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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.

Cosmic Encounter and expansions review

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Cosmic Encounter was one of the first hobby board games I owned, back when I was a teenager. It was the Games Workshop edition. I can still remember being baffled by the rules. It looked and smelled like a conquest game: there were battles and alliances and units died. But what the hell kind of conquest game made you draw and card to determine your target instead of you picking on the weakest player? Where was the fun in that?

Oh sure, you could still make alliances. The encounter each turn with your random opponent allowed each side to invite people to help out. Sure, there was still excitement, with combat determined by the number of ships on each side plus the play of a numeric card. And the draw of a different alien power for each player was a fascinating idea. But where was the sense of narrative, of slowly building friendships and enmities?

It had rave reviews so we played it anyway, and it fell flat as a pancake. We played a couple more times, waiting for excitement to leap out of the box like some snarling predator. But it never came. It quietly went back on the shelf, and I went back to miniatures and role playing.

Fast forward twenty years and Fantasy Flight released a new edition. And again, it got rave reviews. So I figured I owed it another chance.

This time, when I read the rules, the acclaim made more sense. I still couldn’t understand why you drew a card to determine your opponent for the turn. But this edition had more and better aliens for the players. Each with some ludicrous powers which recombined to make an ever shifting strategic backdrop. It had flares, special power cards that were missing in GWs neutered version of the game. They add a lot of flavour, variety and excitement. It had more interesting combat cards, with things like reinforcements to add tension to negotiation and combat.

And it was better. No doubt about it. But we played it, and it still felt lacking in a certain something. It still looked and smelled like a conquest game. But compared with its genre peers it felt brief and tame. There was little trash talk. Little sense of the epic.

So away it went again, but this time the box nagged at me from the shelf. The game that so many praised to the heavens was in there somewhere. I could feel it lurking, like treasure buried beneath the silt of a river. I just couldn’t figure out how to grasp it and pull it forth into daylight.

What might help, I figured, was seeing experienced players get down to it. But everyone I gamed with seemed as clueless as I did. Until, that is, the Shut Up & Sit Down team posted a video of how they played.

Watching that, the missing piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place. Cosmic isn’t a conquest game. It does look and smell like one, but it isn’t.

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Cosmic Encounter is a negotiation game, pure and simple. What’s more it’s an early European style one, before the first actual Eurogame and way before those games got buried in an avalanche of mathematics. It’s just that in Cosmic you’re negotiating over lives and territory, instead of florins and crates of sauerkraut.

The enabler of this brilliance is, of course, the random selection of an enemy each turn. There’s no long-term alliances in Cosmic because, just like in finance, it only hurts if you hold on to them. If you’re buying and selling it doesn’t matter who sold you what yesterday, or whether it made you a profit. All you care about is the deal on the table, right here, right now.

It helped that I had some expansions on board this time round. The two most important are Cosmic Incursion and Cosmic Dominion. Both have the best aliens of all the available expansions. Both have 32 “reward” cards which can be drawn by players who ally on the defending side in an encounter. Reward cards work like normal combat cards, but are more powerful and add a lot of zest and variety to the game. They’re a great addition because allying with the defence isn’t the most attractive proposition in the original, since it does nothing to help you win the game.

There are other expansions, too. The only other one I’ve played is Cosmic Storm. This set got a lot of flak for featuring a poor line-up of extra alien powers. Some of them do look to be poorly designed. Some others look to be close copies of powers from other expansions. But there are a handful of good additions on offer. Plus the set features space stations, which are a bit like another alien power you can wield, tied to your ownership of one planet. While the selection of just ten gets repetitive these are otherwise a great addition, adding an element of tactical position to the game. You now have one planet you especially don’t want to lose.

Cosmic Encounter has its own special alien power, the power to fascinate. Some gamers are so hooked by its exotic intoxication that they play hundreds of games, rarely playing anything else. With so much potential variety, so much interaction in the box, it’s not hard to see why. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those fanatics. Somehow the game feels a little too brief, a little too convenient. But I’m glad I understand where the game is coming from now. It’s brilliant and unique, and it’s hard not to love a game that lets you play as The Filth.

Rex: The Final Days of an Empire Review

Rex: The Final Days of an Empire from Fantasy Flight Games, a re-design of the famous Dune game from Eon

Over 30 years ago, the famous Eon board game design team released Dune, a game based on Frank Herbert’s famous science fiction novel of the same name, and so far ahead of its time that gamers in the early 80’s weren’t quite sure what to make of it. After a reasonable print run, it vanished, never to return again thanks to the legal complexities surrounding the licensing of Herbert’s intellectual properties. And in the meantime its reputation, fueled no doubt by its unavailability, grew, and grew, and grew, as did the price of second hand copies.

After heroic wrangling with the parties involved, Fantasy Flight Games managed to get hold of permission to reuse the mechanics, but not to place them in the Dune universe. So they instead opted to shift the action to their own Twilight Imperium setting and the result, after years of waiting, is Rex. The publisher sent me a review copy so I could find out for myself whether it was worth the wait.

Since this is effectively a reprint of the earlier game, I cannot reasonably review it without reference to its predecessor. The exalted reputation of Dune rested on two things. First, the astonishing manner in which it tied theme to gameplay with a minimum of fuss: the six asymmetric factions in the game worked and acted as you’d expect from the book and each play of the game felt like a grand re-telling of the nefarious political and military machinations of the book, but without ever seeming like it scripted the players into certain paths and with no more than a few pages of rules. The second was its extraordinary mechanics in which very little was random and nothing was hidden from all the players: everyone was allowed access to something that other people didn’t know. It that way it was very much in the vein of the carefully balanced, non-random, tight designs of modern European games, except this was the US of 20 years ago, and in a vicious conquest game that took 3-5 hours to play.

