Designer of the Year Awards: 1955-2016
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There are several annual awards that select a Game of the Year. But since there are quite a few designers who create multiple games every year, why not consider a Designer of the Year award? That was the question I asked myself during the early 00's, so I decided to do something about it. I began writing an annual series of articles, first for the old Boardgame News website (the one Rick Thornquist originated) and more recently for the Opinionated Gamers website. Each article listed my picks for the leading designers each calendar year, together with my selection of the Designer of the Year (DotY). People seemed to like the writeups, so it's become an annual tradition.

After the 2013 article was posted, a couple of people asked for the complete list of winners, preferably in a Geeklist. This list is in response to those requests. I'll be updating the list after every subsequent article.

So what kind of games am I considering when I assign the awards? I'm excluding standard wargames and children's games, which for the most part have a completely separate set of designers (and which frankly I know very little about), but I'm including everything else: boardgames, card games, role playing games, collectible card games, dexterity games, etc. Expansions aren't eligible, but redesigns of earlier games are (although I give them less weight). I consider gamer's games, family games, Eurogames, Ameritrash, party games, the whole lot. Toss 'em all in the mix and see who has the best creations.

The criteria I use to select each year's best designer includes the quality of the games, how well received they were at the time of their release, and how well they have stood up to the test of time. In particular, I give heavy weight to games which have high average ratings on the Geek and which have garnered wins and nominations for the major gaming awards. In a few of the years, the decision between two designers was so close that I assigned joint awards (and I even split the award three ways a couple of times), but I try as much as possible to pick a single winner.

Since I've always been interested in the history of gaming, when I created the idea of the awards, I went back and looked at previous years, to see who I would have picked as the leading designer. I tried to take it back as far as I could and eventually stretched it all the way back to 1955. Prior to 1990, many of the awards went to designers with only one game, since there were very few folks cranking out multiple titles in a year. This means that many of these early awards are more or less Game of the Year awards, which really wasn't the original intent. Still, I found the exercise interesting and it allowed me to include all of the great designers we celebrate on the Geek with one set of awards.

My descriptions for those early years will be much shorter, since there's frankly less to talk about. Many times, there is just one logical pick for DotY. Starting with the 90's, I'll provide more detail, along with the other designers I also think had good years.

To show the award performance of each of the cited games, I use the following codes. The letters S, K, D, and I show that the design won Game of the Year honors from the Spiel des Jahres (SdJ), Kennerspiel des Jahres (KdJ), Deutscher Spiele Preis (DSP), or International Gamers Awards (IGA), respectively. The lower case letters s, k, d, and i show that the game was nominated for the indicated award, or, in the case of the DSP, finished in the top ten. r indicates a game that was a recommended SdJ or KdJ game and $ shows that the game won an SdJ special award (for example, Most Beautiful Game or Best Children's Game). "A" shows a game that won Fairplay's a la carte award (best card game), while "a" indicates a top ten listing. g shows that the game was nominated as GotY for the Golden Geek awards or that it was a category winner; G indicates that it was the Golden Geek Game of the Year. t and T show the same thing for the Dice Tower awards. M shows one of the three winners of the Meeples Choice Awards and m indicates an MCA nominee. Z is for Games MagaZine's Game of the Year. H shows that the game is included in the Sumo/Counter Hall of Fame, while h indicates that it's in the Games Magazine Hall of Fame. Finally, if a game is italicized, it indicates that it's a redesign of a previously published title by that designer.

Please feel free to comment on my picks, particularly if you think I've missed an obvious choice. Just remember, I'm not trying to reward the best game of the year, but the best designer of the year. Very often, that will mean that someone who creates a fabulous single game will lose out to a designer with a larger portfolio. In fact, during the last 20 years, it's been almost impossible to win the DotY with just one game, no matter how great it is.

