Adventure Board Games

In another thread people have been discussing the merits of various “adventure” style board games, like Talisman, Runebound, Warhammer Quest, Magic Realm, etc.

In that thread, the great and wise Ben Sones said:

Good fantasy adventure games have always been something of a mythological beast, unfortunately.

and I pretty much agree. I always have a sense of disappointment after playing a few turns of any of these games – a sense that the theme’s potential remains unrealized.

So, I’m wondering what a boardgame would need to capture that potential. I realize that the reason this sort of game is mythological is precisely because it’s hard to quantify, but I want to start there. In the adventure boardgames you’ve played, what mechanics work or don’t work? How is the theme captured well or poorly? Which game of this (general) type is the best, in your opinion? What have you felt is missing from these sorts of games, and how do you think that lack could be addressed?

This isn’t entirely idle musing for me. Not too long ago I put together a functional prototype of an elaborate empire-building game, which currently sits on a back burner awaiting a third rules overhaul. But one thing I learned doing it is that, with some effort, I can produce a complete boardgame, and I’d like to do more. There always seems to be a demand for this genre of game, so I’m considering a fantasy adventure game for my next effort.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Have you checked out the HeroCard games?

I know the guy who created the original design the games are based on. Besides being awesome (and also being me) he (I) was intending to create exactly the kind of game you’re talking about.

It uses cards to create your characters and play out your moves. They added a really nifty abstract movement system to the game.


although a wargame, gave a greater sense of a fantasy style adventure to me than games which were designed around a traditional adventure like plot.

The reasons were:

1.) I could follow around heroes and mentally project their adventures. Although just a counter with a name and a few abilities I could easily imagine their adventures more easily than if there were specific rules detailing them. The amount of them allowed me to pick which one to empathise with rather than have to stick with one focus.

2.) The game world actually changed in a dramatic and meaningful manner. When the gods showed up they really were GODS not regular characters with stats tweaked by one level.

The mix of multiple characters, feeling of power and a real transition within the game from beginning, middle to dramatic climax was deeply satisfying.

You might also check out Return of the Heroes which is meant to be decent.

Cool, Andrew! I’m going to have to give these a closer look. So you designed the basic system that these guys are using? In that case, you may be interested in checking out the card system used in the upcoming Marvel Heroes game, which seems somewhat similar, at least at first glance:

And I must know: is there a HeroCard version of Shocking Pink? :)

I remember Dragon Pass, and this in particular is an interesting and good point. This strikes me as similar to the way I related to the graphics in older, lo-res computer games; the less there is there, the more your imagination can do with it. I recall the little 6 pixel high units in Master of Magic having a similar effect on me.

Main problems that I’ve noticed in this genre:

  1. Not abstract enough

While this genre emphasises theme and sort of requires the game to be very non-abstract (e.g. compared to chess), I think many adventure games go overboard with fiddly rules. You don’t need a dice roll for every possible thing, that’ll just make the game drag. You can have a theme-heavy game without trying to approach simulation.

  1. Takes too long

This is often a result of (1). Some people like longer adventures, though, so preferrably there should be optional rules or expansion packs that can be used to alter the length. As a default length, though, I’d prefer adventure-type games to be around 1,5 hours.

  1. Playing against the board gets stale

Most adventure games are pure coop or have very limited PvP. While I think coop fits this genre excellently, I think it should be possible to make the mechanical enemies more interesting. The main problem is that the board is usually a very passive enemy, which (by nature) can’t really “react” to player actions that much. The “easy” fix is to have one player be “evil” and control all the monsters etc. but this doesn’t seem to be a very popular way of playing based on the conversations I’ve had with the fans of the adventure genre. Most would prefer to all play on the same side when they get to together to play an adventure game. I’m thinking that the passiveness of the board could be solved with some sort of set of rules similar to Fearsome Floors, that would make the bad guys come for the heroes instead of waiting to be slaughtered, or walking randomly with die rolls.

Also, with a passive enemy, it is very easy for the players to take things defensively and develop their characters to the point where everything is trivial for them. While some feel this is a part of what makes adventure games fun, I’d like to have a bit more challenge and tension in my games. I think adventure games need some sort of mechanic to keep the players moving and more importantly, taking risks. I think the “doom track” in Arkham works pretty well. The players must act constantly to keep the ancient one sleeping for as long as possible, so they can’t just stay in place pumping more equipment and skills to their characters.

