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All the discussion about “great designers” that we had a couple of weeks ago left me dissatisfied. Rather than just throwing out names that I thought were good or great, I wanted to put some meat on those bones, some rigour to the process. It wasn’t hard to do. And I found the results startling.

We’re talking about my personal opinion here. What I wanted was a way of recognising people who had form for producing stellar games, regardless of how many games they’d actually produced. Now, I rate pretty harshly because I’m of the opinion that games are supposed to be good. Fun is what they’re for, so a game you’ve enjoyed is merely average. To earn a higher rating, it has to show me an impressive time.

Turns out that of the 400-odd games I’ve played, there were about 100 that merited that distinction. So I just went through them and listed their designers, to see how many times each name appeared. I listed game series with the same basic system, such as Commands & Colors, as just one game. Sorry Mr. Borg. But if I’m recognising innovation, it seemed the right thing to do.

The first surprise I got was how few names that turned out to be. Of those 100 there were just eight designers who appeared more than once. Four twice, and four three times. So I was right in speculating that having more than one truly great game to your name is a special achievement. It’s more than most designers achieve in their careers.

What really surprised me though were some of the names on each list. So, I took those four and four to be good and great designers respectively. Here they are, in no particular order within each group.

The Good

Reiner Knizia for Ra and Battle Line

I’m not going to dwell on this as we’ve been through most of it already. Suffice to say that I said Reiner Knizia is a very good designer in my book, and so he proved to be. Battle Line is about the best 30 minutes you’re going to have with two people and a strategy game. Ra remains a fascinating exercise in balancing chaos, tactics and social brinkmanship even nearly 20 years after its original release.

Eon for Cosmic Encounter and Dune

Eon would probably fit the “good designer” category of every Ameritrash fan on the planet, and I’m no exception. They pioneered the art of stripping away all the chrome and clunkiness from highly competetive and thematic titles, decades before it became de rigour. What’s left are masterpieces of spartan, replayable brutality that still evoke a rich sense of setting.

Rachel Simmons for Napoleon’s Triumph and Guns of Gettysburg

On reflection, this is no surprise at all. In fact Simmons really ought to have been in my original list of creative designers. She may only have three games to her name, but the remain some of the most innovative that I’ve ever played. It’s hard to trace their design heritage at all, beyond a brief nod to block wargames. Everyone should play a Simmons design at least once. Even if just to marvel at the freshness of the design, the attention to historical detail in so few rules.

Uwe Rosenberg for Bohnanza and Agricola

Sorry to shoot my load early, but this was the most unexpected name that came up. I haven’t played either game in a very long time, but looking back I did have a great time with both of them. Bohnanza is a fantastic yet uneasy blend of goofy family fun and pure ruthlessness. And while I disliked Agricola at first, it was for a long time the only decent worker placement game with a fun and well communicated theme. I came to really enjoy it in the end, and you can see its continuing influence in the genre even today.

The Great

Vlaada Chvatil for Mage Knight, Space Alert and Through the Ages

Going to gloss over this expected entry. Suffice to say that anyone who designed my picks for the best adventure game, the best co-op game and the best civ game ever is probably due a bit of genuflection. Sir, I salute you.

Corey Konieczka for X-Wing, Battlestar Galactica and Descent 2nd Edition

With Fantasy Flight’s stable of designers, it’s sometimes hard to know just how much who worked on what. So perhaps I’m being a little generous to Corey here, since he shares the billing on two of his games with other designers. But even then, I feel he deserves recognition for Battlestar Galactica. There’s yet to be a better use of the traitor mechanic, or semi-cooperative setup in my opinion. And it’s such a sweet balance of strategy and social mores.

Richard Garfield for Magic: the Gathering, Netrunner and King of Tokyo

This shocked me. It probably shouldn’t have. The thing is that I don’t play collectible card games all that much, so this wasn’t a name that floated to the top of my list when I was mulling over favourite picks. But when you stand back, you have to recognise the genius of a man who pretty much invented an entire hobby in its own right with Magic. Fantasy Flight are now doing their best to put Netrunner, an extraordinary lesson in emergent theme, into the same bracket. And King of Tokyo, one of my most-played games, is just gravy.

