It’s been a challenging year for just about everyone, including those of us who love tabletop games. What comfort can be found rolling dice with friends can evaporate when you can’t actually be together in the same room. But folks have still managed to play board games, role-playing games, and more during this time of social distancing. In fact, it feels as though the hobby has actually grown by leaps and bounds.
Virtual tabletop software like Tabletop Simulator and services like Board Game Arena have seen a massive uptick in users. Still more folks have turned to platforms like Roll20 to keep their weekly RPG games going, or to start new ones. Throughout 2020, people still managed to come together — physically when they could manage, and online when they couldn’t. Sometimes it was to play the latest and greatest. But, just as often, longtime favorites were brought down out of the closet and dusted off.
Polygon asked a dozen writers, designers, presenters, and personalities from around the world of tabletop gaming to tell us what games helped to make their year a little brighter. Here’s what we found.
Video editor at Polygon and part of the Overboard series
Wavelength is the ideal party game for my bubble — and for whenever we can have parties again. Learning how to play is super quick: One player gives a clue and their team tries to figure out where it lands on a spectrum. For example, on a scale of rough to smooth, nerd to jock, or pop icon to one-hit wonder. So the clue giver might say “chocolate” and the rest of their team has to decide where on a scale of “guilty pleasure to openly love” it lands. Even the opposing team can weigh in, though whether they’re attempting to genuinely help or simply muddy the waters is always an open question.
What makes all of this work so well is the enjoyably tactile dial included with the game. This contraption allows the clue giver to secretly view the target they are aiming for, so they can pick an appropriate clue. Then the rest of their team can move the dial back and forth as they confidently argue that obviously chocolate is something you openly love. Then when all the debating is done, it allows the clue giver to dramatically reveal just how close (or far) their team landed from the target.
YouTube personality and voiceover actor
One of my favorite card games I played this year for the first time is the classic 1994 game 6 nimmt! designed by Wolfgang Kramer.
In February, earlier this year, I brought this little game when I visited my family and we played it together. Little did I know at the time that it would be one of the last chances I’d get to play any sort of board game with more than two people in-person for the rest of the year. During quarantine, when I was desperate to play board games with my friends, I discovered Board Game Arena, and 6 nimmt! has been one of the biggest successes I’ve had introducing new games to my friend group over Discord.
It’s simple to teach: You play numbered cards simultaneously and they get sorted in ascending order into four rows after the numbered cards that are already in play. However, if your card is the sixth card placed in any row, you have to take the five cards before it and all the points on those cards (points are bad). It’s a game that’s all about trying to predict your friends’ plays, squeezing in at the right time, and most importantly, fucking your friends over. It’s also a very fitting game to represent this year for me: It’s chaotic, sometimes incredibly unfair, and will make every single one of your friends scream “FUCK!” in a rage multiple times.
In other words, it’s incredibly fun.
Creative director at EA Motive, developer of Star Wars: Squadrons
While stuck in quarantine and looking for something fun to play for just my wife and I, I came across 2016’s Ascension: Dreamscape, and it’s really hit the spot. It’s a simple, self-contained, competitive deck builder for one-to-four players — up to six if you add expansions. It’s easy to pick up and learn, but with an added layer of depth and complexity in the form of the new Dream mechanics which I find give it a lot of replayability.
It’s also much better balanced than the original Ascension: Deckbuilding Game, with tons of viable strategies and counter-strategies to discover. If you’re looking for something fun and light that’s great for getting non-gamers into the hobby, while still having enough depth and strategy to engage more experienced players, I highly recommend it.
Product manager for Board Game Geek
Playing board games took a little more creativity in 2020, and I found myself revisiting a lot of classics instead of venturing into new territory.
I picked new games with extreme care, aware that the energy of learning and trying a new game felt more effortful this past year. One compromise to new vs. old was learning Welcome To New Las Vegas, the sequel to the popular game Welcome To. I wouldn’t suggest jumping straight to Las Vegas if you haven’t tried the original first, but the sequel is satisfyingly trickier and a surprising brain-burner!
Both versions play equally well in person, using a physical copy over video chat, and have an excellent digital implementation online at Board Game Arena. Las Vegas has a twist of risking money via loans and hoping your strategies literally pay out, with a looming threat of negative points if you can’t cover your loans, an addition that fits both the theme and (surprisingly) the structure of an easy-to-learn card game.
STEM diversity advocate, member of Rivals of Waterdeep
Kids on Bikes by Renegade Games Studios has been on my mind since I first played it over the summer. It has an excellent world-creation system, where every player gets to answer a series of questions that creates the world and relationships layer by layer. This means that the players and game master share investment in the world before the adventure even begins.
Each character must pick several flaws, which are fun to lean into during gameplay to spice things up and add a level of realness to the characters. The manual also has sections on including characters who are disabled and neuroatypical, as well as discussions on race, gender, and sexuality. This should be standard for all games, but sadly it is not. Our adventure involved a small town peach farm that had a bunch of hidden secrets!
Production and marketing manager at Shut Up Sit Down
For all of the excess of Kickstarter-funded productions, it’s rare within this hobby that games truly feel luxurious. Despite an abundance of figurines, metal tokens, and little plastic trays for holding your components, there’s only one game this year that truly nailed it: Pandemic Legacy: Season 0. The same cost as A New Video Game, this is something of an oddity for those who don’t play many board games: a campaign you play through only once, literally destroying parts of the game in the process.