I hope you enjoy this list. If you do, check out my next DotY article on the Opinionanted Gamers website (http://opinionatedgamers.com); they usually appear in early March of each year.
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1. Board Game: Careers [Average Rating:5.79 Overall Rank:4929]
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1955
James Cooke Brown - Careers


Despite being the last of the classic Parker Brothers roll and move games, Careers is extremely innovative and was way ahead of its time. For example, having the players set their own winning conditions is very clever and rarely seen in games even today. Brown was a noted sociologist best known for creating and analyzing his own artificial language! Careers was his only published game.
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2. Board Game: Yahtzee [Average Rating:5.29 Overall Rank:15230]
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1956
Edwin Lowe - Yahtzee(h)


This selection comes with a bit of an asterisk. Lowe, owner of the toy company E.S. Lowe, claimed Yahtzee was created by an anonymous Canadian couple who invented it while sailing on their yacht (hence the name). Since the identity of the couple was never revealed and there was already a similar dice game in the public domain called Yacht, I'm not sure I buy this. Nevertheless, Yahtzee is the world's best known non-gambling dice game and Lowe's name is the one in the database, so I'm giving him credit.
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3. Board Game: Risk [Average Rating:5.58 Overall Rank:14511]
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1957
Albert Lamorisse - Risk(h)


Risk is the world's most popular game of conquest and one of the most famous games ever made. It was created by Lamorisse, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, who published it in France as La Conquête du Monde in '57. Two years later, it was acquired by Parker Brothers, who made some small modifications and released it as Risk. This was Lamorrise's only game creation.
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4. Board Game: Tactics II [Average Rating:5.33 Overall Rank:14983]
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1958
Charles Roberts - Tactics II, Gettysburg, Dispatcher


I know I said that I wasn't going to be including wargames, but I have to make an exception for this year. Roberts invented the modern wargame when he released Tactics in 1954 and their first real acceptance came in '58, with Tactics II and Gettysburg. Dispatcher was the first of Avalon Hill's "Now YOU be a..." line of games.
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5. Board Game: Diplomacy [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:501]
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1959
Allan Calhamer - Diplomacy(Hh)


Diplomacy is one of the most original and iconic games ever created, a supremely elegant and ruthless design that can legitimately claim to be one of the greatest games of all time. Calhamer's masterwork is as popular today as ever; it honestly wouldn't surprise me if it were still being played 100 years from now.
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6. Board Game: The Game of Life [Average Rating:4.19 Overall Rank:15331]
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1960
Reuben Klamer/Bill Markum - The Game of Life


Reuben Klamer was a toy and game inventor who was commissioned by Milton Bradley to come up with an updated version of The Checkered Game of Life, the first popular American boardgame, to commemorate its 100th anniversary. He and Markum, who worked for him, came up with the gloriously 3-dimensional Game of Life, which was a huge seller. Klamer has several other well known games to his credit, including Square Mile and Smess: The Ninny's Chess.
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7. Board Game: Broker [Average Rating:5.76 Overall Rank:8110]
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1961
Steven Spencer/Peter Murray - Broker


Broker is a stock market game in which the stock movement does not depend on dice or spinners, but instead on cards played by the players. The self-published version by Spencer and Murray didn't have much of an impact until it was republished six years later in Germany by Otto Maier Verlag (which eventually became Ravensburger) as Das Börsenspiel. The German public appreciated the game's innovations and it has sold well enough to have nine separate editions. I know next to nothing about Spencer and Murray--not even their first names! (See comments below)
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8. Board Game: Strat-O-Matic Baseball [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:1135]
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1962
Hal Richman - Strat-O-Matic Baseball


Strat-O-Matic was not the first sophisticated baseball simulation (that would be APBA Baseball, in 1951), but it’s the most popular, influential, and probably the most statistically accurate of the early sims (it uses three normal dice and a D20, as opposed to 2D6 or percentile dice). It was the brainchild of an accountant named Hal Richman, who took a loan from his father to allow him to promote his game, promising to go work for him if he couldn’t pay him back. Thankfully for both Richman and baseball fans, his company flourished and both tabletop and computer versions of Strat-O in several sports continue to be produced to this day.
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9. Board Game: Mouse Trap [Average Rating:4.09 Overall Rank:15327]
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1963
Gordon Barlow/Burt Meyer - Mouse Trap


This is as much a toy as a game, but it's such an iconic piece of Americana that I have no problem selecting it for the DotY. Barlow and Meyer both worked at the legendary Marvin Glass studio, which was responsible for some of the most famous toys and games of the 60s and 70s, including Operation, Rock'em Sock'em Robots, and Simon.
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10. Board Game: Acquire [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:207]
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1964
Sid Sackson – Acquire(sdHh)
Alex Randolph - Twixt(sh), Oh-Wah-Ree


