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Best RPG Board Games: Top 7 Roleplaying Experiences in a Box

January 16, 2019
RPG board games miniature
Forensic reconstruction of historical viking Leif Erikson.

RPG board games — would you play them in a box? Would you play them in Fort Knox?

It can seem like Fort Knox is the only place to safely undertake a bit of roleplaying. We’re not talking about the eyebrow-raising bedroom kind.

Sometimes, the cost of publicly playing an RPG is that one of your fellow players may at any moment announce, “We are mighty heroes, good sir. We have magic missiles!” And he will say it in a voice, and he will be loud, and people will look at you.

Unless you would prefer to cast magic missile on your social life, this business is a no-go. Not to knock roleplayers having a good time, but the heavy and unabashed literally-pretending-to-be-a-brave-knight approach is not for everyone. We at Roll for Turns are a subtle kind of geek.

Fortunately, many of these RPG board games focus on tactical dungeon crawling and monster murdering while quietly providing the feel of being your character (through visual elements and representative game mechanics).

In our list of the top 7 best RPG board games, we will be including a Jock Threat metric. This is a comparative measure of personal safety as you openly play the listed game around virile athletic men with square heads and biceps like magic nuclear missiles. If the analogous measure sounds like it will end in a beating, do not play that game within 100 yards of an NFL fan.

We like to think jocks these days are more enlightened than they used to be, but if high school taught us anything, it’s that there is always a potential wedgie around the corner.

Top 7 Best RPG Board Games

Forbidden Desert

Now, I know it’s a bit of a fixer-upper…

Players: 2-5 | Complexity: 4/10 | Cooperative Beat-the-Clock Puzzle | Jock Threat: You are using your laptop to watch strident children’s television at max volume on a bus with the Seattle Seahawks, but you’re elderly and the players aren’t sure what the protocol is.

This may not strike you right away as belonging on a list of the best RPG board games. At least, the RPG bit. But the multiple classes with distinct abilities attest to its clear RPG status.

You and your party of explorers are trapped in a dangerous desert that is prone to intense storms. Good thing you’re such a hot team of competent survivors.

Pfft! Storms? I come from the Sahara! I can take a little sandy weat-

*gets a mouthful of sand*

Your goal is to rebuild a beaten-up airship and fly the heck out of there. But first, you have to find the parts. The board is made up of double-sided tiles, the backs of which display little other than sandy desert landscape. You’ll be digging through that sand, which is to say flipping tiles to discover what’s beneath.

You won’t immediately find a ship component, but you may uncover a directional hint about where that part is located. The longer the game goes on, the nastier the storm gets. As it stirs up the sands, it will dump annoying clumps of, you guessed it, more sand atop random spaces.

You’ll need to dig through them grains with your precious few actions allotted per turn before you can reach whatever is underneath. Hope there isn’t, you know, nothing at all underneath. That would be a waste of your valuable time resources. Then the unexcavated ship parts would become further buried beneath existing sand dunes that you were too busy to clear out when you had the chance.

Welcome to Forbidden Desert.

Eventually, the storm will overwhelm you. You’ll have to do some serious coordinating to manage this puzzle, employing efficiency tactics, defensive science artifacts that you dig up, and your personal class’ inherent ability.

Engaging, attractive, simple to learn, yet challenging. Without a doubt one of the best RPG board games.

A tad on the repetitive side though.

Oh, uh, it was made that way on purpose! Ya know, because of how repetitive and monotonous deserts are.

If you believe that, we have an oasis to sell you.

Check Forbidden Desert availability on Amazon here!

Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Nice pistol, bub. 1920s America wouldn’t stand a campfire’s chance in the watery depths of R’lyeh

Players: 1-2 | Complexity: 7.5/10 | Cooperative Pre-Constructed Deck Campaign | Jock Threat: You are wearing a zoot suit on your way to the Prohibition Revival Conference. You pass by some drunk tailgaters, but they are thankfully distracted by a gaggle of geese, which they gleefully chase into the nearby haunted woods.

