Folks on BGG often ask questions like "What is the best Reiner Knizia game for me to get if I like auction games but want something thematic?" or "Is Through The Ages representative of Vlaada Chvátil's style? Could I like Galaxy Trucker even if I hated TTA?" or "What is it that makes Stefan Feld's games so wildly popular among Euro gamers?"
There is an implication, probably accurate, behind all of these questions that these and other designers have something uniquely theirs that distinguishes their work in much the same way that content creators are distinguished in other media: architecture, art, comics, dance, music, writing, whathaveyou. It is usually something obvious yet nameless.
We as gamers lack the type of robust classification and criticism system that other artistic media have [though we're making progress toward it], so it is difficult to explain what makes, for example, Knizia and Sackson and Colovini and Schacht's games similar, let alone what differentiates them from the Kramer / Breese / Friese or the Georges / Feld / Dorn crowds.
I hope in this [two-part] post to catalog some of the more popular and stylistically consistent designers that I am familiar with and to try to give form to nebulous concepts such as "a Wallace game".
There will be two parts to each entry: 1) A 10-word or less description of the designer's style that highlights their most defining traits; 2) A longer narrative of the mechanisms they are known for.
I'll also try to reach outside of each individual designer's own catalog to identify some games that might be seen as influences on or extensions of their design style as I've identified and described it.
A man who takes gaming seriously, Vlaada Chvátil designs games about:
Procedure, priorities, and preparation with phased inflows of pertinent information.
Beyond the silly rulebooks and fanciful themes, Vlaada Chvátil is a mechanical mad scientist. Within his ouevre are deck-building games, real-time games, drawing games, acting games, cooperative games, educational games, civilization games, fantasy games, space games, dungeon games, and everything in between.
The common thread through nearly every one of his designs is an emphasis on progressively creating an infrastructure that can respond flexibly to leverage continually unfolding information and opportunities, and can eventually withstand a procedural "check" phase that awards or takes away points for the quality of preparation.
Criteria on which the player's infrastructure will be judged or opportunities which the player will be asked to take advantage of are nearly always occluded behind hidden or uncertain information. Usually, the player is given a way to "peek" at bits and pieces of this information, and possibly to control or modify it, usually over the course of many turns.
In Dungeon Lords, the players construct nefarious weblike dungeons and fill them with traps and monsters in hopes of knocking out the would-be do-gooders who will come galumphing through each player's dungeon in search of some manxome foe to slay. Different classes of adventurers require different preparation, and players will be assigned 3 adventures each over the span of 4 preparatory rounds before the "combat" check phase occurs. The pool of potential adventurer assignments is revealed iteratively turn-by-turn, as are the monsters and cavernous rooms that can be used to build up a Rube Goldberg Machine of Death to stop the good guys. Part of the preparation involves maneuvering so as to be assigned the adventurers your dungeon is best suited for, and largely the player who succeeds most at this maneuvering will win. After the unwelcome mats are laid out and the adventuring parties are knocking at the front door, a largely deterministic and highly procedural phase of "combat" ensues to see who can handle the outgrabeous onslaught and who will be snicker-snacked.
In Galaxy Trucker, the players assemble amassments of surplus space scrap in overoptimistic pursuit of something bearing vague semblance to a spaceship. Different bits of scrap allow players to perform different actions and use different resources, from lasers for shooting down baddies to cargo holds for transporting tribbles and other biohazards to shields for avoiding the inevitable meteor swarm [you'd think they'd just drive around, right?]. Oh yeah, they do this in real-time, too. After a mad-cap tile-laying ship-building sub-game, a series of cards are flipped over in sequence to determine the parameters of and obstacles encountered on the "flight". Those players who were not well-prepared will fare poorly; those who were better prepared will fare... well, less poorly at least. After the first few learning games in which players figure out how to perform the complex task of lining up matched sets of 0-, 1-, 2-, or 3-pipe connectors between their ship parts, they will have the opportunity to take a [real-time] peek at most of the "flight" cards before finishing their ship preparation.
In Space Alert, the players will
commiserate over the failure to cooperate in the attempt to protect a hopelessly doomed space craft with a hopelessly incompetent crew and hopelessly poor engineering from being blown to smithereens by dangerous and very dangerous alien hostiles. Unlike most cooperative games where planning and action happen simultaneously, this game is played out as a real-time 10-minute planning phase followed by a procedural "acting out" of what was planned. During the real-time blindfolded elephant description phase planning phase, alien threats and system breakdowns will gradually be revealed to the players by the most obnoxious voice-over CD ever recorded. As this new information is made known, players will use increasingly many expletives refine their plans so as to make it look like they know what the hell is going on minimize the amount of damage taken. They do this by pre-programming three entire rounds of RoboRally at the same time. A procedural action round then tells them how many years the Federation will banish them to Rura Penthe for.
And so on.
