This odd year has also been an odd gaming year. During the two pandemic waves, we moved boardgame night to my friend Patrik’s apartment closer to town, and I mainly invited people living nearby who wouldn’t have to use public transport to get there. We rented the scenically sited gazebo at Lilla Sickla for three long summer sessions. Both LinCon in May and the annual weekend boardgaming retreat in November were cancelled.
On the other hand, I came back to role-playing games in a big way after a 23-year hiatus. I’ve played four Call of Cthulhu scenarios* with three Keepers, partly over Zoom and Discord. And I’ve game-mastered four scenarios in Ashen Stars** with four of my most dependable boardgaming friends, one of whom participates over Teams.
Here are the nine boardgames that I played more than twice during 2020. The year’s total was 71 games. It’s a little less than usual, and on average I have played each game fewer times than in a normal year.
Architects of the West Kingdom (2018, new: worker placement, jail your opponents’ workers)
Clash of Cultures (2012, new: best boardgame implementation of computer Civ)
Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2020?
* Missed Dues (in the 2014 Keeper Screen), The Sanatorium (in the 1990 collection Mansions of Madness), Tatters of the King (2006), Saturnine Chalice (in the 2020 collection Dead Light & Other Dark Turns)
** The introductory one from the core rule book and the first three of four in the collection Dead Rock 7, all from 2011.
Roam is a 2019 boardgame by Utah resident Ryan Laukat, whose 2015 design Above & Below we’ve been enjoying for the past year. He is unusual in that he doesn’t just come up with the game mechanics, he also paints the lavish illustrations and writes most of the narrative text for his games. Roam comes in a box the size of a large hardback novel and plays in about an hour with four players.
The fluff or story of the game is funny: each player leads a search party to find people who have contracted a “great sleeping sickness” and wandered off dazedly into the wilderness. When you find them and slap some sense into them they join your team and help to find more walkabout stoners. On each card are a few lines of text describing what they were up to when you came across them:
Maart Gruthe was yodeling on a peak. Malia Carver was composing a symphony. Glunken Drop was gnawing on lava rock. Embre Meze was telling stories to a pack of rabbits.
As for the game mechanics, it’s mainly about area dominance: once a card (i.e. search area) has been covered by player chits, the one who placed most of them gets the card, on whose other side is a new team member and a victory point value. Once someone has ten team members you tally the final score. There are also magical objects you can buy to bend the rules in various ways.
Roam is similar to Mykerinos (2006) where you also strive for area dominance on a game board laid out from cards with 6 x 2 squares, and there too when you gain a card it turns into a character who helps you put more chits on the board. But the art is much better here. Roam also borrows a mechanic from Manhattan (1986), where what you can do on the game board depends on how you are oriented towards it: a card will in many cases do four different things to the game state depending on which player uses it.
I enjoy Roam: it’s tactically interesting and highly interactive (certainly not one of those competitive solitaire games that are for some reason so popular), the art is beautiful, the components are solid, and reading out the odd activities that the victims of the sleeping sickness are found engaging in is shared fun too. Extra points for the diversity (gender, age, skin colour, even species) among the depicted characters, a trait seen in Above & Below as well. Roam is not quite short or slight enough to be considered a filler: we have played it as a game-night starter.
The annual boardgaming retreat is 48 hours with fellow gamers at an off-season rural hotel. This one was my ninth, at a golf and country club near Trosa. I played ten sessions of nine different games. Only the tiny filler Tides of Time was entirely new to me, and all were very enjoyable!
To give you an idea of how popular each game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank in the list below. For instance, Eclipse’s 40 means that right now there are only 39 boardgames that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly. And they have rated tens of thousands of games!
Above and Below (2015). Ranked 206. Resource management and action point allowance with beautiful art and a story book that the players read bits out of to each other. One of the event’s most-played games this year.
Eclipse (2011). Ranked 40. A Finnish design: interstellar colonisation and war with a nifty resource management engine.
Glory to Rome (2005). Ranked 175. Intricate card-based logistics game by Carl Chudyk who later released the excellent Innovation. Good fun, not too long!
