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
4. Honey Buzz
6. Lost Ruins of Arnak
7. Beyond the Sun
8. Dune: Imperium
9. Tasty Humans
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
I discuss great boardgames and what combinations of mechanics makes them so fun to play.
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