My quest here is twofold: to give you insight into my favourite game designers; and to try to help people who might not understand the world of board games a bridge by which they might understand why I appreciate those designers by comparing them to some of my favourite film directors. Of course, if you are not familiar with the film directors to whom I am referring, you're really out of luck, but then you just have much more learning to do. For each designer, I have provided a quick write-up on their games, why I like them, and their directorial doppelganger, as well as a few assorted facts about their status in my collection and plays. The list is in no particular order of importance, and there are ten mainly because it seemed like a nice round number and I needed to stop writing this post at some point. I have also included the BGG rank for each designer's most notable games for reference at the end of each section, along with their current status in my collection and/or plays.
Let's start with the "godfather" of modern eurogames, the incredibly prolific Reiner Knizia. Knizia has been designing games for decades and has continually been lauded for his creativity as well as the frequency and quality of his games, which include highly-awarded and still well-regarded games such as Tigris and Euphrates, Lost Cities, Ra, Taj Mahal, Battle Line, Modern Art, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as Keltis, for which he finally won the Spiel des Jahres, the German game award for which he had been undeservedly snubbed many times previously over the previous decade.
You might guess the director he most resembles from that last comment: Martin Scorsese. Like Knizia, Scorsese has an incredible medium-changing history, a variety of styles and genres, respect from his peers, and an almost meaningless award given for an inferior work many years after he should have won (ie. The Departed). Both Knizia and Scorsese remain leaders in their media, and they have consistently demonstrated a desire to challenge their players/viewers.
Most plays: Battle Line (13 plays)
Games on wishlist: None right now.
Games to play: Amun-Re (175); Taj Mahal (188); Through the Desert (319); Tigris and Euphrates (33)
Feld is a German designer who has been making games for just under a decade, but what a decade it has been! Feld is one of the most highly regarded complex game designers, and he has the track record on BoardGameGeek to prove it. Of the 20 games he has designed, he currently has 1 in the top 10, 3 in the top 100, 10 in the top 300, 15 in the top 600, and 16 overall in the top 1% of the almost 79,000 games listed on the site. Feld and his games are known for a few recognizable factors. His games tend to be very thinky complex games that require close attention to detail; he often structures his games around one unique mechanism for taking actions, such as a rondel or mancala; and his games often feature several different ways to score and win, which has led to them being classified as "point salad" games that tend to be averse to one dominant strategy.
The director to whom I most liken Feld is acomparably thinky filmmakers who has also had an incredible extended run in his medium: David O. Russell. Russell first made a name for himself in 1999 with Three Kings, but faded until 2010, when he began as good a three-film streak as there has ever been: The Fighter; Silver Linings Playbook; and American Hustle. Like Feld, Russell uses different key ideas in terms of genre, as well as many of the same kinds of parts; in Russell's case, it is the crew and actors who appear in different films. His casts have earned an incredible 11 Oscar nominations and 3 wins over those films, and there are moments when each of his actors take charge of the film. Like Feld, Russell has a distinct style, pays attention to detail, and brings many different factors together to make a whole that is even better than its parts.
Most plays: The Castles of Burgundy (10 plays)
Games on wishlist: Bruges + The City on the Zwin expansion (134); La Isla; Trajan (38)
Games to play: Amerigo (238); AquaSphere (268); Arena: Roma II (685); Luna (284); The Name of the Rose (1202); Rialto (521); The Spiecherstadt (401); Strasbourg (482)
Rosenberg - yet another German designer - had his first big break was Bohnanza - which many people know as "the bean game" - in 1997. He kept making games, but it was not until 2007 when Agricola was released and subsequently shot to number 1 on BoardGameGeek that he really broke out. In the past eight years - including Agricola - he has released 11 games that all rank in the top 1% of BGG, including 2 in the top 10, 4 in the top 50, and 9 in the top 200 - not to mention the innumerable expansions for Agricola in that same time. Rosenberg's games have both a distinct visual style (using the same graphic design team) as well as a play feel. His complex games incorporate many different aspects, including spatial arrangement, rondels, and cards, but they almost all incorporate the idea of gathering and spending resources in a limited number of rounds in order to get the most points possible; there are similarities, to be sure, but each game has a different feel, and they all take many plays to master.
