It’s that time – time for Season Three of The Eleven! I’ve opened each season so far with a new edition of Designers You Should Know, and this year is no different. So before you start complaining about why your favorite designer isn’t on this list, go check out the editions from 2013 and 2014. If you still haven’t found them, by all means complain away – Season Four is taking submissions now! But for now, here is the class of 2015.
Inka and Markus Brand are a husband and wife design team that have been producing games since 2006. Their first game was called Das große Dinosaurier-spiel, a 2-4 player game about dinosaurs collecting food and laying eggs. The started gaining some international recognition in 2007 with their games Guatemala Café and Der Goldene Kompass, which I remember hearing about on the Garrett’s Games and Geekiness podcast. They also gained some attention with 2008’s A Castle for All Seasons, but their real breakout came in 2011 with the publication of Village. Village won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2012. They followed that up with a Kinderspiel des Jahres win in 2013 for Der verzauberte Turm, aka The Enchanted Tower. Other notable titles include Saint Malo (2012), La Boca (2013), and Murano (2014).
The Brands are unique in that they are a husband/wife duo that exclusively works together. Their games tend to be very creative and unique – Village has a unique aging mechanism, La Boca is a 3-D puzzle game, and Saint Malo uses white boards to build your city. So far, the only Brand game I’ve gotten to play is Village. It’s a great game, and it’s enough to make me want to play more by the couple.
Bruno Cathala is a French designer that has been producing games ever since 2002, which saw the release of War & Sheep, Tony & Tino, and Drake & Drake (he apparently liked ampersands). Since then, he has collaborated on many designs with different designers, including Bruno Faidutti (Queen’s Necklace, Boomtown, Mission: Red Planet), Serge Laget (Shadows over Camelot, Senji) Ludovic Maublanc (Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, Mr. Jack, Dice Town, Cyclades), Malcolm Braff and Sébastien Pauchon (Jamaica), Antoine Bauze (The Little Prince: Make Me A Planet), and Charles Chevallier (Abyss). He also produces some solo designs, including Sobek, a card game I enjoy from 2010, and Five Tribes, a big hit for Days of Wonder in 2014.
Bruno Cathala is someone that works a lot with others, but that is by no means a bad thing. Collaborations often make stronger games as you have multiple people providing ideas. And yet, he has also proved himself to be strong by himself as well. Lots of praise is being heaped upon Five Tribes, which is his most recent effort for Days of Wonder. In fact, 2014 probably was the year of Bruno Cathala – it seems like he was everywhere in the last part of the year. He’s had a hand in a lot of great games, including some of my absolute favorites, so he’s a designer that you should definitely know.
Rüdiger Dorn has produced some really classic games over his career. His first game, Cameo, was published in 1992. It was an abstract puzzle game published by HABA. He was not incredibly prolific over the next few years, but really hit the big time in 2001 when his game The Traders of Genoa became the sixth game in the alea Big Box line (the next game to come out of the line was Puerto Rico). 2004 was a very good year for him as well as he produced Goa (an auction game that people really like) and Jambo (a two-player game I really like). In 2005, he designed Louis XIV, the first game in the alea Medium Box line. He was nominated for a Spiel des Jahres in 2006 for Arkadia, and again in 2012 for Las Vegas. In 2014, his game Istanbul won the Kennerspiel des Jahres. In between, he deigned well-regarded games like Diamonds Club (2008), Dragonheart (2010), and Asante (2013).
Rüdiger Dorn seems like he flies under the radar a lot – not necessarily mentioned with the top designers, but still producing some really quality work. I’d put Jambo up as one of the greatest two-player games out there, and I know that Genoa and Goa both have quite dedicated followings. I was a bit surprised that Istanbul won the Kennerspiel this year, but that was only because I thought it was lighter than what the committee wanted – shows what I know. I’ve heard nothing but good about it since, and I look forward to playing it. In any case, I think Dorn’s track record in producing some high quality games earns him a spot on this list.
James Ernest is an American designer that made his name through designing games for his company, Cheapass Games. He worked for Wizards of the Coast for a while, but founded Cheapass in 1996 based on the philosophy that common components could be supplied by the gamer – stuff like dice, pawns, and tokens are in lots of games, so why waste money producing more? Among his first games for the company were Kill Doctor Lucky, Give Me the Brain!, The Very Clever Pipe Game, and Before I Kill You Mr. Bond (which later underwent a title change to James Ernest’s Totally Renamed Spy Game). Other games he designed for Cheapass included Lord of the Fries (1998), Brawl (1999), The Big Idea (2000), Unexploded Cow (2001), Captain Park’s Imaginary Polar Expedition (2002), and Light Speed (2003). He’s had a fruitful collaboration with fellow designer Mike Selinker, producing games like Pirates of the Spanish Main (2004), Gloria Mundi (2006), Unspeakable Words (2007), and Lords of Vegas (2010). Cheapass was dormant for a while, but in 2011 began to rerelease titles via PDF. Ernest has been redoing some of his old games via Kickstarter, and had a big success with his Kickstarter campaign for Pairs in early 2014 – $332,226 raised.
