Micro-Strategy Games Thrived in 2020

Puzzlers and battlers kept us busy in a long year.

Jan 5 2021, 2:00pm

There was no shortage of fantastic indie games in 2020. Supergiant’s Hades made the roguelike genre more approachable (and way hornier), Spiritfarer helped us reckon with the magnitude of loss in this grueling year, highly anticipated Spelunky 2 finally arrived, and lots of popular titles made it onto other platforms, like Grindstone on the Nintendo Switch. The Switch continued to be an extremely robust home for independent games, thanks to its broad indie library, and the sheer number of people who purchased the console this year (sparking a shortage) to entertain themselves during quarantine. And somewhat older titles have still been going strong; Stardew Valley published its largest update yet, to PC. 

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As in any year, there were tons of other excellent independent games that didn’t get their time in the spotlight. But you can still play them, and you absolutely should. Here are a few of my favorite, underrated independent games of 2020.

'Monster Sanctuary' screenshot courtesy of Team17

Monster Sanctuary

Fans of Pokémon will find an instant home in Monster Sanctuary, a charming metroidvania monster collector with turn-based combat. There’s a lot to love: An impressive number of explorable regions and monsters so cute you’ll want to collect them simply to enjoy having them in your party. But they’re also key to unlocking new regions. Monsters have unique abilities like levitating and enhanced swim, and making them your companion allows you to use these abilities—a play on the more typical traversal skill upgrades (double jump, dash, etc.) in other metroidvanias. 

Monster Sanctuary also scratches the same skill development itch as Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Monsters have individual perk trees with special attack, heal, shield, and buff (power) skills—on top of various elemental strengths and weaknesses—and the game keeps this from becoming overwhelming by limiting your fight team to six monsters, with three being chosen for any given fight. You can save various team loadouts for different fight strategies.

Playable on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, Windows, Mac

Filament

For a challenging, meditative experience, look no further than Filament, one of the best puzzle games of the year. You play as an astronaut stringing cables around “anchor” pillars—and you can’t cross over your own filament—in order to unlock parts of spaceship Alabaster and figure out what happened to the crew. The puzzles feel like an elevated version of a game you might have played as a kid, using pen and paper: trace over all of the dots without crossing over any of the lines you’ve just drawn.

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With some odd 300 puzzles, a charming low poly art style, and lots of scattered hints throughout the ship, this game evokes positive comparisons to The Witness. Filament also does a great job of explaining new puzzle conventions through visual cues alone, despite a difficulty curve that accelerates pretty quickly. But it also offers an excellent narrative, with a tongue-in-cheek anti-capitalist core much like Outer Worlds, and a wonderfully gonzo sense of humor. Here are two of my favorite quotes from the game: “What is a horse? We don’t know either, but we’ve heard of them, and we’re pretty sure they have secrets,” and “We have, if anything, too many beans.”

Playable on: Nintendo Switch, Linux, Windows

'Carto' screenshot courtesy of Humble Games

Carto

In a year where so many popular games were designed to pull in players for countless hours, Carto is a wonderfully contained experience, one you can calmly enjoy from start to finish. Carto takes a fairly straightforward puzzle premise and turns it into something truly warm and novel. You play as a young girl tracing her way back to her cartographer grandmother—to do so you find pieces of maps, which you can assemble in various ways in order to alter the traversable environment. 

Though basic rules stay consistent—edges of map pieces must match up for them to snap together, for example a forest edge to a forest edge—puzzle concepts evolve throughout the game, keeping things fresh and interesting. The illustrative, watercolor art style is also lovely, with a children’s book quality that suits the game well, and the puzzles are never difficult enough to become gameplay chokepoints.

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Playable on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Mac

'Root' screenshot courtesy of Dire Wolf

Root

Don’t be fooled by its adorable art style and cast of animal characters—Root is a challenging, asymmetrical war game of “woodland might and right,” where various factions fight to reclaim a forest. Originally released as a tabletop game by Leder Games in 2017, it’s part of a growing wave of popular board games that were digitized in 2020 (including popular titles like Wingspan), allowing people to keep up their game nights from afar.

Root’s asymmetrical mechanics make it extremely replayable and difficult to master—each player chooses a woodland creature with a different moveset and set of goals. Playing as the Marquise de Cat, for example, focuses on resource management and empire expansion, while playing as the birds of the Eyrie Faction requires you to sharpen engine building skills.

Playable on: Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Android

'Good Job!' screenshot courtesy of Paladin Studios

Good Job!

Good Job! Is a perfect game for venting your frustrations through the simple act of breaking things. Sure, it’s technically about being a corporate shill, climbing your way up the corporate ladder through ticking off a checklist of tasks within an office building—the game is isometric with a cartoony art style—things like plugging in a projector, operating a forklift, and watering plants. Get the checklist done, and you move up to the next floor. 

But the way you accomplish these tasks is totally up to you, and the game encourages acts of utter chaos. Why move a piece of equipment around a tight corner to the next room when you can simply use a taut cable to launch it through the window? Knock over desks, fling office chairs, throw coffee on the floor. Wear lots of goofy hats. The game is even more fun in co-op mode.

Playable on: Nintendo Switch

Tagged:

indie games, Puzzle Games, Strategy Games, Game of the Year 2020

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