Role-playing is at the heart of board games. Most people would point to Dungeons and Dragons for the huge success of RPG tabletop games. Since D&D’s release in 1974, tabletop roleplaying games have changed pretty drastically.
A roleplaying game involves players taking on roles of the character to develop the character through decisions the player makes. Mostly, tabletop RPG’s focus on creating a story. That’s what makes these games so popular and so much fun to play.
The original tabletop RPG’s were complex and took a lot of time investment to really experience what the games could be. However, today’s RPG board games make the gameplay much simpler and quicker to dive into without sacrificing everything that depth in character building and storytelling that made the games so much fun to play.
That’s what makes the games on this list so great. They contain everything that makes the original games so good without all the hassle. With that said, we’re going to focus on games that stick to the basic gameplay elements of the original RPG games that had character building and storytelling at the heart of the game.
This is easily the most popular RPG board game right now. That says a lot considering the sheer amount of board games being produced today. Since its release in 2017, it’s sold more than 200,000 copies. Frosthaven, the sequel to Gloomhaven, is the highest funded board game on Kickstarter, pulling in $3 million.
Gloomhaven is an RPG in the vein of D&D with a few adjustments. Unlike D&D, there isn’t a whole compendium of rules and spells to learn, it’s a more guided experience. You don’t have to spend time creating a character, there are a set of 6 characters to choose from at the start. It also doesn’t require a Dungeon Master to set the scene or decide events, the game has a very well thought out campaign that can span 150 hours.
All of this combines to form a sort of “D&D Lite” that people love. It’s easy enough for anyone to jump into but gives players the same storytelling and character-building experience that make RPG’s so popular.
#2: Mage Knight
This one is a close second to our top spot. It is pretty similar to Gloomhaven in having deep character building and a storyline to follow. Mage Knight gives a great sense of being a huge sandbox with not much determining what you can and can’t do which is perfect for emulating the RPG feel.
It doesn’t have quite as good of a story as the game in our top spot but it makes up for it in the amount of replayability and the number of options on how you can play. Solo play is fantastic in this game and most people would rank this as the best solo RPG board game you can get. On top of that, multiplayer can be cooperative or could turn into you and your buddies battling each other for the loot.
Overall, this game does a great job at giving the feel of a tabletop RPG while still being a board game at its core, with the simplified rules and decision making that make it so much easier to learn and play.
#3: Descent: Journeys in the Dark
This is a top-quality game (as are most games from Fantasy Flight) and one of the best RPG board games ever made. The first edition released in 2005. Many changes happened from the first to the second edition. The second edition ( which is currently available) released as a fully evolved version of the first edition.
The game perfectly implements the feel of a tabletop RPG. All of the decision making, character building, and scene-setting is brought to the table without having to become a rule book lawyer or an expert DM storyteller.
The game is completed over a 40-hour campaign and by the end of it, it’s worth the high price tag.
#4: Arkham Horror: The Card Game
This card game has tons of atmosphere and an awesome Lovecraftian vibe that really makes it unique. The storyline is downright weird and the immersive feel of the world makes up for the narrower character building. Characters are represented by their decks, with 5 characters to choose from in the base game.
Unlike some other games that use decks to represent characters, there isn’t much of a deckbuilding aspect during the game. You set up the decks before the game to play and some things can be removed or added but they are slight changes.
If you’re into the Lovecraft style story, this game shines with the expansion sets that it has. This is a line of “Living Card Games” from Fantasy Flight Games. These styles of games continually have new content released for them and the additions are very high-quality stories and scenarios.
This is a top notch story and Fantasy Flight gets the vibe down just right.
#5: Shadow of Brimstone
This is actually a set of games but the latest one seems to be one, Shadow of Brimstone: Swamps Deathly is the most popular. These games pretty much follow the same formula: explore mines that are randomized by a deck of cards.
The Wild West theme is the reason for the mines and a big part of what sets this game apart from the rest. Its theme is unique and is really well put together.
There is a lot of dice rolling and, because of that, there is a pretty high amount of randomness in this game. Not being able to control the outcome of every scenario may not sound fun, but it actually makes the game really exciting.
That randomness also gives a lot of variation to the character building in the game. Attempting to make the same choices and build the same character twice is pretty much an impossible task.
This game is super unique in its theme and adds some great character building, with a lot of variabilities thrown in to make it exciting. It’s definitely worth looking into as a big box RPG for your collection.
#6: Betrayal Legacy
This game came right from Wizards of the Coast, the makers of D&D, so the RPG vibe is definitely there. Betrayal at House on the Hill is the hit board game that this one is based on. Unlike the original game, this game has an overarching story and the game changes as you play it which makes it super fun and interesting to play. Pandemic Legacy was one of the first games to use this system and has become a staple board game due to its unforgettable campaign.
Betrayal Legacy does a great job of immersing you in your character as well as taking players on a wild ride through the campaign. The story is a little more on tracks than a lot of the other games on this list but the loss of freedom is substituted for a riveting series of events. The storyline takes place over 13 sessions and takes the players from 1666 through 2004 and is replayable as a randomized version of the original game (Betrayal at House on the Hill).
This is a little less RPG-y than some of the other games on the list but there is character progression and a storyline which bring together an excellent experience.
