The Eleven: Designers You Should Know

It’s a new series here on Boards and Bees!  On the eleventh of every month, I’m going to put together a list of eleven…something.  It’s not really a Top Eleven list, it’s just a list.  This first list (Designers You Should Know) is not intended to introduce you to new or obscure designers; rather, it’s an introduction to some of the great board game designers that you, the board game enthusiast, should be aware of already.  This list is organized alphabetically by last name.

image by BGG user DaViD082
image by BGG user DaViD082

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Vlaada Chvátil is my favorite designer.  He’s from the Czech Republic, and has been designing published games since 1997.  His first game, Arena: Morituri te Salutant, was a tactical combat game where the attackers chose a number on a d6, and the defender had to guess it in order to prevent damage.  It’s been out of print for a long time, though I occasionally hear rumblings that Z-Man is going to reprint it.  His next game, Prophecy (2002), was an adventure game in the style of Talisman, though with more choices and character development.  He really hit it big in 2006 with Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, which has risen as high as #2 on the BGG Top 100.  Since then, it’s been hit after hit after hit with titles like Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz, and Mage Knight (which, at #8, gives him two games in the BGG Top 10).

The thing I like about Vlaada’s games is that every single one of them seems completely different from any of the others.  Though the inspirations are often quite evident, each game is unique and definitely all Vlaada.  Games in the same thematic universe, like Galaxy Tucker/Space Alert or Dungeon Lords/Dungeon Petz, don’t feel or play like each other at all.  He can give you a big serious adventure game like Mage Knight, or he can give a really light silly party game like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose.  If you play a Vlaada game, you know there will be lots of unpredictability, and advanced planning will be crucial to success (though, in the long run, things will usually not go as planned).  I love playing his games, and he’s definitely a designer you should know.  You may not love his work, but you should at least give him a try.

image by BGG user henk.rolleman
image by BGG user henk.rolleman

Stefan Feld has become the flagbearer for the Euro movement in recent years.  Ever since his first design was released in 2005 (Roma), he has established himself as one of the most innovative and clever designers out there.  He has designed the last six games in the alea Big Box series (Rum & Pirates, Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Macao, The Castles of Burgundy, and Bora Bora), and currently has 10 games in the top 500 at BGG (with three – The Castles of Burgundy, Trajan, and In the Year of the Dragon – in the top 100).

I’ve played three different Feld games – Notre Dame, Trajan, and Luna.  From my observations, it seems that his games can be characterized by choices.  There’s always a ton of stuff you can do in a Feld game, the trick is figuring out what your optimum choice is.  He seems very interested in innovation, particularly in exploring new ways for old mechanisms to work.  An example of this can be found in Trajan, with a unique take on Mancala.  His games are not necessarily thematic, but the engaging gameplay keeps people interested.  Despite his relatively small output so far, he has definitely made a mark on the gaming world and is a designer worth keeping an eye on.

image by BGG user cnidius
image by BGG user cnidius

Friedemann Friese probably has the most recognizable look to them of anyone on this list.  His games never play the same, but his stamp is all over them – green, the letter F, and a very strange sense of humor.  His first published game was in 1992, and he’s been steadily producing games ever since.  His star really began to rise in 2001 with Funkenschlag, a game about powering cities that took a lot of inspiration from crayon rail games (Funkenschlag is probably better known as its second edition English title, Power Grid, which came out in 2004).  Other we;;-known F games from Herr Friese include Fearsome Floors (2003), Funny Friends (2005), Formidable Foes (2006), Fast Flowing Forest Fellers (2008), Fauna (a Spiel des Jahres nominee from 2008), and Famiglia (2010).  Recently, he’s been getting some press for his Freitag (Friday) project.  These are games Friese only works on on Fridays, for amounts of time that start with F (four hours, five hours, five hours fifteen minutes, etc.).  Three games have come out in the series so far – Black Friday (2010), Friday (2011), and Fremde Federn (aka Copycat, 2012).

While his games are most clearly his, I don’t know if I could point to one particular aspect of Friese’s design style that sets him apart.  Many of his games have really quirky themes – in Fearsome Floors, you’re running away from a monster that moves in a programmed way; in Fiji, you’re trying to collect shrunken heads; Funny Friends has you developing a character from teenage years.  But then, some of his games are fairly serious – Power Grid is about powering cities; Black Friday is a stock market game; Fresh Fish is about building paths to factories.  There’s an economic element to several of his games, but others have no money involved at all.  Even the games in the Friday Project are completely dissimilar – Black Friday is stocks, Friday is a solitaire Robinson Crusoe game, and Copycat openly lifts its mechanics from other games (Dominion, Puerto Rico, Through the Ages, etc).  One thing you can be sure about with Friedemann Friese is that you’re going to get a unique gaming experience.  Good or bad, he’s definitely worth taking a look at.

