Table Top

Board Games That Tell Stories

Around a month ago, I wrote about the different types of board gamers. There are generally a few categories that people recognize as types of gamers, but I ended up talking about what I called the experience gamer. This person isn’t just about kicking down doors and chucking dice or getting cubes to get more cubes, but it’s someone who if a game provides a great experience, they’ll like that game.

Often with this type of gamer, they are going to look at games that tell a story. I’m talking about two different types of stories here, first there is the campaign style story or games that inherently tell a story, but also board games that provide story through the game play.

Two Quick Examples

So, I hope that makes sense, but if it doesn’t, I do have a couple of quick examples to give in two games that are actually in the same family of games. That would be Pandemic and any of the Pandemic Legacy games.

Pandemic Legacy is a game that has story baked into it. You play through months and story unfolds as you go. You unlock things mid game that add to the story and as you progress month to month your goals change and story continues to progress.

Image Source: Polygon

Pandemic, it doesn’t have all the trappings that Pandemic Legacy does. But Pandemic still tells a story. It does that through the game play and the players as diseases pop up around the world, you name them. There are hot spots that develop where no matter how much you try and keep them down they always seem to come back up again. The medic gets tired of going back to Lagos over and over again to deal with it because you just can’t avoid it coming back up. Those stories come out of playing the game.

Story Campaign Games

So I’ve given one example of the two different types of games, but I wanted to talk about each of them in more depth. We’re starting with story driven campaign games. These are the big games that people are going to think of when it comes to story. The Gloomhaven, Sword & Sorcery and other similar games out there. These games often go through Kickstarter because they have a lot of minis and they are harder to sell in retail stores.

When done well, these games really develop and interesting narrative to them. Good storytelling should have you invested in what is going to happen next in a book and that is the same with a campaign game. If I can play a session and at the end I’m not ready to play again, that means that there are one or more of a couple of flaws with the game. This could be that the story isn’t that engaging, or it could be that the game play itself isn’t that amazing. I talk about Sword & Sorcery when it comes to this sort of thing. I think the story is fine, it certainly isn’t bad, but the mechanics are so dice chucking focused that the game feels like it removes some meaningful decisions from you just by a roll of the dice. Gloomhaven on the other hand has well balanced and interesting mechanics to the game to go with a solid story, so it kept on sucking me back in to play more and more.

Image Source: Thunderworks Games

Story based campaign games aren’t that hard to find, and if you want to find some, here are a list to checkout.

Campaign Games
  • Gloomhaven
  • Reichbusters: Projekt Vril
  • Folklore: The Affliction
  • Clank! Legacy
  • Aeon’s End Legacy
  • Pandemic Legacy (Seasons 0 through 2)
  • Shadows of Brimstone
  • Legacy of Dragonholt
  • Forgotten Waters
  • Roll Player Adventures

And there are a ton more as well, but those are just a few that I have sitting on my shelves or coming through Kickstarter.

Games That Bring Out Story

Now, this could be taken one of two ways, that’s why I wanted to give the example of Pandemic above and how that tells a story. There are games that you get stories from and then there are games that bring out story. Uno would be a bad example of this. In Uno you might tell the story of how a friend got Uno three times only to get draw four played on them each time. That’s a story about the game not the game telling a story.

What I’m talking about are those games where the theme is there, at least enough, so you really feel the story coming out of it. A game like Marvel Champions can tell a story of a super hero fighting a super villain as if it were in the comics, but without comic panels, it just gives you a very loose framework as to what the super villain is up to. Call to Adventure is another one, and this one is more intentional, but you get generic fantasy story elements for what your adventurer is doing and at the end it’s helped create this epic story for your heroes journey.

The game creates, through mechanics and minimal story telling elements, a story that is captivating each time you play. The theme doesn’t even have to be so strongly there, but the mechanics need to be smoothly integrated into the game so that you don’t see them standing out. Instead you just play the game and what you are doing in the game just makes sense. While writing a massive story for a huge campaign game can be daunting, I think creating a game that tells a story in a one off experience is probably even more challenging.

Image Source: Renegade Games
Games With Story
  • Pandemic
  • Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade
  • Call to Adventure
  • Blood Rage
  • Aeon’s End: War Eternal
  • Grimm Masquerade
  • Marrying Mr. Darcy
  • Marvel Champions
  • Specter Ops
  • Clank! In! Space!

These are the first games that popped into my head. I surprised to think of Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade, but it does a good job of telling the story of playing pinball. It’s a weird thing to think about, but it does a good job of it and creates a memorable time.

Is This Type of Board Game Better?

Personally, for me, I enjoy it more than a pure dice chucker or a pure cube pusher. And I think when getting people into the hobby, this is a strong selling point for a game. A euro game can be too dry, and an amerithrash game to be too lucky and sometimes just too big for new gamers. I think especially games from that second category, games that bring out story, are great to hook new players into the gaming hobby. But it won’t be the cup of tea for everyone. Some people will love the epic Amerithrash games with tons of swingy combat and randomness in them. For others, randomness needs to be highly minimized. So I don’t know that games that tell stories, campaign or otherwise, are better, but I do like them better.

How about you? What games tell the best story for you?

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