The best RPG board games pop you in the role of an adventurer, vampire, princess, or all three, letting you make choices and pick how to progress through the game. Some have you battling monsters, others focus on exciting exploration – and before long you may even find yourself slipping into character.
Combining the visual delights of videogame RPGs with the creativity and engagement of tabletop roleplaying games, you’ll find RPG board games can easily rival a good DnD campaign. Below you’ll find the best RPG board games money can buy, from dungeon crawlers to story-based games with elements of gamebooks.
What can we say about Gloomhaven that hasn’t been said already (for instance in our Gloomhaven review)? This behemoth of a board game could last you a lifetime. A cooperative dungeon crawler for one to four players, in Gloomhaven you’ll journey through fantastical lands, completing quests, battling fiends, and tackling a whopping 95 scenarios and sidequests.
Gloomhaven is also a legacy board game, your choices letting you permanently change the game’s world with stickers as you clear out dungeons and unlock new locations in Gloomhaven’s central hub city. One element of Gloomhaven that really sticks out is its diceless card-based combat system. This gives real weight to both the moment to moment strategic gameplay and to character customisation – granting the game a strong deck-building component.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
There are lots of Lovecraftian board games that aim more explicitly for an RPG feel, but none of them nails it quite as well as Arkham Horror: The Card Game, which does an admirable job of telling an engaging story mainly through the flavour text on cards. It’s helped a great deal by the fact that each player has a customisable deck that forms a vivid portrait of a character – from their gear, to their problem solving approach, to their friends, and their traumas.
Arkham Horror really embraces a narrative, with branching paths, the results of one scenario impacting the next. In the core set, one to two players will tackle three scenarios, visiting locations, uncovering clues, and probably getting eaten by something horrible. Like all of FFG’s living card games though, there are endless expansions to keep you busy, if you like what you see in the base box.
Another dungeon board game, this one cuts closely to Dungeons and Dragons, while still remaining distinct. A true classic, in HeroQuest four heroes work as a team, kicking down doors, dodging traps, and taking names. HeroQuest packs in far fewer quests and classes than Gloomhaven, but it still has a healthy number (14). It also boasts over 65 miniatures to bring the adventure to life, and requires one player to serve the role of the gamemaster embodying the dread sorcerer Zargon.
Many cooperative board games these days rely on systems to run their bad guys, but not only is this sometimes a bit fiddly, it also deprives someone of excellent cackling opportunities.
Detective: City of Angels
In Detectives: City of Angels, players are glory hungry detectives working against one another to try and solve a case. Most mystery games can’t really be classed as RPG board games, because the focus is very much on the puzzle, not the players.
The difference in Detective: City of Angels? Well firstly, it’s not a cooperative game, so instead of tabletalk being dominated by the clues, you get a chance to embody the characters you’re playing. Secondly, you get to make deliciously tense choices around a risky ‘challenge’ system – putting more pressure on a suspect you think is lying, which can unlock crucial answers, or cause your suspects to clam up. It’s roleplaying gold.
The detectives in Detective are a hilariously roguish bunch, getting in each other’s way as they attempt to come out on top – grabbing evidence and keeping it for themselves, paying each other for clues, or hiring snitches to listen in to another cop’s interview. Best of all, one player is ‘The Chisel’, a gamemaster who’s entire purpose is to mislead, deceive, and make the other players’ lives hell.
Escape the Dark Castle
Some RPG board games are sprawling things, but not Escape The Dark Castle. This lean thirty minute card game is half roleplaying experience, half shared storybook. You play as prisoners attempting to flee the titular dark castle, making choices and rolling for challenges on the way. Each round, you pick a player to turn over a chapter card, and they must deal with the peril that awaits them.
We love Escape the Dark Castle’s black and white retro aesthetic and horror atmosphere. It’s a beginner friendly game and a cooperative version of gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy. It has good replay value, as you only use a fraction of the story cards in each game. There’s also a scifi version, if you’d prefer a space board game.
Kingdom Death: Monster
One of those Kickstarter board games that seemed to have endless stretch goals, Kingdom Death: Monster is a monster fighting RPG that’s hugely complex and packed with content. This is almost three different RPG board games in one – a more traditional choose your own adventure section where you’re on the hunt for a monster, a complicated arena battler that makes up the meat of the game, and a civilisation guiding game where you craft gear and buildings out of bits of beasts you’ve slain, and prepare for your next dance with death.
It’s not a game for everyone, hugely expensive due to the number of detailed, chonky miniatures within, a big time sink with a campaign that’ll eat up hour after hour, and horribly unforgiving – characters you’ve spent days alongside can get gobbled up after a couple of unlucky rolls. But for a certain type of gamer, that brutality will make telling stories in Kingdom Death’s intriguing, unpleasant world all the more enjoyable.