Through The Ages and Mage Knight have a similar structure, only the "check" phases are both more frequent and less severe. They take the form of civilization upkeep and production in TTA, and of smaller monster combat or native interaction rounds in Mage Knight. The focus in these bigger games is on the information and opportunity inflows, which also come more frequently.
Vlaada has a few other stock mechanisms, too, with the most obvious being the stepped progression of two or three game phases, each involving more complicated actions or resources and more involved planning or "check" phases. Every game mentioned above features this. Dungeon Lords has two "years", with tougher adventurers in the second; Galaxy Trucker has three phases, with bigger ships to build in each; Through The Ages puts the players through three, well, ages.
He also reuses a type of "player ranking" mechanism throughout nearly all of the above, where players move back and forth along one or more tracks representing the current status of their infrastructure along some axis of interest, and are occasionally judged or rewarded [outside of the main "check" phase] for their position. Dungeon Lords has the "Evil-o-Meter"; Galaxy Trucker has the racetrack; Through The Ages has the Culture and Military tracks; Mage Knight has Fame and Reputation. This is commonly the primary source of interaction in his games.
Decision-making in a Vlaada design typically involves prioritizing between the actions and resources needed to address each part of the "check" phase, as informed by the progressive revelation of what it will consist of, or simply prioritizing between flexibility / adaptability and amassing enough infrastructure in a single area to reap a large payoff if you get the opportunity. There are always at least half a dozen concerns to balance in decision-making, with different payoffs for each.
In spite of the multifaceted complexity of his designs, they do not fall prey to the "18 kinds of resource chits to transform back and forth" or "there are 5 resources which are mostly identical except for color" trap that plagues big Euro designs like Le Havre, Puerto Rico, Goa, or Macao. Vlaada's games typically have only 2 or 3 primary resources that do wildly different things.
Games that share traits with Vlaada's designs include 20th Century, Rise of Empires, 7 Wonders, and Polis: Fight for the Hegemony.
A man with a game about donkey poop, Rüdiger Dorn also designs games about:
Ducks, rows, trails, breadcrumbs, influence peddling, interplayer meddling... and poop.
Rüdiger Dorn is a "classic" German game designer. His themes involve trading in the Mediterranean, building castles or palaces, wielding influence in political courts, and doing things with dragons other than slaying them. His games involve trading, auctions, tile-laying, set-collection, technological development, and action / resource management. To quote a recent review: "If that doesn't get your blood pumping, you're. . . well, every gamer I've ever sat at a table with."
It's true, Dorn's game are not glitzy. They are, however, part of the pre-Rosenberg style of Euro game, built on positive player interaction, mutual gains and goals, shared spaces, and dynamic incentives. One of the defining features of a Dorn game is that players gradually unveil and declare their intentions or interpretations of game state to each other by relatively small actions which join together to form a larger picture. Sequencing of small actions and relative positioning in shared spaces are the order of the day. Often, this dynamic involves laying down claim markers in that shared space in physical patterns that define certain actions or effects to be activated or offered, in what is sometimes referred to as Dorn's "leave a trail" mechanism.
At times, there is only one trail which belongs simultaneously to all players [Goa, Genoa]. At other times, there are multiple trails which are available to all players [Titania, Arkadia]. At yet other times, each player has their own "trail" [Louis XIV, Robber Knights, Il Vecchio]. These "trails" often grow one space at a time into a series of adjacent cells, which is reminiscent of Kalah; Dorn has, of course, a few games with variously direct nods to that classic [Emerald, Space Walk, Der Schatz der Erdgeister]. Whatever the incarnation, the mechanism typically involves ensuring that your strategic direction is aligned with the likely path the game will take, and has all the components in place so as to take advantage of any unexpected twists or detours from that path. Additionally, you must take care to maneuver yourself around the intended directions that your opponents gradually reveal to you.
In Genoa, one player per round controls the "tower", a stack of 5 action discs which leave a trail across the board, potentially activating any of a wide number of different action and resource collection spaces in the form of buildings in the port city of Genoa. The catch is that while there are 5 discs, each player is only allowed to take a single action per turn [and usually 3-4 actions, or even 5, will be available based on the direction the tower takes]. Every time the tower steps into a new space [leaving a disc behind as part of the growing breadcrumb trail], the tower player may negotiate with all the other players for the right to take the action; this usually ends with another player paying the tower player some amount of money and goods and getting the right to use that space as their one action for the turn. The tower player can also negotiate for the tower's next move [this is, in fact, the more common approach; there are rules that harm the tower player if she just moves the tower willy-nilly without taking offers first]. Of course, the tower player can just take her single action for the turn and then stop moving, but then she misses out on all the potential bribe money.
