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Borderlands unfortunately proves great video games don't always make great board games

Not so badass.

Image credit: Monster Fight Club

We weren't even halfway through our third game of Borderlands: Mister Torgue's Arena of Badassery before we felt like giving up completely. Our guns were out of ammo, high-powered enemies had freshly spawned, and we hadn't completed any of the objectives due to bad luck. We pressed on and lost terribly.

The officially licensed board game is punishingly difficult and needlessly frustrating thanks to over-reliance on random dice and cards, lack of scaling difficulty and a messy rulebook.

It was a shocking disappointment. The Borderlands video game series has been one of our favorite co-op experiences for over a decade. My partner and I also love playing board games together, so a Borderlands board game should be a critical hit. At least, that's how I convinced myself to drop over £140 on the Kickstarter campaign, which would eventually reach nearly £2 million in funding.

But the looter-shooter board game experience has been less than ideal. Components are seemingly missing or poorly explained. Characters start off severely underpowered and at the mercy of random drops. And the bevy of status effects, critical hits, fumbles and passive abilities make for convoluted turns of hunting through the rulebook.

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It's partly my fault - I'm certainly not the first person to be blinded by my love of an IP and the ridiculous gobs of plastic and cardboard bits. I clicked the "Back this project" button before I'd even so much as watched a single gameplay video, of which there were distressingly few.

The Borderlands board game focuses on the weakest part of the video game - endless waves of arena fights - and transforms them into a series of scenarios. There's no world to explore, no fun characters to interact with: just loot and shoot.

Looting and shooting (rolling dice) can be a lot of fun, but the heavy randomisation of dice rolls and loot drops made me long for Gloomhaven's carefully balanced and strategic card-play. I don't expect a Borderlands board game to mimic Gloomhaven's gameplay, but I was at least hoping for something closer to Zombicide's elegant dice-chucking simplicity.

Borderlands board game Mister Torgue's Arena of Badassery pits players against waves of enemies, but has none of the fun world exploration or character interaction of the video games. | Image credit: Monster Fight Club

Video game board games can easily fall into a trap where the theme takes too much precedence over gameplay - such as Stardew Valley: The Board Game forgetting the casual joy of building a farm and making friends, instead of stressfully rushing to complete objectives before time runs out. In transitioning to the table, Dark Souls: The Board Game was burdened by repetitive grinding (its revised edition helped alleviate this, but introduced other problems).

Adaptations crowdfunded through Kickstarter campaigns in particular can fall victim to bloat, mismanagement and overproduction. Borderlands suffered from a one-year delay, which is almost par for the course for Kickstarter projects.

Video game board games can easily fall into a trap where the theme takes too much precedence over gameplay.

In the case of Divinity: Original Sin, it was a complete rework of the original design. Over 10,000 backers pledged to receive a unique adventure game based on the popular RPG series by Baldur's Gate 3 developer Larian Studios.

The Kickstarter campaign ran in 2019, to be delivered about a year later. After three years, backers still weren't sure exactly what kind of game they were getting. Ironically the version that's shipping now in late 2023 looks like a decent game, but undoubtedly changed from its initial incarnation, leading to lots of refunds and bad feelings.

Stardew Valley: The Board Game layout image
The Stardew Valley board game turns the chill, co-op farm game into a competitive challenge of objective-scoring.

One of the worst licensed game offenders is still shipping. Darkest Dungeon: The Board Game, based on the grimdark, eldritch horror roguelike video game that captivated indie gamers, earned an astonishing crowdfunding haul of over £4 million, with tentacled minis and mountains of expansions. But in 2022, Mythic Games sent out an update seeking additional funding to cover the shipping costs for all those minis and expansions.

Even if you're a crowdfunding neophyte (lucky you), I don't have to explain that asking for additional funding from your backers before they've received the original product is a major no-no, regardless of game quality.

Some of the most interesting video game board games don't try to replicate the exact gameplay, but draw from different themes and elements to create a new, yet familiar experience.

Thankfully it hasn't been all doom and gloom for fans of the overlapping Venn diagram between video games and board games.

Co-op shooter Deep Rock Galactic and gothic soulslike Bloodborne both make for surprisingly competent board games. Despite the daunting size of their source material, Skyrim and Horizon Zero Dawn have been well-received as solo-friendly tabletop adaptations, while the semi-older Minecraft: Builders and Biomes is a wonderfully engaging light to mid-weight eurogame that's perfect for gaming families.

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See Minecraft board game Builders and Biomes in action

It helps if your video game already plays like a board game, such as the case with sobering strategy-survival game This War of Mine and pastoral tile-laying game not-set-in-France Dorfromantik.

Some of the most interesting video game board games don't try to replicate the exact gameplay, but draw from different themes and elements to create a new, yet familiar experience.

A great example is the recently released Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Instead of replicating the gigantic 4X sci-fi strategy game with miniatures, hex tiles and faction expansions, the board game mixes strategic card drafting with light resource management. As a big AoW fan, I was shocked at the reduction in scope. But the result is a far lighter (and cheaper!) tabletop experience that stands on its own.

These days Age of Wonders: Planetfall is hitting my table more often than Borderlands: Mister Torgue's Arena of Badassery. I'd like to say I've learned my lesson about not being seduced by fancy video game IPs on Kickstarter, but then Archon Studios had to go and make a Heroes of Might and Magic 3 board game, complete with faction expansions.

Once again, my resolve (and my wallet) has been crushed against a wave of digital nostalgia and plastic miniatures.

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Eric Watson avatar

Eric Watson

Contributor

Eric has been writing for over five years with bylines in Pixelkin, Polygon, PC Gamer and Tabletop Gaming magazine, covering movies, TV shows, video games, tabletop games and tech. He reviews and live streams D&D adventures every week on YouTube. He also makes a mean tuna quesadilla.

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