Despite the travesty that was 2020, my group and I still managed to play a whole bunch of new games, mostly via the magic of Tabletop Simulator, however in almost every case I ended up buying a physical copy too!
For clarity these are not my Top 10 of 2020, I haven't played enough of the games that came out in 2020 to do that, these are the Top 10 games that were new to me in 2020.
10. Chronicles of Crime (2018)
Chronicles of Crime is a crime solving game where the players take on the roles of detectives across different eras, genres and themes. The game uses a companion app that gives you the story as you lay out components on the board using your device's camera to scan those components. Players can travel to new locations, discover clues and interrogate suspects, as well as enter a virtual reality world to search for clues at crime scenes.
Chronicles of Crime has been a great fun experience that I have enjoyed with the family. I initially avoided Chronicles of Crime upon release for two reasons. Firstly it looked like a gimmick using VR and QR codes combined with physical components to turn what was basically a point and click adventure into a more fiddly board game experience. Secondly I ignored it because I had already ordered Detective, a Modern Crime Board Game, which promised to do the same thing that Chronicles does but with more depth and more “game”.
To the first point, Chronicles of Crime is still a little fiddly, someone has to scan and read everything to all the other players and that isn’t something that ever goes away even after half a dozen games, I’m still conscious that I’m holding my phone. You also need to make sure your battery is charged and will last for the full 90-120 minute play time. To their credit the Lucky Duck developers have added a great second screen function allowing more players to see and interact with the crime scenes, which is arguably the most fun part of the game.
To the second point, I’ve played Chronicles a lot more than Detective, which honestly fell a little flat for us. Chronicles is easier to get to the table, with faster set up time and a shorter playing time. It has a rules lite approach, making it less of a brain burner and the app tracks everything for you. It is also more lighthearted and the one shot nature of the stories means you don’t have to get the same group to commit to 15 hours of play.
The downside of Chronicles of Crime however is that you can’t replay the game, although you can purchase additional content in the app to expand your experience, even if you only own the base game.
9. Last Bastion (2019)
Many years ago a game called Ghost Stories came out and earned a spot in the “hardest coop games of all time” hall of fame alongside Robinson Crusoe. I never played it, the warrior monks fighting ghosts theme, while interesting, never grabbed me. However, last year's reprint/retheme, Last Bastion was simply gorgeous. The theme of the game became more generic, fantasy heroes defending a castle against Orcs and Demons, but the components and the art all got a serious upgrade.
Last Bastion and Horrified were both sat in my cart side by side as I tried to decide which one would make the next, best, game night game purchase. Ultimately I chose Horrified for the simplicity and the variable, winnable, difficulty.
Last Bastion however would eventually make it to the table with the crew and we played it and we lost and we played it again and we lost, again and again. The thing about Last Bastion is that it always looks winnable. At the start of the game you are powerful, striding about the board dealing with threats, but then as things progress there’s a turning point and suddenly you begin to feel overwhelmed. Enemies are popping up at the castle walls like the critters in whack a mole and you can’t seem to get where you need to be or roll the results you need to win.
And soon that sense of optimism, that sense of camaraderie, the “We can do this” spirit turns to despair as you realise the writing is on the wall and the game is coming to an all too predictable end. But the beauty of Last Bastion is that the win feels so obtainable and so you shuffle up and go again.
8. Pictomania 2nd Edition (2018)
Throughout my teens and my twenties I would doodle all the time, so I’m always interested in drawing games, more so than others in my group. However Pictomania is one that has gone over very well whenever we played it. Pictomania is in essence a speed game, every player at the table is drawing something and only after they finish drawing can they start guessing what everyone else is drawing. So, do you finish your drawing early so you can start guessing at the risk of people not correctly guessing your drawing or do you spend a bit more time on your drawing at the risk of getting fewer points?
