While we keep ourselves quarantined, we’ve been thinking back to the game nights of before. Reminiscing on these times had us thinking, wait a minute, we never posted our top lists for 2019! With time now abundant, we got to work, crafting the words to describe the wonders of the year before. What games did Ethan love from the year 2019? Read below to find out!
Honorable Mention: Just One
This one isn’t officially on the list because it is technically a 2018 release according to BGG, but I don’t think it was released worldwide until this year, and in any case it was new to us. This game has been a massive hit with everyone we’ve introduced it to. The premise is simple: everyone gives a one-word clue to get another player to guess their secret word, but identical clues cancel each other out. This is nice as a quick and light filler game, or you can play a few games back-to-back (as we often do). It is super approachable, as well: Over Christmas, we played with my mom, sister, and two nieces (8 and 10), none of whom are really “gamers”, and they were able to pick it up with ease. Even the 8-year-old was able to give good clues and guessed her word more often than not (though there were a few words we had to veto because she wouldn’t have known them). Just One is a great family-level game, and it’s not too surprising that it was the Spiel de Jahres winner last year!
#5 – Mental Blocks
I’m starting off the list proper with possibly its quirkiest entry. One thing Mental Blocks really has going for it is its table presence and ability to generate entertainment even as a spectator sport. If you were just observing a game, you might see a group of people huddled around, building with foam blocks, arguing about what goes where (except for one person who isn’t saying anything), until eventually they all decide that they’re satisfied with the structure and flip a card to see if they got it right. In fact, the game is as much fun to play as it is to watch. Everyone has one view of the end product, as well as a restriction as to what kind of blocks they’re allowed to touch, and you have to work together to construct the solution in the time allowed. There is the possibility of having a traitor, who knows the solution and is trying to sabotage the goal, but we’ve found it just as fun and hectic fully cooperative. One thing I like about Mental Blocks is that everyone knows some of the solution but nobody knows everything, so it really does require input from everyone to win — no quarterbacking or passive players in this one! There are 60 puzzles in the game, so there is plenty of replay value here, and even having played some puzzles multiple times, it is pretty difficult to remember any of the solutions (they’re all abstract after all), so this is one that can keep coming to the table again and again!
#4 – Wingspan
It’s probably no big surprise that Wingspan found its way onto this list; it was arguably the most popular game released last year, and for good reason. It’s fairly light and approachable with a pretty unique theme, so it makes sense that it’s still selling out its print runs over a year later. I’ve enjoyed this game every time I’ve played it. The engine building mechanic is easy but fun, and it’s always interesting to see what kinds of combos you can build with the bird cards you find. The components are top notch as we’ve said repeatedly in our review of the base game and expansion. Typically component quality isn’t that big of a deal to me (it doesn’t matter if the game looks and feels phenomenal if the gameplay isn’t there), but in this case it really complements the theme immeasurably. We recently reviewed the European Expansion which adds new birds and mechanics to keep things fresh, so I can’t wait to see what we get with Oceania and the rest of the continental expansions when those are released!
#3 – Letter Jam
It is no secret that we are fans of party word games, and there are no shortage of those on the market. Fortunately, they all seem to do something different, and Letter Jam is a game unlike any other word game I’ve played. It takes the “everyone but you knows your card” mechanic made popular by Hanabi and adds a cooperative game of anagrams on top of it. It is always interesting to see what words people can come up with, and how various clues are more or less effective at getting people to guess what letter is in front of them. Longer words aren’t necessarily always better; I think the most impressive clue I can remember is that the simple four-letter TOFU got all four people to confidently move onto their next letter. The one thing I could take or leave about the game is the included scoring, which I feel overly complicates things. For our group, if everyone is able to successfully construct a word with their hidden letters at the end of the game, we consider it a win. It is definitely had enough to do that, and leads to a fun tension as everyone flips over their cards one at a time, hoping that they spell out a word. If you’re a fan of word games and co-ops, as we are, Letter Jam might be your, well, jam!
#2 – Pipeline
I didn’t have a chance to play many heavier Euro games last year, but fortunately I found one that definitely makes my top 5! Pipeline is a game about oil magnates, where you’re competing to buy, refine, and sell oil to ultimately make the most profits. What I really enjoy about this game is that it is at its core an optimization puzzle. There aren’t many turns in the game overall, and each year becomes progressively shorter, so you need to determine how best to use your precious few actions. It’s also a balancing act of gaining and spending money so that you’re always able to do what you need to do. This is definitely the kind of game where you can never do everything you want, and it leaves you wanting more, which is part of the reason it’s made an appearance for lunchtime gaming at my workplace three times so far (spread out over 2 days each time). An added bonus is the puzzle of fitting the pipe tiles together to make the most out of each pipe without wasting money on extra chaff. If you like thinking and optimization in a tight Eurogame, Pipeline may be one to check out!
#1 – Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale
Here it is, my game of the year! The last couple of years have seen the introduction of many games in the roll-and-write/flip-and-write genre. I’ve enjoyed all of them that we’ve tried so far, and Cartographers has certainly been no exception to that! I really like games with a spacial element or that involve organizing polyomino-style pieces (such as Patchwork, A Feast for Odin, The Isle of Cats, etc.) so replicating that in the flip-and-write game strikes a chord with me. I really enjoy the variable scoring, and knowing that you’ll score each assessment twice, allowing you to plan ahead for the later rounds to get big combos. Cartographers is also distinct from a lot of other RaW/FaW games in that it has direct player interaction with the Ambush cards, but it doesn’t feel too mean because everyone is equally impacted and has the same opportunities to deal with their threats before they cause too many negative points. This game will definitely be in our collection and actively played for a long time, and I can only hope there will be future expansions to add new scoring and terrain cards to keep things fresh. It doesn’t look like the Roll Player universe is going anywhere soon, so here’s hoping Cartographers will stay in its limelight!