Why Narrative Board Games?
Stories are human things. We live them, learn from them, communicate with them, and experience the world through the lens of stories. It’s part of our intrinsic human nature to tell stories and involve ourselves in them. It’s no wonder, then, that RPGs and narrative board games are so popular. (Watch Your Brain on Story from Standford University for more of the science behind this.)
I grew up with the Choose Your Own Adventure books. As an avid reader, I relished the opportunity to influence the outcome of the book I was reading. They were more than stories. They became a game of sorts as I tried to discover the path leading to the most favorable conclusion.
But they were a solo experience. What if you could experience that adventure with your friends? And could we please roll some dice?
If you and your friends (or just you!) want to become the heroes of an epic story spread over weeks of campaigning, and no one wants to be the gamemaster of a tabletop role playing game, then you need a narrative board game in your life.
So where to start? We’re going to help you pick the right one from this fantastic cast of characters!
What is a Narrative Board Game?
A narrative board game is a tabletop game that tells a story over more than one play session. Usually these games are organized by discreet chapters or scenarios making up a longer campaign.
Some games may tell a story that is linear. In other words, it has only one outcome and that ending is not chosen by the players, although the players reveal the story as they interact with the game. Dungeon crawlers like Gloomhaven (and its little brother, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion) have a story and a campaign, but the focus of the game is on the tactical combat and hand management, not the story.
Other games have many possible endings—some good and some bad—that will be determined by the choices the players make in the game. And many other games will fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
In this article, we will focus mainly on the best narrative board games that offer many narrative options and possible endings. This gives you the most flexible story experience, in which you are part of the adventure! Uncertainty of what will happen next is the core foundation of these games.
Anatomy of a Narrative Board Game
Before we get to the list of our favorites, it helps to know what you might expect to see. Narrative board games are usually (but not always, as you will see) cooperative games. Some of them will use a storybook with numbered paragraphs that the players read when prompted. These story nuggets often present the player with a choice to make or a challenge to overcome. The result of that choice can change the outcome of the story.
Many newer narrative games ditch the storybook in favor of a digital app that must be downloaded to a player’s smartphone or tablet. This can make gameplay faster since less time is spent flipping through a book, but it does require that players have a compatible device. Read more about games with Apps >
Narrative games almost always have miniatures or standees to represent characters who move across a map. Some games use large game boards, while others use the pages of a book or smaller tiles that can be flipped over or added to the map as players explore. They’ll traverse difficult terrain, discovering loot, solving puzzles, and battling enemies along the way. Items, spells, and skills acquired during the game will help the players overcome these challenges.
Are you ready for adventure? Gather your party, clear the table, and claim your favorite mini as we delve into some of the best narrative board games available today.
Mice and Mystics
Mice and Mystics, from Plaid Hat Games, is one of the most linear narrative board games on this list. It is one of several story-driven games from Plaid Hat that use miniatures to explore tiles or a storybook. (And they are great miniatures!)
In Mice and Mystics, players taken on the roles of a prince and his friends, who have been transformed into mice! As mice, you must adventure through a castle, battling spiders, rats, and the castle’s vicious cat. Gather weapons, equipment, and magic items… and keep stocked with precious cheese!
Will you and your companions save the kingdom from the evil sorceress, or fall prey to the tiny terrors of rodent life? The scenario book tells a story for each chapter and gives instructions for setting up the terrain tiles and enemies.
The game mechanics are much simpler than dungeon crawlers like Gloomhaven. Mice and Mystics is easier to teach and can be picked up by younger players. Its talking-animal theme makes it a good potential choice for a family game. I have enjoyed playing this with both children and adults, though it does include some scenes of violence or scary themes.
Mice and Mystics has two expansions: Mice and Mystics: Heart of Glorm and Mice and Mystics: Downwood Tales. In the same family of games, Tail Feathers is a skirmish game in the Mice and Mystics universe—think Star Wars: X-Wing with birds instead of starfighters. It may be related to the narrative board game, but it’s a decidedly different animal, if you’ll pardon our pun.
This is a consistently well loved game by those who enjoy sword-swinging, gear-gathering, tactical movement and teamwork strategy. Classic fantasy setting with an engaging story and plenty of challenge!
Plaid Hat Games introduced their Crossroads system in 2014 with Dead of Winter. In a Crossroads game, players are working together to complete a group objective, but each player has his or her own story and a private goal they must also complete to win the game.