The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018). Ranked 125. You’re herbalists cooking potions. Like a deck-building game but you draw little tiles from a bag instead. A push-your-luck mechanic keeps you worrying that your cauldron’s contents will explode!
Scythe (2016). Ranked 10. Intricate cube pusher / worker placement / mini war game in the dieselpunk world of amazing Polish military fantasy painter Jakub Rozalski. Not enough interaction for my taste.
A Study In Emerald, 2nd ed. (2015). Ranked 1172. Lovecraftian horror meets spy fiction and detective fiction in Victorian Europe in another hit game by the revered Martin Wallace, based on a 2003 story by Neil Gaiman. Combines deck building with various other mechanics in a nice salad. (The 1st edition from 2013 is ranked 710.)
That’s Pretty Clever (2018). Ranked 154. Like Yahtzee only fun and intricate.
Tides of Time (2015). Ranked 992. Neat short two-player card game where you play a card, then swap hands with each other, and repeat this until you run out of cards.
Yellow & Yangtze (2018). Ranked 1206. This is a modified, streamlined and re-skinned version of Reiner Knizia’s classic 1997 Tigris & Euphrates, which is one of my personal favourite games. At rank 74, T&E is the second-most popular 1990s design on BGG. The main difference between the versions is that Y&Y has a hex grid instead of a square grid. Both versions are excellent games but you only need one of them.
There’s no objective metric of a life well lived. But by the standards of 13-year-old me, I think I pretty much maxed out at LinCon this year. I was at a major gaming convention, wearing an organiser’s badge and an Äventyrsspel tee-shirt (makers of my boyhood’s favourite games), and gave a talk in the biggest auditorium about my seventh book, which deals with excavations I’ve headed in the ruins of Medieval castles. Good times!
I played seven games this year, four of which I knew well and only one of which was new to me, Evolution. Most con-goers are simply too shy to shout “HELLO STRANGER LET ME TEACH YOU THIS GAME” at people the way I often do.
Forbidden Island (2010). A super pretty co-op where you race to collect four treasures before the island sinks.
Azul (2017). Pretty and abstract with neat mechanics.
Evolution (2014). Develop strong populations of your creatures and help them adapt to their faunal environment.
Coloretto (2003). Pretty and abstract with neat mechanics.
7 Wonders (2010). Civilisation building with simultaneous card drafting, which makes it enjoyable even for seven players.
Agricola (2007). Build the best farm in Early Modern Germany! Worker placement and resource management.
Five Tribes (2014). Vaguely Arabian in theme, this is a rather messy concoction of several abstract ways to gain points.
At the con’s flea market and used-games dealer room I bought Spyrium, Kingdoms and Above & Below. Also mistakenly a copy of Candamir that is probably the very one I sold back in 2013 after trying the game and not liking it much, haha. I keep making poor purchases at the spur of the moment at LinCon! At the auction I sold Hanabi and Sid Meier’s Civilization (both bought at last year’s con and sadly not big hits) plus Gaia Project and Stephenson’s Rocket.
Remembered a D&D story I heard in the 80s. One of the player characters had stupidly and overtly committed a serious crime – had he attacked the King during a formal audience? – and been sentenced to beheading. Letting this happen is never a fun way to end a character’s career, but I believe both the players and the Dungeon Master were quite young.
The day of the execution dawns, the prisoner is taken out to the chopping block in the town square, the executioner steps up with his sword… And the only way this DM knows to handle situations involving swords is the combat rules. Which don’t really offer any details on combatants lying trussed up and face down on the block. Also, the execution victim is quite a high-level character, while the executioner is a basic man-at-arms.
The executioner could barely hit the victim, and when he occasionally did, he took only a small proportion of the victim’s hit points. It took an hour in the game world and endless dice rolling in our world to behead him.
Here are the eleven boardgames that I played more than thrice during 2018. The year’s total was 74 different games.