One thing you can say about Ernest’s style is that he’s not afraid to take strange looks at familiar themes. Give Me the Brain! and Lord of the Fries are about zombies in the fast food industry. Kill Doctor Lucky is reverse Clue where everyone wants to be the one to kill the guy. Captain Park’s Imaginary Polar Expedition (soon to be rereleased as Stuff and Nonsense) is about adventurers making up their exploits. And then there’s Devil Bunny Needs a Ham (1998), which is about sous chefs trying to scale a skyscraper while a Devil Bunny hops around trying to get a ham by knocking you off. It’s all very creative. Even his more “serious” works, like Lords of Vegas, are still very creative and approach things in a novel way. So he’s someone I always want to check out when I hear he’s attached to a project.
Mike Fitzgerald is an American designer who works a lot in card games. His first game, Wyvern, was published in 1994, was one of the first CCGs to come out after Magic was released in 1993. It was in 1998, however, that he really began to hit his stride as he released the first Mystery Rummy game, Jack the Ripper. The Mystery Rummy series to date now has five games – Jack, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1999), Jekyll & Hyde (2001), Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld (2003), and Escape from Alcatraz (Kickstarter backers are eagerly awaiting their copies). There are also three unofficial titles in the series – Wyatt Earp (2001), History’s Mysteries Card Game (2003), and Bonnie & Clyde (2009). His other output has been sporadic, but he reemerged as a design force in 2014 with the release of his take on trick-taking games, Diamonds, as well as successful Kickstarter campaigns, for Alcatraz and Baseball Highlights 2045.
Mike Fitzgerald has gained a lot of respect in the industry, despite not having an output as large or as hyped as a lot of designers. However, he produces really solid work. I’ve played two of his Mystery Rummy games (Jack the Ripper and Jekyll & Hyde) and love them both. Diamonds is a big hit, and is landing on a lot of people’s best of the year lists. And I’ve heard lots of great things about Baseball Highlights 2045, so I hope that one does well for him. He’s definitely a guy that makes me take notice when he comes out with a new game, and that lands him on this list.
Mac Gerdts is a German game designer best known for the rondel system he uses in many of his games. His first published game, Antike, was released in 2005 and introduced the world to the rondel, an action selection method where players could move around the wheel to certain actions, or pay to move farther. He followed that up in 2006 with Imperial, his highest ranked game to date. Later games included Hamburgum (2007), The Princes of Machu Picchu (2008), and Navegador (2010). He also reworked several of his titles into new editions, such as Imperial 2030 (which made the game more global), Antike Duellum (a two-player only version of Antike), and Antike II (a sequel with some rule changes). In 2013, he published Concordia, which was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2014. His next game should be released in 2015, carrying the name of Steam Ship Company. Big surprise – it looks like it has a rondel.
Mac Gerdts is a designer with a very distinctive style, and most of his game revolve around this rondel mechanism. Even games like The Princes of Machu Picchu and Concordia, which don’t have rondels, you can definitely see how he has structured the game in order to keep players from taking the same action over and over. It’s an interesting system, one that takes away luck of selection and leaves decisions to the players. He has been consistently pretty good in designing challenging and well-respected games, so he’s one to keep an eye on.
Eric M. Lang is a designer that is currently one of the hottest in the industry. His first game, Mystick Domination, was published in 2000. In 2002, he began a fruitful collaboration with Fantasy Flight Games, co-designing A Game of Thrones CCG. He would later work on several Living Card Games for the company, including Call of Cthulhu, A Game of Thrones, Warhammer: Invasion, Star Wars, and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest. In 2008, he dove headfirst into board games with the still very popular Chaos in the Old World. In 2011, he teamed up with Mike Elliott to design Quarriors for WizKids. Trains and Stations also came from WizKids in 2013. 2014 saw the publication of two games for Cool Mini or Not – Arcadia Quest and Kaosball – as well as the immensely popular Dice Masters series from WizKids. Coming soon, we’ll get XCOM: The Board Game from Fantasy Flight and Generation Hex (a co-design with Kevin Wilson).
Eric Lang has a lot of high-quality and popular games to his credit. Quarriors remains very popular, and Dice Masters was probably the massive hit of 2014. I haven’t really played a lot he has designed, but I hear great things about all of them, and I really want to try some more of his games. His track record so far means that anything he designs will probably do pretty well, so he’s a good one to watch.
