Getting Your Fix One Box At A Time - 7 Board Games With Great Role-Play Value To Tide You Over To Your Next RPG Session
So it's Monday again and there's a whole lotta' corporating between you and your next weekend role-playing session. Like... a lot. I'm almost crying just thinking about it...
It's not so bad if you think about it – the board gaming market, a slightly more popular cousin to RPGs has been so much on the up and up lately it's just insane how many role-playing-like board games have popped up all over the place.
You know what the funny thing is?
Most of them aren't even being marketed as such... So how are you supposed to know if they hold any role-playing value if it doesn't say so on the box?! How? How? Hooow?
Settle down there, Johnny, that's where we step in... Or at least me. Hiiii!
An avid board gamer myself (as well as a budding war gamer, painter, terraining enthusiast and cat juggler – one of these things is a lie), I can most definitely give you some insight on a few gems the market doesn't really see as role-playing items, but can really take care of your craving in less than half the time a session usually takes.
So here goes...
1. FIREFLY – THE BOARD GAME
Now if I get overly enthusiastic about this game and start randomly mashing buttons on my keysjdhfbsk dhgbsd....???%#)%(@. Gorramit. Deep breaths… just take deep breaths... it's only because I love anything and everything about Firefly, may the gods defecate upon the people responsible for it being canceled!
While I do have a copy of the newest RPG from Margaret Weiss (which I wholeheartedly recommend and have done so already in one of my previous articles), at least one person in my Firefly RPG campaign has decided to up and move into Reaver Space... That's the Netherlands in plain human-talk.
Enter Firefly – the board game.
With a bit of a learning bump in the beginning (what with everyone running headlong into misbehavin' and being sent home crying after having their one crew member very likely killed off...), it turns into a sprawling, 'Verse-wide experience that will have you dodging customs inspections, boarding other players' ships and generally shooting people right back as they're trying to shoot you. It's great for that barely-getting-there space-survival feeling and it really has a lot of opportunities for roleplaying. Our crew members end up taking radically different personas from game to game, and many funny voices have been born after games of Firefly.
You end up caring about your crew, making difficult moral choices in order to keep flying and risk losing their trust and service if you go too far in fulfilling Niska's filthy plans... Uh... That guy's an asshole! But the pay is soooo good... Then again, that's... Murder!
In closing it’s a fun family game all-around.
Just remember not to let the space monkeys into the engine room and keep flying!
Heavily overlooked when it comes to the light dungeon-delving/crawling experience, this little box of wonders is so much more than people make it out to be. Not only does it have an authentic holy-dragonfire-I'm-about-to-die-but-I-need-just-one-more-piece-of-treasure aura to it that everybody gets into not 5 minutes after the damned thing's set up, but the rules are smack-dab in the middle of perfect balance between a solid backbone and the ability to house-rule the hell out of.
On top of that, with the help of a little free PC tool called Strange Aeons, you can come up with your own adventurers and content (think monsters, traps etc.) for the damned thing! And the best part is – considering you're not going overboard with your stats – there's no such thing as overpowered here! No matter what your character's special rules are, you can still die screaming engulfed in flames, or cut in twain by a swinging blade or poisoned or oh!... so many other fun ways to die...
All of this, as I've said, set against a background of old school fantasy delving with treacherous corridors, hazards, catacombs and the great, big Sma... I-I mean Khalladra guarding her golden trove at the heart of the Lonely M... Dammit! Dungeon! This is definitely not Middle Earth!
Anyway, this tends to bring out the best of your combat one-liners as well as (more often) famous-last-words-style compositions.Which is all in good fun since you can pick up another character and delve right back in... Only to die again not 10 minutes later, and then again after picking your third dude/dudette...
By my beard, this board-game is brutal beyond belief...
3. COSMIC ENCOUNTER
Aaah, Cosmic... The love-hate relationship I have with you is rivaled by none!
Also, the continuous storyline this game has put together within my game is turning into a Gilgamesh-sized backstabbing, crooked smile, subterfuge, table-flipping, friendship-threatening epic... At its core, CE is nothing more than a negotiation game with funny powers and pretty plastic bits. But after a game or two, once you've gotten the hang of it all and know a little more about what that reward deck holds, everyone turns into a mean, malformed, morally-challenged space-beast with nothing but that 5th point on their mind.
