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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.

The “Great” Debate

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The excellent Michael Barnes recently conducted an excellent interview with game designer Reiner Knizia. He’s widely regarded as one of the best game designers ever, but his stock has gone up and down around these parts. Currently, it’s up: something I didn’t realise when I waded in to offer a contrary opinion.

The response begs an interesting question: what do we mean when we say “best” in this context? What qualifies a designer for an epithet of “great”?

I’m in a poor position to judge, having designed one godawful game in my entire life, which has never seen the light of day. But as a critic, I’m supposed to offer opinion on such things. So here we go.

What’s always impressed me most about new designs is creativity. Board gaming is inherently limited by the things you can do with card and wood, metal and plastic. It’s straitjacketed by thousands of years of human tradition which leads us to expect games to look and play a certain way. Breaking away from these strictures as the massive weight of cultural expectation bears down on you must be unbelievably hard.

Genre-shattering designs are correspondingly rare. Genre-shattering designers, who manage the feat regularly, are even more so. And by that measure, Knizia doesn’t measure up.

One of the moments when conventions got splintered to pieces was the mid-nineties when early German-style games hit the UK and America. These games are great games: great then, and still great now. Titles like Settlers of Catan and El Grande were like nothing we’d ever seen before. Their designers were rightly celebrated for that achievement, although they’ve not hit such heights again.

Knizia was not quite a part of that moment. He rode on its coat tails, with his best games appearing in the late nineties. That shows in his designs. Lost Cities and Battle Line are clear Rummy variants. Samurai and Through the Desert trace obvious lines of descent to classic abstracts. Modern Art and Medici are just fancy auctions.

This trend, of taking tried and tested mechanics and twisting them into interesting new shapes, is almost a hallmark. It takes a lot of skill, and Knizia has more skill than most. What it doesn’t take is a lot of creativity.

You could also argue that he’s almost earned himself black marks against innovation by using his immense talents to churn out cookie-cutter games. His output is prodigious, focused on the German family market with titles few of us will have heard of, let alone played. But far too many look a lot like re-skinned or tweaked versions of his existing games. That’s surely the opposite of creativity.

His cleverest inventions, to my mind, are his Egyptian games Ra and Amun-Re. They contain the seeds of genius. But I’m not sure two clever titles qualifies a designer for the innovation hall of fame.

His most celebrated title is Tigris and Euphrates. It’s not a design I’d say was particularly creative, owing a huge debt to common abstracts. It’s also not a game I enjoy particularly, although I can see why people do. It’s a strong, lean and deep design one could play many times and still not master.

Which leads us on to another consideration. What if you don’t measure a designer by their creativity, but by a simpler measure: how much people enjoy their games?

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Here, the good doctor is on much firmer ground. He’s got eight games in the boardgamegeek top 200, a spectacular feat considering that they’re older titles in a list which favours newness and celebrity. Some of those games, particuarly Battle Line and Ra, belong to that rare category of games that offer joy to almost everyone.

So I’m guessing that fun is the criteria people are using when they talk about Knizia being a great designer. One could argue, again, that his vast output of mediocre titles should be set against this highlights, but perhaps that’s a churlish attitude.

What’s more troubling is that some of his more popular games are amongst his most tedious. Samurai and Through the Desert strike me as humorless, boring games that would be better played against a machine than a fellow human being. The fact that these are celebrated would once have seemed to some as evidence of everything that was wrong with gaming. It still does to me, but it seems I’m now in a minority.

I’d argue, though, that creativity is simply a better measure of greatness. It’s rarer, for starters. Since that mid-nineties explosion of German brilliance I’d say there are perhaps three people who’ve shown it regularly. They are Martin Wallace, Rob Daviau and the incomparable Vlaada Chvatil.

On the other side, of that triumvirate, it’s only Chvatil who’s regularly put out games that are both creative and fun. Daviau’s designs are often packed with fresh imaginative ideas, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Wallace perfected the art of bringing balance to highly interactive and non-random games, but his titles can be dry and heavy beyond endurance.

And this is where Dr. Knizia earns his stripes. Not as the most creative designer ever, nor as the most fun, but as someone who’s struck a beautiful balance of the two with so many of his games. When you step back there are remarkably few designers whose work is almost always worth your time in some way or other. I still think Vlaada is top of that heap. But Knizia wins a deserved second.