We are living in an era of follows and likes. We have heroes across all kinds of media whose content we lap up because we love them and have bought into whatever they offer, sometimes regardless of quality. When Bon Jovi, for example, grace us with one of their many reunions, the new album will doubtlessly go to number one in the charts even if it is a compilation of Jon Bon Jovi’s burps, simply because of the trust, love, and adoration the band and their eponymous lead singer have built based on their previous track record!
To me and my board game fanatic friends below, board game designers hold celebrity status. We may fervently await the new release from our favourite designers and “auto-buy” simply because we trust and sometimes even love these board game designers and their track record of getting things right.
Gavin Hudson – Sylvanian Families with Jerry Hawthorne
Perhaps it's because my first encounter with Jerry Hawthorne was playing through a Mice and Mystics with a new-ish friend. Or maybe it’s the folkish woodland world with a darker edge that is the trademark of his games that sucked me in. Either way, Jerry Hawthorne had me from the start and his name is enough to pique my interest in a new game.
His designs are a checklist of things I love in a game: strong on narrative and theme, check. Cute little animal miniatures, check. Ample capacity for some light but non-essential role-play, check. You get to role-play as a mouse with a toothpick crossbow, check.
That’s not to say his games are one note. Within the Mice and Mystics world, you have the slash and dash dungeon crawl of the original game alongside the treetop, X-Wing-like Tail Feathers. The latter swapping out the Storm Troopers and Tie Fighters for rats, bluejays and crows, mixing scurrying land battles on the trees and leaves with whirling bird fights in the skies.
If the Mice and Mystics world is a little too Sylvanian Families for your tastes, then try Hawthorne’s most recent creation, Aftermath. It retains the campaign sensibilities of Mice and Mystics, but upgrades them into a post-apocalyptic story-book survival game. Not a campaign game fan? Jerry has you covered. Battlelands is a quick 3-5 player, tactical card game set in the universe of Aftermath, with the same gorgeous artwork.
Jerry Hawthorne’s designs have provided me with great gaming memories and moments. I can’t wait to see what’s next. I also need to get my hands on his other big design, Stuffed Fables. The classic Hawthorne story design, BUT THIS TIME IT’S TEDDIES!
Tora Leslie – A True Bruno-mance with Mr Cathala
Ah, Bruno Cathala; he had me at Five Tribes and it has been a Jerry Maguire romance ever since. As a new gamer, my initial forays into board gaming were traditional (and wonderful!) gateway games like Ticket to Ride and Catan. I often saw Five Tribes as I obsessed and drooled over other player’s shelfies on Instagram and Youtube but, at that time, the weight seemed intimidating and I shied away.
Well, when I could stand it no more, I purchased Five Tribes and, wow, I was wrong to wait so long! Simple to learn but with an intense brain-burn, its colourful mancala mechanism and myriad ways to bag points (unless your best laid plans get crushed!) combine to form a fantastic gaming experience. And, as a result, I have been gorging on Bruno’s back-catalogue ever since. Kingdomino, Queendomino, 7 Wonders Duel, Cyclades, and these are only the ones I have played.
In only 15 years in the industry, Bruno has gifted us more than 100 games, spanning an enormous range of themes, mechanics, and atmospheres, 11 of which are currently in the BGG top 500. And this prolific, passionate board game designer shows no signs of stopping!
At the sniff of a new release, I have it on my radar (come on Trek12!) and the desire to acquire is overwhelming. I just can’t help myself. But, I defend my Bruno-mance because it stems from a logical place; to date, I have neither bought nor played a Bruno Cathala game which has not hit the spot. For me, he is a reliable source of gaming greatness; I just hope he doesn’t crack under the pressure!
Nathan Coombs – An Appointment with Dr Knizia
Who do you love? Who are your heroes? Captain America? Aragorn? Bono?
As a teenager I bought and listened to anything and everything by U2 and Simple Minds! Things are not very different now that I’m older. However perhaps my tastes are a little more refined.
For me, any game with Reiner Knizia's involvement gets me interested. I like to think of myself as being good at mathematics so with Dr Knizia and his PhD in maths, I am certain that his games will appeal to the lover of the abstract. Most of them utilise shape, colour or pattern matching. Because his games are rooted in logic and reason they are often balanced with very little luck. He has a huge back catalogue – about 700 published games. But this is quality, not just quantity. He has won awards almost every one of his 30 years of game designing.
