This is Picklemoose's Blog. A small section of Pixelated Cardboard dedicated to topics outside of digital board game ports. Posts here will be less formal & cover a range of topics.
2020 was a weird year. It was a great year to play a lot of digital tabletop games, and we’ve got you covered there with our Best of 2020 list. It was less great for playing physical games. Despite all of this, I was able to play a handful of new tabletop games, almost exclusively at two players, so I thought I would run through those here with some brief thoughts.
These are presented, roughly, in the order I played them.
Our tastes in physical games lean lighter, as you will see from this list. This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list of all of the best board games of 2020, just a list of the games I played with some brief thoughts on each.
Silver and Gold
I wrote a lot of words on this one early last year. All of that still holds up. We played this game at every game night in 2020 and don’t show any signs of stopping anytime soon. It’s simple, fun, and rewarding. It’s a roll and write with very little of that classic roll and write squeeze, choosing instead to shower players in productive options and points the entire time. Games are typically very close because of how forgiving the game is, you typically won’t be stuck for more than a turn, but the wins are earned through productive use of bonuses and card selection. This is one of my favorite fillers ever.
Qwixx is a roll and write with four tracks, one for four different dice colors. Two of the tracks go from low to high while the other two are reversed. Once you cross out a number in any row, you cannot use any of the numbers to the left for the remainder of the game. Points are awarded based on how many spots you were able to cross out, with some bonuses thrown in for good measure. Remember that classic roll and write squeeze I referenced in the Silver & Gold blurb? Qwixx has that in spades. Almost every choice is difficult because you don’t want to give up potential score spaces. On the other hand, you can rush to try to lock out rows so others can’t score on it anymore. I think Qwixx is a really clever game, it’s a lot of fun and packed with tough decisions. My only issue with this game, and it’s a large one, is that I think Qwinto (the unofficial sequel) hits the same marks but is overall a more fun experience. Sorry, Qwixx.
I didn’t have a pick-up-and-deliver game in my collection and this one looked to hit a nice spot of weight (light), playtime (< 30 minutes with two), and theme (cute, for the kids). It turns out, it hit all of those points with amazing precision and has been a fantastic addition to the collection. Your goal is to you various animals to taxi you (a sloth) around in order to collect a handful of leaves. Be the first to collect all of your leaves except one and you win.
Movement is achieved by collecting cards of an animal each turn and then playing them to activate the matching animal The reliable donkey picks up your sloth, walks a few hex spaces, and drops them off. The mighty eagle swoops in from anywhere on the board to grab the sloth and carry them, but the eagle only wakes up for longer journeys, so you need to collect a few of their cards to use him. The elephant, a personal favorite, will carry the sloth a few spaces before hurling them with their trunk a few extra spaces at the end of the walk. Each animal (there are 12 total in the box) has their own unique rules and also limits on where on the board they can move. Alligators are fast, efficient movers of sloths, apparently, but are limited to the central river tiles and the adjacent grasslands, for example. That each player has control over any of the animals at any time allows for a lot of messing with other’s plans, inadvertently or not. If your whole strategy was to use the ants then hop on a perfectly placed donkey, but that donkey gets moved to help another player, you might be stuck for a bit. As you get more leaves, hand limits start to hit harder which makes “always keeping a few eagle cards as a get out of jail free card” a tougher strategy to live by. All of this adds up to a very fun, simple, and cute pick up and deliver game.
Taverns of Tiefenthal
Taverns of Tiefenthal is another alliterative title from Wolfgang Warsh, the also alliterative designer of Quacks of Quedlinberg. Quacks has become one of my favorite games because it’s really a hit every time it hits the table, so Taverns had my attention from the start. Players are owners of a tavern, attempting to maximize profits by serving brews, seating customers, and all of the fun tavern things one does in this world. The game is oozing with theme, even if the whole thing falls apart a bit if you think too much about it, so don’t do that. It’s a mix of deck building and dice drafting. I could go really long on Taverns, but this isn’t the space for that. I’ll summarize by saying the base game has a major “on rails” feel to it, where the best moves are fairly obvious so you end up keeping track of a bunch of stuff but not having a whole lot of freedom of decisions. Well, you do, but if you don’t do the best thing, you will lose. Luckily, the game comes with a handful of extra modules in the base box which alleviate the issue by adding many more meaningful decisions to the game. My problem here is that by the time you add them all, you’re left with a legitimately midweight game. That’s going to be just fine for many people out there, but I tend to be very selective in my midweights as they don’t get played all that often and need to maintain a friendly depth:complexity ratio. Taverns didn’t hit those very personal marks for me, but it very well might for you.
Robin of Locksley
This is a very simple two player set collection game with some interesting twists. First, you collect various tile types by moving your piece with Knight-in-Chess rules across a grided layout of tiles. Your collecting goals are geared towards meeting whatever requirement sits next on the small tiles laid out around the grid. These might be something like “have three pink tiles” or “have one set of three tiles, one set of two, and one set of one.” The goal tiles are randomly placed each game, aside from the four corner pieces, which gives each game its own unique sequencing. This, ultimately, was what drove us from this game. The order of the goals can make certain sections really boring. There is a mechanism where you can trade in tile sets for coins which can be used to bypass certain goals. You can look at the goal track when it is dealt and immediately see which goals you are going to be skipping. This makes the game a bit less fun when the answer of how to achieve goals is very obvious. All of that being said, there is a lot to like in the way the set collection takes place, and some of the goals even tie into where your pawn is located in the set collection grid, giving you a bit extra to consider.