  1. Not enough meaningful decisions

Somewhat related to (3), the course of action you should take is usually very clear. Especially after you learn the game well, you know what kind of random events to expect and everyone just follows the most optimal overal strategy very methodically. I’m not sure how to fix this one well, since interesting decisions in board games are usually related to outwitting a human opponent. One thing that I’ve been thinking is the random “event cards” that almost every adventure game has in some form. These are usually one-shot things (roll skill X and stuff happens), but maybe they could be turned into longer term effects in the game. Sort of like a very mild version of Fluxx, where the events would temporarily alter the rules of the game, forcing everyone to think their strategies a bit differently. Maybe the game mechanics could have more either-or-decisions too (e.g. instead of drawing an Item Card as a quest reward, draw two Item Cards, keep one and discard the other one from the game).

As you might have guessed, I’m thinking of doing an adventure game prototype too. :) I think the first decision should be the cooperation style of the game. My options have been:

  1. Pure coop

Everyone plays the heros and cooperate together towards a common goal. Either everyone wins the game or everyone loses. No score tracking etc.

  1. Coop Race

Everyone sort of cooperates, as in that all player fight against the board and cannot attack others, but the winner of the game is the one who first accomplishes some main goal (usually, killing the big bad). I don’t personally like this type of adventure games at all. Usually the players advance on a rather similar speed, so in the end it’s pretty much up to luck who strikes the final blow to the boss monster. A more interesting type of race might be possible with a victory point system, where the players accumulate “hero points” or somesuch from different kinds of accomplishments, but that doesn’t feel too fitting with the genre.

  1. Limited PvP

Sub-genre of Coop Race, where heroes don’t directly attack other heroes, but players can affect other players’ heroes with event cards or some other indirect mechanism.

  1. Direct PvP

Everyone for themselves, and heroes can directly attack and affect other heroes. This type of competition would probably make the most interesting “game”, but doesn’t really fit the adventure genre.

  1. Asymmetric PvP

Evil team vs the good team, or a single evil overlord vs a team of heroes. I personally think that this style has the most potential while still being perfectly fitting with the spirit of adventure games. The single player vs. the rest is tricky to balance to a wide number of players, though, and the gamers I know haven’t warmed up much to this kind of set up in adventure gaming.

Currently, I’m personally pretty much pursuing the “Pure coop” goal, while taking extra care to design the board mechanics to seem more like a real, active opponent.

Just wanted to say that I always loved Warhammer Quest. Games without a DM hold a strong appeal, as it gets that party feel of you against the world. And of course, being a Games Workshop product it had an absolutely enormous number of creatures to draw on, and the spawn tables make full use of them.

Many a happy afternoon was spent venturing into dungeons with my buddies for yet another massacre of us at level one. Happy times :)

Great thoughts, shang – clearly you have been thinking about this stuff. I agree with you on the issue of abstraction and the danger of getting too fiddly. I’m also interested in abstraction as a means to approach a more fleshed-out narrative (that evolves through gameplay) than is usually found in these sorts of games.

As far as PvP goes, right now I’m looking at the players having primary control over their personal characters, while manipulating non-player forces to thwart one another. Which I guess falls into your “Limited PvP” category. That’s part of the reason I’ve been looking at Marvel Heroes lately – the hero/villain mechanic there could be an interesting solution to the classic PvP/Co-op dilemma you’ve outlined.

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this game (system)? And it says you’ll be at GenCon. Wow. I need to give this a serious looksee.

I’m in the process of completing our computer version of a good adventure/RPG boardgame: Dungeon Delvers. So this topic of what makes a good adventure board game design has been plaguing my thoughts for the better part of two years and I have tons of notes of the topic. Tons. But to focus on your questions in particular….

