As this year comes to a close, Bitewing Games once again returns to our time-honored tradition of revisiting the best games from the previous year. …Alright, you’ve caught me, we’ve really only done this type of article once, ever. But it’s a tradition nonetheless! And when I previously revisited the best games of 2019, I discovered an undying love for some games, a rekindled passion for others, and a new perspective on many more. In an industry where we’re constantly championing the latest hotness or ogling upcoming releases immediately before condemning them to the forgotten piles of yesteryear, there is much value to be had in looking back.
While I was planning to wait until December to revisit the best games of 2020, our schedule for that month is already crowded out with some exciting reveals and interesting topics. Furthermore, the following list is turning out to be pretty set in stone for me already, so as they say: “There’s no time like the present.”
There are far too many games on this list to do a deep dive on each, but what we will do is separate these games into categories based on my personal experiences and preferences: Lovers, Keepers, Dumpers, Flingers, and Seekers. I’ll also be offering my quick thoughts on each game as we go.
The must owns, can’t get enough ofs, top 50 games of all time candidates, going through withdrawals if I wait too long to play it again type of games.
- Hansa Teutonica: Big Box– It was my Top Game of 2020, and it’s still going strong! We haven’t even touched the expansion maps, yet the core game has revealed many interesting strategies that one can pursue. It’s fascinating to see how different players approach this rock-solid Euro, and I love the challenge of finding the most optimal path the victory within these highly-variable dynamics. Where many other Euros have come and gone from my collection, Hansa Teutonica remains as one of the absolute best.
- Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy– I still don’t own a table big enough to handle this beast on its own, but fortunately I have a second table (for holding the excess components) and/or friends with more furniture real-estate. A while back, I shared how I had given my farewell to Scythe and replaced it with Eclipse: Second Dawn. While I enjoyed Scythe in its prime, I still don’t regret that decision. For me, Eclipse provides a similarly epic experience but with even more bitey gameplay.
- Root: The Underworld Expansion– Root expansions have the be the most exciting expansions in all of boardgamedom. Not only are you getting more variety to add to a beloved design, but you are literally broadening the Root universe with more whimsical woodland animal factions. Every new faction is a joy to explore, and the fresh interactions between increasing combinations of matchups means that I’ll never grow tired of this system. The Underground Duchy of Moles and Corvid Conspiracy of Crows are both delightfully fun to play with. The two new maps in this box are simply icing on the cake.
- My City– We all knew it would be here. My City is Reiner Knizia’s take on legacy games, and I still maintain that it is the best in this genre. While it’s full of surprises and plot twists, as any legacy game should be, these surprises and twists are less thematic and more mechanical. Yet, this is one of the few legacy games that never grew tiresome or unwieldy throughout the evolving chapters. In my podcast interview with Dr. Knizia, he teased a follow up to this mega hit polyomino game, but he also promised that it would be something new and different. We’re on pins and needles to see what Reiner and Kosmos cook up for us next.
- Undaunted: North Africa– I unintentionally took a 10 month break from the Undaunted series after dabbling in the first few scenarios of North Africa. But, to it’s credit, when I finally returned for more sessions, I found that this game had not lost any of its luster. Undaunted continues to sit on the throne of my favorite deck-building games. While many are elegant, few are as tense as Undaunted.
- Tournament at Avalon– There’s nothing like a zesty card game that makes me giddy with delight. And while I’ve always had a soft spot for solid trick-takers, Tournament at Avalon would be in the S-Tier of my trick-taker hierarchy. This design brings to the forefront many of my favorite aspects of playing cards with friends: namely craftiness, savagery, and banter.
- Sidereal Confluence: Remastered Edition– Maybe I’m cheating by including “remastered” games like this on my list. But then again, I may have never given Sidereal Confluence a shot if Kwanchai Moriya’s infinitely superior new box art and the more approachable graphic design wasn’t there to welcome me in. Would have been a shame, too. Sidereal Confluence remains one of my absolute favorite games of all time. Anybody wanna come over and trade cubes?
- Renature– Renature is, in my opinion, design team Kramer and Kiesling at their best. You have a streamlined area control game with clever opportunities for surprising brutality. Plus it uses chunky dominos with lovely animals on them. What’s not to like here? People tell me Mexica is better, but does Mexica have savage neutral figures that you can use to destroy your opponents? I think not.
