It Turns Out That Video Games Can Make Great Board Games, Too
<I>Gears of War</I>, in tabletop form: It sounds awful on paper, but it plays like a dream. Who'd have thought it?
Gears of War: The Board Game. Photo via Eurogamer
Bloodborne, FromSoftware's multi-award-winning gothic horrorshow of 2015, is being made into a card game designed by veteran board game designer Eric Lang. He says that it's "simple, but highly deep and interactive," based on the video game's Chalice Dungeons. Now, this is kind of a big deal. Lang has XCOM, Game of Thrones, and even Warhammer adaptations under his belt, meaning he probably won't just print "You died, fuck you" on every card and call it a day. When he says "simple," that won't mean "basic," and just as the original, digital Bloodborne was massively compelling, so you can expect the card game to follow suit.
But even if you're an avid fan of video games, you might never have considered their tabletop equivalents worthy of your time. Perhaps the news that Hidetake Miyazaki's London-after-dark simulator is getting a tabletop adaptation doesn't fill you with excitement. (Though it should.) To encourage you to creep out of your comfort zone a bit, put down the control pad, and invite some friends over to sit around your kitchen table, here are some of the best tabletop video game adaptations. Oh, and I've thrown in a couple that aren't explicitly based on video games, but will scratch a similar itch to their digital counterparts.
Photo via Shut Up and Sit Down
XCOM: The Board Game
Feels like: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Time to play: 1–2 hours
Number of players: 4
XCOM's official board game is a complete bastard, but a magnificent one all the same. It puts you in command of a single aspect of the first, last, and only defense against the scum of the universe, while your largely inept friends struggle to deal with their own roles in protecting the planet.
You and your buddies play as Central Officer, Commander, Chief Scientist, or Squad Leader. The four of you have to work together as a team to topple the alien menace, controlled by a mobile companion app.
The app is relentless. The app wants to make you suffer. It throws a series of tough decisions at you while the clock ticks down, its demands delivered by an increasingly burnt-out central officer.
The Central Officer's role is to look after the app, watching the remaining seconds as the panic starts to rise, getting increasingly passive aggressive as the other players continue to fuck up even the simplest of decisions.
XCOM manages to make even the most mundane of choices feel important. And on top of that, the Commander is in control of XCOM's budget, tasked with making sure that no one goes into the red. Nutshell: This is the most exciting accountancy simulator you'll ever play.
Feels like: Shadowrun Returns / Hearthstone
Time to play: 20–30 minutes
Number of players: 2
Asymmetrical multiplayer with one player taking control of an evil mega-corporation while another plays the hacker trying to bring it down, in a cyberpunk world that's part Johnny Mnemonic and part Shadowrun? That's a game most people would want to play. They might even, dare I say, pre-order it.
Netrunner is a physical card game, like Magic: The Gathering, but without any of the fantasy trappings. It's not based on a video game, but it touches on a lot of familiar themes. The flavor here is hard sci-fi, and the game can go deep. You probably don't know that the combination of Dyson Mem Chip, Data Folding, and Underworld Contact lands you a bunch of free credits, but it does, and it's just one of hundreds of tricks you're going to have to learn.
The two sides play quite differently: Corporations play a bluffing game, setting up defenses and punishing the Runner for diving too deep while trying to protect their agendas long enough to score them for points. The Runner takes a more inquisitive line, trying to avoid the heavy defenses and sneaking runs on the Corporation player to try and take his agendas before he can score them, which nabs the Runner the points instead. Confused? You'll work it out, and while hacking the planet can be tough, it's absolutely worthwhile.
If there's one problem with Netrunner, it's that, as a living card game, it's tough to keep up with. Still, you can buy the starter set fairly cheaply and just play with that until you've decided whether or not it's for you.
Article continues after the video below
Related: Watch VICE's film on Magic: The Gathering
Gears of War: The Board Game
Feels like: Really, you need to be told?
