No matter the year, the end of December brings a time for reflection and 2020 is certainly no exception, but instead of dwelling on some of the sad and less pleasant parts of this year, we’re going to take a few minutes to talk about our favorite hobby and the board games we played this year for the first time that are now some of our favorites. These are games that were new to us in 2020, not necessarily games that came out this year. Both of us have put together a Top 3 and are excited to jump into talking about them. I do feel a disclaimer is needed that if you see a game here that you love and know we have shown a picture or purchase of for this year, don’t worry that we didn’t love it, as time to play has not been as abundant the past few months, so our shelf of opportunity still has quite a few games needing plays.
Mrs. Saint’s Honorable Mention – Rococo by Eagle-Gryphon Games
There are so many games we played and loved this year that could make this list and my honorable mention, but my honorable mention is Rococo by Eagle-Gryphon Games. The game we just purchased for our anniversary at the end of this month. It may be worthy of a top 3, but since we’ve only played it once, Rococo only qualifies for an honorable mention. However, even just one play was enough for me to fall in love with the game and look forward anxiously to the next time we get it to the table. I feel there is nothing quite like it in our collection and enjoyed the fun of area control, deck building, and deciding how to balance action and resource economy while trying to be the most successful tailor in King Louis the 15th court. Currently, the game is only available as a Deluxe edition directly from Eagle Gryphon Games.
Mr. Saint’s Honorable Mention – Root: The Clockwork Expansion by Leder Games
2020 has been a challenging year for many reasons, not least of all because of the long periods of social isolation that have been required to keep our family safe due to COVID-19. We live in an area where the virus is rampant, so even seeing friends for a casual night of board games has been all but impossible for going on nine months now. And while it is not the most serious of problems that our self-quarantining has caused, it certainly has put a damper on our enjoyment of games that are better with more than two people.
Leder Games’ Root is a game that both Jess and I loved from our first play. There’s just something about that game that makes it a joy to bring to the table. It could be the wonderful art by Kyle Ferrin. Or the lovingly crafted gameplay that designer Cole Wehrle put his heart into. And let us not discount the A+ production quality that Leder Games puts into every one of its titles. We had been playing Root pretty steadily through most of 2018 and 2019, and it had become one of our main conflict-based staples. The one negative for us, and the thing that kept Root off of our table for most of 2020, is that Root very much thrives at 3-4 players (we’re a household of only two board gamers).
Enter, the Clockwork Expansion. When we received our pledge from the Root: Underworld Kickstarter, the thing I was most looking forward to was the new Underground Duchy faction. But the thing that has really preserved our enjoyment of Root this year are the new bots that came with the Clockwork Expansion. With cheeky names like the “Automated Alliance” and the “Electric Eyrie”, the bots lull you into a false sense of security. But make no mistake, they are every bit as ruthless and domineering as the best human opponents. And while they’re no substitute for a table full of friends, the bots of the Clockwork Expansion have allowed us to enjoy Root as we did in less chaotic times. And that is no small thing.
Mrs. Saint’s #3 – The Isle of Cats by the City of Games
I am a big animal softy. Growing up, we always had pets and until my two old ladies passed away a couple years ago, Brad and I had two very spoiled cats, so I was very interested when I heard there was a game all about cats. The Isle of Cats by the City of Games was a blind purchase for us. We bought it on sale from GameNerdz.com when it was the Deal of the Day. I think I fell in love with the game when we first opened the box and there was a spot for people’s real cats to sit on the inside of the box lid.
One of the things I enjoy most about The Isle of Cats is that I don’t actually feel my strategy is the same each time we play. And maybe, that’s because I’m still learning and fine tuning my play but I like trying different avenues of earning points as I strive to save as many cats as possible before the nefarious Lord Vesh arrives at the end of the final round. I like trying different combinations of treasures and cats and cards. I still have a lot of improvement because Brad smokes me almost every time we play, but when you’re enjoying a game this much, losing doesn’t really leave a sting and you look forward to the next time you pull out your bag of cats.
Mrs. Saint’s #2 – Gods Love Dinosaurs by Pandasaurus Games
Our collection has grown a lot this year as we bargain shopped when there were sales to help us keep a library rich enough to support our content creation and love of the hobby. Earlier in the year, we purchased Dinosaur Island by Pandasaurus Games (which narrowly missed making the list) and enjoyed the game so much that when I heard about Gods Love Dinosaurs, I told Brad to blind buy it because after playing Dinosaur Island I had faith in this publisher that I would like the game. I also felt that even if we perhaps didn’t love our new purchase, in a few years it would be a great game to use for educational purposes to teach Little Miss the basic biological and evolutionary principle of food chains.
Gods Love Dinosaurs is one of those games where playing it just brings joy. There are a lot of games I enjoy playing but not all of them just make me smile the entire time and this is one of those games. The game is just a perfect blend of strategy, balancing your predators, prey and dinosaurs and egg hatching, randomness of what tiles will be available and what will your opponent pick, and most importantly a large dose of fun as you try to make sure you have the most dinosaurs and/or eggs by the end of the game. From the time the first game ended, I couldn’t wait to try it again so we just left it out on the table to play the next night.
Mrs. Saint’s #1 – Obsession by Kayenta Games
I am sucker for period pieces around British nobility and gentry. Downton Abbey remains one of my favorite all time television shows and if it’s a rainy day and Little Miss Saint is napping, you may very well catch me curled up on the couch with a “spot” of tea and the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley on the television. With this knowledge in hand, no one should be surprised that my top spot for the “new to us” game is Obsession by Kayenta Games. This was one of those games where from the moment we opened the box and began setup I was already falling in love. Excellent quality game components and such well rounded game play that not only is it the top of my 2020 list but probably now in my top 5 overall favorite game list.