1964 marked the introduction of the historically important 3M Bookshelf games. (New research by my buddy Joe Huber has shown that this didn’t happen in 1962; that was the copyright date on the games, but they weren’t available for sale until two years later.) Whoever was selecting designs at the home of Scotch Tape must have known what they were doing, because the first batch included titles from two of the most important figures in gaming history, Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph. Sackson’s Acquire is an all-time classic, considered by many to be the “first” Eurogame. After numerous reprints, the game continues to be very popular, more than 50 years after its debut. Of Randolph’s contributions to the new line, Twixt is a fascinating and deep abstract, a sophisticated version of the old game of Hex, while Oh-Wah-Ree is a cleverly designed member of the Mancala family, that uniquely extends the game to up to four players. This will be the first of many mentions on the DotY pages for these two good friends and it’s fitting that their first appearance is as joint winners.
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11. Board Game: Nuclear War [Average Rating:6.21 Overall Rank:2300] [Average Rating:6.21 Unranked]
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1965
Douglas Malewicki - Nuclear War
Sid Sackson - Focus(S)


Two very different, but long-lived games lead to a tie for Designer of the Year. Malewicki's Nuclear War is one of the great beer and pretzels games, which has retained its popularity enough to get republished forty years after its first release. Meanwhile, Sackson's Focus was a very well regarded abstract during the 60's and (under its new title of Domination) won the third SdJ award in 1981.
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12. Board Game: Win, Place & Show [Average Rating:6.70 Overall Rank:2228]
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1966
John Reilly/Thomas Divoll - Win, Place & Show(H)


We're about to observe the true dominance of the 3M games during their heyday, as they will be front and center for the next six awards. Leading things off is Win, Place & Show, one of the greatest sports games (as opposed to simulations) ever created and a terrific family game to boot. Divoll and Reilly clearly had a feel for race games, because they also collaborated on the well regarded Speed Circuit five years later. Those are their only published designs, however.
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13. Board Game: Mr. President [Average Rating:6.59 Overall Rank:4278]
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1967
Jack Carmichael - Mr. President
Sid Sackson - Bazaar, The Case of the Elusive Assassin


Mr. President is a terrific election game, particularly for two players, that gives the players a good deal of control while still keeping the outcome of the election in doubt until the very end. Sackson's Bazaar is an abstract, but challenging trading game of swapping resources to claim the objective cards. Assassin, part of Ideal's Famous Mystery Classic Series, is little remembered, but deduction game fans will recognize its mechanics as the precursor to the far more popular Sleuth.
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14. Board Game: Foil [Average Rating:5.53 Overall Rank:12522]
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1968
Frederick Herschler - Foil, Blue Line Hockey


Herschler was a regular contributor to the 3M line; in fact, only Sackson created more games for the publisher. Most of his designs were sports oriented, including football and golf games, as well as hockey. But he also contributed non-sports game, including Foil, which was a card game in which players have to form words from the letter cards they draw.

Herschler is probably best known for his 1997 game of Canyon, a race game based on the old card game Oh Hell; it was nominated for an SdJ.
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15. Board Game: Venture [Average Rating:6.51 Overall Rank:2707]
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1969
Sid Sackson - Venture, Monad, Tam-Bit, Take Five


'69 was one of Sid's better years, highlighted by Venture and Monad, two innovative designs which really stretched the boundaries of what a card game could be. It's an excellent illustation of just how far ahead of his time Sackson was. Both games were originally produced in the new 3M "butterbox" format and were later reprinted as part of the smaller 3M Gamette line.
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16. Board Game: Mastermind [Average Rating:5.49 Overall Rank:14314]
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1970
Mordecai Meirowitz - Mastermind


I'd be very surprised if many of you have heard of Mordecai Meirowitz, but I'm almost certain that you've heard of his most famous creation, Mastermind, which was the most popular game of the seventies (it was practically ubiquitous), eventually selling over 55 million copies in 80 countries across the world. Meirowitz hails from Israel and curiously is described in every reference to him I can find as a "postmaster and telecommunications expert". Seems like an unusual combination...
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17. Board Game: Sleuth [Average Rating:6.89 Overall Rank:943]
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1971
Sid Sackson - Sleuth, Executive Decision, Transformation, Tempo
Merle Robbins - Uno


Another great year for Sackson. Sleuth is one of the best known deduction games ever created; many aficionados consider it to be the king of the genre. Executive Decision is a manufacturing-themed supply and demand business game. It bears some similarities to Avalon Hill's old Management game, but is usually considered to be far superior to it.

