A Round-Robin Letter for 2020 Games and Gaming (and some Books and Music)

One of the joys of this time of year for me is reflecting back, in unnecessary detail, about the events of the last year. I’ve only sent out Christmas cards for maybe 4 of the last 17 years or so, but each year I write one of those “Christmas letters” recapping what happened, though I just stick it in a drawer (or more recently, save it to a cloud.)

I was first introduced to the concept of these “Christmas letters” from a friend I met at a high school summer camp about programming in Pascal. She had green sparkly shoes. My parents (and grandparents and siblings) sent me letters, but her mom sent her a fax. Anyway, years later, I was on her Christmas card list and hers was the first such letter I received. Later, an uncle-in-law would too.

It turns out there is a name for them “round-robin letters”, and, to my surprise, many people don’t like them for being too detailed, overlooking some of the lower lights, and indulging in some sort of braggadocios narcissist fest. Goodness! Well, if that’s you, we’ll have a new post tomorrow. Otherwise, I’ll ramble about my year below (I’ve also made you a playlist of some of my favorite tracks and albums from the year to listen to as your read.)

For much of the year, gaming simply took a back seat. I played a few things here and there online, but, well, maybe I can count on one hand? My interests in life are overflowing, and if physical, in-person, board games can’t happen, I sort of move on to other things for a bit. I took some of the money I had planned to spend on vacations and used it for things around the house, including an ereader (BOOX Note2 – love it!), as my library trips were less frequent –I’ve read more than I had in many years! Some highlights:

  • God Save the Mark, Donald Westlake – I wish I still worked in a bookstore so I could recommend this to many many people. What a riot of a scenario, following the drama around a guy who falls for all of the con artists he runs into, and seems to almost have an uncanny subscription to their scams.
  • The Sting of the Wild, Justin O. Schmidt – He has a way with words and a peculiarly obsessive mission, as an entymologist, to study venom, be stung by everything, and create a rating system. A lot of interesting background on the evolutionary history of venom and being venomous.
  • Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell – I came around to giving Gladwell a shot because of Michael Lewis. Gladwell convinced Lewis to try podcasting. Lewis spoke so highly of Gladwell that then Lewis convinced me to try Gladwell’s podcast (Revisionist History). I was stunned. So brilliant. He created the audiobook in the same manner that he does the podcast and I was captivated.

This year also had several great solo puzzles of a sort that are game adjacent (and maybe even “games”) that I enjoyed:

  • 5×15 – I’m a sucker for a good game about sorting and had a lot of fun with this Friedemann Friese design, without a commercial release at present.
  • MicroMacro – I don’t know when our review of this will go up, but I love it! It is a sort of mashup of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Where’s Waldo, and time lapse photography. The easier cases are well, maybe a bit easy, and I recommend the included-variant rule to look at the first case card to set the scene, but then try to follow the case forward and backwards to their natural resolutions before reviewing the questions.
  • Cantaloop – This one isn’t out in EN yet, but is Lookout’s spin on something like the “Graphic Novel Series” -a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” type point-and-click mystery. Some very clever mechanics, puzzles, and writing.
  • Follow-The-Suit Solitaire – Heck, I even found myself distracted with a few solo trick-taking games (and that reminds me that there’s another one I want to try over the seasonal breaks.)

While my usual group never quite got back together, my year eventually settled into a once-a-week remote group and a once-a-week in person group. It’s been an interesting year of thought experiments -my previous gaming years have been a long control experiment and this year helps me compare & contrast: which bits are important, which parts draw me in, what am I compelled by. What I learned from my remote group is that I love the _physical_ component of playing games. Does that mean I didn’t enjoy my remote games? Quite the contrary: we played games physically!

Through things we already owned, the mail, and the wonders of playingcards.io, we played through a complete My City campaign, Legends of Andor: the Last Hope, and are working our way through Legends of Andor: Journey to the North. For the Andor campaigns, two or three of us own the physical game, and so we each have the game setup at home, and are each bookkeeping the game, with one person being the assigned Board of Record for handling any randomized bits.

It’s great to play in triplicate for error checking, and I can’t explain the joy I get playing with the physical bits. I never knew how important that was to me. (If your laptop battery gets low and you prop up your phone, the angle is also just right that you can set up a menacing little scene as the camera catches the tops of a few troll scrawls or what not sitting in reserve.)

