It’s one of the most frequent requests, debates, and lists on Boardgamegeek, behind “what can I get my girlfriend/wife to play?” It’s fantasy adventure boardgaming, and it’s coming to a shelf near you.
Why is this so popular? Many, many people play or played D&D. Unfortunately, as we grow up and get out of college, it becomes more and more difficult to arrange a group, buy the books, meet regularly, plan the games, and so on. A board game means little to no prep time, and can easily be strictly one off affairs. It’s also more friendly to new players, since the rules are much smaller than the Player’s Handbook. Board games don’t have to account for every situation that comes up, since there is a limited number of actions that players can perform.
So, that said, there are many, many titles with what I would call a “D&D theme.” It’s vaguely Tolkien-esque, but clearly inspired directly from D&D monsters and tropes. Not all of these games are fantasy adventure boardgames, however. They may just be using the theme for other types of game play.
Fantasy adventure board games can very loosely be defined by having a D&Dish theme where all the players pick a character. They then move this character around a board (often by moving individual spaces based on some statistic, but sometimes through dice rolling) and battle monsters. Battles are done through rolling dice to determine who gets hurt. Treasure and/or powers is gained from the monsters.
Here is a list of fantasy adventure boardgames that I have some familiarity with, and their characteristics. This is by no means a complete list.
If you’re of my generation, here’s some of the fantasy adventure boardgames you may have grown up playing.
No GM, fixed map, no character advancement.
An actual D&D product. Everyone picks one of the characters, each with their own combat ratings, abilities, and victory conditions. Move throughout the color-coded board, fighting monsters and gaining treasure. Treasure either helps you in the game or gets you closer to your winning condition. It’s also based on a random draw, tiered so that harder stuff gets better treasure… except that there’s still a big range in each tier, so you can get screwed by random draw. There’s also an unfortunate “get the leader” element that bogs the game down a bit. Mainly a dice rolling game with most of the decisions happening in movement. Still, gets a few nostalgia points and there are games with similar mechanics that are far worse.
Requires GM (who runs premade scenarios), Map is on a board but changes layout for each scenario, can be run in a campaign (retaining items.)
“Zargon” the GM, who gets his own reference screen, runs premade scenarios to try to kill off the players. A few expansions were released that gave more scenarios, but ultimately, it had a limited replay value. Great pieces, from the sculpted heroes (who still get used at my D&D table on occasion) to the furniture.
No GM, fixed map (but expandable with expansions)
One of my former favorites that was finally recently re-released by Games Workshop. In the basic game, wander around a three-ringed board building power by defeating monsters by rolling dice. Eventually, grab a Talisman and advance to the inner circle to try to endure a series of tests and beat the big bad guy to win. (Sometimes, this would take many hours or days after running into a dragon too early.) Then add the many expansions so that your Monk is wandering around the City board using godlike sheriff-powers, your Space Pirate is trapped wandering through the dungeon, and your Leprecaun is using his chainsword on distant alien planets. Yeah. To me, the game’s appeal was mainly on the diverse selection of characters, each with their own unique powers. The flipside was that there were many super powerful characters and many totally worthless characters. Also, the expansions added a lot in terms of variety, but also made you feel like you were playing a different game than everybody else. Reviewers have said that the new edition of Talisman doesn’t stray much from the version I played as a kid. This is what many people wanted, but I would have preferred to see some updated gameplay… especially considering how long it took for it to come out.
No GM, map is revealed as you go, options for character advancement and campaigns
Pick from a limited selection of characters, and venture into the dungeon, using a deck of cards and tiles to build the dungeon as you explore it. Try to kill more bad guys than your friends kill, and hope the wizard doesn’t roll a 6 and trigger something bad. It shares much in common to the feel of Heroquest, but without the need for someone to essentially not play. Simple rules determine how the bad guys attack, and the exploration feeling of the dungeon is awesome. The game’s main downfall is not unique: it’s a lot of dice rolling, and it’s not even fun dice rolling. You rarely feel like you need to score a hit to avoid being clobbered. The random nature of everything usually leads to every quest either feeling too easy or too hard. There’s a lot of potential here that it never quite lives up to. I also hear that the campaign rules weren’t well integrated, and going to town between adventures was just as deadly (if not more) than dungeons themselves. At least the great pieces included are useful for dungeon crawling of any sort.
