Why tabletop games should be considered “literature”

Processed with VSCO with g3 presetAn interchange of literature is the conversation of nations.

—Edward Counsel

When you think of literature, what comes first to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably think of classic written works like Pride and PrejudiceUlysses, or The Scarlet Letter. They might vary in date of publication or subject matter, but they likely have a few things in common: generally pretty old, probably written by white men, and if you’ve read them, you probably did so because you were required to in school. And, most importantly, they’re books.

As a holder of an English degree, I’ve given a lot of thought to the meaning of the word “literature”: what does it mean, really? What’s included under the literary umbrella? Does it include movies? Comic books? Does literature have to tell us something important, or reveal further the human condition? Or is it more open than that? If a book is just really cool, does it qualify as literature?

I tend to take a pretty wide-ranging view of literature. As far as I’m concerned, if it tells a story, it’s literature. Which means it includes just about everything. Books. Movies, too. Comic books, graphic novels, web comics, TV shows. I’d even be willing to entertain an argument that music counts as literature, if it tells a story or helps you see something from a new perspective.

Which is exactly why I think tabletop games are an important part of literature.

Literary influences on games

Even if you’re unsure of classifying board games as literature, you can’t deny that the two have an interesting relationship. In “How Board Games Got Literary,” Tobias Carroll gives a number of great examples of how board games have been influenced by books, from a print-and-play version of The Shining to a fascinating Orwellian amalgamation called 1984: Animal Farm. It also mentions a number of adapted works published by Fantasy Flight, which is doing a great job of licensing pop culture items and turning them into games that aren’t just reskins of old games, as the family game industry has built an empire on.


Games like Arkham HorrorGame of ThronesXCOM, and Star Wars: Rebellion all reference other types of media, forging a connection between gamers and the story told in a book, TV show, video game, or movie. Even Hearthstone has an H. P.-Lovecraft-themed set. Fury of Dracula, a number of Sherlock Holmes games, and a Pride and Prejudice card game draw from an older literary age. Tons of Marvel and DC games of all types appeal to modern comics fans and superhero aficionados.

The history of literature is the history of the human mind.

—William Hickling Prescott

Sometimes the conventions of books are used within games themselves, with Tales of the Arabian Nights and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective using read-out-loud paragraphs as the basis for driving the narration of the game.

(And if you support the idea of music as literature, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a GWAR minis game, though there seems to be little record of it.)

There’s really no form of literature that hasn’t been used as the basis of a tabletop game. But the relationship doesn’t stop with games taking themes from books.

Tabletop games as literature

Literature helps us temporarily inhabit a different world; sometimes it’s a far-away planet, sometimes it’s Earth during a different time period, and sometimes it’s the modern day that we’re familiar with, but seen through a different lens. And tabletop games can do exactly the same thing.

Let’s look at a very modern example: legacy games. As a rather recent phenomenon, there aren’t a whole lot to look at, but the very popular Pandemic: Legacy comes to mind immediately, as well as its precursor, Risk: Legacy, and the upcoming SeaFall. These games evolve as they’re played, with scenarios changing based on the decisions that players make during each play session. Players make decisions in the game that they’d never have to in the real world, forcing them to think about situations and circumstances they may not have previously considered.


These decisions affect how the game progresses, and it could even be argued that this is a more significant literary experience than reading a book, as the story is driven both thematically and physically by the players’ choices. While the degree to which they’re transported into this co-created universe of story is ultimately up to the players, there’s obviously a literary experience going on.

Going back a little further, we can look at another example of how tabletop games have encroached upon the space predominantly held by literature: role-playing games. RPGs explicitly task players with making decisions for their characters when put into all sorts of crazy situations; slaying dragons, out-thinking dystopian megacorporations, battling ninjas, waging war on distant planets, and anything else you can think of. The game master tells you what’s going on—echoing narrative exposition—and you make decisions as to how your character will proceed.

Again, it’s clear that the ultimate goal, spending time in a co-created universe of story, is much the same as that in traditional literary endeavors.

Even further back, we can look at some of the first games played by people: senet and the Royal Game of Ur. Both of these board games, which reach back up to 5,000 years from the present day, told religious parables. In senet, landing on the square that represented the House of Repeating Life gave the player an extra turn, echoing the Egyptians’ beliefs in repeating life after death. The House of Rejuvenation simulated the preparation of a body being mummified after death, also giving an extra turn.


In Egyptian belief, sinners were cast into the netherworld and entangled in executioners’ nets, where they would be tortured and killed with fire. Landing on the House of Netting square then, predictably, was a bad sign: you’d lose a turn. Many games throughout history have used religious iconography to tell stories and impart lessons to players . . . which sounds an awful lot like literature.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

—Neil Gaiman

Whether or not you agree with my rather liberal definition of literature, you have to admit that a lot of board games—especially modern non-euro games—are very story-oriented. Even those that aren’t, like many eurogames, which tend to place a much smaller emphasis on theme, can be said to tell a story. If you play Settlers of Catan, it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a story about the people who are settling this island, and work the progression of the game into your story. Even if it’s vague and not fully formed, maybe not even verbally acknowledged, it’s a story nonetheless.

Carcassonne, another popular entry-level eurogame, could also be “storified.” Rival city planners carving up the countryside in an effort to gerrymander political maneuverings and earn themselves the most wealth . . . or simply trying to use space most efficiently and create the most aesthetically pleasing arrangement. Which story appeals to you more? No matter what it is, you can run with it.

And if the game you’re playing allows you to develop a story, even just in the back of your mind, I think it’s fair to call it literature. In fact, I think this story-building is crucial to our enjoyment of games as a hobby, and one of the reasons that games have persisted as a strong cultural force for so many centuries.

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

—P.G. Wodehouse

But that’s a story for another day.

Image credits: Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr.


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