Here we are again, a little late this time. I wrote my 2019 top 10 list on December 31st of that year. That’s confidence. I allowed myself no time to reflect and I was sure I had tried every game which would have a reasonable shot at being among my selections for the best in year.
2020 was very different.
I didn’t contract COVID-19 and I didn’t lose anyone close to me. But I did go through an elongated bout of depression and lost my connection to this hobby at times. I imagine you did as well.
I did play many games electronically, utilizing Tabletop Simulator and Board Game Arena, as well as other makeshift setups like webcams and skype calls. I played more games with my family, although perhaps not as many as I would have liked.
But things have begun to change again. I’ve seen once familiar faces and it’s been surreal. We’ve smiled, shouted, and backstabbed once more. We’ve already played several 2021 releases which have shook me.
We’ll get to those later. For now, let’s look at a dark year which was punctuated by some very solid games.
Oh, one last thing: Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, an elder of multiple decades, absolutely caught me in its throes. I’ve gone back and forth including the new fifth edition starter box on this list but I ultimately decided that it was a reissue of the system with, from what I understand, an unchanged ruleset from the fourth edition. Maybe excluding it on those grounds was unfair, but the decision has been made.
You can find my review at this very site.
Why It Matters – I was hesitant to review this one at first, but it surprised me. This is a fantastic game which models a dynamic ecosystem and expertly captures its thematic intentions. It’s a visual treat to engage and simply observing the turnover of species is a warm and satisfying feeling.
But what really elevates this design are the deep traits. These are the wild special abilities that are unique, offering a rich texture for the various creatures to develop. They alter the environment in interesting ways and offer a deep pool of content to explore across multiple plays. This is a very rich game and this is the most savory mechanism.
Why It’s Not Higher – Across multiple plays there’s a sense of pattern developing. Due to the static nature of the primary trait deck, you will often see just slight variations on predators and cleaners. The tactical decisions are there, but they’re more subtle than I’d like. The first half of play often sits in the shadow of the second half, which certainly is not a major issue, but it’s also not quite perfect.
9. Devil May Cry: The Bloody Palace
I praised this game in my full length review.
Why It Matters – This is just such a splendid take on the video game. I think people underestimate the challenge in pleasing die-hard fans of established properties, and designer James Hewitt makes it look easy. It’s a shame this one hasn’t gotten more press.
The real pull here is the card combo system. You chain moves together over multiple turns for escalating score, but the tension can be immense. That long string of combos can be completely wiped from the table if an enemy disrupts your ballet of carnage, causing you to groan in frustration as you sweep your hand across the table and flush your tableau to the discard pile. It’s grand.
Why It’s Not Higher – This one can certainly get repetitive. You will find yourself yearning for additional enemy types, and particularly bosses, after only a few plays. You can purchase additional content but it’s a tough sell when the base game bears such a hefty price. It walks a sharp line between very focused and content starved.
John Clowdus’ first big box game leaves an impression.
Why It Matters – This is a hell of a game. It comes across like something straight out of Matagot’s catalogue as its pieces, look, and general feel of gameplay aligns with the same paradigm as Cyclades or Inis. The setting of Mayan mythology is also intriguing and offers a distinct personality to the proceedings.
There are two elements to this game which stand out. The first is the use of gods. Each player takes on the role of one of four included cosmic deities, wielding an asymmetrical deck and an impressively large miniature. Unlike titles such as Cthulhu Wars or Rising Sun, the preternatural plastic here do not directly get involved in the battles that take place. They move about the edges of territories, occupying intersections between areas, and then can influence play through their personal cards.
The second aspect is the intriguing dimension of battles themselves. You don’t simply compete for the highest strength, instead you must consider multiple vectors such as occupying the calendar spaces offset from the board. This adds new avenues to acquire resources and points, providing for a nice strategic lift.
Why It’s Not Higher – This genre is bloated beyond belief. Cthulhu Wars, Blood Rage, Cyclades, Inis, Rising Sun, and Lords of Hellas dominate my shelves. Do I need another similar take on the Dudes on a Map genre? Do you?
There are elements present of each of the above games which I enjoy just a fraction more than this, ultimately meaning committing to it long term is folly, despite it being such an excellent design. I also find myself wishing the battles were more fierce, attaining depth through conflict and turmoil as opposed to teasing out point avenues.
Finally, nearly every Kolossal Games title has felt just slightly off and imperfect as a product. This one suffers from some tiny tokens, as well as the insert not taking into consideration the board itself causing the lid to lift. This isn’t a big deal, but the lack of attention to detail is noticeable.
7. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
A trick-taking game? For real?
Why It Matters – The Crew won the Kennerspiel Des Jahres in 2020, and deservedly so. Some days I feel like this is the most important release of the year, but this is my list and so I have to do it my way.
What this title did was bring trick-taking into the forefront of our hobby. It’s a style of game that many people, including hobbyists, regularly play. But never can I remember one of these games attaining such universal praise and finding its way to almost all of our tables. The twist here is that this is a co-operative game with scenarios that escalate in difficulty while providing surprising twists. It’s such an easy entry while also teaching you foundational concepts of the genre. Brilliant is a word I would use to describe this game and shame on me for placing it seventh.
Why It’s Not Higher – While this game is fantastic, it doesn’t create memories. There is drama, but I’m not going to sit around a fire with liquor in my belly and recount that wild time Aaron tossed out a green three.
It also can feel pretty random. The interaction between shuffle and objectives has a significant effect on difficulty, and it can occasionally be frustrating. This is an issue that’s not too troublesome to cope with, however, because the game is so damn short.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures
I wrote about TMNT Adventures at Dicebreaker.
