Once again we’ve reached the end of the year, time for best-of lists in every imaginable category, although it feels like in this endless pandemic year some categories are more equal than others. Maybe you’ve been playing more games this year because you’ve been home more often—or are looking for more games to play because you’re stuck at home. In that spirit, I’ve included more games on this ranking than I usually do, ranking the 15 best new games I played this year.
I still have games here or on their way that I haven’t played or just haven’t played enough to include, but might be worthy of inclusion, such as Holi, Gods Love Dinosaurs, and Clank! Legacy; and know of other games that are highly regarded but that I haven’t played, like Paleo, Alma Mater, Ride the Rails, and Calico. Their exclusion isn’t a sign that they’re not worth your time.
Here they are: the 15 best board games of 2020.
The best social or party game of the year, Half-Truth is a trivia game with enough twists to make it work on the tabletop or even over videoconferencing. Designed by Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings and Magic: the Gathering mastermind Richard Garfield, Half-Truth comprises a series of cards with a question or category on top and then six possible answers, three of which are correct. You must get at least one of those correct answers right to score in that round, but you can try to get two or even all three for more points. Most of the categories are things you will sort of know, but we found it was rare that anyone would really know all three answers on a card. There are some small scoring twists that can also help a player who’s a little less knowledgeable keep pace with everyone else. I usually disdain trivia games for being too easy or too obscure, but Half-Truth gets the balance right.
Uwe Rosenberg seems to make two types of games. In one of them, you have to collect a lot of wood and feed your people, and follow a lot of rules to score points, and it all takes about two hours. In his others, you place polyomino (Tetris-like) tiles on your board and things can take as little as 30 minutes. New York Zoo is in the second category, and even among his polyomino games it’s on the lighter end—about level with Patchwork, and simpler than Cottage Garden or Indian Summer. You move around a common track that has stacks of tiles in descending size order alternating with symbols showing two different animal types. You must take one or the other—the top tile, or two animals—and place them in your zoo on your personal player board. When the movement token crosses a breeding symbol, you gain one animal of that type on any tile where you have at least two of that animal already. Fill in all squares of a tile and you get to take a bonus attraction tile. The first player to fill in their entire board wins. It’s a bright, appealing game that’s super quick to learn and plays inside of a half hour. Best of all, you don’t have to feed your family to win.
I’ve never ranked a children’s game anywhere on my year-end lists, but this one—a kids’ version of the Spiel des Jahres winner Kingdomino—is ingenious in porting a regular board game’s look and rules to something a four-year-old can play and enjoy. Players draw domino-shaped tiles, showing two landscapes on their two squares, from the four displayed at the start of each round, and try to place them to match one or both sides to adjacent tiles already in their kingdoms. For each match, the player selects one dragon egg at random of that color; most show dragons on the other side, but some are just empty eggs. The player with the most dragons at game-end wins. There’s even a little strategy, as the dragon/empty egg ratio differs for every color. It’s fast and easy but not insulting to older players’ intelligence.
The previous four installments in the Disney Villainous series—including Perfectly Wretched, also released in 2020—were all standalone games that were interplayable with each other, so you could just pick any character you liked from the 15 in those four sets. Marvel Villainous is a thing apart, as several core mechanics have changed here to make the game more interactive while tying into some of the MCU’s storylines. Players still have their own villains, with unique decks and victory conditions, but now all players share one Fate deck (rather than each having their own), and there are common foes they may need to fight together while still pursuing their own individual goals. It’s a step up in complexity from the original Villainous but does a better job of working the stories from the films into game play.
Curious Cargo combines the route-building mechanics of other tile games like Tsuro and Metro with a quirky pickup-and-delivery system, producing a game where it might actually be better to receive than to give. Each player has a board showing a grid where they’ll place tiles that show pipes in two colors (or three in the advanced game), each of which can transport a good of that same color from one of the machines on the board to the loading or receiving docks on the left and right sides. You build those connections, then play truck cards to line up trucks along your loading side, trying to line them up so that the pipes deliver goods on to empty spaces on those trucks. Eventually the trucks leave your warehouse and go to your opponent’s; if they have pipes set up to their receiving docks, they can take in the goods you shipped and gain even more points. It’s weird, but in a good way, and while I wish it were easier to use the trucks to take up goods, the interaction of the delivery mechanism is a winner.
The third game in the Azul series keeps the tile-selection mechanic of Azul and Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra, but has an entirely new placement mechanic, as players try to fill out the seven stars on their individual boards, but have to discard varying quantities of tiles to place on each open space. The tile colors all score differently, and you get more points for placing tiles where they’re adjacent to ones you’ve already placed. One color serves as a wild tile in each round as well, making it easier to get things done than in the previous two games. It plays longer given how much more real estate you’re trying to cover, and neither sequel has quite lived up to the original, but it’s still a good game to grab if you enjoy the core Azul mechanics as much as we do.
The new standalone sequel to Evolution is a less cutthroat game without losing the spirit of the original title. This time around, you’re creating and growing aquatic species, building up their populations and adding Trait cards to give them additional powers to feed or defend themselves against would-be predators. The food supply doesn’t run out so quickly, and you can also stash some food for future turns, allowing you to plan more for the long-term without worrying that other players might wipe you out. There’s a digital version coming in early 2021 as well, after their tremendous port of Evolution to various platforms over the past two years.