You start to get second thoughts (then third and fourth – the double bluffing in this game is just unbelievable at times...) about everyone else at the table... You remember games long passed when that smiling individual sitting across from you widened his grin as he was twisting his blade betwixt your ribs, right in the ol' thumper... You turtle up into this mean old goat that's fighting for every point, questioning your opponents' every move, wink or nod, and overthinking everything to the point of bursting veins... I do exaggerate a bit, but it does feel like that when a tense moment comes up. And it will come out 4 out of 5 attacks...
The best RP-related thing to come out of the game is your verbal negotiation skill. Anything and everything is tested here: you can coerce, con, fast-talk and outright intimidate others into helping you or giving you that deal lest they meet an untimely end via you driving AN ENTIRE PLANET INTO THEM (yes, the powers really are that bonkers...).
By the gods, you should have a +10 on all negotiation-based rolls if you have at least 3 games of this bugger won. In fact, you could pretty much con the GM into just giving you the roll by that point in time...
4. DUNE – THE BOARD GAME
If I had a top 3 games that rarely see the table, it would be made up of Dune, all on its own. That's how little I get to play this glorious, 70s-born behemoth. Don't get me wrong, it's an amazing piece of design, but it does take a little hard work to get into (not to mention some house-ruling in order to discard that awful Euro-style combat mechanism for one... Ugh...).
But once you get going, the factions in this one are so diverse and resemble Herbert's writings so closely it's impossible not to get sucked into the setting and go all-out space-crazy with one another. Harkonnens twiddling their thumbs, wide, treacherous grin on their faces, Fremen doing their best Finnish-heavy-metal-sand-viking impression by riding worms into battle, the Guild all hopped-up on Spice giving away free rides to any and all who can pay (hehe), Bene Gesserit trying to sign away in some made-up finger-dancer language, meanwhile the Emperor and Atreides butting heads over who'll actually get to control the damned planet come the final turn... and that's before the Bene Tleilaxu, Landsraad and Ix even join in on the battle! Iduali too if you feel like house-ruling again – I know I have!
It's a wild, fun romp and one of the few games to take the source material and translates it so well into the gaming medium the conflict takes on a whole new mantle with people whispering to each other, going away from the table, weaving intricate long-term plans or short-term damage control stratagems. There are some cool-looking variants floating around the interwebs too, I suggest you go find them and have some fun printing/cutting/sleeving the Spice out of them.
5. GAME OF THRONES – THE BOARD GAME
Speaking of source material translated well into the gaming medium, this one's a bit of a monkey wrench – I think the reason the game itself gained so much traction was that the saga was and is still building momentum. It's not a bad game, the mechanisms in it are solid, but the way the Song of Ice and Fire lore is slapped onto it is a bit lazy if you ask me... The thing that gets the Stark player to hate the Lannister's guts is not the way their relationship is portrayed within the game, but rather the history the two families have in the books (and if you haven't read them, what are you doing here and where have you been living for the past 10+ years??)
Again, as with Dune, the game manages to suck you into proceedings, but less on its own merits than the aforementioned might. You do get the best of treachery, betrayal, giant battles, sieges, bluffing your way into frail alliances, losing golden opportunities by being all "honorable" and everything else you might come across in the books (apart from all the sex and incest, it's a kids' game after all...). So sharpen your Valyrian steel *cough*cardboard*cough* sword, get your behind settled into that melted sword *cough*still cardboard*hawk* throne and gather your *ahem*plastic*wheeze* armies to fight over Westeros.
Caution – table-flipping dangers abound in this one, if only because some people expect other people to play "by the book" and said other people think it might be fun to go with a "what if" scenario and turn everything on its head for some people... I don't wanna talk about it.
I mean I do, but some people might take offense, so I'll just leave it at that.
6. WAR OF THE RING
Keeping to the current larger-than-life wargame board-game theme, War of the Ring had to make its way on here just because... It's Tolkien, come on! Who knows what fantasy would look like if it weren't for ol' R.R.?
