Seasons Greetings, Dear Readers! I can hear the silver bells and carols everywhere, so it’s time to share the Dice Hate Me Holiday Gift Guide once again. Unbelievable that this is the 10th year I’ve been putting together this list, and what an unconventional year it’s been. I’ll be honest, I haven’t gotten to play nearly as many games as I have in previous years, so I’m going to make this list a bit unconventional, as well.
This year I’m going to take a closer look at games that are primarily aimed at smaller groups – particularly those games that are designed to play, or at least play well, with 1 or 2 players. I’m doing this with a little help from guide entries from the previous 9 years. I’ll give a quick summary and then my take on why they would make a good fit for the 2020 holidays. There are also plenty of great games in those previous gift guides, so feel free to look them over if you haven’t seen all of them.
Regardless of the hardships of this year, I’m just glad you’re all here to visit – online, in the best socially-distanced way, of course. Enjoy the guide, Happy Holidays, and Happy Gaming!
Best Game for Your Superhero-Loving Uncle Tony or Aunt Natasha
Make no doubt about it, I am a Marvel Zombie. For the youngsters, that’s a fan of Marvel Comics with unwavering loyalty. However, despite that, I still won’t blindly buy just any ol’ thing with Spider-Man or Captain America emblazened on it, games included. We’ve had several Marvel games produced over the years – some good and some very, very bad. As you probably guessed, I wouldn’t recommend this game if it was in the very bad pile. Marvel Champions is a cooperative game where players take on the roles of Marvel heroes – Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, and Iron Man in the base game – trying to stop the schemes of a (somewhat) legendary villain. Players do this through the use of customizable decks that are primarily geared toward one of four Hero attributes: Protection, Aggression, Justice, and Leadership. Each hero has a set of cards that are only theirs to use, but the rest of the deck can be mixed and matched from a collection of “generic” cards that are geared toward one of those aforementioned attributes. If customization is not your thing, each Hero comes with a suggested pre-built deck that is easy to set up and offers wonderful opportunities and thematics. The whole game provides thematics in spades, however, such as each Hero having a specific nemesis that might pop up during battle, or being able to swap into their alter-egos (like Peter Parker for Spider-Man) which gives them different powers, typically less powerful attacks, but the ability to heal damage. Since this is a Living Card Game there are several Hero and Villain expansion packs to add variety, like Captain America, Ms. Marvel, and The Green Goblin. And, although this can play up to four, it’s actually best with one or two, making it perfect for this list. This is one of the best games of 2020 and I cannot recommend it enough. Excelsior!
Marvel Champions: The Card Game is a game for 1-4 superheroes by Michael Boggs, Nate French, and Caleb Grace from Fantasy Flight Games. It retails for about $50 and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Best Stuffers for the Stocking
The Kringle Caper
There’s something strange in the North Pole neighborhood – everyone is acting odd and Christmas Eve plans are all askew. It’s almost like the plot from a Rankin-Bass Christmas special! It’s up to you to solve the mystery – a mystery that I truly can’t tell you any more about because it’s secret. This is an escape room game, after all, which means you have to unravel everything and escape the “room” by solving a series of puzzles in the best way possible, as quickly as possible. The Kringle Caper presents this mystery to you with a small deck of 18 cards and a companion app (presented completely on a website) that can be played on any internet-enabled computer, phone, or tablet. The app will count down the time for you and your possible puzzle-solving party, as well as provide hints, if you need them. The puzzle should take about an hour to solve for most, and there’s a lot of game packed into this tiny package. It’s charming, it’s festive, it’s challenging, and it’s fun. What more could you want to find in your stocking, coal?
The Kringle Caper is a game for 1-? escape enthusiasts by Jonathan Chaffer from Grand Gamers Guild. It retails for $12 and you can buy it directly from GGG online here (although you may be able to find it at your Favorite Local Game Store).
