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Thrower's Tallies: Top Eight Designers

MT Updated
Thrower's Tallies: Top Eight Designers
There Will Be Games

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 competitive and thematic titles, decades before it became de rigueur. 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 they 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 K 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 ever 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.

There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #206589 20 Jul 2015 12:31
Fantastic article Matt. Thanks!
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #206647 21 Jul 2015 03:50
I think CCP is often overlooked as a designer as AGOT, TI and Armada are some of the best games in their class. I'm not sure if i'd stick him in the same category as Garfield. I do keep a mental list similar to this of my favourite designers that is sort of ranked in part by number of hits as much as magnitude. Though because i've played fewer games than you and probably have narrower tastes its headed by designers with only two or three i've played.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #206651 21 Jul 2015 08:06

DukeofChutney wrote: I'm not sure if i'd stick him in the same category as Garfield.

No, and that's the limitation of the way I approached this. Petersen's designs are mostly co-billings so it's impossible to know what he actually bought to the table during the development process. Whereas Garfield's work is all Garfield and all genius.
VonTush's Avatar
VonTush replied the topic: #206655 21 Jul 2015 10:32
Eric Lang is really jumping up the list for me because of Dice Masters, Chaos in the Old World and Arcadia Quest.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #206661 21 Jul 2015 11:08
He's on Warhammer: Invasion, too, isn't he? That's a well designed game, though I didn't play it with later expansion bloat.

Matt, your post struck a chord with me because I went through this recently as well, when I looked back at games on my ratings on BGG and was like "holy shit, Corey K is a shockingly good designer" in a way that I hadn't really thought about.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #206667 21 Jul 2015 12:12
This is a great way to look at this. I did the same for my games and this is what I got:

James Ernest for Brawl and Diceland
Christophe Boelinger for Dungeon Twister and Earth Reborn
The Eon Team for Borderlands and Cosmic Encounter
Tom Jolly for Camelot, Lightspeed, and Wiz-War
Richard Garfield for King of Tokyo, Magic, and Roborally
Reiner Knizia for Battleline, Blue Moon, Circus Flochati, High Society, Ivanhoe, Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, and Too Many Cooks
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #206668 21 Jul 2015 12:17

VonTush wrote: Eric Lang is really jumping up the list for me because of Dice Masters, Chaos in the Old World and Arcadia Quest.

I haven't played Arcadia, but the other two are quite solid.

I'd throw some wargame guys on my list - Chad Jensen, Mark Simonitch, John Butterfield. And while the designs are somewhat eclectic and may not be the most enthralling , game play wise, I'll loo at anything Phil Eklund puts out.
VonTush's Avatar
VonTush replied the topic: #206670 21 Jul 2015 12:37

Msample wrote: I haven't played Arcadia, but the other two are quite solid.

The best way I can describe it is tossing a dungeon crawl, hack and slash, arena deathmatch and a campaign game into a blender. It doesn't do any one thing great, but all the elements are done very well and blend together very nicely.

Dan Verssen actually is up there as well for me because I adore his Leader and Field Commander series of games. Him and Butterfield are who I'd consider tops of the Solo/Solitaire designers right now. Good but not great though since they are pretty niche designers.

And I think Rick Priestley and Jervis Johnson from Games Workshop have designed some of the best miniature games ever. They'd both fall under Great for me at least. Necromunda and spinoffs, Titan Legions/Space Marine and Warmaster.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #206673 21 Jul 2015 13:19
Corey K. is a fantastic designer but I wouldn't credit him with X-Wing. I think he worked on a bit of expansion content. Jay Little is the sole designer on the core set and original rules. I think Andrea Angiolino deserves most of the credit.

Corey K. would certainly be on my list, along with Eric Lang and Chris Boelinger.
repoman's Avatar
repoman replied the topic: #206677 21 Jul 2015 15:18
I submit Al Rose.

Not too many credits to his name yet but pound for pound, he is responsible for more good times than any other designer I know.
iguanaDitty's Avatar
iguanaDitty replied the topic: #206680 21 Jul 2015 16:26
Ed Beach is up there for me. Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, and several parts of the GCACW series which I love.
If I ever play Wir Sind das Volk Richard Sivel might have 3 titles on my list as well with Maria and Friedrich.

Although arguably both of these guys have designed one game and then refined it to produce another game (HiS/VQ and Friedrich/Maria).
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #206684 21 Jul 2015 17:50
War game designers are an interesting one. I was surprised that Rachel Simmons was the only one who made my list. But then again, many of the big names do only have one outstanding game to their name. I haven't been impressed with Chad Jensen's work outside of Combat Commander. Mark Simotich has some huge games to his credit, but I've only played Hannibal and Successors.

Eric Lang is a name that might make my list in years to come. To date the only game of his I rate highly is CitOW. But a lot of his other titles seem to skirt greatness by a whisker. I'm sure he'll produce another winner soon.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #206689 21 Jul 2015 18:30
So what do you do with a designer that's published 15 schnauzers and three winners? Does batting average matter? Look at someone like James Ernest, who's published games like Bitin' off Heads and Lord of the Fries, but also has Lords of Vegas to his name. I like James Ernest, but you have to be mighty selective.

Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #206690 21 Jul 2015 18:58
For me, batting average is not super relevant. If you made 3 great designs, you've achieved greatness. The Knizia factor.
Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #206692 21 Jul 2015 19:27
I think the way I think about greatness is how much would I be interested in buying a game before I saw the designers name and it would be the final thing that pushed me over to actually putting my money on the line and buying a game of theirs, as there are very few designers that I would actually put in that category.

Richard Garfield is number 1 by a long way and I would only have to be about 50% interested.

Then there are a whole bunch of guys that are level who have produced multiple games that I have quite liked so if 70% interested I would probably buy: Corey Konieczka, Rob Daviau, The Eon team, Rick Priestly, Jervis Johnson and at the moment just scraping in is Eric Lang.

Then you have a whole bunch of designers that are uneven or not quite proven to me so I would have to be 90% interested already to be swayed: Vlaada Chvatil, Reiner Knizia, Kevin Wilson, Richard Launius, Richard Hamblen, Christian Marcussen, Donald X Vaccarino
KingPut's Avatar
KingPut replied the topic: #206703 21 Jul 2015 23:50

iguanaDitty wrote: Ed Beach is up there for me. Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, and several parts of the GCACW series which I love.
If I ever play Wir Sind das Volk Richard Sivel might have 3 titles on my list as well with Maria and Friedrich. Although arguably both of these guys have designed one game and then refined it to produce another game (HiS/VQ and Friedrich/Maria).

Sivel and Beach are on my top 10, maybe top 5 designer. The attention to detail and the constants that are created when developing a war game or historical games is so much more than an Ameritrash or Euro game. Yes, a historic game have build in theme and story but that's easy compare to constraints that a war game creates.