Personally, I had mixed feelings about Dune. Admired from a distance it was a hugely impressive design. At the coalface, though, I found that the game seemed fiendishly calculated to induce galloping paranoia in the players. The piecemeal nature of information sharing left you continually wondering who knew what. The bidding round, which saw everyone participating in an auction for face-down cards that might be useless or game-winners or anything inbetween, and only one player knew what each one was. The combat mechanic, where the belligerents secretly dialled the losses they were willing to take, added hidden attack and defence cards and hidden leaders, with winner wiping out the opposition. I found the glimmers of half-reliable information added up to a situation where I was almost paralysed by indecision, and the anxiety induced by the game went from beyond pleasantly tense to borderline unbearable.

The combat dial in Rex, source of much angst and paranoia here as it was in Dune

There’s also an unfortunate side effect to inserting economic and material aspects to a game that rests on Diplomacy-like negotiation between players. Namely, that the resulting alliance discussions can become lengthy and their implementation revolve around complex contractual arrangements. Different groups ended up with differing levels of details for these arrangements, but it always seemed to be an issue to some degree. I found these quickly became tedious and annoying, as I would rather have a game based more heavily around clever strategies than contractual small print.

But while it wasn’t entirely to my taste, there’s no denying that the wheeler-dealing and paranoid nature of Dune play was a near-perfect realisation of the machiavellian politics of the original books. And here, finally, we get to talk about Rex. Because of the theme shift, a generation of gamers who get to play this, and not Dune, are going to miss out on possibly one of the very best intermarriages of theme and mechanics in the entire history of board gaming. Everything has changed in Rex: factions have different names, slightly different powers, the board is fairly seriously different. The designers have struggled valiantly to manage the transition from Dune to the Twilight Imperium universe, but aspects of it grate badly. Why does collection of the games’ intangible currency of “influence”, for example, depend on the physical number of troops you have in an area? Makes sense with the original currency of spice, but with influence, not so much. Aficionados of Herbert’s universe are going to be disappointed with Rex, but that was always going to be the case. More unfortunate is that the partly-pasted theme detracts slightly from the pleasure and immersion of play generally.

However, the decoupling from the Dune universe also meant that the designers had more leeway to tinker with the mechanics of the game. Much has been made of the major changes, such as players now moving troops before paying to land more soldiers on the board whereas in Dune you landed before moving. That makes a difference to strategy, sure, but it’s actually a knock on requirement from some other smaller changes in the game. And it’s buried within those smaller changes that, for me, the most important alterations lie, alterations that might not have made sense if there was still an overwhelming need to include a theme of political plotting and double-dealing. Like the fact that all the useless cards got removed so that while there’s still a significant power variable in what’s on offer, your money is never wasted. Or that secret dealing or writing stuff down is no longer allowed. It’s a curious one, that, because seeing it spelled out in that fashion is very unusual, and therefore one might think that it was critical to the play, and yet gamers everywhere seem to be ignoring it and allowing the game to run like Dune.

This great sculpt of orbital battleships takes the place of Dune's storm marker in Rex

That is, in my opinion, a serious mistake. This isn’t Dune, but out of necessity a different game based on similar mechanics. It’s Rex. And without useless cards in the deck, the horrible anxiety of the bidding is lessened. Without the secret deals, and the ability to write out contractual details, the problem of overly-complex alliance terms falls away and with it some of that unbearable paranoia. And alongside that, the game plays much faster and more smoothly. Indeed, judging from other changes, I think that play speed a key difference between the two and an important design goal for Rex. There’s more currency in Rex, and stuff costs less, so people get more troops on the board, quicker. The board is smaller and troops move faster, so battles come earlier in the game and are more frequent. There are less rounds, so players feel forced to try and make decisive moves in a timely manner. This, with experience and played by the rules as written, is a 2-3 hour game rather than a 3-5 hour one. And that makes a big difference.

Simply put, Fantasy Flight have effectively Eurofied Dune. It’s shorter, tighter, more accessible than the original and the focus is more on leveraging its cool mechanics than on the details of inter-player negotiation. It’s not a Euro, of course, as there’s still a lot of diplomacy, a lot of backstabbing and lots and lots of violent confrontation, but it’s recast the old game firmly in the mold of modern design paradigms. They’ve even marginally improved the ability to play with less than six, a notorious problem with the original, although six are still required to get the most out of the game. And for my money, in modernising it, the mechanical play of the game has actually been improved. It’s just a shame that the wonderful theme had to be sacrificed along the way to get there.

Ultimately it’s a trade off. What Rex loses in terms of thematic integration and charm, it gains in playability. How much that’s going to bother you, and whether it’s sufficient to make you want to put in the money and time required to buy or make a copy of the original is a choice for the individual gamer. Personally, I still find the intensely neurotic quality and predictive aspects of play a little too much, although it’s better in Rex than in the original. But what’s undeniable is that the core mechanics remain utterly, compellingly unique in the genre of dudes on a map gaming, and you owe it to yourself to try them, even if you don’t buy them, in whatever form you feel best suits.