The Opinionated Gamers Top Games of 2020 pt 1

Everyone has to have their Top whatever lists done in January. That’s just the way it rolls in the board gaming world. If you release a list of your favorite games of 2020 in July of the following year? Forget about it, it’ll be buried and folks won’t pay nearly as much attention. We as humans like to turn over a new leaf at the beginning of the year. We like to look back and see what we did and what the best parts were. Maybe more so this year than in years past. We want to find the joyful, the happy, the best things to highlight from what was honestly, a pretty rough year, both in board gaming, and in day to day life. Most of us who play board games rely on other people to play with us, What was the one thing that we were supposed to avoid for the most part in 2020? People. That avoidance has made it very difficult for a lot of folks to play games, to have that social interaction. Yes, digital games are out there and publishers seem to be becoming more open to having their newer games on digital platforms, but I know that I for one, am not really comfortable grading games based on the digital interactions that I have with them. I need to have the social aspect of gaming as well in order to enjoy it, the feel of the cards, the sound of the dice, the laughter and the occasional outburst. Games are great, but games are nothing without the people that we play them with. 

So with that I’ve come up with an idea and hopefully we see some interesting results. We are going to look back at 2020 right now, and we here at The Opinionated Gamers, or at least those of us comfortable enough to, have tried to come up with our Top 15 games of 2020. If you pay attention to the title of the article though, we are going to do it in parts. We’ll do this now in January, and then in June/July, if we have the time, we’ll look back again and see if there are changes as more folks have the opportunity to actually play games with people. Will the list change? I am not sure, but we’re going to see. I have a theory on what we’ll see, but I’ll jot that down somewhere else and save it for later, if it comes true. What? Do you think I’m going to admit when I am wrong? 

We had a fairly good turnout for this voting, honestly better than I thought we would. Some folks couldn’t, or weren’t comfortable coming up with 15 games and only gave us a handful. Others had no issues. Some of us were really lucky, our game groups exist inside of our social bubbles, our families and friends that value safety and health enough to actually take precautions in order to allow us to continue gathering in safe ways, even if it was at a lesser pace than before. 

This time around, I kind of want us to focus on some of the games that didn’t make the Top 15, but managed to garner first place votes. There has been a lot written about the Top 15 titles here over the past couple months and I have a feeling even more over the next couple months, but I wonder if these others will get any attention. 

First, the Top 15 of 2020 as voted on by the fine folks here at The Opinionated Gamers.

1-Lost Ruins of Arnak

2-Pandemic Legacy Season 0

3-Paleo

4-My City

5-The Castles of Tuscany

6-Rajas of the Ganges The Dice Charmers

7-Paris

8-Hallertau

9-Iwari

10-Pan Am

11-Bonfire

12-Alma Mater

13-Whistle Mountain

14-Cloud City

15-Warp’s Edge

The top 3 here kind of ran away with it. Lost Ruins of Arnak was the game that garnered the most votes, meaning more people played it and felt it worthy of voting for than any other game. Pandemic Legacy Season 0 was 25 points behind, but it had five votes, and all five people that voted for it had it in their top 3, not really a surprise with this group. Paleo has kind of just proven itself a unique and solid cooperative design and it was just 10 points back of Pandemic Legacy Season 0

But let’s hit those seven titles that had only one vote, and that one vote being a number one. One of those we don’t need to really talk about, although I do think that it warrants a note. 7 Wonders 2nd Edition is a wonderful updating and worthy of a vote I think. 

Anno 1800 is a board game version of the popular video game. This one was championed by Larry Levy and from what I’ve learned about Larry over the past couple years, this should be no surprise as his favorite for the year. A fairly deep city builder, with all sorts of planning necessary to build your industry to allow your city to grow.

Larry Levy: Anno is an engine-building game, based on Action Selection.  Your goal, for the most part, is to satisfy the demands of your Population cards–each of them require different goods.  You’ll also need to produce goods to buy new buildings.  The thing is, there are over 40 different types of goods!  This isn’t nearly the nightmare you’d think it is, because all the goods are produced virtually.  If you need goods X and Y to satisfy a card, activate the buildings that produce those goods and immediately spend them (virtually) to play the card.  No bookkeeping required.  You can also pay gold to an opponent to use one of their buildings–this is actually quite important and provides much of the player interaction.

The large number of buildings you can construct represent a fairly massive built-in tech tree.  You bootstrap your way forward, constructing the buildings you need to advance (or to trade with an opponent).  There is indeed a good deal of planning required, although mechanically, the game isn’t that complex–most of the skill lies in figuring out how the buildings work and which path you need to take to maximize your VPs.  The game takes about 2 hours to play.  My one (online) game was with 2 players and I thought it played very well with that number.