The goal of the game is essentially set-collection, either of resource cubes [in 8 varieties] to fulfill "orders" cards or of adjacent ownership of "privilege" cards associated with each building on the board. These cards and resources are picked up from various spaces on the board [along with a few other layers of possible things to collect and do], and the most valuable ones require you to collect resources from 3 corners of the board and deposit them in the 4th. This obviously cannot be done in a single turn, so the key to doing well in the game is to manage multiple set collection goals simultaneously and flexibly negotiate for something of value on every turn, wherever the tower ends up trailing off to. While you are in control of the tower, it is often to your advantage to choose a path that is less directly beneficial to yourself so as to move toward areas of the board that you think your opponents will pay you a premium for access to. Of course, if you can manage to align your preferred direction of movement with your opponents' preferences, you'll do even better. It's also possible for players to lay claim to buildings along the trail and earn commission fees for their use later.
In Goa, as in Genoa, a grid of available actions or resources is displayed in the center of the table, and players attempt to gain access to their preferred items from that offering. The mechanism here, however, is auction-based rather than negotiation-driven; additionally, the resources / actions on the board are removed from play [into a player's personal area] each round instead of remaining to be used on a later turn. The selection mechanism consists of each player taking it in turn to place a auction marker [of 5 total--surprise, surprise--in the full 4p game] adjacent to the marker the player before them placed, leaving a trail of to-be-auctioned items across the board. These are then auctioned off in sequence, with the player who placed the auction marker on each item serving as auctioneer [and receiving the bid money if they do not personally win the auction]. There is a great deal of gamesmanship in [as starting player] choosing where to begin the auction and [as any other player] where to continue the auction trail so as to ensure that the items you are most interested in come up for bid in the order you want them to. As items get removed from the grid, this element becomes even more important, since choices for adjacent items to claim for auction become more and more limited.
In Diamonds Club, players buy remarkably silly and ostentatious things to put in their equally silly and ostentatious palace gardens. Additionally, there's a fun little twist on the action-availability-altering nature of the "leave a trail" mechanism as it's found in Genoa or Goa. There is a public grid of available resources, as in either of the two other games, but players do not "trail" across them in making their selections; nevertheless, the selections depend on adjacency, except the mechanism disfavors selections that are adjacent to each other [maybe "playing hopscotch" instead of "leaving a trail" is more appropos]. To claim an item from the grid on your turn, you put a coin on it; the catch is that you also must put an additional coin on the item for every coin in a square adjacent to it [i.e. on every previously claimed item]. The progression of claims is kind of like watching a losing Bingo card fill up: Spaces get blotted out that are completely separated from each other [often in checkerboard fashion], and then only near the end of the round do players decide they need to pay a bit more to make some claims adjacent to previous selections. The remainder of the game is a bit of a mix of Genoa's set-collection and Goa's tech-track development [a mechanism I didn't discuss; it's similar in nature to Hansa Teutonica's system]. I find this part a bit blase, but the action selection is delicious.
In Titania, players direct three different lines of ships, which are owned by and available to all players, to various locations on the board which grant resources [or abilities to use up resources for points ] to the player who places in them or reaches them. These do variously uninteresting things, like giving you points or additional card draws [cards are used to limit the color of ships you may build on your turn] or resources which can build the "big point" items once the trail of ships reaches special destination sites on the board. The greater interest in the game seems to lie in the maneuvering of these shared slime trails of ships such that they go in directions that you will be able to leverage with your current asset / resource holdings on your next turn, but that your opponents will not be able to so leverage. If things go completely awry, midway through the game the entire board resets [all the trails disappear] and players begin again, with a slightly different set of incentives due to prior placements / construction on the board. It's a classic-style Hans im Glück title that seems to have been released 10 years too late, as it fits in much better with their offerings from 1996-2000 than from 2006-2010.
And so on.
Even in his less "trail"-driven titles, there is a great emphasis on the timing and sequences of actions and resource collection / utilization. In Jambo, for instance, a player gets [surprise! 5!] actions on their turn, which must be split up across the actions of drawing cards, playing tech cards, using tech cards, buying resources, selling resources [i.e. getting points], and deploying one-time-use special power cards. Managing a "chain" of actions within and between your turns that efficiently leverages whatever the deck throws your way is the key to success in the game. Getting the chain out of sync or in the wrong order will see you wasting turns on drawing cards [of which you may only keep 1, regardless of how many you draw] looking for something to kickstart your progress.
I see Dorn, in general, as a sort of mezzanine designer voice in the "resource / action management" subgenre of Euro gaming, standing between directly interactive titles like Puerto Rico or Princes of Florence and today's more indirect titles like Agricola or Trajan. All of these games [like many of Dorn's] have player boards / player tableaus, and so all look like "multiplayer solitaire", but the systems that are built up around them have quite a diversity of depths of interaction. He is a few steps closer to Puerto Rico / Princes of Florence / etc, but in his funky action-selection mechanisms you can see inklings of Feld and the rest.
Rumor has it that he no longer considers his bigger designs necessary [halfway through the interview] in the spate of gamer-game explosions we see with every new Essen, but I think that his unique "classic German" style of design is still needed and welcome in the hobby. The fact that he had a SdJ nominee just this past year, and an as-yet well-received gamery-game shows that, whatever he says, he's not quite done yet.