There were several filmmakers I could have chosen to match with Rosenberg, but there was only one I could think of who had any kind of fondess for sequels who also had strong stylistic elements that ran through his films: Christopher Nolan. Nolan's first significant film - Memento - was like Bohnanza in that it circumvented expectations of the genre (in Memento, it's the order of scenes; in Bohnanza, it's the mandated order of cards in your hand). Then came Nolan's Agricola: Batman Begins, along with its sequels, but Nolan did not stop there. In the past decade, Nolan has directed The Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar, all of which have had some level of commercial and/or critical approval. Nolan's films, like Rosenberg's games, are unmistakably his in craft, vision, and execution, and are noted for their technical prowess; also, both Nolan's films and Rosenberg's games tend to take multiple attempts to fully understand, and they every so often have an unexpected twist at the end.
Most plays: Agricola (19 plays); At the Gates of Loyang (14 plays); Le Havre (12 plays)
Games owned: Agricola (6); At the Gates of Loyang (189); Bohnanza (281); Glass Road (182); Le Havre (15); Mamma Mia! (981); Ora et Labora (47); Patchwork (115)
Games on wishlist: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (102)
Games to play: Caverna: The Cave Farmers (3); Fields of Arle (140); Le Havre: The Inland Port (594); Merkator (611)
The first American designer on my list is Carl Chudyk, a designer known for his unique strategic card games. In Chudyk's games, cards often have multiple functions. and much of the challenge is deciding how to use each card. His games are also known for being "swingy", as there are some card combinations that are devastating for opponents. They also have a relatively high threshhold for entry, as many of the rules and even basic flow of gameplay can be quite confusing for newbies. There are many gamers who don't like Chudyk for those reasons, but those who do tend to love his games.
It should come as little surprise that the director I have chosen for Chudyk is a fellow American who is known, like Chudyk, for creating distinctive films with a particular flavour that appeal to a somewhat quirky fanbase: Wes Anderson. Anderson has arguably the most distinctive style of any current (or arguably past) director, and his films tend to either really appeal to you or not at all. He uses actors in different ways, much like Chudyk uses cards, and the rapid-fire wit in his dialogue reminds me of the text-heaviness of Chudyk's card games.
Most plays: Innovation (16 plays); Glory to Rome (14 plays)
Games owned: Glory to Rome (91); Innovation (205); Innovation: Echoes of the Past (expansion); Mottainai (1988 and climbing rapidly!); Red7 (495)
Games on wishlist: Impulse (833); Innovation: Figures in the Sand (expansion)
Games yet to play: Mottainai (Kickstarter just arrived today!)
Bauza is a French designer who burst onto the scene several years ago but has quickly established himself as one of the top designers out there. He has one game - 7 Wonders - in the top 20, 4 in the top 200, and 7 n the top 1% of BGG. Moreover, his games have significant variation. 7 Wonders, which won the Kennerspiel des Jahres for complex games in 2011, is a marvel of design that incorporates card drafting and civilization building and many expansions, and it is about to be revised into a 2 player version (7 Wonders: Duel) that is sure to be a hit. Hanabi, which won the Spiel des Jahres in 2013, is a brilliant co-operative game that inverts the entire card game idea by having only other players see your card. Tokaido and Takenoko are really inventive family-style games with significant strategy (not to mention expansions), and all of his games are gorgeous.
P.T. Anderson has made six mainstream movies - Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice (which I still have yet to see!) - none of which have almost anything in common other than a few reappearing actors and the crew. Anderson is this generation's Stanley Kubrick - a shapeshifting auteur who seems to immediately and intimately grasp any genre he tries with unmitigated success. In some ways, there is little to identify a movie as his, except that there are many little signs that you come to know as you soak in the language of his films. In much the same way, Bauza's games demonstrate similar mastery over very different genres and styles, and there are small signs of his designs in his games once you start to see them. Plus, Anderson is arguably my favourite film director, and I have played 7 Wonders almost twice as often as my next most played game, so there's that.