Beyond the Sun is a space civilization game from Rio Grande Games. This is the first I have heard of Beyond the Sun, and there isn’t a whole lot out there about this 60-120 minute tech tree building affair. This one was championed by Craig Massey. 

Craig Massey: I thought Beyond the Sun would get a little more love in the “Best of 2020” voting, but I seem to be its lone champion. Part of this is likely due to the fact that it was released towards the end of the year and given the pandemic so I suspect that only a handful of the OGers have tried it. Also making it tough is the fact that the first print run of the game sold out rather quickly. Dale roughly described this as “Tech Tree the Game.” That’s a pretty apt description. Game play and flow is smooth. Choose your action to research, explore, or colonize and then produce one of the two types of resources. A half dozen games show that there are different viable paths to victory. I’ve yet to play the “advanced version of the game as I have really enjoyed the basic version and I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to give it a try. While the list of 2020 games still needing a try is long, I’m 99% convinced that Beyond the Sun will end up near the top of the best of 2020 further down the road and has secured a permanent spot in the collection. 

Dale Y: The review for this will arrive in a few weeks, I just started it today!

Fox in the Forest Duet is a new take on the popular two player trick taking game Fox in the Forest. Duet takes the two player competitive trick taking game and turns it into a cooperative affair. Championed by Talia Rosen, this may have been a perfect storm kind of game for gamers stuck inside during a pandemic. 

Imperial Struggle saw the return of Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, with their updated Twilight Struggle card driven game system. Based on the rivalry of Britain and France during the 18th Century, Imperial Struggle covers 100 years of history in a two to four hour two player game. Championed by Simmy Peerutin, this is probably by far the heaviest game to make the list, as of now. 

Monasterium also managed to get a first place vote and no other placements. DLP Games brings us a heavy, dice drafting Euro about running monasteries and training up your novices in an attempt to run the best monastery. Championed by Tery Noseworthy, I know this game with the wonderful art of Denis Lohausen is on a lot of wishlists. 

Lastly, The Red Cathedral. Another dice based Euro, this time from Devir publishing. This time though, you are tasked with building St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Rondels and dice, this one pulls out all the tricks. Championed by Doug Garrett, this Brazilian published game from Spanish designers about building a Russian Cathedral has been on a lot of watchlists since Essen Spiel 2020. 

There we go, the Top 15 Games plus seven other titles that received first place votes in our poll. How will things change over the next six months or so? Are game groups going to start meeting more often? Are there going to be conventions again? Who knows, a lot of things could change in six months as we learned last year. Personally, out of the Top 15 games, I have four here already that haven’t been played, and one on the way (as soon as Lookout Games gets the game to the US), so I have a lot to look forward to I think. Plus now, I have seven other games vying for some table space that I hadn’t even thought of playing. That’s the thing about being a part of a group like this, there are always people who have played something you haven’t, who are more than happy to tempt you into trying more.

The Methodology

Each OG writer was given the chance to vote for up to 10 games.  Their top choice was worth 15 points, second place was worth 14 points, and so on, all the way down to the tenth pick, which was worth 6 points.  Voters also indicated whether or not they had played each of the listed games.  All of the points were tallied up and our top picks made the article.

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Larry:  Like, I assume, many of you, 2020 was a lost year for me where gaming was concerned.  I’ve managed exactly one face-to-face play of a 2020 game.  I have greatly increased my online gaming, but it’s been hard to get newer titles played that way.  So the story of my 2020 gaming to date is as much the games I haven’t been able to play as the ones I have.  Pandemic Legacy Season 0 awaits the day when I’m once again able to play it with my daughter (my regular Pandemic Legacy opponent).  I’m also hopeful I’ll eventually be able to play Beyond the Sun, Alma Mater, Whistle Mountain, Viscounts of the West Kingdom, Faiyum, Praga Caput Regni, and Maglev Metro, among others.  But who knows what people’s interests will be when I’m finally able to get together with my gaming buddies?

So what 2020 titles was I able to play?  My top six were:  Anno 1800; Bonfire; Pan Am; Hallertau; Blue Skies; and the Rajas Dice Game.  I also got to play My Farm Shop, The Castles of Tuscany, and Eetenki, but didn’t have enough of a positive impression of any of those to give them points in the voting.  I truly hope that when we redo this article in six months or so, I’m able to add many more games to this list.  We’ll just have to see what the future holds.