If anyone’s been paying attention over the years, I love games from the design duo of Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback. Since their rockstar debut game Fleet I’ve found that they’ve designed some of the best card games out there over the past eight years. Stellar continues the legacy. In this card game players are amateur astronomers, trying to fill up their notebooks and their night sky with instances of five celestial objects – moons, planets, black holes, asteroids, and interstellar clouds. Each round a player will choose one of five available celestial objects from the lineup and place it either in their night sky or their notebook. Then, the number on that card will correspond to one of the other cards left in the lineup. The player must then take that card and place it in the location opposite of where they placed the first card. The trick is to balance the types of cards placed into your night sky with the sequentially-numbered cards of the same type in your notebook, as those act as multipliers for scoring at game end. Players may also score for number majority in one of three night sky sections, or a diversity bonus for including all five objects in their sky. It sounds a bit more complicated than it is, but the game is also an incredibly rewarding puzzle. Plus, the artwork is simply out of this world. Stellar is the perfect gift for that special someone with stars in their eyes.
Stellar is a game for 2 stargazers by Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback from Renegade Game Studios. It retails for about $16 and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Best Game for Your Favorite Fan of Victorian Horror & Suspense
Unmatched: Cobble & Fog
The year is 1885. The city, London. A cloaked figure emerges from the darkness and fog – a man, suddenly illuminated by a match, lighting the pipe clenched in his teeth. He bends to investigate the neck of a woman’s body lying face down in the Whitechapel back alley. “Vampires”, Holmes mutters to himself. “We’ll have to do something about this.” And, thus, the game is afoot! The Unmatched system of games is a head-to-head, two-player tactical battle played out with special decks of cards that are custom made for various figures (and, often, their sidekicks) from history, mythology, and literary time and space. In Cobble & Fog, those figures are Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson, Dracula and his vampiric Sisters, the enigmatic Invisible Man, and the dual personalities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The game is full of myriad possibility as each character has special abilities, weaknesses, and tactical specialties. Gameplay is fast, furious, and frightfully simple – draw a card, move fighters (and, possibly, boost their move with a card played from hand), then either play a card to Scheme (providing various in-game effects) or Attack a viable target by playing a card. The defender can choose a card to defend, then winner and loser is calculated. Last Hero standing at the end of the game wins! Unmatched was released at Gen Con in 2019 by Restoration Games, the system a reimagining of the classic Star Wars: Epic Duels. There are lots of other characters out there to acquire and pit against these Victorian figures, including the size-changing Alice and her Jabberwocky, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, a pack of velociraptors, or even Bruce Lee. Your holiday gaming possibilities with this system is simply unmatched.
Unmatched: Cobble & Fog is a game for 2 Victorian pugilists by Rob Daviau, Justin D. Jacobson, and Chris Leder from Restoration Games and Mondo Games. It retails for about $32 and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Best Game for Couples Who Want More Wonder in Their Holidays
7 Wonders: Duel
To be honest, I’m embarrassed that this is the first time 7 Wonders: Duel has appeared in the gift guide. I’ve recommended the original 7 Wonders in app form (back in 2018), but nary a mention of its two-player cousin. Let’s rectify that. In the game, players are two civilizations vying to be the greatest in the world. They’ll do this by drafting cards from a pyramid-like structure over three ages. Cards will provide raw materials used to build other cards, some will provide military might, others will grant you scientific gain, and others are just worth straight up victory points. There are three ways to win in 7 Wonders: Duel – immediately during the game through military might or scientific advancement, or by total points after the three ages have been played out. For those who are acquainted with the original 7 Wonders, Duel will be a cinch to pick up and play, and many may find that this streamlined version is superior to the original, especially when paired with the Pantheon expansion that introduces leaders with variable powers. It’s almost a must have. I recommend you give the gift of wonder this holiday season.
7 Wonders: Duel is a game for 2 civilization builders by Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala from Repos Production. It retails for about $32 and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store. You can also play 7 Wonders: Duel on your smartphone or tablet with the excellent app available on Apple Store and Google Play.
Summary: Two players use historically-accurate, dual-use cards – a la Twilight Struggle and 1960 – to pit the Nixon administration against The Washington Post at the height of the Watergate scandal. History buffs and fans of political intrigue (and tug-of-war gameplay) will be enthralled.