The game is a fun mix of worker placement and tile drafting, while balancing hand management. You’ll have so much fun managing your estate and growing your reputation with the local gentry and nobility that you may at times quite forget you’re trying to win the attention of the Fairchild family.
I loved this game so much that Brad bought me both expansions for my birthday this year. Currently the game is sold out, but I really suggest following Kayenta Games and snagging a copy when more are available.
Mr. Saint’s #3 – Argent: the Consortium by Level 99 Games
After the resounding success of Millennium Blades in our game group, and with our continued adoration of Exceed (Editor’s note: Have you seen our ongoing strategy blog series, “A New Challenger”? Check it out in the blog section of our site!), we’ve marked Level 99 Games as a publisher whose catalogue we want to continue to explore. So when we had the opportunity to pick up Argent: the Consortium, we jumped at the chance!
Argent: the Consortium is different. Yes, it’s a worker placement game. There’s even a track around the edge of the board that you advance on throughout the course of the game. But that’s where the normalcy ends. Straight from page 11 of the rulebook, “…votes are the only thing that matter at the end of the game.” Rather than competing for some arbitrary Victory Point derivative, players in Argent are trying to sway as many members of a secret selection committee to cast their votes in the player’s favor in order to become the next Chancellor of Argent University.
There are so many ways to play a game of Argent. Do you spend your time trying to figure out the needs of as many voters as you can in order to be as informed as possible for the final vote? Do you carefully scrutinize other players’ behavior to try and deduce which voters they’re attempting to court, so you can perhaps steal their favor when the moment is right? Maybe you’ll draft spells and artifacts to build an efficiency engine that will leave you swimming in resources. Or you could go full attack mode, dropping fireballs and lightning storms into rooms so that your mages always get your preferred placement space.
That last bit about fireballs is not a metaphor. Argent is delightfully confrontational in a way that few other worker placement games are. Rather than mere sighs when a choice worker placement spot is taken, a game of Argent is filled with lamentations when mages a player was counting on are sent to the infirmary, threats of mutually assured destruction levied at overaggressive opponents, and delightfully weighty decisions due to the variable round lengths. And with Level 99’s penchant for cramming their games with tons of options to extend replayability, I can see us enjoying Argent for a long time to come!
Mr. Saint’s #2 – Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth by Fantasy Flight Games
Before we picked up the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth (Journeys for short), I will admit to a bit of dungeon-crawler fatigue. After the fourth or fifth Descent campaign, the feedback loop of running through dungeons, slaying monsters and collecting loot had started to wear a little thin. It sounded like Journeys would be the cure for what ailed me, so we gave it a shot.
The first thing that really excited me about Journeys was the fail-forward system of progression. Nothing is worse in a dungeon crawler than narrowly failing a quest/mission, and then being forced to replay the exact same scenario until you are able to beat it. Journeys sidesteps this potential pitfall entirely, as whether you succeed or fail, the story progresses. This system is not all gravy (as we discussed in our review), but it was more often a welcome inclusion than a hindrance.
Journeys also ditches the typical dice chucking of the genre for an engaging card play system, a refreshing change from the traditional dungeon crawler. But the thing that really hooked me on Journeys is its character progression system. The freedom to switch roles in between adventures means you can build exactly the character you want. Journeys offers a level of character customization that is largely unparalleled in other dungeon crawling board games. And with Fantasy Flight’s breakneck pace of content releases for this title (a boxed expansion, two downloadable campaigns, and two figure packs to date with another large expansion planned for 2021), I can see us playing the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth for a long time.
Mr. Saint’s #1 – Spirit Island by Greater Than Games
As I said in our review, there are so many things to like about Spirit Island by Greater Than Games. The plurality of individual Spirits, adversaries, and scenarios keeps the game fresh play after play. With just the core box, there are enough Spirit combinations, difficulty levels, and small optional rules tweaks to keep you playing for literally dozens of games. And the core narrative arc of Spirit Island is just so satisfying. The Spirits start off weak, barely a presence on the islands at all. They must consolidate their power to stem the tide of the relentless invaders before the island is irreparably damaged. By the end of the game, players are summoning tsunami, rending the sky with claws of lightning, and razing entire cities to the ground with a single card. Spirit Island has a game flow that is empowering without also making its challenges trivial, and I love it for that.
Jess and I love co-op games. And Spirit Island is the rare type of co-op that feels truly collaborative, rather than the coerced cooperation of many of its peers. While many other co-op games see the players working together because the game explicitly requires you to, Spirit Island starts the players on separate portions of the Island. Players organically reach out to assist each other as specific portions of the island explode with new threats. And because the complexity level of each individual Spirit is so high, quarterbacking (a.k.a. the “Alpha Gamer Problem”) is a nonissue. It is often difficult enough in Spirit Island to figure out what to do with one’s own resources, so rather than a single player being able to dictate everyone’s play, a game of Spirit Island is filled with questions like, “can you do anything about this area?” and I love it for that as well.
Before the release of the Jagged Earth expansion (our review here), Spirit Island was already in my top ten games of all time. Now, with the wealth of new content the latest expansion offers, it’s easily in my top three. My one regret is that I didn’t get around to playing it sooner. Spirit Island is the kind of game I can see myself playing not just for years, but for decades, and it is my #1 New to Me game of 2020.
So there you have it: our favorite new-to-us games of 2020. What were some of your favorite games of the year? Was there a truly great game we missed? Tell us in the comments. And if you liked this post, be sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to get notified when new content goes live on the website.