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2020 EOY Favorites : Deirdre

notebook background with text "deirdre's favorite games of 2020* played for the first time this year, not just new!"

 

Every year we like to highlight our favorite games of the past year. Unlike a lot of year end lists though, we like to talk about not just new games, but games that are “new to me” for the year. So much of the board game hobby can focus on the “cult of new” that older games that are also fantastic and get overlooked after they’re new.

JAIPUR –

Jaipur is the sort of game I knew I would love at a glance, and it’s become one of my favorite games to teach at the cafe. Although it’s been around for a while, as a two player game in a huge selection of great multiplayer card games, it can be easy to miss. However, for any fans of snappy, quick-playing, easy-to-learn but difficult-to-master card games, this should be a staple for your home library.

Jaipur puts you in the role of a marketplace trader, watching the flow of the market carefully to acquire the right goods at the right time. You have to manage your caravan of camels well to keep goods flowing, buying strategically and selling when the moment is right. Holding on to items to sell in bulk can net you bonus points, but wait too long and your opponent may just buy the market out from underneath you. Should you prove savvy at this exchange, you will earn a reputation at the marketplace and maybe even the opportunity to become the Maharajas’ personal trader!

One of my favorite things about Jaipur is that despite being quick-learning and fast paced, it has a ton of replayability. It offers an intuitive-learning but tricky-to-master strategy that can keep me coming back for rematches over and over. As a dedicated one-on-one game, it’s a great quarantine buy and its sturdy components tidy up perfectly for a good travel game. Jaipur has more than earned its place on my shelf!

MYSTIC VALE-

Some games obviously just get it — they possess not only a mastery of form, but also provide the kind of innovation that pushes the entire genre and makes you think about it in new ways. For me, learning Mystic Vale for the first time was a series of “that’s brilliant!” moments that made me wonder why no one had thought of something like it before.

Mystic Vale firmly belongs to my favorite genre of game, deck builders (pillared by such classics as Dominion).  Deck builders, if you haven’t played one, will typically start each player off with a uniform deck of cards and a shared marketplace of cards to buy from. Using the scant resources in your starter deck, you play through it to purchase increasingly powerful (and increasingly expensive) cards. Each new purchase is added to your deck, which gets reshuffled every time you run out of cards to draw, ideally spinning it up by degrees into a powerful economic machine by the end of the game. The twist Mystic Vale brings to this formula is subtle on paper but it truly adds a whole new dimension in its impact!

Rather than increasing the size of your deck as you advance, Mystic Vale begins and ends with the same deck of twenty cards — provided to you in protective card sleeves. Purchasing new elements, instead of brand new cards, has you picking up transparent card elements that you slot into your card sleeves. Each transparent element takes up a third of a “card,” giving you up to three upgrade slots per card in your deck. They do all occupy a specific top, middle or bottom slot, though, meaning you will still have to make choices about where to add what.

The effect of this is thrilling! Some upgrades will allow you to synergize with others, and some will cancel out pre-existing drawbacks… or double down on them for bigger, riskier plays. Without too much inside baseball, it’s almost hard to impress the kind of flexibility of strategy this brings to the game. There are tons of ways to get creative about combos and bring cascading strategies to the game — all before you even have to worry about the luck of the draw helping you get to them! As a bonus, Mystic Vale also includes a very slick and entertaining way of preparing your hand for play between turns, cutting down on a lot of the waiting for shuffling and drawing that bogs down other deck builders. This includes a push-your-luck element that will give you the option of taking a risk to negate a bad opening hand. Every innovation to this game is designed to make playing a deck builder more fun, and for me, they all work great.

Lastly, aside from being a super mechanically exciting game, I love the theme of Mystic Vale. Each player represents a clan of druids, all given their own cursed and fallow lands to nurture back into powerful havens of druidic magic. Increasing your mana production and growing your desolate lands into a thriving force of nature feels great to the economic aspect of the game. Best of all for me, it provides a competitive theme not based on violence or displacement. Growing your deck feels like carefully growing out your vale, and with plenty of expansion content there are all kinds of ways to try and make your deck flourish.

ECOS –

Ecos: First Continent is a game with a lot to offer, both in presentation and mechanics, that dovetails into a really neat experience that is fun even to learn. I really appreciate a game that gives you space to play around and learn how to strategize as you go along. I think Ecos embodies that style of play really well. It feels like just the right balance of “a lot going on” tempered with “but you’ll pick it up as we play.” There is enough simultaneous play to keep everyone engaged, but others will also have enough to do on their turns that you have a little breathing room to sort your own strategy out.

The careful thought process that goes into designing a game that unfolds as neatly as Ecos is apparent throughout. The way mechanics ramp up are intuitive because they make sense within the theme of the game. Comboing your cards and placing pieces makes you think about the board in a way that makes sense — like where you place your predators in relation to their would-be prey, or the way that changing the terrain will create or deny conditions for tile-spanning habitats. Because everything makes good thematic sense, it’s easy to understand how interactions will work as you go. It also makes it that much more satisfying when your cheetah pack hauls off and chows down on half the board for big points!

Not only does the aesthetic work great alongside mechanics in Ecos, but it’s great in and of itself. It’s the type of game where I found myself picking up all the components and admiring them before they even came into play for me. The amount of detail and thought put into them is evident. I especially like the resources tiles, which are represented by a kind of a pictogram depicting the elements you use to shape your continent.  It somehow manages to drive home the theme of being a mysterious primal force helping to guide your shared landscape, players receiving said resources on everyone’s turn of course helps to keep everyone focused!

