2020's Best Tabletop Games
Holiday Game Guide
By Stephen Harkleroad
At the end of October, the Essen Game Fair in Germany was held (virtually, of course). Essen is, more or less, the last board game convention of the year, at least the last big one before the huge holiday marketing push. Things will be different this year, but now that the final games for 2020 have more or less been released, I thought it would be interesting to look at some new releases this year.
The games below were all released in 2020; however, that may not mean they are available by the time Christmas comes around. Most companies are planning on it, but distribution channels have been disrupted lately, so don’t be shocked if some don’t make it to your local game shelf.
If you are a fan of fantasy—and also cooperative games—Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a good choice. With high production values and an established name (Gloomhaven itself is #1 in the rankings currently—you don’t need it to play Jaws of the Lion, though), it lets a party of players work their way through a dungeon, fighting and casting spells in a tactical and modular board. It’s a good choice for people who like dungeon crawler style games, enjoy character development and tactical combat, and don’t want the commitment of a lengthy campaign.
Fort is a fun little game that puts you in the mind of a group of children building a fort. Not just any fort, mind you, but the coolest fort in the neighborhood. While it’s a competitive game, it’s still obvious everyone is playing as a group of friends having a friendly fort-building contest. Whether you’re building a slime lab, a secret stash, or a macaroni sculpture, this deckbuilder has a few mechanisms that keep players engaged even when it’s not their turn. This is a good choice for people who love unique themes and relatively simple rules.
Do you want to defend a city from unwanted alien visitors…especially during quarantine? Under Falling Skies is a rare solo game where you take on the role of the defender of a city. Utilizing an innovating dice-placing mechanism, you can power some pretty big effects, but then the descending spacecrafts get to descend even further. Balancing these out in this solitaire game is the key to victory. Add in some research and some energy management and it makes for a very tense game. It’s a perfect gift for someone who wants to try something new but doesn’t mind playing solitaire.
Mysterium Park takes the classic game (Mysterium) and injects some variety into it. (Like Jaws of the Lion, you don’t need the original Mysterium to play.) Set in the 1950’s at a circus fairground, one player will act as a ghost sending “visions” (various cards with intentionally vague symbolic art) to the other players, trying to direct them to solve their murder.
Along with a change in theme from the original, it has fewer pieces, easier set-up, and simpler rules. It’s perfect for people who enjoy solving mysteries in a party-style environment.
Scape Goat is a variation on the social deduction genres, focusing on a group of players who just pulled off a heist. Like most social deduction games, each player is given a card that signifies what they need to do to win, generally by getting a certain collection of cards active at the same time. However, the twist in this version of the game is that the player who is the “scapegoat”—the one everyone else is trying to pin the crime on—doesn’t know that they are the scapegoat. By watching other players’ actions, players try to get the scapegoat to take the fall before the scapegoat figures it out and goes to the cops. It’s a quick, easy game for fans of social deduction games.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the 1970’s version of Dune, back then published by the vaunted strategy game company Avalon Hill. However, Dune: Imperium—no doubt released to coincide with the now-delayed Dune movie—seeks to introduce a new game using the rich theme of the original book. It combines worker placement and deckbuilding as the stage for intrigue on the desert planet. It’s much more abstracted than the original Dune, but its shorter playtime and streamlined rules while still retaining the feel of backstabbing and raw power plays make it one of the most anticipated games of the season.
Nothing says Happy Holidays like the life of a pirate at sea! Forgotten Waters tasks your crew of players through a variety of missions in a semi-cooperative manner. Players will be faced with various challenges, which require players to quickly determine who would be best to deal with each task needed to accomplish it. This would be a relatively standard pirate-themed game, save for a few unique components: the game is app-driven, and provides a wealth of detail and pirate jokes; when you are successful at a task, you get to fill in a constellation-themed grid that unlocked your personal history; and an odd but extremely effective Mad Libs-style background generator that lets each game feel unique. While a lot of these mechanisms may put off fans of more classic games, its implementation is done exceedingly well. If you enjoy pirates, storytelling, or pirates telling stories, this game is for you.
If you’ve played Wingspan, you may enjoy Mariposas, the newest game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave. In Mariposas, players are competing to gain points based on the life cycle of the monarch butterfly—traveling from Mexico as far north as possible and back again. The “life cycle” mechanism, where each season a new generation of butterflies takes off as the old ones disappear, is key, as all players are trying to score various objectives that encourage varied play. A simple, beautiful game, it is good for those who enjoy pleasant themes and simple rules.
Remember—games have a long shelf life (literally!), so even if you aren’t up to springing for these games this holiday, they’ll still be here waiting for you next year, and beyond. Happy gaming!
Stephen Harkleroad has been playing board games since before you were born, statistically speaking. He wrangles spreadsheets for a living. His favorite board game is Dune, and he has most recently spent time as a Human Cleric (Life Domain).