The OG R.R.! Straight outta Middle Earth!
Probably the best board-game in the world (yes, yes, I stole that from beer commercials, shut up!), War of the Ring is - I think - the epitome of what Tolkien's epic means. On one hand, from the Free Peoples' side, you have the struggle, the overwhelming odds, the chances taken, the sacrifices made, the fear that creeps into your mind when you see the Orc tide flowing time and time again, those small moments of respite you seldom get and that let you breathe normally for about a fraction of a figment of an inkling of a moment...
On the other, there's Sauron and Saruman... The Two Towers, fighting, hunting, battering every wall the Free Peoples raise against their almost unstoppable onslaught, and the search for the Ring. Ah, yes. The Precious! He wants it! He needs it... He might see where the fat hobbitses are on the map, but getting the damned thing is something else entirely.
A sublime blend of game, mechanisms, dice, cards, flavour text, story (not by-the-books either!) and atmosphere, I've seen this game swing into win or loss on the last play so many times it's starting to be the norm – I'm expecting this to be a battle 'til the very end, and my expectations are seldom not met! This is one of the few games that leave me as exhausted as a good role-playing session does by the end, and trying to 4-player this puppy? By my Balrog does that multiply the fuzzy, happy feelings tenfold!
Middle-Earthish attire and latex, hairy feet optional, but they are strongly recommended.
Fresh lembas bread has also been known to help during the wee hours of the morning, 5 hours into it all. Just (don't?) try to simply walk into Mordor and you'll be fine.
Talk about butt-clenching against alien probes... No, I mean let's talk about it!
I can guaran-damn-tee you've never been put under such pressure by any of your GMs before. I rarely get to submit my players to such ludicrous levels of edge-of-your-seat action and quick thinking simply because I have way more fun tormenting them in other ways.
I am so evil-smiling right now...
To be frank, I did have them test out an X-Rivet (Steampunk Star Wars, zounds of fun...) prototype once, which they successfully managed to stall during a vertical climb. That was a fun couple of minutes while they were fumbling around their character sheets, trying to find something to help them. FYI – rerouting the pulse cannon power through the main engine sequence and firing the gun will apparently get things going again... Decent roll + laughing-his-arse-off-expectations-exceeded GM permitting. Fun times.
Back to XCOM then.
Alien threat, special task force designed to deal with said threat, countries losing faith in... humanity, I guess? You and the other players having to restore said faith, dealing with multiple attack fronts, researching, recruiting, building and oh, wow, I'm tired just thinking about it. The greatest bit here is that within the cooperative, timed (yes, you heard that right, this is as real-time as it gets!) aspect of the game, every player takes on a role – Commander, CO, Chief Scientist, Squad Leader – and tries to perform it as best as possible within a short (or very short on higher difficulty levels) span of time.
Said span of time is controlled via a neat app on your smartphone/tablet, blending perfectly into the sci-fi feel the game and the artwork bring to the table (the map looks like a satellite image of Earth which is just jumping-flippidy cool if you ask me...), maybe a better fit than what Mansions of Madness is doing at the moment – Horror and tablets don't really sync in my Necronomicon... This game has turned my adrenaline knobs higher than any before or since, doing so in a very strong role-playing, decision-making, teamworking manner that really harkens to our daily RPG bread.
Ack-Ack! Or something...
Steering clear of other more obvious examples – Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Merchants and Marauders or other adventure-type games, and even several card games I've been playing for years now (now that I think of it, I might do a part II after I get to play Fury of Dracula, that sounds like a sure-fire hit) – you'd be hard-pressed to find better scratches of your role-playing itch than the aforementioned magnificent 7.
If'n you do, however, come across any other such masterpieces, do share them with us, we're all willing to learn as much as possible about the role-playing hobby in particular as well as its adjacent domains in general.
And by all means, refrain not from shipping said games to us for playtesting...
You will forever earn a place within the HLG Pantheon of Do-Gooders. And that ain't nothin'... more than a name on a piece of paper, but still – something is something! ...or some other witty quip.
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
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