This year was the worst, and there is no side-stepping or sugar-coating it. Thankfully, some great games were released in 2020 that helped distract from our socially-distanced, pandemic-ravaged hellscape of a world. It will come as no surprise that this year, every game on my list plays well either at minimum player counts or online — or both. Additionally, there are no heavier games on my list this year, as I only met with my game group a handful of times all year, and the last convention I went to, Granite Game Summit, was in early March. Without those outlets, almost all of my gaming was done with my family, making this list skew towards family-weight — even more than my gaming tastes normally dictate.
10. Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion
This is the mash-up of escape room game mechanisms and theme I’ve been waiting for, and designers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim delivered with its execution. It felt like a blend of puzzles from the Exit and Unlock games, along with the narrative elements from the Adventure Games series. The only reason it isn’t higher on this list is the fact you can only play it once. However, it’s completely resettable, so you can pass it along to others to enjoy after your group of meddling kids escape.
On a thematically-related aside, this was a good year for the Scooby-Doo franchise in board gaming, because the long suggested Scooby-Doo re-theme of Betrayal at House on the Hill, Scooby-Doo: Betrayal at Mystery Mansion, was also released.
9. Forgotten Waters
I love pirate-themed games and have been a Plaid Hat fanboy since forever, so Forgotten Waters, their newest Crossroads Game, making my list of favorites is no surprise. It’s interesting to see the Crossroads mechanism used without the game having a traitor, which is something I normally don’t care for. While it’s listed as a 3-7 player game on the box cover, it does have solo and two-player variants that were created by the game’s co-designer, J. Arthur Ellis. However, the game’s core experience is narrative heavy, making it more fun with more players. Fortunately, it plays exceptionally well over video chat, thanks in large part to the publisher creating a Forgotten Waters Remote Assistant that makes remote gameplay fairly seamless.
Bigger picture, I’m also thrilled this game begins a new era for Plaid Hat, as they’ve left Asmodee and are again an independent company. They’ve already announced more Ashes and Summoner Wars, maybe they’ll also give Guardians another shot?
8. Marvel Champions
Out of all the games on this list, only two are games I wouldn’t likely have picked up had 2020 been a normal year. Marvel Champions is one of those. The fact it plays solo, can be played remotely, and features a theme I both enjoy and have a fond nostalgia for all helped sway me from my normal position of avoiding Fantasy Flight’s LCGs. Fortunately, it’s a very streamlined LCG system, seemingly made just for more casual/uninitiated players like myself. I’m also fortunate the content releases are self-contained, as I don’t feel a compulsion to buy everything for it. I’ve just picked up the heroes I want to play (e.g. Hulk) and villains I want to face, and I’ve skipped a fair bit of content. I did get The Rise of Red Skull set for its campaign mode, and have played three of the five villains in the campaign so far. More of my thoughts on Marvel Champions can be found here.
I wrote a review of Flatout Games’ Cascadia last year, which I absolutely loved, and you can read here. Calico is another Flatout title that is right in my wheelhouse of puzzly games that play in under an hour. It’s actually quite deceptive in how much of a brain-burner it is, as it seems on first glance that it wouldn’t be difficult to draft hex tiles and match patterns and colors to score points. But the colors and patterns on the tiles rarely cooperate with the scoring goals, and there is not a lot of extra room on your quilt to maneuver. My biggest knock on Calico is that it’s broadly similar to Cascadia, and I like that one better. And that’s not to say I don’t like Calico — it did make this list. I just prefer woodland creatures to cats.
6. Food Chain Island
Another quality solitaire microgame from Button Shy, and this one plays very differently than previous entries such as Pentaquark and Sprawlopolis. It sets up and plays quickly, and is an engaging puzzle that feels familiar due to similarities with the peg solitaire. When I break it out, I always play it more than once. There is no randomness past the initial card layout, so it may be more of a puzzle than a game, but that’s basically exactly what I am looking for in a solo experience anyway. More of my thoughts on Food Chain Island can be found here.
5. Boomerang: Australia
What’s that, two Scott Almes games in a row?! I was a fan of Almes after my first few experiences with his games (Tiny Epic Galaxies, Harbour, Best Treehouse Ever), followed by a string of games that were big misses for me (Tiny Epic Western, StarFall, Dicey Peaks, Coaster Park, Tiny Epic Quest). However, between 2019’s Tiny Epic Tactics, Food Chain Island, and Boomerang, he’s back on the upswing in my personal estimation.
But I’m off on a tangent. Back to the game at hand, Boomerang is yet more proof that I vastly prefer flip-a-card-and-write games to roll-and-write games. It also shows what a natural fit card-drafting is for a randowriter. The multiple different sets you collect — all of which score differently, none of which are too complex — keep it interesting and allow for tactical gameplay, and keep you uncertain as to what will be available when the cards come back to you. It’s a perfect level of complexity for the time it takes to play, and its friendly theme and straightforward ruleset make it very approachable.
