New Year, Old Year: 2020 Revisited
Nothing to see here — I’m only four months late to our February tradition. But you know what’s almost as good as February? March.
For those who might not know what’s going on, this is our chance to reexamine my top picks with the benefit of hindsight. How did my Best Week 2020 selections hold up? Let’s take a look.
Day One! Better, Faster, Stronger!
What I Got Right!
First of all, may I say that I don’t miss 2020 in the slightest. Does that have anything to do with which titles I picked? Nope. Not one bit. Still. I wanted to say it.
These were the games that I felt improved on a previous version. Iteration is the lifeblood of consistently good game design, and every one of these picks excels at that metric. At the same time, my feelings on a couple of them have shifted. They haven’t necessarily swung all the way from “best of the year” to “bad,” but there’s been a cooling effect over the past year and a half.
Let’s start with the ones that are still going strong. If we’re testing by replayability — which we aren’t, because a game’s value isn’t tied solely to how many times it gets played — then the clear winner is Fort. I have so much affection for this one. It’s playful in a way that most deck-builders never quite manage. Its core conceit is a big ask. Rather than getting attached to your cards, what if you had to regularly part with them? That isn’t necessarily an easy thing for those of us who’ve grown accustomed to careful optimization at every step. But it forces players to adapt on the fly, to try out new combinations, to make do with bad hands. Or even overly good hands! That’s downright cool, because not many games penalize you for drawing too many good cards. Every time I play Fort, it gets better and better.
To a slightly lesser degree, the same is true of The King Is Dead and Cobble & Fog. The former still stands out as one of the best compressions ever designed. There’s no such thing as an action that doesn’t matter. What might disqualify it is the fact that the additional cards for the second edition is easily the least necessary stuff in the box. I recognize that we’ve come to expect more from second editions, but this is one of those cases where nothing needed to be touched.
I’ve expressed my admiration for the Unmatched series more than once. For my money, Cobble & Fog remains the best example of how that series can use its system to create literary references. That’s feedback in action! It also highlights why I’m so uninterested in the more… commercial offerings? I’m not sure how to say it. I’m burned out on Marvel, and while it’s a real hoot to see a shirtless Ian Malcolm as a miniature, it’s not like the guy could stand his own against a pack of velociraptors. This series is best at keeping my interest when it’s focusing on legendary fighters rather than callbacks and nostalgia. Cobble & Fog shows why.
What I Got Wrong!
The big one is Tournament at Avalon, which I suspect comes down, once again, to the fact that trick-takers weren’t a big part of my childhood. Trick-taking has become the basis for some really intriguing titles this past year, including Brian Boru and Arcs, and those have some real latitude to tinker with what makes a game a genuine trick-taker or not. By contrast, Tournament at Avalon is wacky. To me, that’s its strength. But it’s also, I’ve come to hear, one of the reasons it doesn’t appeal so much to fans of the genre. Rather than being about control, it’s about seeing who triggers which wacky power. For me, that dulls the tedium of a mechanical genre I’ve never quite understood. But not enough that it’s a game I’d actively seek out.
The Vote and Imperial Struggle are far more difficult to parse. To be clear, these are both excellent games that improve upon their predecessors in significant ways. The problem is that neither of them have stuck around. Not in the sense that I keep placing them on my table; again, replay isn’t the only virtue of a good game. Rather, they both somehow vanished from my discursive brain. When I’m fishing for an example of smart historicization in board games, neither of these pop to mind the way I once assumed they would. Does that speak to anything particular? Maybe only that they didn’t get played by as many people as they deserved.
Next up, we discuss a bottom-heavy category.