His early notable games include Ra and Ingenious. More recently, family friendly challenges include Blue Lagoon and the Quest for El Dorado. Last year, he designed My City and Axio Rota. Every one of these titles gives the gamer chance to enjoy strategy with excellent balance. Most recently I received Schotten Totten too as a Secret Santa gift! Another Knizia masterpiece. A two-player battle of wits played with cards and coming in a small box.
Knizia stands in hallowed company. He is considered one of the ten most influential people in toy and game design and listed as an influencer along with Ole Kirk Christiansen (Lego), Frank Hornby (trains and Meccano), Ruth Handler (Barbie Doll) and Erno Rubik (Rubik’s Cube). Not bad for a doctor of Mathematics.
Will Moffat – Lost in the Oniverse with Shadi Torbey
Shadi Torbey is a Belgian Opera singer who would often get bored during his downtime while on tour. He started by playing a lot of Solitaire with a standard deck of cards but became wearied and gradually started conceiving his own assemblage of solitaire games, all of which are set in a crazy universe of his own concoction – the Oniverse! French artist Élise Plessis brings the Oniverse to life with her bizarrely surreal crayon artwork, which gives Torbey’s series of games an unforgettable dreamy and childlike cadence!
So far the Oniverse has spawned six games, each of which utilises different central mechanisms and theme. Torbey’s first and most well-known game, Onirim, sees you exploring a dream labyrinth in a manner very reminiscent of Solitaire. In the tower-defence game, Sylvion, you use card drafting to protect a forest from advancing flames.
Nautilion is a fantastic spin on traditional roll-and-move dice games. Torbey has even designed a game that has become “lost” in the Oniverse – Urbion (or Equilibrion, as it is also known as) is out-of-print and extremely rare (although I’m lucky enough to have a copy), but it will hopefully get a re-release at some point.
Aerion is Torbey’s latest game (and arguably his best), where you use dice rolling, card drafting and set collection to build airships! Needless to say, I set an alarm to buy Aerion on its day of release, refreshing the page on the Zatu website until it was confirmed as “in stock”! Am I obsessed with the Oniverse?... I’d say I’m possessed!
Joe Packham – Medieval Professions with Shem Phillips
Board game design is an art form! Just like artists, different board game designers have different tastes, styles, visions. Just like works of art, the board games they create tend to resonate with different people. While we can all appreciate a good game, certain names have us reaching for our wallet before the words “new release” are fully formed. These are our auto-buy designers. People whose talents and skills we trust so thoroughly, whose previous titles we regard so highly, that whatever they bring out next we’re having it!
For me, that name is Shem Phillips. I remember being blown away by Raiders of the North Sea, the cherry on the top of his North Sea trilogy. He took one of the most popular and well-trodden board game mechanics and gave us something completely new and innovative. Shem built on the success of this Viking masterpiece with the West Kingdom trilogy. Co-designed with S.J Macdonald, Architects, Paladins and Viscounts propelled him from ‘one to watch’ to a household name in three short years, once more taking common mechanics and doing uncommon things with them. Instantly recognisable with their stunning artwork and beautiful components, the West Kingdom games have become synonymous with top quality board gaming.
With three expansions planned for this year, I am eagerly awaiting Mr Phillips’ next base game announcement. Hurry up and take my money, Shem!
A lot of us have a board game designer we adore and will follow not just to the board game store, but the moon and back. For me, that would Sir Jamey of Stegmaiershire!
I love Viticulture. I think it is one of the best implementations of worker placement out there. Scythe is one of my favourite thematic games; every time I turn an encounter card I get as excited as the first time, even though I know most of them by heart now. Wingspan is a solid gateway game with beautiful art, and Pendulum has created a lot of exciting moments for me this year with its satisfying cascading moves all reliant on precise timing! I could go on! But I think you get the point.
People often praise Stonemaier Games for their high production values and engaging and accessible gameplay. And with all the praise, inevitably, came the criticism. Recently people seem to have got a bit upset about comments he made to unpaid reviewers who took their time releasing their opinions, and some very out-dated and inappropriate blogs he made when he was younger which I won’t go into here! He also caused a stir simply by releasing such a popular game with Wingspan due to all the hype, which surprised even him! Winning awards like BGG’s best card game doesn’t help when it’s not a card game, but that’s not his fault!
But what is left for me is a group of games I adore, from a guy who I think is trying to do the right thing. Yes, he has made mistakes but haven’t we all? And the trying to knock someone off a pedestal thing is not my style unless they really do deserve it. So instead, I remain firmly in the Stegmaier camp and await with bated breath the 2021 release of “Gold” (working title) for this year and the official release of Rolling Realms, a free PnP roll-and-write he made in lockdown 2020 that is now having a full production release. All about the Stegmaier Express! Choo choo!