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Fantasy RPG Boardgames

I've answered the same question twice in a week -- the first in a reply to an email from a reader, the second in response to this Ask Metafilter thread -- so maybe I should just stick it here on the site, so I can just refer people to it in the future.

The question: you talk a lot about German games on defective yeti, but what about good old-fashioned American games? Specifically, are there any good boardgames that faithfully recreate the feeling of playing Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest, or any of the other fantasy role-playing games I no longer have the time to play?

The short answer is yes. In the last few years there have been a spate (perhaps even a glut) of quality "American" games; that is, games where mechanics take a backseat to theme. These are not the elegant, 90-minute games I usually write about, but long, sprawling, epic struggles, often with each player playing a specific character, each with his own unique attributes and abilities.

Many of these titles are coming from a single company: Fantasy Flight Games. As expected from their name, FFG specializes in games centered around mythic worlds -- J.R.R. Tolken's Middle Earth to George R.R. Martin's Seven Kingdoms to the World of Warcraft -- though they have a few non-fantasy offerings as well. (I have previously raved about the abstract domino-esqe Ingenious, and Through the Desert is in my all-time top ten.)

But fantasy titles are FFG's mainstay, and, perhaps because of the company's success, more and more companies are releasing games designed to induce flashbacks of twenty-sided dice. Here are some of the best:

Descent: Journeys in the Dark: A couple years ago I went completely nuts and forked over good money for Doom, a boardgame that couldn't possibly be good yet inexplicably was. The year following, Fantasy Flight Games adapted the Doom engine to Descent. The result is a game even better than its predecessor. As in Doom, one player assumes the rule of the Dungeonmast-I-mean-Overlord, and controls all the bad guys; everyone else chooses from among 20 possible characters, and plays as a team, striving to complete some objective. The game is played on a module board, which can be configured for any of the -- Descent is played on a module board, which can big configured of any of the scenarios in the Quest book. This is as close to fantasy roleplaying as you are going to get in a box. But a word of warning: a typical scenario takes about four hours to complete.

Return of the Heroes and Runebound: Two "wander around and have adventures" games set on large maps. In both you start with a low-level characters, undertake quests and fight monsters until your stats improve, and eventually take on the Big Bad. I prefer Return, if only for it's shorter playing time (you can complete a game in 90 minutes to two hours, about half as long as the other), but Runebound has legions of fans as well. If you expect to play the game a lot, you may want to consider Runebound as it has a multitude of expansions to keep replayablity high; but if you're looking for a game to play only occasionally, I'd give Return the nod.

War of the Ring: I've been playing this quite a bit lately, despite it's three to four hour playing time. It is, at its heart, an epic wargame built around the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but has enough chrome (as we like to call it) to give it a RPG feel. What makes it interesting is the asymmetrical nature of the struggle: the Shadow Player attempts to take Middle Earth by force, marching his copious armies across the land and laying siege to strongholds; the Free Nation players works to hold him off just long enough to sneak the Fellowship into Mordor. This game, frankly, has a lot of problems (the rules are a godawful mess, for starters), but I can't help but enjoy it. Two other terrific board games set in Middle-Earth, by the way: the Lord of the Rings Cooperative Boardgame (one of the few games I've rated a perfect "10"), and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (which I review here).

BattleLore: Though not available yet, I'll be snapping up a copy of BattleLore just as soon as it hits the shelves. It uses the same system as Memoir '44 (one of my favorite two-player games, and one I talk up here), but sets the action in a fantasy world. Plus, the maker, Days of Wonders, has a well-deserved reputation for producing fantastic games with incredible components. If you can't wait for BattleLore, head to your local target and see if you can't find a copy of Heroscape -- it too is light, fantasy-based combat wargame with one foot planted in the world of miniature-gaming.

Dungeoneer: If you are looking for a dungeon-crawl that doesn't demand the investment of time (and money) that some of these other games do, check out Dungeoneer, a clever little game in which cards are not only used for describing quests and weapons, but also serve as map times to creating module dungeons. Dungeoneer is far from elegant, and seems over-long even at 45 minutes, but would serve as a good bridge to the more complicate fare mentioned on this list.

Lastly (and leastly), I'd be remiss not to mention Munchkin, I game I pretty much loathe but is nonetheless adored by an astounding number of people. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it, but I'm sure two dozen people will do so in the comments.

Posted on October 05, 2006 to Games





Comments

Ironically enough, I just picked up a new fantasy-type boardgame by the name of 'Order of the Stick'. Based off a Web Comic that itself is based off of D&D, you and up to 5 of your friends work your way through the Dungeon of Dorukan, a dungeon that you create as you play. As you progress through the dungeon, the other players choose what monsters to fight, so everyone gets to play, and initial set up is limited. The game ends when you finally get to the bottom and fight the evil lich at the bottom. The cards that list your actions and the loot cards are often tongue in cheeck (Sheild of Deflect Sparrows, anyone?), and there's a sense that, even in the comic, the characters know that there are certain game rules that determine their actions. The fellow behind the game and comic, Richard Baker, has written a few books for D&D, so he knows how to get that table top goodness into a comic, and now, a board game. Plus, for lazy people like me, there's a comic book 'quick start' included, as opposed to reading the manual. Highly recommend it, especially if you have a group of 3 or more.

