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In the Venn diagram of book and tabletop game lovers, I’d imagine there’s significant overlap, and I fall right in that happy middle. Fans of books and games share an appreciation of good storytelling, dynamic characters, and chances to connect with others over play and imagination. Both communities have lovingly embraced the title of “nerd” and enjoy spreading the word about exciting new releases. So why not look for your next favorite game by finding play-alikes for your most beloved books? Check out these new and/or under-the-radar tabletop games to play based on your favorite books.
Last December, I had the good fortune to attend PAX Unplugged, an annual tabletop gaming convention held in Philadelphia. It’s a dazzling event full of gamemaker panels, tournaments, demos of new and upcoming games, and much more. I was stunned by the array of games on display and had the chance to try some that have since become regular fixtures in my game nights at home. In this list, I tried to focus on games that are new or haven’t already made it big. My goal here is to introduce you to something you haven’t already played a million times. I hope this list helps you discover something new that you’ll want to play for years to come!
If You Love Classic Mystery, Sci-Fi, or Romance, Play: The Plot Thickens
The Plot Thickens is a card game with broad appeal for readers of all stripes because it’s all about the power of storytelling. You’re dealt a hand of story components — characters, locations, objects — and use them to creatively weave a narrative with your fellow players. The storyteller who gains the most points gets to choose the ending. Released in 2023, it comes in three genres/editions: science fiction, detective, and romance. And I have it on good authority from conversations at PAX Unplugged that two more genres are coming soon. If you’re an insatiable reader of books from Agatha Christie, Beverly Jenkins, Octavia Butler, and other iconic writers in genre fiction, you’re going to love writing your own story in The Plot Thickens.
Time: 20-60 min.
Comes in Detective, Science Fiction, and Romance editions
If You Love Foodie Fiction, Play: Steam Up
I’m a big foodie. I love eating new things, cooking and baking, reading books that center food, and of course, playing food-themed games. So, it’s no surprise that this delightful Dim Sum game caught my eye on the PAX Unplugged show floor. You’ll play as characters inspired by the twelve Chinese Zodiac signs in Steam Up, where 2-5 players compete to feast on the most Dim Sum. The interactive steamer baskets and adorable tiny rubber Dim Sum (at least in the deluxe edition, which I highly recommend!) drew me to this game, but it’s the balanced game dynamics and unexpected twists from fortune and fate cards that keep me coming back for more. I’ve already introduced more than a dozen friends to Steam Up, and I’m still shouting about it from the rooftops. This game is a perfect choice for fans of delectable foodie fiction like Death by Dumpling or Arsenic and Adobo.
Time: 40-60 min.
Price: $50 (standard edition) or $67 (deluxe edition)
If You Love Out-of-This-World Sci-Fi, Play: Gravwell
If you can’t get enough of the danger and excitement of outer space, Gravwell is a must-play board game. You’re one among a flotilla of spaceships that have been sucked through a black hole, and all of your engines are down. But you can use the strangely behaving gravitational pulls of objects around you to force yourself back out of the hole. The trouble is, everyone’s trying to get out, and you might end up pushing each other in the wrong direction. I played this game with friends twice at PAX Unplugged because it was such an unexpected and engaging adventure, and I already can’t wait to play it again. Check Gravwell out if you enjoy sci-fi like Project Hail Mary and The Deep Sky.
Time: 20-35 min.
If You Love Charming Romantic Comedies, Play: Fog of Love
In this refreshingly inventive board game with infinite possibilities, you’ll roleplay as a couple stumbling their way from meet cute to happily ever after. (Or to a dramatic breakup!) From awkward misunderstandings to life-changing compromises, it’s got all the twists and turns of your favorite romance reads. Even better, Fog of Love comes with a thoughtfully crafted introduction to the game that teaches you how to play as you actually play. Will it be love at first sight? Enemies to lovers? Fated mates? Or even a heartbreaking scammer with an ax to grind? You decide! I especially love that this game comes in M/M, F/F, and M/F pairings, and if you want to really mix it up, you can buy the Love on Lockdown and Paranormal Romance expansion packs. If you’re a sucker for a rom-com like Red, White & Royal Blue or a drama-filled romance like Before I Let Go, you’ll love writing your own love story in Fog of Love.
Time: 60-120 min.