- Beyond the Sun– If we’re only counting entirely new designs from last year, then Beyond the Sun is unquestionably the best Euro of 2020 and arguably the best Euro in years. No surprise, then, that it ended up on our 2021 Holiday Board Game Gift Guide. While many designs have tried, this is a game that understands how to feed our insatiable addiction to engine building. It’s not enough to simply earn increasingly more stuff and spend it on increasingly more points. Beyond the Sun provides dynamic strategies, thrilling paths, and weighty decisions in spades.
- Durian– Sometimes the best game for an occasion is one that comes in a tiny box with a dead simple ruleset. Durian makes the most of its small size and then some. Most importantly, it evokes the thrilling feeling of calling your grumpy gorilla boss by ringing a tiny bell and hoping that he gets angry at your coworker rather than yourself.
- New York Zoo– This game is like joy in a box. A zoo mat for each player, green polyomino enclosure tiles and bonus amusement tiles galore, and a tray full of colorful horny animals. Beyond Rosenburg’s trademark tile and breeding mechanics, the feature that really makes this game sing for me is the complete absence of points and the pure race to fill your zoo board first.
- Regicide– This is one game that I only recently encountered, but it’s already a lover in my book. Regicide has none of the fuss of many cooperative dungeon crawling games, yet it manages to pack a punch with merely a standard deck of cards. It’s so good that I’ve seen it spread like wildfire at a gaming venue when I introduced it to one stranger and merely an hour later he had scrounged up his own deck of cards and was showing his buddies.
The solid games that have survived many purges over the past year. I would be sad to see them go, but I don’t need to bring them to the table constantly either.
- Downforce: Wild Ride– The maps in this expansion reignited my interest in Downforce. It’s been too long since our last play, but I remember it being a competitive and exciting race. The animals on the one map and jumps on the other shake up the formula while retaining the strengths of Downforce.
- Curious Cargo– I don’t often do full-fledged reviews of board games, but I did make an exception for Curious Cargo. That’s because at that time, I felt the game wasn’t getting as much love as it deserved. I fully acknowledge that this one isn’t for everyone. Yet for those who possess the acquired taste for punishing spatial puzzles, Curious Cargo is crunchy, exciting, and deep. The production is top-notch as well. I still won’t hesitate to play it again and again, as long as I know that my opponent is up to the challenge.
- The Search for Planet X– After winning my first play of this ever, I’m currently on a losing streak to my wife in The Search for Planet X. Lost by one point last game. It was both devastatingly painful and deliciously fun. Better yet, we still haven’t even tried the advanced side of the board. For those who love deduction games, this one continues to be among the cream of the crop.
- Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade– We’ve gotten nine good plays out of Super-Skill Pinball, and the sequel (Ramp It Up) is right around the corner. This one is another great couple’s game where the table is free of conflict and packed with combos. Where many other roll & writes have left our collection and passed on into the next life, Super-Skill Pinball still lives on.
- Scape Goat– What an amusing little game, that Scape Goat. I’m still charmed by this small box despite its lackadaisical production. The twist that it offers within the social deduction genre is one that makes me hungry to try it again, especially thanks to its lightning quick playtime.
- The King is Dead: Second Edition– Here lies another excellent gem that I’ve neglected far too much. Before I moved to Arizona, our gaming group had Pax Pamir on frequent rotation, and the similarities between these two designs is likely what kept me from breaking it out more often. But now I think my gaming environment is perfect for really digging into the King is Dead. Of all the games in this category, I think this is one that has great potential to upgrade to a lover. I’m also eager to explore other offerings from designer Peer Sylvester.
- Ride the Rails– I thought Ride the Rails was the most gentle of all the cube rails games I’ve ever played, but it turns out that I just needed to play it with evil gamers. There are plenty of opportunities to stab each other in the back here. Despite these games having a tendency for requiring obnoxious amounts of bookkeeping, I’ll rarely pass up the chance to play a solid cube rails game like this.
- Schotten Totten 2– After dabbling in Riftforce for a few plays, we recently came back to old reliable Schotten Totten, although this newer sequel provides some interesting asymmetric twists. Regardless, our recent play of ST2 so soon after Riftforce revealed a stark contrast between the two. Where Riftforce left me hungry for a dynamic gameplay arc, ST2 fed me in spades.
- Under Falling Skies– I don’t solo game often, but when I do, it’s Under Falling Skies. I finally started the campaign recently and it’s been a pleasure to face new challenges with interesting advantages and disadvantages unique to each scenario.
- Iwari– Iwari is somehow both more abstract feeling yet more beautiful than all the other abstract games in my collection. While I’m more likely to break out an equally simple yet more tense strategy game like Through the Desert or Samurai, I’m still keeping this one around to enjoy every now and then.