Christian Petersen for Twilight Imperium 3, Armada and Game of Thrones

I never think of Christian as a game designer, just as the CEO. It’s almost like my head can’t believe someone is capable of being both at once. And lord knows he’s had his differences with this site. With the exception of Armada, these aren’t easy games, either. I may never play either of his qualifying titles every again. Yet when you step back, that’s not a reason to exclude them: they’re still great games. And that makes Mr. Petersen a great designer.

Dead of Winter Review

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Hidden traitors are an under-used and under-explored game mechanic. This may be because the formula was near-perfected by Battlestar Galactica back in 2008. A slight clumsiness around traitor selection, complex rules and a 3-hour play time were the only significant downsides.

Dead of Winter is a very obvious love letter to BSG, which attempts to fix its shortcomings. Taking on such an acclaimed game and trying to improve on its formula is a tough proposition. Dead of Winter succeeds … most of the time.

The title is based on the hackneyed zombie apocalypse, with added snow. It’s path trodden smooth by the passage of too many previous games, but the upstart succeeds in carving out a niche for itself. The setting is well realised with good component and evocative mechanics. Every time a character moves without fuel, they risk exposure to frostbite and worse: the hungry dead lurking in the darkness. With potential peril at every action, play exudes a real sense of risk.

Each player has a team of two survivors, which can increase as strangers arrive at the colony, and decrease as they succumb. These teams must pull together to achieve a randomly selected goal such as stockpiling food and weapons for escape, or to fully barricade the colony. This is in addition to basic survival: each turn, surviving colonists must be fed, waste cleaned and the growing herd of zombies culled. Failure to do these things results in the whole group losing.

But this isn’t the co-operative game it sounds to be. All the players also have secret individual objectives they need to fulfill as well as the group goal. It might be to stockpile food, or to be in charge of the most survivors. So even if the main objective is met, few, if any of the players will win. Some of these objectives, however, let the player win if all the other players lose. So there may be one or more traitors in the mix: or there may not.

This uncertainty drives the Dead of Winter experience. There’s a very similar crisis mechanic to BSG. A new one is drawn each turn from a bland, identikit deck, and cards are played faced down to try and accumulate enough of a resource like food or fuel to avert it. Putting in the wrong kind of resource counts negative, allowing betrayers to wield their nefarious influence.

Cunning players can use the possibility of no traitor to make it look like everyone is pulling together, before springing a trap at the last minute. The struggle to balance ongoing crises against fulfilling the basics is tough enough to make this work as a co-op. The threat of treachery on top makes for a taut, challenging game.

To get more resources for survival and warding off crises, players must move around locations like the school and store. Each has its own deck of cards, so medicine is a more likely find at the hospital, and precious weapons can be turned up at the police station.

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The core game mechanics take up only a few pages of simple rules. Length varies with the objective, between about 90 minutes and four hours. But you know what you’re getting, because the goals are divided into short, medium and long play times.

There’s an amazing amount of narrative and excitement brewing inside this compact framework. There are downtime issues as the player count increases, but there’s always plenty to argue and discuss. There’s enough information to make informed guesses, but rarely enough for certainty. There’s also the addition of the crossroads deck, events that are drawn by someone other than the current player, and which can trigger depending on what actions are taken during the turn. It’s tight, lively and engrossing.

So what’s not to love? Almost inevitably for a game so light on rules, yet so reliant on social interaction, the mechanics sometimes collapse under the weight of all the arguments.

The worst examples are all related to secret objectives. Which is a shame, seeing as they’re one of the games’ main unique selling points. Some of them are much harder than others. So if you’re dealt one of these, or you see it drifting out of reach, it’s tempting to try and get yourself exiled. This is the rule that allows the group a vote to get rid of suspected traitors: anyone kicked out gets a new “exile” objective. That’s an attractive proposition if your own is out of reach, but succumbing to temptation is gamey, and breaks the implicit social contract of the table.

