Detective A Modern Crime Board Game
Table Top

Story in Board Games – Story Games And Emergent Story

Board games give lots of ways to tell story, from crazy moments to detailed stories. But a lot of people, when getting into games, don’t really think about it. The first games that people play in the hobby board gaming side of things are generally games like Catan and Ticket to Ride. Now it might be something like Azul or Wingspan in the mix as well. But not games that seem to offer a large amount of story.

Story in Board Games

I believe that is one of the great things about modern board games, though. The fact that you can put story into the games. Or a game is very thematic that can tell a story itself. But when you look at most classic games, there might be a theme but not one that you could really engage with.

Going into really classic games, like Monopoly, Clue, Chess, and Scrabble only one of those games contains much theme. Clue gives you some of that through telling the story of a murder as you try and deduce who the killer is. But now games integrate that story and theme so much more into the games that you can play.

Two different types of story can be in board games. You likely know what they are because of the title. The first is that the game can contain narrative, your story driven games. The second is a game that has an emerging narrative to it. A lot of games can have this, something like Pandemic, which doesn’t have it’s own story, develops a story as you play along. But let’s dive deeper into those two.

Catan
Image Source: Catan

Story Games

A story game is going to have an active narrative throughout the game. It can be as big as a game like Gloomhaven where you read story elements as you get into each dungeon. Or something like Spire’s End which has story on every card. But even these show examples of how different story games can be.

With Gloomhaven you end up with a fair amount of text. You read it as you go into every scenario. There might be text for the scenario as you open doors. There is text then at the end as well. Plus you have city events that add more flavor and story for the town of Gloomhaven and road events for when you travel to locations outside of the town walls. Everything adds in story.

Spire’s End, you have all of the story on the card. You flip a card and you read story. It might give you a choice, it might lead to a battle. But I think that a better example of a different type of story, in a vein similar to Spire’s End, is Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game. That game has cards with story and a website (police database) that you use. But the story, while it is almost everything in that game, doesn’t get told in such a narrative, linear, structure.

Emergent Story Games

The basic idea of these story games is that as you play, the story itself becomes clear. This might be through text, but the choices you make develop the story for the game. It doesn’t give you the option to just read through everything, like a novel, and get the story. It is only through playing the game. And there might not even been story text to read, the game might just give you choices that create theme and story.

An example of this would be something like Western Legends. You play as a character in the wild west, and you can decide what you do. Do you become a lawman hunting down other characters who might be robbing a bank and gaining infamy. Or maybe you are running cattle up to the train and making your living that way. But when you come out of the game, you have a story of what your character did.

Sleeping Gods
Image Source: Red Raven Games

And then with Sleeping Gods, for example, that does have pieces of story that you can explore. But it is just pieces, little vignettes into the world. And you pick and choose the pieces of story that you go on. You can watch my game play and see the little bits of story that I messed around with, but together, all of that made a narrative of the adventures of my crew in that game. Next time I can explore in a new direction or try and complete stories I didn’t fully see.

Old Game to New Story Game

But I think that this is hard to talk about without giving some examples. Plus, I just like examples of a game that you might know to a game that has more story to it.

Clue to Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game

An example for a game that I already gave here with Detective. But Detective that’s that who-done-it nature of Clue. You try and figure out these five interconnected cases, but each of them is it’s own story as well. But it takes it from Clue where it’s more purely deduction as you try and ask the right questions to eliminate information. To Detective where you want to deduce what is going on, but that is picking out elements of a story/narrative that you consider to be the best leads to go down.

I always describe Detective in a way that I think will be a turnoff for some people. But I mean it as a compliment. It’s a bit like a crime show. Yes, not the most fun thing and if you’ve watched CSI or NCIS that seems boring. But when you are the detective versus watching a detective it makes for a much more fun experience. It’s one of the better stories I’ve played in a game as well.

Munchkin to Betrayal at House on the Hill

I think you could make an argument that you end up with a bit of a narrative of what your character did and got in Munchkin, but it’s really more about everyone messing you over. And I think that is a style of game that a lot of people get into the hobby with. It’s taking Uno but instead of making it colors and numbers, you have monsters, weapons, armor, and fighting.

For a more thematic experience I’m going with Betrayal at House on the Hill (or Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate). It has a similar feeling of kicking open doors as you explore this haunted house. You find crazy bits of story or items, and omens that will eventually lead to one player betraying the rest. It gives you that sense of surprise that you get in Munchkin as you flip over a room. But has story and has tension as you know that betrayal is getting close.

Betrayal Characters
Image Source: IGN.com

Catan to My City

This one is maybe a bit of a stretch, but My City does have story to it. It is pretty light on the story, but as you play through different chapters, new things happen. And It gives you that feeling of building up your own city as you go or you own area. It’s similar to what Catan does that way, but it has those little bits of story as it adds in new mechanics.

Charterstone would also work for that, but I think My City is more accessible and for me more fun to just sit down and play. But they both offer that city element or building out your area in a way to help you the most. Charterstone maybe a bit more so because you have that resource gathering element like in Catan. But My City is just so accessible and easy to just sit down and play a few games in one sitting.

Ticket to Ride to AuZtralia

Finally, Ticket to Ride doesn’t have much theme. You could just be connecting random points together with blocks. But if you want a game that builds out routes and has some story that develops throughout the game, AuZtralia might be a solid option.

Now AuZtralia has no story on it’s own. But in a game where you face off against great old ones as you try and build up your tracks and hope that the monsters go after everyone else, that is story. Plus the game has solid and interesting mechanics as you spend time to do actions but that then means other people get to do more. But back to story, fighting a monster, having the old ones win the game potentially, all of that will create moments of story where you eek out a victory or have it snatched away from you. All while building out trains.

Final Thoughts on Story in Board Games

For me, if a game can promise and deliver upon story, I am always going to be interested. A lot of my favorite games have that story element. But not every game needs a story element to it. An abstract game like Quoridor doesn’t need to try and tack on a story, or a trick taking game like Matcha. But when there is a chance to add in theme and add in pretty artwork, I appreciate it when a game does that.

A good story for a game, even if it’s not a campaign, just intrigues me. It keeps me wanting to come back to the game over again. Even something like Homebrewers which really doesn’t have a story, I like to put one on there with the beers that I’m brewing with their odd ingredients and what that might look or taste like. So it is possible to add in your own story to a lot of games, it just depends on if you want to.

What is your favor game with story or best story you’ve come across in a game?

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