The Laurels: Best Tactician Games Of 2020

The Cardboard Republic has rolled out the annual Laurels of the Republic awards, celebrating the best new games released in 2020 for each of the gamer archetypes. What follows are the finalists for one of those groups.

SocializerThe greatest moment for a Tactician isn’t when they cross the finish line or they best another player. Rather, it’s when all of their moving pieces and disparate strategic decisions coalesce as their carefully laid plan comes to fruition. Always the consummate schemers, Tacticians adore games that not only let them look at things in the long term but are flexible enough that it can be accomplished in different ways. Most Tacticians use layers to their plotting, adjusting if things don’t go exactly as they’d hope – which is almost guaranteed – and they’re adept at leveraging turn-based options to the fullest even if the game doesn’t permit focusing on a grand vision.

And with that, here are The 2020 Laurel Finalists for Tacticians:


Honorable Mention: Smartphone Inc.

Publisher: Arcane Wonders / Cosmodrome Games | Players: 1-5 | Play Time: 60-90 Minutes

Of every title mentioned in the 2020 Laurel season, perhaps none are more emblematic of a year lost and gaming deferred than Smartphone. Namely because it received its initial wave of well-deserved buzz during the fall 2018 convention season. After a successful small print run, Russian-based Cosmodrome Games took to Kickstarter in 2019 for wider release, including North America, partnering with Arcane Wonders in the process. Which in turn took until June of last year to arrive…right in the middle of the pandemic.

So, while it is a little strange to highlight a game that Essen-goers first saw nearly 2.5 years ago but inexplicably still qualifies for 2020 recognition, that’s precisely what we’re doing. And rightfully so.

Talk about decent signal strength.

Beneath its streamlined ruleset and tantalizing tech company style minimalism, Smartphone, Inc. is very much an economic simulation game. In it, each player is the head of a company overseeing the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of smartphones to global markets. Markets that over the course of the game will see increases in overall demand, cries for innovation, and a healthy if not downright fierce competition with other companies for access to those all-important consumers.

Smartphone behaves largely the same over its five rounds of gameplay, which is broken down into a series of different phases. Each phase permits you making important business decisions, from unit production and sale price to researching new tech and expanding your business territory.

However, this benign flow belies the inherent thrust of what makes Smartphone so alluring. Namely, you simply don’t have enough time in your day to do everything.

The core processing in Smartphone Inc resides with a pair of icon-laden tablet-style planning boards. Each round you manipulate your two panels by rotating, flipping, & overlapping them, which dictate not just your action strengths for each phase but whether you participate in certain phases at all. It is this creative and innovative decision-making process which powers all subsequent choices, requiring you to be incredibly proactive about exactly what you hope to achieve that round.

Success at Smartphone requires not just proper forethought but also keen awareness of your competition. While the game isn’t oppressive by any stretch, merely roaming about will not suffice. Simply put, like any good business plan Smartphone rewards both strategic growth and adaptability. And for those of this category that notion always has a nice ring to it.


The Nominees


Number Five: Viscounts of the West Kingdom

Publisher: Renegade Game Studios / Garphill Games  | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 60-90 Minutes

A few years back Shem Phillips designed three mechanically disparate games that told a mildly cohesive Viking story and even found a loose but rather ingenious way for people to play all three in succession as part of one massive experience. These became known as the North Sea Trilogy and were met with deserving and justifiable aplomb. Yet when he then announced plans for the West Kingdom Trilogy there was pondering in some circles as to whether he indeed could get lightning to strike twice.

Which, as it turns out, he did. And again. And again. So much so that the West Kingdom series has practically eclipsed its predecessor’s success on almost every front, including accolades.

Case in point: Viscounts has completed the West Kingdom hat-trick in having all three titles end up as Laurel nominees – a feat far from preordained and a remarkable achievement of its own.

Though your efforts in the last game were successful, the health of a kingdom is as ephemeral as their rulers. The kingdom is not as vibrant as it once was, and complacency abounds. The winds of power are shifting, and it’s only prudent to start shoring up your reputation with the common folk through deeds and actions.

You know, just in case the unspeakable happens.

