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Thrower’s Tallies: Top Eight Designers


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.

Cracked LCD- Reiner Knizia, Master of Theme


Over the past year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and re-thinking about what makes a game “thematic” versus “abstract. I reached a certain impasse, a level of dissatisfaction with games that were regarded by gamers with the dreadful “dripping with theme” appellation, which almost always means that a game has plentiful artwork, nomenclature and lore regardless of the relative interchangeability of mechanics derived from a stock list of routine processes and procedures. I’ve argued in the past that there are levels of theme occurring at “executive” (illustration and fluff) and “conceptual” (mechanics and contexts) levels. But a few games that I’ve been revisiting of late have caused me to completely rewrite the Barnes Position on theme in games- where it exists, what generates it and what it should be doing as part of a design.

It may surprise many readers, who have bought into a certain online gamer forum party line, that all of these games were designed by Reiner Knizia. For as far back as I can remember- going back to newsgroup at least- the general consensus was that Dr. Knizia was the case study for the pasted-on theme, a layer of pictures and text to impart a post facto sense of meaning or setting to colored, numbered cards or auctions.

Truthfully, if your understanding of theme in games is a direct function of how many plastic miniatures are in the box, how much flavor text there is on the cards, the quality of the drawings in the rule book or how much dice-rolling there is in it then certainly a Knizia design isn’t going to be regarded as “dripping with theme”. But if by theme you want and expect a game to provide a formalized, abstract explication of more literary and interpretative contexts and meaning then some of Knizia’s best games reveal him to be a far greater master of expressing theme in games than any of Fantasy Flight Games’ house designers.

Modern Art, which I recently reviewed as part of my Eurogames Reclamation Project is a perfect example. It’s widely considered an “abstract” design, consisting primarily of a deck of cards depicting the purposefully terrible works of fictional artists and some money chips. Yet what the game describes is a perfect example of how rich a game’s theme- as opposed to its setting- can be. Players represent art dealers effectively trying to turn worthless art into valuable commodities. The action of the game creates these values, and players are constantly engaged in hyping up junk and paying attention to what’s hot and what’s not from season to season. The actions, as well as the themes they illustrate, serve to parody speculation and the fine art marketplace. This is all getting at a deeper function of game design than shooting zombies with a +1 shotgun or whatever.

Tigris & Euphrates is another game widely decried as having a “pasted on” theme, but when I play this Sackson-influenced tile-laying masterpiece, the theme of civilizations rising and then coming into conflict with others over resources or political, spiritual, and geographical issues blazes through the simple process. The internal conflict mechanic, for example, describes how a new leader may stage a coup within a population with the support of local religious or ideological figures. In game terms, this may just mean playing a wooden token and then some tiles. But that abstraction (and let’s not forget that all games are abstract) bears real meaning beyond the description of action. What is lost in the depiction of conflict in Tigris and Euphrates is the kind of detail that you might find in Civilization or Clash of Cultures but in return players experience a very lean, very focused sense of what actions mean at their most essential level.

You see these kinds of things throughout the Knizia catalog, usually bound in authorial, recurring themes and mechanics. Risk-taking, balancing advantages with helping others, accepting negative values to attain positive ones and choosing your conflict from among several are concepts you see time and time again. It’s true that some of his designs skew more toward pure abstraction and away from bearing purposeful theme, but even in games like Through the Desert meaning emerges. A caravan needs water. But you have five caravans, and you have to decide which to increase in value by getting them to water, which also increases their size as you add camels. It’s not Tales of the Arabian Nights in terms of storytelling, but there is a narrative there and a theme of desert survival and water as a source of prosperity clearly becomes evident.