Waste worries aside, there’s little quite like it — and this CIA-flavored Cold War romp is a fabulous production from every angle, with sharply designed components that feel joyful to handle, some of the neatest graphic design work in the hobby, and a cooperative puzzle at the core of the game that shines brightly even before it unfolds and expands.
Everything about Season 0 feels like a treat, kicking off with Mr. Potato Head vibes. Each player is handed a gold-embossed passport and asked to use transparent stickers of hairstyles and accessories to create their very own secret agent disguises. Joyful stuff, wrapped around a very solid puzzle.
Actor and co-founder of Beadle & Grimm’s
What’s my favorite game of 2020? For me, the answer is simple: Chess.
When I play this timeless classic, my imagination conjures images of old Russian men, smoking pipes and bickering over passed pawns and endgame combination (and as you read this, just know that someone, somewhere is arguing about these things!). The digital age has given chess a facelift, and its magic is hiding in smartphones everywhere. With a tap of your screen, you could be competing against chess players halfway across the world.
I play 10-minute games on the chess.com app, and there’s not an afternoon that goes by that I don’t sneak off from my family to get some moves in. That said, virtual games will never replace sitting across from an opponent, sipping coffee (Or whisky? Or… both?) and dreaming up avenues of attack that will never see the battlefield. Sitting around a table playing a game in fellowship with friends or family is as old as time, and it’s what makes the game truly brilliant. But, if we can sharpen our skills during the in-between moments and play the game we love at the checkout line in the grocery store? All the better!
Polygon contributor, writer, and author of Cosplay: A History
My favorite game of the year is Wingspan. Like everyone else, we were stuck at home with the lockdown, so I began to look for some quasi-educational things to do with my school-aged kid, and a game about birds seemed like it would hit the spot. It did. We started playing, and found ourselves googling various birds to see what they look and sounded like in real life, and it’s gotten us thinking more carefully about the natural world around our home.
Editor NPR Books and NPR special series Join the Game
When my bubble gets together these days, the game we gravitate towards over and over is the adorable yet infuriating roll-and-write Ganz Schön Clever (That’s So Clever).
A roll-and-write is exactly what it sounds like: You roll dice, then write down the results. In this case, you’re rolling multicolored dice that correspond to different scoring mechanisms, and then trying to pick the ones that will boost your own score while frustrating your opponents, who get to score from the dice you leave on the table. As the game goes on, each value you write down builds up a chain of actions that can send your score into the stratosphere if you get it right.
Getting it right, though — arrrgh. Keeping all the colors and their mechanisms straight will make you want to bang your head on the wall, but, you know, in a fun way. Bonus: There’s also a mobile app, so you can do what one of my friends does and practice frantically in secret, then whup everyone else at game night. And if you want more rolling and writing, there’s a sequel, Doppelt so Clever (Twice As Clever), which has all-new, extra-fiendishly-confusing scoring mechanisms.
Painter, presenter, and co-owner of Duncan Rhodes Painting Academy
This year, two tabletop wargames really stood out to me. First is a game that has become one of my favorites — A Song of Ice & Fire Tabletop Miniatures Game by CMON. Based upon George R.R. Martin’s novels, this game is extremely well designed, with a modern system of representing massed battles combined with a clever sideboard that represents the noble houses playing the game of thrones.
The other game that has been particularly fun this year is The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms by Modiphius Entertainment. This game is narrative-focused to the point that it almost feels like a role-playing game, and it can even be played solo with the game itself controlling the enemies on the battlefield. The game mechanics delve deeply into the feel of the video game series, so a fan of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim will find it very familiar right from the get-go. I recommend both of these games to anyone!
Critic at large, Vox
Emily wasn’t able to put pen to paper for our round-up, but I was able to connect with her via Slack. Her work this year caught my eye, especially as it included write-ups of several role-playing games — including the amazing Alice Is Missing, which we also wrote about at Polygon.
Emily had another game up her sleeve, however. It’s called Great American Witch.
“It’s a brand-new game that does for witchcraft tropes sort of what Vampire: The Masquerade aims to do for, uh, vampires,” she said. “But I think Great American Witch is better, because it’s also a forthrightly political game about pushing back against the patriarchy. Some of the best gaming sessions of my life were in that campaign, because it’s a system that very naturally allows for intimate character storytelling, which is my favorite thing in an RPG.”
Host of Friends at the Table and Waypoint Radio
In a year of constant strife, frustration, and exhaustion, is it any wonder that my favorite tabletop role-playing game is a game about fantasy heroes putting down their swords and staves and retiring?
Stewpot: Tales from a Fantasy Tavern by Takuma Okada takes the excellent Firebrands: Mobile Frame Zero, with its scene-setting, characterization-heavy minigames, as a starting place. But instead of playing as mecha rivals in a dramatic duel, you play old adventuring comrades on the hunt for great ingredients. Players create archetypal fantasy heroes, and then guide them as they adapt to life in the kitchen, the garden, the market, and the town. It’s a little melancholy, very cozy, and easily the most charming game I played this year.