Monday, December 21, 2020

The 11 Best New-To-Me Games of 2020

The 11 Best New-To-Me Games of 2020
Plus 20 honorable mentions.
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Well, this year did not turn out the way I expected it to.  Back in January I had all sorts of big plans for the year.  I was going to jump back into reviewing a whole lot more, I was planning outings to local businesses for game nights with my game group instead of having every game night at our usual FLGS, I was planning on attending more conventions to focus on pitching games, and I was hoping to play a whole lot of new games this year.  Then COVID-19 hit in March and everything came to a screaming halt.  For a while that meant a lot more free-time to play games with my family, which was great while it lasted. However, before long we had settled into a new normal as extracurricular activities picked back up despite social distancing and other restrictions, and our free time was filled with Scouts, dance, library activities, etc.  Plus my wife started a full-time job (in addition to her part-time job with the library that she loves too much to give up), so free time has become much more scarce lately.

That said, the number of games I played this year is way, way down from past years.  The number of new games is especially reduced since most of what I've played has been from my collection of games that I already had.  I've added a number of new titles to my library, and even played a few of them, but over the course of a typical year many of the new-to-me games that I play are friends' games.  According to BG Stats, I've only played 30 new-to-me games this year (it was between 70 and 100 the last few years) and only 84 different games total this year (usually around 150-200 games).  

However, it hasn't been a completely disappointing year as far as gaming is concerned.  I did gain a wonderful new gaming partner this year.  My three year old son is turning out to be quite the gamer!  Out of 217 recorded game plays, I've played with him 79 times (so far)!  That's more than with anyone else, and it doesn't include all the times he's sat in and "played" some of the more complex games, like Scythe or Tash Kalar, while I've played with my older sons.  Most of the games I've played with him are simpler games, like My First Castle Panic or cooperative games, like Forbidden Island, but he has played a few more complex games, too, like Court of Miracles!  He doesn't quite get the strategy, but if the mechanics are simple enough he loves to play along!  I'm really looking forward to seeing him grow in his gaming skills over the years.

As usual, this list only contains published games that I've played for the first time this year (although a couple I played previously in their prototype form).  So, without further ado, here are my Top 11 New-To-Me Games for 2020, including 19 honorable mentions, so that's 31 games for 2020!  OK, it's every new-to-me game I played this year, but most were pretty good and the list was small enough to keep them all on, even the couple that didn't quite click for me.

Also, check out my lists for 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014 as well as The Best Kickstarter Previews & Prototype Games of 2020.

Honorable Mentions in Alphabetical Order:

* Indicates I played first as a prototype and then a completed, published version in 2020.

Animal Upon Animal (2005) - This is a classic dexterity children's game from Haba that is also fun for adults.  We got this for my son in 2019 when he was still 2 and he enjoyed the animal blocks, but we never actually played the game until this year.  Finally, this year we played it by the rules for the first time ever.  He loved it!  For me it was just OK, but for what it is, it does a good job.

The Castles of Burgundy (2011) - This is always on all sorts of top games lists and I've had it in my collection since 2014 but never managed to get it to the table until New Years Eve 2019.  So technically I played this game in 2019, but it was after I made my top games post last year.  It was the only new-to-me game I played between December 27 and December 31 of 2019, so it makes this list.  I still want to get it to the table again, but it didn't quite grab my wife and I when we played.  That's probably because she was going between playing and cooking, plus we had several interruptions from the kids, so we weren't completely focused on the game.

Caverna: Cave vs Cave (2017) - I've only played this once solo, but I quite enjoyed it.  Caverna is one of my wife's favorite games, and I'm sure she'll love this two-player version of it (though it doesn't have all the cute animal and produce meeples that she loves in the big game).  Hopefully we'll get to play this soon, and it would probably have made the top 11 list if I had played it more, but for now it's on my Honorable Mentions list.

Codenames: Pictures (2016) - I've played Codenames quite a bit, and I played Codenames: Duet for the first time this year (spoiler, Duet made it into the top 11 list).  I really like Codenames, and Pictures is great, too.  I didn't feel that it brought much new to the game though, especially compared to Duet.  I'm happy I have both Codenames and Codenames: Pictures, and will play either with equal enjoyment, but I really like the innovation that Duet brings to the series more, so this one didn't quite make the top 11 list.  I'm hoping to play this again over the holidays, and then look for a review of it coming soon.

The Court of Miracles (2019) - This came in a prize pack from Lucky Duck Games in November and it's the only one of the four games that I've had a chance to kind of play.  My middle and youngest sons played about a half a game one evening.  The mechanics are simple enough that my three-year old was able to play, though he didn't understand the strategy at all.  My 11-year old liked the game, and I quite enjoyed it, too.  We weren't able to finish though and I'm looking forward to getting it to the table again for a full game.

