At the time of this writing, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is showing in multiplexes all across the country and receiving mostly glowing reviews (it has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But it is not the first time that the world’s most popular roleplaying game has made its way onto the screen. For that we would have to go all the way back to 1983, when the Dungeons & Dragons animated series aired on CBS. Though much of its plot, which concerned a half-dozen kids transported to a fantasy realm via a dark ride, is hard to map onto what we know of the venerable tabletop roleplaying game, the existence of the animated series is evidence of the massive pop culture impact D&D had at the time.
Honor Among Thieves isn’t even the first live-action D&D movie to hit the big screen. The dawning of the 21st century saw a previous—let’s say somewhat less successful—attempt to translate the franchise into cinematic form. Simply called Dungeons & Dragons, the 2000 film featured a cast that included Jeremy Irons, Marlon Wayans, and Thora Birch … and not a whole lot else that most folks care to remember.
Of course, throughout all this time, D&D has been a force to be reckoned with off the screen, even if its cinematic translations haven’t always pleased fans. Originally introduced back in 1974, D&D was arguably the first roleplaying game, and has certainly been the most prolific for most of its lifetime. Now on its extremely popular 5th edition, the game is a mainstay of roleplaying groups of all types and has given rise to countless imitators and creators who have added their own touches to the venerable game.
It has also led to innumerable spin-offs, adaptations, and attempts at merchandizing. Some of these make complete sense, such as a seemingly inexhaustible line of tie-in novels set in the various worlds of the fantasy roleplaying phenomena or a long string of (more and less) accurate video game adaptations, ranging from the old Mattel Intellivision system to arcades to popular computer games like the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series. Others are more inexplicable, such as the D&D big wheel released in 1984.
Of all these adaptations and tie-ins, perhaps the most logical are board games. After all, Dungeons & Dragons already resembles a board game in many ways, just with a board that is (potentially) as big as the world, and most of the pieces supplied more by imagination than pawns or tokens—unless, of course, you invest in the many miniatures and other supplements that have been produced for the game over the years. In fact, attempts to translate the world’s most popular roleplaying game into board-game form are almost as old as the game itself. The first such iteration came out in 1975, just a year after D&D was first introduced to the market.
In addition to official adaptations, which are licensed or produced by the makers of D&D themselves, there have also been countless other attempts at creating board games that reproduce similar scenarios, even without the official trade dress of D&D. Of these, one of the most famous (and, arguably, most successful) was probably HeroQuest, a game released through a collaboration between Milton Bradley and Games Workshop (makers of the popular Warhammer tabletop gaming franchises) in 1989. In fact, so beloved was HeroQuest that it has recently been returned to production, this time by Hasbro—who are, perhaps ironically, the current owners of Dungeons & Dragons.
However, for now, we’re only concerned with some of the official attempts at translating D&D to the world of board games. And for that, we’ll have to start all the way back in 1975 …
The first attempt to adapt D&D to board-game form was also one of the simplest and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most enduring. Originally published in 1975 with design contributions from many of the same people who had worked on the original Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon! removed all of the roleplaying and much of the combat from D&D, simplifying the entire undertaking into what was essentially a race for treasure. The game has undergone many permutations over the years, but it remains in print even today.
Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth
The next licensed D&D board game bore perhaps even less resemblance to the original roleplaying game. Blessed with some astounding cover art and released by Mattel in 1980, this “Computer Labyrinth” game involved a simple electronic game board that randomly created an invisible labyrinth which players would have to navigate through trial and error—once more, with the goal of nabbing a treasure and making off with it before the other player.
Published in 1992, this game, which owes an obvious debt in both style and design to the aforementioned HeroQuest, is one of the first D&D games to really resemble what we call “dungeon crawl” board games today, a subgenre born almost entirely out of attempts to recreate Dungeons & Dragons in board game form. Using a gridded board reminiscent of the one from HeroQuest and requiring a “dungeon master” similar to an actual game of D&D, Dragon Quest incorporated miniatures, including metal minis made by Ral Partha and fold-up paper standees to represent monsters.
Coming hot on the heels of Dragon Quest—it was published the very next year—DragonStrike was explicitly intended to act as a learning tool to introduce new players to the roleplaying game. It was also very ’90s, in that it came complete with a VHS tape that tells the game’s story while also teaching how to play. Like Dragon Quest and HeroQuest before it, DragonStrike required a gamemaster, making it somewhat more like the RPGs it was aping than a typical board game.
Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Series
2010 saw the launch of the most ambitious attempt yet to bring D&D to the tabletop. Castle Ravenloft, which adapted a popular adventure from the roleplaying game, became the first of what was known as the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Series of board games.
The premise here was simple enough: The games closely resembled many other dungeon crawl board games, including boasting numerous dungeon tiles and plenty of detailed minis, while also stripping down the rules of D&D and eliminating the need for a dungeon master, so that the board games became entirely cooperative. More importantly, however, all of the games in the Adventure Series were cross-compatible, meaning that, as the company released more games in the series, you could take your heroes from Castle Ravenloft along to adventures in the Tomb of Annihilation or the Temple of Elemental Evil—and vice versa.
Dungeons & Dragons: The Fantasy Adventure Board Game
In 1997, Wizards of the Coast, the company then best known for making the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, acquired the rights to Dungeons & Dragons and, before long, they were acquired themselves by Hasbro. One of the first attempts to bring D&D to board-game form that followed these acquisitions, The Fantasy Adventure Board Game nonetheless has much in common with what has come before, including simplified rules that strip out roleplaying in favor of combat. Advances have happened in the world of the dungeon crawl board game by 2002, however, and the Fantasy Adventure Board Game boasts more miniatures than many of its predecessors, as well as adjustable dungeon tiles that replace traditional game boards.