Your Favorite Designers’ Favorite Board Games: R. Eric Reuss

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We gamers are lucky -- thanks to the rich resource that is BoardGameGeek and the niche, interactive nature of this hobby, many of the best-known designers have BGG accounts. This allows us to interact with them in a way that's rather unlike most other artistic mediums, and allows for something else, as well: Access to their public BGG rankings. It's like if Martin Scorsese went onto IMDB and started making must-watch lists of his favorite films.

Welcome to Your Favorite Designers' Favorite Board Games, an occasional series chronicling how well-known board game designers rate and rank other games. For this edition, we’ll take a look at R. Eric Reuss, the designer behind the not-so-cult favorite Spirit Island.

The Designer: R. Eric Reuss

BGG Username: darker

Member since: August 2006

Number of games rated: 642

Average rating: 6.24

R. Eric Reuss ditched the BoardGameGeek recommended rating system long ago. He wasn’t giving enough games a rating of 9 or 10, which he says he didn’t like.

“The standard BGG ratings-guidance...uses the phrase ‘always want to play’,” says Reuss, “and that's something that's quite rare for me -- what I viscerally want to play in any given moment depends heavily on mood, what I've played recently, who I'd be playing with, the situation/environment, what games my brain happens to be chewing on at the time, and more.”

So where BGG says a 10 is “Outstanding - will always enjoy playing and expect this will never change,” Reuss’ ratings say “Extreme enthusiasm. A personal favorite, or a game I really look forward to playing.” It’s a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

As a result, 7 games have managed to satisfy his requirements for a perfect 10 game. They include one of his most-played games (Argent: The Consortium) and a well-liked Splotter game (The Great Zimbabwe). Also included is a curious little 2-player card game called Twilight or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a trick-taking German design first released in 1997 and which appears to now be long out-of-print. I kind of really want to play it now, though.

But there’s one game rated at a 10 in Reuss’ rankings that’s particularly eye-catching, and body-bending: Twister. Yeah, that Twister. The party-staple, full-body dexterity game of the 1970s. It’s barely a board game. Reuss acknowledges as much.

“...It's effectively a macro-scale dexterity game of positioning and topology; it's just hard to get tactical until/unless you have a baseline level of ability at the physical portion,” he says. “So... half board game, half sport?”

There’s some strategy there, Reuss argues, as well as extra considerations for crowding of the “board” when scaling up or down in player count. He says he used to play a few times a year with a monthly gaming group, but that was before he had kids and many have since moved away, a tale all gamers can relate to.

Diving deeper in Reuss’ rankings, it’s hard to pick out any real patterns. His tastes favor the mainstream and the modern; among his games that received a 9 are some of the more recognizable titles of the past couple of years: Gloomhaven, Great Western Trail, Sidereal Confluence, Fog of Love.

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But there are also some oddities in there, things like Climb! a rock-climbing dexterity game (Reuss is a fan of rock-climbing, but admits it’s been far too long since he’s been), and 1000 Blank White Cards, which is, you guessed it, just 1,000 white cards accompanied by a very loose ruleset that you basically make up as you go along.

Reuss says he usually likes his games “to involve hard/interesting choices and tradeoffs,” and has some mechanics and themes he gravitates toward, like games that do interesting things with space.

“I love -- and have always loved -- spatial considerations in my games,” he says. “Paths, spaces, networks, topologies, connections, stacking, blocking... it's all great.”

He also says he has a fondness for “resource conversion and economies in general.”

On the other end of the spectrum, he says he’s “generally lukewarm” on social deduction games, and generally opposed to games where the players’ choices don’t matter.

But often, a single bad mechanic stands out to him, which he associates with a specific game and which he calls “dynamics.” Some quoted examples:

  • The "Mille Bornes" dynamic: you are locked out of doing anything until an abitrary event you have no control over occurs at some unknown point in the future.

  • The "Kill Dr. Lucky" dynamic: players take successive runs at victory until everyone runs out of "stop someone" cards, at which point a player wins.

  • The "Risk" dynamic: the game can go on indefinitely, and there's player elimination.

  • The "Power Grid" dynamic: you want to stay carefully in last place in order to take advantage of catch-up mechanisms, then spring into the lead at just the right moment.

It’s easy to see this influence in his lowest rankings: Mille Bornes received a 1. Munchkin received a 2 and was assigned its own “dynamic,” the “take turns being stopped by other players until the stopping cards run out, handing one player victory” dynamic. You can see games throughout his 2, 3, and 4 rankings that are peppered with randomness, or a lack of player agency.

It also begins to make sense why he ranks certain other games so highly, why the abstract Santorini -- with perfect information and minimal chance -- merited a 9 in his rankings.

It’s fitting then that his first game, 2011’s Fealty, was based on another abstract -- chess. Reuss says Fealty was an exception though; he doesn’t believe his designs are typically inspired by a single game. Spirit Island, he said, was inspired more by the genre or trope of colonization that serves as the theme of many games than any direct influence from another game.

He says he particularly admires the diversity and varying designs of Vlaada Chvatil, designer of such games as Galaxy Trucker (which Reuss gave a 7 -- that’s defined as “I generally like this game, though it doesn't set my blood on fire,” in his personalized rating system), Codenames (which Reuss gave an 8) and Codenames: Duet (which received a 9).

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Ultimately, he says, he rates games based on how much he enjoys playing them, and whether he wants to play them again, with perfection of design and mechanics taking a backseat.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Reuss’ rankings, at least in the context of this series, is how normal they are. He has a number of obscure games in his rankings, but also plenty of mainstream ones, and his rankings look like the rankings of a person who’s simply been playing games for a long time, and really loves them.

It makes sense then, that Reuss would create such a broadly appealing, crowd-pleaser of a game as Spirit Island, with mechanics familiar enough to draw in a wide array of gamers, along with hard choices, variability, and complexity to keep heavier gamers happy.

“Just about everything I play influences how I think of games and what I know they can do,” he says. “Some claim more space in my brain than others, but they're all in there.”