Exit - The Game Series (2016+) - Technically I played my first Exit game in 2018, but since each one is different and each can be played only once, I've included it here again.  My family and I really like puzzles and the Exit games are great.  We played two over the summer and have a few more on the shelf waiting to be played.  We've figured out how to play them without destroying components, so we can pass them on eventually.

Gridopolis (2018) - Gridopolis is essentially 3-D checkers with a few gimmicks.  You can add on to the board, block spaces, and even teleport to different locations.  It's an interesting gameboard that connects multiple pieces into grids, kind of the way the old Construx building toys worked.  Unfortunately the whole thing is pretty wobbly and the huge pawns, while great looking, are easy to bump off and knock around.  Also, once a player gets a kinged piece it seems a bit unbalanced.  Those kings are pretty powerful!  But the game looks great and it's easy to play with my youngest, as long as he doesn't knock the pieces off.  He's happy to just build with the pieces though.

Guillotine (1998) - This is a classic card game that I finally played for the first time this year.  This is a silly card game about lining up nobles during the French Revolution and collecting the most 'valuable' heads as they meet the guillotine.  You get action cards that let you rearrange the line so you can collect the heads with the greatest value.  It's simple, silly, and fun despite the slightly macabre theme.

The Little Firefighters (2013) - This was the first game that my youngest actually played by the rules and I reviewed it in April.  It's a super simple game, essentially drawing a tile and moving the indicated firefighter or fire closer to the house and hoping the firefighters get there before the fire.  So players take turns drawing a tile and then moving the pieces.  There's no decisions, but the game does teach taking turns and very basic mechanics.  For a few months this was one of his favorite games and we played it quite a bit, but now he's looking for more complex games that feel a bit more exciting.  He can handle more complex mechanics now, even if he doesn't get the strategy, and he loves being able to play some of daddy's games.

Lords of Waterdeep (2012) - This is another game that always makes it onto people's top lists of gateway games and I finally had a chance to play it this year.  We played with the Skullport expansion and I really enjoyed the game.  For a gateway worker placement game, I think I enjoyed Stone Age a little more, but Lords of Waterdeep definitely lived up to my expectations and didn't disappoint.

The New Science (2013) - I played this once, and we had a bunch of the rules wrong, so it's kind of hard to judge the game fairly.  I'd love the opportunity to play again with all the correct rules this time!

The One-Hundred Torii (2020) -  I absolutely love the gameplay of The One-Hundred Torii, however I wasn't super thrilled with the component overhead and visual chaos of the garden.  My review from April goes into this in a lot more detail, but this was close to making the top 11 list and would have if it wasn't quite so fiddly to set up and clean up or so visually busy during gameplay.  I'd love to see the game with updated artwork and a good organizer to make setup and cleanup a lot easier.  

Paradise Lost * (2020) - I first played Paradise Lost at Protospiel Chicago in 2018 when it was just hand drawn components on poster board.  I enjoyed it then, but felt that the ending was very anticlimactic.  I was excited to get the full version to the table though to see how it resolved that and a few other minor issues I had with the game at the time.  I'll be sharing a full review of this sometime soon, after I have a chance to play it with my game group, but my first play impression with my family was that the end game still felt lacking.  The new artwork is mostly wonderful, though some of the colors are hard to discern and the font choice is difficult to read in a few places, but the game looks incredible and was fun to play, right up until the very end.

The Resistance (2009) - I own and have played The Resistance: Avalon a few times and the original The Resistance is pretty much the exact same game (Avalon includes a few characters and options that are expansions in the original).  Mechanically I felt both games worked well, but thematically I'm a bit more drawn to the Avalon version.

Space Explorers (2017) - Here's another game that I reviewed this year, back in March.  I love the theme and artwork of the game, and the mechanics are pretty solid, however I felt it landed in a middle area where it doesn't quite find its audience.  I didn't feel like it provides a better experience than similar set collection, resource management, and engine building games like Splendor.  New gamers will be able to pick up Splendor much more quickly and experienced gamers won't find additional depth that matches the additional complexity.

Spell Saga (2019) - I've played through the introduction of this "tabletop novel" twice now and want to get in a full game soon (it's on my review queue), however it feels like the type of game that you really need to just immerse yourself in, which is difficult with an active family around you all the time.  It's a super interesting concept though, where you end up telling a story where you control the characters and their experiences through a deck of cards that guide you through a free flowing narrative.  It's somewhere between a card game, choose-your-own-adventure style novel, and RPG and I'm itching for a nice, quite afternoon I can really delve into the world.

Spyfall (2014) - This has been on my wishlist since I started to discover the world of modern board games back in 2014.  It, along with other social party games, appealed to my nostalgia of playing Mafia in college.  Unfortunately my circle of friends, as well as my personal tastes, tend toward more strategic board games.  But I was able to play Spyfall this year and, while I enjoyed it and think it would be fun with the right group, it didn't go over so well with my main game group.

