10 Best Narrative Tabletop Games
There is nothing quite like a good tabletop board game. Experiences like Settlers of Catan have become an international hit because they offer unique, interactive fun with your friends that don’t take too long to play. In this sense, such board games are the opposite of tabletop RPGs, which require meeting regularly for hours at a time to fully experience the joy of creating a story with your friends.
However, there is a middle ground between these two in the form of narrative-driven tabletop games. These are games that focus on crafting stories and developing characters just as much (if not more) than they focus on gathering points and winning the game. Ultimately, they allow players all the fun of an RPG and all the brief simplicity of a board game, all in one package.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, many players don’t know where to start to find the best narrative-driven tabletop games. Fortunately, you don’t have to get lucky on your perception roll to find such games. Just check out this handy guide to the 10 Best Narrative Tabletop Games!
10. Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter is the tabletop game that has done the impossible: it brought the zombie genre back to life. Many tabletop zombie survival experiences focus on just hacking and slashing the undead (like in Zombicide), and that premise was getting as tired as zombie media itself (we’re looking at you, Walking Dead). However, Dead of Winter keeps it fresh by making you worry more about your friends than the zombies.
Nominally, this is a group survival game: players control multiple characters and work towards a shared goal. However, individuals are also given secret goals to try to achieve, and there is a chance that someone may be given a betrayal objective. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the traitor has a few of their own goals, but they mostly win by sabotaging the “daily” objectives (separate from the main objective) and trying to spread the zombie infection. This creates a tense narrative where you must figure out what is an accident or mistake and what is deliberate sabotage and try to get enough votes to exile the traitor (assuming there is a traitor at all). Topping it off are Crossroads cards: each turn, there is a chance the player meets the conditions of the secret Crossroad card. These cards create moral dilemmas (such as feeding starving children or hoarding food for your survivors), threaten characters (your attempt to safely drive to another location may result in a car wreck), and ultimately ensure that every game has a different story. Whether the survivors or the traitor wins, the rulebook provides a fun, narrative epilog for how each story ends.
9. Star Wars: Imperial Assault
Star Wars: Imperial Assault is a game that threads the needle between RPG and board game. On the one hand, it’s a definitive RPG: you play as a specific character as part of an ongoing narrative against an Imperial player who is your Game Master. On the other hand, all the character stats are created, the adventure is pre-made, and that Imperial player is a full-on rival trying to kill you rather than a friendly GM helping you have fun.
Missions can be played as standalone adventures but are meant to be part of a campaign. Over time, your character levels up, gets new abilities, and buys new gear. Whether you win or lose the story missions determines what the next mission will be, and there is a chance you will play a mission tailored to your character’s backstory in which success yields great gear (such as when the Jedi exiled character gets her lightsaber). As far as narrative goes, this game has it all, with an original Star Wars story that also provides a chance to create a personality and backstory for your specific character. Throw in some iconic Star Wars characters and beautiful miniatures, and you’ve got an unforgettable experience in a galaxy far, far away.
8. Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
Like the Elves of Middle Earth, the Lord of the Rings property has seemingly started waning over the last few years. Its popularity was ubiquitous when the original Peter Jackson films came out, and it experienced a mild surge when the inexplicable trilogy of Hobbit films came out. Now, though, there are few ways to get new adventures with your favorite Dwarves and Hobbits, but this Lord of the Rings living card game is one of them.
The game is sold as a starter pack (which includes several heroes and three different scenarios) and booster packs (which offer new heroes and player cards as well as a different scenario per pack). Each story is broken into several different scenarios, and you win by using your assembled heroes to meet the various quest objectives while also surviving just about every menace of Middle Earth. This game offers a variety of brand new adventures but also has packs and sets to let players relive the events of the original Lord of the Rings books as well as the Hobbit. For added flavor, you can assemble themed decks (like an all-Dwarf deck or a Gondor/Rohan alliance deck), or just sit back and enjoy the original artwork that’s based on the books and not the movies (welcome back, brunette Legolas).
7. Betrayal at House On the Hill
For every single person who has yelled at characters in a horror movie for their many stupid mistakes, Betrayal at House On the Hill is the game for you. As the name implies, it is a horror movie in board game form. Players play as different characters that have assorted strengths and weaknesses and they try to explore a haunted house, one whose layout is different in each game. Exploring the house is dangerous, though, as you may trigger various events that endanger your character. On the other hand, you might find helpful items or weapons.
And you’ll need weapons when the Haunt begins. Eventually, a character will trigger a Haunt based on their interaction with an Omen. The rulebook will then determine which player’s character has gotten possessed by which supernatural force. At this point, players go to different rooms to read their instructions: the possessed character will read his or her specific goals while the remaining players read their own. Once everyone is playing again, it’s simple: try to survive the scenario (which includes horror staples like vampires, cannibals, and more) and meet your goals. However, as other players’ characters start dying, you must determine if you are going to help the group or simply look out for yourself. With over fifty different Haunt scenarios and a variety of characters, you’ll get a different story each time you play.
Fittingly enough, Superfight is the entry on this list most likely to cause a fight. Compared to some of the intricate narrative-driven games on this list, Superfight has an insanely simple premise: your characters fighting someone else’s. This occurs by you placing your character card down (often silly characters like Ewoks, soccer moms, and hipsters) and then drawing their powers from a different deck of cards. Powers may be traditional powers such as super-speed or very dubious powers such as “has to pee really bad.” The other person does the same, and a third party (the Ref) must determine who wins. The winner’s character and powers stay on the board while the next player brings in a new challenger.