Brandon K: Gamewise, I was lucky in 2020. The amount of plays have drastically dropped off, and thus my plays of new games fell off as well, but I did still manage to get quite a few good new games played. At the time of voting, Lost Ruins of Arnak was my number one game, and that seems to go along pretty well with what others thought. Since then I’ve had another play and I didn’t really feel the same love for it, I was kind of ready for the game to end around halfway and just felt like that even though there are a lot of choices to be made, those choices aren’t all as important as they felt that first time around. Yes, you do need to use cards to combo quick actions to be able to prolong each and every turn you get to the maximum, but it doesn’t particularly feel exciting or all that innovative in any way. But it is solid, and I hope I am wrong and those feelings weren’t because of the game and were because of me. Rounding out my Top 5 I had, Castles of Tuscany, Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion, Dune Imperium and Calico. We had planned on playing Dune again this past weekend, but the Arnak game just ran too long and we didn’t tackle it. Of my top five though, those two games are probably the most likely to fall out of my Top 5, they play pretty similar, both are a combination of Worker Placement and Deck Building, but both seem to do neither of those things exceptionally. Dune, I think, will have the more interesting choices in the long run. My City is another that we have in our Top 15 that is also in my Top 15, but after six plays, it really feels very repetitive and I am hoping that there are some changes in there that ultimately help relieve that feeling. 

Renature seems to be the game that I irresponsibly left of my list. Three plays now and I absolutely adore it. Each play has played a little bit differently and as we play, we are kind of all seeing those new ways to better our own situations while hurting our opponent’s situations. Absolutely feels like a classic Kramer and Kiesling with some top notch components to go along with it. 

I look forward to looking back at all of this in June or July and seeing how my thoughts have changed, and how everyone else’s have as well. Currently I have five in our Top 15 that are sitting here waiting to be played, and my eyes on a couple that I didn’t know about until the folks here at The OG made mention of them, so my 2021 is going to look pretty 2020 (at least gamewise) for a while. 

RJ   I haven’t purchased or played games this year with the exception of what’s come out on www.boardgamearena.com.   

The 7 Wonders New Edition is a nice edition.  The artwork is great and adds a ‘day’ and ‘night’ side but the gameplay hasn’t changed so much that I would need to replace my already owned First Edition.  There’s some minor changes to the new edition. They’ve removed the 2 player option, and made some minor changes to the cost of cards and wonders to help with balancing.  The biggest change I’ve noticed is to the way the Olympia Wonder ability works.  It still allows you to build cards for free, it just changes the way you do this.  I’ve also read that they’ve taken out the Wonder randomizer cards and can’t for the life of me figure out why they would do that.  All that being said, i do enjoy both versions of the game and feel you can’t go wrong with owning either copy, but there’s not so much difference that you would need to own both.

There are 3 games that I am excited to try out that were released this year:

The first is the new release of Rococo in a deluxe edition.  I love the play of both Concordia and Lewis & Clark and have read that Rococo uses a similar mechanic so I’m thrilled that it is back in circulation and hope to get to play it sometime in the near future.

The second is Glen More II. I owned Glen More and really enjoyed that game, but gifted it to a friend and then moved so no longer have an option to play it.  I’m looking forward to playing GM II.

Lastly is Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.  I love Gloomhaven, and look forward to playing it’s little brother.  I’m hoping that the thrill hasn’t worn off at the point that Frosthaven comes out, but that won’t be here until 2021 and I’ll hold off on that until we’re wrapping up the Gloomhaven sagas.

I have played and quite enjoy Welcome To… Welcome to Las Vegas, which is a 2020 release, on the other hand suffers from the same problems that King of New York suffered from when compared to King of Tokyo.  The designers took a solid game, added a bunch of stuff to it, but didn’t improve the game and really just kind of bogged it down.  If you’re looking at getting a Welcome To… game, go with the original and skip the 2020 Las Vegas release.

James Nathan: I voted for Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 as my “Gold” top pick because for me, they are a singular board game experience.  They hold a place for me, such that when you ask me about my favorite board games (not of the year, but in general) they slip my mind! It’s as if they aren’t board games, but are some new type of incredible way to enjoy each others’ company in a strategic manner that moves cardboard and paper around. All that said, I cast that vote prior to fully finishing the campaign, and there were a few things with December that dampened my enthusiasm a hair:  things ended on a kind of sour note. Dale and/or I may give a spoiler-full write-up of the campaign, and I’ll elaborate more there. And to be clear, maybe it drops to my “Silver” or “Bronze” spot from “Gold”, but it isn’t going too far :)

I checked my voting in the spreadsheet, and, uh, I didn’t cast a “Silver” or “Bronze” vote.  When I do my voting, I try to spread out my votes to account for the strength of my feelings for a game, and the game I like 2nd most, won’t necessarily come in 2nd if I like it as much as a 6th place game, and there aren’t enough things to vote for to fill all the holes. 

That said, I also had some parsing issues on my end about the eligible games, and so didn’t vote for my usual Japanese esoterica. If I had, at this point Cat in the Box is probably getting the “Silver” vote, though, there are a lot of Spiel releases still to try and a lot from Tokyo Game Market. As to Cat in the Box, it is a trick-taker where the cards only have ranks, and not a pre-assigned suit.  The game includes a grid of the possible cards that can be played (1 through x in 4 suits), and when you play a rank, you declare the suit and mark it with a token of your color on the grid, such that it cannot be played again.  It’s brilliant conceptually, and for me, stunningly executed. 

