You didn’t think I meant video games, did you?
In a year of pandemic and panic, I admit I accomplished a lot less than I wanted to. Depression got a hold of me, like it did many of us, and I didn’t engage with a lot of content, video games or otherwise. I think I watched three movies all year. It was a lot of existential dread and staring at the ceiling, if I’m being totally honest.
The one thing I did do to keep me clinging to the shred of sanity that got me to work in the mornings was a weekly tabletop game night with some safe, quarantine-circle buddies. They have a “game shelf” that’s actually two bookcases and a lot of overflow, so we had plenty to keep us entertained.
My only criteria for my game of the year list was that it be composed of games I played for the first time this year – otherwise it would just be Dungeons and Dragons five times. The games that make up my top five didn’t come out this year, but they do earmark my 2020 experience, and I think that’s enough to give them game of the year cred.
(Also, I know this post is pretty late coming. Best of 2020, halfway through February? Somehow, just under two months has been a lifetime for me. Between personal loss and Texas freezing solid, I’m pleased to have finished this post at all. More pleased if you stick around to read it.)
Honorable Mention: Sorcerer (2019)
Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I sure wish Magic: The Gathering was a little more complicated”? If so, this is the game for you! When I was a kid, my much older, much cooler cousins taught me how to play Magic. I was ok at it, but mostly I was fascinated by the idea of creatures that had to play off of the land you had. Sorcerer plays with that concept, creating three battlegrounds to choose between when playing creatures. The battle mechanics are functionally identical to Magic, but setting them across three fields adds an extra level of strategy to the game, as each creature can only affect their own arena. Sorcerer also has a high level of replay-ability, because each battle deck is created by choosing one deck from each of three categories to create the playable deck. With four options per category, there are 64 possible deck combinations, so every game is unique. The only reason this game isn’t higher on my list is because we just haven’t played it that much. Two outings isn’t quite enough to give a fully formed review of a game, but with a couple more plays, Sorcerer has potential to become one of my favorite long-form games.
5. Lovecraft Letter (2017)
Lovecraft Letter is essentially a reskin of the 2012 game Love Letter, a fast-paced deduction card game that pits players against one another to win the affection of the princess. In Lovecraft Letter, players are instead trying to find the most valuable clue about Lovecraftian terrors, but the gameplay carries over, with some new mechanics. Each card is assigned a numerical value, and each number has a different ability when played. Players take turns drawing a card and playing a card, trying to knock their opponents out of the round. Lovecraft Letter introduces an Insanity mechanic, which adds a new set of powers and encourages more strategic gameplay than the original required. It’s the ideal fast-paced, bite-sized game to wrap up a night of gaming. Rounds only last a minute or two — often a winner is declared before the full deck of cards is played out — and while there is a win condition, we always just play until we get tired of the game. It’s fairly easy to learn, but still complex enough to be entertaining and replayable, making it my favorite short-form game.
4. The Red Dragon Inn (2007)
Take this recommendation with a grain of salt. Red Dragon Inn is, at its base, an elimination card game where players choose one of four characters to play as in drinking, fighting, and gambling until one character is left standing. The reason I love this game so much is because of how diverse it has become in the time since its original release. In addition to Red Dragon Inn, there are now seven full-sized base games that can also act as expansions, as well as several actual expansions, all of which introduce new playable characters. All told there are somewhere around 50 different character decks to play, and my friends own every expansion that has come out, which means our version of Red Dragon Inn has nearly infinite replayability. It’s with that extreme level of variety that RDI makes my top five. There’s always something new to discover, so even though every character has the same core mechanics, gameplay stays fresh and exciting. Obviously, buying this many expansions of a game is a serious financial commitment, so I can only recommend this game to people with a lot of time and enthusiasm to invest in one game.
3. Clank!: A Deck-Building Adventure (2016)
Clank is a new discovery for my friends and I; we only picked up this game at the beginning of December, but it quickly became a crowd-favorite. Clank is a deck-building dungeon crawl that has players recruiting explorers and buying items to make a team capable of grabbing the most treasure, all while avoiding the dragon’s wrath. There are multiple expansions to the base game, a few of which we’ve purchased — there’s even a 5-6 player expansion for allowing larger groups to play — but unlike RDI, Clank is fairly replayable at its core. There are, effectively, two stages of gameplay: loot collecting, where players move around the dungeon grabbing treasures, and escaping, where one player decides to run away and everyone else has to either follow or face the dragon fire. My biggest complaint about Clank is that there never seems to be enough time to collect all the treasure I want, but I think that’s more because my friends play a safer game than I do than it is any fault of the game mechanics. Through multiple plays, we still haven’t seen all the cards available for players to purchase, and the expansions only add to that deck. We’ve also found plenty of ways to house-rule the game into being a little more interesting, like randomizing the placement of the Artifacts so it isn’t an easy race to the most valuable treasures. Clank excels at combining strategy and luck to create an intense game that always comes down to the wire.
