Game Designers: Impressive First Impressions

Setup

I was listening to a recent podcast… Gino of the Talking Tinkerbots podcast mentioned his frustration with the caveat, or even caution, applied by reviewers about games or Kickstarter projects by first-time designers. The discussion caused me to think about some of the successes and failures of first-timers and to do a little research that might prove interesting. I understand the concern related to “unproven” designers or publishers, but appreciate the perspective that I think Gino was applying.

Not that this article is intended to be a logical argument, but in logical argumentation the problem Gino has pointed out is known as a Genetic Fallacy. Something is bad/good because of its origin.

It would be too easy to focus on the negative here: First-timer Kickstarters that funded but ultimately failed and games that didn’t meet gamer expectations, etc. or to defend first-timers by focusing on “known” designers and publishers failing on the same criteria. The fact is, examples of both are plentiful – I regretfully have some of each (first-timers and known designer/publishers) in my game collection as evidence.

Instead, I want to:

  1. Take a positive approach to first-timers and provide a few examples of “Impressive First Impressions.”
  2. Provide a few examples of the games by established designers that were their first or early designs.

Notes: All data was acquired from BoardGameGeek and is believed to be accurate, but no second source was used for confirmation. I am considering the designer of publisher a first-timer if the game was published within the first year of that designer/publisher’s listings. In part, the BGG data is usually not more precise than that and also within the first year is not enough time to significantly sway the production. Also, collaborations between first timers and established designers complicate what can be drawn from the data.

Round 1

Impressive First Impressions

First, let’s look at a few first-timers in recent history (since the advent of Kickstarter in 2010) to see what they have had to offer the gaming community. Compiling this list was simple: I sorted the BGG Kickstarter Family by rank and started at the top and then added any designer that fit the demographic from the top 20 ranked games. So most of these were originally released through Kickstarter and a few were significantly impacted by a Kickstarter release. Here’s a breakdown of the data:

  • Designer = The first listed designer for the game.
  • Publisher = The original commercial publisher for the game.
  • Game = The “first-timer” game.
  • Year = Year of publication.
  • Designer BGG Rank:
    • First Game = The BGG rank for the first-timer game listed.
    • Highest = The BGG rank for the designer’s highest ranked game.
  • BGG Records:
    • Designer = The number of BGG records for the designer. (All BGG records included, which can be single cards, promos, etc.)
    • Publisher = The number of BGG records for the publisher. (All BGG records included, which can be single cards, promos, etc.)
  • First Time:
    • Designer = Is the game listed the designer’s first commercially published game? (Or at least within the first year of that designer’s history).
    • Publisher = Is the game listed the publisher’s first commercially published game? (Or at least within the first year of that designer’s history).









Impressive First Impressions

        Designer BGG Rank BGG Records First-Time  
Designer (1st Listed) Game Publisher (1st Comm.) Year First Game Highest Designer Publisher Designer Publisher Kickstarter
Daniele Tascini Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar MINDOK 2012 17 17 20 133 Yes No No
Robert Dougherty Star Realms  White Wizard Games 2014 54 54 35 15 No Yes Yes
Don Eskridge The Resistance  Indie Boards and Cards 2009 84 84 8 41 Yes Yes No*
Tory Niemann Alien Frontiers Clever Mojo Games 2010 94 94 15 40 Yes 2nd Yes
Christopher Badell Sentinels of the Multiverse Greater Than Games, LLC 2011 132 132 46 54 Yes Yes Yes
Brandon Tibbetts The Manhattan Project Minion Games 2012 142 142 6 35 Yes No Yes
Jamey Stegmaier Viticulture  Stonemaier Games 2013 158 158 10 11 Yes Yes Yes
Raphaël Guiton Zombicide  Cool Mini Or Not 2012 163 163 13 180 Yes 2nd Yes
Rikki Tahta Coup La Mame Games 2012 216 216 5 5 Yes Yes No*
Cody Miller Xia: Legends of a Drift System  Far Off Games 2014 256 256 2 2 Yes Yes Yes
D. Brad Talton, Jr. BattleCON: War of Indines Level 99 Games 2010 561 126 61 78 Yes Yes Yes
                     
*Original game was not a Kickstarter project, but future releases or English language releases have been.

I Knew Them When…

Now, let’s look at the freshman works of a few well-established designers. Originally, compiling this list was a bit tricky because I wanted to avoid competing sample biases:

  1. A first game that is very old is probably not the BGG hotness and the designer was not privy to recent design concepts.
  2. The first game of and established designer is at least a little old by definition.

