Designer Spotlight: Kevin Wilson

Escape from 100 Million BC

Kevin Wilson is one of those designers whose name always sounded familiar to me, but when pressed, I would have struggled to name any of his games.  He’s a Fantasy Flight big box designer isn’t he?

He certainly used to be.  Fantasy Flight employ a large number of game designers and encourage collaboration.  It wouldn’t be unusual to find four or five different designer names on their big box games.

Kevin Wilson is a prolific game designer who has worked on many Fantasy Flight titles as well as, more recently, games from other publishers.  There’s one stand-out aspect of his games that I’ve come to associate with anything he puts his hand to though: theme.

Kevin WilsonName: Kevin Wilson

Age: 42

Nationality: American

Year of first published game: 2003

Highest ranked game on BGG: Descent 2nd Ed

Known for:

Selected Awards:

  • 2003 Origins Awards Best Board Game Design (A Game of Thrones)

As you can see from the list of games above, Kevin Wilson has designed relatively few games by himself so it’s actually a little difficult to get an idea of his design style.  However, one thing that all of those games clearly have in common is that they’re big games with plenty of theme.

He has been quoted as saying, “A great game is a marriage of a theme that excites me and a set of mechanics that I’m proud of.”  Whereas some designers devise an interesting set of mechanics first and then look to fit a theme around them, Kevin Wilson clearly prioritises the theme and then works out a set of mechanics that fits the theme.

Let’s have a look at some of his games and then we should get a good idea of what he’s like as a designer.

Arkham HorrorArkham Horror

Players: 1 – 8

Time: 120 – 240 mins

This is the Granddaddy of them all.  Arkham Horror might be Kevin Wilson’s most famous game.  It is a massive, sprawling, adventure game of Lovecraftian horror.  It takes an age to play, but creates atmosphere and immersion like nothing else.  I love it.

Players take on characters investigating the strange cultist goings-on in the small town of Arkham.  They have to explore locations to gain items and clues to help them hold back the encroaching darkness.  As the game continues, supernatural gates to other worlds begin opening around the town and grotesque monsters start emerging through them.

The game becomes a race to try to gain enough clues to seal the gates before the town becomes overrun.  If players aren’t fast enough, the game culminates in an epic battle as a Great Old One is finally able to bridge the gap between worlds and cross over into Arkham.  If players seal the gates fast enough, or defeat the Great Old One, they win.  Otherwise, the world ends!

It is a terrific adventure, but not for the faint-hearted.  You’re looking at a good 3 – 4 hours for most games and there’s not a tremendous amount of strategy involved.  It does a great job of creating difficult decisions though.  Do we fight the monster that’s just spawned or try to sneak around it to get that clue?

The whole game feels tense and is very much about the feelings provided rather than the mechanics of play.  The more recent Eldritch Horror attempted to provide a similar experience in a shorter time span, but I still prefer Arkham Horror.  For me, the theme comes through far more in Arkham Horror.  Play with a spooky soundtrack for extra atmosphere!

CivilizationSid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game

Players: 2 – 4

Time: 120 – 240 mins

As a teenager, I spent way too much time playing Sid Meier’s Civilization on the PC, but I loved every minute of it!  The boardgame implementation does a great job of recreating the feeling that the computer game provided.  It’s also one of the best games for getting an idea of Kevin Wilson’s style as he designed it alone.

Once again, it’s big and takes several hours to play, but it has remarkably little interaction.  It’s very much an empire building game.  The buildings and technologies do a great job of providing the civ-building theme.

Combat is a little clunky: it’s done with card play and is probably the only part of the game that I’m not keen on.  It’s relatively easy to protect yourself from invaders by researching the right technologies, so combat tends to be focussed on the native villages that inhabit the lands that you are exploring.

It’s a classic 4X game, but the focus is more on ‘eXploit’ than ‘eXterminate’.  Gaining and making use of the best resources is a key part of any winning strategy.  It’s virtually impossible to achieve a military victory against half-decent opponents.  Some people will like this; some people won’t.

I think this is the main reason why the game hasn’t received more love, but for me personally I prefer games that don’t focus on combat so much.  It ticks all the boxes for me.  Even if you never played the computer game, if you like civ-building at all, you need to try this one.

DescentDescent 2nd Ed

Players: 2 – 5

Time: 120 mins

Descent is the archetypal one-vs-many dungeon crawl and it does it as well as any of them.  Being set in the Runebound universe, it brings lots of character, theme and backstory to the adventures.

The miniatures are lovely – in fact, as with all Fantasy Flight games, all the components are great.  There is a campaign so there is loads of replay value in the box, although the game provides ways for you to jump in with any particular scenario you like.

It can be a bit fiddly.  There are so many items and weapons, each with its own special ability, that it can be easy to miss things.  You also need a willing, but not punishing, Overlord.

This is probably the main criticism of the game.  If the person playing the Overlord is too good at their job, they can crush unwary heroes before they even get a chance.  They need to treat their role as more of a GM than a competitor.

With the right group, it’s a blast though.  It provides bucketloads of adventure and, being a Fantasy Flight product, there are more expansions than you can shake a stick at, so it will keep you going for a long time.

Whereas before, I used to be dimly aware of Kevin Wilson’s name, now I actively notice it on any box.  It speaks to me of theme and adventure.  A game of escapism, where I can lose myself in the worlds he brings to life, and let the hours slip by.  Which is your favourite Kevin Wilson game?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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[…] always associate Corey Konieczka with Kevin Wilson.  They have both designed a significant number of big-box Fantasy Flight games, and frequently […]

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