Games that share traits with Dorn's designs include Hansa Teutonica, DruidenWalzer, Myrmes [seemingly], and Royal Palace.
A man of many faces, Stefan Dorra designs games about:
The Auction Grand Unification Theory in all its unified grandeur.
Though he has had at least 1 game published in all but 1 year  out of the past 20 years, many gamers probably don't even recognize his name, or if they do would be hard-pressed to identify any of his titles. His focus shifts regularly [from Euro games, to card games, to kids games, back to Euros] and he designs in genres [trick-taking, memory] that are not popular and for publishers [Hans im Gluck, Ravensburger] that don't export regularly. This combination has not helped his popularity.
Despite having two relatively successful recent titles with co-designer Ralf zur Linde [of Finca fame], Milestones and Pergamon, his most popular and highest-ranked game remains the 15 year old auction super-filler, For Sale. This is appropriate, since Dorra's designs are typically characterized by auction-like [though not often explicitly auction-based] mechanisms. In his designs, Applecline's Auction Grand Unification Theory finds full expression, even moreso than in those of Applecline's favored auction-heavy designer, Reiner Knizia.
Nearly all of Dorra's games involve players competing for the ownership of a pool of resources, which tend to be distributed either winner-takes-all or one-per-player [with order of claim an important consideration]. This is the 1st of Applecline's 5 elements of auctions [and also involves the 5th to a large extent]. Dorra also is fond of mechanisms wherein the value or the cost of some resource steadily rises until it is claimed or bought [the 4th, and possibly 3rd, element]. Winning a Dorra game consists of laying claim to the most valuable pool resources by expending the least of your own.
In Medina, the players jointly build up the Arabian city of Medina by filling it with palaces in 4 colors. Each player may claim 1 palace of each color during the course of the game, but before this claim is made, the single palace [allowed at a time] on the board of that color potentially belongs to anyone. On their turn, a player can extend any currently unclaimed palace that they like. This leads to a game of chicken that is a sort of reverse Dutch auction, where the value of the item [the palace] being offered steadily rises [as players extend the palace] until someone bites and lays claim to it. There are other bonuses, and secondary ways to extend even completed palaces, that muddy up the waters and make evaluation of the growing palaces quite difficult. By restricting each player to claiming only 1 of each color palace in the game, Dorra creates a very difficult timing and valuation exercise; the restriction also makes the game rather spiteful and dynamic, as players who have already claimed a palace of a given color will try in any way they can to limit the value of others of that color.
In Buccaneer, the players take the role of pirates intent on plundering a series of merchant ships. The only problem is that there isn't any clear leader to captain the crew! Players take it in turn to add a pirate to an existing crew controlled by an opponent, and so become the captain of the entire lot of loutish mutineers. Once a crew has become large enough, its captain can choose to send it out to plunder one of the available merchant ships. When this happens, the gold earned from the raid is distributed to every player who had a pirate in that crew, according to the value of the pirates [which have a range of values around 1 to 5], with the captain keeping any remaining amount. There are two auction-like mechanisms here, the "bidding" for control of the larger crews by adding to them and the intertwined "bidding" for part of the bounty that the crew eventually receives from the raid [whoever captained the venture]. The captain also gets an additional bonus treasure token that goes toward set collection. The effect would seem to be [I haven't played this one] a similar "chicken" style reverse auction as in Medina.
In Intrigue, the players engage in what might be the most direct and barebones negotiation game ever. The items to be negotiated over are salaries paid out to the owning player every turn. The means of negotiation is outright bribery to the employer whose estate pays the salaries. When a player is alone in seeking a job, the negotiation is simply for the amount of the salary [there are 5 possible values]. When 2 or more players are seeking the same employment, the negotiation is for both the job itself and the salary. The trouble is that all of the bribe money is given before the job is assigned and that the employer is under no obligation to give the job to the person who bribed him the most, nor to give the salary promised when the bribe was accepted. This breaks one of the cardinal rules of Applecline's understanding of auction [#5, that the highest-bid always wins], but it remains an auction game in its essentials, only one based on trust rather than evaluation. There is also a variant from the author wherein the loser gets their bribe back and promises are binding; with or without it, the resource deployment here seems to me to exemplify Dorra's style perfectly.
And so on.
Dorra is very fond of the Simultaneous Action Selection mechanism, as well as game structures that reveal [fully or partially / limited by memory] the assets of the other players that they will use in the "bidding" parts of the game. This combination lends his games a distinct "game theory" like flavor, where you mostly know the other players' incentives and how they interact with your own / how you can influence them, and have to guess what they will do in order to succeed.
In Streetcar, for instance, the players' tile holdings are made public, but their connection goals are hidden and must be deduced. In Sluff Off! and Nyet!, the players' bids reveal considerably more about the strength of their hand [particularly in what suits] than a typical trick-taking bidding phase does. In Turn the Tide, the players' hands of cards are not redealt after each round of play, but simply passed to the next player in order.