Just a note about playingcards.io. While I participated in a few TableTop Simulator or Tabletopia games through the year, I found the interfaces troublesome, and while they surely would have become more second nature with time, I can’t -to steal Dale’s analogy- see it ever feeling like I wasn’t playing with mittens on. I don’t need a physics engine for any game I play (are we playing dexterity games via these interfaces?) – I just need to move things around. I’ve been amazed at what you can do with playingcards.io, from Trick Taking Party entries I wanted to try, to Legends of Andor, to a local professor who built a game on the site “for small groups of students to learn about host-parasite coevolutionary cycles”.


As for in person gaming, Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 has not been a disappointment. It was a bit slow for me up through May, but is cruising along good now (August? September?). The series continues to be, for me, sort of the pinnacle of what board gaming has to offer. As a side effect, it effectively puts a damper on any compulsion to play what just came in the mail today or preview what’s coming out in a number of weeks: the nature of the game and the compelling experience drive you to play the “same” game…at least a dozen times? If you play it a maximum of 12 times, that doesn’t seem like a benefit, but, heck, if you’re also playing it a minimum of 12 times, that’s a treat!

Other games that have stood out?

  • SCOUT! – I don’t think I need to tell you more about SCOUT!, but that’s the lesson I didn’t learn the first time. It is a 2019 release, but is a “new to me” in 2020 game. A don’t-rearrange-your-hand climbing game with a few twists.
  • ロールライト ⚅富豪 (Roll Write Die Fugo) – This is a roll and write game where you use the results of the roll and write portion to create a hand of cards to play a climbing game with. I’m three plays into this with 3, 3, and 5 players; after the first, I thought it was cute. After the second, I liked it. By the third? Oh geez, I may love it. It’s the sort of game I would love to have in my bag at a convention to play as an intermezzo -with any number of people!
  • ドキッと!アイス (Dokitto! Ice) – Dokitto! Ice is a treasure of a trick-taking game, though I’ve only had a chance to try it once. You musn’t win 4 tricks, but you want to win three, and you probably want to win them as late in the round as possible – though it ends prematurely if someone takes a 4th. The dynamics about which tricks to win and when; can you stick somebody with a 4th; and the general usability of most cards in your hand makes me eager to play more.
  • §egment Trix – Another trick-taking game I’ve only had a chance to try once. It fusses around with card values through their font – using the font of a digital clock (a Seven Segment display), you can use wooden segment pieces to set on your card in a way that changes the value to a different number. I was expecting a gimmicky lark, but I think I found a more substantive adventure.
  • Cat in the Box – Yes, another trick-taking game I’ve only had a chance to try once. It may be brilliant, it may not be. Here, your cards do not have suits – there are only numbers. Five of each, but the game only uses four suits. Err, while the cards don’t show suits, there is a board with the grid of potential cards to be played, and if I play an 8 and declare it to be yellow, I mark the grid with a token of my color, meaning no one else will be able to play it this hand. There are a number of other delightful twists, which I’ve leave as an exercise for the reader to look into, but the one that made you go “uh, what?….that’s a bit too far” –in practice, that’s the one that makes it all work!

Virtual conventions were never going to work for me, in much the same way they don’t work for some other folks – missing the people, the get-away, the hallway interactions, and what not, and most of the bigger conventions passed by without me really noticing. (Though I exchanged a few texts with folks I would miss seeing during BGGCON.) For Spiel though, exactly four of us got together for a few days of playing the new hotness and solid mask wearing. We also played some not-hotness, such as Die Osterinsel, a 1994 race game about depositing rocks in these moai heads.

When there were conventions, I regret not trying to make it to Age of Steam Con (which happened in February this year), but I was able to throw my own trick-taking party again in January and just before that Rudy Gobert press conference in March, I was able to make it up to G2S in New Hampshire.

In addition to the absence of friends, food, and travel, that fewer conventions meant, it also meant less opportunities for large party games, and, well, I wasn’t going to find the right setting for them elsewhere either. For me, that has meant less Wavelength than I expected, but also DEKU, a game I played a riotous few rounds of in January. It is the first release from the Japanese publishing circle ハレルヤロックボーイ (Hallelujah Rockboy), who later published Gossip and the City and 四畳半ペーパー賽系 (Yojōhan Pēpā Saikei).

It is at home in that type of party game where a card describes a word or phrase that you need to get other players to guess. Rather than using words, a drawing, or charades to communicate the message, the game consists of a large cardboard stage, with a plain backdrop, set atop a lazy susan. Each of two teams will simultaneously work to build a still-life diorama, and when ready, the setup is rotated and the teams attempt to guess what the new scene they are viewing is attempting to depict.

I’ve loved it so far! The rules and cards take a bit of massaging, as it is quite difficult to guess, so we allow for partial points, and some of the clues don’t translate culturally (such as watermelon splitting), so we loosened which words from a card a team could attempt. I’m looking forward to occasions when I can share this gem with more people. (By the way, I assume the two in the video above are delivery person and roller coaster. What do you think?)