Matt C: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion has been great for me, as the simplicity of setup and slow ramp up of rules is a perfect fit for my boys.  We even played a 4p game with their uncle over the holidays so that was fun.  I have the original but it just never made it to the table with my boys – partly since it was so involved to set up there never seemed an appropriate time.  We’re 6 or 7 battles into the campaign and I’m enjoying it.  I do have to make sure I stay on an even keel when playing.  Even though it is a cooperative game, there are plenty of self-serving options (first to the treasure chest or picking up cash, playing cards for experience rather than tactics, and simply refusing to cooperate) that sometimes strain the relations at the table.  Other than that, most of my gaming this year has been pre-2020 games.  However, that isn’t all that different than other years..  

Craig M: It seems I’ve only played sixteen titles released in 2020 so my top 10 list is highly likely to change as more are explored in the coming months. There are a handful sitting on the shelf all forlorn with the regular group unable to meet. My top three games given those I have played are Beyond the Sun, Troyes Dice, and Finishing Time. The first two are almost certainly to stay on the list as I play more 2020 titles. Beyond the Sun will stay in the permanent collection as will Troyes Dice which I found much more fun than the Raja of the Ganges dice game.Finishing Time could stay in the top ten as well given how much I enjoyed my first two plays, especially the theme. 

Looking at the top vote getters, I also played Alma Mater, Arnak, Paris, and Raja Dice. All are in my top 10 as well, though I suspect several of these will get knocked down to the next tier. I’m very much looking forward to trying Hallertau, Praga Caput Regni, Anno 1800, Imperial Struggle, and Monasterium. Revisiting the top ten lists in July might ultimately provide a different assessment of the 2020 games. 

Ultimately this exercise seems premature, even more so with the advent of greater options available for online board games. It feels like many of the “taste-makers” have moved on in pushing games of 2021 leaving much of the 2020 crop to spoil on the vine… shelves. This feels very unfortunate and not terribly fair to the designers and producers. But that is probably a discussion for another day. 

Mitchell T: I have actually played more new games in 2020 than I typically do mainly because of Covid 19. Fortunately my wife enjoys the Euros so we’ve had time to explore more new titles than we typical as we haven’t travelled at all. I can’t keep track of what constitutes 2020 releases so some of my favorites may have come out later in 2019 or early this year. Hence my comments are based on what I’ve played from, let’s say November 2019 to January 2021. Far and away my favorite two games (and possibly two of the best I’ve played in the modern Euro era) are Babylonia and ReNature. Both are classic designs, easy to learn, deep to play, quick to play, and lots of fun. I recently reviewed Babylonia on this site so readers may be familiar with my enthusiasm for that one. Renature is magnificent. It’s a beautiful production, with many nuances to good play, and despite the random draw of dominos, surprisingly strategic given the fact that you have the whole game to decide how to deploy your plants and clouds. I absolutely love this game. I also very much enjoyed Illuminations (also reviewed on this site) but that won’t be released until much later this year. Two other semi-classic, heirloom games I’ve very much enjoyed are Miyabi and Mandala. Zen Garden is quite good, too, although not the same level as the first four. As for heavier Euros, we played Tawantinsuyu, Tekhenu, Beyond the Sun, and Alma Mater, enjoying all of them. In our view, Tawantinsuyu is the best of the lot, Tekhenu is good, although somewhat byzantine, Beyond the Sun lost its luster after a half dozen plays, and Alma Mater ran its course and petered out. We played through My City and enjoyed it but I see no reason to play the perennial game that comes with it as there are better polyomino games to spend time with. 5211 is fast and breezy but not exactly best of the year material.  I splurged on some of the new roll and writes—Seven Bridges, Superskill Pinball, Troyes Dice, and Rome and Roll, but have not yet played any of them. The new Seven Wonders: Duel expansion beckons, too. And we haven’t gotten Tajuto to the table either, although I did play it at 2019 Lobster Trap and thought very highly of it. Finally, I picked up the Railroad Evolution expansion and that neatly resurrected the game for us. 

In summary, here are our top ten favorites from the year (broadly conceived), keeping in mind these are two-player assessments. 

The first five are all-time favorites:

  1. Renature
  2. Babylonia
  3. Mandala
  4. Miyabi
  5. Illuminations

The second five are excellent games with something unique about them but not classics and not necessarily long-term keepers. 

  1. Tawantinsuyu
  2. Zen Garden
  3. Tekhenu
  4.  Railroad Evolution
  5.  Tajuto
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