Which isn’t to say that some of Knizia’s games aren’t purely mechanical. Loco, Flinke Plinke, Thor, Quandary or whatever name you know his simple “play a card, take a chip” game by has no theme other than competition. It isn’t abstracting anything, it is raw mechanics. Many of his more recent designs- Fits, Indigo, Callisto Qin and so forth are also moving more toward exploring or iterating on mechanics without themes. An ever-growing number of Knizia designs are simpler card games that have been appointed with new “themes” such as the recent Fantasy Flight addition of Game of Thrones stills, terms and fonts to a Knizia game that used to have something to do with penguins. And there’s the case of Municipium, a compact area control game which started out with a pulp adventure setting and wound up on the market saddled with woefully generic Roman livery and horrible Mike Doyle artwork to appease the Eurogaming set. It strikes me that this whole notion of him “pasting on themes” has more to do with publishers repurposing his less specific designs with market-appeasing pictures and less with the kinds of theme he builds into his more significant work

Knizia is a tremendously versatile designer and despite his name appearing on hordes of games with genuinely pasted-on settings (Cthulhu, zombies, donuts and so forth), he has done games that are closer to what most gamers would regard as “thematic”. His 2000 masterpiece, Lord of the Rings, is one of the most thematic games ever published not because it literally recounts Tolkien’s entire story as an abstraction, but because it describes the literary themes that were important to the writer. The Lord of the Rings is not “about” fighting orcs, a magic ring or even Hobbits. It’s about themes such as self-sacrifice, overcoming impossible odds, finding the strength to endure corruption, friendship and other very human, very universal concepts that reach much further than the fantasy nomenclature and settings.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings does exactly the same thing, regardless of how many gamers whine and sniffle at the fact that the primary, highly abstracted procedure of the game is playing cards representing four different heroic values to move a token forward on a track. For these gamers, War of the Ring is likely a much better representation of the setting although what it describes is action much more so than theme. Knizia’s concept was to convey both the literal and literary content of Tolkien’s work, and when you are faced with a do-or-die situation in the game where you have a choice to risk putting on the Ring and falling into corruption to save the party, it’s clear that this game is pasted on to its theme- not the other way around.

Five years later, Knizia would do something almost as compelling in terms of expressing theme with Beowulf, a game that even I didn’t really quite get when it first came out. Back in 2005, I wanted a Beowulf game where you could “be” Beowulf, fighting Grendel and accomplishing heroic acts from the celebrated epic. But this was a game where you played sets of “friendship” cards to win auctions. Honestly, at that stage in my gaming life it could have been a Talisman clone in Beowulf drag and I would have been happy. But revisiting the game here in 2014, I’ve been nothing less than shocked to find how richly thematic it is.

Knizia’s take on Beowulf is highly interpretative. That means, do not go into this game thinking that “Beowulf” is a theme. In this woefully underappreciated FFG release, players represent members of Beowulf’s retinue. The idea is that you are trying to effectively keep up with- and impress- this archetypical superhero figure by rising to various challenges. But in Knizia fashion, you just don’t have the strength or endurance (represented by your cards) to do it all. So the theme that emerges is one where players are made aware of the traditional heroic narrative and participate in all of the risks, triumphs and defeats, but at a distance from Beowulf. He is going to make it to the end and be the hero, regardless of what the players do or how badly they fail. Because Knizia wants you to know that you aren’t as good as Beowulf. Who could be? The best you can do is to try to be as good as Wiglaf, and to do that you have to play cards that abstract the core actions and values at the heart of the epic, strategically conseriving and exerting strength. The game doesn’t need flavor text, excessive detail or elaborate mechanics to drive its narrative toward its thematic goal of having the player experience heroic fantasy as participator, an observer and most importantly an aspirant.