There is a narrative element in all the games. If a Crossroads card is triggered, a player will be read a short story prompt and must make a decision that will alter the game—for better or for worse.
Dead of Winter has become a popular narrative board game, but in 2020, Plaid Hat published a Crossroads game that is even more story-centered. Forgotten Waters is a cooperative pirate-themed adventure game with a strong narrative element. Players work together as a pirate crew sailing the seas in search of treasure and adventure.
Instead of the Crossroads cards used in earlier games, Forgotten Waters requires an app to play. This app is browser-based and internet access will be required. It shows players how to set up the board and their ship for each scenario. The app then walks players through the story. Players can choose to read the story for themselves or to listen to the story narrated. (The voice acting is excellent.)
Once the scenario begins, the app starts a countdown and players must quickly assign their characters to a role on the ship, such as loading the cannons or navigating. Then players will have to complete that role by rolling dice against their stats and by making some difficult decisions: Do I let the crew go hungry and increase crew discontent or do I let them raid our dwindling supplies?
When a player takes the Explore action, they can move the ship across the map, encountering numbered tokens which trigger a Crossroads Event. Type that number into the app and it will read a short story element presenting the player with a decision to make. Those decisions will have consequences that shape how the game, and the story, progress.
There are so many narrative branches within each scenario that you could play the scenarios multiple times and they would still be fresh and surprising.
Although Forgotten Waters is about pirates, it is a lighter game with a lot of humor and silliness. As such, it is appropriate for younger players (although there is some language that some parents may want to censor.)
More Crossroads Games
Dead of Winter (and its standalone expansion, Dead of Winter: The Long Night) has a far darker theme. You will play as survivors in a wasteland overrun by zombies. There’s no silliness here. You may be forced to decide which of your fellow survivors lives and who dies. There is also a betrayal mechanic which may force a player to sabotage the rest of the group.
If you like zombies, Dead of Winter is a great narrative board game. But if you are looking for a lighter theme with a more developed story, Forgotten Waters is our recommendation for your first Crossroads game.
Plaid Hat also publishes three narrative board games in its AdventureBook series, beginning with Stuffed Fables. All the action in these games takes place on the pages of a spiral-bound adventure book. Each page tells a story, gives scenario-specific rules, or portrays the setting map.
In Stuffed Fables, you play as stuffed animals protecting their little girl while she sleeps. Draw and roll dice on each turn; different colored dice will accomplish different things, so spend them wisely! Move your miniature across the map, battle enemies, and complete the scenario’s objectives. If you love to roll dice, this is the one for you. So many d6s to roll!
The gameplay and theme are designed for young players. The system is even simpler than in Mice and Mystics. If you are looking to introduce younger children to story-driven board games, or tactical miniature combat games, or RPGs, Stuffed Fables is an excellent choice. It’s that versatile.
That said, many a game of Stuffed Fables has been played and enjoyed by entirely adult groups. The story line may be nearing saccharine levels of cuteness, substituting “fluff loss” in lieu of more scary physical damage or graphic violence. Lose all your stuffing? You fall over, limp. Someone can always shove your stuffing back in if their character is still capable of doing so. So there is no true character death, but there still exists the very real possibility of failure, and consequences. But the action and strategy of the game remain solid, and we love the miniatures!
More Adventure Book Games
Other games in the Adventure Book series include Aftermath and Comanauts.
Aftermath casts players as adventuring critters, and is very much like a more modern day version of Mice & Mystics. These animal heroes explore a world mysteriously bereft of human beings in an attempt to gather resources and ensure the survival of their colony.
Comanauts has a more mature theme. A tiny black hole is threatening the Earth, and Dr. Strobal was about to save the world with his Mobius Ring device. But there’s just one problem… Dr. Strobal now lies in a coma! Players must explore his tormented and sometimes twisted subconscious, seeking to revive him by vanquishing his inner demons. Sound a little dark? Yeah, it kind of is.
Of these Adventure Book games, Stuffed Fables is our top pick for its versatility, accessibility, and age flexibility.
We’ve talked a lot about Plaid Hat‘s games, but we want to give an honorable mention to just one more before moving on.
Their newest narrative board game is Familiar Tales. If you’ve enjoyed any of Plaid Hat’s other games, this is one you should take a look at. It incorporates many elements of Plaid Hat’s earlier story games. It retains the storybook mechanic of Stuffed Fables but adds a required app, which provides the storyline and game guidance.