He seems to go wherever the wind blows, focusing most recently on mid-weight Euros like Pergamon and Milestones. I'd like to see him get back to his trick-taking and funky-auction roots; his designs in these areas are among the best offerings in those genres. I seem to have been a small part of a spark of interest that seems to have recently been lit under the long-languishing MarraCash, and hope that continues.
Games that share traits with Dorra's designs include Basari, Doge, GOPS / Beat the Buzzard, Metropolys, and Nicht die Bohne!.
A man neither wizard nor warrior princess, Stefan Feld designs games about:
Efficient management of actions and infrastructure in pursuing competing demands.
Feld's games are nearly always multifaceted, full of many interlocking mechanisms and subsystems, but the thing that binds them is an emphasis on action diversity and action efficiency within the framework of a system with either very clear "limits to growth" behavior or a system of "demand" thresholds placed on the player by the game or their opponents [in the latter case, the mechanism chosen is typically majority scoring].
While his games are often economic snowballs of leveraging increasingly large infrastructure, they are not economic avalanches that simply build and build without limit. It is in the novel limiting factors he deploys that players typically find the most of interest in Feld's games. Where a typical snowball game like Through the Ages limits players through increased overhead / variable costs, Feld's games do so through difficult to control action activation systems.
There are usually blatant tradeoffs presented between specialization and diversity in a Feld game. The value of specialization is Feld's fondness for triangular scoring / income systems, majority bonuses, and infrastructure development. The value of diversity is the flexibility to take advantage of nearly any outcome in a system of action-taking that is often not kind to players. Striking a balance of specialization and diversity, and catching a stroke of luck, are keys to winning a Feld game.
In Macao, the players take the role of Portuguese merchants arranging trade routes with the far east. The game is a relatively straightforward cube churner in large part: Players will collect cubes in various colors, use them to build up a personal infrastructure that can turn the rest of them into money or points, or use them to pursue various other secondary set collection goals. At the beginning of the game, the 6 different cube colors are largely identical and interchangeable. A player may choose any direction to develop their infrastructure and have it be as successful as any other. The problem is that the availability of cubes is not identical across the 6 colors, but determined randomly by the memorable windrose mechanism. The infrastructure / buildings are designed such that specializing in a single color is generally the best way to get points if the timing and availability of those cubes works to your favor; of course, the wind[rose] of fate is fickle and this won't happen, so you have to find a way to create an infrastructure that can use a wide and unpredictable variety of resources effectively.
In Notre Dame, the players take the role of Parisian patrons contributing to the wealth of the city and the raising of the eponymous cathedral. There are 3 essential resources: cubes, coins, and victory points. [Sounding familiarish? Yes, this is another relatively straightforward cube churner.] Aside from earning VPs directly, the game gives players various actions that can turn money or cubes into VPs [yes, kind of exactly like Macao does] and such. The game has built-in incentives toward specialization in any of the 3 resource areas, in that the more resources you devote to particular actions in the game the more productive they become in their ability to grant you their rewards [an action that lets you get more cubes, for instance, gives you 3 instead of 1 if you built up its capacity; same for the VP-granting action, and the money-granting action]. The catch is that the activation of your action infrastructure is determined by a card draft, and your opponents are very unlikely to pass you what you need to activate your specialty. There is also a limiting variable cost [rats] that must be managed, as well as a bit of a pseudo-majority system [the cathedral].
In Trajan, the players navigate a complicated system of action and bonus action activation fueled by a Kalah-based system. Every action [of six possible] taken really demands specialization to function to its fullest potential, but the Mancala rondel is not setup to allow players to easily specialize. A large part of the game is in increasing the effectiveness of the actions you choose to take less frequently [by assigning bonus scoring opportunities to them, or by using them to accrue bonus action opportunities]. Beyond the sheer planning difficulties of working the Mancala system, there are set collection demands to be met [on penalty of VP loss] each turn that require players to divert attention from their most direct path through the system. There are majority bonus mechanisms as well. The game has a sort of "cobbled together" feel, in that every action drives its own little "mini-game" of sorts; balancing the demands and scoring opportunities of all of these microcosms is the chief challenge of the game. More than in most of his other games, Feld's love of competing, mutually limiting demands on your efficiency is displayed quite prominently here in what seems to be his magnum opus.
And on. "So" doesn't show up 'til two rounds later.
Feld likes penalties almost as much as he likes triangular scoring efficiencies. In many of his games, there are losses to be avoided as well as gains to be had. The loss is usually triggered by a lapse in efficiency beneath a certain "bare minimum" threshold. Pseudo-paradoxically, it's not always easy to meet the "bare minimum" if you're looking to be really really efficient in the use of any one particular action or scoring opportunity.
Nowhere is this really felt more than in In the Year of the Dragon, one of the more brutal of his games. The eponymous "year" in the game consists of a string of event tiles laid out before it begins, each of which specifying some condition that must be met to gain points or avoid penalties [usually the latter]. Players have to carefully choose which "checks" to intentionally fail as it is nearly impossible to complete them all and stand a chance of winning.