The evidence for Knizia’s economic mastery of theme goes on and on, often in subtler detail than is usually expected in so-called “thematic” games. There’s the Nile tiles in Ra that have to be flooded for them to have value. The persistence of the Pyramids- the only relics of the first half of the game that remain standing- in Amun-Re. There’s the desperate struggle to keep Frodo hidden in his two-player Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. High Society is as much about saving money and being prepared for disaster as it is the excessive spending of the wealthy. Consider the simple, hugely thematic concept of choosing which expeditions to risk investing in over the course of a game of Lost Cities. And then there are any number of “play or pass” mechanics that Knizia uses in everything from Taj Mahal to Blue Moon that represent players, leaders or factions resting, strategically withdrawing to marshal strength for the next fight. That’s a theme in itself, and one that is deeper than what is usually seen in games “dripping with theme”- which too often means that the design is built on top of relatively generic mechanics and laden with pasted-on pictures, nomenclature and fluff text.

Cracked LCD- Eurogames Reclamation Project #2: Modern Art


Inevitably, the player new to Reiner Knizia’s 1992 masterpiece Modern Art will look at the card on the auction block depicting an intentionally ugly painting and ask “how much should I bid?” I love this moment because it is an opportunity for the theme in one of the most strongly themed games ever designed to come through. This is a game- almost a satire, in fact- about speculative markets, phony hype and artificially inflating the value of worthless things. True, there are a couple of data points on which to hang an estimated possible return on investment, but ultimately the genius of Modern Art is that the players, representing gallery owners, determine what initially valueless bad art is actually worth.

Modern Art is quite possibly the greatest auction game ever designed not only because it connects the actions of the players to a very specific kind of subject matter, creating a narrative around the rising and falling values of works by fictional artists Liquid Metal and Christin P., but also because of its sharp focus on thematic auctions to drive gameplay. There isn’t much to the game- a deck of cards, some money chips and a board to show the value of each painting. And there isn’t actually much that you do in the game other than select a card from your hand and put it up for auction to other players.

Your hand of cards will be an assortment of paintings from the various artists, each with a symbol depicting a type of auction. When it’s your turn, you play one and conduct that particular kind of auction. There is a closed fist, blind bid auction. There’s a once-around-the-table one where you get the last bid. A fixed price auction lets you set the “buy it now” price and it’s sold to the player in turn order that’s first to accept. If nobody goes for it, you have to buy it yourself. And then there’s a free-for-all auction where everyone bids with no turn order and the seller decides when to drop the hammer on it. There’s also a doubling card for each artist that lets you put two up for sale at once.

Proceeds from one of your auctions go into your pile of money unless you win your own auction. That money goes to the bank. So any income you have comes primarily from selling paintings. The round ends when the fifth card of an artist is played (without being auctioned). The most popular artist- the artist that sold the most paintings, not necessarily at the highest values,- has a $30 chip put on his or her space on the market board. Second and third place artists get $20 and $20 respectively. These values are cumulative over the course of the game’s four rounds. Everybody sells the paintings they’ve purchased at the end of each round at the current market value.

What happens during these four rounds is highly variable. Karl Gitter might blow up in the first two seasons but completely flop in the last two. Yoko might remain a steady seller, And the works of Krypto might remain worthless junk throughout the game. It’s all depending on what the players do, what sells and what doesn’t. And since players get to control when the rounds end, there can be some surprise finishes when somebody won’t- or can’t- play the last Liquid Metal and it gives Christin P. time enough to catch up in sales.

Interaction is extremely high because you’re selling these junk paintings directly to other players. You’ll try to convince others of a painting’s worth based on what’s been played and what you’re secretly looking at in your hand. Everybody is going to laugh when you drop that worthless Krypto in the last round and it sells for $1- but then the guy that manages to get the fifth of his paintings on to the table has the last laugh when Kryptos are selling for $30 apiece. Everybody is going to want a painting worth $90 going into the fourth round, so you could theoretically value it at a potential $120, the top price possible. But how much do you bid- or set the price for- without shaving off too much profit? And what if you’re bullshitting and you know there’s no chance that Yoko is going to finish in the top three for the final season?