Our friends over at the Daily Worker Placement had an article the other day that I thought struck the right tone about end of year 2020 lists – it was about what 2020 games the author is looking forward to playing. Ha!

Personally, with so many of the releases from the Fall Tokyo Game Market each year “only” making it to my door in mid to late December (I’m eagerly awaiting DHL ringing my doorbell as I type this), any yearly “best of” list will always be incomplete. What’s at the top of the list right now (as to 2020 releases)?

  • MAST BUY – An auction game where you bid on different lengths of dowel rods – hoping to either win 4 of the same or a series of them in 5 mm increments (they are all multiples of 5 mm apart -you just don’t want a gap of 10!). The auction has a few unique twists, such as rebates if you end at certain monetary amounts and an “auto-win” rock that let’s you win the auction for the current high bid once per game.
  • Two Rooms – A two-player cooperative micro-game, where players are trying to rescue a woman from a house of vampires. Players draw a card and secretly place it into one of two rooms, then resolving (in ascending order) any cards already present. Those effects may kill certain characters, return them to the deck, or move them to the other room.
  • Rise of the Metro – The only of these I mentioned in my anticipation post, and while it wasn’t going to be in the first haul for logistics reasons, it ended up not making the convention at all and was released a few weeks later.
  • Schadenfreude – A trick-taking release that I had originally passed on acquiring, but some of the initial reviews looked quite positive, so I grabbed it. Second highest card of lead suit takes their card and any that didn’t follow. If you collect a second of a rank, discard the matching ones; game ends when one player scores more than 40, and the winner is the closest to 40 without going over.

Of course, there will always be pre-2020 titles that I’m itching to play as well. (Why is everything an anticipation post with me!)

  • Welcome! – A card laundering game from the designer of SCOUT!
  • たぎる交差 (Tagiru Kōsa) – One of the Tagiron series of deduction games. Here, the players have secret scoring conditions; arrange four strips of paper; and calculate their score. If the other player can deduce what your scoring criteria were, they win. Otherwise, leave that setup in place, and continue again, with the remaining components and same scoring conditions.

For now, I’m patient.

I’m enjoying my remote physical play and in person masked-play, though I look forward to maskless play, snacking, and reading from cards more clearly.

I’m hoping to make it to a small convention in August and probably an even smaller one also around that time. If things going well, maybe Tokyo in November for the Fall Game Market.

How’ve you been?

best,
JN

P.S.: If you’re a fast reader and aren’t even through the first song, keep this tab open and continue reading your e-mail in the other one; the best parts are still to come.

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3 Responses to A Round-Robin Letter for 2020 Games and Gaming (and some Books and Music)

  1. Valerie Matthews says:

    Love the Playlist + Blog format! I’ve never seen it before, so I’ll give you credit for the idea until you tell me otherwise.

    Your January event was my only gaming con for the year, which is such a far cry from when I was writing the Pros on Cons blog and attended 19 in a year. And since I had to leave early because I was really sick, it was a perfect representation of gaming in 2020.

    Thanks for the enjoyable read and a really fantastic playlist! I’ve also put 2 of your book recommendations on my to-read list.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I love learning what books, movies, tv shows, and video games other board gamers like. Could you tell us a bit more about the Tagiron series of deduction games? I know Tagiron that was rereleased by iello as Break the Code, but what do the others all have in common>

    • xitoliv says:

      Typically they are small player count (<5) deduction games where you're finding something simple (such as a number or series of numbers), typically have questions provided that you choose from, and play in around 10-20 minutes (and typically have Tagiron, or a similar word (たぎる, Tagiru) as part of the name).

      For my purposes, that includes:
      Tagiron
      Tagiru Logic – I think this was the original design, it is like Tagiron, but 2P only.
      たぎる表裏 (Tagiru Front and Back) – 3P only, each player holds one of 10 two-sided cards that come with the game. You can see 3 sides (your card's front, your opponents' cards' backs), and must deduce the other 3 sides.
      Yomen – 2P. Uses three 3D polyomino shapes to build structures that must be deduced.
      たぎる交差 (Tagiru Crossing) – (Discussed above)

      All the same designer, but he does other things as well, such as a game wear you are weaving a string in and out of a vertical board and need to determine when a quadrilateral has been made with the string on the opposite side; a game where you yank a table cloth out from under some dice and hope that they stay in their towers; and 無限回段, a 3P only "infinite staircase" game that uses a Thunder Road type mechanism.

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