Best Week 2020! Parallel Dimensions!
Firestorm take incoming: more than any other medium, board games are about discovery. Yes, more even than their digital counterparts. Truly, board games are so completely about discovery that they cannot even be played until the process of discovery has begun. Beginning with the earliest formative moments when the rules take shape in our minds, they cannot help it. The flip of a card, the provocations of a rival, the epiphany of a perfect move — these are all acts of creation and discovery alike.
Today, Best Week is about discovery in a more literal sense. What follows are the best games of 2020 that left me breathless as I charted past the map’s edge, redefined my species, or recorded new knowledge.
#6. Forgotten Waters
Design by Mr. Bistro, J. Arthur Ellis, and Isaac Vega. Published by Plaid Hat Games.
Look, I’m as much a crank about apps as anyone. Forgotten Waters is the game that eased my perspective on the matter. For one thing, it offloads the usual storybook faff onto the app. If there’s anything that can mitigate my crankiness, it’s when something leverages that same crankiness on another topic. The book is still present, but instead of sharing exposition it’s there to handle the busywork of major adventures. Battles, mysterious ports, days becalmed at sea, that sort of thing. The app is there to handle the text, but with more flexibility than usual. The same encounter can have wildly different results depending on the scenario, keeping the components and flipped pages to a minimum.
Far more importantly, Forgotten Waters understands the unbridled joy of stumbling across something new. Or running away from it. The writing even manages genuine humor. No small feat, but it’s true. One early chant has even become a recurring joke at our game nights. “Little Gertie, little Gertie” will forever repeat at my table.
#5. Bios:Origins (Second Edition)
Design by Phil Eklund and Jon Manker. Published by Ion / Sierra Madre.
My search for nontraditional civilization games has been well documented by this point. Being designed by Phil Eklund, Bios:Origins never stood a chance at being traditional. Rather than casting players as immortal civilizations, here your role changes with the times. Human subspecies become religions become languages become ideologies. Each moves fluidly from one to the next, eschewing easy boundaries or categorization even as it manages to invest each player in the struggles of their respective peoples.
It isn’t easy. And some of the card effects are mirrors of one another. So it goes when one’s accounting of civilization spans so many summers. It still manages a refreshing vision of what it means to be human, for all of its — and our — foibles.
#4. Beyond the Sun
Design by Dennis Chan. Published by Rio Grande Games.
There’s a reason discovery of the external is so often paired with discovery of the internal. Or, in layman’s terms, maps and tech trees. Beyond the Sun is expressly about that very pairing, even to the point that its star map, where planets are visited and eventually colonized, is about a third as large as the tech tree itself. This doesn’t diminish its importance. If anything, it serves as a reminder that exploration and discovery are enabled by even small inventions.
It certainly helps that Rio Grande has a long history of using legible iconography, a boon in a game that’s largely about peering at an enormous hieroglyphic vocabulary. In a genre that’s often about parsing cumulative bonuses, Dennis Chan goes a different route. Here each advance is crisply realized in its own right, reducing the number of times somebody forgets a plus-one bonus to almost zero. It isn’t long before the game’s language gets out of the way and lets players focus on the task of settling the next exoplanet.
#3. The Mission
Design by Ben Madison and Stefan Nellen. Published by White Dog Games.
Does self-discovery count as a form of discovery? It damn well better. Not that The Mission is limited to such. In the early days of its thousand-year time span, the first apostles go into the world to uncover the parameters of the field they’ve been tasked with harvesting. Jews, slaves, scholars, all are welcome adherents to the fledgling religion, even if the occasional woman tile causes bishops to flee in holy terror. But that’s only the beginning. The Mission presents an ever-shifting challenge. From Roman oppression to barbarian invasions, despots, heresies, and eventually Islam, Ben Madison presents Christianity as a dynamic force, sometimes oppressor and sometimes oppressed, always grappling with new realities.
As an act of religious introspection it’s also successful, although not always in ways that are immediately obvious. The simple message initially delivered by a few handpicked messengers soon becomes a tangle of languages and interpretations. When the conclusion is reached almost a thousand years later, the game’s central question is a loaded one: was the mission successful?
#2. Under Falling Skies
Design by Tomáš Uhlíř. Published by Czech Games Edition.
Under Falling Skies isn’t about a single play. Sure, that single play is excellent, thanks to Tomáš Uhlíř’s understanding of what makes dice both so tantalizing and infuriating. By leaning into the former and letting you offset the latter — without completely eliminating the risks of a bad roll — Under Falling Skies makes for the perfect dice game.
But that’s just the beginning. Across its campaign, new ideas spill from the box at a generous pace. All the advantages of a legacy game, none of the torn-up cards. Hard decisions will intrude, sacrifices will be made, and hopefully Earth will be spared from total destruction. Best of all, the entire campaign is dynamic, its forks in the road not predetermined by the author. This not only makes it replayable, but also exciting. When faced with the decision of which of two cities to save, which of two heroes must die, which of two scenarios can be weathered, every crisis must be managed with care.
Design by Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, and Brian O’Neill. Published by North Star Games.
Evolution, the hit that outed North Star Games as more than a publisher of trivia games, was about discovery in its own right. Its system was closed, though, limited to a tight set of cards that defined its gameplay even while it permitted players to assemble unexpected combinations.
I’d call Oceans an evolution, but that seems too neat. Instead, let’s say it steps out of the closed loop. The first half of the game builds along similar lines, using a tight set of cards to build a player-driven ecosystem. Familiar, although with enough ideas of its own to warrant a look. From there, it blossoms. The game’s second deck is full of unique cards, which barge into its ecosystem like a hungry leviathan into a pack of unsuspecting dolphins. The real star here is how Oceans places the burden of discovery on its players. The ecosystem is yours, as are the disruptions you force upon it. The result is a celebration of life, evolution, and the constant surprises of the natural world.