I think it goes without saying that any ‘Best of 2020’ list is going to come with some provisos. I’m fortunate enough to still have added many games to my collection between fulfilled Kickstarters and efforts to support my local FLGS’s. But the few games I actually managed to play were generally solo or online affairs, with only a couple of exceptions at the start of the year. Even those I did play, it was rarely enough sessions to give informed reviews or comparisons.
That said, these are all games I’ve had a great time with this year and eagerly look forward to experiencing in person with friends again in the future. Furthermore, all have been featured in edible forms one way or another. So I thought this would be a nice opportunity for a retrospective on how I celebrated my favorite games throughout the year.
I missed the Kickstarter for Oceans having not played Evolution, but when I happened upon the deluxe edition at my FLGS I couldn’t resist the gorgeous presentation and was not disappointed in the slightest. There is an incredible volume of game in this box, with an whale’s worth of card’s to choose from and a refreshingly dynamic system. With players finding a sandbox of options available to them at any given time, what results is a fascinating simulation of evolution in action. Multiple players start playing predator cards? Suddenly your foraging whale is so longer viable in this new ecosystem, but a new armored species will have it’s chance to shine. I’m usually not fond of direct conflict games, but there’s really no hard feelings when you can so easily, adapt, evolve, and come back even meaner….or grow some wings and fly out of reach.
It’s such a wonderfully evocative game that it kept inspiring me to return to it in the kitchen, more than any other game this year.
There’s no doubt that 2020 has been challenging but of the silver linings to be found, one is that it pushed me out of my comfort zone to change my gaming habits and try games I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve rarely had much interest in abstract puzzle games but with a theme like this who could resist?! The game is so elegantly simple with only a couple of options available to you at any given time. But don’t let the cozy theme fool you, much like a cat demanding to be petted and then unexpectantly biting you a moment later, the puzzle to solve here is dastardly. With multiple ways to score that overlap you will no doubt be slapping yourself when you miss an obvious hole in your quilt. The hidden joy I found here though, is the number of ways you can approach this game: random objectives, trying for specific achievements that limit your options or my favourite: a series of specially designed scenarios. In a series of increasingly difficult situations you’ll be given a specific setup with particular goals and points to try and achieve before moving on to the next. This really is the sweet spot for me to be able to enjoy an abstract game with clear win/loss conditions without simply chasing high scores.
Now for the twist: I’ve only ever played this game solo. I don’t imagine the game would change very much with more players, if anything it would just result in more frustration when a friend takes the tile you needed and have been waiting 5 turns for. Beyond that there’s no player interaction here so your experience really depends on patience for slowly and silently thinking over a puzzle. For me it’s been lovely to leave the game set up and enjoy with a cup of tea each night. And what better to pair it with than some Calico Cookies:
3. IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING
Another surprise hit that I’d missed on Kickstarter but was backed by my FLGS and immediately drew me in with that beautiful artwork by Kwanchai Moriya. As I write this I realize that this is technically a 2019 release but I’m already dealing with an artificially shortened list, and it didn’t fulfill in Canada till 2020 – it is by a Canadian publisher AND designer after all!
I’d been looking to add a tetromino game to my collection and 2020 had no shortage of options to choose from (I’m still eagerly looking forward to trying Isle of Cats). But on top of the tactile joy of laying tiles In the Hall of the Mountain King lays on a wonderful array of unique mechanics in a clockwork puzzle. Not only does the Cascading card system result in a tricky decision space for managing your resources but all resources act in completely different ways. You have several variety of ore to build your tunnels, hammers to clear rubble, carts to move statues along the tunnels, runestones to cast spells, coins to bribe trolls to join your cascade and start the process all over again. It all feels like a wonderful Rube Goldberg machine seeing your engine in action.
If I have one complaint it’s that the solo mode didn’t really work for me. Not only do you just have one set of tunnels being built, you have the mountain actively trying to destroy them. It just didn’t feel satisfying to end a game and only have 2 or 3 tiles on the board. You can use the same system to play co-op with multiple players but in full disclosure, I didn’t have a chance to try that.
I featured In the Hall of the Mountain King for my monthly feast back in March and it was one I had the most fun in creating, especially with such a strong theme to work with.