- Nidavellir & Nidavellir: Thingvellir– When Nidavellir first hit tables, it seemed like everyone was gushing about the game as though it were the greatest thing since buttered popcorn. So is it still great? Yeah, it’s still pretty great. Thingvellir makes it even better by enticing you with extra-tasty reasons to try and win a bid even when the tavern options of a round are bland and samey.
Some made me question my life decisions, others simply made me wish I was playing something else. None are welcome back at my table. So long and good riddance. May you find a better home.
- Santa Monica– I was quite interested to try Santa Monica thanks to the warm, charming artwork and presentation. But the small game in a giant box full of air was a bit of foreshadowing to the gameplay itself. I just couldn’t find enough interaction or challenge here to keep me engaged.
- Stellar– We already have an entire shelf crammed with juicy small-box 2 player games, so to be fair, Stellar had big shoes to fill straight from the get-go. But like a bland roast dinner, it had plenty of mathy protein yet it lacked a flavorful personality.
- Mountain Goats– I do enjoy the premise of King of the Hill. While Mountain Goats was certainly an amusing filler game, I struggled to grasp onto anything here that would make me want to return for more. Roll to move, decide how to combine your dice, collect some points. End of story.
- CloudAge– I’ll be honest, I think CloudAge left a really sour taste in my mouth for new Alexander Pfister games. His latest release, Boonlake, could be the greatest thing ever. But it’s going to take a lot of high praise from a lot of different people to convince me to even try it. Even then, I’m getting a bit tired of the same old formula of roaming workers, track advancement, and contract fulfillment that seem to make up every big box Pfister game. Great Western Trail did it best, and every game since has felt like a generic knockoff.
- Dice Throne Adventures & Dice Throne: Season One ReRolled– Before playing Dice Throne Adventures, I owned everything Dice Throne. Since playing Adventures, I own nothing Dice Throne. I still think this cooperative, dungeon crawling expansion amplified the worst parts of the system by reducing player engagement and slowing down the action. But even when Dice Throne is at its best, I eventually realized that other dueling games pack a bigger punch without the excess baggage of the volatile Yahtzee mechanism.
- GPS– GPS is an interesting example of where even good intentions can still result in a worse reimplementation. While it is based on an older filler game, Finito, and it offers a far more attractive presentation, GPS fumbles its source material with an extremely problematic production. You have satellite tokens that are too wide and fiddly to fit into their spaces outside of a circular board, and the spinner merely feeds this flaming problem by constantly shifting the board spaces away from those satellites. There is perhaps no worse emotion that a new game can evoke from me than constant, unending irritation.
- Rajas of the Ganges: The Dice Charmers– Rajas: The Dice Charmers to me represents the epitome of the roll & writification pandemic that has plagued our industry for several years now. Just because you can turn a board game into a roll & write spinoff doesn’t mean you should. Not only is this game merely a watered down version of Rajas of the Ganges, but it’s also nearly as long and complicated as the actual big box game. Seriously, both rulebooks are 12 pages long! The Dice Charmers rulebook is a bit smaller in size, I’ll give it that, but come on!
- The Shores of Tripoli– Speaking of games that are overshadowed by similar options, I just couldn’t get excited about The Shores of Tripoli when Watergate scratches a similar itch with a much clearer rulebook and more satisfying experience. This title provided me with a light, luck-driven, on-the-rails war-game experience, yet it delivered that experience through a convoluted rulebook. That’s a double whammy for me.
Do you like to dabble? I dabble from time to time. These games were amusing to try. Didn’t love em. Didn’t hate em. And sure, I’d play them again… given the right mood and circumstance.
- Unmatched: Jurassic Park & Unmatched: Cobble & Fog– I would rank both of these ones highly on the Unmatched spectrum of offerings. We had good fun trying out these characters. Yet the Unmatched system never quite delivered a filling meal of a 2-player gaming experience. My collection has simply grown to the point where the bar rose too high for me to justify keeping Unmatched around.
- Loot of Lima– I tried to give Loot of Lima another play, I really did. But pure deduction games have proven to be a niche interest among my gaming friends, and this one is so fragile that it requires a sub-niche of individuals to really have a chance of succeeding. With the release of the far more stable Search for Planet X, and still having the similarly solid Cryptid around, I lost any reason to keep or play Loot of Lima.
- Rococo: Deluxe Edition– Rococo: Deluxe Edition is good stuff! But is it over $100 good?!? Ian O’Toole’s art and graphic design here is top notch, no doubt about that. There are just far too many other Euros that are more affordable, dynamic, addictive, and unique for me to have justified keeping this one around. But I would be happy to play it again if given the chance.
