Posted on March 22, 2019
Amazing Campaign Board Games
For many gamers, the allure of an ongoing story and setting is hard to overstate. By returning to a game again and again, with new elements of both story and gameplay introduced over time, we become invested in the world, enmeshed with its characters and events, and intrigued by the ways things are changing over time. This week, we’re looking at some of the excellent projects of recent years which offer deep campaigns that are best experienced when played from beginning to end, with each session offering new twists.
Unlike a traditional role-playing game, these are tabletop releases that are complete and functional in their own right, without the need for a game master or other guiding hand. Several of these offer cooperative experiences, even as others present a competitive affair with your ongoing story. Regardless, these games are all best experienced by the same group of players returning to the table for one session after the next, building on what they know. If you’ve got a consistent squad of players that meet up on a regular basis, you owe it to the group to try one of these ongoing campaign games at some point, as the sense of deepening investment is especially exciting.
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
You and your friends love Dungeons & Dragons, but no one wants to step up and be a DM? It’s a common refrain among tabletop enthusiasts. If that’s a familiar problem for your gaming group, the officially licensed Dragonfire offers a deep gameplay system and long-term campaign that might be the right fit.
The artwork, creatures, and overall setting vibe of Dragonfire do a remarkable job of emulating the D&D aesthetic, even if this is decidedly a deckbuilding game rather than an RPG. Nonetheless, like in a game of D&D, you’ll be selecting a character, venturing out on quests, leveling up with new abilities, acquiring magic items, and other trappings of the genre.
Dragonfire’s core game offers several fun adventures to get your party into the action, but it’s the game’s expansions that have the potential to keep you returning for dozens of game nights. From Dragonspear Castle to the Moonshae Isles, the different additional boxed sets take you across iconic locations in the Forgotten Realms, which should satisfy an itch for longtime fans of the property.
In terms of gameplay, Dragonfire is a challenging cooperative puzzle of a game. Its detailed rule system provides a lot of depth, but it’s unlikely to be a good fit for a casual night of gaming. Instead, look to Dragonfire when you want a strategic challenge to solve, and because you enjoy the way a gradual deckbuilding process helps you feel stronger with passing turns, and even over passing game sessions. The game offers a clever approach to assisting other players at the table, and over time, players will become attached to their uniquely customized hero – just like in a true game of D&D.
Scythe: The Rise of Fenris
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Scythe deserves the many accolades that have come its way since its original release in 2016. This nuanced strategy game launches players into an alternate history of the early 20th century, where giant mechs helped to define a war across the scope of the continent of Europa. In the core game, players slowly build an engine of production and military might in order to control the board and win the day. The project has been repeatedly praised for its strategic flexibility and depth, including in my earlier review.
The Rise of Fenris expansion takes the challenging competitive spirit of Scythe and layers in a new campaign element that is rewarding, surprising, and great fun. While the individual included modules can be played as standalone additions to the game, the best way to experience them is part of an eight game story and interconnected adventure. New elements are hidden away inside tuckboxes within the Rise of Fenris package, so you never know what new elements are coming as the narrative (and new gameplay) rolls out. While I’m hesitant to spoil many particulars of those new elements, it’s enough to know that new minis are inside, paths to victory, and even ways to work together (selectively) with other factions. The included storytelling also dramatically deepens an understanding of the world of Scythe, a marvelous fictional setting that was due for increased fleshing out.
The other games on this list are core games that can be enjoyed as a campaign without additional purchases. The Rise of Fenris first requires that you own the base Scythe game. But that’s no sacrifice! Scythe is one of the most innovative board games of the last several years, and you won’t be disappointed to own a copy, particularly if you have a group of dedicated players eager to stretch their strategic muscles. The Fenris release dramatically expands the fun of the experience, offering a deeper insight into the setting, and a wealth of new twists that lend replayability and depth, but without actually making the game incredibly more complicated. My only caution? The Rise of Fenris is best enjoyed after you’ve already thoroughly wrapped your head around the ins and outs of the base game. With that said, if you already have an ongoing romance with Scythe, this expansion will only help you fall deeper in love.
Near and Far
Publisher: Red Raven Games
This charming and colorful game of competitive exploration and questing gets lots of points for originality and narrative engagement. Players take on the role of explorers ranging out across a map filled with secrets, opportunities for encounters, and fiction-rich quests. Moving back and forth between a town location and a large wilderness map, you gather points as you set up camps, explore new trade routes, investigate lost ruins, and fight dangerous creatures.
Near and Far’s campaign is especially engaging because of its approach to individual session locations. The game includes an atlas of maps that your characters range across, and each map and its secrets is unique from the last, so every session feels like you’re expanding your knowledge of this fantasy world’s geography. Each of the boards has read-out-loud story snippets to enjoy, even as you’re simultaneously building up a party of allies, trading in town, and even dueling other players. And even with the varied choices through which you direct the story, turns still move quickly and keep the pace of play brisk.
As the stories unfold, I think you’ll be surprised at the well-written and thoughtfully crafted narrative writing. The fun competitive mechanics are engaging in their own right, and the addition of the deep narrative elements should attract those who love a deep injection of storytelling in their board game nights.
