I’ve been a fan of Dungeons & Dragons for most of my life. Everything about it. Board games, video games, trading cards…pretty much everything about Dungeons and Dragons except for the actual game of D&D.
I watched the Saturday morning cartoon. I collected D&D trading cards. And I played video games based on the Dragonlance campaign setting. (By the way, do yourself a favor and never play Heroes of the Lance for NES.)
Yet somehow the RPG that all of these things were based on evaded me. Heck, I even watched the fear-mongering, propagandist, made-for-TV movie Mazes & Monsters (starring a young Tom Hanks!). And that was before I ever even played my first proper game of Dungeons & Dragons.
I didn’t feel left out by not being able to experience it, though. I loved Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson’s seminal tabletop role-playing game, even though I'd never thrown a die. In all honesty, I don’t think I even knew what D&D really was when I was a child.
At one point I got a hold of TSR’s (the company that owned Dungeons & Dragons until 1997) DragonQuest board game in 1992, and thought that was the true D&D experience. Turns out it was a flimsy marketing ploy meant to introduce players to the D&D universe. Not so much the game.
D&D Board Game Fun Fact!
It was because of TSR's DragonQuest board game that Japanese software company Enix had to change the name of its flagship RPG series, Dragon Quest, for the NES. The series had to be known in the West as Dragon Warrior, and that remained the case until Dragon Quest VIII was released on PlayStation 2 in 2004, a handful of years after TSR sold the rights to D&D to Wizards of the Coast.
During this period, I admired the art of the trading cards I collected while shrugging off names such as “Ravenloft” or “Al-Qadim” or any other reference to the actual game. I bought a 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual merely to admire the art and monster descriptions.
My superficial love of D&D hit its apex when I began to purchase pewter figurines of fantasy characters from local Hobbycraft stores. I had no idea they were meant to be used while playing the tabletop RPG. (How was I supposed to know that? They weren't in the board game!)
Perhaps this was all going according to TSR’s plan at the time. Sow the seeds in children’s minds to make them fans for life…or something like that. I was probably a bit too young to enjoy playing the actual game of Dungeons & Dragons at the time. I did, however, eventually get into playing some fantasy board games more akin to Monopoly and LIFE than D&D.
When I was around ten years old, I played Milton Bradley’s HeroQuest board game for the first time at a friend's birthday party where he received the game as a gift. The box art of a barbarian warrior and his companions battling against goblins and mummies set my imagination ablaze.
We had just enough time to play the game with a full party after spending the day at Peter Piper Pizza. We unboxed all of the pieces and dove in.
This board game immediately deviates from the TTRPG Dungeons & Dragons by making the players designate one person as the evil wizard Zargon, who acts as a purely antagonistic “gamemaster.” This is in pretty stark opposition to D&D’s Dungeon Master, who is meant to be a neutral arbiter and referee.
The remaining players choose between four characters who will attempt to thwart Zargon’s evil schemes and escape from his dungeon. The birthday boy immediately jumped at the chance to be Zargon. Which was great. That meant I could play as that badass barbarian on the cover. Who needs magic when you have a big, sharp, shiny sword, right?
Things started out well enough, but quickly devolved. The heroic party met its end through a combination of falling into traps and having poor encounters with enemy creatures. Despite our demise being caused by sheer bad luck, tempers flared. Voices were raised. Parents were called.
We started the game as heroes…and ended it grounded. My first attempt at HeroQuest was a failure, but I played it many more times afterwards. It remains a nostalgic favorite of mine.
HeroQuest being inspired by D&D didn’t stop TSR from producing its own HeroQuest knock-off in Dragon Strike. How's that for turning the tables? A board game for Dungeons & Dragons that's based off another board game that is, itself,
a knock off based off of Dungeons & Dragons.
Dragon Strike featured slightly more complex combat utilizing several different types of dice. It also came with four different boards, while HeroQuest only had one in the core box. Most importantly, however, was the inclusion of a VHS tape that acted as a tutorial for new players.
The VHS tape included with Dragon Strike is required viewing not only for the person acting as the game’s “Dragon Master,” since it contains hints for how best to guide the players, but also for anyone who wants some good, cheesy entertainment. A significant amount of time is devoted to a live action recreation of an adventure in one of the game’s dungeons.
And it is a doozy.
Featuring actors such as Deron McBee (Malibu from American Gladiators) portraying D&D archetypal character classes, the Dragon Strike VHS tape is a blast from start to finish. Its green screen effects are lacking, but somehow the cheap-looking scorpion-man is still more impressive than the big budget Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns. The game itself is a fun step up from HeroQuest, but the VHS tape is the real draw here.
Feeling a bit more courageous after playing several fantasy-themed board games, I naturally set my eyes on Milton Bradley’s follow-up to HeroQuest, this one titled Battle Masters. If HeroQuest is a simplified version of Dungeons & Dragons, then Battle Masters is a simplified version of Warhammer. The game is played on a rather large vinyl mat with dozens of plastic pieces representing the Imperial and Chaos armies. I was not prepared for Battle Masters.
With so many other distractions vying for my attention and friends who would rather play video games or sports, it was difficult to justify the enormous amount of time it took just to set the game up. When all was said and done, the real action in Battle Masters took place between me and my cat. They would furiously swipe at the plastic pieces and tear up the vinyl map.
The game was impressively produced, there’s no doubt about that. I managed to complete a handful of matches and really enjoyed it. It was too big an investment for me at the time.
It’s a shame, too, because my mom painstakingly hand-painted each plastic figure before giving me the game as a birthday present. While I didn’t get a ton of use out of the game itself, I proudly displayed the painted figures on my shelf for several years.
Coming Back Full (Arcane) Circle
By the time I was a teenager, I mostly stopped dabbling in anything tabletop-adjacent. I watched my anime, played my video games, and spent any of my remaining time lazing about the house.
Admittedly, I did play a fair number of video games based on the D&D license, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized just how baked-in the rules of the actual tabletop game were in those digital RPGs. (Baldur's Gate uses THAC0!)
As an adult, I am now enjoying the occasional game of true D&D, and it’s strange to feel nostalgia for something that I never truly experienced before. The worlds and concepts are new and exciting, yet oddly familiar. Part of me wishes that I had jumped into the world of proper tabletop games sooner. But I also deeply appreciate the simplified board games that acted as my baby steps toward a different form of entertainment.
Dungeons and Dragons Board Games Now
With its resurgence over the past few years, there has also been a resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons board games. One of the best is called Adventure Begins, and it's a sort of Fifth Edition Lite game. Players take turns DMing through simple dungeons that use cards for actions and has basic leveling-up rules. There is also Tomb of Annihilation which is a bit more complicated (though not quite as much as the pseudo-D&D board game Gloomhaven). And if you want a quick, silly card game, you cant go wrong with Dungeon Madness.
All of these new games are great, and I've had a great time playing them. But no new Dungeons & Dragons board games will ever hold the place in my heart that the old ones do. While I can't say they're better, they're what brought me here. And that means something.
This article was originally published on Patreon in Geek to Geek Magazine #9 as “Baby Steps Toward Dungeon Delving.”