2010 Designer of the Year

by Larry Levy

Five years ago, I began a series of articles on Boardgame News in which I chose the designer who, in my opinion, had the best body of work for the previous calendar year. Well, BGN may have gone to that big URL in the sky, but, despite the threat of being called out in yet another Board 2 Pieces comic, I’ve decided to continue them on The Opinionated Gamers site. Hey, what you may call “same old, same old”, we refer to as “tradition”!

Okay, here are the ground rules. I’m going to consider all the new games released by a designer during 2010 (not including expansions, but spinoffs and redesigns are okay). I’ll try to cast my net as widely as possible, so euros, Ameritrash, card games, dexterity games, cooperative games, etc. are all eligible. I admit that I know very little of the world of hardcore wargaming, so the folks who principally create such wargames are outside of the scope of my little competition. But everyone else is in the pool. My judgments are based on how I think the designs are viewed by the gaming world at large and how they will be viewed in years to come; as much as I can, I try to leave my own feelings out of it.

The following designers are those who I think had the best crop of games last year—consider them nominees. They’re presented in alphabetical order, together with their designs. Since gaming awards are a big plus to any designer’s resume, I use the following shorthand to show the awards and nominations these games have received (keeping in mind that most of these games won’t have had a chance to win an award until later this year). S, D, and I shows an SdJ, DSP, and IGA winner, respectively; s, d, and i shows a nomination for each of these awards (in the case of the DSP, it shows a top ten finish); and g and G signify, respectively, Golden Geek category winners and the GG Game of the Year. Finally, games in italics are redesigns or expanded versions of titles that were released in earlier years.

Enough exposition! Here are the nominees.

Antoine Bauza – 7 Wonders; Hanabi & Ikebana; Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk; Mystery Express; Rockband Manager

The first comment to last year’s DotY article was from Bruno Cathala, who predicted that his countryman Antoine Bauza would be the winner of the 2010 award. Obviously, Bruno knew what he was talking about, as M. Bauza produced a very impressive stable of games. The big one, of course, is 7 Wonders, which was easily the hit of Essen, has crashed the top 15 on the Geek, and may very well be the recipient of multiple gaming awards. But it’s not alone. Mystery Express figured to be the other major title, but it’s been something of a critical and popular disappointment; still, it has received widespread coverage and has its share of fans, so it certainly adds to the luster of the collection. Only a few have played Hanabi & Ikebana, but those who have like it a lot; Hanabi in particular has received extravagant praise as a superior and very innovative cooperative game. The other two titles have nice ratings on the Geek, but very few voters. It’s a very strong group of games; the question is, is it enough to make Bruno Cathala a prophet?

Bruno Cathala – Mr. Jack Pocket; Ostriches; Sobek; Trollland

Speaking of Bruno, he also managed to release a nice crop of games last year. The highlight is Jack Pocket, a card game spinoff of his popular Mr. Jack game. The Egyptian-themed Sobek has gotten decent ratings and Trollland has at least received some notoriety for its theme. It’s not enough to put him in Bauza’s league, but it’s another solid year for the former DotY winner.

Stefan Feld – The Speicherstadt; Luna; It Happens…; Spiel mit Lukas: Dribbel-Fieber

Feld is another former Designer of the Year and he continues to be one of the more reliable figures in his field. Luna has early good ratings and Speicherstadt is well regarded also. It Happens… lost its scatological origins, but it still wasn’t enough to raise it to much prominence. The collection may not be quite enough to give Feld another visit to the winner’s circle, but he does deserve to be part of the conversation.

Friedemann Friese – Black Friday; Famiglia; Fauna Junior; Friesematenten; Fürstenfeld; Rummelplatz; Stich-meister; Tadaaam!

Friese has been designing games for almost 20 years, but despite some great successes, he’s never had a year like this. Eight games! Is he a shoo-in for the award? Not so fast, my green-haired minion. First of all, three of the games are remakes pretty strongly aligned with their earlier versions. Then there’s Rummelplatz, a party-style game with 9 co-designers that doesn’t figure to help anyone’s candidacy too much.

That leaves us with four titles to consider: Black Friday, Famiglia, Fürstenfeld, and Stich-meister. None of these are that highly rated, but each has some strong supporters. Black Friday has been hamstrung early on with a poor rules translation—its ratings figure to improve. Many consider Famiglia to be a superior two-player game; it has a very good chance to garner an IGA nomination in that category. Both Fürstenfeld (an economic deck-management game) and Stich-meister (a wild trick-taker with variable objectives) have gained attention. It’s a group of designs almost any of his peers would be very happy with.

Friedemann has managed a Knizia-style year—lots of notable titles, but with no blockbusters or flashy ratings. Will it be enough to give The Man in Green his first DotY award? We’ll have to see, but he’s certainly in the running.

