Board game Top 10: Lockdown 2020

With the cancellation of Essen Spiel fresh in my mind, it has been a tough week. This is my favourite event of the year and missing it mentally hit me for six. It’s at times like this when you really feel the effects of lockdown closing in on you. Sure, loads of people are worse off than me. But you can’t help feeling sorry for yourself.

So, how could I lift my mood a little and turn this negative thought into a positive one? With a Board game Top 10: Lockdown, of course. I looked at my games played list since lockdown began in March. But picked just those that wouldn’t have got a look-in if it weren’t for Covid. What games have taken this lockdown opportunity to rise back up in my estimations? Or come from nowhere to be learned and then loved.

For those reasons, this list ignores games sitting on my shelves. To qualify, they had to be played online over the past six months or so. All of them have at least a few plays and are sure to get more. And I expect a good few of them will end up in the collection. So if you’re still holding back on playing some games online, check these ones out. And feel free to give me a shout for a turn-based game online (I’m ‘hairyarsenal’ on all three sites. Don’t ask…):

My top 10 lockdown board games

The box for Bubblee Pop, in my Board game Top 10 Lockdown list

10. Bubblee Pop
(2 players, 20 mins, 2016, Board Game Arena)

This has proven to be a great little closer for two-player online sessions. Bubblee Pop takes the popular phone game match-three idea and cleverly makes it competitive, putting one player either side of the central drop zone. And different colours give cool bonuses when matched. There’s plenty of luck involved, but it’s short enough to get away with it.

9. Drako: Dragon and Dwarves
(2 players, 30-60 minutes, 2011, Yucata)

I mentioned this recently when reviewing Skulk Hollow and have been regularly playing Drako (not Skulk) ever since. It’s a similarly asymmetric two-player duel, but with much less faff. Sure, that means less choice/variability, but that doesn’t trouble a well-made abstract such as this. It’s best played over two games, so each player plays both sides. Three dwarves try to subdue a dragon, with either side winning if the other is defeated. But the dragon also wins if the dwarven player runs out of cards. Throw nets, breathe fire, shoot arrows, and fly across the battlefield. What more do you want?

8. Chakra
(2-4 players, 30 mins, 2019, Yucata/BGA)

I foolishly passed over Chakra when picking up games from Blackrock last Essen, and now regret it! It’s a beautiful abstract game with a very simple rule set. But the puzzle it sets can be super tricky to get the best of.

It’s essentially a race, as players place gems on their board then manipulate their positions to create sets. Eight actions are available to move your gems, but once triggered need to be reset before you can use each one again – wasting a valuable turn. How colours score is slowly revealed during the game, creating a nice arc while adding to the replay value.

7. Vanuatu
(2-5 players, 90 mins, 2011, Yucata)

I spoke about this earlier in lockdown (here), so won’t go into detail here. But in short, Vanuatu is the perfect light-ish euro game for groups who like their interaction in the action selection. It’s very clever and very mean, with the potential for you to be totally frozen out of things with bad planning – or mean mates!

6. Bruxelles 1893
(2-5 players, 2 hours, 2013, Boite a Jeux)

Another I’ve spoken about during lockdown (here), Bruxelles 1893 is yet another surprisingly interactive euro game. Here the competition comes more from triggering bonuses and blocking opportunities, but it feels as if everything you do can affect your opponents. There aren’t many games where you have to keep such a close eye on your opponent’s moves.

The lockdown Top 5

5. Nippon
(2-4 players, 2 hours, 2015, Board Game Arena)

Nippon is comfortably my favourite title from popular euro publisher What’s Your Game? It has some clever and original action selection mechanisms, all leading to a bunch of tough decisions each round. But there are also cutthroat area majority elements to the game, with timing often being crucial. Throw in tricky choices around getting bonuses or income, and you have all the elements that make for a great euro.

4. The Crew
(2-5 players, 10-60+ minutes, 2019, Board Game Arena)

The Crew has garnered a slew of top awards, including the Kennerspiel des Jahres – the German ‘gamer’s game of the year’. And deservedly so. It’s a trick-taking game, but a co-operative one. Giving very little information about their hands, players must work together to make sure the right players win particular tricks. As a group you slowly progress through different challenges, ramping up the difficulty and changing up the requirements as you go. I won’t say much else, to avoid spoilers, but this really is a game every group should try.

3. Kanban
(2-4 players, 2 hours, 2014. Boite a Jeux)

Probably the heaviest title on the list, Kanban is a complex worker placement game. The tricks here are very much in the timing, as triggering certain actions makes resources available – but not necessarily for you. so a well-timed worker can both scupper your opponents and take advantage of opportunities they’ve set up. Scoring is interactive in a similar way, again making timing important. But I’m not sure it quite deserves its reputation as one of the heaviest euro games out there. I normally struggle with such games, as the decisions expand beyond my puny brain power. But with Kanban I can just about stay on top of things. No, I don’t win much. But at least I know why!

2. Firenze
(2-4 players, 60 mins, 2010, Yucata)

Firenze is a light euro, or gateway game, which has a lot going for it. You’re building towers to score points – simple, right? But in a similar way to Thurn and Taxis, you must build each tower you’re working on each turn, or lose it – as construction happens at the end of your turn. So, if you’re building a whopper, you can guarantee your opponents will do their level best to thwart you. This is done by taking away the bricks you need. and of course, the more valuable towers use the rarest bricks. Simple rules, a short playtime and that subtle – but potentially devastating – interaction make this an absolute winner.

1. Stone Age
(2-4 players, 1-2 hours, 2008, Yucata/BGA)

I owned this, played it to death, then sold it. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be long until it’s back in my collection. For me, it’s the best family/gateway level worker placement game bar none. You place your workers out to collect resources, but what you get depends on the role of the dice. Better resources need higher roles. So there’s push-your-luck element in how many dudes you send to a location (each dude gets a dice). While I prefer the interface of the Yucata version, playing on BGA gives you all the expansions from the Anniversary edition. These add a nice little level of extra replayability, pushing it back into my favourites list.

Just outside the top 10

It was a tough call on three games, as I got the list down to a ‘top 13’ quite easily. I felt I had to leave Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan and Mandala out as I’ve only played each once. But they were both excellent games I hope to talk about more in future.

Mandala is an abstract two-player card game; beautiful to look at and super thinky within a tight rule set. While Marco Polo II takes the best from the ‘interesting but flawed’ original and makes a cracking new game out of it. And the last was Trajan, a great Stefan Feld euro game – but he gets enough airtime here already! And even here, gets the final word…

Like my Board game Top 10: Lockdown? Check out more of my board game top 10s.

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