Tigris & Euphrates (1997) - This is a classic Reiner Knizia game that I had previously played as a mobile app and wasn't thrilled with.  Part of what I didn't like about the app was that the AI players moved through their turns so quickly that I had a hard time learning what was going on.  I found the board game version a whole lot more enjoyable because I could see each player's strategy developing as the game grew.  I played just once and would love to play again, especially since I won!

Trainmaker (2012) - Trainmaker is a fast, fun press-your-luck game by Chris Leder and published by Grey Gnome Games that I won in a contest at the beginning of the year.  I've only played this solo so far, and it's a solo variant that I designed.  It's fun, and I'd like to play with more people at some point.

Truck Off: The Food Truck Frenzy Roll And Write (2019) - Here's another game that I reviewed, back in April.  I've played it a lot solo and a couple of games with two players, so I'd like to play sometime with more players.  It works pretty good as a solo game, though it can be a bit too reliant on lucky dice rolls.  I also wish the maps were a little more varied so they provide very different experiences, but they're almost identical with just a few variations.

And Now for the Top 11 New-To-Me Games of 2019

* Indicates I played first as a prototype and then a completed, published version in 2020.

11. Triassic Terror (2013) - Eagle-Gryphon Games - Triassic Terror was sent to me a couple of years ago to review and I finally got around to reviewing it earlier this year.  For an area control, combat game, I think I prefer Kemet, but Triassic Terror is dinosaurs, and who doesn't love dinos?  This is a brutal combat game though, especially with 5 or 6 players.  I think the sweet spot is 3-4 players and it doesn't scale super well up or down, but at 3 or 4 players this is a ton of fun and looks incredible!

10. On Pointe: The Ballet Board Game (2018) - Analog Game Studios - My middle son has been taking ballet for three years now and absolutely loves it.  So when I saw On Pointe on Kickstarter last year I had to get it for him.  We've played it a handful of times now and have quite enjoyed it.  It's a very light, family friendly game.  I don't often write up reviews for games from my own collection, but we really enjoyed playing On Pointe, and I wanted to share our excitement for the game. The theme, artwork, and gameplay really brought the ballet home!  If you have a dancer in the family this is definitely a game for you, and even if you don't have dancers at home this is still a very solid family game. 

9. My First Stone Age (2016) - Z-Man Games - I may have mentioned how my youngest has really been getting into board games.  Maybe just a little?  He really turned it on earlier this year when he insisted on "playing" Scythe, Tash Kalar, and other "grown up" games with my older sons and I.  It wasn't long though before he was insisting on actually playing the games and not just playing with stuff while we played.  So I started looking for more gamery looking games that were more to his level and My First Stone Age is one I picked up for his third birthday.  The component quality on this game is awesome.  Nice thick tiles, big clunky wooden resources, and great artwork all come together to make a wonderful kids game.  Plus, the game is actually interesting!  Mechanically it's super simple - choose a face-down tile, move where it says, and either collect a resource or build a hut in your village.  However, since the tiles get returned face-down and then some are moved every time someone builds, there is an element of memory and strategy to the game that can keep even older players interested and engaged.  I'm looking forward to playing this with him for years to come! 

8. Herbaceous Sprouts (2019) - Pencil First Games - I've been a huge fan of the games that Pencil First Games has been putting out from the team of Steve Finn, Eduardo Baraf, Beth Sobel, and Keith Matejka.  They've all been excellent, lightweight filler games, and Herbaceous Sprouts is no exception.  The dice are wonderfully colored and tactile, and the drafting mechanic works perfectly in the game.  And, as usual, the artwork and theme are very tightly integrated with the mechanics and so much fun!  I hope this team keeps putting out games because they're all amazing!

7. Hues and Cues (2020) - The Op - I haven't played this physically yet, just a game over Zoom during my Extra Life 24 hour marathon in November, but I had an absolute blast playing.  This is a great, family party game that doesn't feel to partyish.  It works great with people of all ages, is quick and simple to teach, and doesn't require any special skills.  This is Scott Brady's first published design and I have to say, he nailed it here!  It's right at the top of my wishlist right now!

6. Dual Powers: Revolution 1917 * (2018) - Thunderworks Games - I reviewed this game for its Kickstarter in 2018 and finally had a chance to play it again this year.  I enjoyed it just as much as the prototype I played, and the final components are of incredible quality!  My wife wasn't super excited about the game with its bluffing and deduction, though she did beat me.  I also played the solo game and was quite impressed with it.  Dual Powers is a game I'm always happy to get to the table.

