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The human scoundrel character from Gloomhaven with all her kit on display. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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Board gamers have campaign fatigue, and publishers need to adapt quickly

Till death do us part, the trend of endless campaign play is killing my soul

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The campaign board game is not a new concept. It takes inspiration from tabletop role-playing games, presenting a unified story arc and character progression over multiple linked sessions. The popularity of this genre has increased with the success of games such as Pandemic: Legacy, Gloomhaven, and Kingdom Death: Monster. Many of these behemoths have been given life due to the success of crowdfunding, which has only further ignited the creative spark and endless appetite for this style of board game. I think we’ve finally reached a tipping point.

There are major obstacles when engaging with these types of games. Foremost, they require multiple players to commit to a lengthy journey. Some titles, such as Greek myth-punk Aeon Trespass: Odyssey and fantasy anime adventure Middara, require hundreds of hours to complete. I find this absurd. Signing on for a board game should not require an officiant and a license. To make matters worse, I’ve had instances where a regular group member couldn’t make a session. The energy and momentum behind the campaign began to fray and it all fell apart. Now, the half-finished board game sits on my shelf, staring me down like a judgmental gargoyle.

Role-players know this pain. But one chief advantage RPGs hold over campaign board games is that their length may be tailored to preference. Additionally, editorial control over the story is held by an individual, and can be refined and concluded with short notice. With a board game, you’re just stuck. It’s rigid and prescribed and you’re either buckled up for the entire ride or you’re missing out on the eventual climax.

The sheer quantity of these campaign board games is overwhelming. The crowdfunding surge has only reinforced such ambitious design work. There’s a new one each week, promising breathtaking story, mounds of components, and enough content to carry you to your grave. I’ve become exhausted. Just as my group began gaining steam in our Middara campaign, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice arrived and everyone wanted to shift to that. Beyond my obvious emotional fatigue, pursuing these games one after another has become extremely taxing financially. I believe this needs to change.

There is the inkling of a new movement, an attempt at curing these ailments. Oathsworn: Into the Deepwood is an exceptional boss battler in the tradition of Monster Hunter and Kingdom Death: Monster. Oathsworn is the first title I’ve encountered that made an earnest attempt at presenting a flexible campaign system that could adapt to its players’ needs.

In this game, each chapter of the campaign consists of a narrative-driven, choose-your-own-adventure story section, followed by a boss battle skirmish on a large board. There is a strong sense of world building as you progress and explore the rich setting, but each chapter contains an isolated narrative and confrontation. It fully supports adding characters just for a single session. You grab one of the available options and quickly level them up to the appropriate threshold for the adventure. This means you could simply flip to any chapter and play Oathsworn as a one-off experience. It also means players can drop in and out as the campaign progresses. This degree of design maturity results in an unusual amount of goodwill, as it’s more likely that some combination of players will be able to play through the entire massive box to completion. The approach here manages the best of both worlds, affording flexibility and casual engagement while also allowing dedication. Both methods are equally serviced and can co-exist. I want more of this.

Cover art for Legacy of Yu showing a warrior with a reed hat wielding a u-shaped weapon as they attack a water dragon. Image: Garphill Games

Legacy of Yu tackles the problem in an altogether different way. This new solitaire design has you rushing to build a network of canals to redirect a surging flood while also staving off barbarian attacks. In addition to the underserved setting of ancient China, the format is also unique in that it’s a non-linear campaign that is refreshingly brief.

Each session is a mere 40 minutes with extremely quick setup. The whole campaign can be finished in roughly 8-10 hours. It manages to eliminate the barriers of length and commitment common to these offerings, and even better, it pulls you along by retaining a sense of freshness through unlockable content. These additional elements, in combination with the non-linear play, make for an extended arc that is gratifying and repeatable.

A render of the components of Legacy of Yu, showing a placid rural setting with colorful boats and dwellings placed on the map. Image: Garphill Games

As a solitaire experience it faces inherent hurdles of repetition and lethargy — which it adequately overcomes — but the approach here to smoothing the wrinkles of the campaign format is absolutely rejuvenating. This bite-sized approach offers meaningful play while not swallowing whole swathes of time.

We may be witnessing the beginning of a trend. The short format continues with the upcoming Arcs from Leder Games, publisher of the immensely popular Root. Arcs is a space opera that has players rebuilding a dying empire. Each session lasts 60-90 minutes, allowing for relatively rapid play — certainly for this style of board game, at least.

The campaign format leisurely stretches to a mere three sessions. Each individual game builds upon the last as the group develops a shared emergent narrative. The most intriguing aspect of this approach is that players begin fielding symmetrical factions but evolve over time. Unique abilities are gained which leads to singular play styles through a special intermission mechanism occurring between sessions.

Early art for Arcs shows a white and red ship passing through a stylized starsystem, with one ringed planet and another planet hollowed out in some way. Image: Leder Games

This promises to provide a balanced structure that requires minimal commitment, paired with legitimate mechanical and narrative progression. While the overall methodology is roughly parallel to Legacy of Yu in terms of respecting player time, it integrates this accomplishment into a multi-player format that will support dynamic group play. This is the exact configuration that benefits most significantly in streamlining the campaign experience. In doing so, the hope is for a compelling design that is decidedly modern.

Commit to just one of the antiquated, hefty campaign games du jour and you will immediately recognize the enormous benefits in approaching the genre with ingenuity and shrewdness. The natural strengths of board games are attuned to casually pulling a contained experience off the shelf at a whim. In my estimation, the move in recent years towards extensive campaign settings diverges from the medium’s advantages and has begun to bloat the market with noise. With any luck, these creative advances will push the genre forward and alleviate these particular ills.

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