In the spirit of past top-10 lists here, here’s a look at the 2020 games I loved most from what I’ve played. (As with previous lists here, this uses the The Geek All Stars Essen-to-Essen calendar for releases, so I’m considering games released from Oct 24-27, 2019 through the period ahead of Oct. 22-25, 2020.) The link for each title is to the game’s Board Game Geek page, and the information in each bracket is designer(s), publisher(s). Some, but not all, of them are pictured at the top, with a few more in the photo below.
Honourable mention 1: The Kringle Caper (Jonathan Chaffer, Grand Gamers Guild): This game delivered one of the best escape-room-in-a-box experiences I’ve had. It does a whole lot with only 18 cards and a $12 price point, presenting a great variety of puzzles. The accompanying website to check answers and get hints is very well done, and the tiered hint system is excellent; if you’re having trouble figuring out what a puzzle is asking for, the first hint just lets you know to look for, which can be a great point in the right direction without spoiling too much. The Christmas theming here is excellent, and this was a fun ride. Also, no components need to be destroyed in this (providing that you keep notes on a separate sheet of paper), so it’s possible to pass it on to someone else afterwards, which is always a plus for me.
Honourable mention 2: Loot of Lima (Larry Levy, BoardGameTables.com):
This is a retheming/reimplementation of 2003’s Deduce Or Die, but I haven’t played that one, so this is new to me. It’s an excellent deduction game where a lot of the skill comes down to what question you ask when. The aid included for solo/two-person play (and the corresponding online tool made by Kyle Gillingham) is a great inclusion as well. (More on the game and how it works solo can be found in this BGG review from Spencer Jackson.) I enjoy Larry’s writing at The Opinionated Gamers, and he’s created a great game here as well.
Honourable mention 3: Fort (Grant Rodiek, Leder Games):
This is another retheming/reimplementation of a previous game I haven’t played (2018’s SPQF), with some additional development from Nick Brachmann and others at Leder Games. (Dan Thurot has some good insight on the differences in his Fort review.) The lead-boost-follow aspects of this remind me of other games I like, from Glory To Rome through Import/Export, and there are some good twists on it here, especially with the deck-building ideas and with the ability to take other people’s unused cards. I haven’t been able to play this a ton yet, so it might wind up higher in a later evaluation, but I’m enjoying exploring it so far.
10. Blue Skies (Joseph Huber, Rio Grande Games): I sought this one out mostly because of the designer (in addition to writing for The Opinionated Gamers, Huber has designed a number of cool games, including Starship Merchants with Tom Lehmann, and he’s an 1846 legend), and I wound up liking it quite a lot. It’s an economic-focused area control game with a neat theme (airline expansion after deregulation). There aren’t a ton of rules, which is nice from a teaching perspective, but there are good decisions to make; there’s some luck involved, but not an overwhelming amount. And it plays well on BoardGameArena, which is a huge plus in these times.
9. Big Easy Busking (Joshua J. Mills, Weird Giraffe Games): I picked this one up thanks to the combination of designer (I’ve enjoyed Mills’ Rocky Road A La Mode and his appearances on The Geek All-Stars), publisher (I own and like Weird Giraffes’ Stellar Leap), and theme (I love New Orleans). It’s a fun and easy area control game with a good solo mode and excellent art.
8. Rajas of the Ganges: The Dice Charmers (Inka and Markus Brand, HUCH! and R&R Games): A very solid heavier roll-and-write. I’ve only played this one online so far (with Dan, BJ and Don at Yucata), but we’ve had a number of really enjoyable games of it. The map puzzle is excellent, and this has a ton of cool combo abilities. The personality dice are particularly interesting, and they let you have some big turns towards the end of the game.
7. 1882: Assiniboia (Marc Voyer, All-Aboard Games): 1882 has neat twists on a lot of the usual 18xx conventions. It’s a full-capitalization game (companies receive all the money for all their shares of stock when they float), which usually aren’t as compelling to me as the incremental-capitalization ones (companies retain control of shares not held by players, get revenue from those, and can possibly sell them at a later time); it can be tougher to get money into a company in a full-cap game, and that’s not always a puzzle I enjoy. And 1882 also has another trait I don’t often like; it’s a brutal game where player bankruptcy happens quite a bit, especially at higher player counts. But the mix here of compelling private companies, multiple interesting areas of the board with accompanying track puzzles, and lots of possible public companies works really well, and creates a fast, tough 18xx game with a good look at some Canadian railway history. I don’t know that this is an 18xx title I’d always reach for, but with the right group and the right mindset, it shines.
