2020 has certainly not been the greatest year. But let’s look on the bright side…there were lots of fantastic games released this year! Admittedly, Nikki and I have not been able to play more than a handful of the new releases (because board games are expensive) so we won’t pretend that we have had nearly enough experience with this year’s releases to do a “Best Of” list, but instead, we’ll take the time to share five 2020 releases that you ought to know about. These are our five favorites (so far)…
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
Release Date: 2020
Play Time: 20 minutes
Age Recommendation: 10+
*This game is 3-5 players but includes a 2-player variant in which one of the two players controls the hand of a dummy player
The Crew is our most played game this year and potentially our most covered on All The Points. It’s not only placed highly after a stellar review on our All Time Points Ranking page (83.5/100) but also found a place in our Holiday 2020 Stocking Stuffers article based on its ridiculously affordable price point and our Big Group Games article based on its uncanny ability to support a large group. Now, it rightfully finds its way onto this list of favorites for the year due to its uniquely cooperative trick-taking and campaign-driven gameplay. That’s an awful lot to promise for a small $15 box of cards and cardboard and The Crew delivers big time!
I’ll leave the specifics to the review we posted in October (click here to visit that review) so if you’d like to find out more, please visit that link, but since our focus is on two-player game experiences, I will point out that the two-player variant on this game (which is advertised as 3-5 players on the box) is detailed in the rulebook and involves a dummy player named JARVIS. This dummy player is controlled by one of the two human players in each round and adds quite a bit more complexity to decision making and planning in a really cool way. It is one of our favorite ways to play the game.
Lost Ruins of Arnak
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Release Year: 2020
Play Time: 30 min/player
Age Recommendation: 12+
Lost Ruins of Arnak is a thrilling blend of worker placement and deck-building set to an adventure theme. In it, players spend their turns to take one action each completing a variety of tasks. These actions include placing workers on the board to collect resources or explore dig sites, converting resources, purchasing items or artifacts for their deck, or advancing their exploration trackers up a research track in search of the lost temple of Arnak.
The game is played over the course of five rounds signified by the progress of the moon staff from left to right through the card market at the top of the board. As it moves, more powerful artifact cards become available for players to add to their decks as space for them increases.
Lost Ruins of Arnak features a stunning presentation highlighted by a colorful and detailed game board depicting a full-size mural of the island beneath a hulking volcano. It doesn’t stop there, either. All of the game’s cards, exploration tiles, guardian tiles, and assistant tiles bring more of the fantastic art immersing its players in its rich theme.
While the game is visually stunning and components are top-notch, Lost Ruins of Arnak backs this up with some exceptional game play, too. While it features deck building and worker placement elements, both are used with a balance that doesn’t draw enough focus to be considered the central theme of the game. In fact, I would say that the most prevalent theme is the management/conversion of the five different types of resources in the game. During some turns, players will take actions that don’t involve workers or cards at all and will purely be converting or spending resources for points or…more resources.
The thing that has continued to impress me is that there are so many different options for resource conversion that players will be rewarded for careful planning and sequencing by being able to extend turns and gain extra value from their last remaining resources. After exploring a dig site and being confronted by a challenging guardian, there always seems to be a way to cleverly accumulate what is needed to defeat them. It is rewarding to overcome that initial sense of dread that accompanies the appearance of a guardian via some combination of progress on the resource track, playing cards in your hand, purchasing and activating artifacts on the board, using idols, and placing workers. This is what makes Lost Ruins of Arnak so special!
Publisher: Funko Games
Release Year: 2020
Play Time: 60 minutes
Age Recommendation: 12+
Pan Am tells the story of the historic airline over seven rounds of play, beginning with the company’s inception in the late 1920’s and ending in its hey dey in the 1960’s. At the start of each turn, an event card is drawn to tell this story and progress the timeline. Each card will not only set some historic context for the turn but also lists a price for the company’s stocks based on those events and provides some added twist or effect to the gameplay. The players each assume the role of their own independent airlines whose goal is to expand their routes across the world in hopes of eventually selling them to Pan Am for profit and then using that income to either expand further or buy stock in Pan Am. At the end of the seventh round, the player with the most stocks in Pan Am wins the game.
In the first phase of the game, players will use their engineer pawns to commit to or bid on different types of actions that will be carried out in the next phase. These include bidding on destination cards (used to place routes on the map), bidding on different types of planes, placing planes to claim routes, bidding on airports, or collecting directive cards. Following that, once all engineer pawns have been place, these actions will be resolved in alphabetical order by their labels on the game board. At the end of each round in what is known as the expansion phase, Pan Am will expand its own routes from its headquarters in Miami and purchase any of the player-controlled routes that it were to pass along the way. Profit!