2. DC Comics Deck-Building Game (2012)
This may come as a surprise, given how much I love lying games like One Night Werewolf or Secret Hitler, but my favorite tabletop games are actually cooperative games. This is in part because of my deep-seated fear of failure, but also because I think there’s something alluring about competing against the game. Working against other players is difficult because you have to try to anticipate their strategy; working against the game is difficult because it’s effectively a series of random encounters with no regard for the strategy you’ve been building. The DC deck builder is the best example of this style of gameplay I found this year. Now admittedly, this game falls into the same category as Red Dragon Inn, in that the expansions do a lot of heavy lifting for the base game. Unlike RDI, I don’t think any of the expansions are crucial to the game, though without them you’ll miss the joys of co-op mode. DC is a standard deck builder. Players use five-card hands to accumulate power and buy new cards in hopes of gaining enough strength to defeat the super villain. Along the way you can pick up defenses and special abilities to give you the point advantage when the last super villain has been defeated and the game ends. The main deck is large enough to support quicker games as well as long-form battles, and there’s plenty of variety in characters you can play as and abilities you can acquire to make this easily replayable as a standalone game. For me, however, the real fun comes in the Crisis expansions. Each of four Crisis expansions creates a different cooperative storyline where the super villains are tougher, and there are crisis events for players to defeat, which generally add limitations to player abilities and purchase/play options. The combinations of villains and crises to defeat at any given time are random, so every encounter is unique and creates new challenges for players. I think it’s more fun to see how you can play the superhero characters off one another in collaboration, rather than try to scoop up everything your opponents want to hinder their gameplay — but I’m a min-max type of girl, so I just want to see how players can create the pinnacle of power. The DC Comics Deck-Building Game and all of its expansions are consistently challenging, even for people like my friends and I who’ve played it once a week for a year now. It’s always an engaging game, and the co-operative expansions are easily worth the price.
1. Betrayal Legacy (2018)
For a long time now, my absolute favorite tabletop game has been Betrayal at House on the Hill, a haunted house exploration game that’s broken into two stages for both co-operative and competitive play. Since its release in 2004, Betrayal has been largely standalone, spawning one expansion and one Dungeons and Dragons themed reskin, but otherwise remaining unchanged. And I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it as-is since that time! Imagine my joy, a couple years ago, upon finding out that Avalon had put out a new Betrayal expansion with a new mechanic that lets players create the house they set out to explore in the original game. I bought it immediately, and after a year or so collecting dust on my game shelf, I finally had the dedicated group of friends to start the haunt last year. Betrayal Legacy can be played with up to five players, but it requires the same players to engage with each of the thirteen missions that make up the storyline, as you create the lore surrounding a haunted house. If this game interests you, know that you’ll need a squad willing to make the time commitment. My group has been playing Legacy for about six months now and we still haven’t made it to the end. For the most part, Legacy plays the same way that the original Betrayal plays, in two phases. In the first phase players build the house by exploring, opening rooms and gaining items to buff their stats. In the second phase, one player becomes the traitor, and play continues one-versus-all in a unique ghost story determined by how the first phase ended. A lot of new rules are also introduced in Legacy, but the most noteworthy change is that as haunts are completed, new cards and tiles are added to the deck, but some cards and tiles are also destroyed and taken out of the game. That means players are forced to physically rip up pieces of the game. If you’re a game lover like my friends and I are, I assume that sentence sent a shudder through you. Tearing cards is visceral, and so against what games tend to be about. It adds a level of perverse excitement to every round, as player actions ultimately decide what cards survive and what cards are relegated to the tomb. It’s a hard game, with complex rules and events that are almost unfair, but if you’re up for a challenge, it’s so rewarding.
Out of 120+ games, those were my favorite last year. It’s a pretty diverse list, if I do say so myself, and there’s something on here for everyone. If you’re looking to get into board games, or you’re just looking for something new to play, anything on here would be a good place to start — but be careful, you could end up like us: too many games, not enough time to play them all, and a quirky mascot to help get us through these trying times.