But what’s different about this game?
Familiar Tales is a cooperative deck-building adventure. You’ll play as a group of wizard’s familiars charged with protecting a young princess. Each character has a deck of cards to draw from, which becomes more powerful as the game progresses. Draft new cards and get rid of the less helpful ones to make each hand you draw more useful in your quest than the last. This also ads an element of luck, provided by cards rather than dice.
Unlike most of the games in this article, Destinies is a competitive game for 1-3 players, not a co-op! Players take on the role of heroes seeking to fulfill their unique destinies in a dark fantasy world. As they explore, they flip new location tiles and encounter enemies, potential allies, and puzzles to solve.
Item cards have QR codes that players will scan with the camera on their device when they want to use it. You found a locked chest? Scan a key card to open it. Scanning a sword card instead may just leave you with a broken sword. If you have played Lucky Duck’s Chronicles of Crime series, you will be familiar with how the system works.
Near and Far
Ryan Laukat designed a beloved series of competitive storybook games set in the world of Arzium. Above and Below, Near and Far, and the recently released Now or Never, all published by Red Raven Games, all offer the option to play as narrative campaign games.
Near and Far is a competitive board game that can be played as a 10-game campaign. It’s a worker placement game while characters are in town. But when they leave to go exploring, the real adventure begins.
When players enter a numbered location, another player reads a paragraph from the storybook and gives the active player a choice of actions to attempt. Success or failure provides boons and penalties. The game story is revealed by visiting these locations and making choices that could have consequences for your character in the future.
The maps for each game in the campaign are bound together in a spiral-bound book, making them easy to manage and providing a different setting for every game.
Unlike some other games on this list, the Red Raven’s narrative board games also include traditional board game mechanics like worker placement, city building, and resource management. So if you want both storytelling and Euro gaming, we recommend any of these titles.
Sleeping Gods, also from Red Raven Games, is a cooperative campaign game. You and your friends form the crew of the steamship Manticore. This is an open sandbox game; you are free to sail across the pages of a spiral-bound atlas as you choose, discovering new locations, encountering friends and foes, going on quests, and collecting mysterious totems. You must use these totems to wake the slumbering deities and return to your home waters.
As in Near and Far, visiting a numbered location will prompt you to read the corresponding paragraph in the storybook. This paragraph will tell a bit more of the story and present choose-your-own-adventure-type options that will cause the story to branch.
With this narrative board game, there are no scenarios to complete. Players play for as long as they want. When they want to stop, they can “pause” the game and pick up where they left off at their next game session.
A campaign could take up to 10 hours to complete. But there are so many options and choices and places to explore that the same players could replay the same campaign and have a very different experience. In fact, you will probably want to replay the game just to find out what you missed the first time through.
Sleeping Gods is one of the most open-ended narrative games you can play. If you want maximum control over the story you and your friends are living, then Sleeping Gods is it.
The 7th Continent
As you move your character across the continent, you flip new tiles to explore. Those tiles may give you the option to attempt an action, such as swimming across a river or climbing a peak. To attempt these actions, you must draw cards from the action deck. Drawing more cards will increase your chances of success, but if that deck runs out before the end of the game, the players lose. Manage your risk well, or be cursed forever!
There is no storybook in The 7th Continent. Like locations and items, events are found on the hundreds of numbered cards in the game. There are three curses, or scenarios, included in the game, and more are available as expansions.
The 7th Continent offers many, many hours of story-building and discovery. It is one of our top picks for a narrative board game, but also one of our highest recommendations for solo games! If you enjoy the journey as much as the destination, or you seek a solitaire adventure, you can’t go wrong with The 7th Continent.
Best Narrative Board Game For You
Which game should you try first? These narrative board games offer something to please any gamer in search of an immersive, story-driven experience. But which is right for you to delve into?
- For a dungeon crawler with fewer narrative choices and simpler mechanics, try Mice and Mystics.
- To those who seek some crunchier Euro game mechanics, we recommend Near and Far.
- If you want an evening of silliness and laughter and don’t mind using an app, set sail with Forgotten Waters.
- For the most open-ended worlds to explore and maximum control of your own destiny, look for Sleeping Gods.
- Got a case of wanderlust or wish to experience adventures on your own? Then The 7th Continent might be calling your name.
But whatever you choose, we know you’ll make it a memorable story!
Written by John David Thacker
John David is a freelance writer specializing in board games and the board game industry.