Monday, November 23, 2020

Mark’s Bundle of 2020 Essen Game Thoughts

Unless otherwise noted, these are FIRST impressions… I only had the opportunity to play each game one time with a physical copy and three of my mask-wearing Opinionated Gamer friends back in mid-October.

I’ve left out the older (read: non-2020) games we played to keep this Essen-focused.

If you’re interested in my Essen (well, post-Essen) impressions from 2018 and 2019, you can find them at the following links.
For those of you who haven’t read a lot of my reviews, they may give you a better insight into my board game tastes and what I’m likely to enjoy. (Which, of course, may or may not line up with your choices.


Pocket Paragons

Fighting card games with multiple decks can be difficult to balance – in this case, it felt like the game had dropped into a near stalemate with the two decks we chose for our one play. Lots of good ideas but it didn’t seem to gel.

Dungeon Drop

This was a really creative idea… but the rules are a bit tough to parse out (and the print incredibly small). Dropping a handful of cubes can easily cause them to end up all over the room (which is not the intention) – and a few of the colors were difficult to differentiate. I need to try again in better lighting conditions with more players.

Pitch Out (2 plays)

A pleasant surprise… a flicking combat game that has interesting decisions and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The storage system is also barriers for pieces to hide behind during play – and they are light enough that you can “shove” them by flicking your pieces against them. I’ll be trying to find a copy of this for my collection.


Monster Expedition (3 plays)

Two plays solo and one play with 4 players… I think it may be strongest with 2-3 players as a multi-player – that would shave off just a little bit of downtime. Solo was great… nice dice puzzle. Mechanics are reminiscent of Heckmeck/Pickomino… but very much its own game.

Lost Ruins of Arnak

At this point, my pick of the show. Granted, I tend to really like the games CGE publishes… but Arnak does a great job of balancing Euro-y resource management with thematic game play. After one play, it looks like there are multiple ways to chase victory. (There’s also built-in replayability through the random set-up and the inclusion of a double-sided board with a second area of the island to explore.) This is a “must buy” for me.

One month later: I've played two more times... and we are ready to play again tonight! It's my pick for KdJ in 2021.

Paleo (5 plays)

It’s a cooperative game of prehistoric survival… with a clever card mechanic that keeps any one player from over-quarterbacking the game and lots of variability thanks to 10 different modules that are used two at a time along with the main deck. The rules are a little tricky to find things in (thanks to wanting to let players experience new things without reading about them in the rules)… but the gameplay was stellar. (As you can probably guess from our five plays – each of which clocked in around 45-50 minutes.)

Strike (2 plays)

This is not a new game… but a nice new edition was just released. It’s just as wonderful as the previous edition. This really is a dice-chucking game with all that implies… and it is possible that one of the players knocked a pip off one of the dice. Literally.

As a big fan of Impact: Battle of Elements, the smaller version of this game, I think Strike is probably the better choice with the sloped walls and bigger tray.


This game about improving working conditions has the typical look & thematic feel of Friedemann’s designs… and the key here is about timing your moves to stay out of sync with the other players while harvesting “relaxation”. Enjoyable with three players… but I’d be afraid of AP with the wrong crowd and/or larger player counts.


Abstract-ish game of island settling in the south Pacific… all the game mechanics worked just fine but it felt a bit like I was rummaging about on the board. I’m not the best source for an opinion on this style of game design, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

Princess Bride Adventure Book Game

Very much an introductory cooperative game… and the theme is a personal favorite. (Knowing the movie definitely adds a bit of joy to playing the game.) With four players, we never felt like we were in real jeopardy – we didn’t have to replay any of the six chapters. We debated if it would be harder with less players, but my one play pretty much is all I need.

Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game – Season One

Modern take on Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective – I’m not really the audience for this kind of game, but the story was put together well and clues/implications actually were discernible. It does require access to the internet to play (lots of files/clues on the website).


One Small Step

Wonderfully thematic 2 player/team game about the space race… but I’m concerned that the game has pacing issues. (My analogy: the game feels like riding in a stick-shift car with a new driver – sometimes it rockets along and other times it feels like you’re grinding the gears.) It also needs an errata/FAQ to deal with changes in icons and interpreting certain actions.