Fantasy Flight Games seems to pump out new Arkham games like an enormous mother spider glooping game stores with a perpetual stream of eggs.

Man, have you ever seen spider eggs hatch? We have, and we’re pretty sure that there is no God.

There is also no shortage of sinister theology in H.P. Lovecraft’s ultra-monetized hellscape of elder gods and dark cults. Names of games and expansions have begun to run together:

Yes, I’m looking for some oculus gamestations for my grandson. Let’s see, I think he said ‘Yellow Goat at the Threshold’? No, it was ‘Shadow Under Pharaoh’s Family Jewels.’ Hmm. ‘The King in the Women’s Bathroom’? What is wrong with that boy?

Yet among the best RPG board games there must be at least one entry from the Arkham series, and that’s the Arkham Horror LCG. “LCG” stands for “living card game,” which is developer Fantasy Flight’s answer to the standard collectible card game (CCG) model. You know how CCGs work. Mediocre booster packs and sad grade-schoolers with empty wallets.

Dang Nabbit! What’s Different About an “LCG”?

The difference is that an LCG pumps its spider eggs–Er, cards, out in preset packs only, so that you:

  • Know what you’re getting
  • Don’t feel like luck of the booster is defining your gaming experience.

It’s a pretty nifty system. Everyone is on an equal playing field. You might say the LCG model is the Communism of board games. Except, you know, it works. Take that, sassy socialists!

Arkham isn’t like most card games either. This is a cooperative roleplaying card game with preconstructed decks. You build your deck, you organize a scenario, and you go to town.

Why Don’t I Just Get One of the Other Arkham Games?

Why don’t you just shut up?

In particular, what this game has over other Lovecraftian games is an incredibly fluid narrative experience.

In other Arkham games, you’re flying on an old pirate ship, and then you’re wrangling an alien in an Egyptian museum with the help of some pencil-mustachioed twerp with a name like “Sam Spud.” This is all so you can pick up a magic knife and stab the ghost who is barring your entrance to a traveling play that drives viewers mad after the final act. Watch out — don’t let the ancient god of serpents wake up!

In the Arkham Horror LCG, the scenarios are developed to be far more cohesive. Objectives change with the passage of time, modifying the map or changing the rules. Locate all the cult leaders and make them spill the beans, or else they will be sending a murderous cult assassin to hound you through the dark streets.

Scenarios are content-heavy and your progress in them will influence the circumstances of the next adventures. You can improve your deck as you level up, combining card strategy with roleplaying in a novel way.

The downside here is that it takes rather a chunk of time to set the game up. It’s really very fussy and particular about which cards go where, and if you miss one sitinking card during setup, the game can be stupidly halted until you figure out what went wrong.

If you want the best narrative Lovecraft game experience for your buck, though, this is it. Plenty of expansions too. Easily one of the best RPG board games, although it’s technically a straight-up card game. Start with the very playable core set and work your way through expansions at leisure.

Check Arkham Horror: The Card Game availability on Amazon here!

Munchkin (Deluxe)

Where are his eyebrows, John Kovalic? Are you happy with what you’ve done?

Players: 2-5 | Complexity: 4/10 | Free-for-All Backstabbing Character Builder | Jock Threat: You are trying to teach D&D to a burly man who has no conception of what roleplaying is, nor what “medieval” and “feudal” mean. He also thinks that this is Texas Hold ‘Em, and feels increasingly frustrated that he cannot determine who the big and small blinds are.

You have probably seen the artwork for this thing greedily Munchkifying every brand in sight. The little jerk on the box art doesn’t look like he could belong to one of the best RPG board games, but lo and behold, here is our list — and Munchkin is on it.

Actually, when someone says Munchkin, the question you ask them is which one? Since its long-ago debut as a cutthroat D&D parody, Munchkin has gone on to absorb into its distended cartoon belly a huge number of different themes and franchises.

These include sci-fi, steampunk, zombies, Cthulhu, Axe Cop, Rick and Morty, Adventure Time, and soooooo many more. It is positively absurd how many variants of this game exist.