What mechanics work or don’t work? That’s a really hard question. I’ll take a shot at a few aspects that come to mind. First, individual characters are important and they need to be distinct. One of the great aspects of Talisman is the number of characters, but also their special traits: what sets each one apart. The same is true for Runebound and many other games, but not to the same degree. I think one of the great successes of Talisman was how well the distinguished the characters from each other, how they had a single theme to them and the little traits that separated them. This also unbalanced the game a time or two (e.g. one character could break the spell rules too much), but when playing, it made for delicious decisions when picking characters. Of course after awhile, the character balanced out – you know, toward the end game, the starting character traits hardly mattered. This is all coupled with character progression too – which is another important mechanic. More on that maybe another time.

Second, combat is incredibly important. I think Descent does this fairly well – but maybe is too tricky, too heavy with rules. It has taken the dice mechanic in a nice direction – the combat feels different depending on which dice you roll. Lots of moving about to position, line of site plays in – all great stuff for me. The cost is slowing down the game of course. But the other extreme of Talisman is too simplistic and unsatisfying at times. These are all trade offs. Runebound’s combat is somewhere in between, but is really unsatisfying. You do make decisions each round of combat, but it feels like an optimization problem, not adventure. Usually, the saddle point is clear – the only adjustments made are on which dispensable items to use up. But in any event, the combat mechanic is critical. Of course, a magic system is important – but dang, I’m already typing too much here.

Third, movement has to do with game scale. The ‘birds eye’ games like Runebound – well, the dice mechanic is too fiddly to be sure. It’s just flatly obtuse. It really adds precious little to the game flow. Movement should be quick. Talisman is obviously too fast and simple. No real meaningful decisions there. I haven’t given this area a lot of thought, but no game comes to mind that does it well. Really, a flat movement point system would probably work best – and again, use that to distinguish characters from each other.

Fourth, adventure feel. It’s all about adventure and discovery for me. Which mechanic gives you that feeling? Depending on the scale of your game, the answer varies. I think one of the best feeling games for a dungeon crawl is Dungeon Quest. That game has a number of serious flaws, but the reveal step by step coupled with that Games Workshop artwork is really great. I really like the feel of Descent here too. The game bits are beautiful. Knowing each revealed room has been thought out gives one confidence it’s balanced – although that doesn’t always bare out. Coupled with the combat system, Descent has a great adventure feeling. Runebound has a pretty good theme, but too high level, too disjointed, no flow through the game beyond the progression through event colors.

I’ve hardly started. I could go on about so many aspects - quests, encounters, monsters, reward systems (very important topic), items and on and on. If you happen to be at GenCon, we should sit down and chat over a beer.

Rather than specific mechanics, here’s my take on some high-level design flaws (note: I also agree with pretty much everything that shang said):

Randomness: a fantasy adventure game needs some, because it plays to the theme (exploration and discovery), and the threat of lurking, unseen obstacles can add tension to the game. But most games of this type take it too far, and the outcome of the game is essentially decided by fiat. There needs to be an element of predictability in random events, or a way to mitigate random threats (or both). Of all the games I’ve played, Magic Realm fares best in this regard.

Lack of meaningful decisions: Related to “randomness,” above, a major flaw in this type of game is that player choices have little (or in some cases, no) bearing on success in the game, because they are tangential to the mechanics that determine success or failure (which are often random). I’ve said in the past that the only meaningful decision that you make in Talisman is “right or left.” It’s not entirely true, but close enough, because it’s the only decision that you make that has even a trivial (and it is trivial) impact on the mechanic that determines success or failure in the game: drawing cards. And even then, choosing a move direction is usually not an interesting decision because one choice is almost always clearly better than the other. That’s a common theme in this type of game.

Player interaction: In most games of this type, there is either no player interaction, or player interaction is trivial. This is somewhat endemic to the theme, but I don’t think it has to be that way.

Play time: Most games of this type take far too much time to play. (Especially considering that, in so many of them, the ultimate outcome is largely random).

How is the theme captured well or poorly? Which game of this (general) type is the best, in your opinion? What have you felt is missing from these sorts of games, and how do you think that lack could be addressed?

Talisman, for all its other flaws, is one of the most thematically rich board games that I have ever played. Magic Realm is up there. I think a lot of the theme in this sort of game has to be portrayed visually, because Runebound seems utterly generic to me, despite having more of a backstory than either MR or Talisman. I’m pretty sure it’s because the game board looks, well, utterly generic. Talisman and Magic Realm both have beautiful (and original), detailed game boards that really give you a feel for the setting. Talisman also has all that great card art (and I even rather like the black and white chit art in MR).