Most plays: 7 Wonders (55 plays); Hanabi (16 plays)
Games on wishlist: 7 Wonders: Babel (expansion); 7 Wonders: Duel (N/A); Takenoko (164); Takenoko: Chibis (expansion); Tokaido: Crossroads (expansion)
Games to play: Terror in Meeple City (406)
Wolfgang Kramer, another German designer, has an incredible thirty years of success in board games. He has won more Spiel des Jahres than any other designer (5), with many other nominations and other awards to his credit over the past three decades. He has two games in the top 100 and an incredible 15 games in the top 1% on BGG. His games are very different, but they all have a strong "Eurogames" flavour with high emphasis on strategy and player control rather than luck. One reason Kramer is not always as well regarded is that many of his successes have come as a result of partnerships in design, particularly with Michael Kiesling and Richard Ulrich.
When I considered Kramer's cinematic counterpart, I thought mainly of his extended success and his tendency to work in partnerships, which led me to consider Joel and Ethan Coen as the best choice. The Coen brothers have been making films for about the same period of time that Kramer has been making games, and they have a similar track record for success. Like Kramer, their films have some strong themes and flavours, but they each also have their own sense of identity.
Most plays: Tikal (7 plays)
Games on wishlist: The Princes of Florence (62)
Games to play: Asara (566); El Caballero (1371); The Palaces of Carrara (454); Tikal II: The Lost Temple (969)
Thomas Lehmann is an American designer who is best known for his game Race for the Galaxy. RftG started as an inspiration from a challenge to create a card game version of the classic game Puerto Rico, and it took Lehmann five years to generate his epic. Race is known for its innovation, strategy, and narrative; it is a complex game that takes several plays to even begin to understand. Lehmann is now working on his third narrative arc for the game and fifth expansion overall in addition to having successfully released a dice-based version of the game, Roll for the Galaxy in the past year. Lehmann is also known for assisting other designers with expansions, primarily in Pandemic.
The director who comes most to mind is similarly a hero of nerd culture who is known for his strong narratives: Joss Whedon. Whether it was Whedon's earlier work on television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, or Dollhouse) or his recent mega-success with The Avengers, he has been known for his ability to develop strong stories and characters - particularly females - in comprehensive universes. He reminds me of Lehmann for several reasons: the focus on narrative; the construction of complex universes; and his ability to re-envision and guide the work of others, as he has with The Avengers and Lehmann has done in the Pandemic game universe.
Most plays: Race for the Galaxy (32 plays); Pandemic: On the Brink (13 plays)
Games on wishlist: Pandemic: In the Lab and State of Emergency (expansions); Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs. Imperium and The Brink of War expansions; Roll for the Galaxy
Games to play: Pandemic: In the Lab and State of Emergency (expansions)
Maybe it's not really accurate to list this Czech designer as one of my favourites, seeing as I have only played (and own) one of his games, but it is one of my favourites: Galaxy Trucker. Chvatil is well known for his very complex and very original game designs, and he has two games in the top ten on BGG and six (!) in the top 115, so I feel that I just could not ignore him in my list. Chvatil is incredibly creative, and his games are unusual for European-style games in that they have very strong thematic development and sense, unlike many other Eurogames that feel like the theme was "pasted" on to an existing mechanic.
Chvatil reminds me the most of Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as also writing and directing the very trippy Synecdoche, New York (to date his most recent film). Kaufman, like Chvatil, is known for being incredibly creative and significantly subverting expectations, and he is lauded for his unique way of interpreting and presenting information. Both have a distinctly unique voice within their media, and the works of both will make your brain hurt.
Most plays: Galaxy Trucker (10 plays)
Games on wishlist: Galaxy Trucker: Latest Models (expansion); Galaxy Trucker: Missions (expansion)
Games to play: Codenames (703 and rising); Dungeon Lords (115); Dungeon Petz (86); Mage Knight (8); Space Alert (78); Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization (4)
Leacock is another recent American designer who has found success thanks to one major franchise: Pandemic. Leacock's designs include: Pandemic; three expansions for Pandemic; a new Legacy-style version of Pandemic that incorporates events from one game to the next; a dice version of Pandemic (Pandemic: The Cure); and two games that use the same basic mechanic as Pandemic but are aimed toward younger players: Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert. He did also design a successful dice version of Vlaada Chvatil's Through the Ages (Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age), but it's still mostly Pandemic. To his credit, each of the different versions and expansion give a slightly different feel to the basic game, and he has managed to make one game mechanic and theme stretch a long way (eight games and counting) without feeling overly tired. Pandemic is one of my favourites, and I have enjoyed the various versions I have played, so I feel justified in putting him here despite his relative dearth of variety thus far.
