Find out which 2020 board game apps stand out as the best of the best.
2020 was an interesting year. Generally speaking, “interesting” might be too soft of an adjective, but it fits for the digital tabletop world. On the surface, there were quite a few bonafide smash hit, top 100 BGG games to get a digital version. Looking deeper, many of them were limited in their platforms and/or had some issues that lingered on a bit longer than most would have preferred.
However, there were still a lot of great apps released, so making our final list you see here wasn’t easy!
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Some ground rules for our list. 1) Each game could only “win” one category (see “Honorable Mentions” to see what other categories a game excels in). 2) For MOST of the categories, we will always go with a game that is on Android and/or iOS as that is the main focus of our site (i.e. that’s why Spirit Island didn’t win) 3) That’s pretty much it.
Without further ado, Pixelated Cardboard’s Best Games of 2020.
Reader's Choice Game of the Year: Charterstone
In a razor thin vote, Charterstone was crowned our readers' game of the year! Roll for the Galaxy and Root were both within just a few votes, but Charterstone ended up reigning supreme with our audience.
Charterstone offered the first digital legacy game which is a fantastic avenue I hope gets explored more and more down the line. The idea of being able to slow play a legacy game over a handful of months with the same group, without the need to carve out a few hours to sit down and play is fantastically appealing. This experience clearly resonated with our readers, notching another great game for Acram's already impressive catalog.
Best Non-Port: Maze Machina
We didn’t play many in this category this year, notably Krumit’s Tale. However, we did very much enjoy Maze Machina from the same developer who brought us Miracle Merchant. It’s a bit of a mashup of styles, but it comes together well in a really challenging puzzle game. You have to escape a series of gridded areas, each a little more challenging than the last. Fight nefarious robots using items scattered throughout, grab the key, and head to the exit. It sounds pretty simple, but things get wildly out of control rather quickly in Maze Machina.
Best Update: On Tour (Multiplayer)
This is a weird one because On Tour itself was released this year. It is a fun, simple roll and write where you are trying to optimize your band’s tour around the continental United States to hit as many cities as possible. The multiplayer addition, which I only found out about very recently, allows you to share a game code with friends so they can play the same game and you can compare scores. You’ll need to coordinate and compare outside of the app itself, unfortunately, but this is still a fun way to play this roll and write. Sharing screenshots (via, say, for example, a community Discord channel) of your scores is a fascinating study in how players can use the same numbers totally differently and come up with wildly different scores.
Honorable Mention: Evolution (asynchronous online play)
Best Visuals: Wingspan
This one isn’t particularly close. The digital version of Wingspan has a fantastic presentation, taking full advantage of the brilliant artwork from the physical game. The digital version adds some subtle animations to the birds which looks great and adds more to the experience than you might expect. The game is bursting with color and charm from the start, mirroring the intent of the physical game perfectly to create an incredibly welcoming vibe.
Honorable Mention: Root (okay, Root looks great too, so it was kind of close)
Best Quick Game: Squire for Hire
This was a tough choice with the glut of roll and writes hitting our phones and tablets this year, but Squire for Hire ended up at the top of our list for quick playing games. It’s a bag building game with a spatial aspect and a good amount of variety provided through the variable characters. You have to meet requirements for encounters on each turn, successfully doing so will grant you a new card to add to your bag, but you must take care to cover negative point items while hitting scoring bonuses. Each decision feels weighty in this one, and the whole thing is finished in about five minutes.
Honorable Mention: Cartographers, Imperial Settlers Roll & Write, Ubongo
Best Solo Game: Imperial Settlers Roll & Write
Imperial Settlers R&W wins over some stiff competition here. It does so by offering a deep lineup of scenarios to play one five minute session at a time. I’m a sucker for a good roll and write, the tense decision making provided with each roll is a bit addicting to me. The Imperial Settlers’ take on this throws in some really fun roll mitigation aspects along with a fun spatial decision making. It can be frustrating when the luck doesn’t go your way, but with such a short playtime, why not just try again? Imperial Settlers was a game I spent way, way more time with this year than I had anticipated.
Honorable Mention: Spirit Island, Viticulture
Best Online Game: Avowel (Wordsy)
I stopped playing sometime this summer as other things piled up, but I was on a massive streak playing Avowel’s Daily Challenge mode. The digital version of Wordsy is a simple word game but it’s incredibly addicting in the short, few minute bursts that the daily challenge offers. Seeing how you stack up against a growing group of core players who log in every day is a lot of fun. There are other games which offer deeper online experiences, some of them are very good, but in terms of games played, nothing matched Avowel this year. It really goes to show how a little creativity can go a long way in these digital ports. This mode isn't something from the physical game, but rather a clever twist to the formula to allow for a really fun mode.
Honorable Mention: Viticulture, Roll for the Galaxy
Game of the Year: Roll for the Galaxy
I am certain that Roll for the Galaxy was the best digital tabletop game released in 2020. I am also certain that I still prefer Race. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not. Roll is a fantastic game that adds more of its own wrinkles than I expected compared to its older sibling, it is a game I would likely be playing constantly for the next few years...if Race didn’t exist. This blurb isn’t about Race, though, so I’ll stop bringing that up.
Roll gets a near perfect digital version courtesy of Temple Gates Games. Their online system is unmatched in terms of speed and their AI is top notch. They are as good, or better, than anybody out there at taking 45 minute physical games and letting you play them in ten minutes on your phone. The game itself uses the dice, and the luck involved with them, very well to make sure you have multiple meaningful choices on a given turn. Dice mitigation is a must in any dice-based game, and Roll does a great job there through default rules as well as specific card bonuses. Meaningful choices in what worlds and developments to target feed the engine building which can produce obscene amounts of dice in your cup. It’s not quite as satisfying as picking up 15 dice in real life, but seeing those digital cubes roll and all of the options you get from them is still a blast.
Roll for the Galaxy is an all-time classic given a near perfect digital version. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink things when doling out awards like this, and Roll made the 2020 Game of the Year choice pretty easy.
Honorable Mention: Root, Spirit Island, Viticulture