Hey, the formula is good though. That we cannot deny.

Tell Me More About This Over-Manufactured Classic

In Munchkin, you and the other players are members of an adventuring party who have turned on one another. In order to be the first player to reach level 10, you’ll need to kill monsters, grab loot, backstab your “friends,” and climb your bloody way to the top.

This game prides itself on an amusing formula that inevitably descends into dastardly alliances and petty psychopathic bargaining. So, like global politics.

The humor on the cards themselves cannot be missed, mocking and simultaneously celebrating the dungeon-crawling RPG genre as it follows a gang of silly misfits fighting for the top dog position. Don the “Fedora of Euphoria” and find yourself obligated to help female players for no reward. Or throw down the one-time-use card, “Whine at the GM,” which causes its player to go up a level.

So What’s Wrong with It?

In our experience, this game is a tad difficult to explain to newcomers, and in particular those who are unfamiliar with RPGs. Between items, curses, races, classes, RPG inside jokes, and the optional turn structure of either “kicking down the door” or “looking for trouble,” which are mostly the same thing but subtly (yet importantly) different, new players often seem positively befuddled by the array of cards in front of them.

There will be many unsure “Okays” and “Hmms” to parse through as you try to gauge whether this person is really having fun or just wants to avoid disrupting the game with their confusion. It is very important that everyone else gang up on these new players to maximize bewilderment and resentment.

Just kidding — you should do the exact opposite and treat them with kid gloves, which sucks some of the cutthroat fun out of the whole business.

Oh, and the art. Ugh. Look, if we see this big-nosed, basic-bitch Steve-Jackson-trademark illustration style on one more Munchkinized version of a board game, we will poop in our pants. More than usual, anyway.

Despite these shortcomings, pseudo-evil bargaining fun and silly equipment combinations make this glorifying parody of dungeon delving a straight-up classic, and one of the best RPG board games. Do you have an interest in literally any topic? There is a Munchkin game with that topic for a theme.

Any gamer worth their salt has no excuse not to play it.

Check Munchkin availability on Amazon here!

Lords of Waterdeep

You called down the thunder, well now you’ve got it!

Players: 2-5 | Complexity: 6/10 | Competitive Euro-RPG Strategy | Jock Threat: Gyrating vigorously while flipping off a college quarterback, but he’s your older brother. He promised Mom he would keep an eye on you during your visit.

Here at Roll for Turns, we’re all about questionable decisions. That’s part of why we have included Lords of Waterdeep on our list of the best RPG board games. Also, a Gandalf-lookalike who snuck past security is currently aiming his 9mm at us and demanding that we include it.

This really is a cool game,  but most of its RPG-ness (you come up with clever adjectives when Gandalf the Morally Gray is threatening you!) is to be found in the theme.

A question: While playing as a powerful adventurer, have you ever fantasized about drafting sound business plans and investing in profitable enterprises according to prevalent stock market trends?

Okay, but it’s so much better than it sounds.

Talk About Board Games Now

Good idea! In Lords of Waterdeep, you and the other players are entrepreneurs running adventure operations in the great city of Waterdeep, a hub of civilization in the D&D world known as Forgotten Realms (all rights reserved, trademark and copyright WotC, patent pending, corporate veil, shareholders and profits). You didn’t know we were so business-savvy, did you?

You’ll be hiring adventurers, purchasing buildings, completing quests, and managing tricky deals with surprising consequences. Every lord of Waterdeep is anonymous, so you never know quite who you’re dealing with — although if you know the game, you can start to guess based on player behavior.

These identities reward consistent play of some kind, be it the completion of many quests of a certain type, or the ownership of many buildings.

This game is really rather novel. It’s a fantasy business simulator… And it’s fun! As far as RPG board games, we thought we’d seen it all.

What’s in a Name?

For some reason, half the lords have cutesy names, some of which conveniently address a key element of their identities.

Actual names from Lords of Waterdeep: “Piergeron the Paladinson.” Okay, his dad Joe Paladin probably named him that. But “Mirt the Moneylender”? Could this guy not have grown up to sew clothing or construct quaint little cottages?