Posted by: Declan on October 5, 2006 10:58 PM

Why do you loathe Munchkin? (It's not my favourite game ever, but I'd be interested to know)

Posted by: Andrew on October 6, 2006 1:19 AM

My favourite review (actually a meta-review) of Descent is this: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/685531

Although I'm biased as I know its author (and I played the game with him before he wrote it).

Posted by: Simstim on October 6, 2006 3:55 AM

Munchkin is perhaps my 3rd most hated game of all time (after Cosmic Wimpout and Devil Bunny Hates The Earth). Weak jokes alone does not a game make.

Posted by: Isaac on October 6, 2006 6:11 AM

"Munchkin" definitely falls into the "Chaotic Card Game" category, a category which seems universally disliked by those people who play games with stronger systems.

"Munchkin" is also heavy on the in-jokes (which can seem weak), mainly the Monty Haul Campaign and Team Killers, which used to be quite prolific problems Back In The Day. It's no surprise why it resonates with some people.

For that kind of card game, however, I prefer "Chez Geek", which is still heavy on the style-over-system but is much more identifiable (and kind of like roleplaying a younger version of yourself -- well, okay, for ME it was).

Posted by: jenkins on October 6, 2006 7:22 AM

"Munchkin" definitely falls into the "Chaotic Card Game" category, a category which seems universally disliked by those people who play games with stronger systems.

"Munchkin" is also heavy on the in-jokes (which can seem weak), mainly the Monty Haul Campaign and Team Killers, which used to be quite prolific problems Back In The Day. It's no surprise why it resonates with some people.

For that kind of card game, however, I prefer "Chez Geek", which is still heavy on the style-over-system but is much more identifiable (and kind of like roleplaying a younger version of yourself - well, okay, for ME it was).

Posted by: jenkins on October 6, 2006 7:47 AM

The problem with the Munchkins and Chez _____ whatevers of the world is that the gameplay is weak. So after the funny wears off, you are left with, well, not much. And since they're Steve Jackson games, you get to pay a whole lot of money for the funny.

And Matthew - Doom sucked bad. You have no ammo! You die!!

Descent is sooooo much better.

Have you played WotR with the expansion?

Posted by: Windopaene on October 6, 2006 9:23 AM

There is a fantasy board game called "Prophecy" which looks a bit like Talisman and Runebound. Heard anything about it?

Also, that giant "World of Warcraft" game from FFG looks like it might fit on this list too.

Posted by: John on October 6, 2006 9:36 AM

To the first poster, The Giant's name is Richard Burlew, not Richard Barker. :)

And they've got a GAME now?! I may have to try to find it. OotS is one of my favorite webcomics ever. Any fan of fantasy RPGs (especially D&D) should go read it now.

Posted by: Shadis on October 6, 2006 10:45 AM

Matthew, or anyone else here-
Do you know any women who actually like to play these games? I mean women who do things like wear high-heels. I have tried, countless times, but I just can't get past the instantaneous coma.

Posted by: lisa on October 6, 2006 6:53 PM

I've persuaded about 7 or 8 people to play ticket to ride in the last few months most of whom have been women. But then that has cute trains, not orcs.

At some point Matthew, do you think you could lower yourself to give risk and monopoly the good trashing they deserve?

Posted by: Mark on October 7, 2006 3:39 AM

Lisa -- I likes 'em. And I'm wearing high heels and on my way to a hair appointment.

Posted by: holley on October 7, 2006 7:37 AM

I knew it. It's not my double x chromosomes, just a short attention span. Matthew, I hope you are saving these games for the Squirrely. (2 L's?) By then they may seem hopelessly old-fashioned to you and downright flipping weird to him but don't lose the pieces just in case.

Posted by: Lisa on October 7, 2006 10:05 AM

Sorry. Looking back at your archives I see that you need my advice on saving game pieces like a woman needs a bicycle.

Posted by: lisa on October 8, 2006 11:48 PM

OK. Here's a tangent question for Matthew or anyone else that has a recommendation:

Are there any good board games out there (besides the aformentioned "Descent") that have changable boards? I have very fond memories of playing Mystery Mansion as a kid, but I don't where my copy dissapeared to. I'd love to get something like that to play again.

Posted by: Alonzo Mosley on October 10, 2006 3:46 PM

I think you overlooked Dungeon Twister, which is also related to RPG tropes, though less directly.

I'm with you on Munchkin.

Posted by: ScottM on October 12, 2006 4:10 PM

If only more people had lots of friends and a whole weekend to give over to diplomacy... sigh. It is better to have diplomed and lost than to have never diplomed at all.

Posted by: z on October 12, 2006 5:12 PM