The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Special Ks

Larry Levy

June, 2001

One of the most distinctive aspects of the German game industry is the way that game designers are promoted. Games invariably include the designer's name on the cover, often prominently displayed. Compare this to British games, where designers are often an after-thought, or American games, where until recently, designers usually didn't even receive credit.

Not surprisingly, games in Germany are more often characterized by their designers (as opposed to, say, American games, which are almost always identified by the publisher). There are dozens of designers that are familiar names to fans of this genre. Despite these numbers, however, there are unquestionably three names that stand out, men who have truly dominated the German gaming scene over the last fifteen years. They are Wolfgang Kramer, Klaus Teuber, and Reiner Knizia. I call them the Special Ks of German Game Design.

Over the next three months, I'll be posting articles to The Games Journal summarizing the careers of these three men. This month, however, I want to briefly show the extent to which they have dominated game design in Germany (and, therefore, much of the rest of the world).

Wolfgang Kramer

It is safe to say that in every year since 1986, the individual generally viewed as the most renowned game designer in Germany has been one of the Special Ks. It has not been unusual for two of them to rank 1-2 in some order, or even an occasional 1-2-3 ranking. Moreover, critical acclaim is not the only measure by which these men dominate. Number of games produced, number of awards won, sales--in almost any measure you can imagine, Kramer, Teuber, and Knizia have led the way.

Perhaps the best way to show how dominant these three men have been is through the annual industry awards. Germany has two major awards for Game of the Year. They are the Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) and the Deutscher SpielePreis (DSP). The former tends to reward more family-oriented games (or at least what are considered family games in Germany—in the U.S., they would be viewed as pretty complex), while the latter usually goes to more involved creations, the so-called "gamer's games".

The SdJ's, the more prestigious of the two awards, have been presented since 1979. Since then, only three men have won the award more than once. Klaus Teuber has won four of them. Wolfgang Kramer has won five of them. Michael Kiesling has won two, but both of those were games that he co-designed with Kramer. So let me summarize: Kramer and Teuber have combined to win nine Game of the Year awards and if you exclude those games, no other designer has won more than one.

Knizia has never won an SdJ. His failure to capture one (or, in the minds of many, the failure of the SdJ committee to recognize him) is almost as well known as Kramer and Teuber's remarkable success. Knizia has been nominated eight times, twice as many times as any other designer who has never won an award. With regards to the SdJ at least, Reiner Knizia is the Susan Lucci of German gaming, although it is in no way demeaning to Ms. Lucci's talents to say that Knizia is considerably more accomplished in his creative field than she is in hers.

The Special K trio's domination of the DSP awards has been nothing short of astonishing. A total of eleven DSP awards have been made. Our heroes have won ten of them. The complete count is four for Teuber and three each for Knizia and Kramer. The only game to encroach upon this juggernaut was Max Kobbert's Master Labyrinth, which beat out Teuber's Drunter & Drüber, that year's SdJ winner, in 1991.

Klaus Teuber

Kramer, Teuber, and Knizia have done more than just win DSP's. Between the three of them, they have had 19 games finish in the Top Three in the voting. That's 58% of the total number of Top Three slots. The trio has averaged better than six Top Three finishes apiece; no other designer has had more than two. The three designers have also had a total of 24 Top Five finishes between them (Knizia alone has had ten games finish this high in eleven years!), an average of eight games apiece; no one else has had more than three games finish in the Top Five.

All told, Kramer, Teuber, and Knizia have had no fewer than fifteen games win either an SdJ or a DSP over the last fifteen years. Yes, it's pretty safe to say that this trio has dominated German gaming over that period of time.

What about awards outside of Germany? Well, Counter magazine is generally considered to be the leading boardgame publication around these days, having inherited the mantle from the late, great Sumo. For the past three years, its readers have selected a Game of the Year. There were a total of six games so honored (one year there was a four-way tie). Five of those games were either Knizia or Kramer creations. Over the three years, ten games made the Top Three in the voting. Eight of them were by Kramer or Knizia.

Wolfgang Kramer & Reiner Knizia (l-r) accepting their Gamers' Choice Awards at Essen 2000.

One last example. The Gamers' Choice Awards are presented by the Strategy Gaming Society and are voted upon by a veritable Who's Who from the world of boardgaming. Their inaugural awards—for best two-player and best multi-player game—were made last year. Knizia won for best two-player and had two of the four games nominated in the category. Kramer co-designed the game that won for best multi-player and Teuber, Knizia, and Kramer had five of the ten games nominated.

Alright, clearly the Special K threesome is highly thought of by those who hand out awards. But what about players? Here are a couple of indications demonstrating how popular this trio's games are.

The biggest retailer of games on the Internet is Funagain Games. On their web site, they list their all-time best-selling games. Naturally, less expensive games tend to lead the way, so let's look at games that sell for at least $20. The five best-sellers that fit this category are The Settlers of Catan (Teuber), Tikal (Kramer/Kiesling), Torres (Kramer/Kiesling), Lord of the Rings (Knizia), and El Grande (Kramer/Richard Ulrich). That's awfully impressive, as is the fact that 14 of the 20 best-selling $20+ games come from the Special K bunch. No other game designer is included more than once in the Top Twenty. In addition, Knizia has the best-selling game retailing for at least $10 (Lost Cities).

I'll cite one more case. For the past several years, a gentleman named Aaron Fuegi has been publishing The Internet Top 100 Games List. This is a well known compilation derived from the ratings of over 400 game players. Guess what? The top four games are Euphrat & Tigris (Knizia), Settlers, El Grande, and Modern Art (Knizia). The Special K trio also has 8 of the top 10 games, 11 of the top 15 games, and 13 of the top 20 games. Once again, no other game designer has more than one game in the Top Twenty.

The evidence is exceedingly clear. By any measure you can think of, Wolfgang Kramer, Klaus Teuber, and Reiner Knizia have been the leading designers of German games for the past fifteen years. No other designer is even close. The Special Ks of German Gaming have brought us scores of great games and thousands of hours of unparalleled gaming enjoyment.

Next month, I'll continue this series with a summary of the career of Wolfgang Kramer.

- Larry Levy

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