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Best Thematic Board Game Worlds To Get Lost In

Best Thematic Board Game Worlds To Get Lost In Feature

Board games have come a long way in recent years. While there is still a thriving community that loves an abstract cube pusher, myself included, there are now some absolutely fantastic thematic board games out there. After a bit of a chat with some of the Zatu bloggers, we’ve come up with this list of the best thematic board game worlds we love to get lost in.

Fantasy Flight Games - Thom Newton

One of the coolest things about modern board gaming is that we are no longer playing as a property mogul with a top hat on, with the only element of story being who wins a beauty contest.

One of my favourite thematic board game worlds to get lost in is the Arkham Files universe from Fantasy Flight Games. This is obviously very heavily based on the works of HP Lovecraft, and it spans a fair few games now, with a new one coming imminently! Each of these games takes a slightly different tack from the mythos of the Arkham Files universe.

Eldritch Horror has you travelling across the globe trying to stop the arrival of the old ones. Elder Sign brings down the scale and moves to more dice-based mechanisms, but the core idea is the same. Some cosmic big bad is coming, and you need to stop it.

Mansions of Madness feels a lot more intimate. Rather than frantically running around dual-wielding guns and shooting at snake people, you are moving around much smaller spaces and investigating the goings-on.

Of course, there is the hugely popular Arkham Horror Card Game. Players will be building up characters as a deck of cards and growing them as their campaigns play out. There is also an Arkham Horror board game as well as a real-time spin-off called Final Hour.

Between all of these games, you can get a real feel for the weird magical realm that has been created. There are recurring characters, themes, places, and objects that really enrich the experience.

And then just coming into port is Unfathomable, the new Arkham Files reskin of the fantastic Battlestar Galactica board game. Definitely one to keep an eye on!

Some worlds, you want to be a part of. Others? You’d observe from a distance, but avoid a real-life experience. Bloodborne’s world is one to definitely observe at a careful distance! Beasts, blood-based infections, unspeakable evils, and ancient gods with sanity-destroying knowledge. It’s heavily inspired by Mythos fantasies, but laced with other fantasy outlets. The lore is deep and mysteries so incredible. And with a video game, several graphic novels, and two board games, there’s plenty to get your teeth into.

My main reason for Bloodborne being my choice of thematic board game world is the dark mystery. Beasts born of a disease known as Ashen Blood tore through Old Yharnam, making it inhospitable. The Hunters' job is to rid the town of those affected with the scourge. The games themselves centre on players being Hunters and discovering the source of the disease. It ties into a lot of dark medical procedures and man’s desire to access dangerous knowledge… Often resulting in a loss of sanity or, if you’re really unlucky, an ascension into beasthood.

Where the board games come in and really steal the show is in their use of this lore. Bloodborne the Card Game has you playing as a Hunter at the height of the epidemic. You work as a “team” to take out beasts, bosses, and much larger and more threatening foes. Using Hunter tools and trick weapons, you’ll outplay your competitors to get the most Blood and score high! It’s loosely cooperative throughout and holds the IP’s inspiring theme at its heart.

Bloodborne The Board Game, however, steals the show. Wholly unique experiences and adventures lead players through truly atmospheric and thematic games. The core game is entirely cooperative. It forces players to work together and make decisions to best tackle the overarching goal of the chapter. With some beautifully designed miniatures, artwork, and flavour text. You’ve got a game that pulls on its theme and world so fantastically, you’d think it was the IP! Definitely a world to get lost in, but don’t lose your mind… the knowledge here’s forbidden for a reason!

Now, let it be known; I am not exactly backward in coming forward about how much I love Shards of Infinity. For its gameplay, mechanics, and look. An aspect I may have neglected is its setting and personae dramatis, which play an important role in the game and inform its expansions.