But we still need to find room for one of the most popular commercial cardgames ever released. Uno, a souped-up version of Crazy Eights created by a barbershop owner from Ohio named Merle Robbins, was ubiquitous during the seventies and eighties and is still widely played today. Over 200 million copies have been sold.
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18. Board Game: Boggle [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:1959]
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1972
Joli Kansil - Bridgette(h), Montage, My Word(i)
Alan Turoff - Boggle


By 1972, the 3M Games division was sadly near the end. However, a new company appeared to apparently take its place: Gamut of Games. Joli Kansil was the senior game designer/CEO of the company and he had obtained the financial backing for it from bridge expert Waldemar von Zedtwitz, on the strength of a 2-player Bridge variant Kansil had designed called Bridgette. von Zedtwitz was not alone in his admiration for the game; it has been called the best 2-player Bridge variant ever created and in 1986, Games Magazine added it to their Hall of Fame.

Kansil, one of the great characters among game designers (among other things, he is an Hawaiian prince by marriage), originally self-published Bridgette two years earlier, but it was the '72 version that got the attention of the gaming world. Gamut of Games released two other Kansil games during its first year: My Word, an interesting spinoff of the word deduction game Jotto, and Montage, a superb partnership clue-giving game based around crossword puzzles. My Word was retitled What's My Word? in 2010 and got an IGA nomination, while Montage got reprinted by Gryphon Games the following year, with considerable fanfair.

You'd think that all that would be enough to guarantee a solo DotY award for Kansil. But also appearing that year was the ingenious dice word game Boggle, by Alan Turoff. It continues with new versions and healthy sales up to the current day, and that's enough to give Turoff a share of the award for the year.
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19. Board Game: Hare & Tortoise [Average Rating:6.65 Overall Rank:1072]
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1973
Philip Orbanes - Cartel, Realm
David Parlett - Hare & Tortoise(H)


In '73, during Gamut of Games' second year of existance, it continued to release interesting titles. Now the spotlight shifted to its other principal designer, Philip Orbanes. Orbanes was something of a designing prodigy: during the mid-sixties, he had started a publishing company, created and published two games, and then sold the company for a tidy sum of money, all before he was old enough to vote! In 1973, youth continued to be served with the release of Cartel and Realm. The former was a financial game far ahead of its time, with little luck and a host of good ideas, including property profits based on geographic proximity and a clever way of financing the purchase of the properties. It was later rethemed and retitled Dallas (after the hugely popular TV show), which is the version that many gamers are more familiar with. Realm, on the other hand, is a gamekit consisting of five different abstract designs that use the same equipment. Sid Sackson, who had befriended the young Orbanes, helped with the development of the game. It was later re-released in 2011.

Those were the titles that got gamers excited in 1973. But the game that today's gamers are far more familiar with was first published by a small British company during that year. It got little notice, but other editions did, including the German version that won the first SdJ award in 1979. I'm speaking, of course, of Hare & Tortoise, the very clever, mathematically-oriented race game, that continues to charm gamers up to the present day. It was designed by David Parlett, who has a number of notable card games to his credit. This game is so well known and well loved that once again, we have co-Designers of the Year.

Sadly, this is the last we will hear of Gamut of Games. Its games weren't particularly profitable and when money man von Zedtwitz had to cut off his support in '76 to deal with a personal financial crisis, it was forced to close up shop.
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20. Board Game: 1829 [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:3667]
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1974
Gary Gygax/Dave Arneson - Dungeons & Dragons(H)
Francis Tresham - 1829(Hh)


1974 was an absolutely amazing year in gaming, perhaps the most remarkable year we will ever see. Consider all the terrific and historically important games that were released that year: Kingmaker; Third Reich; Boxcars (the progenitor of Rail Baron, which was recently re-released by Rio Grande); Crude (the German version, McMulti, was a popular game for years); King Oil; and Tempo (Wolfgang Kramer's first game, which formed the basis for his popular racing games, such as Daytona 500 and Top Race). Believe it or not, those are just the highlights--there are a bunch of other ones.