The filmmaker I thought of was not a director, but a writer: Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's work includes TV series such as Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom and films such as The Social Network (for which he won an Academy Award), Moneyball, and the upcoming Steve Jobs. Sorkin is arguably the most distinctive writer in Hollywood, and his various methods and means - the "walk and talk", the rousing speech, the rapid-fire dialogue, etc. - have been scrutinized and satirized ad nauseam, most notably in his guest appearance on 30 Rock, but also in Seth Meyers' "The Sorkin Sketch" and Amy Schumer's "The Food Room"). The reason I chose Sorkin to emulate Leacock is because Sorkin has been (quite justifiably) accused of using the same ideas repeatedly (just check out some of the Sorkin supercuts on YouTube); of course, like Leacock, I like that he does so because he does it so well. And yes, I still stand by Studio 60 - it was riveting television for that one glorious season!
Most plays: Pandemic (27 plays)
Games on wishlist: Pandemic: The Cure (240); Pandemic: In the Lab (expansion); Pandemic: State of Emergency (expansion)
Games to play: Forbidden Desert (154); Pandemic Legacy (N/A); Pandemic: In the Lab (expansion); Pandemic: State of Emergency (expansion); Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age (400)
Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback
The youngest and newest designers on my list, Riddle and Pinchback have benefited from the move toward Kickstarter, as all of their games have been funded through the platform. They have designed four games (plus expansions, of course) in three years - two of which are currently in production and due for a December release - and they have two more in the works for next year, so they are currently very prolific and successful. They are part of the next wave of designers, it seems, and their success seems to be indicative of the way that the board game industry has started to shift in the past few years. They are both very active online, and they are also very funny both in their writing and occasionally in their games. Sure, their career is young, but they have shown a lot of promise in a short time.
The director I chose for this pair is Edgar Wright; at first, it was mostly because I wanted to make sure Wright was mentioned in this article at length, but then I started to realize why this was a good connection. Like Riddle and Pinchback, Wright is active online, and his style of making movies seems to be indicative of a new way crafting narrative, with a focus on meta-narrative through his films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, The World's End, the version of Ant-Man that we will never see). Like Riddle and Pinchback, Wright has used a new format to reinvent part of an industry (ie. comedy) and he seems to have an inexhaustible fount of interesting ideas. Plus, Wright has worked extensively with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, so there's the whole duo thing going on for him.
Most plays: Fleet (9 plays)
Games on wishlist: None
Games to play: Fleet Wharfside (N/A - arrives December); Forbidden Market (N/A - arrives December)
Well, congratulations on making it this far and thanks for sticking with this nearly 4,000 word post; that means you're one of the five people I know (other than myself) to whom this admittedly overindulgent and somewhat convoluted discussion appeals. Of course, I would be remiss if I were not to acknowledge that, even as exhaustive (and exhausting - this post took several hours to compose) as this post is that I could not even begin to cover the breadth and depth of both my love for board games and for cinema here. There were several other game designers I wanted to include, but could not quite fit: William Attia, designer of Caylus and Spyrium; Rudiger Dorn, designer of Goa and Istanbul; Andreas Seyfarth, designer of Manhattan, Puerto Rico, San Juan, and Thurn and Taxis; and Donald X. Vaccharino, designer of Dominion and Kingdom Builder. There were also many other filmmakers I considered but could not quite fit: Danny Boyle; George Clooney; Alfonso Cuaron; Guillermo del Toro; David Fincher; Spike Jonze; Ang Lee; Bennett Miller; Alexander Payne; and Jason Reitman (among others I'm sure I will recall after posting).
As for me, I have learned a great deal about both of these areas even through the process of writing this post, and I continue to be excited to delve in further to both hobbies at a deeper and broader level. I think I am also interested more in the workings behind creating a game as a new designer, as I have one game well in the works (currently in revision for its second edition in preparation for more playtesting) and at least four other ideas that I think could actually go somewhere with a little (okay, a lot of) time and attention. And with both Toronto (for cinephiles) and Essen (for ludophiles) coming up soon, I'm looking forward to doing a lot more thinking and writing on both games and movies in the coming months.