The setting of this thematic board game is a world where the Infinity Engine, the thing that kept reality in check, has shattered. Devastating the world and dividing the surviving inhabitants into four factions. Homodeus, led by the cyborg Decima; The Order, led by the shard-infused Tetra; Undergrowth, led by the man-plant symbiote Volos, and Wraethe, led by the warlord-tyrant Ko Syn Wu. The four of them are gathering their armies to decide who will hold dominion over the ruined world.

For all those familiar with the other Stoneblade biggy, Ascension, this is very much in a similar vein to their factions. But a) this is all futuristic/dystopic and b) is PVP. Or it was…

Until the fifth faction emerged. Aeon, led by a time-travelling, sword-wielding boy and his faithful dog, Rez (the boy, not the dog). Shards of Salvation introduced this Hero. Players unite against a common enemy and save the future… so they can take each other apart for dominion etc. later.

It may not be up there with Tolkien or Moorcock, but I do like the way this game’s story has developed through the expansions. Bringing in cards that play better with certain heroes, or relics that play with the heroes as intended. Or, drawn randomly (I’m all for random, me), or even a completely new bod. It’s also a story with an ending – there is only one expansion remaining, so...

I think there will be tears before bedtime.

Everdell - Tom Harrod

Boards games and escapism often stroll down the same path, hand-in-hand. That feeling of being able to shut ‘the door’ for an hour or two, leaving the real world behind. Theme, setting, tone, box art, components, narrative – they’re all part of the mix.

I’m not alone in when I first saw the Everdell art, I felt a sense of child-like sheer wonder, awe, and glee. After the first time I played, someone at the table commented that it had a Wind in the Willows vibe. And they were so right. Parts of Everdell hint at that quaint idea of Englishness. The quiet countryside, far from the noisy city. Relaxing by a riverbank, watching a lazy canal boat chug by. Reaching for a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade as a cheeky squirrel watches on. The distant chittering of birds, and spotting a snoozing vole in the warm summer sun.

Everdell provides a blend of hand management, resource management, worker placement, and engine-/tableau-building. The cosiness, however, is all in its setting. You’re building a tableau of cards, which represents your woodland ‘city’. Some cards are constructions (buildings like a school, crane, or a clock tower). Others are the critters that live here and work in said constructions – the crow teacher, beaver architect, or the bat historian.

The glue that sticks it all together though is the charming artwork from Andrew Bosley. Each construction having its representative critter is the magic formula. You can imagine this community living, liaising, and working together. The base game of Everdell, of course, sticks to a woodland location. Expansions such as Pearlbrook introduce an underwater habitat, but let's not swim before we can walk! There’s more than enough going on in the base game to get your imagination going.

Red Raven Games - Nathan Coombs

Arzium. The first thing that springs to mind is some weird element, nestling in the middle of the periodic table. But no, it is the shared universe of Red Raven Games, a wonderful mythical space created by Ryan and Malorie Laukat.

I have long been a fan of these designers. Their most well-known games, Near and Far and Above and Below, bring a fantastical thematic board game world filled with desert oases, lush pastures, mountains, and caverns. These games have a strong narrative element and within a few moments of play, you are transported to these different realms. Mythical creatures and animals all have personalities. The mechanics of these two games involve some worker placement, but players’ decisions determine the outcome. You make choices in each scenario, and this is where your personality and sentiment brings so much more to a game. It elevates the game from dry decisions, based on scoring opportunities, to more character development. How might players respond to a challenging situation? For these reasons alone, there is great replayability.

Red Raven more recently released Roam. This title, also based in Arzium, is a small step away from the bigger narrative games. It is an area-control challenge for up to four players. However, in good Laukat fashion, the same favourite characters return.

Arzium is a wonderful world of make-believe. It is not sugar-coated. There are conflicts, but it feels safe. It is a place to escape to and players will enjoy losing themselves in any of the above game titles. It will be interesting to see if Red Raven games continue to develop more Arzium themed titles in the future.

Editors note: This post was originally published on 16th Novemeber 2021, updated 12th June 2024 to improve the information available.