There are also many occasions when a sudden tweak by a traitor can completely put the game out of reach for everyone else. That would be find if it could be planned for, anticipated, maybe mitigated against. But in reality it’s just a twist of fate and timing. It can be very frustrating to suddenly find the game collapsing around you through no fault of your own. More so when anyone with the good fortune to have a betrayal card is the beneficiary.

How badly these issues will affect you is dependent on your group. It’s a game that very much demands to be approached a certain way, to be played as a shared experience rather than by the strict letter of the rules. Of everyone understands that, and can be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain, it works most of the time. But just one player who wants to exploit the loose rules framework in search of a win can ruin it for both themselves and everyone else.

I find the game entirely worthwhile in spite of these flaws, especially if you stick to the short objectives. Cramming so much thrill, so much debate into ninety minutes once everyone has the rules down is an incredible draw. And if the rules let you down, well, it’s only ninety minutes lost, most of which were still pretty exciting. As the playtime stretches, you find yourself wishing you’d picked BSG instead. But if, like me, three hour gaming slots are in short supply, Dead of Winter is a fantastic boon, and an often cracking game.

Diaspora: Shattered Armistice Trailer

Up to this point I knew absolutely nothing about this game, but Battlestar Galactica fans, this freeware mod for Descent: Freespace 2 is for you. Hopefully the game itself is at least half as cool as this trailer for it. Seriously, it makes me want to go suit up. Right. Now.

If only I knew what became of my old CH Flightstick Pro and accompanying throttle. Not that myPC has an serial ports to connect them to. My goodness, it really has been a long time since the days of Wing Commander and X-Wing/Tie Fighter. And just why did I never get around to the Freespace games? Folly, I tell you. Pure folly.

Spotted at RPS.

Bill’s Grab Bag of Gaming

There’s a lot of stuff to get into since my triumphant return from south Florida so let’s get right to it.

First off, congrats to Brian Rhodes for winning the No High Scores March Madness contest. Brian went out on a limb and picked Kentucky to win it all and that sort of hard noses handicapping paid off as he won by two points. For those keeping score at home I finished #15, Todd #24, Brandon #29 and Matt #31. Matt’s Norfolk State prediction of a title didn’t pay off. I’ll contact Brian soon about a prize…of some sort.

Anyway Florida. The time off was needed; my wife and daughter went para-sailing, which I have done before, and they had a blast. Most of our vacation was spent at the pool/beach.

I saw The Hunger Games which was…ok, I guess. I don’t see what all the fuss is about, though. That movie was about an hour too long. Nice costumes though.

I’ve been mostly out of the loop so I haven’t read any Pax East stuff so I have no idea what went down at the show. I’m going to assume that a lot of people got together and saw and played a lot of games and a lot of websites reported about that. That’s just a guess, though.

But I have been playing a lot of stuff of late, mostly of the iPad and cardboard variety.

Over my week long Florida excursion I rediscovered just how much I love Neuroshima Hexon the iPad. I bought the Babel-13 Armies expansion (two armies I never did buy for the actual boardgame) and it was like playing a new game. These two armies are wildly different and if you play Hex on the Pad I highly recommend them. The three of us played a ton of Hex on the plane and it made the flight, the layover, and the second flight leg just zip by. This is one of those iPad apps that make the physical boardgame obsolete. While I enjoy the physicality of holding the tiles, playing on the Pad is just a huge convenience. Plus it never screws up rules.

The only thing missing from the app is online multiplayer. It’s still a “pass the Pad” game but if you want to play a brilliant game on your $500 boardgame machine, this is exhibit A.

I finally played Titan, a game that was first released in boardgame form in the early ’80s. This is one of those games that I have read a lot about over the years but never took the purchase plunge because it sounds like a very “’80s” design — big, long, bloated, and potentially great. Games like Titan can be wonderful or can be hours and hours of “meh”. The boardgame Talisman falls in this same category for me. I have had awesome Talisman sessions filled with laughter and cries of agony and sessions where everyone quit halfway through.

