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The best board game of 2020 is a poster-sized hidden object game

MicroMacro: Crime City wins the prestigious Spiel des Jahres

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The black, white, and red box for MicroMacro’s German language version. Photo: Johannes Sich
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

This year’s Spiel des Jahres, among the most coveted awards in the board games industry, goes to MicroMacro: Crime City. The awards were announced live Monday on social media.

If you’re a fan of board games you’ve likely already heard of Crime City. It’s the work of designer Johannes Sich and the small team at Hard Boiled Games, distributed here in the United States by Pegasus Spiele. The game has been making waves in the tabletop world since its release last year, with many openly wondering if it even qualifies as a board game at all. None can doubt its popularity; print runs have sold out repeatedly over the past eight months. Right now the $29.99 game is being scalped on Amazon for $99.99.

So what is MicroMacro: Crime City? Inside the box is a black-and-white map nearly four feet wide depicting a bustling cartoon city. Also included in the box is a set of 120 cards detailing 16 different crimes. It’s up to players to pore over the elaborate scene with an included magnifying glass, solving the mysteries as they go. It’s basically the physical representation of a hidden-object game, a genre of video games that has been popular for years now. It even seems to ape the black-and-white style of the wildly popular Hidden Folks. Given how derivative the concept is, the success is in some ways surprising.

A detailed shot of Crime City’s map, showing a masked hero leaping from rooftop to rooftop to confront a criminal and a couple riding horses in the street. Image: Johannes Sich

I think a lot of the popularity of Crime City has a lot to do with how fans of tabletop gaming have had to adapt during the pandemic. While services like Board Game Arena and Tabletop Simulator have proved to be great ways to find heavier games online, sometimes you just want something to put on the table at home — something tactile, an anchor activity to sit in a room with for a few hours or days at a time. It’s the same kind of niche that jigsaw puzzles have helped fill over the last year and a half by providing focused, almost meditative experiences for one or more people at a time.

MicroMacro: Crime City is an artifact that will immediately create interest for everyone at the table. You can play it solo, in a small group, working independently or together all on the same crime. It’s an experience that adapts to any situation, and nearly any setting where you can find a big enough table.

Is MicroMacro: Crime City a great game? I really don’t think so. But, in a tabletop setting at least, it feels different enough to spark curiosity. I think its most important feature is just how simple it is. Most board games require methodical study, and then a kind of performance where you teach others what you know. Here, the cognitive load required to get going is effectively zero, and for a lot of people that’s about all they can muster right now.

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