Your Favorite Designers' Favorite Board Games: Jeroen Doumen (of Splotter games)
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 Jeroen Doumen, one of the masterminds behind well-known heavy-game publisher Splotter Spellen.
The Designer: Jeroen Doumen
BGG Username: jmdsplotter
Member since: November 2002
Number of games rated: 4617 (as of Jan. 16, 2018)
Average rating: 5.83
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Jeroen Doumen knows more about games than you do. Not only is he one half (with Joris Wiersinga) of the design duo responsible for such hefty, ruthless games as Food Chain Magnate, The Great Zimbabwe, and Antiquity, but he’s also rated an almost unbelievable number of games on BGG -- more than 4,600 of them.
In the early 2000s, Doumen’s name was attached to games on a semi-regular basis, one per year or so. But beginning around 2009, that slowed significantly, to about one game every three years (he’s one of two designers on the just-released Pandemic spinoff Rising Tide, but the last game prior to that was FCM in 2015).
It’s easy to imagine Doumen sitting with a spreadsheet, planning out upcoming plays and inventorying those already completed. At night, he sits down with a new game and all the accessories ever made for it and gently splits the shrinkwrap. Then, like a chess grandmaster analyzing an unexpected strategy, he coldly scrutinizes the game’s every nuance, judging it against his vast mental repository of other games and applying his doctorate in mathematics (he really has one) where appropriate.
In reality, though, Doumen’s gaming habit is much more social.
“Next to our playtest group(s) I enjoy the company of three others: a local group that plays heavier games every Saturday evening, another local group (with overlapping members) that plays lighter games on weeknights, and a monthly group of mainly old-colleagues with whom I play more party-like games (but also experience games like Time Stories),” Doumen said. “Next to that I play quite a bit of 2p games with my girlfriend too.”
Doumen’s rankings also include a ton of promo items, expansions, mini-expansions, and accessories, but the sheer volume of ratings (and the number of exclusively German titles) makes a deep dive difficult. The BGG ratings display 300 results per page, and Doumen’s ratings span more than a dozen pages. Additionally, the general lack of comments to explain the ratings on a consistent basis means finding an underlying narrative is difficult.
One thing that that does quickly stand out, though: Doumen is a tough critic. His average score of 5.84 is on the lower end of the overall rankings I’ve seen.
Doumen said he tries to adhere to BGG’s suggested rating scale -- where a 10 is “outstanding” and a 1 is “awful” -- but notes that “with a large collection it's quite hard to get above a 5,” which BGG defines as “slightly boring, take it or leave it.”
As of Dec. 18, only 22 of his rankings had placed a game at 9 or higher. At the other end of the spectrum, 30 games received a rating of 2 or lower. His all-time lowest-ranked game, with a score of just 1, is Roller Coaster Hippo, a Cranium-esque party game with very little info available on its BGG page. His 2 ratings are a smattering of obscure titles and barely-games like Bingo.
One comment, left on the 1998 chess-like game Logistic, offers a glimpse into Doumen’s designer’s brain: “Rules seem incomplete - game easily grinds to a halt with players blocking each other from doing any meaningful moves,” Doumen writes, before offering a possible fix for the problem. “Maybe more pieces should be able to capture opposing pieces?”
One of Doumen’s other scattered comments suggests an expansion to Vital Lacerda’s CO2 helps fix the game somewhat. (He gave the base game a 7.25, the Arctic expansion a 7.5).
Ultimately, Doumen said he tries to provide a well-rounded rating of a game, and weighs how much fun a game is alongside the elegance and efficiency of its design. He even says that a dungeon-crawler he and Wiersinga spent more than a year designing was scrapped because, “when we had fine-tuned it we looked at each other and said there was no fun anymore in playing the game, even though everything worked and was decently balanced.”
“I think my ratings/rankings take both [design and fun] into account, but ultimately they try and capture how I feel about the game. It may also be quite dependent on the player count I played with, or even the group,” he said.
Given Doumen’s pedigree as one of the premier heavy-game designers, a few of his rankings may surprise some: He gave dice-rolling, card-drafting, city-building game Machi Koro a 7, with 26 plays clocked. Machi Koro registered as brief blip on many people’s radars as a fun, fast, filler with little staying power (unless it’s staying on the shelf at Target), but a 7 ranking puts it well above Doumen’s overall average (and above the overall BGG rating for the game).
Other games on the lighter end of the spectrum also get Doumen’s relative stamp of approval. He gave Betrayal at House on the Hill a 7.25. Dixit gets an 8. Deck-building forefather Dominion also gets an 8, along with a number of its expansions.
Doumen also cites Carcassonne, Bohnanza, and Geschenkt ist noch zu teuer as among the other lighter games he particularly enjoys. In an email, he included Race for the Galaxy with these games, though some may dispute that classification of a “light” game.
There are other recognizable titles in Doumen’s upper rankings -- Puerto Rico, Keyflower, and Bohnanza all make appearances near the top end of his scores. But his real love is obvious.
Nearly all of his 9-and-above scores go to 18xx titles. His highest ranking goes to 1841, with a rating of 9.49. Interestingly, the two designers previously profiled in this series, Cole Wehrle and Uwe Rosenberg also ranked 18xx games at the top of their rankings, but neither rated 1841 at all.
Doumen says there are some specific mechanics that make 1841 stand out above the rest.
“There's two main things,” Doumen says. “It was the first 18xx title that I played that included mergers of companies. And secondly, I really like the hyperinflation in the game - both prices and earnings skyrocket like crazy. Not sure I would call it my favorite though, but that may be psychological and not wanting to pick just one…”
Among the other 18xx titles to earn Doumen’s stamp of approval: 1817, 18OE, 1846, and 1848. He and Wiersinga, his design partner, also cited 1830 as among their favorite games in a podcast episode a few years back. That game got an 8.75 from Doumen (both Wehrle and Rosenberg gave it a 10).
Not all of these are drive-by rankings: he’s clocked dozens of plays on some games, and many more on others, including the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where his playcount numbers in the hundreds. It’s an LCG with an expansive list of additional scenarios, which Doumen said he plays to completion, enjoying the story that accompanies each scenario.
Going through Doumen’s ratings, in a way, helps explain why he and Wiersinga make games that are kind of unlike any others on the market. With such a wide variety of tastes and a seemingly insatiable desire to play and understand new games, they have access to a particularly deep pool of knowledge simply by knowing what else is already out there. Authors often say the best way to learn to write is to read prolifically; so for a board game designer, perhaps there’s no better way to improve your craft than to play every game you can get your hands on.
Many Splotter games don’t have obvious direct influences, but Doumen admits to several Avalon-Hill inspired designs: “Indonesia started as an economic Brittania version, Duck Dealer is a Merchant of Venus homage, and Greed started with a Kremlin-like personnel pyramid.”
But maybe Splotter’s games feel so unique precisely because they pull elements from so many different places, and then expand on them, until the source material is obfuscated behind a screen of interwoven mechanics.
“Sometimes I argue too much against design ideas, as parts have been done in other games already,” Doumen said. “But you always reuse at least some things; though we always try to at least have some original part in there as well. I think our design style mainly caters to our own personal preferences - both Joris and myself like heavier, economic games (and I don't always like direct conflict). So that's the type of games we tend to design.”
Doumen said it’s “unlikely” Splotter will have any major announcements upcoming yet this year (beyond already-planned reprints of existing games), but whatever comes next, it seems sure to be unlike anything that’s come before.