Publisher: Avalon Hill
Looking for a little horror mixed in with your ongoing campaign adventures? Check out Betrayal Legacy. The original Betrayal at House on the Hill features a group of characters exploring a dilapidated mansion in one of a number of different unique “haunts,” in which one of the characters inevitably betrays the other, leading to a desperate struggle for victory.
The legacy version maintains the fun premise, but sees players return to the same haunted house over multiple generations of the same families. As more people die in its bloody halls, the mansion grows ever more dangerous, even as a broader narrative continues its slow-drip toward climax.
One of the best things about Betrayal Legacy is the how easy it is to sit down and play for the first time; the rules are quite simple as the game begins, and you don’t even know how to win that first session. Almost everything you need to know unfolds through the course of gameplay, and the designers do an amazing job of crafting some awesome surprises over the course of the campaign, even down to secrets hidden away within the physical box of the game.
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
Surreal imagery and interpretive psychology take center stage in this clever campaign narrative game. Players take on the role of the titular comanauts, as they dive into the subconscious mind of a scientist who has the key to saving the world.
Like the kid-targeted game that is its predecessor, Stuffed Fables, Comanauts is a game played through an adventure book. Each page-spread of the book offers new art, spaces to explore, and ideas to uncover, even as the campaign’s story slowly reveals itself. You chase clues and hunt down malevolent idea entities that represent the traumas of the coma victim’s previous life and history.
The biggest draw here is the innovative and creative storytelling, which has a Christopher Nolan-esque quality likely to remind many players of Inception. It’s exciting to see how an individual’s history might shape their life and personality. Great art and unusual characters to control help Comanauts feel refreshingly different from other games on the market, and it’s a stellar choice for players looking for something off the beaten path from more familiar fantasy and sci/fi themes.
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Shortly before finalizing the selections for this list, I had the opportunity to check out a near-final version of this latest Lord of the Rings release from Fantasy Flight. While I’ve yet to fully explore the reach of its campaign, I played enough to be confident in a recommendation, even ahead of its full release in the coming weeks.
Fantasy Flight Games has a strong track record with these sort of miniature-based cooperative campaign adventures. If they are a better fit for your tastes, I wholeheartedly recommend both Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd edition) and Star Wars: Imperial Assault; both are great, and each have a wealth of expansions already available.
The latest in this line of similar products is Journeys In Middle-earth, which sees players adopt the personas of heroes in Tolkien’s world, including recognizable faces like Legolas and FFG-created individuals like Beravor, and head out into adventure. A free digital app can be downloaded onto the device of your choosing, which runs individual scenarios, dramatically reducing the need for additional fiddly components, and instead shining a spotlight on great minis, gradually revealed modular maps, and cool bespoke encounters.
Journeys in Middle-earth uses a neat action mechanic, where you reveal cards from an existing hand that allow you to complete various skill tests, but those same cards can alternately be played onto the table ahead of time, letting you employ interesting abilities at the cost of having those options available for tests.
Action flips back and forth between a larger journey map depicting your trek across Middle-earth, and more micro-view battle tiles for strategic encounters. It’s a smart system that relays a genuine sense of epic adventure, and with a lot of potential for the campaign to continue its expansions over subsequent releases.
More Awesome Choices
In the interest of providing the most comprehensive recommendations, there are several other top-notch campaign games I want to point you toward. But in several cases, I already have completed extensive write-ups that describe them in detail. With that in mind, here are three other top recommendations, very brief descriptions, and links to more robust explanations.
Gloomhaven is one of the phenomenon releases of the last several years in the board gaming world. A physically massive (and expensive) box offers literally hundreds of hours of exploration, character progression, and battles across a vast dark fantasy land. Highly recommended, but only if you’re ready to really, really dive deep. Learn more here.
Pandemic Legacy encompasses two complete games, each a campaign in their own right, but it’s best experienced by playing through Season One, and following up with Season Two. In this thrilling legacy adaptation of the popular board game, players work together as researchers, doctors, and other health professionals to hold back the tide of a worldwide civilization-ending series of diseases. By the second season, the world has completely changed, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Easy to learn, and incredibly rewarding, both of these cooperative adventures rank among my favorite board games. Here’s more detail.
The 7th Continent draws inspiration from Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, pulp fiction of the early 20th century, and even video games, through its extremely clever “save game” system to hold your place in between sessions. Players cross the ocean to explore a mysterious new 7th continent in order to conquer a curse that threatens their characters’ very existence. If weird and secretive tales are your thing, this one is a winner. I don’t spoil anything important in my more detailed write-up.
Role-playing gamers know the joy of seeing an ongoing campaign slowly unfold the story of a group of player-controlled characters. But recent years have opened up that experience in the tabletop world beyond traditional role-playing releases. If you’ve always wanted to give that kind of thing a shot, any of the above will offer an engrossing series of game nights.
If you’re looking for something decidedly more contained for a single evening of entertainment, our Top of the Table hub has no shortage of great options, which you can explore by clicking on the banner below. If you need more personalized guidance to find the right game, feel free to drop me an email, and I’ll help you find what you’re looking for!