Though Viscounts offers visual similarities to its brethren, the underlying framework is once again markedly different. Trading in worker placement for one of action selection and a modified deckbuilding engine, Viscounts of the West Kingdom invites players on a plodding journey around the countryside to improve their standing with the various members of society. Over a variable number of rounds, you move about the board and take just one of a handful of actions ranging from obtaining land deeds, to constructing buildings, to graciously sending your retainers to work in the castle. In the end, the player with the most points from these efforts wins.

The challenge in Viscounts lay in trying to optimize the execution of said efforts, all of which are controlled through playing townsfolk cards from your deck. Unlike a typical deckbuilder, in which you splay your hand and resolve accordingly, Viscounts revolves around playing a single card to your tableau for several turns, conveyer belt style. These cards determine everything: your movement, special abilities, and above all, they contain the essential matching icons which determine the strength of the action you wish to take. The game shrewdly provides a means to augment these icons through spending resources and obtaining criminal cards with wild symbols, but the former do not come easily, and the latter are, expectedly, not without drawbacks.

What Paladins was as a deceptively simple worker placement game Viscounts redoubles as a deceptively simple card placement game. Only through the careful cultivation of your deck are you able to properly chain your endeavors and bestow upon yourself newfound success. In this once great land you are often forced to make calculated and pointed decisions on where your enterprising efforts are best spent as you simultaneously leverage both short and long term ambitions – all for which Tacticians will gladly do a yeoman’s work to achieve.


Number Four: Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun

Publisher: Board & Dice | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 60-120 Minutes

One coincidental but inescapable thread you’ll find in this year’s nominees is that every single one of them comes by way of a designer who knows how to ply their craft with particular skill. Every single name here is renown for their ability to create game systems that alight the little grey cells and force you to make considered, meticulous, and sometimes even pained choices as you discretely bob and weave towards the finish line.

The two designers behind Tekhenu, both independently and in conjunction, are capable of designing games from light and benign all the way to maddeningly intricate, providing an admirable range of options depending on the style of game you want. Tekhenu is undeniably found towards the latter end of that spectrum, which is in part why we’re talking about it here in this category. The other part is that they each know how to make one heck of an involved dice game if they want to.

Yes, despite its weighty nature, Tekhenu is, first and foremost, a dice drafting game.

Set, as you may expect, during ancient Egypt, Tekhenu is a game in which players are nobles constructing what would eventually be known as the Karnak Temple Complex. At the center of your efforts looms a board with a rotating obelisk which dictates and restricts your options at any given time based on which areas are shaded (thematically by the obelisk’s shadow). Over a mere 16 rounds, each player takes a turn drafting an available die and then taking an associated god action based on the region of the board it came from. These actions include actions ranging from purchasing cards for either short-term or long-term rewards to constructing everything from statues, to temple pillars, to buildings.

While each choice in isolation is straightforward, Tekhenu relishes in how these seemingly disparate choices gradually coalesce into significant payoffs from your efforts. The purpose and incentives of erected structures matter not just when you build them but in which areas of the board they’re placed. The colors of the dice thematically weigh in during one of the game’s periodic scoring moments. And every couple of turns the obelisk itself rotates, changing the nature of the remaining dice while adding new ones in the process – and therefore completely upending your planning calculus.

In short, for a game that’s basically ‘take a die, do a thing’, there’s a bevy of micro-considerations to be made beforehand as to your optimal choice in that moment, which is as remarkable as it can be confounding. Balancing continued in-the-moment limitations with endgame aspirations and set against a clock that continually dwindles down as the number of tasks you wish to accomplish ticks up all resides at the noble heart of Tekhenu. For Tacticians, this is a temple to engineering they’ll be more than eager to visit.


Number Three: Bonfire

Publisher: Pegasus Spiele | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 75-120 Minutes

Woe unto the world! The lights have gone out, and now all before you lay cloaked in endless obsidian. The mighty Guardians have abandoned all hope, and…

…you know what? It doesn’t matter. None of that matters here. To Tacticians, a vibrant and fleshed out theme is a bonus to their appreciation of a game more than a requirement and matters far less than partaking in an enticing logic puzzle to tinker with and plan around.

Bonfire is, through and through, a Stefan Feld game befitting everything you’d expect from such a statement: complex and entrepreneurial, with an extensive array of interlocking mechanisms to navigate a VP-laden path to victory.

