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Barnes Best 2020
There Will Be Games

Here For You in These Unprecedented Times

Well, it looks like it’s time to drag out that old photo that the legendary Ken B. took of me playing Cosmic Encounter like 12 years ago- that’s right, it’s time for Barnes’ Best 2020 edition. What a year, huh? To be quite honest, I didn’t play nearly as many new board games as the folks that run those content creation mills did and I really have no idea what is “hot” or “trending” in the field anymore. There’s so much junk being spewed out on the daily I don’t even care about keeping up. What I do know is that the games that I did play, I sought out and made a point to take a look at because they were things I cared about.

This year in gaming was very much more about TTRPGs than board games for me, and in that arena I’ve been thriving. There has been so much awesome new TTRPG material released this year that was I tempted to only award the coveted Barnes’ Best prize to a bunch of zines and indie books. But there was one game this year that absolutely towered over everything else released in 2020, crushing all beneath it with a massive, webbed foot. Jim Felli delivered one of the wildest, most psychedelic, and original games ever with Cosmic Frog. This game is one of the easiest Game of the Year picks I’ve ever made because no other game was as bold, fun, and beautiful. When I get to pitch this game with “you are a giant frog-god that can punch other frog-gods until they puke up mountains and fall into other dimensions”, I am in the proximity of greatness.

Cosmic Frog

Jim’s work in general showcases so much of what is missing in most games today. His designs have a real sense of heart and soul, they are alive with imagination and inspiration. They are auteur works – maverick and marginal. They are a little complicated and sometimes a little unrefined, but they are never not fun and fascinating. And the very last thing they are is an accretion of synthesized subsystems absorbed from other recent games, they are not the lazy, workmanlike designs that characterizes far too many games today. His work is singular, full stop. He self-publishes everything he does, there are no FOMO stretch goals or mountains of extra “content” and you only get six minis instead of sixty. But these kinds of games – like Cosmic Frog or Zimby Mojo or Shadows of Malice or Bemused – are the ones that still make me excited for the board games medium and its possibilities. And Cosmic Frog is the best thing that he’s done to date.

Unmatched: Cobble & Fog

As for the runner-up, it’s Unmatched: Cobble & Fog. There have been a lot of great skirmish games released over the past couple of years, so many that I am a bit frustrated with them all jockeying for my time and attention – let alone shelf space. Restoration really hit a Victorian grand slam with this one- Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, the Invisible Man, and Jekyll/Hyde all play with tons of flavor and character and the match-ups are just a delight for any fan of gothic horror. Unmatched has seen a few really solid expansions but this is by far the best of the bunch. It's a masterclass in how to convey narrative, character, setting, and atmosphere with very little in terms of rules, administration, or component density. The decks are brilliantly concieved and feature, like all of the Unmatched products, stunning illustrations that are modern and tasteful. I’m very interested to see how the game handles some of Marvel’s odder characters (like Moon Knight and Squirrel Girl) in the new sets next year.

I thought about slating Blitz Bowl season 2 in there, but it’s already made a Barnes Best appearance – it is the best sports game I have ever played, and at this point I’d list it among my all-time favorites.

OK now that I’ve made my obligatory board game picks, let’s talk RPGs.

Two words for you. MORK BORG. In case you haven’t heard about this absolute masterpiece, it is a slim book with some of the most streamlined and efficient rules ever written for a post-D&D “OSR” design.  Our very own Andi Lennon wrote a great review of it here and I haven’t seen fit to do one myself. But here's the short version. Mork Borg may very well be my favorite RPG of all time.

Morg Borg RPG

Let’s start with the book itself. It’s a small format book almost entirely printed in acidic yellow, neon magenta, deep black and metallic silver.  The graphic design is stunning – it’s surprisingly tasteful and modern for a book that is so mired in low-fi dark fantasy, Black Metalisms, and gory images. The rules are almost a whisper in it, so clean and ruthless that reading them makes you wonder why you waste your time on thicker, more robust games. The lore is minimal, abstract, and obtuse coming across more like Dark Souls than Forgotten Realms. It is supremely evocative and atmospheric, and absolutely not a game for those who fill up notebooks about their Tiefling Warlock’s backstory.