No, because then Tippy the Tailor and Pliny Crouse Bildner the Tiny House Builder would be out of a job. We just think it thoroughly threatens to throw off the theme when you flop silly wordplay into an otherwise serious game.

Anyway, if your adventurers complete a quest, you reap the rewards. There’s a lot to go into as far as economy, but for the sake of brevity, take our word for it that there are tons of clever ways to profitably run your business.

At the end of the game, add up your various assets like a real businessman. The lord with the most points wins.

This game of fantasy capitalism is largely without luck. Which is to say, no handouts, folks. You want to win? Pull yourself up by the pantaloons and make your way in the world. It’s the Waterdeep Dream.

The strategic joy of building your own adventuring business is enough for us to drop this bad boy onto our list of the best RPG board games.

We wish it had been a little more creative with the tokens though. Warriors are gingerbread men known as “meeples,” a lazy and completely unnecessary staple of the euro game. Wizards are purple gingerbread men.

Uh-oh, don’t want anyone to think the game has flavor. Better make our adventurers these bland, thick-dough cutouts of monochromatic stick figures.

This is a step up, believe it or not. The original release came with cubes. Now, we love a good cube, okay? Is there a finer 3D shape? But we can’t help imagine a bunch of wooden cubes bobbing off into the horizon to fulfill their adventuring contracts.

Still, this is a unique experience in gaming, so don’t be fooled by the wooden meeples and the guy on the box art who looks like Kurt Russell. Lords of Waterdeep may actually have the fewest meaningful cons of anything on our list of RPG board games.

Check Lords of Waterdeep availability on Amazon here!

And if you liked Lords of Waterdeep, check out these other strategy games we think you might like!

Mice and Mystics

At the end of the campaign, George shoots Lenny in the head with a BB gun. It’s not very dramatic, but it’s kid-friendly.

Players: 2-5 | Complexity: 5/10 | Adorable Cooperative Dungeoncrawler | Jock Threat: Interpretive-dancing to 90’s pop band ‘Aqua’ for your 10th-grade History presentation on the American War of Independence. It is well past the 90’s. You are wearing leotards and a powdered wig, and you are really into your performance.

If you grew up in the 90s and you didn’t live in a cave, you knew about Redwall. You probably read some of this series when you weren’t putting the books down and scouring your kitchen for honeybaked apples and buttered boisonberry crumbles with mulled cider and grilled leeks and hot mint tea.

Gee, why do all these hungry animals keep trying to invade the abbey?

Mice and Mystics is a Redwall lover’s dream. Darn it, those cute lil’ mousies with their button shields and their needle swords…

They may be a cadre of non-threatening fuzzies, but these mighty mice have won an intimidating number of awards, including the Dice Tower’s Best Game Artwork, Best Game Theme, Best Game of the Year, Best Production Values, Best New Designer, and the Golden Geek of 2013.

Brian Jaques wishes he came up with this game.

Pitch Me the Adorable Premise!

A group of brave warriors loyal to the king have been transformed into rodents, and now they must proceed through all of the hidden hazards that loom over every day mouse life.

We don’t imagine that medieval castles would pass modern sanitation inspections, and that means germy bug graveyards, cockroaches, muscular rats, and a particularly sadistic housecat named “Brodie.”

Normally, we wouldn’t be on board with naming one of your chief antagonists after an 8-year-old boy who loves doing the chicken dance and mimics vomiting when you mention girls.

But there is something sinister about what amounts to a serial-killing sabertooth tiger with a deceptively dumb name. Sorry to all the Brodies out there, and even sorrier to anyone named “Bodie.” (Yeah, we met a kid named Bodie — we called CPS.)

This Sounds a Like a Baby Game, Bro

And you sound like a cave bro, baby.

This game is fun for adults. But one of the reasons we consider it among the best RPG board games is how smoothly it can be used to introduce young gamers to RPGs. The family-friendly campaign stories, relatively benign violence, and cheese-crumb leveling system make for a fun welcome to kids.