The challenge, then, is to manage waste [keeping it low] while maximizing output [efficiency]. "Waste management" might be a relatively good two-word description of Feld's style; a single wasted action or wasted resource usually carries with it a broad array of consequences [both foreseeable and unpredictable]. Keeping these wasteful outcomes to a minimum while continually building up a larger infrastructure is one of the more interesting features of his designs.
Games that [allegedly; I don't know this genre well] share traits with Feld's designs include Troyes, Glen More, and Village.
A man whose hips don't lie, Reiner Knizia designs games about:
Asset management, diversification, market vs liquidity risk, and incentive structures.
One of the more polarizing designers in the hobby, Herr Knizia is also among the most prolific, with over 400 unique titles to his credit in the BGG catalog. He is a mathematician and his games are known [deservedly or not] for being dry, calculating affairs with awkward to explain scoring mechanisms, as attested to in a microbadge created by his fans:
The overarching design feature of Knizia's games is captured by a famous quote attributed to him: "When playing a game, the goal is to win; but it is the goal that is important, not the winning." [This quote, coincidentally, also has its own microbadge: ] More than those of any other designer, Knizia's games proceed from their goals, victory conditions, and [yes] scoring mechanisms.
Despite his reputation, very few of Knizia's games actually have complicated scoring mechanisms, however. What they usually do have are multiple competing scoring mechanisms or scoring opportunities. The types of goals Knizia likes to design toward are those that reward maximizing the gain of a multidimensional portfolio of assets by navigating and managing a structure of ever-changing risks.
Knizia's designs favor scoring mechanisms wherein VPs are very rarely secured immediately and the bulk of a player's final score is in constant flux and remains uncertain until very near the end of the game or round. This provides the risk management element he is known for; a large part of succeeding in a Knizia game is comprised of capitalizing on assets with uncertain or low liquidity.
A large part of gameplay in Knizia's designs is the competitors' bumping, grinding shift of the shared game space until favorable conditions are reached for a player to capitalize on their holdings. There is also a strong element of asset portfolio management as players seek to obtain new assets that best fit their perception of the prevailing "market" trends.
In Lost Cities, the players have a relatively simple goal: Play cards [1-10 in 5 suits] to exceed a sum total of 20 points by as much as possible in each suit played, while laying down as many scoring multipliers as possible for the suits with the highest totals. The problem is that the cards have to be played in increasing numeric order, and that all multiplier cards have to be played before any number cards are played... and of course players aren't commonly dealt cards in a helpful x2-x3-x4-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 sequence as they'd like. Playing the game well consists of two aspects of risk / asset management: 1) Correctly gauging your likelihood of success in a given suit so that you can lay down the bonus multipliers before you start playing in that suit; 2) Biding your time through discards and "throwaway" suits until you have sufficient information to make the determination needed in #1. Playing the game very well consists of doing this simultaneously across all 5 suits in the game based on the information your opponent is implicitly giving you by their plays.
In Ra, the players "bid" for various lots of tiles depicting various aspects of a stereotypical ancient Egyptian civilization: impressive monuments, Pharaonic dynasties, cultural developments, farms along the Nile, and so on. Every category of tile has its own unique way of scoring based on set collection goals: monuments score for matched sets and for diverse collections, Pharoahs score in majority-bonus style, cultural developments are primarily used to avoid penalties but can provide points for sufficiently diverse sets, farms don't score points unless you also obtain a "flood" tile, and so on. You keep a certain portion of your collected portfolio of tiles from round to round [3 total], and you are challenged to find ways to both capitalize on what you've already collected and build a larger portfolio at the same time. The chief difficulty is that most scores are a threshold to be met [gaining a certain number of monuments; obtaining majority; etc] or a binary on/off switch [getting a flood, cultural development, etc]. Success is not a continuum; you either liquidate your assets or you don't.
In Tigris & Euphrates, the players lay tiles in 4 colors to develop "kingdoms" in ancient Mesopotamia, usually gaining corresponding color cubes for so doing. The goal is the scoring mechanism Knizia is most known for: "Your score is the number of cubes collected in your least numerous color." The most basic move is to lay a tile into a kingdom and collect a matching cube if you have the matching "leader" in that kingdom; the problem is that you will never win the game this way, since you simply won't get enough tiles / plays over the course of the game to build up enough cubes in each color if you collect them one at a time. There are better ways to get cubes: by winning a "conflict" with another kingdom and gaining a cube for every tile it had in the relevant color, and by building "monuments" that provide free cubes every turn to various leaders in that kingdom. Every play changes your ability to take advantage of these high-income moves, and winning the game consists of continually aligning your hand of tiles to the shifting opportunities on the board. And, to do this in the context of diversifying across all 4 colors.
