It’s that time of year again – time to kick off a new season of The Eleven with another installment of my Designers You Should Know series. This is the fourth year I’ve done this (see volumes one, two, and three for the first 33), and there are still more to include. In this edition, there are a number of designers who aren’t necessarily the most prolific out there, or are relative newcomers to the field of game design. Nevertheless, I feel that they’re all worth a mention. On with the list!
Scott Almes has his first game published in 2011, Martian Dice from Tasty Minstrel Games. He followed that up in 2013 with Kings of Air and Steam, also from TMG. It was in 2014 that he got his first big hit. That was the year of Tiny Epic Kingdoms, a pocket-sized 4x game that has spawned a series of games, including Tiny Epic Defenders, Tiny Epic Galaxies, and Tiny Epic Western. That’s just so far – I’m guessing that Tiny Epic Dungeon, Tiny Epic Graveyard, and Tiny Epic Pirates will be coming in the future. In 2015, it seemed like Scott Almes was everywhere, or at least all over Kickstarter – Best Treehouse Ever, Harbour, Loop Inc, and The Great Dinosaur Rush all funded and I think are either out or close to being out.
Of all of Almes’ games, I’ve only played Tiny Epic Kingdoms. I liked it well enough – it was definitely cool to have a genre (4x) known for huge games (Twilight Imperium 3 for example) boiled down into a pocket sized package. Each successive Tiny Epic game has looked interesting as well. Loop Inc sounded like a really cool take on time travel, and Best Treehouse Ever is one I really want to play sometime. I’m highlighting Almes here as an up-and-comer that you should keep your eye on – I think he’s going places.
Richard Breese is a British designer who has been working in the industry for over 25 years. His first game, Chamelequin, came out in 1989, published by his own company R&D Games. Six years later, in 1995, he published Key Wood, the first in his Key series of games that would later include Keydom (1998), Keytown (2000), Keythedral (2002), Key Harvest (2007), Key Market (2010), and Keyflower (2012, co-designed with Sebastian Bleasdale). Outside of the Key series, he has also designed Reef Encounter (2004), O’Kudos (2005), Fowl Play! (2006), The BoardGameGeek Game (2009), and Inhabit the Earth (2015).
For the length of time Breese has been working, he hasn’t produced a lot of games. However, they tend to be pretty high quality. I’ve played Reef Encounter and Keyflower, both of which are very good. I know the Key series in general has a lot of fans, and I know that Inhabit the Earth is getting a lot of good buzz right now. So, while not as prolific as some, Richard Breese is definitely a designer you should know.
Dominic Crapuchettes founded North Star Games in 2004 to publish his first game, Cluzzle, a clay based party game. North Star really hit it big in 2005, however, with the publication of Wits & Wagers, a trivia game where knowing the answer is not as important as trying to deduce who is closest. In 2008, he came out with Say Anything, and in the subsequent years worked on various editions of his previous games – Wits & Wagers Family (2010), Say Anything Family (2011), Wits & Wagers Party (2012), and the hopefully upcoming Wits & Wagers Epic Geek Edition. In 2013, he designed Clubs, a climbing game intended to capitalize on the success of Hearts and Spades. In 2014, he published Evolution, his first Euro-style game.
Crapuchettes is a designer who started out in party games, but has emerged as a pretty significant force in the world of design, as well as publishing. He led the charge for getting Wits & Wagers into big box stores like Target, and as a result really opened the door for other hobby games to get in there as well. His style seems to be concerned with making sure everything is simple to understand, and that the maximum amount of people can get the maximum amount of fun. Wits & Wagers and Say Anything are two of the best party games out there, primarily because they emphasize the “game” aspect, and Evolution is a very unique game in its own right. So I’d definitely say he’s a designer you should know.
Tim Fowers only has three games to his credit so far, but any of them would probably be the star in the crown of many designers. He burst onto the scene with his self-published Wok Star in 2010, and while many people clamored for a reprint, it was 2014 before Game Salute finally produced it (the game sat in development with Z-Man for a long time before being dropped). Also in 2014, Fowers self-published Paperback, a deckbuilding word game, and followed that up in 2015 with Burgle Bros, a modular co-operative heist game.
Of Fowers’ three games, I’ve only played Wok Star. I remember being really happy with my initial play, and was really looking forward to the reprint. I was underwhelmed by Game Salute’s implementation, and the game played differently than the original I remembered. Still a lot of fun, however. I haven’t gotten a chance to play Paperback or Burgle Bros, but they both look like they’re right up my alley, so maybe I will someday soon. After the success of his first three games, Tim Fowers is definitely a designer I’ll be watching for a while.