Pictomania has a simple premise with a more complex scoring system than is strictly required. However one of my favourite things about Pictomania is the round system, especially with new players. In round one you play with the green cards and you might be drawing animals or DIY tools and then when everyone is comfortable with the game and they think they know what’s coming, you move on to the yellow cards, then the orange and finally the red and by the end of the game you are trying to draw a concept or a feeling or maybe you’re trying to draw a hedge fund manager… which would be difficult enough but the other options on the card are also financial occupations so how can you indicate with your drawing the difference between a hedge fund manager and a bank clerk or a loan shark.
And all this is happening in a frantic real time scramble for points. It’s a joy to behold! Pictomania is a great game from the CGE line of party games and it fits right in, providing a fun frenetic drawing game experience that really isn't about your skill as an artist but about your ability to convey information in pictorial form.
7. The Search For Planet X (2020)
The Search for Planet X is a fantastic deduction experience. The game uses a mandatory companion app but it is through that app the game’s magic is revealed. In Search for Planet X you play as rival astronomers, each searching for the fabled Planet X in the night sky. At the beginning of the game you pick a side of the board, this will determine what starting information the app gives you. Each player will receive a message in the app showing them a certain number of clues and these clues are different for each player. Not only that but each player can choose to play on a different difficulty meaning players of different skill levels can all play the same game on an equal footing.
Throughout the game you can take three different actions, spending time units to perform those actions. The player furthest back on the time track will take the next action, allowing you to conserve time by taking multiple quick actions or gain more information by taking longer actions but having fewer turns overall.
Each action allows you to either survey part of the visible sky for certain celestial objects, attend conferences for further clues or specifically target a section of the sky to find out exactly what is there. Every play of Planet X uses a set series of logic rules known to all the players. However each game the app populates the night sky using several hidden rules. These can be discovered by players by attending conferences. When they attend a conference they find out a new piece of information, like comets are always adjacent to gas clouds or Planet X is not opposite an asteroid.
As the game goes by players can also publish peer review journals to boost their end game scoring, while also giving away a little more information to the other players at the table.
Search for Planet X is a fantastic puzzle, but it is also a very thinky one, so players may sit in silence taking their time, which at a full four player count could cause the game to drag.
6. Fabled Fruit (2016)
Fabled Fruit was always a concept that fascinated me, although I found the price point for what is effective a deck of cards to be a bit prohibitive. 2020 though brought with it lockdowns and the typical legacy or campaign style games I might have played with the Game Night Crew were no longer a possibility and so I picked up Fabled Fruit.
Fabled Fruit is the first game in the Fable system.The Fable System is a deck of cards that is kept in order and not shuffled. The players will play multiple games using the same deck each time but as they play, cards will be removed and new cards from the deck will be added in, changing the experience with each play, until the whole deck has been gone through. Unlike a legacy game, which has the same idea of an evolving play experience, a fable game can easily be reset and played over or with new players.
Fabled Fruit is a simple game of collecting sets and turning them in for points, it’s fun but I don’t think I would have kept coming back to it were it not for the Fabled part. Each time you hand in a set of fruits and buy a card, a new card is revealed from the Fable deck and added to the card row, bringing with it a new action the players can take. Some cards introduce new concepts, like the Market Place or the Fruit Tokens, while other cards add in more help for the poorest players or more actions that increase the player interaction.
And the game is not only affected by the new cards that enter the game but also by the ones that leave. As players buy the cards that grant you bonus card draw, you might find you need to make more use of the action spaces that take cards from other players. This evolving system of actions is absolutely fascinating, layered over a simplistic game engine that hums away quietly beneath the surface, facilitating that feeling of discovery without ever getting in the way.
5. Marvel Champions (2019)
My most played game of 2020 had to make the list, right? Marvel Champions is a living card game set in the Marvel Universe that takes one of my favourite games, Lord of the Rings the Card Game and doesn’t improve it, well, not in my opinion at least, but that's a topic for another day.
Marvel Champions is a cooperative card game of boss battling. Each player chooses one of the starting heroes or one from the myriad of expansions that have since been released to face off against a classic villain, such as Ultron or the Green Goblin. Each scenario offers different challenges that the players must overcome by playing cards and activating their hero to attack the boss or thwart his scheme, while also dealing with his minions.