No Thanks! (2004)
Gaia Project (2017)
Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
Plato 3000 (2012)
Tichu / Zheng fen (1991)
Keltis (2008, travel version)
Heimlich & Co (1984)
As always, the games on the list are mostly short ones that you can play repeatedly in one evening. But my new acquisitions Gaia Project and Tichu are way longer, full-evening games. All eleven highly recommended!
Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2018?
It was really good to come back to the annual boardgaming retreat after a year off. 48 hours at an off-season golf & country club near Trosa with fellow gamers.
I played thirteen sessions of twelve different games. To give you an idea of how popular each game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank in the list below. For instance, Container’s 586 means that right now there are 585 boardgames that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly. But they have rated tens of thousands of games!
7 Wonders Duel (2015). Ranked 13. Neat two-player version of the excellent civilisation-building card game.
Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra (2018). Ranked 2104. Abstract tile game: a somewhat more intricate take on the basic ideas of last year’s hit Azul. Either is fun, either is enough.
Century Spice Road (2017). Ranked 210. This cards & cubes game’s illustrations are nice, but there’s hardly any player interaction. Don’t know why it’s so popular.
Chosön (2014). Ranked 3465. Card game with fun illustrations and some unusual mechanics. I’d like to play this again.
Container (2007). Ranked 586. Container shipping & trade. We played a recent edition with massive plastic ships that would serve well as close-combat weapons. I didn’t understand the strategy at all, but I’d like to learn.
Gaia Project (2017). Ranked 7. Civilisation expansion & development. Scifi re-skin of the 2012 fantasy hit Terra Mystica. Not great, not bad, huge replayability.
Heaven and Ale (2017). Ranked 348. Euro game ostensibly about monks making beer, where the theme has little to do with the mechanics and player interaction is scanty.
Koba Yakawa (2013). Ranked 2295. Minimalist card game with almost as few components as Love Letter and far simpler rules. Fun for what it is!
Secrets (2017). Ranked 2094. Hidden roles game about CIA and KGB agents. I soon became completely confused.
T.I.M.E. Stories (2015). Ranked 58. Beautifully illustrated co-op story game, like a shared choose-your-own adventure. The box contains the basic rules and hardware plus one fine scenario. It has roughly the same re-playability as a short novel has re-readability, though. Many additional scenarios are available, each costing 54% of the basic box’s price. Compare this to normal boardgames where you buy the basic box and happily play 25 times without having to buy anything more.
Tichu (1991). Ranked 127. Interesting variation on the popular Chinese card game Zheng Fen, which combines trick-taking and hand-shedding. You can easily play Tichu with a normal Western card deck provided you can find four jokers or other extra cards with the same backs plus a felt-tip pen.
Twilight Struggle (2005). Ranked 5. Long two-player cards-chits-board game about the Cold War. Fun for modern history buffs.
As has become my habit, I spent two days at LinCon, a big four-day gaming event in Linköping. This is two hours’ drive from my home, and my nearest big gaming con. For some reason Sweden’s capital where I live has nothing on a similar scale. I played eight games, seven of which are favourites of mine that I actually own but didn’t bring. There are several free lending libraries of games at the con.
Gaia Project (2017). A re-skinned Terra Mystica, i.e. another highly replayable and varied Euro cube-pusher.
RoboRally (1994). Program a robot using a random set of instruction cards and then see your plans unravel as another player’s robot bumps you off track and laser-zaps your rear.
Tigris & Euphrates (1997). Tactics and resource management in Bronze Age Mesopotamia.
No Thanks (2004). Short abstract push-your-luck.
Steampunk Rally (2015). Build and drive your own brass-encrusted early 1900s scifi vehicle along a bumpy race track. Hadn’t heard of this one before, but I’d be happy to play it again.
Qwirkle (2006). Abstract: illiterate Scrabble.
Innovation (2010). Intricate card game about advancing civilization.
Stone Age (2008). Worker placement game centred on a Neolithic village with surrounding natural resources.
At the con auction I bought Hanabi and Sid Meier’s Civilization – the good 2010 game, not the crappy 2002 one that I bought by mistake at last year’s con. I sold Death Angel, Hand of the King, Codenames Deep Undercover and Castles of Mad King Ludwig.