Why It Matters – I loved Shadows of the Past, and this was basically a cleaned up second edition. It included an option for solitaire play and the scenarios more closely mimicked the run of the comic. The miniatures are also much better as they are more consistent in scale and a pleasure to wield in battle.
The system is still dynamic, allowing you to interact with terrain and manipulate the environment. The core dice mechanism presents the theme of teamwork extraordinarily well and the one-vs-many play is still well balanced and enjoyable. This is just a great game with a wealth of new content.
Why It’s Not Higher – I’m not overly keen on the release being separated into two separate core sets (Change is Constant and City Fall). Each set is high quality, but the entry point is confusing and it causes more storage issues.
The solitaire style of play is also wack. The enemy AI isn’t fluid or interesting enough to make setup worthwhile. It’s not nearly as intense or satisfying as the one-vs-many standard mode.
I’m also docking it a couple of points because the game already existed. This was an excellent revision, yes, but it’s not as noteworthy since the creative spark already existed.
5. Unmatched: Cobble & Fog
I discussed Cobble & Fog in a reflection on the state of Unmatched.
Why It Matters – This standalone expansion is the culmination of the system thus far. While it stays true to its streamlined and efficient manner, each fighter envelopes its persona and links signature character traits to unique deck mechanisms. There’s a strong element of exploration still within each combatant, one that mimics the arc of arcade fighters in the video game genre.
This game is fast and stylish while still marrying some depth to its chassis. Despite multiple expansion sets, it’s still easy to pull off the shelf and be playing in no time. It continues to gain breadth without suffocating its customer base.
Why It’s Not Higher – As I alluded to in my larger article, I’m still not head over heels for this system. I’m entangled in its spell for sure, but the lack of texture in the environments – in the form of special effects or unique mechanical flourishes – really saps some of the design’s potential dynamism. I also wish the game was more unruly and bonkers. I want wild combos that threaten to break the experience when accomplished, whereas this game hews a little too close to finely balanced. It can afford to be more experimental in maneuver potential due to its brevity.
4. Rallyman GT
Why It Matters – Speed, velocity, momentum. This game has it. The gear dice are ingenious and provide a context of motion to a static board. The way your mind tactically navigates positioning while balancing upcoming turns and the pressure of nearby competition is just so damn gripping. There were days where this was my favorite game of the year. This is one of the best racing games ever designed and I’m happy to carve out a place for this one alongside Flamme Rouge.
I’m eager to try the new Rallyman: Dirt release utilizing the same system – which will be the third iteration. The abstractions work more strongly when competing against time as opposed to another living driver, and I think the game will benefit. I likely won’t be ditching GT though.
Why It’s Not Higher – There is some weirdness with the dice system. For instance, you can actually gain more distance by downshifting before accelerating during a turn. This issue is minimized due to the track design, but it can occasionally diminish immersion and soften the simulation aspect. I also am not too keen on assembling the tracks every play. That eats up some time I’d rather spend playing. Finally, I occasionally wish wiping out wasn’t quite so punishing. It can be downright impossible to mount a comeback in a shorter race. None of these are deal-breakers, however.
3. Rocky Mountain Man
My review of Rocky Mountain Man may be the best thing I’ve ever written. No, that’s not pretentious because shit with a bow tie is still shit. But really, go read my review because it’s not shit.
Why It Matters – Let’s be clear, this game offers a compelling simulation of the mountain men of the 1800s. It tells stories fit for word, stories fit to linger. But more importantly, this is the first board game that singularly represents the current crisis of our time. It’s intrinsically linked to solitude and reflection. The only other piece of media I’ve seen so acutely wed to the pandemic is Bo Burnham’s brilliant “comedy” special Inside. Rocky Mountain Man is Nate Hayden’s Inside.
Why It’s Not Higher – It can be grueling and repetitive. It’s an experience I want to engage with intermittently, likely only once or twice a calendar year. As a game, it’s also very specific in what’s being emulated. Finally, it’s a solitaire affair, which is fitting, but it also requires a specific mood.
2. Cosmic Frog
Some words, words, words.
Why It Matters – I came very close to declaring a tie for my game of the year. Cosmic Frog deserves such accolades. It’s a very bizarre, very Jim Felli production. You play towering cosmic amphibians that devour worlds. I repeat, you play towering cosmic amphibians that devour worlds. The game is violent and wobbly as you utilize wild special abilities to scoop up terrain tiles. Then you must vomit them into an astral vault and arrange them in specific patterns to maximize scoring.
Why It’s Not Higher – My only complaint with Cosmic Frog lies in the six player game taking a little too long. Of course I can play with less players, but the game is at its best with maximum carnage. It also ultimately lost out to the next game by the narrowest of margins because that game does things with narrative and technology that feels like the culmination of years of effort. Sorry, Jim.
1. Forgotten Waters
My article on this one can be found at Dicebreaker.
Why It Matters – Forgotten Waters is as fun as bashing a piñata, one full of narrated pirate dialogue, storybook adventure, high seas conflict, and RPG-like character development. If you bullet pointed the different ligatures of this game you’d have a laundry list of knotted tentacles, but it all works so extraordinarily well in unison that it’s shocking.
The integration of technology here is masterful. It provides just the right touch in manipulating content delivery without superseding or suffocating the actual board game elements. It never overtakes your focus or loses sight of what the game should be. It’s the very best app-driven board game on the market and completely surpasses titles like Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, Journeys in Middle Earth, and X-COM: The Board Game.
Oy! Never forget lil’ Gertie!
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