The genius of the game is in how it pares so much down to reveal a rotting, blackened skeleton that is all you need to tell ultra grimdark stories…but as in all of the best grimdark, there is a sense of black humor about it all. Indeed, Warhammer Fantasy seems like a big influence on it but with the musical touchpoint being Darkthrone rather than Bolt Thrower. It’s lethal, fast, and frequently hilarious. In my last session, one of the players stopped the party for a second and said “is this who we really are?” That to me is the sign of a great Mork Borg session. The running joke has become that Mork Borg is an odyssey into self-discovery, into our blackest, darkest selves.

You could say, I suppose, that it’s not for everyone but my retort is that I don’t care. This is some of the very best RPG writing and presentation I’ve ever read and I’ve found myself using it as the yardstick by which I compare all other RPG materials.  I have practically sold my soul to this book and I have committed to buying everything that will ever be published for it, including the upcoming Putrescence Regnant, which is an adventure with a vinyl LP.

Neverland RPG

As for a TTRPG runner-up, this was actually harder than with the board game category because so much I looked at this year was so, so good. Alien came out last year, technically, so it’s not “qualified”, I suppose. But the standout would have to be the stunning Neverland from Andrew Kolb. This book, which I think will do well in next year’s Ennies, expands on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories and sets a Hot Springs Island-like hexcrawl in Neverland. As a big fan of Pan, there are lots and lots of lovely, inspired touches and eyebrow-raising extrapolations. The midcentury-inflected illustrations are just splendid and there are so many hooks, locations, and characters to explore. The one big demerit is that it is stupidly written for 5E only. No one playing 5E is going to want this, it’s just not 5E kinds of material. It’s perfect for OSE (B/X) or a bullshitless system like Knave or even Troika. 

Alright, that’s all I’ve got. In parting, I would like to take a moment to thank all of the awesome contributors here at ThereWillBe.Games for making 2020 quite possibly the best year we’ve ever had in terms of what we have to offer our audience- I’m really proud of all of you folks for the excellent work you’ve done. And thanks also to our readers for being here to read it in These Unprecedented Times. We’ll keep up the good fight for high quality, written gaming content in 2021 so we’ll see you there.

There Will Be Games

Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #317303 17 Dec 2020 17:07
Is this Felli's second GOTY from you? I recall Shadows was when it came out.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #317307 17 Dec 2020 18:21
Legit selections. Still waiting on my copy of Cosmic Frog and Cobble and Fog has definitely been on my radar. As for Mork Borg, well - I'll see you in Sarkash. You nailed the appeal here.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #317311 17 Dec 2020 21:36
Enjoyed the read.
Dr. Mabuse's Avatar
Dr. Mabuse replied the topic: #317312 17 Dec 2020 23:58
Thank-you Andi for your Mork Borg review, as it was the first RPG I have ever owned and ever wanted to play/run. So effin' good it's the winner on my annual, never published prestigious Game of the Year list.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #317324 18 Dec 2020 15:13
Kind of surprised to not see Pan Am on here. I'm still playing it months later, which as much as I love them, can't be said for most Prospero Hall games.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #317333 19 Dec 2020 01:02
I wanted to keep it winner/runner up this year. But Pan Am was definitely a top game this year: the best game in its class since Power Grid. Undaunted: North Africa and The Crew could have also made a longer list.

Well hell, there it is, my top five then.

Cosmic Frog
Cobble and Fog
Pan Am
Undaunted: North Africa
The Crew
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #317334 19 Dec 2020 12:20
Great retrospective.

I was lukewarm on MORK BORG, which kind of surprised me -- I usually like dark games with tongue-in-cheek humor, but for some reason this didn't grab me. Maybe I just want something more lighthearted after the general dumpster fire that was 2020. I thought the layout was great as a work of art, but not focused for usability at the table -- weird fonts, weird contrasts, weird color choices, text going in different directions ... get off my lawn, maybe, but I just want clear and easy to read rules that I can easily find.