- Spicy– Spicy reminds me of fond memories of playing B.S. with family growing up. I don’t even remember the rules to B.S., but I do recall that moment of calling out another player for their filthy lies and then discovering to your dismay that they were telling the truth all along. I love the look of this deck of cards and enjoyed the simple gameplay it provided, but my heart lies with two other bluffing games: Skull and Soda Smugglers.
- King of Tokyo: Dark Edition– I do think King of Tokyo: Dark Edition improves on the original game with a lavish production and some minor rules changes. But at this point, I’m really feeling burned out on King of Tokyo and Yahtzee style games in general. How many versions and bundles and expansions and promos of this game are there now? I suppose it’s merely falling in line with the bloated monster movie universe featuring Godzilla and King Kong and Godzilla vs. Kong and Kongzilla: Revenge of the God King.
- Dune: Imperium– I finally watched the new Dune movie last week and I must say, my appreciation for the IP has skyrocketed. That movie was phenomenal. Does it make me want to give Dune: Imperium another shot? Eh, I suppose it would be good fun. I just fail to see what elevates this experience above its flaws. I prefer Undaunted and The Quest for El Dorado for the tighter experiences that these deck-builder hybrids provide.
- Oceans– Wow, it seems like it was ages ago when I was playing Oceans. Truly another lifetime from this one. I really enjoyed my first play of Oceans and the tactical fishy combos of species you can create. But during our second play, the ugly downtime reared its head and suddenly I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I still get a kick out of the Kickstarter edition offering the opportunity for up to 6 players to play. That sounds truly horrendous.
- Animal Kingdoms– We enjoyed trying a late prototype of Animal Kingdoms at Origins 2019. Steven Aramini has made some solid designs, and this is another one of those. With the light area majority mixed with hand management featuring colorful cards, I was quite charmed by the game. But I later read many complaints about the final production quality of the cards and components, so I suppose that scared me off from ever picking up a copy.
- Calico– Calico makes a great first impression, but it didn’t have the legs to last beyond a few plays for us. The noticeable lack of player interaction and the tight restrictions to luck-of-the-drafting options meant that I was quickly banging my head on the skill ceiling while feeling crammed inside an optimal strategy cage. But at least it’s cage full of cozy cats and blankets.
- Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion– From a publishing standpoint, I still find Jaws of the Lion to be extremely impressive. The fact that they crammed a sprawling, complicated dungeon crawler campaign into a box offering that can sit on Target shelves is a modern-day miracle. But the several scenarios we tried were hit or miss. And we just never escaped the feeling that all this ambitious campaigning felt more like work than fun.
- Sequoia– I found Sequoia to be the best of the small-box offerings from publisher Board Game Tables, which is why it sneaked its way onto my Flingers list. This one feels the most interactive and competitive of the bunch by a long shot. But my loyalties were cut short when the more enticing opportunity to sell the entire collection arose. It’s hard to regret booting Sequoia from my collection when I have so many other filler games that provide more flavorful experiences.
- Pendulum– Pendulum suffers from the same feature that nearly all Stonemaier games have—namely low player influence and interaction. I say “feature” because I’m well aware that many gamers prefer this style of play. But at least Pendulum does it with style. The use of sand-timers as a resource/obstacle that players must plan around makes for a novel experience. But take away that novelty, and you’re left with a ho-hum engine builder with a short shelf life.
- Pan Am– I think Pan Am is one of the better offerings from the faceless design team known as Prospero Hall. It’s an engaging mix of worker placement, auctions, and economic gameplay wrapped in a crisp theme and presentation. Unfortunately, it’s the game length that keeps me from loving it. The pacing was too slow and the playtime far exceeded the promised 60 minutes on the box.
- Lost Ruins of Arnak– Arnak, like Dune: Imperium, is another mega-hit in the industry that didn’t click with me. There are plenty of options out there that provide an equally crunchy game in a pleasant production. For me, Arnak lacks that special something to really make it stand out. I don’t care if you mixed two beloved mechanisms together in a trendy new way. Give me some memorable tension to the decisions or some reasons to care about what my opponents are up to.
- Smartphone Inc.– Smartphone Inc. is a great game wrapped in a repelling package. A big reason why I love tabletop games is that they provide an escape from social media and smartphone culture. Smartphone Inc. is that strange enigma that feeds me tasty gameplay while shoving that unappetizing culture right back in my face again. This is one of the few games where I actively dislike the theme.