6. Stellar (Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback, Renegade Games): Stellar is quite a cool two-player puzzle from Matt and Ben, who have long been two of my favorite designers. It has some good tension on what cards you’re putting where, and lots of factors to consider with scoring. And the art and production of this is gorgeous, and it looks great on the table.
5. Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (John Bohrer, Rio Grande Games): This is an excellent cube rails game, first printed in 2008 by Bohrer’s Winsome Games but brought to the wider market in 2020 by Rio Grande. I really appreciate seeing publishers like Rio Grande, Capstone and Queen picking up some of these cube rails classics and giving them a slightly-nicer look; while the old versions were fine and functional, the newer ones are much easier to talk other people into. What’s neat about GM&O in particular is the massive number of companies (23), with only eight available at the start of each game. More and more open up as gameplay goes along, which provides more possibilities without being overwhelming. (This will come up again with a different title later in this list.) There are only four actions, one of which is passing, and the rules are pretty well explained by just a few paragraphs on the BGG entry (linked above), but there’s a lot of strategic depth from those simple rules, which always is a highlight of the best cube rails games for me.
4. Beyond The Sun (Dennis K. Chan, Rio Grande Games): Beyond The Sun is quite an interesting take on tech trees, long my favorite part of civilization or space games. The tech tree is thoroughly the center of the game, but the board play still matters, and interacts with the tech side well. I also really like that the tech tree isn’t predictable from the start. Instead, advances let you discover something based on the type of technology you previously researched, but exactly what you get is uncertain. That feels much more like actual scientific discovery than the usual “I need to research this and this so I can get this!”
3. Empyreal (Trey Chambers, Level 99 Games): Empyreal is the strangest take on a train game I’ve seen yet (and I’ve played and love The Soo Line, so that’s saying something!), but it’s a very cool one. This has elements of Terra Mystica, elements of goods-delivery train games like Age of Steam, and elements of the crazy combos you can build in games like Argent: The Consortium (also designed by Chambers). But it winds up feeling like its own thing, and a highly-enjoyable game to play, especially with all the different options available each game from different specialists and companies (and even more with the As Above, So Below expansion). And it’s a train game that’s much easier to get many people who aren’t already into that genre to play, thanks to gorgeous production and some mechanical crossovers to more typical “Euro”-style games. The terrific solo mode here is also appreciated, even more so than normal this year.
2. High Rise (Gil Hova, Formal Ferret Games): I’ve long appreciated Gil’s designs (especially The Networks) and his commentary on the Ludology podcast, so High Rise was an easy back for me when it showed up on Kickstarter. And the game wound up being so much better than I had hoped for. I’m a big fan of time-track games (including Glen More, Rocky Road A La Mode, Francis Drake and more), but this one is even better than most with the bonuses for jumping up (a nice counterpoint to the often-available “take the lowest thing available each time” strategy) and with the various building powers, area bonuses, corruption track and more. It’s an excellent game, and it also includes a good solo mode and a nice Tabletopia module.
1. 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties (Mike Hutton/GMT Games): 1862 is one of the best, craziest, and most remarkable 18xx games I’ve ever played. Between three train types and the combination of full-capitalization and incremental-capitalization companies, this breaks so many of the moulds many people are expecting, but it does so in a useful and interesting way. This originally came out in 2013, but GMT delivered a beautiful mass-market printing of it late in 2019 (which makes it eligible for this Essen-Essen cutoff), and that was my first chance to play it.
The variable setup here between which companies get which permits and which are available to open in sets A, B, and C makes each game a different puzzle, and a good one. The board play is also quite interesting, as the different trains want different types of track (freight versus local in particular), and the ports and offboards are notable. And it’s cool to see how the routes shape up later in the game when companies are running multiple types of trains. It’s possible to run for massive amounts late in the game and make quad jumps on the market, too. There’s a lot to love about this, and it also has the best solo puzzle I’ve seen in an 18xx title, one that’s absolutely worth checking out. Add that all up, and this is an easy pick as the Board and Game Game of the Year.