Well, 2020 is almost over, and good riddance. It’s been a long year, and it seems especially you realize that Fox in the Forest Duet and Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion came out this year. Man, it seems like those games are from a different world. At any rate, the board game hobby still continued apace, held back by shipping and production issues but driven forward by lockdown and quarantine policies. 2020 still had its fair share of blockbuster headliners like Pandemic Legacy: Season 0; more plastic grist for the Kickstarter mill like Etherfields; and hipster-beloved heavy Eurogames like On Mars. It would be easy to compile a top 5 about those, a lot has been written about them. Let’s talk, though, about a few games from 2020 that we love that maybe you haven’t heard of yet.
The genre of the deckbuilder game may have run its lifecycle. Dominion was, what, twelve years ago? Over those years it’s evolved into an inexpensive format that lets designers stretch their creative legs, while publishers get something accessible to put art on and put on shelves. Then Leder Games came out with Fort.
Leder made their bones with Root, a surprisingly deep strategy war game with a theme that’s perhaps a little misleading. Root features art from Kyle McFerrin that strikes an excellent balance between stylish impressionism and welcoming cartoonishness. People only glancingly familiar with the board game hobby are drawn to Root by it’s charming graphics, but surprised by its depth and complexity.
Fort may be a good follow up to that. It’s a deckbuilder that satisfyingly scratches the same itch as Dominion or any other game in the genre. This may be a better application of McFerrin’s artistic accomplishments, since deckbuilders tend to be much more accessible than the extensible, asymmetric ecosystem of Root.
And Fort doesn’t disappoint. The deckbuilding mechanics are just as satisfying as they’ve ever been, complete with the requisite twist to make the game stand out. The addition of some light resource management complements but doesn’t overshadow the card mechanics. Then there’s the amazing Kyle McFerrin art, that tells an adorable story of kids building their own treehouses. Fort is one of the warmest, cutest, and most memorable games for us this year.
Racing is a pretty archetypical format for board games. This format has been implemented in everything from children’s pseudo-games like Candyland to modern hobby games like The Quest For El Dorado. Auto racing games follow in this tradition, of course, including hobby standouts Downforce and Formula D.
Not a lot of racing board games capture the interestingly technical aspects of auto racing though. Balancing a complex simulation with the fast pace of racing is tricky. Combining the strategy of planning and preparation for a race, with the tactics of execution and evaluating risk on the fly, seems to be a lot to cram into one turn.
And this is why Rallyman GT impressed us this year. It’s an elegant racing game that offers up exciting risks each turn, gives players a sense of control over their gameplay, and plays quickly enough to reinforce its racing theme. It’s a dice pool system, where players roll a handful of six-sided dice on their turn to determine their pace. Then the clever bit here is that players place the dice on the track to plan out their racing line. The dice pool itself is informed by track conditions, and vehicle configuration and condition. All the nitty gritty aspects of racing are folded into one throw of the dice, which keeps the game moving quickly and exciting.
Rallyman GT builds an exciting race experience that rewards planning. We played the tires off this game in 2020.
Speaking of clever systems, there’s another game that impressed us with its innovation. Pendulum is notable for its high-concept peanut-butter-and-chocolate elevator pitch: what if worker placement, but real-time?
Board game fans may get caught on this concept - the two styles of game seem incompatible. Worker placement games tend to be slow, thinky affairs where players have to carefully pick the optimal option out of several, balancing multiple objectives. Real-time games, conversely, tend to be fast, casual experiences that reward quick knee-jerk decision-making and don’t punish mistakes as harshly. How can a player have time to think about their next move when time is of the essence?
So, surely, this is just some gimmick game, right? Maybe it's a bog-standard worker placement game with a real-time phase in each round. Sure, that’s one way to do it. But Pendulum wouldn’t be on our top 5 list if it was so banal and unoriginal. The stroke of creativity that Pendulum is built on is that the worker pieces are sand timers.
As in a normal worker placement game, players can place workers on spaces to get the space’s bonus, or take a unique action. However, a Pendulum worker can’t be moved again until its sand runs out. This paces the game in a different way than the regular I-go-you-go turn order. The sand timers run slowly enough to give players time to think and plan, to study their options and see which workers will be available in what order. However, they’re not so slow as to be meaningless. Players still have to stay on their toes and can’t dawdle, or else workers will be snagged by other players and they’ll fall behind.
As far as high-concept gimmicks go, Pendulum’s is remarkably well-executed. It’s great for players who like deep strategy games, but get bored of lots of downtime.
Dungeon Mayhem: Monster Madness
This is actually a standalone-expansion of the original Dungeon Mayhem from 2018. However, Monster Madness came out this year, and offers more of the charm, excitement, and good times than the original.
The titular monsters in Monster Madness are six of the most iconic and recognizable monsters from Dungeons & Dragons. Each monster has a unique, humorous personality, though. Hoots McGoots isn’t just the standard owlbear from D&D; Hoots is a risk-taking, death-defying circus owlbear with a party hat. Lord Cinderpuff is a cruel, avaricious red dragon styled like a Rockefeller capitalist. Delilah Deathray is more than a regular beholder. She’s a makeup-obsessed social media influencer, because, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder (lol).
At the beginning of each game, a player claims one of these monsters and uses their unique deck. Most cards just do a few simple things, like dealing a damage, or drawing another card, or giving the player another card play. Each monster also has three unique abilities that define their character and can potentially swing a game around for their player.
Dungeon Mayhem is a silly, fun game that’s appropriate for a lot of different audiences. It’s simple and funny enough to be a good kids’ game. Its quick playtime and direct player interaction make it a good filler for board game night, or icebreaker at parties. And of course, it’s a great way for D&D fans to share D&D with friends who aren’t yet familiar with the sprawling role-playing game. Monster Madness has been a highlight of 2020 for us.
In the past couple of years, there’s an old game mechanic that’s arisen from its slumber and grown into a new genre. Taking the core elements of Yahtzee and adapting them to more interesting mechanics and themes, roll-and-write games have become a fertile source of innovation, spawning games like Welcome To, That’s Pretty Clever, and Railroad Ink.
Sonora continues innovating on this formula, and does so in an interesting way. Sonora is probably the world’s only flick-and-write game. By flick-and-write, we mean it uses the pen-and-paper aspects of a roll-and-write, but instead of rolling dice, players are gently flicking wooden discs across a board. Players try to hit targets with their wooden discs, and where the discs land determine how players can fill out their score sheets. There are four zones on the board, and each is its own little mini game that provides points in different ways. Players maximize their score by balancing their efforts in all four zones, while navigating around opponents’ discs.
Sonora is an interesting twist on a resurgent genre of games. Mixing dexterity games and roll-and-write games is a natural combination, and it wraps this creativity up in a beautiful package. The Sonora desert is one of the prettiest parts of our continent, and the game’s art style captures this. The hybrid concept of the game and its lovely presentation made Sonora one of the most memorable experiences in 2020.