Stephen Glenn is an American designer who has been putting out games since 2003. His first published game, Balloon Cup, was part of the KOSMOS two-player line and was a Spiel des Jahres recommendation that year (it was republished as Piñata in 2013 with Glenn’s original theme). He followed it up in 2005 with the party game You Must Be an Idiot for R&R Games. In 2007, Robot Martini published Ballot Bots and Jetsetters, and Poyeba Games published Finger Ball. 2009 saw the release of Pants on Fire!, another R&R party game. In 2011, R&R published 1st & Goal, a dice based American football game. In 2012, R&R published Pluckin’ Pairs. 2014 saw the release of Spike (R&R) and Rattlebones (Rio Grande). In 2015, R&R published GobbleStones and KOSMOS published Lumis: Der Pfad des Feuers (Into the Inferno).
I’ve only played three of Glenn’s games, but they’re all among my favorites. Balloon Cup is one of, if not my favorite of the KOSMOS two-player games. 1st & Goal is the best football game I’ve played. Rattlebones is a very innovative dice building game where you actually build your dice. A lot of his other titles seem to be lighter and in the party realm, but especially in the last couple of years, he seems to be designing more games for gamers. He’s one I definitely want to keep my eyes on going forward.
Seiji Kanai is a Japanese designer who first started publishing his own designs through his own home-brew company Kanai Factory in 2006. In that year, he put out two games: The Thorn Princess and the Four Knights; and Chicken Warriors (which he followed with a sequel in 2007). Also in 2007, he published Mighty Landlord. 2008 saw the release of Cheaty Mages, and 2009 gave us Chronicle (both published in the US, by AEG and Z-Man respectively). In 2010, Kanai designed RR (Regality & Religion), which he later that year turned into RRR (Regality & Religion: Revolution). Mai-Star was also published in 2010, and that too was later published by AEG. In 2011, he produced BraveRats and Master Merchant, and in 2012 he published Say Bye to Villains and a little known game called Love Letter. 2013 saw the publication of Princess Wonder and Lost Legacy (a reimplementation of Love Letter with more of a fantasy theme). In 2014, he gave us Adventure Tours, Secret Moon, and Gods’ Gambit. In 2015, he published Street Fighter Rivals, Shinobi Arts, and Eight Epics.
While none of Kanai’s other games have had the monumental success of Love Letter, he certainly hasn’t slowed down with his content. His games tend to be on the light-filler side of the spectrum, which is fine – stick with what you’re good at. He’s one of the most recognizable names to come out of Japan, and I think we can thank Love Letter for that. He pretty much jumpstarted the “microgame” craze, much like Pandemic did with cooperative games. And for that, I think he’s a designer to watch going forward.
Vital Lacerda is the rising king of the heavy Euro game. His first design was an expansion map for Age of Steam representing his native Portugal. His first actual game was Vinhos, a wine-themed game that was published in 2010. He followed that up in 2012 with CO2, a environmentally themed game. Kanban: Automotive Revolution came out in 2014 with a theme about making automobiles. In 2015, The Gallerist was published, centered around the world of art. He currently has two games scheduled for release in 2016 – Dragon Keepers, his first fantasy themed game that was co-designed with his daughter; and Lisboa, a game set after an 18th century earthquake in Portugal.
I’ve never played any of Lacerda’s games. But from my understanding, he really puts a LOT of work into making the mechanics fit the theme and still provide a brain-burning experience. All four of his games so far have big fans in the heavy Euro community, so it will be very interesting to see where his career goes from here.
Ryan Laukat is an American designer who is unique because he not only designs his games, but illustrates them all himself. He started designing and publishing games through his company Red Raven in 2012 when he released Eight-Minute Empire and Empires of the Void. He followed that up in 2013 with City of Iron and Eight-Minute Empire: Legends. In 2014, he released The Ancient World. 2015 saw the release of Artifacts Inc., as well as Above and Below. So far, Islebound is scheduled to come out in 2016, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t another Kickstarter or two coming up soon.
Of Laukat’s games, I’ve only gotten to play Eight-Minute Empire, which I enjoyed (though it was more like 20 minutes). What really attracts me to his games, however, is that he does his own art. And it’s good art too – his games definitely look very good. And by many accounts, they play quite well. So Laukat is a designer I want to keep watching.