The Castles of Tuscany

Feld’s newest take on the Castles of Burgundy engine. I liked how quickly it played and the variety of tactical options. However, the score tracks share colors (red & green) with two of the player colors which can cause some confusion. For me, this was a step up from Castles of Burgundy (which I can take or leave).

Blue Skies

The graphic design is extremely austere… but there’s a risk/reward gambling game crossed with some area control that clips along at a good pace. As I’m a friend of the designer, I’m pretty sure he’s already tried all of the potential deviant strategies (don’t worry about passengers and just chase regional bonuses, etc.).

Abandon All Artichokes

A pleasant surprise – a deck destruction game aimed at families with light “take that” elements. The artwork is cute and made me want to sing songs from the Veggie Tales canon. This will be a great game to give to non-gamer families with kids 8+ this Christmas.


Odd blind bidding game that reminds me tangentially of Q.E. I think I cheated by re-using numbers but I still lost.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Creative theme for a trick-taking/drafting game with two-suited cards… I wish I’d had a little more control and ability to predict what cards could potentially win each trick.


Infinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game

I am not a particularly big fan of Love Letter – I find it more clever than fun. But Infinity Gauntlet uses the Love Letter engine to create a one against many (Thanos vs. the Avengers) game that was really enjoyable. Thanos has a different deck than the players and is attempting to get all six Infinity Stones out so he can do The Snap… while the players are trying to kill him first. (He can also win by defeating the players enough times.) I’d be happy to play this again.

Episode IV

A mish-mash of game mechanics mixed with an homage to game designer Alex Randolph. We played twice to figure out if it made more sense the second time. It didn’t (for me). I think the first three phases are churn leading to a double poker hand “battle of wits”.


Set collecting and dexterity combine in this game of teppanyaki cooking. Players fling poker chips onto the grill to buy & sell ingredients in order to complete recipes. I was lousy at it but enjoyed it a lot. (Looks like this is coming to KS in November.)

Dokitto! Ice

Weird but compelling trick-taking game about eating just enough ice cream. Every trick you take gets you a scoop… but if you take a fourth scoop, you get nothing. You must follow suit – but if you can’t, playing off-suit gives the trick to the lowest card played. Scoring is based on your ice cream scoops and cards you’ve collected (matching is good!). It may be a tad long (at least on the first play), but there’s a real game here with some excellent trick-taking strategy/tactics.

New York Zoo

Uwe Rosenberg’s most recent exploration of how to use polyominoes adds animal collecting with some really cute wooden animal pieces to the mix. The player boards feel a little crowded when filled with animals – some of whom are easier to tip over than others. I’ll need to play again, but I’m not sure I like this better than Patchwork (which does some similar things).


Really impressive design – it’s a “dudes on a map” game that doesn’t use dice and doesn’t cause players to lose pieces from combat. The card drafting system is also very clever and works not only as a way to give players a way to plan ahead but also requires upkeep as you feed your people.

Santa Monica

My first play of this city-building/drafting game… I know it’s been out for months but I hadn’t had the chance to explore the vibe of this very West Coast beach town game. I found it charming… not overwhelmingly great but very fun to play and puzzle over.


Making and painting Portuguese ceramic tiles… a multi-step process that now has its own game. There are a lot of cards here – nearly two decks worth – but it feels like the old single box Adlung Spiele games in using cards in very different ways. I think (at first glance) that painting and shipping tiles is the way to victory… but I’d like to be convinced otherwise.


Cloud City
(2 plays)

The newest game from Phillip Walker-Harding… and, like many of his games, it manages to do some nifty things in a short time period (and without an overwhelming amount of rules). Plus, building the cloud cities looks really cool. I’d agree with Dale’s assessment – this could easily be a contender for Spiel des Jahres next year.

Chicken War

This is a guess the secret identity game with some bluffing & attacking elements… sadly, the production quality was more interesting than the game.


Under Falling Skies

CGE has never published a solo game before… but with one play of the standard game under my belt, I think they know what they’re doing. I had played the original print’n’play version of this game… and they plussed the design/graphics to make it easier to play. And then, about two thirds of the stuff in the box is for a solo campaign game, which looks very interesting at first glance. (An OG review is on the way once I’ve stopped the aliens or welcomed our new planetary overlords.)

One Month Later: I'm now almost halfway through the campaign... I love the twists and the really thoughtful ways they expanded the basic game.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

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