I wanted to find known designers with first designs in the 10-15 year range. Ultimately, I resorted to designers owning the top ranks of BGG. Some of the first games by these designers have been around awhile so take that into account as you draw conclusions about the list.









I Knew Them When…

        Designer BGG Rank BGG Records First-Time
Designer (1st Listed) Game Publisher (1st Comm.) Year First Game Highest Designer Publisher Designer Publisher
Ananda Gupta Twilight Struggle GMT Games 2005 1 1 5 357 Yes No
Helge Ostertag Desperados Pfifficus Spiele 2004 7647 2 8 6 Yes Yes
Vlaada Chvátil Arena: Morituri te salutant Altar Games 1997 3619 3 43 20 Yes No
Uwe Rosenberg Times Salagames 1992 6003 4 117 23 Yes No
Andreas Seyfarth Zorro: The Fight Against Alcalde  Schmidt Spiele 1990 NA 5 20 627 Yes No
Richard Garfield Magic: The Gathering Wizards of the Coast 1993 120 7 64 144 Yes Yes
Stefan Feld Roma Queen Games 2005 569 10 35 198 Yes No
Friedemann Friese Landlord! 2F-Spiele 1992 3308 11 77 55 Yes Yes
Ignacy Trzewiczek Machina Portal Games 2002 9185 12 82 158 Yes No
Roberto Di Meglio D3 Time Warriors Nexus 1996 NA 14 13 103 Yes No
Martin Wallace Lords of Creation Warfrog Games 1993 4360 15 89 30 Yes Yes
Corey Konieczka Warrior Knights Fantasy Flight Games 2006 584 18 61 1050 Yes No
William Attia Caylus Esdevium 2005 19 19 8 19 Yes No
Antoine Bauza Chabyrinthe Cocktail Games 2007 8393 20 64 95 Yes No
Donald X. Vaccarino Dominion Rio Grande Games 2008 30 21 45 489 Yes No
Thomas Lehmann Fast Food Franchise Prism Games 1992 2735 24 35 7 Yes Yes
Chad Jensen Combat Commander: Europe GMT Games 2006 50 25 14 357 Yes No
Wolfgang Kramer Legemax ASS Altenburger Spielkarten 1974 NA 26 201 320 Yes No
Sebastian Bleasdale On the Underground Rio Grande Games 2006 639 27 17 489 Yes No
Peter Lee Star Wars Miniatures Wizards of the Coast 2004 1065 28 27 144 Yes No
Matt Leacock Borderlands Locust Games 1995 NA 42 17 3 Yes Yes
Eric M. Lang Mystick Domination Anoch Game Systems 2000 4496 57 245 2 Yes Yes

Between Rounds

Some excellent designers and first games simply fall through the crack between these two lists. This is not intended as a slight to anyone. It is merely a result of the approach to the data.

End Game

While this article was really just a survey and not a logical argument, I’d still like to offer a conclusion, or at least a few observations.

  1. The boardgaming world is fortunate to have gamers who are willing to take a risk on first-time designers and publishers.
  2. Historically, some of those first-timers have been encouraged to develop into very prolific and successful contributors to the hobby from simple beginnings.
  3. Recently, some have made a big splash with their first commercial release.

Expansion

If I am evaluating a published game or a Kickstarter project, I need to be smart about it to avoid disappointment. Sure, I should consider the track record (or lack thereof) of the designer and the publisher and if both are first-timers (or the same first-timer) I should be extra diligent in my review.  However, the length of their published games list is not the only evaluation criteria and not a reason to assume that the product is bad. Personally, I am more critical in my review of a first-time publisher than a first-time designer. Some questions I might ask in any buying or funding decision (not a comprehensive list):

  • Is the designer one whose efforts I usually like or is it someone new to me?
  • Is the publisher one whose efforts I usually like or is it someone new to me?
  • Has a reviewer whose opinion often mirrors my own done a full review of the game/project?
  • Have I read and evaluated the rules?
  • Have I looked at and evaluated the components (conceptual, though they may be)?
  • Has the game been adequately playtested? What is the evidence of that?
  • Is there a PnP version available? Even if I don’t intend to build it, I can look at it, review comments of others who have, etc.

Certainly, my decision process will be easier if I have grown to trust the designer and publisher to be right in my wheelhouse – my experience is that they reliably deliver a product that I like. Ultimately I have only myself to blame for disappointment if I rely on pedigree than on specific proof. As an owner of both pedigree and grade horses (and dogs), I stick to the American western slang phrase, “Purty is what purty does,” that is, evaluate the horse, not the papers or appearance.

Staying positive, I have a few questions. What first-time games, designers, or publishers have impressed you? What caused or convinced you to risk your investment on them and would you follow the same process today? 

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