RG
image by BGG user spearjr

If there were to be a Mount Rushmore for gamers, Richard Garfield would have to be on it, if just for one game – Magic: The Gathering.  The story goes that in 1993, Garfield was shopping RoboRally around to publishers.  Wizards of the Coast said they would publish it if he designed something else for him – a card game that would make enough capital to make the board game worth it.  Garfield then designed Magic, and the rest is history – 20 years later, it’s the most popular collectible card game in the world, and new cards are coming out constantly (though I don’t think Garfield has had anything to do with it for a while).  Pretty good for a mathematics professor with a PhD, I’d say.  If he had stopped there, it still would have been enough to get him on this list since Magic has been so influential for so many game designs (Dominion, for example).  But he also has RoboRally (1994), Netrunner (1996, with an extremely popular reprint by Fantasy Flight), and King of Tokyo (2011), among others.  Most recently, he’s been working on Solforge, a digital CCG.

I’m not really a student of Garfield’s games, having never played any of his collectible stuff.  I have played RoboRally and King of Tokyo, and love both, but I’d be hard pressed to find something that connects those two games.  I guess you could call them good examples of the American style of game – a lot of luck, highly thematic, but with good strategic decisions to be made.  They’re both fairly simple to understand as well – King of Tokyo just adds some rules and a theme to Yahtzee, while RoboRally has the ostensibly easy goal of maneuvering your robot to touch a flag.  The complexities come in trying to outmaneuver your opponents and reacting to what they do, leading to high levels of interaction.  I really need to play Magic and Netrunner sometime – those are definitely two holes in my geek cred, and they may help me to better define Garfield as a designer.  At any rate, he’s one to know.

RK
image by BGG user EndersGame

Reiner Knizia is probably the most prolific and recognizable designer on this list.  Non-gamers don’t always know designer names, but there’s a better chance that they’ll recognize his name than practically anyone else.  This is partially because of his recent work on digital versions of his games, plus the accessibility and availabilty – he’ll design games for just about anyone who asks.  His first published designs came out in 1990, and he quit his job at an international bank in 1997 to become one of a very few full-time game designers.  Like Garfield, he has a doctorate in mathematics; unlike Garfield, he has over 400 titles listed on BGG (this includes expansions).  He currently has four games in the BGG Top 100 (Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, Samurai, Battle Line), and another 20 in the Top 500.

I’m not a big fan of Knizia games myself, mostly because they seem too mechanical to me.  A lot has been made of his relative lack of theme – with very few exceptions, the games mostly seem to have themes slapped on them.  However, they always have very tight mechanics.  Tigris & Euphrates, while not very good at evoking the ancient Mesopotamian theme, is a very deep strategic game with many paths to victory.  Lost Cities, which has nothing to do with its supposed adventuring theme, is a simple card playing game that is accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike.  Through the Desert, whose desert theme is not helped by the pastel camels, is still a good abstract area control game.  My favorite Knizia game is Blue Moon City, which has some gorgeous art that is kind of disconnected from what you’re doing, but it’s still a fun set collection and area control game.  My second favorite is Ingenious, which makes no pretension at theme and still manages to be a solid abstract.

Knizia has moved away from innovation in recent years, and seems to be focusing more on family games, while retheming-rebranding-reimagining earlier efforts and getting his name out there in more and more markets.  For sheer volume, he’s on the list.  But even if he wasn’t so prolific, he’d still be worth taking a look at.

image by BGG user garion
image by BGG user garion

By contrast, Jason Matthews is probably the least prolific designer on this list.  He currently has five designs, all five of which are politically themed.  Interestingly enough, he has never designed a game on his own.  He’s co-designed three games with Christian Leonhard (1960: The Making of the President, Campaign Manager 2008, and Founding Fathers), one with Ananda Gupta (Twilight Struggle), and one with Ted Torgerson (1989: Dawn of Freedom).  However, all five games are in the top 600 at BGG, with Twilight Struggle at #1.