So, how is this “narrative-driven?” Well, the Ref doesn’t make their call in a vacuum. Each player must make a compelling argument why their particular character and these powers would beat the other character and their powers. If you’re stuck with a vegan who has to pee and is afraid of his shadow and you are fighting a thirty-foot zombie horde with super speed, then you will have to spin one hell of a narrative to the Ref to come out on top. Thus, Superfight is an endless collection of tall tales that gives you an excuse to argue all night with your friends. What’s not to love?
5. Once Upon a Time
When it comes to using a game to tell a story, it doesn’t get much more literal than the aptly-named Once Upon a Time. This game involves a group of players that are dealt cards representing the various tropes and archetypes of fairy tales, such as “stepmother” and “a death” (two of Walt Disney’s favorite cards, presumably). One player at a time is a storyteller, but the game gives an opportunity for others to take the story over.
In the course of telling their tale, the storyteller will mention specific fairy tale tropes. If you have a card matching the trope in your hand, you can play it, taking over as storyteller and shaping the overall narrative. The ultimate goal is to be the storyteller and find a way to play your “happy ending” card (each player is given their own secret ending card as gameplay starts). Ultimately, the game occupies a unique narrative space: it is partially cooperative, as no players can win if everyone is trying to take the story in completely different directions. Ultimately, though, only one player can live happily ever after.
Nanofictionary is a game that is more or less a close cousin to Once Upon a Time. It does not boast the fairy tale theme, but Nanofictionary has a similar premise of the players collectively weaving a single story. To do this, players are dealt a hand of five cards that comprises various settings, characters, problems, resolutions, and plot devices. The first part of the gameplay involves playing until every person has laid out a complete story, with some interesting variations and twists added via plot devices.
Afterward, the actual storytelling begins. Each player takes turns using the blueprint of the story in their cards to dramatically tell their tale out loud (adding extra details and flourishes as they see fit). When this is done, players vote for their two favorite stories. There is even room for non-playing “jurors” to have a single vote. Ultimately, winning the game involves having high point values for your story completion card as well as a healthy number of votes. To win those votes, though, you must be able to bring your simple narrative and characters to life more dramatically than your friends. Trust us—sound effects go a long way!
At first glance, Fiasco seems to be a bit of a paradox: it advertises itself as an RPG that can be completed in a few hours and that doesn’t require a GM. How, exactly, does that work? The game is designed to be your own personal Ocean’s Eleven. That is, you and up to four more players are put in the middle of some kind of wild caper, such as a heist. You are playing as characters with “powerful ambition and poor impulse control” who turn your dice rolls into complex stories about character relationships, including their sentimental objects and silly backstories. That’s when the fun really starts.
Compared to most of the games on this list, this is heavy on true roleplaying. On your turn, you set up a scene by describing the action. Other players, meanwhile, help determine whether the things you are trying to do are successful or not by providing either a white die or a black die. You get to choose the die, but your luck (the white dice) eventually runs out, spelling disaster. Every player plays turns out like their own custom movie, trying to navigate their characters’ needs and the random nature of the dice (not to mention other players). Those dice ultimately determine whether your caper was successful or not, but your plans have to survive “the tilt”–a mid-game calamity designed to enhance the odds that your caper goes utterly (and hilariously) off the rails. Win or lose, you’ve spent the night creating a completely unique narrative with your friends and family.
2. Above and Below
The heart of any good narrative is exploration. A solid story may involve exploring an actual physical space or perhaps just exploring the hearts and minds of its characters. The game Above and Below actually pulls off both of these by giving you control over a small group of villagers. They all have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to assign them various tasks around the village, including creating buildings, harvesting resources, and gaining reputation. Eventually, though, you must start exploring the cavern below your village.
This is where the real storytelling begins. Different players have their own villages and villagers, and when you go exploring, these other players will read what happens to the group: this is determined by the exact characters you bring and a handy book of paragraphs. After the other players tell you what is going on, you determine how you react based on a given set of options. In order to make it back to the village and hopefully win, you’ll have to make hard choices, including who lives and who dies. All in all, the game helps create satisfying narratives that are built on the characters that you just spent the game building a relationship with.
1. Tales of the Arabian Nights
You can tell that Tales of the Arabian Nights takes itself seriously as a narrative-driven game as soon as you open the box. This is because it includes a three-hundred page book inside. What’s in that book? Lots and lots of story and flavor text! The game itself involves you taking the role of a legendary figure such as Sinbad or Aladdin. Over the course of the game, you will develop your character’s individual skills, RPG-style. And speaking of RPGs, there are plenty of random encounters. When you encounter a new character or situation, you have a matrix of possible reactions to choose from.
After making your choice, you must consult that big book. The book has 2,600 different outcomes in it for the various situations in the game. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with the coveted story and destiny points that are ultimately necessary for victory. More likely, though, is that your character ends up thrown in jail, getting injured, or even going insane. Every play session is unique, and you’ll end up creating brand new legends for these characters that are sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, and usually both at the same time. If you love storytelling in games, then Tales of the Arabian Nights provides an opportunity to become the story in a way you never have before.