D&D: The Board Game?

Dungeons & Dragons' classification has sometimes befuddled stores in how to place it on shelves. Is it a book? A game? A toy? Some settled on treating it as a board game. That's a classification increasingly obfuscated by the fact that D&D actually spawned several board games.

Technically, a Tabletop Game

Board games share something in common with the original D&D: they both took place on a tabletop. These days, emphasis on "theater of the mind" styles of play don't require a tabletop at all, but early D&D -- itself a direct descendant of Chainmail -- assumed graph paper and miniatures. Both implied that they were centered on a table in front of the players, and co-creator Gary Gygax's games reflected just that, with up to 20 players at his sand table.

Why a sand table? Gygax was a wargamer before he helped invent D&D, and sand tables were a malleable form of gaming terrain commonly used for both military strategists and wargamers to easily create maps to scale. Wargaming and its connection to military planning goes as far back as Kriegsspiel, specifically "Free" Kriegsspiel which included a "confidant" analogous to modern game masters. Edward Burnett Tylor made the connection between board games and Kriegsspielin the June, 1879 edition of Popular Mechanics:

The other hint is that board-games, from the rudest up to chess, are so generally of the nature of Kriegspiel, or war-game, the men marching on the field to unite their forces or capture their enemies, that this notion of mimic war may have been the very key to their invention.

The idea that dungeon crawling is in itself like a board game was not lost on Gygax's peers, who created a board game to mimic dungeon crawling.

The Original D&D Board Game

The first proper D&D-style board game wasn't created from D&D but developed in parallel. Dave Wesely inspired both Dave Arneson and Dave Megarry with his freewheeling Braunstein campaign, which transformed a standard wargame into one with player agency.

Wesley's Braunstein inspired Arneson's Blackmoor, which in turn inspired Megarry to create the DUNGEON! board game It was originally based off of The Dungeons of Pasha Kada. Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:

This fragmentation of the Blackmoor campaign even resulted in the invention of an entirely separate and novel game: the underworld component alone inspired “The Dungeons of Pasha Cada” by David R. Megarry ( who played the King of Prussia in the Strategic Campaign), a boardgame which isolates the dungeon exploration mode of Blackmoor.

DUNGEON! turned dungeon exploration into a competitive board game:

DUNGEON! combined the dungeon exploration mechanic with the familiarity of a parlor board game and the simplicity of an eight-page rulebook. No longer does a referee carefully guard the secret plans to the dungeon— the dungeon is clearly printed on the board for everyone to see, and no referee governs play. Two ordinary six-sided dice resolve all combat. It is furthermore a competitive game, with concrete victory conditions. Players take turns moving their pieces (Elves, Heroes, Super-heroes or Wizards) through the dungeon attempting to accumulate treasure. The first to acquire a set total of gold pieces wins, but this total varies with the power of the piece, so Elves and Heroes require less than Super-heroes to win, and Wizards need the most of all. As players explore the dungeon and enter rooms, they encounter random monsters who guard random prizes, both drawn like the Community Chest in Monopoly from card decks. The dungeon has six levels, and the farther one descends, the greater the dangers and rewards: the “monster” and “prize” cards are coded by level.

DUNGEON! may have been the first of the D&D-style games, but it certainly wasn't the last.

Modern D&D Board Games

The 4th Edition of D&D has been criticized for its elements that emphasize grid-based combat over role-playing, so it's perhaps no surprise just how much the D&D Adventure Board Games have in common with 4E. Adventure board games, a term Wesley preferred over "role-playing game," were part of the growth of Wizards of the Coast under parent company Hasbro, itself a major producer of popular board games. The WOTC-produced board games, including Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, and The Legend of Drizzt, each feature common 4th Edition rules such at-will vs daily powers, healing surges, and save-ends effects.

Is D&D a board game? To the extent that it can require a table and miniatures, it could be. But D&D has moved so far beyond its original roots that a board game is no longer sufficient to encapsulate the D&D experience. Instead, board games have adopted D&D's traits, with their own hit points, level systems, die rolls, and treasure quests. Even though they focus on only one aspect of D&D, adventure board games and their ilk bolster brand awareness for the role-playing game, and that's a good thing.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca



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