It could be argues that Jason Matthews doesn’t belong on this list since a) everything he’s done has been with someone else, and b) he hasn’t designed enough.  However, when your very first design hits number one on BGG, you’re someone to keep an eye on.  Matthews is a former chief of staff for a US Senator, so he’s very well placed to make relevant political games.  His games are always very heavily focused on theme, with cards that help give the feel of the time period in question.  Twilight Struggle and 1989 are about the Cold War; 1960 and Campaign Manager 2008 are about divisive presidential elections; and Founding Fathers is about the writing of the Constitution.  Of these, I have played Founding Fathers (face to face and online) and Campaign Manager (only online), and they are both well balanced, highly thematic, and good representations of the issues at stake.  Matthews (and co-designers) have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for their games, and I’m always eager to see what he has going next.

image by BGG user wavemotion
image by BGG user wavemotion

Even before the staggering success of 2004’s Ticket to Ride, Alan R. Moon was a force in the gaming world.  Born in England but living in the US, Alan R. Moon has been designing games since 1977.  He began his career co-designing wargames for Avalon Hill, and designed an 18xx game (called 1830: Take a Ride on the Reading).  In 1990, he designed Airlines, which led to 1999’s Union Pacific and 2011’s Airlines Europe.  He really started to gain attention in 1992 with the publication of Santa Fe (another predecessor to Union Pacific), and won his first Spiel des Jahres in 1998 for Elfenland.  He continued to gain notoriety with games like San Marco in 2001 and the 10 Days series in 2003.  However, what really cemented his name in gaming history was Ticket to Ride, the 2004 juggernaut that won just about every award there was and is pointed by most as the quintessential gateway game.  Most of his focus has been on the TTR series since then, though he has continued to work on some quality designs (Diamant/Incan Gold in 2005/06, Airlines Europe in 2010, Isla Dorada in 2011).

Moon’s design style seems to include making simple rules, streamlined designs, and including lots of strategy within relatively easy games.  I’ve played Ticket to Ride (including the base game, Europe, Märklin, Switzerland, and the Alvin & Dexter expansion), Incan Gold, 10 Days, San Marco, and Isla Dorada (which is admittedly a co-design with three others).  All three play very differently, but they all offer streamlined takes on their subjects.  Ticket to Ride takes the complicated train game genre and strips it down to a simple set collection game.  Incan Gold is a push-your-luck game with only two decisions – go or stay.  10 Days adds some more complexity to Rack-O, but adds a geography theme that makes it ideal for educational settings.  San Marco is an area control game in the tradition of El Grande, but much less complex while retaining lots of strategic options.  Isla Dorada is an exploration themed game with a card-based auction mechanism I actually like (which is saying something).  Moon is definitely a designer you should know.

image by BGG user Toynan
image by BGG user Toynan

Remember that Mount Rushmore I mentioned earlier?  Sid Sackson would have to be the first face on it.  He is probably the grandfather of modern board games, and practically invented the Eurogame, despite being American.  The BGG database lists his first published game in 1951, Sackson is known to have designed tons of games for himself and friends that never got published.  It was 1962’s Acquire that got Sackson his biggest dose of fame – this game, more than any other, is pointed to as the basis for just about every economic game that followed.  In 1969, he wrote a book called A Gamut of Games that included a bunch of unpublished designs and is one of the essential reads for anyone interested in games and game design.  He won the Spiel des Jahres in 1981 for Focus (originally published in 1963).  Other designs that have demonstrated staying power include Bazaar (1967, reprinted by Gryphon Games in 2011), Sleuth (1971), Can’t Stop (1980, also republished by Gryphon in 2011), and I’m the Boss (1994).

Sid Sackson was a real student of game design.  At the time of his death in 2002, he had collected about 18,000 games.  In his travels, he would always pick up local designs, study them, tweak them, collect them, and so on.  Like Knizia, Sackson’s games tend to be fairly mathematical.  Unlike Knizia, however, Sackson was always playing with and learning from other designs.  I’ve played Acquire once and Can’t Stop a number of times, and both are excellent games that play nothing like each other – Acquire is a predecessor of area control games with stock manipulation and money management, while Can’t Stop is a straightforward dice rolling push-your-luck game.  Sid Sackson was truly a pioneer of game designers, and MUST be included on any list of the most important game designers out there.

image by BGG user ion_
image by BGG user ion_

If Klaus Teuber had just designed The Settlers of Catan, it would have been enough to secure his immortality.  However, it was only one of four games he has designed that have won the Spiel des Jahres, a record that likely will not be broken (Wolfgang Kramer is tied with four, but two of his wins have been shared with a co-designer, whereas Teuber’s have all been solo)*.  His first game, Barbarossa, won the Spiel des Jahres in 1989, and he followed with wins in 1990 with Adel Verplichtet (Hoity Toity in English), in 1991 for Drunter und Drüber (now known as Wacky Wacky West), and in 1995 for The Settlers of Catan.  Catan was originally supposed to be part of a trilogy of games that included Entdecker (1996) and Löwenherz (1997), but it spun out with a life of its own, with about 120 games and expansions listed on BGG (not all designed by Teuber).  Most of Teuber’s efforts have been focused on developing the Catan universe lately, but he does have some other good titles out there.

