Campaign board games, experiences that change and evolve across multiple sessions, have gained immense popularity in recent years. The trend emerged with the release of Pandemic: Legacy, a tense, action movie of a board game that took the hobby by storm when it was released in 2015. Then came Gloomhaven, which mimicked the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons over a branching campaign with 100 bite-sized battles and an entire overworld to explore.
In the shadow of these pathfinders there is a growing genre teeming with vibrant titles and surprising variety. Here are five of the best campaign board games currently available.
Ryan Laukat’s Sleeping Gods is the crowning achievement of Red Raven Games. It’s an open world co-operative adventure best described as tabletop’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Players control a crew of sailors running a 1920s steamship that gets lost amid a cluster of unknown islands promising fortune and danger. The combination of whimsical presentation with serious mechanical underpinnings makes for a very gratifying 15-hour journey.
This design feels more free than most. The typical experience in the campaign game genre has players working their way through a prescribed narrative with a limited degree of branching pathways. Sleeping Gods is more exploratory and unrestrained, bearing only a faint meta-narrative and instead allowing players to encounter a myriad of isolated sub-plots and quests. The goal is to locate totems, which are ancient artifacts of surreal might, and ultimately secure a return trip home.
The scope of exploration is zany. It’s nearly impossible to experience more than a fourth of the total content in a single playthrough, beckoning repeat trips to the lost isles and their secrets. Additionally, there are multiple endings, each affording a glimpse of greater knowledge. Chasing a more lucid resolution to the mysteries is tempting, further spurring repeat engagement with this glorious game.
Descent: Legends of the Dark
The third iteration of Fantasy Flight Games’ Descent series, Descent: Legends of the Dark is a stylish set of dungeon crawlers in the HeroQuest tradition. Legends of the Dark was one of the best board games of 2021, providing a touch of innovation by pairing the tabletop miniatures delving with a robust app. The combination offloads some of the procedural weight of play while also instilling a distinct sense of mystery. 3D components – such as multi-level dungeons atop pillars, lavish bookcases, and large spindly trees – provide oomph to the physical aspect of the game, ensuring the app never steals focus.
Your tablet, phone, or PC runs the enemy behavior, freeing up players to cooperate against the dungeon and pursue a lengthy multi-adventure narrative. Characters acquire new gear and abilities that allow them to grow in strength over time. The integration of an electronic device allows for ease of play while retaining some sophisticated effects, such as weapons that trigger various boons on a percentage chance. This is woven into the system in a very modern, video game-like way that produces a rich sense of discovery atop a very streamlined and efficient board game.
The greatest strength of the app is the ability to unveil the dungeon slowly through exploration. There’s a sense of magic here, with the beautiful 3D environment growing in various directions unexpectedly. The scenario writing is also very strong, lending a distinct personality to the world. This propels the game to its peak state, coalescing with the other qualities to produce a cutting-edge, spectacular tabletop game.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is another standout title from publisher Fantasy Flight Games. This is a story-driven adventure game composed entirely of cards – huge piles of them. Each player controls a character with a constructed deck, with players working together as they attempt to solve a mystery. Invariably the thread leads to confrontation with various monstrosities of the Cthulhu mythos. Blood is shed, and sanity is lost.
The expansive nature of this product is compelling. There are dozens of scenarios, most structured into linked multi-session campaigns with character decks changing and evolving over the course of play. The adventures feature a surprising degree of creativity for such a limited physical format. Location cards and events spring unexpected traps, branching narrative decisions offer lasting consequences, and real tragedy is encountered at the hands of evil.
With such a large and mature card pool, Arkham Horror: The Card Game boasts tremendous legs. This is the type of game that can absorb all of your time as you spend countless hours organizing and building decks between the sojourns into madness. It’s the type of experience that begs tinkering in the vein of Magic: The Gathering, providing great reward for those who are willing to embrace the dedication.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
The biggest surprise of 2021 was Michael Menzel’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. This oddity is a family weight game where players take on the roles of classic characters such as Robin Hood, Maid Marion, or Little John. Up to four participants work together to traverse a lovingly illustrated board depicting Nottingham and the surrounding forest. The goal is to avoid the Sheriff’s guards and accomplish various story-based objectives that parallel the classic tale.
What’s so peculiar is the combination of choose-your-own-adventure with a very playful, ever-changing board. The board consists of many different points of interest such as guards, caravans, homes, and hermits. Each spot can be interacted with, referencing a page in a hardback book. You’re given various narrative options of consequence, some of which permanently affect the direction of linked scenarios.
There’s a physical whimsy to the whole thing. Those points of interest often change status, requiring players to pry a chunk off the board out and flip it over. Each of the special interactive locations are effectively a token slotted into the board itself. The flipping manifests with activity, such as the lonely witch out in the woods deciding to wander off and leave her hovel. Guards continually move about, presenting dynamic bottlenecks to navigate. Structures may burn down or disappear, forever altering the town. Younger players in particular will delight in pulling the chits out and seeing what’s on the underside. It’s an almost Advent Calendar-like wonder, perfectly delivering a well-structured classic piece of literature via interactive adventure.
The Adventures of Robin Hood has provided some of the most wholesome and memorable board gaming shared between my family members. It’s a singular type of campaign design that differentiates itself from the standard.
Legacy of Dragonholt
Arriving in 2017, Legacy of Dragonholt is the oldest title on this list – and it’s also the most unique. This is a blend of a tabletop RPG with an open world adventure game. While there are tokens, maps, and cards, the bulk of the experience is shared through a collection of booklets. The adventure occurs through paragraphs, moving between sections in a choose-your-own-adventure format.
It is entirely narrative-focused. Players create D&D-style characters that they will take upon a series of quests focused around Dragonholt village. The world changes around the group as decisions create ripples of consequence. Mechanically, it hangs together under a light skill-based system with appropriate skills opening up additional narrative options in the choose-your-own-adventure framework. The light structure is conducive to immersion and allows the focus to remain on characters and the emergent story.
Much like the classic Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Legacy of Dragonholt operates in the murky borderlands of the board game format. The physical props and prescribed branching story anchor the discussions that flow in a similar style to traditional cooperative board games. It’s an avant-garde creation with a matching socially progressive storyline that leaves quite the impression.