2020 take: This is an intimate two-player only affair that just might appeal to quite a few considering this year’s political climate. It was also one of my Game of the Year candidates for 2019.
Watergate is a game for 2 resourceful reporters by Matthias Cramer from Capstone Games. It retails for $34.95 and you can buy it online or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Fleet: The Dice Game
Summary: The Ridback Boys are back with a roll-and-write set in the high stakes fishing world of their award-winning game Fleet. Players take turns rolling and drafting dice to buy licenses and launch boats, and build up their town, acquiring special abilities, bonuses, and, hopefully, lots and lots of combos.
2020 take: Fleet: The Dice Game plays fantastically with two players, and it can even be played solo! Bonus points – if you want to get the Fleet feeling, you can play the original game online on Board Game Arena, and a Fleet: the Dice Game app has been in development and hopefully will be available soon.
Fleet: The Dice Game is a game for 1-4 fancy fishermen by Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback from Eagle-Gryphon Games. It retails for $38 and you can buy it online or at your Favorite Local Game Store (maybe).
Graphic Novel Adventures
Summary: In this series of 15 graphic novels, readers take an active role in each story, much like in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. These sequential comics dive a bit deeper, though, and offer a variety of roleplaying and strategy elements perfect for just about anyone on your list.
2020 take: These books are absolutely perfect for this year – they are incredibly addictive and will provide hours of fun reading and gameplay for the solo adventurer. Plus, the incredible selection of stories, from westerns, to werewolves, to pirates, and even Sherlock Holmes means there’s a book or two suitable for everyone.
Graphic Novel Adventures is for one pulp adventurer from Van Ryder Games. You can buy them online or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Summary: It’s a worker placement wonderland! Players take on the roles of elves helping Santa assemble all those wonderful toys for Christmas Eve, carefully deciding between old-fashioned wooden quality and new-fangled plastic speed – all with a little help from the reindeer.
2020 take: Although Santa’s Workshop plays up to 5, it really does scale wonderfully to two. And for those with sharp kids 8 and older, the game is fairly easy to grasp. Plus, hey, it’s a Christmas game. For Christmastime. What are you waiting for, Santa to bring it?
Santa’s Workshop is a game for 2-5 dutiful elves from Keith Ferguson. It retails for about $60 and you can order it online or ask for it at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Summary: Unspeakable horrors are emerging and all of humanity is at stake – again. Welcome to Arkham. In this Living Card Game from Fantasy Flight, you take on the role of intrepid explorers trying to stop ancient evil from spreading. You’ll do this by investigating the sites of various campaign locales, using your special skills and trying to maintain your sanity, all through card play. Arkham Horror: TCG is immersive, fun, and affordable; a true joy for fans of things Lovecraftian, or those who wish to begin dabbling in the Mythos.
2020 take: Arkham Horror: TCG is perfect for these socially-distanced times as it plays just as well with one as it does with two. Plus, since its release in 2016, Fantasy Flight Games has released a ton of expansion campaign content, including some books featuring popular characters that come with special cards you can use in the game.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a game for 1-2 intrepid investigators from Nate French and Matthew Newman. It retails for about $40 and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Bottom of the 9th
Summary: It’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied. The underdogs are up to bat. Can they score a run, or will the pitching powerhouses send it into extra innings where odds are in their favor? Bottom of the 9th features tons of unique players with powers that activate through a predictive token system and special dice. The streamlined gameplay is easy to pick up but also deceptively deep – kinda like baseball.
2020 take: Since you weren’t able to go out to the old ball game this summer, why not bring it home this winter? Bottom of the 9th is designed for a 2-player faceoff, but the solo challenge mode is also incredibly rewarding. (Full disclosure – I published this. But that should just let you know that I think it’s awesome)
Bottom of the 9th is a game for 1-2 cracker jacks from Darrell Louder and Mike Mullins. It retails for $19.95 (with two expansions at $4.95 each) and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store. You can also play Bottom of the 9th on the official app – check out all the details on the official site!
