I’ve answered the same question twice in a week — the first in a reply to an email from a reader, the second in response to this Ask Metafilter thread — so maybe I should just stick it here on the site, so I can just refer people to it in the future.
The question: you talk a lot about German games on defective yeti, but what about good old-fashioned American games? Specifically, are there any good boardgames that faithfully recreate the feeling of playing Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest, or any of the other fantasy role-playing games I no longer have the time to play?
The short answer is yes. In the last few years there have been a spate (perhaps even a glut) of quality “American” games; that is, games where mechanics take a backseat to theme. These are not the elegant, 90-minute games I usually write about, but long, sprawling, epic struggles, often with each player playing a specific character, each with his own unique attributes and abilities.
Many of these titles are coming from a single company: Fantasy Flight Games. As expected from their name, FFG specializes in games centered around mythic worlds — J.R.R. Tolken’s Middle Earth to George R.R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the World of Warcraft — though they have a few non-fantasy offerings as well. (I have previously raved about the abstract domino-esqe Ingenious, and Through the Desert is in my all-time top ten.)
But fantasy titles are FFG’s mainstay, and, perhaps because of the company’s success, more and more companies are releasing games designed to induce flashbacks of twenty-sided dice. Here are some of the best:
Descent: Journeys in the Dark: A couple years ago I went completely nuts and forked over good money for Doom, a boardgame that couldn’t possibly be good yet inexplicably was. The year following, Fantasy Flight Games adapted the Doom engine to Descent. The result is a game even better than its predecessor. As in Doom, one player assumes the rule of the Dungeonmast-I-mean-Overlord, and controls all the bad guys; everyone else chooses from among 20 possible characters, and plays as a team, striving to complete some objective. The game is played on a module board, which can be configured for any of the — Descent is played on a module board, which can big configured of any of the scenarios in the Quest book. This is as close to fantasy roleplaying as you are going to get in a box. But a word of warning: a typical scenario takes about four hours to complete.
Return of the Heroes and Runebound: Two “wander around and have adventures” games set on large maps. In both you start with a low-level characters, undertake quests and fight monsters until your stats improve, and eventually take on the Big Bad. I prefer Return, if only for it’s shorter playing time (you can complete a game in 90 minutes to two hours, about half as long as the other), but Runebound has legions of fans as well. If you expect to play the game a lot, you may want to consider Runebound as it has a multitude of expansions to keep replayablity high; but if you’re looking for a game to play only occasionally, I’d give Return the nod.
War of the Ring: I’ve been playing this quite a bit lately, despite it’s three to four hour playing time. It is, at its heart, an epic wargame built around the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but has enough chrome (as we like to call it) to give it a RPG feel. What makes it interesting is the asymmetrical nature of the struggle: the Shadow Player attempts to take Middle Earth by force, marching his copious armies across the land and laying siege to strongholds; the Free Nation players works to hold him off just long enough to sneak the Fellowship into Mordor. This game, frankly, has a lot of problems (the rules are a godawful mess, for starters), but I can’t help but enjoy it. Two other terrific board games set in Middle-Earth, by the way: the Lord of the Rings Cooperative Boardgame (one of the few games I’ve rated a perfect “10”), and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (which I review here).
BattleLore: Though not available yet, I’ll be snapping up a copy of BattleLore just as soon as it hits the shelves. It uses the same system as Memoir ’44 (one of my favorite two-player games, and one I talk up here), but sets the action in a fantasy world. Plus, the maker, Days of Wonders, has a well-deserved reputation for producing fantastic games with incredible components. If you can’t wait for BattleLore, head to your local target and see if you can’t find a copy of Heroscape — it too is light, fantasy-based combat wargame with one foot planted in the world of miniature-gaming.
Dungeoneer: If you are looking for a dungeon-crawl that doesn’t demand the investment of time (and money) that some of these other games do, check out Dungeoneer, a clever little game in which cards are not only used for describing quests and weapons, but also serve as map times to creating module dungeons. Dungeoneer is far from elegant, and seems over-long even at 45 minutes, but would serve as a good bridge to the more complicate fare mentioned on this list.
Lastly (and leastly), I’d be remiss not to mention Munchkin, I game I pretty much loathe but is nonetheless adored by an astounding number of people. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it, but I’m sure two dozen people will do so in the comments.