Best Board Games of 2020
Since relocating to Fort Wayne, the thing I’ve missed more than any is getting to hang out with each of you and share the board game I’m playing at any time. Moving to Indiana, in the middle of a plague, and without all the amazing conventions this year, has meant I’ve played fewer board games this year, but I still wanted to share with you the list of things I’ve loved in 2020. In no particular order, because I can’t rank three things, much less ten things I’ve enjoyed. Pendulum (Designed by Travis P Jones/Published by Stonemaier Games) I’m not convinced that anyone does single-player mode in a multiplayer game better than the folks at Stonemaier Games, and Pendulum was, like Tapestry before it, an absolute home run for me. In Pendulum we get a worker placement and engine-building game with a time management mechanic, using sand timers to account for various actions. Like nearly every release from Stonemaier this also has a stunning table presence, and a well-written automa lets me play alone when I can’t play with others.
Kitara (Designed by Erik B Vogel/Published by IELLO) Since I do play every IELLO game that enters the country you will of course find some of them on this list. First up, Kitara, a combination card drafting and area control game I fell in love with for one simple reason: there is no conservative path to victory. Most ‘dudes on map’ games you play have a place to hide and bide your time--we call that place “Australia” in honor of an old dudes on a map game. Not being able to do that here, and constantly being on the attack, made this a game I fell in love with in 2020.
Azul: Summer Pavilion (Designed by Michael Kiesling/Published by Next Move Games) If you’ve played Azul you will recognize many of these mechanics; factories full of tiles, we’re going to draft them, and we’re going to play them on our boards. I found Summer Pavilion to be a more intuitive gaming experience, the method by which we place tiles on the board made more sense to me this time, and this game is just so darned pretty. These are my favorite Azul tiles so far.
Pan Am (Designed by Prospero Hall/Published by Funko Games) An economic simulator set in the golden age of air travel, Pan Am sees the players competing to build the best airline; fighting over landing rights to complete routes, buying planes to fly longer routes, and selling those routes to Pan Am for a profit. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in the auction mechanics of this game, and it’s been great fun as an introductory piece for less experienced gamers as well as something that more experienced gamers found depth in. The entire thing has a great vintage feeling, and really, just look at those darn planes. They don’t tell you in the rulebook, but if you’re an old school aviation nerd you’ll recognize the Ford Trimotor, the Boeing 314 Clipper, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, and the Boeing 707 Jet. It’s totally worth it to just play with vintage plastic jets. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion (Designed by Isaac Childres/Published by Cepholair Games) I never wanted Gloomhaven. I don’t love cooperative gaming (as anyone who has talked to me in the store knows) and I don’t see the need for a board game that a video game can do better. I love a good solo RPG video game, and during pandemic I finally chose to give lightweight Gloomhaven a try. I set up my own little party of four adventurers, knowing that this would be a solo game for me, and off we went! After finishing Jaws of the Lion I bought the full version of Gloomhaven. I enjoyed myself that much. If you at all enjoy a dungeon crawl, but you’re not sure about the cost of big Gloomhaven, give this a try. Call to Adventure: The Stormlight Archive (Designed by Chris and Johnny O'Neal/Published by Brotherwise Games) Speaking of solo games, this has been getting regular time on my table as well. Playing Call to Adventure as a solo game isn’t the same as playing it with other people, instead we have a big bad to fight, but I absolutely love the entire series of games. This standalone version is based on Brandon Sanderson’s book series, The Stormlight Archive, and functions as both a standalone game or an expansion, with instructions on how to add in cards from the original base game or from Name of the Wind. The artwork here is evocative of the Sanderson series, the runes (that replace dice for randomization) are an amazing tactile feel, and this solo mode feels like the fight against Odium. If you enjoy fantasy writing at all, the series is well worth the read as well. The day before I started writing this I finished The Rhythm of War, the fourth book in this megaseries.
Paris (Designed by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer/Published by Game Brewer) Sell a Francophile a game about building in Paris after the World’s Fair? Sure. That’s an easy sell. From the moment I put this rondel-style board on my table, and put up my little cardboard Arc de Triomphe, I was absolutely in love. The player turns are short and quick, so people aren’t left out for long periods of time, and the scoring is both varied and sensical. It’s the full package of midweight Euro in a theme that I absolutely love.
King of Tokyo: Dark Edition If you’re new to King of Tokyo, this is the best base version of the game you can buy. The artwork has a stunning noir feel, all the pieces have a matte treatment on them that makes them a joy to touch, and the dice are big, chunky, things that feel awesome in your hands. If you’re an experienced King of Tokyo player, you’ll appreciate the upgraded components and the new rules included, especially the Wickedness Tracker, which feels like a lightweight version of Power Up! This single print run product is running low in our warehouses, so when it’s gone it’s gone. Pandemic: Season 0 Remember when I said I hate cooperative games? I haven’t played this version of Pandemic with other human beings, but Pandemic might be the primary reason I hate cooperative games. This one has hit my table for the first two scenarios, and it’s a cooperative game for one person in my house. I love that we’ve kept some of what makes Pandemic so popular, but stripped away the tired “cure diseases and stop them from spreading” storyline. Here, we take on the role of spies in the Cold War, attempting to stop other spies. It’s a great way to use these mechanics, and I look forward to seeing how the legacy campaign plays out. Trekking the World I (and most of the staff at Total Escape Games) absolutely loved Trekking the National Parks. It was a better Ticket to Ride for me personally, with slightly less of a ‘take that’ factor, but with enough player interaction that I felt like I wasn’t playing a game alone. Trekking the World builds onto that with a beautiful new design that sees players racing around the world to visit 48 awesome destinations and collect souvenirs. The mechanics will feel similar to you if you played Ticket to Ride or Trekking the National Parks, but different enough that you’ll feel like you’re enjoying something new. Like they did with National Parks, each of these destinations has some cool historical and educational information in other game, so maybe you’ll get inspired for your next trip. There are a handful of other 2020 releases I've been playing, but I didn't want this to get overly wrong. If you're out looking for a nice post-Christmas gift for yourself you should also check out Pacific Rails (Dean Morris/IELLO USA), Lost Ruins of Arnak (Elwen, Mín/Czech Games Edition), Santa Monica (Josh Wood/Alderac Entertainment Group), Under Falling Skies (Tomáš Uhlír/Czech Games Edition), Hues and Clues (Scott Brady/The Op), and Europe Divided (Chris Marling, David Thompson/Ares Games).
Can't wait to see you all again, sometime after I get vaccinated, maybe this summer!