This isn’t entirely idle musing for me. Not too long ago I put together a functional prototype of an elaborate empire-building game, which currently sits on a back burner awaiting a third rules overhaul. But one thing I learned doing it is that, with some effort, I can produce a complete boardgame, and I’d like to do more. There always seems to be a demand for this genre of game, so I’m considering a fantasy adventure game for my next effort.

Want to help playtest mine? I feel obligated to offer, since I used some of your mountain icons as placeholder art in my prototype game board (warning: very prototypey, and all art is placeholder; the final board will have a totally different look and feel). Rywill and I have been working on this very project, on and off in our spare time, for about six years now. We’ve gone back to the drawing board a number of times, and finally have something that we think will work well, and it’s not too far from “playable prototype” stage. Email me if you’re interested, and I can send you a copy of the current version of the rules (we’re still working on components, but we’re not too far from having a complete game specification at this point).

Hey, it kind of does! The system I put together was an attempt to bring some of the computer game

And I must know: is there a HeroCard version of Shocking Pink? :)

A guy take one step into cross-gender MMO play and the world won’t ever let him forget it… Although maybe I should have suggested it!

Just to be clear I actually sold the concept lock, stock, and barrel over to TableStar, and they’ve been working on it for over a year. It’s cool to see what I created being built on and expanded though. They’ve really given it a lot of love, and they have some really talented guys working over there.

The whole side trip into making card games was an interesting part of my life, although not the most profitable part.

The main problems I’ve seen with existing games are:

  • Concurrency: someone always ends up waiting while the others are taking turns.
  • Randomness: players invariably either prosper or get screwed due to randomness of encounters making choices seem meaningless.
  • PvP Interaction: players end up just playing their own separate “race to the finish” games, so you might as well be playing solitaire. Players don’t have to fight each other per se, but they should affect each other in a meaningful fashion.
  • Complexity: too many rules and too many exceptions equates with long turns and poor immersion.
  • Slippery slope: when one player starts to pull ahead and nobody else has a chance of catching up. At that point, the game needs to just end so you can play again.
  • Alan

I’ve become convinced that if a game doesn’t end with at least one person groaning that he needed just one more turn, it was too long.

Puerto Rico is great for this.

Hey Ben, I don’t appear to have your email address and it’s not tied to your profile, so I sent you a PM. I’d love to help playtest your game when the time comes, and I’m guessing the rest of Seattle’s tabletop Qt3 contingent would be willing to give it a whirl and provide lots of feedback.

Slippery slope can be avoided if turn order is related to position on the board, and turn order matters. Powergrid, Caylus, Puerto Rico, Evo and many other Euro games include some sort of turn-order balancing that means it’s hard for a leader to really pull ahead easily. A lot can be learned from the clever mechanisms coming out of Germany!

There are definitely a lot of good design lessons to be found in Euro games, but they make design blunders, too. In particular, I’ve seen some games that are too aggressive in stopping players from pulling away from the pack; sometimes to the point where your performance throughout much of the game is largely irrelevant because the game works too hard to maintain a close race and the only part that really matters is the endgame (I’m looking at you, Krieg und Frieden!). I don’t think runaway leaders are necessarily a design flaw (unless it happens all the time, or for no good reason), but how the game handles a runaway leader can be. If someone is clearly going to win the game, then they should be able to accelerate the pace of the game and, you know, win. Nobody wants to spend too much more time playing if they know that the game is already all but decided. On the other hand, I also like it when games offer potential methods to flout a runaway leader, even if the methods have only a small chance of success. Because then you can at least try to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, without trivializing the runaway leader’s efforts to snatch the lead. Games that make it too easy to catch up to a strong leader are sometimes guilty of doing that, and it always feels cheap to me, like rubberbanding AI opponents in racing games.

That said, I don’t have a problem withg games making it difficult (but still possible) to grab a decisive lead. He lists some good examples (though I’ve not played Powergrid).

One trick that most Eurogames use is that no one can attack your stuff once it’s yours. Plenty of fighting over resources on the table, but not so much in your hand.