#7: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
Describing this game in as few words as possible is pretty easy: Deckbuilding RPG. The game combines the deckbuilding popularized in Dominion with storyline and character-building elements. The core of each character is embodied by a deck of cards. You gain new cards to improve the deck as you play.
This is probably starting to sound pretty familiar since we have several other games that use deck building for character building. Being the first one to do this style of game is what sets it apart. The game’s first edition released in 2013 and, since then, several games have taken to the game style because it works so well and is fun to play.
Pathfinder Adventure also uses decks of cards as an exploration tool, with a deck of cards representing the location. The game uses die rolls for skill tests, a mechanic that sticks pretty close to the original tabletop RPG’s.
This game made the list because it is the OG of RPGs. With that being said, since its release, many games have surpassed it for two critical reasons. The deck building and storytelling are not as strong as some of the other RPGs on this list. Some fans felt the storyline fell flat.
It still gets points for creating something new and being extremely successful. The game has released 4 box sets which stand to how much of a following the Pathfinder series has. This is a solid choice for an RPG fan if they’ve already run through some other games on this list or are just looking for a new deck-building fix.
#8: The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth
Some standout games (tabletop and video games) have been inspired by the Lord of the Rings series. Mostly because the universe that J. R. R. Tolkien created is just so captivating that you can’t help but be sucked into it. Its fantasy-themed roots come together with RPG gaming perfectly and, since Lord of the Rings is the king of the fantasy genre castle, it’s hard to pick a better realm to base a game around.
There is a decently deep character-building aspect to the game, through choosing a hero and roles which give talents and abilities. Like some of the other games on this list, the essence of your character is conveyed through a deck of cards.
The exploration and storytelling are great in this game, with a companion app that guides players through the campaign (and changes some details depending on player count). It’s a pretty open story as well, with players guiding it by interacting with different characters.
#9: One Deck Dungeon
If a compact, quick game is what you’re after, there isn’t much on the list that fits the bill. One Deck Dungeon is what you’re looking for. The best description for it is “a rougelike built into a board game”. It isn’t as RPG-y as most of the other games here, there’s not much character building (although there are 5 archetypes to choose) and the story is pretty much “you explore a dungeon and beat the boss”.
Don’t let that stop you though, this is a fantastic game for an RPG fanatic. Its dice-rolling, randomized dungeon crawling, and min-maxing connects it to the tabletop RPG’s that defined the genre.
All of that is stuffed into this small, inexpensive package. Cutting out all of the fluff takes some of the things that make the games at the top of the list so great but it is definitely convenient.
This game is a go to travel game for someone looking to scratch the RPG itch.
#10: Pandemic Legacy
This legacy style game is based around the board game Pandemic, which is one of the most popular board games ever. This legacy version is not only one of the best of its type, it’s one of the top games out right now. The narrative is the center of attention in this game and you don’t get a better story than this. There are twists and turns galore in the 60-minute sessions, which there can be 12-24 of depending on the decisions you make.
There isn’t as much character choice with this one, with about 5 different roles to choose from. Some biographies are included with the characters and the characters change some as the game goes on. The characters are based on the original game characters and match them pretty closely.
If you’re going for a game that is story-focused, this should be your #1 choice.
#11: Mechs vs. Minions
This is a game from League of Legends creators Riot Games and is based around the video game. So if some of the other games on this list would be considered “indie” titles, this is your Triple-A game with lots of funding and publicity giving it the kickoff it needed to become a hit.
The game feels top tier the moment you open the box with really nice components and packaging. Fortunately, the gameplay follows right along with that feeling.
The game involves a map of tiles that can be put in different orientations, an objective for your team to accomplish, and a mech which your character pilots. You build your mechs repertoire of skills through cards that you choose.
There is a story-driven campaign that you play through with a total of 10 missions. Each mission lasts about 60-90 minutes, so there’s a total of about 10-15 hours of game-time in this box.
There is one large caveat to this one, the story isn’t really impacted much on player choice. Because of this, it lacks some of the RPG feel since there really isn’t any meaningful decision making.
Overall, this is a great game if you’re looking for something high quality and fun to play in co-op but aren’t too hung up on player decisions guiding the experience.
#12: Mice & Mystics
The task here is simple: stay loyal to your king and save the kingdom. Except it’s a little more difficult since you just happen to have been turned into a mouse.
You pick a mouse character to control with ability cards, unique stats, and special power. The group chooses a mission and you’re on your way through a great storyline with some really good narrative that makes this game shine.
Another strong point of this game is its very simplistic gameplay. The movement and combat don’t take long to figure out and, for that reason, it makes a great RPG style game for smaller kids.
This is a good one to check out if you’re looking for an RPG game to bring to the table for a family game night.
#13: Sword and Sorcery
Rise from the dead and vanquish dungeons of enemies through a sprawling storyline. You can’t ask for much else in an RPG than what this game offers. There’s deep character building, an engaging story, and tons of little components that make this a joy to unbox and play.
However, this one is for the hardcore RPG fans. If you’re looking for something that is only a few steps away from the classic tabletop RPG’s, this one’s for you. There is a large rulebook with an encyclopedia’s worth of text that explains the subtleties of the mechanics, so it’s good to set this one up and play a scenario to get a handle on how the gameplay goes.
Even though the game is very complex (more so than most on this list), it’s worth playing for its all of the decision making, character building, and immersive story that you get out of the game.