4. The Great Barrier Reef: Card Game
For the next game on this list, we stay down under and visit the Great Barrier Reef in this card game from Joshua Lobkowicz’s Travel Buddy Games, which seeks to merge travel and gaming in portable, accessible games that tie into interesting and exotic locations around the world. This one is a microgame where players compete to build the best coral reef by placing cards with different kinds of fish and coral on them into their personal tableaus, trying to make point-scoring patterns. This is the type of spatial-puzzle game I love, and the fact that it has cute bright artwork that doesn’t detract from its iconography, plays 1-5 players in around half an hour, and is portable enough to travel anywhere with me, makes it a clear winner. It’s seen a lot of time on my table this past year, and I expect that to continue into this year.
3. Unmatched: Cobble & Fog / Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Is it cheating to put two sets on here? I don’t know. Maybe? But it’s my list, so I’m sticking to it. When Unmatched first released, I wasn’t very interested, having never played Star Wars Epic Duels, and not loving the initial character set, or more importantly for me, how they worked with one another thematically (in my opinion, they really didn’t). However, when Cobble & Fog came out, it not only made more sense, as all the characters were from Victorian literature, it had my favorite fictional character of all time, Sherlock Holmes. I picked it up, and was not disappointed at all. Then, they followed it up with the Buffy set. And the best part is, if you squint a little, the sets work together fairly well thematically, given the monster-hunting nature of Buffy and her allies.
2. My City
This is the other game I likely never would have gotten had 2020 been a normal year, but it turned out to be the perfect game at the perfect time for me. I’d never completed a legacy game before My City, and never thought I would. But the combination of the game’s simple polyomino-placement mechanisms, 30-minute per game playtime, and the game playing well with two players made it the perfect game for my wife and I to tackle during the lockdown. In fact, we finished the 24 episode campaign in just over two weeks. And we both enjoyed it so much, we’ve played the “Eternal” game a few times since, and have discussed playing the campaign through again with the other two player boards in the box. The game isn’t perfect. It’s completely lacking in theme, which makes it an outlier for legacy style games. But this Reiner Knizia design is mechanically interesting enough to overcome any thematic shortcomings.
1. Santa Monica
I’m sure everyone feels the chill vibe that Santa Monica exudes, with its slightly faded pseudo-isometric art style and its seashell currency, but it has a special, more personal meaning to me. My wife lived in Venice Beach when we first started dating, and we visited that beach and pier together more than once. The first conversation we ever had about potentially getting married happened on that boardwalk. Playing this game, especially with my wife, puts a smile on my face as only powerful nostalgia can.
I realize the above paragraph makes it seem like I only enjoy the game’s aesthetics because of my nostalgia for the location, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. While I was originally drawn to the game because of its quirky and chill theme, I fell in love with its clever combination of open drafting and tableau building. Santa Monica, like many games on my list this year, is an accessible one, but it also has depth and requires short-term tactical thinking and longer-term planning to do well in. It is deceptively tricky trying to juggle the various scoring goals, which require certain symbol groupings, while managing the tourist and local meeples that occupy your beach tableau. It is glorious and maddening, which to me makes it perfect, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
This one makes the honorable mentions solely because I’ve only played it once. I am itching to play it more, as I love it’s combination of resource management, spatial tile placement, and time track movement. I think it’s possible it deserves a place on my two-player shelf of honor that includes titles like 7 Wonders Duel, Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, Akrotiri, Imhotep Duel, and Targi.
Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade, Coyote, Master Word
I’m lumping these three in together as I only had the opportunity to play them online — Super-Skill Pinball using the print-and-play level and playing over Skype, Coyote using Tabletopia, and Master Word getting a demo from Scorpion Masque over Discord. While I enjoyed all three of them, they weren’t the optimal intended experiences, and it doesn’t feel right having them on this list with that in mind.
I had the opportunity to preview this game ahead of the Kickstarter, and I adore it. The only reason it only made the honorable mentions is that the Kickstarter fulfilment slipped to early 2021. Keep an eye out for it then. For more of my thoughts, see my preview here.
Had this year been different, and I’d attended my normal conventions and had my normal game group to play with, I suspect this list would look a bit different. I didn’t get to play quite a few games that I’d have liked to, such as Viscounts of the West, Lost Ruins of Arnak, Faiyum, and Whistle Mountain, due to the pandemic. But that just wasn’t to be. I can’t wait for things to return to normal and get back into more complex games and games with higher player counts. But until then, the games I’ve listed above have helped me cope with things as they have been, and will unfortunately will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
One final note: I am well aware this list is one of privilege. I’m fortunate to have kept my income and health throughout the year, and to have the disposable income to buy games as a distraction and source of entertainment for myself and my family throughout the year. I realize that is not the case for many others. I hope that next year will be a better year for everyone, health-wise and financially.