Unlike other similar card games, Marvel Champions uses the mechanic of using cards to pay for other cards, not a new concept, but one that means you will be milling through your deck at a fantastic rate, allowing you to see more of your cards and be almost assured of seeing your strategies and synergies come to fruition. Each hero also has two modes of play, either Hero or Alter Ego with different powers in both modes and access to different cards.
While in Alter Ego form the main villain will scheme, advancing the plot and potentially triggering the end game. But while in Hero form the villain will come straight at you with powerful attacks. To be successful you must walk the line between your heroic life and your private life, to know when to attack and when to retreat and heal.
Marvel Champions has been a great, casual solo game and despite nearly 150 plays I still feel I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what the game offers. The release format comes with prebuilt hero decks, but you can also customise your heroes with the deck building rules. So far I haven’t felt much need to, as the prebuilt decks are well balanced and capable of dealing with the threats in the base game and the first series of expansions, but it’s certainly something I’m looking forward to doing along with trying out the campaign expansion, The Rise of Red Skull.
4. Dice Throne (2018)
I’ve been enamoured with Dice Throne since its initial release but I never got around to purchasing it, however lockdown, loneliness and excess funds meant that this year I got it all and I was not disappointed. I’ve only managed a handful of games against a human opponent, but I’ve played through an entire solo campaign using the Dice Throne Adventures expansion and I loved it, for the most part.
Dice Throne is a head to head combat game of dice rolling, clever card play and combo scoring that comes in a beautifully overproduced package with stunning art. In Dice Throne each player chooses a hero to control for the battle. Each hero has their own custom dice and hero board. On your turn you roll your dice up to three times and then choose a power on your board to activate that matches the dice faces you rolled.
Many times your powers will inflict damage on your opponent, but they may also do other things, perhaps you can heal or steal combat points or inflict status effects. With some heroes you might be able to summon companions, or build contraptions to help you in future battles. With 16 possible heroes in the game, which run the cultural gamut from Samurai to Gunslinger, the possible match ups are near limitless.
Along side your dice and board, each hero also has their own deck which is made up of 30 something cards. Around half of those cards are the same for all heroes, these basic cards give each hero access to the same series of advantages, helping to make the heroes seem balanced. Each card has a witty title and a powerful effect. The other half of the deck though is made up of cards that are unique to that hero, awesome events or upgrades to your hero board.
Every game of Dice Throne I’ve played has been fun as you learn a new character or dig out an old favourite and bash the living hell out of your gaming buddies over beer and pretzels.
3. Downforce (2017)
Downforce is an older game that has been brought back to life by professional necromancer Rob Daviou and the design team over at Restoration Games. It is a racing game where players bid to purchase racers and special powers before doing a lap of the track and betting on who will place first in the race.
Downforce is a simple and yet fascinating system. On your turn you must play a card from your hand and almost all cards in the game will move two or more racers on the track. Obviously you want to move your own racers, you’ll get cash if they manage to finish the race, but there is more to the game than that.
The main rule is that cars cannot move through other cars, which makes controlling the corners vital. If you can get your car into a corner first, especially a tight single lane corner, then you can control the race, forcing other players to expend cards to move you out of the way or allowing you to burn good cards for other cars that can’t move because you are blocking the track.
Every game of Downforce uses the entire deck of cards and when the players run out of cards the cars run out of petrol and cars that don’t finish don’t score. And then of course we have the betting. Betting on the right car for the win can net you more dosh than winning the race yourself. The problem is that if the winner is obvious to all players then everyone will bet the same way, meaning the winner will likely be the player who owns the car in poll position. So you need to be sneaky, split the bets, make it look like one car is winning before pushing the car you’re betting on up from behind on the final straight.
Downforce has gone down a storm with everyone I’ve played it with and no one is ever satisfied with just one race. And when you get bored there’s four additional tracks you can pick up and play which each bring something new and interesting to the table.