In Amun-Re, the players bid for control of various regions depicting various aspects of a stereotypical ancient Egyptian civilization: impressive monuments, Pharaonic dynasties, cultural developments, farms along the Nile, and--wait a minute... didn't we just do this? Yep; like Ra, this is a game of portfolio development along multiple axes with the eventual goal of the most effective liquidation possible. A player's assets consist of 3 regions per scoring round, with attached farms, pyramids, and temples. A sealed bid at the end of each round determines the profitability of the farms and temples; the pyramids score 3 ways: on their own, in completed sets, and for majorities on either side of the Nile. Every bid for a region must be weighed against its potential contribution toward each of these 3 areas of competition, and the subsequent building phase is a further refinement of that potential. Guiding these decisions is a 3rd axis of refinement in the form of bonus scoring cards that require your portfolio to meet various criteria. These are scored all or nothing, and converting on them is key to victory.
In Stephenson's Rocket, the players invest in the development of the British railway system in 3 distinct ways: by claiming goods that will be delivered from each city the new railways connect to, by claiming stations along the route that serve as switchovers between towns, and by claiming stocks in the railroads they hope will be most successful. Each of these scores in a separate majority-bonus subgame, but the 3 types of assets [goods, stations, shares] are interdependent, since the scoring of all 3 depends on how and where the tracks are connected. The game has a palpable sense of emergent cooperation between players, and the most important part of decision-making in the game is determining whose levers to pull and buttons to push and in what manner to do so. All 3 types of assets are particularly illiquid, and converting them into VP once claimed is a difficult process for which you need the help of other players. Of course, this help comes unwittingly; you can't simply tell your opponents what to do. There is, however, a "veto" phase in which you can tell them what not to do.
And so on, ad infinitum.
Of course, the good doctor has a plethora of other design proclivities. A GeekBuddy of mine, Laszlo Molnar, has cataloged a number of the more common elements of Knizia's designs in a number of Geeklists. Topics include: Double Tile-Laying, "Area Surrounding", Riffs on Acquire, "Linear Adventures", Polyominoes, Maze-/Grid-Building, and of course the "Highest Lowest Score" concept.
My personal favorite Knizian quirk [though it is not uniquely his, of course] is the two-action turn. Action-Point Allowance games are great, of course, in that they create very dynamic turns, but they require balancing of action costs and can often lead to analysis paralysis. Knizia gets around that while maintaining the rapid pace of game state change by allowing only two actions.
The two-action trick shows up in various incarnations in Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates, Stephenson's Rocket, Samurai, Lord of the Rings, Jäger und Sammler, Genesis, and probably others that I am not familiar with. Relatedly, perhaps, Knizia is also fond of the two-choice turn [in various forms], from Ra's "Draw or Ra!" to Loco's "Play a card and Draw a chip".
Games that share traits with Knizia's designs include MarraCash, Yspahan, Medina, Key Harvest, and [I think] Mahjong.
Ein Mann über alles, Wolfgang Kramer designs games about:
Multiscalar tactical decision-making with elements of persistence and repercussion.
Ironically, Herr Kramer himself is also repercussive. He has been an active hobby designer for nearly 40 years [his first credited design in BGG's database is Legemax from 1974], longer than even such industry stalwarts as Alan R. Moon or Richard H. Berg, and nearly rivaling the unsung Reinhold Wittig. Kramer is often credited [accurately or not] with creating the victory point track and the area majority and action point genres.
His magnum opus, El Grande, is the oldest non-traditional game [i.e. excepting Go, Tichu--a minor Zheng Fen variant--,and Crokinole] in BGG's Top 50 ranked games, a testament to the longevity and continued relevance of his work. This is particularly appropriate, as longevity and continued relevance are mechanical, as well as ludological, hallmarks of his game designs. Decisions in a Kramer game have impacts on multiple time scales simultaneously.
Kramer employs a lot of multiple scoring round structures and special scoring opportunity mechanisms, where the infrastructure that players build up persists throughout the game and is leveraged multiple times [and often in multiple ways] to earn points. This gives his games a rich tactical backdrop, since every move must be weighed against its immediate use, or at least its use in the most imminent scoring opportunity, as well at its infrastructure value for bigger opportunities to come.
In Hacienda, the players expand land claims and animal herds and are judged in two scoring rounds for the size and connectivity [markets reached, water surrounded] of their claims and herds. The multiscalar element arises in that the early game is about money and resource management, and players often take the most direct and efficient routes to market [which generates cash] so as to conserve. The easiest next step is simply to expand "close to home", continuing to deliver to the same market and develop the same land; this is not a very valuable action, points-wise, however. The game rewards expansion to multiple markets, which are costly to reach, as well as careful consideration of the shape [as well as size] of land claims and herds so that wells and reservoirs [which grant points] may be dug around them; often the most potentially valuable shapes are not the most efficient. There is also another special scoring opportunity, the eponymous haciendas, which may be bought for very large chains [which require costly specialization of resources]. The tactical balance is very rich.