Systemwise it is fine, but there's so many excellent rules-light systems these days that it doesn't stand out.

My RPG of 2020 was TROPHY DARK. One-shots about doomed adventurers, also rules-light but in a very different way than the OSR style of things. The rules punch way above their weight; for how sparse they are, they do a masterful job of bending the narrative towards the desired end.
barrowdown's Avatar
barrowdown replied the topic: #317376 21 Dec 2020 10:36
I just ran my first game of Mork Borg this weekend and it went fairly well. Even with the rules-light setup, I was further streamlining combat as the d20 style combat is still boring (though thankfully much more lethal so it has consequences). I love the setting, book, and layout. I can see how people would find it difficult to use in play, but I thought its index and cheat seat being the inside back cover was a brilliant design decision.

Like dysjunct, I do prefer Trophy Dark for how great the sessions are compared to rules overhead.

My 2020 RPG selection would be Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, which is a fantastic setting sandbox to play in. My group is nine sessions in and still have lots to play with. They work very well with a sandbox, but I can see there being issues if your group does not handle a complete lack of rails.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #317377 21 Dec 2020 11:28
Great to see you Beau!

I think Mork Borg comes across as difficult to use not so much because of the layouts...but because there really isn’t much there! The rules are almost negligible, you could likely fit them on a single spread and write “use DM judgment” at the end and that’s it.

One of the things I love most of all about it is the Calendar of Nechrubel...those readings, if you get one, are such a fun way to get inspiration or to challenge yourself as a DM. We rolled one the other night that was just -perfect- and it completely solved a story issue I was working on. I also love that the Calendar can just end your whole campaign.

UVG is -stunning- for sure- it’s an incredible book and truth be told I could have slated that as runner-up. I got the package with the big map, screen and all that and I just love it. I haven’t run it yet though, I was hoping to after our Alien game but my buddy piped up out of nowhere and offered to run Stars Without Number, his first time GMing. I have not played as a PC since the 1990s.

I need to take a look at Trophy Dark, I’ve got a scenario for it in Dissident Whispers and it seems interesting.
barrowdown's Avatar
barrowdown replied the topic: #317378 21 Dec 2020 11:54
Yeah, my posting really fell off of a cliff with the whole COVID isolation thing.

I really like "use DM judgment" style rules so Mork Borg works well there. I tend to hack anything to be that way anyways. The group I run for really leans towards the story game end of the spectrum and prefer when the rules go away. They have no inclination to power game metagame anything and just play interesting stories even if it will obviously lead to their own PCs death if it makes sense thematically. My brother-in-law chose to join the Mork Borg game which was his first experience with an RPG and he seemed to enjoy it.

UVG is definitely worth a run, but it really needs a campaign and not one-shots or short linked adventures to really shine. It needs minimal prep and I have pulled in a lot of the Trilemma Adventures stuff in as possible deeper adventure areas if needed (not my own idea, but stealing it from Coins and Scrolls). My group has only barely touched on the Trilemma stuff as they have created their own complex conspiracy laden web that I can play with. It's one of the easiest groups to run for and only one of them has played a TTRPG before.

The Dissident Whispers adventures for Trophy are actually for Trophy Gold (the slightly crunchier variant meant for longer term gameplay a la Mork Borg). The Gauntlet does have a free copy of the rules and two adventures for Dark on the Kickstarter that would give you a taste. The additional ones in Codex are fantastic and worth checking out, though I think many if not most of them will be in the printed copy resulting from the Kickstarter.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #317380 21 Dec 2020 12:28
UVG is amazing. We started playing this summer, but then our DM had to take a break for personal reasons. As a player I really don't know what the hell is going on. I'm just enjoying the ride.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #317407 21 Dec 2020 19:44

dysjunct wrote: Great retrospective.