The Titan iPad app makes it amazingly clear that I made the right call by not buying the boardgame. I have came close multiple times — literally had the mouse cursor over the purchase button, but never did pull the trigger. If I want to play a game like this I’ll fire up Heroes of Might & Magic. And no way would I want to sit through a 4+ hour game of Titan at the table. I don’t mind long games — I’ll play Arkham Horror or Britannia or Successors– but Titan is the sort of old timey design that overstays its welcome. Some people are huge fans of this game but the iPad app finally made it clear that I need to save my money. I consider that a win.

I have purchased Nightfall but have yet to fire it up. More on that later.

On the PC it’s all about Confrontation. I’m working on my review and I am several hours into the campaign and I keep trying to compare this to Dawn of War II but that comparison never did feel right. Confrontation, the more I play it, reminds of an advanced Infinity engine game without all of the role-playing dialogue bits. You have skills and spells and stuff like that but it’s 100% a combat game with a story tacked on to give you a reason to fight. But the camera, the pause/play design and the skirmish model reminds me a great deal of a Baldur’s Gate II in how it approaches combat. (You can spin the camera though.) It’s certainly growing on me. It comes off as a real-time (yet with the ability to pause) tabletop/minis game. I have no idea how faithful this is to the actual minis game it is based on but you can see hit percentages and damage numbers and stuff like that as you play. I do wonder if the constant “move here and fight” design will eventually grow stale but so far I’m having a decent time with it.

It’s damn ugly though.

Finally, on the table I got a game of Krakow 1325 AD in over the break. This is a strange 4-player only team based card game of trick taking and back stabbing. Imagine a 4-player game with two teams and only one person can win. It’s very light and combines elements of trick taking and…worker placement. Yeah, it’s odd. But I think it works especially with the right group. One team is the black team and the other white. In addition each player receives a secret identity card (green, orange, blue, or yellow – they are themed but really it’s the color that matters).

Each round the lead player plays a card (called an Intrigue) of a certain color with a strength value attached to it. The next player plays a card with a negative value targeting that same color. Then the original player’s teammate plays a card to boost the strength of the same colored card and finally the last player plays a negative strength card and you arrive at a total. If it’s positive the Intrigue works and you follow the instructions on the original card and add cubes to the board (which is supposed to be Krakow in 1325 AD) in a certain district. Each team is trying to “win” each district for end game victory points.

The kicker is that each intrigue, which is a specific color, will match the secret identity of one of the players, and if the intrigue succeeds it will earn that player additional points at the end of the game. So you may want an Intrigue to succeed even if it’s played by the opposing team so you may sandbag a round or two and choose not to help your teammate even if you can. This leads to a lot of this sort of banter:

“You seriously can’t help more than that?”
“Nope. My cards are awful.”
“I better bot see a -9 blue card from you next round”
“So…um…whose turn is it?”

It’s chaotic in that it can be very hard to determine who is in fact winning the game until the secret identities are revealed at the end and even if your team wins…you might not. Once you learn the rules you can play a game in about an hour. It’s a neat game and if you’re interested in getting it you need to step up because the publisher is out of business and the designer of the game is selling the final stocked supply at the Krakow website. Once they are gone, they are gone forever. I think the designer is in Canada now so North American orders should work, but I have no idea how many copies are left.

Wrapping up, I played a few games of Hansa Teutonica, which is a game that I mentioned before I left. Can’t say enough about this one. Just a great, great, game. It’s that sweet spot Eurogame that combines classic Euro elements (in this case Route/Network Building) with direct player confrontation. Slap a player mat in front me of me that requires me to look at nothing but that for over an hour and I’ll hate the game. Allow me to mess with other players and screw up their plans and I’ll usually have a good time. Hansa Teutonica asks you to do so much with so little time that it creates beautiful gaming tension each time you play it. Brilliant stuff.

Finally, my buddy Mace was in town over the weekend and we got games of Battlestar Galactica and the Blood Bowl card game in, both of which remain personal favs. That’s the thing about great games. Boardgames need shelf life. And so many games pass the initial smell test only to sit on the shelf afterward, but if you buy and play a lot of games your favorites will eventually get back to the table even after a hiatus.

So that’s a lot of gaming for a fella on vacation. And while Florida was nice, it’s good to be home.

So, Mass effect 3. How about that ending?