Richard Launius designed the original Arkham Horror game in 1987, but really has only been active in board game design since 2010. In that year, he designed Defenders of the Realm, a fantasy co-op that was inspired by Pandemic. In 2011, he teamed up with Kevin Wilson (who helped rework the 2005 edition of Arkham Horror) to create Elder Sign. In 2012, he designed Dragon Rampage. 2013 saw the release of Ace Detective and Pirates vs. Dinosaurs. In 2014, it was Till Dawn, Draco Magi, Run Fight or Die, and Alien Uprising. 2015 was the year of Cthulhu’s Vault and Mythos Tales. And he has a bunch of games lined up for 2016 – Saving Time, Gods of Adventure, Defenders of the Last Stand, and Legends of the American Frontier. And on top of that, he has his hands in a ton of different expansions and variants, both for his own games and other people’s (including Sentinels of the Multiverse and Mansions of Madness).
Launius is a designer that seems like he’s been around forever, but he worked for AT&T for a long time, and it’s only been since his retirement that he has dedicated so much time to game design. He’s very much an American-style designer, focusing on theme in most of his games. Jim Dietz of Jolly Roger Games tells a story of Launius coming up to him wondering if he could design a game for the company, and if there was anything they were looking for. Dietz jokingly replied that they were looking for a game about pirates fighting dinosaurs. Boom – Launius designed Pirates vs. Dinosaurs. He really seems to be passionate about what he’s doing, and has definitely made his name over the last few years.
I can’t believe I’ve made it to the fourth edition of this thing without mentioning Matt Leacock. His first game, Borderlands, was published in 1995, and his second, Lunatix Loop, was published in 2000, both by Locust Games. But it was his 2008 release, Pandemic, that put him on the map. He followed that up with Roll Through the Ages, also published in 2008. After that, it was Forbidden Island (2010), Forbidden Desert (2013), and Pandemic: The Cure (2014). In 2015, he produced two games: Thunderbirds, a cooperative game based on the marionette-based British TV show; and Pandemic Legacy Season 1, co-designed with Rob Daviau and now #1 on BGG.
Not many people can say that they designed a genre defining game. Donald X. Vaccarino can, with Dominion. Richard Garfield can, with Magic: The Gathering. And there are others. But Leacock’s Pandemic inspired the cooperative renaissance we’re currently living through. He did not invent the cooperative game (some might say that goes back to Richard Launius and Arkham Horror), but Pandemic was the one that really convinced people that it could work and be popular. And now with the success of Pandemic Legacy, he may have another genre defining game to his credit – Risk Legacy was the first of its kind, but I think Pandemic Legacy will be the one that actually inspires a wave of legacy games in the future. And even though many of Leacock’s other games grew out of Pandemic (Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and Thunderbirds all sprang from the same ideas), they’ve all proved to be different enough and to have their own legs and establish Leacock as a major design force.
D. Brad Talton founded Level 99 Games in 2010 to publish his fighting game BattleCON. In 2012, his design Kill the Overlord: Gravedigger was published by APE Games. He also published the Minigame Library through Level 99, including six of his games – Infinity Dungeon, Blades of Legend, Master Plan, Grimoire Shuffle, NOIR, and Pixel Tactics. 2013 was the year of Disc Duelers and 7-Card Slugfest, as well as Pixel Tactics 2 and BattleCON: Devastation of Indines, both of which started the expansion of their various properties. In 2014, he designed Variant Souls (as well as PT3 and a new edition of the original BattleCON, now subtitled War). 2015 was the year of PT4, 5, and Deluxe, as well as BattleCON: Fate of Indines. He has two new systems planned for 2016 right now – Exceed and Millennium Blades.
I’ve played a bunch of Talton’s games, and one thing that strikes me about all of them is how varied and different they are. Even all the sequels of Pixel Tactics and BattleCON have added a ton more variety to the systems. And he’s running his company with the same principles of variety – games he didn’t design like Sellswords and Argent: The Consortium still really feel like his games, and you can tell he knows what he’s doing as a publisher as well. He’s a very unique voice in the game design business, and a designer I think you should know.
Well, there’s my list for this year. When I did my survey last year, I found a number of people who paid more attention to the publisher or just didn’t follow designers at all. And I think that’s a shame – I know publishers do the bulk of the development, but a designer is responsible for getting that idea out there. Without designers committed to producing good products, we’d just have a lot of mass market nonsense. So I hope this list has given you a few ideas of people to investigate further. Thanks for reading!