But the truly important '74 games came from our co-Designers of the Year. Both, remarkably enough, spawned completely new genres of games, each of which changed the face of gaming forever. The first was Dungeons & Dragons, which was born when miniatures fan Dave Arneson modified the rules for Gary Gygax's game Chainmail by introducing individual characters whose abilities improved with experience. The result was the first roleplaying game, and, in case you hadn't noticed, RPGs are still extremely popular today. D&D, in one form or another, continues to be widely played and remains the game that most people think of when the term "roleplaying" is used.

The other hobby altering game was Francis Tresham's 1829. This no-luck design of perfect information thus became the first 18xx game. Its impact wouldn't be felt until years later, with the release of a considerably modified version, 1830. Nevertheless, 1829 was a remarkable creation and also launched a new and very vibrant segment of the hobby. So in spite of all the other amazing titles that appeared during this historical year, these were the three men who rose to the top of the designing world.
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21. Board Game: Up the Creek [Average Rating:5.66 Overall Rank:9088]
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1975
Rudi Hoffman - Up the Creek, Minister(s), Janus(s), Schützenfest


At this point in time, gaming in Germany was quite similar to what it was in the U.S.--lots of simple family games, little innovation, and very few designer credits. In short, German games had yet to become "German Games". Which isn't to say that all was bleak. Rudi Hoffman, for example, was in many ways Germany's answer to Sid Sackson. He had been creating games since the early 60's, but 1975 was a particularly good year for him, even if official recognition took a while. A reprint of Janus was nominated for the 1988 SdJ, while a new version of Minister got nominated in '98. And Up the Creek (which was originally titled Ogallala) finished 9th in the a la carte awards in 2002. Hoffman was the pioneer of the German gaming industry and he would soon have quite a bit of company.
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22. Board Game: Kingmaker [Average Rating:6.47 Overall Rank:1702]
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1976
Andrew McNeil - Kingmaker


Despite great games in the years before and after, for some reason no designs of real quality or even mild popularity appeared during 1976. It's just a bizarre dead spot in the gaming continuum. Among the culprits were that, in the U.S., at least, wargames reigned supreme and both 3M and Gamut of Games were gone. So we have to get a little creative. As I mentioned in my write-up for '74, Andrew McNeil's Kingmaker appeared that year, but that was the British edition from Ariel Games. The game didn't really zoom to the top of the charts until the Avalon Hill version appeared two years later. So it's only a small cheat when I declare McNeil my DotY.

Kingmaker was and is a unique game, one of the first appearances of a quasi-wargame where cardplay had an important role, while still being a quirky, but nevertheless thematically faithful account of the War of the Roses. It was one of the first true crossover games and was fully deserving of its hit status.
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23. Board Game: Cosmic Encounter [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:801]
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1977
Bill Eberle/Jack Kittredge/Peter Olotka/Bill Norton(dH) - Cosmic Encounter


You probably know the story of Cosmic Encounter. It was the product of a group of friends who decided to create a game, couldn't get it published by the mainstream companies, so they figured they'd make it themselves. In the process, they produced a game of enormous impact. The simple idea of player abilities that break the rules of the game proved to be hugely influential. Richard Garfield, for example, stated that Magic: The Gathering was strongly inspired by Cosmic. It has been reprinted many times and the 2008 FFG version is ranked as one of the Geek's top 100 games. Eberle, Kittredge, and Olotka would go on to produce many more highly original games over the next few years, proving that innovation was still alive in American gaming.
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24. Board Game: Black Box [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:2801]
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1978
Eric Solomon - Black Box, Spellmaker


Solomon is a British designer who specialized in clever, mathematically oriented games. His best known design is Black Box, a delightful 2-player deduction game based on a famous physics experiment. By shooting "rays" into an array and seeing where they emerge, the guessing player must figure out where the objects are hidden within the array. It's a highly original and very enjoyable game. Spellmaker is lighter, as the players use spells to move around the board and try to be the first to capture the princess.
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25. Board Game: Dune [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:215]
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1979
Bill Eberle/Jack Kittredge/Peter Olotka - Dune, Darkover


The Eon designers are at it again, as Dune, commissioned for them from Avalon Hill, was one of the hits of the year. It's one of the best themed games of all time, which is remarkable, since it was originally designed with an entirely different theme in mind. Darkover further showed their affinity for science fiction, as this highly interactive, but very weird game does a fine job of mirroring the equally weird world created by writer Marion Zimmer Bradley.
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