This Spiel-nominated game is actually a reboot of a less-known title called Habitats from a few years earlier, rethemed as an abstract tile-laying game by designer Uwe Rosenberg. Players select tiles in four colors from the rondel and place them in their own spaces. You score objectives shown on the tiles by placing them adjacent to tiles of specific colors, but if you chain together tiles of the same color, you can score those even if just one touches the tile showing that objective. Thus if a tile shows an objective of three red symbols, you can place one red tile adjacent to it, and then create a chain with two more red tiles, and score it without the latter two tiles touching the one with the objective. The first player to use all of their goal discs, completing the required number of objectives, wins. It’s simple to learn and quick to play, but different every time.
This asymmetrical two-player game pits one player as the U.S. Navy and the other as pirates in the First Barbary War, at the very start of the 19th century, with the pirates trying to steal all of the U.S. player’s gold, while the latter tries hold on long enough to boost its firepower with more frigates and let the local pasha, Hamet Caramelli, raise an army in their support. Each player has a unique deck of cards with actions shown on them, and can play those cards for their actions, to move ships around the board (the U.S. player), to build new ships, or to raid cities for gold (the pirate player). The pirates can win by raiding early and often, especially if the dice rolls used to determine the outcome of raids and battles go in their favor, while the U.S. is better off the longer the game goes. It’s very well designed with strong artwork and supplemental texts if you want more of the history of the battles for the Barbary Coast.
Legacy games have been in vogue for a few years, but it’s hard for such titles, especially conversions of existing properties, to keep interest up over eight to 24 plays. Reiner Knizia’s My City, nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year, pulls off this trick with rule changes in each episode that gradually turn the game from a very basic polyomino tile-laying game into a more engaging mapbuilder. Each player has the same set of tiles, in the same shapes and colors, and must place them one at a time as those shapes are revealed from the game’s deck of cards, making the order random and new each time you play. As you go, you’ll add stickers to your board that can make it easier or harder to score points, and will also add more tiles to your supply that increase the challenge. The rule changes also try to rebalance the game each time you advance to the next episode. My City also has one of the simplest rule sets I’ve seen in a legacy game, making it the easiest one to recommend to new players.
With over a thousand new board games released each year—a pace that seems unsustainable, even with demand still growing—any game with an unusual or entirely new mechanic gets a leg up amidst the sea of worker-placement and deckbuilding titles. Pendulum is a turnless game played with three sand timers that dictate when players can move their workers, and which spaces are available, which can make game play exciting and frenetic, while asking you to keep a lot in your head, lest you place a worker somewhere and then forget to use them. You’re gathering resources, as usual, and try to convert them to victory points along three separate tracks on your player board, but each player has a different board with tracks of different lengths, so you’re not all chasing the same things. It’s from Stonemaier Games (Scythe, Charterstone, Tapestry), so the quality of the materials is very high and you can see how thoroughly playtested the game was before release.
The best heavy (or complex) game of the year comes from the co-designer of Tzolk’in and designer of Teotihuacan, both also involved, crunchy games with lots of parts and many different options for actions and scoring. Tekhenu is as rich as those other games, but replaces worker placement with dice drafting, instead restricting what dice you can take when through the rotation of the obelisk, which puts some dice in sunlight and others in shade or darkness. Tekhenu allows for multiple strategies, but one part you can’t skip are the game’s three types of cards, which can award one-time bonuses, ongoing abilities, or significant points at game end.
The world’s first “flick-and-write” game is just what it sounds like—players flick their discs on to the common board (bounded by plastic, so everything should stay on the table, unless you’re an overflicker) and score on the four areas of their personal scoring sheets based on where the discs landed. This mechanic means you can try to flick with some strategy, perhaps bumping one of your own discs into a more favorable area, perhaps bumping an opponent’s disc out of your way. The four areas on your sheets all score differently, but each mechanic is easy to grasp. There’s a very functional and challenging solo mode as well.
From Leder Games, the publishers of Root and Vast, comes a lighter, small-box deckbuilder with fantastic art and a fast-playing game, as each player tries to assemble the best tree fort to attract neighborhood kids. The kids are shown on cards in your deck, with each player getting two ‘best friend’ cards they keep all game, while other kids can be recruited from the table or from other players’ yards—if you draw a card on a turn but don’t use it, that card goes into your yard and any other player can take it for free. You’ll use those cards to collect pizza and toys and trade them in to upgrade your fort for the biggest point gains, with other ways to gain points by stashing cards or using Made-Up Rules or Perk cards you gain as you play.
Deduction games have a long history on tabletop—Clue (or Cluedo) dates back to 1949, and Sleuth to 1971—but there’s often a conflict between the actual deduction elements and the need to make it a real, competitive board game experience. There are great cooperative deduction games, like Chronicles of Crime, and great social deduction games, like Coup or Deception, but great competitive deduction board games are harder to come by.
The Search for Planet X takes a real question in astronomy, whether there’s a ninth, very distant planet in our solar system, and turns it into a logic puzzle/board game. The sky is split into 12 or 18 sectors, each of which contains just one celestial object or is empty … but one of those empty sectors has Planet X. You can scan one sector at a time for a specific object, or check wider swaths, with each action costing you time, moving your pawn around the track and potentially allowing other players to make multiple moves before it’s your turn again. You gain the most points if you find Planet X, but can also rack up points for identifying what object is in each sector, so the game doesn’t just end as soon as the first player solves the puzzle.
You play with the help of an app, which players can use on their own devices or just share a common one, and which allows you to fine-tune the game so that players of different ages or skill levels can start with different information. The board has two sides, with different sector counts, so you can also increase the difficulty level or just choose a longer game. It’s the best new game of 2020, and a welcome entry into a genre of board game that could use some new blood.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.