I was lukewarm on MORK BORG, which kind of surprised me -- I usually like dark games with tongue-in-cheek humor, but for some reason this didn't grab me. Maybe I just want something more lighthearted after the general dumpster fire that was 2020. I thought the layout was great as a work of art, but not focused for usability at the table -- weird fonts, weird contrasts, weird color choices, text going in different directions ... get off my lawn, maybe, but I just want clear and easy to read rules that I can easily find.

Systemwise it is fine, but there's so many excellent rules-light systems these days that it doesn't stand out.

My RPG of 2020 was TROPHY DARK. One-shots about doomed adventurers, also rules-light but in a very different way than the OSR style of things. The rules punch way above their weight; for how sparse they are, they do a masterful job of bending the narrative towards the desired end.


I received my physical copy of 'SUNKEN' for Trophy recently, along with its accompanying zine expansion and it's a thing of beauty.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #317411 21 Dec 2020 21:40

Andi Lennon wrote: I received my physical copy of 'SUNKEN' for Trophy recently, along with its accompanying zine expansion and it's a thing of beauty.


Yes, me too! The designer’s design experience really shines on that one. It’s really amazing how the PDF has the same layout and color (etc.) yet somehow as a physical object it really pops. Looking forward to taking another look at it.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #317524 26 Dec 2020 16:20

Michael Barnes wrote: Well hell, there it is, my top five then.

Cosmic Frog
Cobble and Fog
Pan Am
Undaunted: North Africa
The Crew


One reason I haven't bothered to post a top X list this year is that it would look very similar to this, just a different order.

Cobble & Fog isn't out in the UK yet but I can imagine it deserves its spot based on the boxes of the system I do own. Pan Am isn't either, which is annoying.

And speaking of annoying games I can't get in the UK Blitz Bowl would make my list: but Barnes mentioned it and had already played it. Would quite like to get Season 1 for the boards and the Orc team.

Perhaps I should put a US order together for all three. Might make the shipping worthwhile :D
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #317534 26 Dec 2020 23:12
Dan Thurot put Cobble and Fog at the top of his stuff, that's pretty big consensus between *very* different reviewers.
Cranberries's Avatar
Cranberries replied the topic: #317718 04 Jan 2021 23:16
My son got the family (my wife and teen daughter) to play The Crew tonight, and it really felt like an Escape Room in the sense that we were collaboratively solving puzzles and engaging in light bickering. It seems uniquely suited for housebound homes with three or more. I just read that the UK is going into full lockdown.

I just read a session report for Mork Borg and I'm pretty sure I'm going to have weird dreams tonight.

I want an RPG set in the world of Planetary, one of my favorite Omnibus comics. I have not gotten into Saga as much, as I am prudish and repressed and like to keep it family friendly. The Book of the New Sun would be a cool setting for an RPG too.
Cranberries's Avatar
Cranberries replied the topic: #317719 04 Jan 2021 23:24
One more thing: Trophy Dark can be found within this $7 rpg magazine, which seems like a deal:

www.drivethrurpg.com/product/268198/
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #317721 05 Jan 2021 00:00

CranBerries wrote: One more thing: Trophy Dark can be found within this $7 rpg magazine, which seems like a deal:

www.drivethrurpg.com/product/268198/


If you’d like an even better deal, it’s available for free on the Kickstarter page still:

www.kickstarter.com/projects/gauntlet/trophy-rpg

(Scroll down for a link to google drive.)
Cranberries's Avatar
Cranberries replied the topic: #317768 06 Jan 2021 15:56

dysjunct wrote:

CranBerries wrote: One more thing: Trophy Dark can be found within this $7 rpg magazine, which seems like a deal:

www.drivethrurpg.com/product/268198/


If you’d like an even better deal, it’s available for free on the Kickstarter page still:

www.kickstarter.com/projects/gauntlet/trophy-rpg

(Scroll down for a link to google drive.)


You are a beautiful person.
Cranberries's Avatar
Cranberries replied the topic: #317769 06 Jan 2021 15:57
I'd like to formally request the first shot at Barnes' copy of Cosmic Frog when he sells it, thank you.