- Cosmic Frog– I’ve always enjoyed this game in theory, but I’m beginning to be worn down by its execution. It’s a genuine pain to teach, and that chore continues deep into the game session itself. New players get tripped up by ability cards, terminology, and rules exceptions. Turns often feel too few and far between. Playtime duration rarely hits the sweet spot. Combat often brings the game pace to a screeching halt. One or more players get hosed for 2+ hours of endless curb-stomping. Setup and tear down add insult to injury. I’m at the point now where I would still happily try it with a group of fast, experienced players, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever encounter such an opportunity, and I’m too burnt out to try it out with anyone else.
- Fort– I already shared how Fort has recently taken a nose-dive in my enthusiasm for it. In fact, I now no longer own the game! But I do still own the t-shirt. Wore it this past week, in fact. Leder Games makes a great t-shirt, people.
- The Red Cathedral– The Red Cathedral is one of many Euros that is solid enough for me to enjoy playing but lacking enough for me to justify keeping (see also: Rococo, Rajas of the Ganges, Calimala, Bruxelles 1897, Puerto Rico, and so on). The world of Euros is a crowded space, my friends, and only the strongest can survive in my collection.
- Anno 1800– I could say the same thing about Anno 1800 as I said about Red Cathedral. Actually, I just now realized that I haven’t yet shared my first impressions of Anno 1800. That’ll be coming soon, but here’s a teaser for now: “Call me crazy, but my experience with Anno 1800 compares most closely to budgeting and accounting. It’s long and tedious, yet it somehow gives you a satisfying sensation at the end of it all. I just don’t know if my enjoyment from the economic engine building outweighs the feeling of work.”
I’m still open to trying out these leftovers. I’ve heard good things about them here and there. Of course, I’ve now had over a year to find and play them, so I’m obviously not that desperate. Although some are much harder to track down than others…
- Forgotten Waters– Forgotten Waters seems like a real hoot of a time. I’ve heard a lot of great things about this silly semi-cooperative story-driven pirate game. I just can’t seem to get past that $60 price tag and requirement for several regular gamers to power through each scenario.
- The Isle of Cats– This game says it’s a 2019 release on BGG, but in reality it didn’t hit stores until February of 2020. I still haven’t tried it because it currently straddles that fence where I think I’ll enjoy it but my hunch is that I won’t love it. If someone offers to teach me, then I’m all for it.
- Sonora– Replace roll & write with flick & write and you suddenly have my interest! I think I’d find Sonora to be quite amusing, I just don’t trust that it would hold up over repeated plays.
- The Castles of Tuscany– Castles of Tuscany looks like a very accessible Euro with enough meat on the bone to satisfy more seasoned gamers. I’ve even heard that some prefer this one to Burgundy due to the absence of dice. But in any case, I’d love to give it a try.
- Hallertau– I recently had a heart-to-heart with Uwe Rosenberg’s big box games after trying out Nusfjord. Hallertau is another one of those games that I’m sure I’d enjoy, but in reality it stands in a long line behind my need to replay Agricola, A Feast for Odin, and Le Havre. I’d rather dive deeper into those before dipping my toes in a new one.
- Gods Love Dinosaurs– So Very Wrong About Games has a strong enthusiasm for Gods Love Dinosaurs that tells me that this one is at least worth a try. Perhaps with time, a copy of the game, and an open mind we may find that I too love dinosaurs.
- 18Chesapeake– 18XX games seem to be a very polarizing genre, and I’m still not sure where I would land on them. But I hear 18Chesapeake is a decent starting point. I do enjoy myself a good train game, but I’m still just trying to find local folks to play Age of Steam with.
- Paleo– Paleo seems like an interesting take on cooperative games that forces players to rely on memory, learning, and each other to succeed. Having won the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year, I’d be foolish to to not at least take notice of this Stone Age game.
- MicroMacro: Crime City– Speaking of award winners, MicroMacro won the Speil des Jahres, and the only reason I haven’t played it yet is because it’s been perpetually out of stock. But worry not, this one is traveling to my home in a cardboard box as we speak. I’m looking forward to solving mysteries in this Where’s Waldo style world.
- Nova Luna– If I didn’t already own Patchwork, I would probably have tried Nova Luna by now. Uwe’s rondel drafting has always proven to be excellent from my experience, so I don’t see how this would be any different. My only hangup is that this may feel too similar to Patchwork and make me wonder why I didn’t just save my money and keep enjoying Patchwork instead.
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.