There is really so much to like about Ecos. It blends several much-loved styles of game mechanics into one, and each of them feel like a satisfactory and not unnecessary part of the game. There are all kinds of ways to acquire points, and they have a multitude of synergies depending on what route you want to take. There is enough going on to keep the hard-thinking strategist entertained, but it’s also reflexive enough for the more seat-of-your-pants types (myself included) to dive into and figure out their game plan on the fly.

 

BARGAIN QUEST-

Being an adventurer, diving into dungeons and fighting monsters — that’s fun and all, but wouldn’t you like the chance to sit back and let someone else do the dangerous part for once? Bargain Quest lets you play as an RPG-style shopkeeper, tempting dungeon-crawling heroes with your epic loot and raking it in off their need to challenge increasingly difficult monsters. It’s not all easy street for shopkeepers though! You’ll have to compete with your fellow vendors, strategically bidding for heroes with your windows displays, suiting them up and earning points for their victories in the dungeon. You will, of course, have to manage your store, drafting for stock, and choosing if you want to spend your profits on things like hired help and amenities.

The mechanics of Bargain Quest mostly revolve around drafting, although the process of trying to lure the right heroes into your store works almost like a silent auction. Each hero will be interested in different gear depending on their class, so deciding who to snap up may have you trying to anticipate your opponents. The catch is that the display item placed in your shop window that will catch their attention cannot be sold that turn. To that end, putting your shiniest loot on display maybe draw in the adventurer you want… But that may also leave them ill-equipped to take on the dungeon!

You score points for heroes who visit your shop and then go on to land hits on the monsters, and even more for keeping them alive… But it’s not strictly necessary for them to survive either. The game presents you with a tongue-in-cheek kind of choice for playstyle then… Are you the kind of reputable vendor invested in keeping your return customers? Or will your conscience be content to keep you fleecing would-be heroes and sending them off to the gristmill? If all the heroes in town die (the hero deck runs out), the game will end in a total loss, so hopefully someone is at least reliable enough to help the heroes take the boss monster out!

For being a drafting game with relatively simple mechanisms, Bargain Quest offers a lot of choice in strategy and will have you thinking carefully about who behooves you the best to suit up with what. Like the games it borrows its theme from, items often have unique buffs that allow you to get creative with your approach to hero-kitting. There is also a slight random buffing element to the combat that emulates things like misses and critical hits to keep you on your toes, allowing for expected near-defeats to become victories (and vice versa). Good investors have to plan ahead and account for all possibilities!

Aside from being a really entertaining game with an awesome theme, Bargain Quest has quite possibly my favorite art of any board game. Everything is lovely, totally on-brand, and drawn with a warmth and touch of whimsy that makes this game really charming. Its wonderfully diverse cast and playful writing are a very welcome take on the often-stuffy fantasy RPG genre. The variety of heroes, hired help and monsters with unique designs and personalities, all brought to life in the space of just one card, really sets this title apart for me. It’s even more fun bidding for an adventurers’ attention when you want your favorites to notice your shop! If you’re a fan of fantasy adventure with a silly twist, Bargain Quest is not to be missed!

 

LETTER JAM-

Letter Jam is a game that got introduced to me by surprise one game night and I decided to pick a copy for myself before we had even finished the game. It’s different from any other word game I’ve played. It’s not only a deductive game, but cooperative as well, and keeps everyone at the table engaged by making the whole group a part of every step of the process. Most word games I’m familiar with have you poring over a jumble of letters, more concerned with less-commonly used ones and silently racking your brain for unusual words to slot them into. While this kind of creative vocab-flexing is successful in Letter Jam, it’s not strictly necessary to succeed, and in fact having a variety of simple to complex words can be a great asset to the team.

Each player in Letter Jam starts out with a five-letter word in front of them, visible to everyone around the circle except themself. For the team to win a perfect game, everyone must guess the word in front of them by the final round. To this end, rounds consist of one player being elected to give a hint, which is done in the form of spelling out any word of their choice, using any of the letters around the table to construct it. This is done by placing numbered tokens in front of the letters, leaving the other players with a mostly-finished word, aside from the blank spaces representing hidden letters in front of you. Ideally, most good clues use a few letters from each player, so that everyone has a good amount of information to work with, but still a blank spot or two to begin deducing from.

Letter Jam is a lot of fun for me because of the way it makes you think laterally about words. You don’t have to force yourself to come up with especially esoteric or difficult-to-spell words — although you are still certainly able to if that’s fun for you! Every player is challenged to use their own flexibility, vocabulary, and sometimes even knowledge of their teammates to come up with the most useful words that will give good hints to as many players as possible. I really enjoyed challenges like trying to help players guess their vowels by providing simple clues where the mystery spots wouldn’t be too ambiguous (much trickier than it sounds — maybe try skiing?). And of course the satisfaction of coming up with a unique but easy-to-guess word that you can still confidently say everyone will be able to get for certain despite missing bits of it. The game has a built-in mechanic to make sure everyone gets turns providing clues, so everyone is guaranteed to get their chance at helping out.

One of my favorite things about Letter Jam is that it serves as an all-ages (well, reading ages and up) crowd pleaser. You don’t have to be a spelling bee champion to sleuth the clues out, and everyone gets to share in the satisfaction of completing their own corner of the puzzle. The theme is simple and colorful, and while the components are pretty basic, it still feels great to click down the heavy fruit-slice tokens as you carefully spell out your clues. I think this is a game that will continue to see a lot of play around my holidays for a long time!

Most of these games can be purchased at the cafe or online for pickup. At Bonus Round, there’s a game for everyone, and we’ll help you find it!

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