If You Love Fantastical Battles for Royal Power, Play: Queen by Midnight
Do you love books like Game of Thrones or Children of Blood and Bone, where royal families vie for power through deceit, violent battles, and magical spells? Then you simply must play Queen by Midnight. The Midnight Queen has died, and the princesses of the Twelve Lands must now engage in guile, wit, and outright combat to be crowned the next Queen before the clock strikes midnight. Collect cards to gain special abilities, clout, and health points, and forge alliances with other princesses to get you closer to your goal. It’s a gorgeous game with beautiful artwork and an iconic tabletop clock tower that rotates and keeps track of turns. The layered game of royal political intrigue is sure to become any fantasy reader’s new favorite.
Time: 60-90 min.
If You Love Portal Fantasies, Play: Portals
I admit that the name lends itself easily in this comparison, but Portals is an abstract strategy game perfect for fantasy readers. Like the best of games, it’s easy to learn but gives you lots of options for different strategies and techniques, making it something you’ll want to play again and again. The goal of the game is to find missing magician Dominick Dey, who disappeared during his travels between worlds. You’ll use the elemental stone powers of air, fire, water, earth, and time to fill key cards and become a more skilled wizard. But the stones you’ll need are shared with other players, and to win, you’ll need a strategy that both helps you succeed and thwarts your competitors. Even better, there’s a solo-play version that focuses more on the puzzle elements and less on the strategy of playing well (or cutthroat, you decide) with others. Portals is a great choice for fans of portal fantasy books like The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Labyrinth Lost.
Time: 40-80 min.
If You Love Nonfiction About Fascinating Figures in History, Play: HerStory
I’ll be the first to admit that at first glance, HerStory looks more educational than fun. But don’t let your own judgments about history-based games stop you from playing this surprisingly strategic and engaging board game. You’ll play as a historian writing what you hope will be a bestselling book about famous women in history. You’ve got eight chapters to fit in all your research, and whoever collects the most points for carefully crafting their book wins. It features 120 real women in history, with short bios and information on each. But in addition to the learning opportunities, it’s a well-balanced game that you can return to again and again with different strategies and approaches. Best of all, a portion of each game purchased is donated to the Malala Fund. If you’re always looking for nonfiction books about women who changed the world, like Wild Girls or Bad Girls Throughout History, HerStory is the game for you.
If You Love Superhero Graphic Novels, Play: The Arkham Asylum: Panic in Gotham City
I’m admittedly not much of a DC Comics girlie myself, but when I caught sight of The Arkham Asylum: Panic in Gotham City being demo’d at PAX Unplugged, even I couldn’t walk away. I’ve never seen anything like it. You’ll first construct the puzzle board to build a 3D version of Gotham City and unpack detective files on the mystery at hand. Then you connect your smartphone, and things get really interesting. The game comes to life with impressively crafted augmented reality, revealing secret codes, puzzles, and hidden rooms. It’s pricey, but you’ll be stunned by the high quality of the game and AR components. The challenges and puzzles are satisfying to solve, and the Batman storyline is compellingly written and voice-acted. It’s a top-tier escape room-style experience with a glimpse of a new future for tabletop gaming.
Time: 60 min.
If You Love Political Thrillers, Play: Zoo Vadis (coming April 2024)
Move over, humans, because the animals have taken charge of this zoo, and they’re campaigning their way to the top. Use lobbying prowess, negotiation, and maybe even a little trickery to win one of five spots in the star exhibit for your animal. I got a chance to play Zoo Vadis pre-release at PAX Unplugged, and let me tell you: this is a game where the rules are only limited by your own imagination. In order to win your fellow players’ votes to move toward the star exhibit, you can promise them literally anything, within the constraints of the game or not. Thinking outside the (game) box is heavily rewarded. But if you play dirty and don’t make good on your promises, this can also be one of those games that starts epic fights. If you like classic political thrillers like books by authors like Tom Clancy or more fantastical books of messy fights for political powers like The Jasmine Throne, you’ll love Zoo Vadis.
Time: 30 min.
Price: $54 (standard edition) or $79 (deluxe edition)
If You Love Regency Romance, Play: Apistocracy
Okay, you also can’t play this tabletop game just yet, but now is the perfect time to get on board early through their Kickstarter, launching in spring 2024! Apistocracy is a game of interpersonal wiles played across four weeks of social season in Victorian London. Make your dramatic debut, jostle for influence among the elite, and gain admiration from suitors in order to win season favorite. If you love the cheeky intrigue of books like the Bridgerton series and The Davenports, you’ll be swept off your feet by this charming, cleverly designed game from artist Heather Dixon.
Time: 40-80 min.
We hope you found some tabletop games to play based on your favorite books! You might also enjoy:
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