In Mandala two players play cards from your hand onto a very nice cloth playmat. The goal is to feed into two Mandalas on the board. Once a Mandala is complete, by way of having all six of the suits played onto it, you take cards from it into your scoring area based on whoever had the larger presence on that Mandala. This one had the feel of a classic from the first time I played. Think Lost Cities, Battlelines, etc… classic two player card games with incredibly simple rules, but a variety of strategies to explore. Scoring is where the game shines as each suit’s worth to each player is defined by when the player first acquires a card of that suit. The first suit a player takes is only worth one point per card, whereas the last is worth six. This opens the game up, strategically, in ways that suggest I’ll be playing this one for a long, long time. The only complaint here is that the square cards are incredibly tough to shuffle. It legitimately adds a couple of minutes to set up time because you have to partition the huge stack out into six smaller stacks, shuffle, then shuffle the stacks to other stacks and so on. The final product looks fantastic, but I would probably instantly buy a reprint with normal card sizes.
Santa Monica is a clever mix of set collection and card drafting set in a beautiful cartoon version of the famous Santa Monica shoreline. The basic rules are simple, but each card you add (you will add 14 total throughout the game) can provide you with people, points, money, or any combination of the above. You might place a beach wedding card which can provide you a few points, but only if you get the tourists onto that card before the game ends. So you will need to grab a card later which brings a few tourists into your coastline. Then another card which allows you to move those tourists. For such a simple game, mechanically, there are a lot of scoring avenues and a lot of considerations on every one of your 14 turns. This is a game that will be welcoming with its ruleset but might prove to be a little too weighty for fans of lightweight games. If you prefect medium-er weight games, Santa Monica might find a spot as a quick, gorgeous breath of air in between heavier affairs.
Mariposas tracks the journey of a few generations of monarch butterflies. Starting in Mexico, they travel north and east, breeding a few new generations along the way before a later generation returns to Mexico and waits to start the cycle all over again. The game allows you to score points either by exploring to hit goals and collect items or by getting as many of those fourth generation butterflies back to Mexico. The rub of the game is deciding which of the two you will prioritize, or will you try to get the best of both worlds and score some of those round bonuses and get a few butterflies back at the end of the game? I have some very specific issues with this game with two players that I think would be a bit solved at higher player counts, but overall, this is a fun game. It is certainly a light game, but does leave room for varying strategies, always a nice combination to hit. Also, the theme is great and the components are top notch, which is always a bonus.
Abandon All Artichokes
The anti-deck builder. Deck destructor? Deck destroyer? AAA starts like any other deck builder with all players receiving the same pile of cards and each turn they draw and play a few to try to strengthen that pile into an unstoppable force. The rub here is that the one and only goal of the game is to draw a new hand of five cards, done at the end of your turn, and have NO artichokes in that hand. If you do this, you win. Simple as that. The game is built around a few different strategies you can try to achieve this. On a very coarse level, you can either try to flood your hand with non-artichoke cards and hope you get five of them, or you can try to rid your hand of all artichoke cards. It’s entirely possible to win the game by only having four cards in your entire deck, none of them artichokes. It is also possible to double your deck size and draw five non-artichoke cards. This is a goofy game that does something very surprising by bringing a genuinely unique (to me, anyway, I always assume anything new I find has actually been done before in games I haven’t played) twist to deck building. It’s light, breezy, and quick to play, an easy recommendation if you want to add a filler to your collection.
A co-op trick taking game! Neat! If you’ve made it this far there’s a 99.8% chance you have already heard a lot about The Crew and don’t need my recap, so I’ll do you a favor and keep it to a single sentence. You and your team must capture specific tricks throughout a game played with standard trick taking rules, so do you and you win, but one missed objective means a loss. I really like what The Crew offered and totally get how so many people love it and why it won so many awards. However, it didn’t go over very well with the people I played it with, so I moved on. Specifically, my wife isn’t a fan of anything that looks like a traditional 52 card deck and my parents (trick taking experts) didn’t think it added anything they couldn’t get from weekly bridge games. Not a game for me, but very likely could be for you.
This is a silly game. One player at the table loses while everyone else wins, which adds to the silliness. A round starts with one player passing a card to any other player and telling them it is one of eight different suits in the game (bugs representing the suits, naturally). The receiving player can either “accept” the card and try to predict if the passing player was lying or not OR they may “decline” the card, looking at it and passing it to another player while also telling them what suit it is. If a card is accepted and the receiver correctly guesses whether the passer was lying or not, the passing player must place that card in front of them. If the receiver was wrong, they place it in front of them. First player to end up with four cards of one suit in front of them loses. Being a game called Cockroach Poker, it is naturally all about lying. It’s a silly bit of fun to try to look someone in the eye and call their bluff. I will say these games have ended almost exactly when I wanted them to. You can feel the novelty wearing off as the laughs get quieter and the theatrics die down a bit. Then, the game ends and you pack away Cockroach Poker until next time when the laughs come back in full force.
Century Spice Road
This one is incomplete as I only played one game of this and it was on New Year’s Eve, so I don’t have a lot to go on. I will say that it seems to be headed in a good direction as a Splendor replacement. Splendor being one of the first games I purchased when re-re-entering the hobby around 2014. I loved that game, but had played enough to not be upset if I never saw it again. Century Spice Road has the same build up feeling, with a few different twists thrown in. It’s light and plays quickly. The only real complaint I have after one play at two players is that it’s fairly clear who is going to win. Small sample size warning, but I look forward to many more games and coming up with a clearer picture of this game in 2021.