The fact that the premise of Bonfire – of a race of forest-dwelling gnomes toiling to restart magical beacons that mystical demigod-esque Guardians have abandoned – simultaneously reads like something out of The Silmarillion while is also barely more than an aesthetically-pleasing pastiche – is completely irrelevant. Instead, the question is: are there sufficiently interesting processes in Bonfire for turning Resource A into Resource B into points, and does wading through its network of choices lead to a rewarding experience for those efforts?

If you enjoy games with lots of moving pieces, few guardrails to your strategic planning, and a brain-burning exercise in the importance of order of operations that straddles but doesn’t quite tip into complexity for complexity’s sake, then yes, absolutely, Bonfire is for you.

In this race towards illumination, each player is in charge of their own pint-sized cohort. Over a series of turns, you will take different actions including recruiting gnomes with special abilities, enticing forlorn Guardians back to your city, and attempting to re-light the eponymous bonfires by completing objective-based tasks. That alone requires a logistical commitment. However, added into this twilight setting is the fact that your actions are constrained to expending the necessary action tokens – which are gained through the use of a clever and powerful but limited-use tile placement system.

Once the requisite number of bonfires is lit, the endgame is triggered, and soon the winner is determined in traditional Feldian point salad style, with practically every notable accomplishment netting you points.

With copious levers to pull, restricted but not punitive turn options, and a fairly low degree of luck, Bonfire shines with meaningful decisions that reward both long-term efficiency and opportunistic exploits -making it a quintessential crunchy Euro that Tacticians simply light up over.


Number Two: Maracaibo

Publisher: Capstone Games | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 45-120 Minutes

In the waning months of 2019, Capstone Games ushered in several medium to heavyweight Euro titles, each garnering a fair amount of interest – particularly with Tactician-leaning gamers. Far and away the buzziest of these though was Maracaibo, the latest clockwork-infused brainchild of fan-favorite designer Alexander Pfister.

However, a couple of these titles, including Maracaibo, didn’t arrive in North America for release until early 2020. While this is a common occurrence for Essen titles being brought over to the US, it also unintentionally served as an early potent of industry shipping headaches to come.
On the plus side, we finally get to highlight this august title’s value as a deeply strategic, highly replayable game despite it effectively being you sailing around in a circle several times.

At its most basic, Maracaibo can be seen as the slightly less complex sibling of Pfister’s earlier title, Great Western Trail. This time around, though, players are trading cattle wrangling in the West for a 17th century excursion around the Caribbean.

Set during height of European imperialism in the region and against the backdrop of those powers vying for influence and control, in Maracaibo, each player takes the helm and commands their own ship that doesn’t bear any direct affiliation or allegiance to any of that. Instead, your primary ambition is to increase your own wealth and standing through whatever means you deem the most advantageous.

In each of four rounds, players take turns moving to various numbered ports of call and taking the action of that location. Locations in Maracaibo provide a panoply of strategic possibilities, such as upgrading your ship, fulfilling quests, funding expeditions, purchasing valuable multipurpose cards, and, yes, even outsourcing your services to the colonial powers in an effort to increase your standing with them.

Whichever course you set, every choice informs subsequent ones as strategic decisions slowly cascade into the next. Maracaibo affords you VP and other rewards regardless of the paths chosen, but this is not a game that rewards flights of fancy. Instead, like many tightly interwoven games Maracaibo incentivizes you to formulate a concise approach and then plan accordingly. While adapting to change is certainly an option, time is not generally on your side: each round ends as soon as someone reaches the final location.

Since its initial release Maracaibo has garnered copious acclaim for its vast network of possibilities (and a little fair criticism on where its theme could’ve been better implemented), and rightfully so. With extremely varied paths to victory, an ingrained feeling of progression, and a profound sense that long-term planning is rewarded, Maracaibo is every bit the kind of game Tacticians adore. It’s even further expounded upon given that the game offers a quasi-legacy campaign mode that further tweaks the game based on your machinations.