Whatever you might say was Redwall’s appeal to youngsters, Mice and Mystics draws from it.

As you are undertaking your turn-based animal adventures, you will notice how fricking gorgeous this game is. All of the cards, minis, character profiles, and board pieces create a stunning portrait when placed together for a session. If you know your way around a tiny paintbrush, you can paint these minis to really complete the effect.

We have to mention, though, that despite this game’s lengthy campaign, engaging story, and beautiful components, the individual scenarios can seem awfully dependent on luck. Sometimes, we’d wipe out all the enemies no problem. Other times, it was all we could do not to explode immediately.

This could be a series of flukes, and it probably also has to do with the fact that we played mostly at lower levels before your characters really get rolling.

All in all? One of the best RPG board games. Paws down. *wink*

Wait, mice have paws, right? Those little hands and feet or whatever they’ve got?

Check Mice & Mystics availability on Amazon here!

Above and Below

-In summary, those are the two options on a vertical axis.
-Professor, what about dead-center?
-…Uh, class dismissed!

Players: 2-5 | Complexity: 5/10 | Competitive Rustic Euro-Dungeon | Jock Threat: You are publicly barraging the prom king with tiny marshmallows, demanding that he play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with you. But you are also his reliable pot dealer and you’re throwing an excellent house party at the moment.

Like Waterdeep, Above and Below is another mixture of euro and RPG. This is a truer mixture though. You and the other players are settling in the verdant plains of a new territory, having escaped the barbarians who tore up your old village.

The best RPG board games demand flippant heroes. As such, you seem confident for some reason that this will never happen again, and there are no apparent efforts to establish walls or watchtowers of any kind in the new village.

It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.

Above ground, you’ll be recruiting villagers, harvesting cider, farming, building, and eyeing that cute villager in the overalls who looks like he could be a wholesome dad for your offspring in a log cabin.

Below your settlement, however, is a series of mysterious caves ripe for the adventuring… Adventure? Or economy? That is the question you must ask yourself in Above and Below.

I Feel Like You Are About to Say, “But…”

But the answer, if you would like to win, is economy. Like, not really in question here. You know the old fable. The grasshopper delves into the dungeons solving mysteries and meeting weird fat cats. Meanwhile, the ant harvests many different types of goods so that he can eventually reach the slot on the scoring track where every good of that type is worth buku bucks.

Uh, winter comes and the grasshopper dies or something. He had a good time along the way though. Probably, he turns into a purple crystal which, if you have to die, is really the way to go. And the ant is a successful farmer who led a boring, predictable life, but who also won. Then the players go home and no one really knows how to make sense of it all.

So it is with Above and Below, where your choices essentially boil down to good economic decisions vs. cool adventures. Adventuring is rather heavily luck-based, so while we did once play with someone who did nothing but adventure, yet missed first place only by a hair, this is not common. Also, she still got beaten, technically, by Farmer Gus.

*rubs boring apple on boring shirt*

So how to play? However you want.This game offers two distinct modes, and if you don’t care about winning, take the road less traveled and be mean to an old man in the dark caves. Seriously, you can do all kinds of stuff in there. The scenario book is huge, so you can go a long time before you start seeing repeat adventures.

How Do the Adventures Impact Gameplay?

Ah. Yes, well.

Even the best RPG board games must be eyed through a critical lens. On that note, we have a fall-harvest turkey bone to pick. When you choose one of the several options available to you in a given cave venture, you are just handed stuff and the end.

You see a vast lake, and distant splashes punctuate the cold silence of this dark void. What kind of fish could live in this eerie place? Just then a boat cuts across the lake, coming toward you at a rapid clip, as though some invisible hand is dragging it lightly across the black waters. A lantern illuminates an old man in the boat, and he has not been rowing. “Would you like to know how I can do this without oars?” He wheezes, amused at your bafflement.

1: Answer yes, you would like to know.

2: It’s too dangerous. Run away!

3: Attack the old man and take his magic boat for yourself.