I’ve only played one game outside of Catan – 2001’s Gnadenlos, an interesting Old West game with bidding, shootouts, and some gambling.  But I really don’t know enough about his style to really comment on trends in his designs.  So I’ll just focus on Catan, which is really the game that brought Eurogames to the American market.  It was the gateway game for countless board gamers (me included), and its popularity is still growing – you can find it on the shelves of big box stores like Target, and it was even played on a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory.  Personally I respect it for what it did and what it does, but don’t really like playing it anymore.  Still, there’s no doubt that it’s a force, and one of a myriad of reasons why Klaus Teuber is a designer you should know.

*EDIT: It has been pointed out that Kramer has won the SdJ five times, not four.  I guess I missed Torres somehow when counting.  So he does hold the record, though three of the wins have been co-designs.

image by BGG user gschloesser
image by BGG user gschloesser

Francis Tresham is probably one of the most influential designers ever, simply for creating systems that led to many inspired designs by other designers.  He’s a British designer, and not terribly prolific – of the 36 titles listed in the BGG database, 29 are either base games or expansions in the 18xx series.  And no wonder – Tresham’s first game, released in 1974, was 1829, the first 18xx game.  If you don’t know, 18xx is a series of train games that generally revolve around stock manipulation on top of the route building.  It’s a huge genre of games, with 135 entries in the BGG database.  Though 1829 was the first, Tresham’s 1986 design (1830: Railways and Robber Barons) is considered to be the high point of the series, and is often used as the entry point into 18xx games.  His other big game, Civilization (1980) has defined just about every civilization game since.  This includes the popular Civilization PC game by Sid Meier.  Tresham’s most recent standalone title is 2004’s Revolution: The Dutch Revolt 1568-1648, which is in the BGG top 500.

Francis Tresham is the designer on this list that I know the least about.  I’ve never played one of his games, and I’m not sure I really want to.  However, there’s no doubt that his influence reaches far throughout gaming, so he has to be on this list.

image by BGG user Soledade
image by BGG user Soledade

Martin Wallace has probably done more for merging the European and American style games than any other designer.  He’s a British designer whose designs tend to meld theme and mechanics in a way that not a lot of games do.  His first game, Lords of Creation (1993) was a fantasy battle game, but most of his games have historical themes.  He gained recognition in 2001 with Liberté, based in the French Revolution, but it was 2002’s Age of Steam that really put him on the map.  Since then, he’s been publishing a steady stream of successful and widely respected games – Princes of the Renaissance (2003), Runebound (2004), Struggle of Empires (2004), Brass (2007), Tinners’ Trail (2008), Automobile (2009), London (2010), A Few Acres of Snow (2011), and Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant (2012), to name a few.  In recent years, he’s been licensing himself out more and working on some lighter games, including Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (2011) and Doctor Who: The Card Game (2012).

Wallace’s games tend to be very economic in nature.  Of the ones I’ve played, keeping track of your resources is very important.  They also have a lot of conflict, be it in war or people butting heads over products or routes.  Age of Steam, his most popular design, lends itself very well to expansions and a ton of maps have been produced.  The system itself has been used in subsequent games – Railroad Tycoon/Railways of the World and Steam.  The themes he chooses tend to be really non-traditional, focusing on historical events that don’t really pop up in the consciousness of people.  God’s Playground, for example, covers nearly 400 years of Polish military history, while Brass is set in the cotton industry of Great Britain.  Wallace’s more recent games seem to be getting lighter in terms of complexity, which annoy his more hardcore fans, but he’s finding a new audience with his licensed titles.  Still, his body of work to this point is more than enough to get him on the list.

That’s it for the inaugural post of The Eleven.  Let me know what you think, or if you feel like I missed anyone.  Also, if you have suggestions for future editions of this series, I’d be glad to hear those as well.  Thanks for reading!

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3 comments

    • You are correct. I must’ve skipped over one – I think it was Torres. I did think about putting Kramer on here, but I didn’t want to leave off any of the others. Most of that is because I’m really not a fan of his games – El Grande and 6 nimmt! are quite, but the others are way too dry for me. We’ll call him an honorable mention, because he definitely has made an impact, particularly with El Grande and the area control genre.

  1. I agree with you completely about Knizia. I like a couple of his games, but almost all of the ones I have played have such a profound lack of personality, that I just become bored.

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