Summary: Fastrack is full of fast, frenzied flicking. Two players face off and use rubber bands to send wooden discs flying across the board and through a small opening in a wooden divider. The first player with no more discs left wins. If you’re looking for some holiday action and you don’t have the room or money for an air hockey table, Fastrack will do nicely.
2020 take: We’ve all been cooped up for so long and most haven’t been able to participate in or watch many sports. Fastrack won’t totally fix that, but it will get your adrenaline going like a good race or basketball game.
Fastrack is a game for 2 wood flingers from Jean-Marie Albert. It retails for about $29 and you can buy it online here or at your Favorite Local Game Store.
Summary: Trying to describe the gameplay in Gravwell is a bit like trying to teach theoretical physics to a toddler – it ain’t easy. Basically, players use drafted cards (played simultaneously) to move their ships around a spiral, trying to escape the black hole at the center. However, which direction each ship eventually goes depends on the gravitational pull of the closest object. You may head toward your destination, or you may end up further back than when you started. It’s a delightful puzzle, and still unlike most any game you’ll play.
2020 take: This game is still as fresh as a daisy, and that’s a welcome thing in these trying times. Plus, you can play it solo!
Gravwell is a game for 1-4 space jockeys by Corey Young. It retails for about $30 and you can buy it online here or from your Favorite Local Game Store.
Summary: If you’ve been reading the Gift Guide over the years, you’ll know already that I’m a big fan of the Cthulhu Mythos. There’s almost always one recommendation for some adventures in Arkham and beyond. This year there’s two, because this guide wouldn’t be complete without some dice-chucking Lovecraftian fun from Sir Richard Launius. The usual Arkham Files set-up is evident – one or more investigators brave the emerging evil in Arkham. You’ll guide these investigators through various tasks using loads of custom dice. Special ability and equipment cards will aid you along the way. The game is easy to understand but never easy to beat – Launius likes to keep his cyclopean horror authentic. But that just means there’s plenty of opportunity for standing dice rolls and lots of cheering when you overcome those stacked odds and save the world.
2020 take: Elder Sign plays perfectly well with one or two players (in fact, it’s often best this way), and it’s easy enough for players to control a couple of investigators each if they want more support. There are plenty of expansions for the game, as well. I highly recommend the Gates of Arkham expansion which Launius designed to allow players to revisit Arkham Horror 2nd edition with Elder Sign’s streamlined mechanics.
Elder Sign is a game for 1 to 8 intrepid investigators, by Richard Launius for Fantasy Flight Games. It retails for about $30 and you can pick it up online at Amazon.com, or at your Favorite Local Game Store. For more information, check out the official Dice Hate Me review! You can also play Elder Sign: Omens on your computer or smartphone – check out all the details on the official site!
This was a particularly good year for board games, but unfortunately most of the games on this list don’t really fit the criteria to be included. The ones that are good with smaller player counts, like Defenders of the Realm, The Road to Canterbury, and Can’t Stop, are out of print and, sadly, difficult to find.
Mr. Jack (revised)
Summary: Jack the Ripper is on the loose in London and must be stopped before he escapes! There’s just one problem – one player IS Jack the Ripper, and the other player has no idea which of eight characters on the board is really Jack. There’s lots of wonderful deduction and cat-and-mouse gameplay in this crime-filled classic.
2020 take: This is one of the best two-player games ever made. Don’t let the grisly theme deter you from gifting it for the holidays – after the year we’ve had this game will feel tame.
Mr. Jack is a board game for 2 nemeses by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, and retails for about $30. The game has been out of print for a bit, but the revised edition is available for preorder here. It might arrive after Christmas but just stretch the holidays out with a late gift!
Although I provide convenient links to buy many of the games in the gift guide online, I highly encourage all of you dear readers to shop at and support your local game store. Without the heroic efforts of the intrepid brick and mortar store owners, the hobby wouldn’t be half as amazing as it is today.