5. Trace the Stars (2020) - Allright Games - This game is a finalist in the TGC Staff Roll and Write Challenge and it's the one game that I was about as excited about as my own Rolling Seas.  This is a gorgeous roll & write game about mapping constellations in the night sky.  I haven't played it multiplayer yet, though playing solo plays pretty much the same.  I can see where it can be a bit AP prone, but I don't mind 'cause it's such a beautiful, amazing game.  Unfortunately you can't get it off of The Game Crafter any more, but that's because it's been signed by a publisher, so look for it to get an upgraded version soon!

4. Codenames: Duet (2017) - Czech Games Edition - As hinted at earlier, I really liked Codenames: Duet.  It really adapts Codenames to a two-player version quite well.  It stays true to the original while still providing a unique experience.  I really like the missions that present you with additional challenges and variations of play to keep the game interesting.  I also really love that you can mix this version with any of the other versions of Codenames.  If you enjoy Codenames, but want to play with just two players, or if you like two-player games, then Codenames Duet is just the game for you!  You can read all about it in my review!

3. My First Castle Panic (2019) - Fireside Games - Of all the kids games I've played with my three year old, My First Castle Panic is probably the one I enjoy the most.  It's super simple, but has a few decisions and choices, so it doesn't completely feel like just random chance (it's mostly random chance though).  Thematically it matches the actual Castle Panic pretty well, and mechanically it's similar, too, but very basic.  Each turn you draw a hero card into your hand and that hero (or another from your hand) can attack monsters on the space that match the hero's color and shape.  Or you can ask another player for help attacking.  Once you've attacked if you can, all the monsters move forward one space and a new monster arrives.  Some monsters have special abilities, and some of the hero cards do, too.  If monsters knock down your wall and arrive at the castle you lose, but if you capture all the monsters and throw them in the dungeon first, you win!  My son loves capturing monsters and yelling "get in the dungeon dude!"  It's a simple game, but if your kids can match shapes and colors they can play.  A game lasts about 10 minutes, so it's the perfect length for those short attention spans and doesn't last so long for it to get too boring for parents either.  I think My First Stone Age will keep his interest for more years, but My First Castle Panic is more fun to play with him right now.

2. Unlock! Series (2017+) - Space Cowboys - This year was the first time I ever played an Unlock! game, and my family and I really fell in love with the games.  You can only play each one once, and some were better than others, but after playing our first one we went out and bought a bunch of others.  We played 10 different Unlock! games this year and enjoyed every single one!  We always seem to get three stars though... Maybe we'll be able to finally get 4 stars on one of the titles we still have to get to.

1. Roam (2018) - Red Raven Games - I only got to play Roam once, back in January, and I've been itching to play again ever since.  My FLGS had one copy of the game after that play and someone else from my group bought it.  It's been out of stock since then, and I keep checking.  Hopefully the game will get a reprint and I'll finally be able to pick up a copy, or at a minimum I'll hopefully get to play it again when it's safe to meet up with my game group again.  There were a lot of games I only got the opportunity to play once this year, but Roam is the only one that I really, really want to play again and again and keep thinking about.  I check the shelves every time I'm in my FLGS and have been searching online, too.  Please Red Raven Games, get a second printing of this to our game stores!

In Roam each player is searching the land for lost adventurers.  Adventurers in your party let you place search tokens onto the cards in the play area in certain patterns and when an area has been completely searched the player with the most tokens in the area collects it, gaining points and a new adventurer in their party that gives them a new pattern that can be searched.  You can also earn coins to gain artifacts and use special abilities. I really loved the player interaction, puzzles and patterns, and of course the artwork and theme.  As with all of Ryank Laukat's games, the artwork is fantastic and this fits right in with the mythos in his other games, like Above and Below, Islebound, and Near and Far.

I really can't wait to play this one again. especially since I need a rematch against Kevin, who beat me by just one point!

Well, that's it for 2020!  I may not have played as many games this year as in the past, but man, there were some great ones!  I still have a number of games that I know are great on my shelf of shame, like Terraforming Mars, The Manhattan Project, TMP: Energy Empire, Agricola, and more.  I hope 2021 is better all around, for games and everything else.  I can't wait to get back to some normalcy for gaming, Protospiels, conventions, and everything else about life in general!  

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.  Are there any games you can't believe I put where they are?  Is there anything that you think I just NEED to add to my collection?  I want to  hear!

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.


  1. Give Castles of Burgundy another go; it's a favorite (my 8th most played game).
    I'm not familiar with most of your top 10 list.

    1. I definitely want to try it again. I brought it to a few of the weekly game nights, but it didn't hit the table there either before they were canceled for the year. Hopefully 2021 will see it getting to the table again. I liked it quite a bit, but it was just hard to get into with so many interruptions. It took us almost two hours to get through, and it should have been 45 minutes, tops!