Corey Konieczka – Space Hulk: Death Angel; Runewars

FFG’s Corey Konieczka is on quite a roll. Every year, he comes up with at least one smash hit. In 2010, it was Runewars, which sports a rating of over 8.0 on the Geek and is threatening to edge into the Top 25. The Space Hulk: Death Angel cooperative card game has done pretty well in its own right. There are too many designers with strong resumes this year for a 2-design showing to grab the big award, but Mr. K has a very good chance to be among the top finishers for the third time in four years.

Wolfgang Kramer – 11 nimmt!; Asara; Merchants of the Middle Ages; Seeland; Tikal II

Kramer, who is approaching his 70th birthday, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. A number of people have already predicted that the tower building game Asara will win the SdJ. Tikal II and 11 nimmt! are spinoffs of award-winning games (with the former getting solid ratings), while Merchants is the long awaited remake of Die Händler. Seeland is a nice little tile-placing game set in the Netherlands. It’s the kind of year most designers would kill for, but it’s more or less business as usual for Kramer. Much will depend on how well Asara does in the annual awards.

Jason Matthews/Christian Leonhard – Campaign Manager 2008(I); Founding Fathers

Matthews and Leonhard, after their earlier success with 1960, give us two more historically-inspired Euros. Both have solid ratings and Campaign Manager won the IGA award for best 2-player game last year. It was a particularly fine year for Jason, as his Twilight Struggle reached the top spot on the Geek. In the meantime, the duo’s look at American history from its origins to the near present have them in the conversation for Designer(s) of the Year.

Michael Rieneck – 18 Ghosts; Der Pate; Die Säulen der Erde: Das Kartenspiel; Rummelplatz; Saustall

Rieneck made his reputation for the adroit way he was able to come up with gaming versions of literary subjects. He is now branching out and his large collection of designs from last year runs the gamut from abstracts to trick-takers and from party games to deductive brain-burners. Unfortunately, the one thing all his games have in common is that they haven’t had enough time to make much of a splash, at least in the English-speaking world: as of this writing, none of the titles has garnered as many as 100 ratings on the Geek. The early results are promising (particularly for 18 Ghosts and Saustall) and there have been some favorable reviews, but at this stage, there isn’t enough evidence to put him in the running for the award. Still, this is a talented designer who might well be in contention in the near future.

Martin Wallace – Age of Industry(I); First Train to Nuremberg; Gettysburg; London; Moongha Invaders

Wallace won the last two DotY awards and was absolutely dominant in 2009. If he’s slowing down any, it isn’t by much. For starters, we have the IGA-winning Age of Industry, which was strongly based on his earlier Brass, but is still its own game. Then there’s the card-based London, which is steadily climbing toward the Geek’s top 100; Nuremberg (a nicer looking version of the previous year’s Last Train to Wensleydale); another innovative wargame in Gettysburg; and the imaginative dice-fest Moongha. As always seems to be the case with Martin, the ratings are strong across the board. Can he possibly make it a three-peat? He’s sure giving it the old college try, but the competition is stiffer this year.

That’s my list of nominated designers. Before I reveal the winner to an anxious world, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the one designer who is notable by his absence. That, of course, would be Reiner Knizia, who has won six previous DotY awards and whose enormous output makes him a prominent name in these lists just about every year. Reiner didn’t have a bad year so much as he just didn’t seem relevant. For the first time since I entered the hobby almost 15 years ago, there was almost no buzz about any Knizia game. It really was quite startling. There wasn’t even anything to criticize, there was just…nothing. I’d be very surprised if this occurs again next year, but in the category of Man Bites Dog, we now have a Designer of the Year process without a mention of the Good Doctor.

But you didn’t come here to find out who didn’t win; you want to know who did take the honors. It was an unusually good year and the fight for the top spot was spirited. But in the end, one name stood out. So I’m happy to announce that the Designer of the Year for 2010 is…

ANTOINE BAUZA!!!

The great likelihood that 7 Wonders will capture at least one major gaming award, together with a fine supporting portfolio, is what put him over the top. It’s a remarkably rapid rise for this young designer, who released his first game in 2007 and only came to prominence the next year with Ghost Stories. But now, he has captured the coveted DotY and made good on Bruno Cathala’s prediction from last year. Congratulations.

The top four finishers all had very good resumes. Martin Wallace winds up as the runner-up, just missing out on extending his streak. Friedemann Friese is a strong third and Wolfgang Kramer is fourth. Americans finish out the honors, with Corey Konieczka and the team of Matthews and Leonhard coming in fifth and sixth, respectively.

I notice that 2011 is off to a great start already. With any luck, I’ll be back next year at this same time and we can do it all again.

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