Thomas Lehmann is an American designer that used to be an economist and a programmer. His first game, Suzerain, was a medieval card game where players tried to establish a dynasty. His next designs were completely different thematically – Fast Food Franchise and Time Agent came out in 1992. After that came Age of Exploration (1994), 2038: Tycoons of the Asteroid Belt (1995), Throneworld (1997), Pizarro & Co. (2002), 1846 (2005), Jericho (2006), To Court the King (2006), and Phoenicia (2007). He really hit the big time in 2007 with his reworking of the Puerto Rico system into a card game called Race for the Galaxy, which is still his most popular game. Since then, it seems like he’s been focusing on a lot of expansions and new versions of older games – there are four expansions to Race for the Galaxy so far, and he has worked on three Pandemic expansions with Matt Leacock (the third is coming out in 2015). He also reworked Leacock’s Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age into an Iron Age sequel. He does still come out with original games – The City came out in 2011, and Clúb came out in 2014. Also in 2014 was the dice version of Race called Roll for the Galaxy, co-designed with Wei-Hwa Huang.
Thomas Lehmann is a very well-respected designer in the industry. His games tend to have lots of good ideas, and he has shown a talent for developing ideas of others into good games. The story of Race dates back to when Lehmann was working on a card game for Puerto Rico, which later became the basis for the design Andreas Seyfarth used for San Juan. Lehmann reworked the system and added a sci-fi theme to bring us Race. To Court the King is the only other of his games I have played, and it’s a nice light dice game that may or may not have been an inspiration for Kingsburg. So, Lehmann is one to watch.
Andreas Seyfarth is a designer who has won two Spiel des Jahres awards, but who hasn’t made a new game since 2007. His first game was published in 1990 – Zorro: Fight Against Alcade. He followed this up in 1991 with another Zorro game, this one just called Zorro. He also released Max & Moritz in 1991, which was the first game he co-designed with his wife Karen. In 1994, Seyfarth won his first Spiel des Jahres for Manhattan, a game about building up the skyline of New York City. Then, he didn’t design another game until his masterpiece – the 2002 classic Puerto Rico. He followed this up in 2004 with San Juan, which was the card version of Puerto Rico (and based on ideas by Thomas Lehmann). In 2006, he designed Thurn and Taxis, which won him his second Spiel des Jahres (and first with co-designer Karen). In 2007, he published Airships. Since then, there have been a few expansions to T&T and San Juan, but that’s it.
Andreas Seyfarth is hardly a one-hit wonder. He’s won two SdJs, and the game he is most well known for (Puerto Rico) is widely regarded as one of the finest games ever made – #1 for a long time on BGG, and currently sitting at #5. I see Puerto Rico as the model of game design – it’s very clean, it’s extremely intuitive, and it’s highly strategic. People complain that it’s been solved, and there may be an optimal strategy, but I don’t play with people who memorize Puerto Rico and I have a lot of fun with it. I’ve also played San Juan (and prefer Race for the Galaxy), as well as Thurn and Taxis online – T&T is fun, but very light. Still, Seyfarth has a high-quality output (though limited), and that makes his name attached enough to catch notice. I wonder if he’ll pop up again with a new game.
Ignacy Trzewiczek is a Polish designer, and the owner of Portal Games. He started out as a role-playing designer, but his first entry into the world of board and card games was Machina, published in 2002. He published some more games in Polish before really making it on the world stage with 2009’s Stronghold. In 2010, he made Prêt-à-Porter and 51st State, both of which were well-received. 2012 saw the release of his cooperative game, Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, which has been a big hit for him. In 2014, we got Imperial Settlers, a reworking of 51st State in more of a civilization theme, as well as The Witcher Adventure Game from Fantasy Flight.
Ignacy is a designer that is gaining more and more recognition on the world stage. I don’t really know a lot about his role-playing work, but I know that he created the RPG Neuroshima, which is the setting for a lot of games in Portal’s line, such as 51st State and Neuroshima Hex (which was designed by Michal Oracz). I haven’t actually played any of his games, but I hear a lot of good things about them, particularly Imperial Settlers and Robinson Crusoe. So, as an up-and-comer in the industry, I think Ignacy Trewiczek is definitely a designer you should know.
Donald X. Vaccarino burst onto the scene in 2008 with a literal game changer – Dominion, published by Rio Grande. This is the game that not only introduced the designer to the world, but also introduced deck building as a viable in-game mechanism, rather than something you did prior to play (as in Magic: The Gathering). He won the Spiel des Jahres for the game in 2009, and wasn’t done yet. His second game was Kingdom Builder, published in 2011 by Queen. It also won the Spiel des Jahres. Since then, he’s had much milder success with several different companies – Nefarious (2011, Ascora Games), Gauntlet of Fools (2012, Indie Boards and Cards), Infiltration (2012, Fantasy Flight Games), Greed (2014, Queen Games), and Pina Pirata (2014, IELLO). Most recently, Temporum has been released by Rio Grande Games.
Donald X. has a pretty unique story. Not many designers have such a big success with their first design – Klaus Teuber, Alan R Moon, and Uwe Rosenberg had been designing quite awhile when they produced Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Agricola. Of Vaccarino’s games, I have only played Dominion, Kingdom Builder, and Infiltration. And while these are VERY different games, I do still notice some trademarks of the designer, particularly in the variability of set-up. He seems to like having every game be different from every other game, and that’s a style that appeals to me. So whenever he comes out with a new game, it’s going to catch my interest.
That’s it for this time. Thanks for reading!