Story Time: Great Story-Driven Board Games
Once Upon A Time
Stories are a powerful way for people to learn, grow, and empathize with one another. As a culture, we consume stories all the time with weekly TV shows and comic books, or big screen blockbusters, novels, and even video games. We empathize with heroes like Luke Skywalker and his struggle to become a Jedi, Frodo Baggins’ journey to Mordor with his friend Samwise, and Tony Stark’s arc reactor technology that allows him to power large constructs in New York City and also his heart.
Board games are a unique medium for storytelling, and tabletop games have started to immerse themselves in narrative more and more. The granddaddy of story-driven tabletop games is, of course, Dungeons and Dragons originally published by TSR in 1974. In the last several years, with the boom of tabletop games in the previous few years, it’s obvious why these sorts of storytelling devices are emerging. Below are three of my favorite new narrative driven board games.
A Few Favorites
Above and Below is a pool-building and resource management game set in the fantasy world of Arzium, published by Red Raven Games. Above and Below was designed by Ryan Laukat, who also did all of the story and art for the game. In the game, you and the other players begin the game by finding a perfect place to start a new village after Barbarians ransacked your old one and the goal is to create and grow the best of these new hamlets.
To do this, players will explore underground, buy new buildings, and recruit new people to help. The most impressive component of the game is the Story Book, which tells hundreds of little stories about the exploration of the underground and the strange denizens you’ll run into when you do. The Story Book has elements of the old Choose Your Own Adventure stories from the 90’s and presents the player with a story, then a choice and an outcome. If you have a successful outcome, you reap different in-game rewards that will corroborate the story.
With a similar “booklet” like component, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a semi-cooperative game published by Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast. Betrayal at House on the Hill is a horror game with hundreds of different combinations that make each playthrough unique. When players draw a card with the Omen symbol, they will roll and hope to beat a difficulty for each Omen card drawn creating a dramatic tension between players. If the players lose, the Haunt begins, and the storytelling takes a turn for the worse!
During the Haunt, a player will be singled out, and the game goes from cooperative to many-against-one. The one player will be secretly given a goal and possibly extra tools and mechanics to help them reach that goal. The other players have a different objective, usually to escape the house or to defeat the other player. But each story is entirely different, which means there’s so much uncertainty that Haunts can be played over and over with different outcomes!
Last, but certainly not least, is T.I.M.E. Stories by Space Cowboys and Asmodee. Above we talked about having elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, but T.I.M.E. Stories is the pinnacle of that idea in gaming. In the game, each player is a time traveler with the T.I.M.E. Agency, and as you play, you will journey to different times and places to cooperatively stop Temporal Anomalies from occurring. In the base game, players travel to a pre-modern mental health institution to discover missing patients.
As you set up, players will choose a receptacle that lives in the time and places you adventure. Each will have a value and a skill, and during the course of the game the receptacles will travel to different areas, choose to engage in dialogue, or solve puzzles based on those skills. Sometimes, players will also have to use their meta-knowledge as they fail and attempt to try again after a scolding from their superiors at the T.I.M.E. Agency. The base game contains one scenario, and each expansion includes an additional story.
While these are three amazing story-driven games, there are hundreds of board games that surround a narrative or put players in control of a story! What’s your favorite story-drive game?