Colovini (Clans, Citadels, etc.) manages to make his games pretty vicious in spite of this limitation. But occasionally it’s nice to be able to mess with the other guy’s stuff, even if it can turn a nice boardgame into a firefight.

On a more general note, some of the indie RPGs are a nice hybrid between board games and traditional RPG’s. I’m guessing we’ll see some clean hybrids coming in the next few years, but for now I’d recommend Shab-al-hiri Roach and My Life with Master as some examples of single shot RPGs with a heavy dose of board game style play.

I thought that was you! I’ve been curious about Dungeon Delvers since you announced it a while back, and given the thoughts you’ve articulated here, I’ll be very interested in checking it out once it’s done.

I agree with the differentiation aspect. And as far as endgame character balancing goes, I’d actually go so far as to say that an ideal character differentiation model for me would be to have the game feel like a completely different game from character to character. One of the goals with my empire builder prototype is to have each of the six sides break the basic rules in very substantial and different ways, with side-specific victory conditions that conflict with one another. It’s an approach I’d like to carry over into this adventure game idea, if possible.

That’s a great summary of the problem with the spirit of Runebound’s combat system. I’d like to minimize die rolling and get more towards the sorts of conflict resolution you can find in games like The Confrontation or Duell, both of which strike a balance between analysis and psyche-out tension that I like, with limited-use, numbered cards and player choice standing in for dice. In the end I may have to fall back on some die rolling. I want the interaction of player choices to drive the conflict resolution as much as possible. Thematically this will encompass more than traditional combat, so I’m looking for a system that’s relatively abstract but still has a sense of tactical maneuvering.

Right now I’m considering giving each player a limited number of actions they can take per turn, with actions encompassing pretty much everything you can do in the game, from drawing a new card to equipping an item to moving one space on the board. So your main decision from turn to turn is how to spend those actions. Maybe even starting players at 1 or 2 actions per turn in order to keep things moving around the table.

This is the top priority for me, and I see it as much more than an aesthetic issue (althought that’s obviously huge). I’m really interested in developing game mechanics that integrate narrative elements directly, which is one thing I think Runebound does relatively well. Most adventure games have three primary areas of focus: character progression, movement, and combat. I want to find a way to put narrative on the same footing. Things like “quest cards” that assign players unique goals start to get at what I’m thinking, but I’d like to take the idea much further. With its use of rules-changing event cards, Runebound starts to toy with integrated narrative in an interesting way. Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill are also noteworthy for their attempts to do so.

I really love action point systems for this kind of thing. The way I tackled it was that there were three classes of actions, and the player had different attributes in each. Every actions had a different cost (and type) and is counted against your attribute score when played. You need to hold onto points becuase you have to have enough points left over to defend. Sounds complicated, but it’s pretty elegant in action.

I wonder if a game like this could have something like the action mechanic from Puerto Rico. You have several action cards laid out each turn, and each player chooses one of them, in order. Just using Runebound as an example because I’ve played it recently:

Travel: Each player may move as normal. The player who chose this action may reroll two terrain dice.

Quest: Each player must draw an encounter card a difficulty based on their level [Insert table here]. The player who chose this action may draw two cards and choose one.

Challenge: Each player with a challenge card resolves that challenge. If a player is not on a space with an adventure counter, resolve the fight as a travel hazard in the Runebound rulebook. The player who chose this action gets a free ‘before combat’ attack of their choosing.

With further actions cards for the merchant phase, experience phase, and so on. Not that these would work as written, I’m just trying to express a concept.

That’s a cool idea, Nathan, and I imagine it could work if implemented properly. Twilight Imperium III does something similar with its Strategy Cards, but for me the mechanic appears folded in because the designer thought it was cool in Citadels; imo, it kills TI3’s game-shui.

I think the role-choosing mechanic works best when it streamlines gameplay, instead of adding extra stuff for you to do. Puerto Rico and Citadels have good game-shui because the role cards limit your actions instead of broadening them.

The other issue I see is that of theme. Is there a strong thematic rationale for having each character choose exclusive abilities from turn to turn? In a more abstract game like Citadels, it works because the mechanic is the heart of the design, but I think it needs to be carefully considered before being incoporated into a theme-rich game.