Modern Art is alive with direct competition and eye-to-eye engagement with other players. This is not at all some kind of dry, analytical mathematical exercise even though that can be its first impression. The fact is, Modern Art is more thematic than any number of games that try to convince players of atmosphere and setting with flavor text and illustrations. What you actually do, as a player in this game, maps to the subject matter in a highly conceptual way. The game is about art dealing, and that is exactly what you do in it. But more than that, it functions as a commentary on speculative markets where popularity, hype and hucksterism are more effective price drivers than actual quality or lasting value. The game has both subject matter and meaning, far more than most games regarded as “thematic” by the majority of today’s hobbyists.

But I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t catch the theme back in the mid-1990s when I first played Modern Art. I thought it was just some kind of math thing. I also didn’t see the gameplay value in one auction after another. It didn’t help the game’s stature that auctions became such a tired, overused mechanic among Eurogame designs so it made sense that the heavily hybridized Ameritrash movement would shun the game for so many years. But coming back to the game in 2014 with fresh eyes and a completely different approach to analyzing theme and subject matter, I’ve been quite ashamed at myself for being one of those folks that dismissed this game for so many years. This game was never anything less than astonishing- I just didn’t appreciate it until recently. In an era where hobby gaming is drowning in bullshit of various descriptions, it’s refreshing to play a game so direct and pure that is also so motivated by its subject and design goals.

And now, it’s out of print. I wouldn’t expect it to be reprinted anytime soon because it doesn’t feature steampunk zombie miniatures, wouldn’t support a monthly expansion model and it isn’t a labor-intensive production game. Pure auctions are in style anymore and even die-hard Eurogamers are likely to incorrectly decry this game as obsolete or old fashioned. Ironically, you’re going to have to pay speculator-driven aftermarket prices to bring a copy of this essential title home. It’s a damn shame that there isn’t an annualized publication of this game with the year’s Turner Prize nominees in place of the fictional artists.


Cracked LCD- Re-reading Knizia’s Lord of the Rings

With The Hobbit soon to hit the theaters and a pretty great Lord of the Rings-themed MOBA just released on the consoles (review forthcoming) it looks like Tolkien’s in the charts again, so to speak. I’ve had a touch of Hobbit Fever myself and I’ve been slaking my thirst for all things Middle-Earth chiefly by playing the decade-and-change old Reiner Knizia Lord of the Rings board game. I’ve had an unusual history with this game. I bought it when it first came out, one of the very earliest Fantasy Flight Games releases published under license from Hasbro. It comes from a time before the Jacksonian epic, before Viggo and Magneto would become a part of the Lord of the Rings story. The artwork is vintage John Howe, the components look old-fashioned by today’s standards, and it falls somewhere in the middle of Knizia’s greatest era of design work. And it was also co-op when co-op wasn’t cool.

I have something of an up-and-down history with the game. I bought it when first came out, and it was during a period when Eurogames were still much closer to that classic German family style than the style that titles like Princes of Florence ushered in. I liked it but didn’t love it and the folks I was playing games with at the time really didn’t like it because it was co-op. They didn’t want to “play against the board”. As time went on and more baroque, elaborate games like War of the Ring showed up a couple of years later, Knizia’s LOTR lost favor with me altogether. It didn’t seem as thematic, narrative, or compelling. I fell into the idiot trap of assuming that playing Friendship cards couldn’t be thematic. Like many gamers tired of Eurogames in the mid-2000s, I bought into the lie of flavor text and superficial theme.

Around 2006, I came back around to the game. I actually wrote an apology to it at the old Fortress: Ameritrash blog. I was declared a “hypocrite” by some dogmatic Ameritrash types for changing my opinion on the game. I had played it a few times with a more receptive, fun group and with the great expansions, Friends and Foes and Sauron. I loved getting beat down and annihilated by the game. But then the Battlefields addition came out, and after playing it and being disappointed with it because it really was too abstract and I didn’t care for the Battle of Helm’s Deep depicted literally as a flowchart, the game was shelved again until just a couple of weeks ago.