You select option 3? Okay, here’s what happens:

Lose 1 reputation. Collect 8 gold and two mushrooms, plus a cave card.

And? What happened to the old man? What did he do? Did he fight back? Where in the blue heck is our dang magic boat??

Who knows? But here’s two mushrooms! It’s like, the lead-ups are so fun! But why didn’t you give a tiny bit more story? It’s still enjoyable, and sometimes the earnings are more reflective of your choices than the pretend example above, but not always.

Is it Still Worth It?

Easily.

The best adventures have your party encountering strange cave folk who join your village. There’s a robot, a black tar woman, and a fat cat. And some more, we think, but we don’t feel like opening the box right now.

The lighthearted fun and aesthetic charm of this game are well worth it in the end. And you never know exactly what you’ll get from an adventure either. We stand by our decision to include this with the best RPG board games.

Check Above and Below availability on Amazon here!

Gloomhaven

A luminescent green knife. Subtle.

Players: 1-4 | Complexity: 8.5/10 | Cooperative Legacy Dungeoncrawl | Jock Threat: You are sporting a garish red fedora and a cowboy vest in a divey sports bar. The vest features a felt badge that reads, “Big Sheriff.” You are also drinking milk.

Wow. Readers, there is not enough time in the day to clarify everything about Gloomhaven that is wonderful. This probably beats out all of the other RPG board games.

Making it the best. Oh, we’re bold. We can’t not be.

This is 100% the game for those who want the style and tactics of Dungeons & Dragons, but hate that in D&D:

  • You’re staring mostly at a bag of Doritos the whole game
  • The adventuring party of dwarves, elves, and halflings is represented by your friend’s collection of badly painted space marines. You’re the one that’s missing an arm.
  • The fantasy heroes trope is so, so tired.
  • You literally have no ****ing clue what anyone else in your character’s party looks like, and you only remember one of their names. Privately, you think it’s a stupid name.
  • One dude controls everything. What will this one middle-aged man next decide about the flow of our entire gaming experience? (There is a reason starfleet officers enjoy the holodeck over being trapped in Q’s latest fantasy.)

Quit Ragging on D&D, Please

You quit ragging on D&D!

Looking for content? You’ve got it and then some. There have to be more than 80 hours of non-redundant use to get out of Gloomhaven. Tokens and other components out the wazoo. The characters are not boring old fantasy classes, but complex and novel. You’ll grow to love them, and then they’ll retire. And then your party will be comprised of new mercs. And those mercs are even cooler.

The campaign version of the game (the way you ought to be playing it) takes place over a long stretch of time. Your choices will affect the nature of the world, and new parties will tackle objectives in the rippling wake of their predecessors.

Most of this game is tactical combat, so don’t come into it expecting to swallow a novel of generic fantasy writing. The writing, by the way, is a’ight. Nothing to complain about. The gameplay pace is on the slow side, but if you love the combat, you won’t mind. For that matter, the constant unlocking of new goodies makes up for that minor trifle. Goodies are an essential part of RPG board games.

Min/maxing dilemmas are the name of the game. You’ll agonize over the best possible card plays, and you’ll dang well like it!

Cons? There is one real annoyance. Gloomhaven takes the consecutive lifetimes of several ancient human ancestors to set up. Australopithecus Africanus was mercifully short-lived in a cruel world of freezing temperatures and vicious predators, but Gloomhaven setup is still an event.

All in all, any list of the best RPG board games is not properly rendered that does not contain this game. We will fight you over this, bro.

Check Gloomhaven availability on Amazon here!

Aaaand Scene!

Phew! thus concludes our list of the best RPG board games. There is something so enticing about numeric combat. You almost want to go out and pick a real life fight just so you can scream stats in your bewildered opponent’s face.

You probably shouldn’t do that though. Instead, use your newfound knowledge of RPG board games to guide future game nights — like a mystical wizard who magically finds excuses to leave the room every time a game ends and everyone is putting the components away.

It’s your house! They should be grateful they were allowed to try your games at all. Ingrates.

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