Though the game’s events span nearly 40 years, the art and aesthetic of the game (including the game box, rule book, and pattern on the insert) is drenched in a 1950’s/1960’s aesthetic; an age when the company was most prolific. This includes beautifully detailed destination cards drawn in the style of post cards, each with unique art and a retro blue-toned game board inspired by the glamour of air travel in this era.
While Pan Am plays best with three or more players due to the fun of its bidding mechanics, we’ve played the game numerous times at two and it works great, too. In a two-player game, each player is given more engineers to use on each turn and will be able to accomplish much more by the end of the seventh round.
The game is no heavy Euro but certainly packs enough depth to challenge newer players. Pan Am is a step up from something like Ticket to Ride in terms of complexity but one that doesn’t feel as mean or “bitey” in the sense that players can be blocked from reaching certain destinations. While that can happen in Pan Am, it is certainly not as debilitating to one’s strategy and typically, if you want something bad enough, you can have it if you’re willing to pay for it on the bidding track.
Publisher: Capstone Games
Release Year: 2020
Play Time: 30-60 minutes
Age Recommendation: 12+
Tug of War
Watergate is an asymmetrical tug of war-style game in which players assume the role of either the Nixon administration or the press during the investigation of the historic Watergate scandal. In each round, players draw a number of cards (determined by who has initiative in that round) and will take turns playing one card each to move one of three pieces of evidence, a momentum token, or initiative token towards their side of the board on a research track.
When both players run out of cards, the round ends. The initiative token, momentum token, and evidence are collected by the player who they are nearest to on the research track (in that order). The player who collects the initiative token begins the next round with an additional card in hand. At first, collecting the momentum token will do nothing for either player, however, the press will activate special advantages after collecting their third, fourth, and fifth token. Nixon wins the game after collecting five of these tokens or if the supply of them would ever run out before the press achieves their goal.
After initiative and momentum tokens are collected, evidence tokens are appointed in the same fashion to be placed on the evidence board starting with the player who now has the initiative. The goal of the press is to connect Nixon (at the center of that board) to two informants (pictured at the edges of the board) and the goal of Nixon is to place evidence upside down on the same board to block those connections. The press wins by making connections on this board between Nixon and two informants.
In addition to moving pieces on the research track, each card also includes some additional ability that could be used instead. While some cards can be played in this way and then discarded normally, others will be removed from the game entirely after this type of use so players will need to carefully consider when it is the right time to do so as these cards often have high movement values that will be missed when the player cycles through their deck and their cards will be redrawn (or not!).
This game is truly unique in design from anything I’ve ever played before, however, I’ve heard comparisons to Twilight Struggle which certainly isn’t a bad thing considering that it is a game that is so well-revered.
The asymmetrical aspect makes Watergate so interesting. While Nixon and the press each have different goals, they also have different means to achieve them. Not only do both decks include different types of cards, the Nixon player has the unique advantage of being able to see the identity of the three types of evidence at the start of each round and can make clever decisions to leverage this advantage to block their opponent’s connections on the evidence board in the nick of time.
Beyond that, decisions on when to and how to utilize the event cards (which are removed from the game entirely after use) are particularly challenging as using them to soon will weaken the movement potential in one’s deck but might provide an advantage early on as a trade off. These elements allow for some really cool momentum shifts in the game later on. All of this combines to make Watergate a thrilling duel that allows players to either rewrite or confirm the history of this significant investigation.
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Release Year: 2020
Play Time: 30 minutes
Age Recommendation: 8+
Stellar is a set collection card game that features a number of different scoring systems involving sets of Celestial Objects (effectively suits), sequential runs in Celestial Objects, and point value comparisons in the different segments of each player’s telescope formation. The game is simple in concept but has the potential for highly strategic and mind-melting decisions involving card drafting and card placement.
At the start of each game, players assemble a telescope using twelve cards that, when in formation, collectively form a mural depicting a stargazer looking into the vast night sky. This formation, which is divided into three sections is one of two locations where players can play cards from their hands after drafting one from a central market. Additionally, players can play cards beside their telescopes to a location called their notebook.
After playing the first card each turn, a player will then take the card in the pile matching that card’s numeric value and will play it to whichever location (telescope or notebook) has not been played to this turn.
At the end of the game, players will multiply the star value on cards in one’s telescope with the longest sequential run of that same suit (same Celestial Object type) played to their notebooks. In addition, players will compare the total numerical values in each of the three sections of the telescope (top, middle, and bottom) for a potential 10 points each. Lastly, if a player is able to place one of each type of Celestial Object into their telescope, they will earn a diversity bonus of 10 points.
The first game of Stellar was a lot for us to take in. The different means of scoring points pulled us in many different directions and it was difficult to keep track of where our plans were headed. After a few playthroughs, Stellar really started to grow on us and this complexity gives this game quite a bit of longevity and replayability for a small box title. We find ourselves coming back to this one quite often when we’ve got just a few minutes to spare for a game. I’m a big fan of Stellar!