The Secrets of Great Games

I discuss great boardgames and what combinations of mechanics makes them so fun to play.
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The best games of 2021 are the games of 2020 you haven't played yet

Anthony Faber
United States
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you can listen to this discussion on the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which also includes my co-host Pat Flannery's top games of 2020 which he didn't play until this year, as well as a review of the (lately obtained) eurogame Merv:

Despite the assertion of the title, which I stand by, this post is a list, not a moral proclamation. It's a list of the best games of 2020 which, due to shipping issues or my own laziness, I didn't play until 2021. Lest this list seem cheap and secondhand, I'll say now that the games in this list are every bit as strong as those in my best of 2020 list, which I put out at the beginning of this year, and far better than any list I might currently make of the best games of 2021, in large part because most of my anticipated games for this year won't actually reach the United States in 2021.

But rather than bemoaning the global shipping crisis which is slowing down our new release crack, I made this list to say that even with a slowed release schedule, there are still more great games coming out than most people can ever hope to play. If you can't buy a 2021 release you're anticipating, go buy a 2020 or older release you haven't gotten around to yet. Before I get to the list, by point of comparison, here is my original list of my top 10 favorite 2020 games:

1. Praga Caput Regni
2. My City
3. Calico
4. Honey Buzz
5. Mandala
6. Lost Ruins of Arnak
7. Beyond the Sun
8. Dune: Imperium
9. Tasty Humans
10. Atheneum

In addition to these great games, titles such as Red Cathedral, Coatl, High Rise, Santa Monica and Beez barely missed the list, so you won't see them on the new list either.

Anyhow, on to the list of great 2020 games I didn't play until this year, ranked 10-1.

10. Renature

Board Game: Renature
This Kramer & Kiesling tile layer is actually a domino game, with different animals on each end of the tiles and the necessity of having to play a tile next to a matching animal, like you would in regular dominoes. It's a zero sum, cutthroat area majority struggle, with some of the most beautifully printed tiles you'll ever see.

The randomness of the tile draws is a bit high, and the screwage makes this best as a two player game, but if you like chess-like advanced planning where your turns are as much about denying the other player as advancing your own plans, then this one will be a great fit for you. The most interesting and novel mechanism is the use of a neutral player color that players can control in the fight for majorities, generally to screw over other players.

9. MicroMacro: Crime City

Board Game: MicroMacro: Crime City
This game won the Spiel des Jahres, but it was still extremely difficult to get a copy in the U.S. until later this year. It's basically Where's Waldo meets Sin City, and your reaction to that mashup will probably tell you whether or not you'll enjoy the game. I expected the squinting over the broad map, making gruesome discoveries, but what I wasn't expecting was the subtle continuity from scenario to scenario. Strange inexplicable images are suddenly remembered and make sense - oh, here's where the knife wielding maniac in the clown car comes into play!

I also enjoy how the different scenarios allow scaling of the difficulty, making the experience adjustable to mood and a fit with families or hard core gamers. A whiff of misogyny in the game's stories prevents this one from ranking even higher for me.

8. CloudAge

Board Game: CloudAge
Pfister's games are usually heavy or light, so I was intrigued to try his rare midweight offering. There are some definite warts - a campaign system which inexplicably forgets to tell you how to play a regular game, some super generic card art, and a weird squinting at a card to see how many resources it offers which will polarize players, but there's also the super solid Pfister hand management decisions here as well. You need to make hard choices about which cards to keep and which to pitch is almost more satisfying than in Pfister's heavier games, in that you get more decisions packed into a shorter amount of time.

The game may be passed over in that it doesn't have a natural audience - most Pfister fans probably want a deeper experience - but it's very entertaining for what it is.

7. Merv

Board Game: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road
Another midweight euro which was hard to find in the States until this year, Merv is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It promises this friendly cooperation, in that you get extra influence for protecting opponent's buildings with walls, but the screwage from claiming someone else's intended action space can be as strong as I've ever seen in a modern board game.

The game uses the Quadropolis/Meadow system of choosing an action based on a certain row or column of the board which no one else has chosen, except here you get to get the resources from all the buildings owned by own player. Taking someone else's building row isn't the worst screwage, as you get resources in compensation, but when someone else goes in your row and just plops down a new building and doesn't even use your stuff, well then, you may have been planning on getting like 5 resources, and now you are getting one or two instead. There are also strong race elements in each of the game's six major action spaces, which all play differently. This means the game takes a while to learn, but plays fast and simply once you know how, and with a greater than usual tension. Multiplayer solitaire this is not - turn order matters and this game uses a unique system of being able to spend resources to jump ahead.

6. Hallertau

Board Game: Hallertau
If I was judging a worker placement game solely on the balance and implementation of the worker placement spaces, this might be my favorite game of this type ever made. I love the system of having to put one more worker down than is already there to use it, and how only one row of workers comes off each round, creating a tight, player controlled economy in the cost of the spaces.

The other parts of the game are a bit more hit and miss - the cardplay is fun, but there's a lot of draw luck, and the system of spending your resources to move buildings along plays very similarly from game to game. I do also love the farming system in which fields which lie fallow produce more the next round.