Once my generation gained disposable income, a new crop of dungeon crawlers hit the scene. Here’s a sampling.
GM required, map dictated by scenario (but built different each time), advancement through leveling and keeping items
Never released in America, this Hasbro release is clearly based on the Heroquest model. A GM runs a scenario or set of scenarios as a mini-campaign. Character choices are fairly limited, but there are tons of magic items. Pieces are awesome, and worth buying just for using in D&D. (If you want a way to get a pile of Trolls, Owlbears, and other iconic monsters, this is the way to do it.) As usual, rolling dice and hoping for the best is how most of the game works. It seems like they didn’t playtest this game with actual gamers as we found a number of major loopholes that take a lot of the danger out of the game. The GM’s job isn’t very fun either… tell people when they’ve stepped on traps, move some monsters, roll some dice. Again, worth buying if you want the pieces, but there are better alternatives to play.
GM required (but acts as more than a GM), map built according to scenario, no character advancement
Fantasy Flight Games has a hit with this game that combines a lot of what’s to like about fantasy adventure board games. Lots of characters to choose from, loot to grab, more and more things to kill. The GM acts much more as an antagonist, and has some interesting decisions to make through a system that allows him to choose what threats to launch against the heroes and when. Of course, combat is through dice rolling, there’s magic and weapons and such… for the heroes, there’s not a whole lot that reinvents the wheel. For an $80 board game made by FFG, you expect high quality components, and they mostly deliver. The main complaint seems to be the amount of time it takes to play- it rivals a D&D session, but not as long as Talisman. If the game were compressed down to about 1.5-2 hours, it would have even more fans. Still, all indications are that this is a huge hit, with new expansions still rolling out. It does have something of a replay problem too, given that it is a scenario-based game. It does mix this up a bit with the GM’s ability to make choices, but you’ll still have the magic keys and bad guys in the same places.
OTHER IMPORTANT MENTIONS
Runebound takes adventuring out of the dungeon over land. It reportedly eschews the traditional “move your guy this many space and roll dice” in favor of a very different system, which turns some people off. Overall I have heard good things about this being a different kind of fantasy adventure board game, but I have yet to try it.
Prophecy is an upcoming reprint of a Czech game that has been likened to an improved Talisman. I look forward to trying it (in English) when it comes out.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is the closest you’ll get to a fantasy dungeon crawl set in modern times. It also has a unique system by which it starts out cooperative, but any of the players could switch to the GM with the scenario/bad guy at any time. Fair amount of dice rolling but with a more limited probability curve.
Munchkin is not a fantasy adventure board game. I wouldn’t even call it a fantasy adventure card game. It’s a pure “take that” style game that uses gaming in-jokes to provide some humor. For me, the humor quickly wears off, and you’re left with a game about frustration and arguing.
World of Warcraft board game is kind of a hybrid between a more traditional board game and a fantasy adventure game. You pick a character and move over a map, gaining levels. It does not, however, feature “server is down” rules. Bartoneus can probably weigh in a little more on the actual gameplay aspects.
Dungeons and Dragons: Miniatures Handbook contained rules for using your D&D minis in a random dungeon style game. This seems to be more of an afterthought and requires a lot of adjucation. There are certainly better systems out there, but it’s a way to use your D&D minis and get a dungeon crawl, so that’s something.
Tales of the Arabian Nights, reviewed previously, is soon to be reprinted in English. It shares some characteristics, but game play is very different from any of the other games listed here. You generally don’t fight monsters, you never roll dice for combat, and there are elaborate stories told. It’s sort of the “other way” to go from an RPG, where (random) stories are told as you play, but without a GM needing to make it up.
Many of these games share many characteristics, and yet people are still hungry for more. Tastes and styles in games vary, even among those who like fantasy adventure boardgames. So there will probably never be one definitive game for everyone in the genre. However, there’s still plenty of room for more of these types of games to be made. As usual, my advice to game designers is to make the game you want to play, taking the elements you like. This way, you always have something worth playing.
Further reference can be found at the “Definitive DungeonCrawl Geeklist.” Photos of games have been taken from BGG, and are linked to their location.