Picking it up over a decade after publication and after playing countless other “thematic” games including several Tolkien-themed ones, I’m looking at the game with fresh eyes again. And what I’m seeing is a game that is a masterpiece of proper abstraction, conceptual theme, and player engagement.

Abstraction is a tricky thing because it’s where you can inadvertently disengage that bridge that connects the player’s imagination to both the subject matter and the process or structure of a game. There has to be adequate justification for that process and structure within the subject matter or you’re suddenly playing a mid-2000s Eurogame that is all mechanics with no actual game- or thematic meaning. But where Knizia gets this right in Lord of the Rings- even though you’re playing cards with friendship or travelling icons on them to move a pawn along a track that represents some facet of a particular section of the story and collecting shields to spend on Gandalf cards- is by connecting these mechanics very specifically to the major themes- not specific events, actions, or characters- of the novel.

Lord of the Rings is a supreme example of conceptual theme- the whole game is the journey from Bag End to Mount Doom, with the boards metering the specific, narrative details and providing some potential branches and alternative results based on outcomes. This is one of the key themes of Tolkien’s work- travelling. Travelling is more important in the stories than the martial action that most fans tend to favor when it comes to Tolkien gaming. But more than that, the cooperative nature of the game, the limited resources, and the crushing difficulty that inevitably requires players to sacrifice themselves to Corruption or face defeat illuminate the meanings and subtexts of the books far better than anything in War of the Ring, the LOTR LCG, or anything else. By the end of the game, whatever Hobbits are left to struggle through Mordor are going to feel exhausted, beaten, and facing impossible odds. But the game gives you plenty of opportunities for skin-of-the-teeth escapes and die-rolling uncertainty.

All of the above results in a fantastically engaging, emotional experience that transcends playing those Friendship cards to provide a higher gaming experience. This is a game about the same things that Lord of the Rings is about- it’s just occurring in a different medium. It attempts a retelling of the story, but allows plenty of player agency. Particularly in interacting and coordinating with other players to overcome adversity and make decisions. Sure, the game has that Alpha player problem. But that’s more a function of mammal nature than a flaw in the game’s design.

Decisions made early in the gamer end up as regrets later on. The gifts of Elrond may have been, in retrospect, squandered. A Hobbit may be facing down that glorious Eye of Sauron miniature, just a step away on the Corruption track, and really wishing that a Gandalf card or Hobbit ability wasn’t used before. This is a game where ideas like hope, faith, and shared responsibility can become factors. These are uncommon in board games.

I find it completely laughable when people argue that this game isn’t “thematic”, usually citing those darn Friendship cards or the linear sequencing of it all. Yet I fail to see how it’s any less thematic than anything occurring in War of the Ring or Middle-Earth Quest. And I fail to see how those enjoy so-called “thematic games” would not appreciate- and treasure- the intricate and very resonant ways in which this game describes the specific themes that Tolkien expressed in his work. There’s nothing particularly Tolkienian about rolling dice, drawing cards, or moving plastic miniatures around a map. But working together, making difficult choices, and overcoming the odds would fit that description at a thematic level.

But this is a different medium than fiction. The genius of Knizia’s work is that he is able to leverage the board game medium’s unique elements to tell the same (but possibly different) story with the same meanings and subtexts while using many of Tolkien’s proper-noun touch points and specific events from the books to define card and gameplay event functions while also providing the necessary settings. That it does all of this in a fairly slim set of standardized rules is amazing. That the game can bear two quite impactful expansions that manage to cram in more specific detail without becoming an overwrought burden is astonishing.

The bottom line is that there is no better adaptation of the Lord of the Rings to a gaming medium than Knizia’s adaptation. As far as the vaunted integration of theme and mechanics goes, it’s just as successful as Dune or Battlestar Galactica and in some finer, more subtle ways it is those great games’ better. It’s also far more thematic and narrative than many popular games that go to great lengths to prove to the player that they fit those descriptions, such as Arkham Horror. It is one of the world’s greatest stories made playable as one of the world’s greatest board games.