I find it really hard to come up with ‘best of’ lists of games, publishers, or designers. For one thing, those lists would need constant updating, as new games or names would find their way on and off. It’s also hard to isolate games, without creating a number of different sub-categories, like ‘best two-player games’, or ‘best party games’, or ‘best games to play after an appendectomy’. However conflicted I am with lists, I do see the value in them, because they let the reader know a bit about the perspective and biases of the reviewer. If you like all of the same games, then the reviewer’s opinion can be taken fairly seriously. If there’s not much crossover in your tastes, you can take their notes with a grain of salt. I am always being introduced to new designers and this list may not be a reflection of my favourite all-time games, but these are five designers whose bodies of work really speak to me, and if I hear a game is designed by them, I’ll be much more inclined to give it a shot.
Phil was a designer that kind of crept up on me. I would be playing a great game and question who made it, and was surprised how often he was the answer to my query. From Sushi Go, to Cacao, to Imhotep, to Baren Park, to Gizmos, Walker-Harding has a knack of creating highly replayable, and addictive titles. Another characteristic of his games, is how different they are. Each of the titles I mentioned, and all of the others in his catalogue are unique. He doesn’t rely on returning to the same pool again and again for inspiration. Some designers will fall in love with an idea (I’m looking at you Rosenberg) and create a number of titles around it. Honestly, if they can sell games that way, while perfecting the mechanic, I have no problem with it. But for me, there’s only so many games I need with the same feel to them. If I can reliably count on a fresh experience from a game, and one that’s competently designed when a see someone’s name of the box, that goes a long way in building esteem in my books. I am lucky enough to know Phil a little bit, and have seen some of his work-in-progress designs. I can say, without giving anything away, that he will be one to watch for years.
Mori games very often hit the sweet spot for me, of strategic decisions, random elements, and digestible play time. He has some titles that I’d be happy to play anytime they were suggested. Among them are Augustus, which plays like a sort of Roman era Bingo, but allows you to work your brain and balance risk vs. reward; Libertalia, which saddles players with a motely crew of pirates and asks them to read their opponents and make well-timed bluffs in the noble pursuit of booty; and Ethnos, where players work to restore order to six divided kingdoms by uniting tribes of fantasy creatures to control different areas of the board. Mori certainly has some misses for me as well, but his name on the box will ensure I will at least try a game. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I consider him to be a lesser known name in the industry, and one that deserves more credit for his work. If you have not tried a Mori game, definitely seek one out and give it a shot.
I love a good Euro (ask anyone), and the person who has been behind a ton of the best new Euros in recent years is Simone Luciani. They may not be the flashiest of offerings, but they are so mechanically sound and engaging that you can’t help but want to play them again and again. Games like Lorenzo il Magnifico, The Voyages of Marco Polo, and Grand Austria Hotel, have really established a reputation for Luciani, but the one that if foremost on my mind is one of his most recent, Newton. Opinions will vary (and really it comes down to a matter of taste), but to me, Newton is one of his strongest efforts yet. There is a lot going on in the game, but essentially it has what I’m looking for in a brain burner: relatively easy rules, but agonizingly tough decisions. This is an element that appears again and again in Luciani’s designs and I love it. It puts the responsibility on the player, not to understand the rules, but to make the most effective decision at the time.
If the test for a (current) favourite designer is that I always want to try out their newest game, then I’d have to mention Bruno Cathala among them. He has single-handedly, or with others, had a hand in so many of the games that I find myself returning to. Titles like Yamatai, Mission: Red Planet, 7 Wonders Duel, Abyss, Raptor, Cyclades, and so many more have made their impression on me and made Cathala a name that sets off alarm bells when I see it. I find that his games are above all, fun. They incorporate a good deal of player interaction and interesting decisions to make.
One of my favourite all time games is Steam Park. It combines some speedy dice rolling, with action selection, and disaster management. You must construct a theme park to appeal to robots, with 3D rides that would make Tim Burton happy, while making sure not to pollute too much. It’s fast, fun, and engaging for hard core gamers and those new to the hobby alike. Adding to his resume are a library of tactile and fun experiences like Potion Explosion, Dragon Castle, Railroad Ink, and more. Silva’s mantra seems to be: ‘find the fun’. He manages to dilute the experience his games provide to the core nugget of fun that they can be. Often, I find, designers will look to add to many moving parts to make a game that appears ‘smart’ or ‘complex’. I think these can be traps that those new to the hobby fall into. As a designer’s resume expands, the simpler the games become. Silva has skipped that stage in his career and gone straight to games that people want to play. If he stays on this trajectory he’ll have a fan in me.
No list can contain all of the people who have made an impression on me. There are a ton of people I want to mention, like Daryl Andrews, Eduardo Baraf, Erica Bouyouris, Paul Tseng, Chris Chung, Eric M. Lang, Helaina Cappel, and so many more who are doing interesting things in the gaming industry. The bright side, is that, although you can’t name everyone, there is a plethora of creative people making contributions to the industry, and with so many voices and perspectives, there will be new games coming out for everyone for years to come.