It's not Uwe's best farm game, but if we're judging it in a vaccum, it's still a damn good design.

5. Forgotten Waters

Board Game: Forgotten Waters
This is a rollicking fart of a game, and I mean that in the best possible way. If you like your pirates to be the kind that want to ride a cannonball across the waters to madly assail another vessel, well, have I got a game for you. Mechanically, the game is nothing special - simply choosing a task and rolling to resolve against your skill in each encounter - but the joyous storytelling elevates it into a sublime experience.

There is no trope too silly, no cliche too shopworn for it to be used to hilarious effect in this gleefully murderous game. The voice acting is literally the best I've encountered in any game I've ever played, and that includes computer games which spent millions on its actors. The Mad Lib which you fill in to tell the tale of your uniquely idiotic pirate avatar is an inspired touch. It's easy to forget amid the lunacy that there's a real story being told, but it's being told surprisingly well, puerile humor and all.

4. Viscounts of the West Kingdom

Board Game: Viscounts of the West Kingdom
I liked Architects of the West Kingdom, but Paladins of the West Kingdom was a bit too repetitive and random for my tastes, and even though it wasn't bad per se, I felt no need to grab the third game in the series. Naturally, it turned out to be my favorite game in the series, enough so that just one recent play elevated it high on this list.

As I wrote last week, the system of worker movement is what elevates the game for me. Your avatar can move around the board clockwise on an inner and outer circle, and also move inwards and outwards. These two circles make it much more flexible than a single rondel. You have all sorts of interesting choices of where to go, while the clockwise requirement prevents repetition of a simple short pattern.

The worker movement dovetails nicely with a unique deckbuilding system, since the card you play each turn dictates how far you move on the board, and the three cards you have in play give bonuses to the strength of whatever action you take. The worker movement and the three card system give a much greater element of forward planning than is present in most midweight euros. I don't know how replayable the game will ultimately be, but I'm enjoying it a lot thus far.

3. Marvel United

Board Game: Marvel United
Here's a game which was freely available last year, but I just wasn't interested. Then I heard some good things, and when our podcast suddenly needed a game to review, and this was conveniently available at Target, we gave it a shot. It's far better than it has any right to be, and that's without even playing with the expansions which many consider necessary for replayability.

It's a very simply cooperative game with one beautiful hook - you play a card, and then you take the action on that card, as well as the action on the card played by the previous player. So every action you take is also giving that action to the next hero. This automatically creates a game where real cooperation is completely necessary.

Beyond this, the villains and the scenarios they create are wildly different, even more so than the heroes, giving a very simple game a different look every time, especially if you buy those oh so tempting expansions.

2. Project L

Board Game: Project L
This may now be my favorite filler game of all time, and my favorite polyomino game not called A Feast for Odin. There's not a wasted element in this engine building, puzzle completing game. Take moves to fill space with polyomino pieces and get points and more pieces as a reward. What makes the game brilliant is the master move, the once a turn action where you can place a polyomino piece on all the puzzles you've claimed. You want to place on as many puzzles as you can for maximum efficiency, but you need to get enough pieces so that you aren't biting off more than you can chew by spreading them out on your master move.

The components and production aren't just good, they're perfect. Rainbow colored plastic chiclet pieces laid into deeply recessed black cardboard. It looks stark and beautiful and everything fits together like a black velvet glove. The non-gamers in my life have fallen in love this one (and are edging closer to becoming gamers because of it).

1. Empyreal: Spells and Steam

Board Game: Empyreal: Spells & Steam
While it took a long time to get a copy of Project L in retail, I have no such excuse for why it took me so long to play this one, since I backed the Kickstarter. I weakly plead that I was intimidated by the gargantuan box - many times I looked at it, and each time I vowed to read the rules later.

My hesitance was folly. It's a simple game with a simple premise: what if you had a basic pick up and deliver train game where each player had wacky, bonkers magical powers. The overlarge box size and the small venn diagram of people who love both of those game elements explain why so many have passed this game by, but if you get a chance, try it. The special powers come courtesy of a rondel-like action line which you build up with more and more train cars so you can take more and more actions each turn. Some actions lay trains, other scoop up resources magically from around the map, and some even destroy parts of the board. While the vast array of special actions, spells, and characters explain the game's size, the basic structure of a turn is dirt simple, and once you know it, each special power is easy to understand.

The net effect is that of a simple route building system supplemented by a ton of engine building and some tense and frantic interaction in the race to complete routes before the other players, all in a game which only takes an hour to play. My only complaint is that they should have just titled the game Spells and Steam.

More to Come

So those are my top 10 games of 2020 which I didn't play until 2021, and even though it's October, I might be making this list too soon. My copy of Anno 1800 finally shipped after an eternity on pre-order, and I'm hoping hard that it turns out better than all of these.

How about you folks? What 2020 games have you fallen in love with the year after? Or more generally, with the shipping crisis slowing down game releases, what older games have you discovered for the first time? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

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