Time to play: 2–4 hours per mission
Number of players: 1–4
Bullets, brofists, and badasses. Gears of War seems like the most unlikely title to make the leap to the physical world. To bring a game like Gears of War to plasticky life, you need a rockstar. Enter Corey Konieczka, the designer behind the excellent Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars: X-Wing, and World of Warcraft board games.
His adaptation is simple, and it mixes the best parts of Gears of War with more than a touch of survival horror. Missions are taken from the game and could see you tackling a Berserker or just surviving a number of Locust attacks. Each mission takes two to four hours, meaning that completing every last one will take longer than finishing the video game that inspired them.
Playing it is a tactile experience. There's a lot of dice to roll and plenty of figures to move around. The bad guys are controlled using a deck of cards that acts like an AI. You draw a card at the end of your turn and it tells you who spawns, where to spawn them, and what they'll do once they're on the board.
You've got cards, too, representing your weapons, moves, and abilities. They're also your health, so you're going to want to be careful about using them.
Gears, the board game, feels like a decent facsimile of the iconic chainsaw-gunned shooter, although it's a lot less "bro" and more comparable, tonally, to a survival horror title. Once you get overwhelmed, you're hit with waves of panic, and one of your players going down shifts the balance firmly against you as you desperately try to revive your fallen comrade without getting your face gnawed off.
Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game
Feels like: Portal, absolute chaos
Time to play: 30-45 minutes
Number of players: 2-4
As you can't get a real-life Portal Gun just yet (alas), Portal's board game has to rely on the series's other big selling points: its wicked sense of humor and obsession with all things cake.
Portal follows in the footsteps of its digital brother by taking place in a series of test chambers. Players add their Test Subjects to the 15 chambers and try to avoid turrets, companion cubes, and other hazards, all the while trying to get their hands on that delicious cake. You need to earn as much cake as possible, while taking out your opponent's Test Subjects.
If that sounds simple, you've been misled. It's complete carnage. The reason Portal works is because it doesn't focus on portals, but on planning. Planning is unpredictable, partly because the game is complete chaos, partly because players can play cards at any time that change the rules of the game itself.
The miniatures included with the game are wonderful, with tiny companion cubes and turrets all looking the part. If you're big on the Portal universe, you can do a lot worse than picking the game up. If you don't like it, you can use the little pieces as ornaments. What's not to like?
Feels like: The Mighty Quest For Epic Loot
Time to play: 15–20 minutes
Number of players: 2–4
Boss Monster is a dungeon crawl in reverse, a tower defense where you're defending the bad dudes. Don't worry about grabbing some of that loot, because you play the treasure-hoarding monster that already has it all. What you're on the prowl for is adventurers' souls—but why hit the bricks when they can come to you?
The aim of the game is to make your dungeon as appealing as possible to the incoming adventurers, stuffed full of the particular treasure they crave, like some sort of malevolent candy store. Once you've lured them in, you have the length of your dungeon to make sure the plucky treasure seekers never make it out. The monster who makes it to ten delicious souls first is the king of monster mountain.
Play revolves around two phases. First, players can build a room of treasure bait with fiendish guardians or traps. Rooms are played face down and revealed when the action begins, making the set up a sort of silent auction of adventure allure. Comboing your rooms entices your victims in while making sure they never reach you. When building is over and the prey are let loose, spells can be used to add extra damage and protect you from invaders if they're deadlier than you expected.
There's an old-school feel to the game that'll remind you of classic 16bit adventures, with a simple rule set and a limited number of resources allowed in play anytime. That all makes it a great experience for your first foray to the board gaming table.
Don't assume it lacks depth, though, because balancing your rooms can be tricky. You want the best treasure on the table, but skimping on damage will let adventurers stroll right in and murder you, like you run a B&B for angry mages. Is that what happens at a B&B? I forget.
Follow Jake Tucker on Twitter.