2020 was surprisingly a really solid year for medium to heavy games of plotting and planning. Nevertheless, Maracaibo spent much of the year as the game to beat for this year’s Laurel. And it nearly was, if not for…


The Winner

2020 Tactician Laurel – Praga Caput Regni

Publisher: Rio Grande Games / Delicious Games  | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 45-120 Minutes

On the surface, Praga’s familiar and unassuming façade seemingly presents itself as a JAMCE game: Just Another Medieval City in Europe. However, while such a motif is commonplace enough as to practically be a thematic trope at this point, to discount such a laudable game solely on that alone would be both a mistake and a disservice.

Balking aside, city building games have proven time and again to be a popular staple within the hobby. Yet more importantly is a twofold set of facts bearing mention. First, the manner to which Praga intertwines its themes and mechanics is a marvelous accomplishment in Euro game design that is both transcendent and irrespective of its theme. Second is that Praga is the latest title by the estimable and prolific Vladimir Suchy (Underwater Cities, Pulsar 2849), who just so happens to know a thing or two about constructing deeply satisfying and integrated game engines.

If anything, the one real travesty with Praga isn’t its sprawling-yet-unadorned table presence. It’s that in many ways it didn’t get the widescale attention it deserves, having originally been slated as a major Essen 2020 release in a year where Essen, conventions more broadly, and gaming writ large, simply didn’t happen.

The fact that we’re here talking about it here, in this context, only further underscores that fact.

The focus to Suchy’s latest masterwork takes us all the way back to 14th century Bohemia and the crowning of King Charles IV. Charles was the George Washington of the Czech people, insisting on improving and renovating Prague to be on par with the other great cities of Europe. This included expanding the size of the city and the construction of bridges, fortifications, a university, and a cathedral – all in a few decades.

This, all of this, is reflected in Praga.

Over a variable number of rounds, players are wealthy citizens looking to impress the king by aiding these various construction projects. With a multitude of logistical angles to pursue, players take turns selecting a single action from a highly flavorful action-selection wheel. Most actions are effectively either gaining resources or contributing those resources towards constructing something, but the breadth and depth of strategic possibilities stemming from such considerations is palpable. In the end, every major location provides VP based on the degree of your involvement.

Like the river that is spans, Praga ebbs and flows with possibility. It provides ample flexibility to tailor your investments across numerous locations while heavily constraining those choices through the timing of your actions and a painfully tight resource management system. You simply do not have the ability to do everything you want. That is the beauty and challenge to the Praga puzzle. Planning and adaptability is essential but not overwhelming. Its goals are abundant but varied. And the sensation of having your prepared efforts turn into concrete, meaningful payoffs is nothing short of joyous to the consummate planner.

All of which leaves little doubt as to why Praga is deserving of the Tactician Laurel of 2020.

Praga Contest!

When we were finalizing this list not that long ago, we knew we were had short notice to come up with some way of drawing attention to how impressive the winner of the Tactician Laurel is. We brainstormed numerous ways that we could celebrate the detailed and intricate construction management nature of Praga without overthinking things, draining the bank account, or requiring a frenzied spree for someone to find their passport. Because the rules around international travel are still very much in flux, and our EU liaison for the Czech Republic is still a little reluctant to get back to us due to an unrelated incident involving our intern Claudius and the St. Vitus Cathedral, we sadly had to rule out a whirlwind tour of the great city of Prague.

(Really, the whole thing is a bit embarrassing and isn’t really worth going into here. You take one wrong turn into a 7-keyholed chamber door and suddenly everyone thinks you’re casing the place. But we digress…)

So we played around with other, more localized ways to champion the game instead, from hosting an egg-and-spoon race down a cobblestone street to a lively and festive race to construct your own functional retaining wall. We even briefly considered seeing if maybe we could tie it in to some kind of energetic urban revitalization project, but we ran into a host of issues there between money, location, permits, trying to coordinate with a sea of advocacy groups, and, oh, have you seen real estate prices lately? Golly. But we like to imagine we could have pulled it off somehow. We’re foolishly optimistic like that.

At any rate, in the end we realized that the easiest option was to simply go with the flow by providing one lucky winner with the opportunity to enjoy this award-winning game first hand in exchange for a simple contest entry.

That’s right! Enter below for your chance at your very own copy of Praga!
One Copy of Praga

Note: Praga is currently between print runs so there will likely be a delay of several weeks in receiving your prize.

Be sure to check out the 2020 Laurel Award pages for the other archetypes once they go live!

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