In Colosseum, The Princes of Florence, and Master Builder [all closely related], the players navigate an auction round aimed at set collection followed by an action / scoring round in which the sets are judged, and then repeat the process until the end of the game. In all of these games, the large majority of a player's collected resources persist after having been scored, whereas the set collection goal to which they were applied is removed from play; this means that assets continue to turnover and be scored toward multiple set collection goals. In Colosseum, even the previously completed goals persist as scoring bonuses toward future scoring. In the early stages of these games, players will be forced either to pursue smaller goals or to settle for fulfilling fewer of the requirements of the goals that are available to them. Tactical decision-making in the game is a balance between getting the best resources for completing your immediate goal of interest and getting the resources that will most flexibly allow you to complete future goals; the player that wins the game will be able to make these two time-scales overlap and reinforce each other.
In the games of The Mask Trilogy, as well as the apocryphal member Torres, the players work [pseudo-]together to develop and/or explore a shared landscape and are rewarded multiple times during the game for control [through majority or dominance or other claim] of portions of that landscape. In Mexica and Java in particular, a sharp distinction is also drawn between game elements that provide points immediately, elements that provide points during mid-game scoring, and elements that provide points only in the final scoring. This "now, then, later" method of scoring is a hallmark of Kramer's designs, and is particularly strong here. In all of the four games in the "trilogy", the shared landscape persists throughout all time phases of the game and its development shapes the actions of players in each portion of the game, with a general trend of catch-as-catch-can in the early game where very little has been developed that shifts toward a positional struggle for the highest scoring claims for the end game. These games also prominently feature Kramer's proclivity toward action-point allowance games and each have a large menu of possible player actions to spend points on.
In Heimlich & Co. and City, two old roll-and-move family-style games, the same features are evident despite the simplicity of the games. In Heimlich, players are assigned secret identities from among a pool of 7 colored pawns. On their turn, they roll a die and make moves for any combination of pawns they like up to the number of movement points rolled. Spaces on the board consist of scoring values from -3 to +10. The object is to get the colored pawn matching your secret identity onto a higher scoring space when a scoring round is activated, but to do so in such a way as to not tip off your identity [because your opponents will simply see you favoring that color and move it to a lower scoring space; additionally, there are variants where you gain / lose points for guessing at secret identities]. The real object of the game is to figure out a way to keep your pawn on the higher scoring spaces for multiple scoring rounds at a time. There are numerous cute ways to do this: you can hold back on a 6 or 7 and be content that something else will be a better target for moving off to a low scoring space; you can choose to move the scoring activator [which sits on a space on the board and triggers scoring when landed on] to a space you think the next player will favor [while your pawn remains on the place it just scored for]; and so on.
In City, reimplemented as The Market of Alturien [my personal choice for most underrated game on the Geek, by the way], players buy spaces on a [mostly] circular track, build trading houses on those spaces, roll dice to move pawns around the board so as to land on spaces, and receive money when the pawns land on their spaces based on the number of houses they have [yes, this is Kramer's take on Monopoly]. Players control the direction in which pawns may move [they don't simply circle the track], and have the ability to purchase or develop properties anywhere [unlike Monopoly, players have no on-board avatar; the pawns are all neutral buyers that anyone may move]. This leads to players trading off between prime real estate [intersections, mostly, but also competition for area majority bonuses] and areas that are likely to be hit soon by the moving pawns; these long-term vs short-term tensions are typical of Kramer's style. Additionally, there is an added incentive to prioritize the long-term development, since every intersection has a special rule for buyers; in general, only the buyer pawn that was actually moved on any given turn will pay out to the business it stops on, but if any pawns remain on any of your intersection spaces from having landed there in a prior turn, they also pay out. This drives some fun "take one for the team" play in moving pawns off of these repercussive payouts.
And so on, for decades.
Kramer is also well known for being a collaborative designer. Only between 20% to 25% of his top 50 or so games are sole-author creations. His primary co-design partner is Michael Kiesling, but he has worked with at least a dozen other authors [the next most frequent being Richard Ulrich]. I suspect the built-in feedback loop / sounding board of the co-design relationship is largely the reason why Kramer's games always feel well-conceived, well-playtested, and well-balanced.
Kramer is kind of an unsung hero [at least in the English-speaking circles I game and/or chat with; maybe it's different in mainland Europe / Germany?] "hiding in plain sight", as far as I can tell. He's at least as good and as influential as Knizia, yet judging by "fandom" on his designer page and ownership of his microbadges, he's only 1/3rd as popular. He's also dwarfed by relatively "young" upstarts like Feld and Chvatil, being about 1/2 as popular as either. It's hard to fathom.
More than most designers, Kramer is consistent in the quality and style of the games he has produced over the years. He no longer dominates the BGG Top-100, and his "big" newer games [The Palaces of Carrara, Artus, and Seeland] are certainly not flying up the charts, but unlike, say, Reiner Knizia, I think this is an artifact of the average BGGer's tastes changing and not the result of Kramer's design quality changing. He was and remains a designer worth watching.
Games that share traits with Kramer's designs include Alhambra, Vikings, Factory Fun, and Vegas Showdown.