Board Games and IP tie-ins

We all have a favourite show; we develop a deep love for the characters, we enjoy each twist and turn of the stories, and we all love to hate a villain. It does not matter whether it is comedy, horror, suspense, drama, or reality TV, it is all the same. If we are invested in a show it makes sense that we would love any board game associated with the show, right?

Intellectual properties (I.P.) are a challenging genre of game to get right. Yet some companies venture into this rocky terrain of taking a beloved franchise and developing a game around it for mass appeal. IP’s are a line of products that try to capitalise on the fact that we are already invested in product. I love and am invested in Game of Thrones, ergo I will want to play a game with those characters. How many of us feel empty when a season of our favourite show is over? Or in case of Firefly fans, when half a season of our favourite show is over. A board game offers a repayable adventure with your favourite characters, but it is not always as perfect as that. Board games based on established franchises are hard to get right. I would like to suggest three reasons; greed, confusion over horse and cart, and player expectations. Let’s look at them in turn.

Game of Thrones Board Game MonopolyGame of Thrones Monopoly, just one of many

Greed is the easy reason to understand. For the most part, it is probably the one we expect more than anything. Greed is when a corporation wants to use the power of the franchise’s name to make a quick dollar. As a consequence we end up with games like “Game of Thrones Monopoly”, or “Simpsons Monopoly”, “World of Warcraft Monopoly”, “Marvel Comics Monopoly”, “Minions Monopoly”, “Disney Princess Monopoly”, or “Star Trek Panic”.

Often little concern is made about whether the game reflects the IP at all. It is hard to argue that Batman Love Letter is all that different from The Lord of the Rings Love Letter. While the Love Letter games are significantly better than Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, or any of the generic classic games, it is still a game shamelessly utilising any IP it can solicit to make easy money. It is a core game that pays lip service to an established franchise demonstrating little regard for changing the game to better reflect the characterisation and world of the IP.

Essentially, this is about taking a beloved TV series, movie, or any beloved publication and forcing it to fit a game in the hopes that fans will buy it out of love of the theme rather than anything significant about the game itself. This is clearly not ideal, but in all honesty it is something many of us willingly accept. I like Love Letter, but I love playing Loot Letter, the Munchkin variant. I am also a fan of Oz Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx, Star Wars Empire vs Rebels, and Star Trek Catan. I enjoy the games and having the IP slapped on certainly does not hurt the game, so why not? While I wish I could stand opposed to the corporate norm of appealing to my most base need for consumerism, I am sometimes caught into buying a product just because it is attached to a show I love. However, this does not always work out that well and we all could point to a few games other than Monopoly that have done a disservice to an intellectual property. Yet while it may be an issue with companies not caring about the intellectual property there is perhaps a more complex reason that develops within the design process itself.

IP in board games Star Trek CatanTo boldly go where no game has gone before…

I said earlier that there is a “confusion over horse and cart” because sometimes it is not clear what is the horse and what is the cart when it comes to the design process. When designing games people often wonder if it is the theme that comes first or the mechanics. Few designers have one standard answer to this question. The reality is that it is often a mixture of both. As mechanics form themes can emerge, and as themes emerge mechanics become clear. With an established IP you are forced into one format of developing mechanics to suit an already selected theme. This can sometimes result in a mismatch of theme and game play, like Twilight Saga: Eclipse, or even the classic E.T. board game. Why have a great adventure story and then have a roll and move board game to go with it? But it must be hard to have the creative process restricted in this way. Even if you believe you have a great mechanic that could work you may be forced to drop it because it does not suit the theme.

The basics may be clear and easy, but helping it stand out from the crowd may be more challenging. Consider taking a show like Walking Dead and the game mechanics seem almost paint by number. But there in lies the problem. The basics are easy but how do you make it reflect and feel like the show? How do you help fans identify with what is happening in the game without making the theme feel painted on? But this taps into my final point on what we as players and fans expect from such a game.

Player expectations have to be an incredibly hard element to get right. The franchise is being used as a theme for a game because it has an established fan base. Often beloved shows are a deeply intimate connection. For instance, I can say my love for Star Trek is an intimate connection because no one else loves the show in the way I love it and for the reason I love it. I love Star Trek mostly because it reminds me of time spent with my dad. No game is going to replicate that. I also love Star Trek for the interplay of moral and ethical decision making that somehow reflects the world in which I live. It would be ridiculous to expect every Star Trek game to reflect that somehow. When you multiply me by millions and then tell a game designer to make a game on this beloved series with mass appeal there is a considerable hurdle to overcome.

Battlestar Galactica Board Game IPBattlestar Galactica, amazing show, pretty great game tie-in

I raise these issues not because I want to say that IP games are notoriously bad, but to praise the amazing work designers have done in creating really good games based on established titles. I have many IP games in my collection and it stuns me the hurdles they overcame to produce a game that I love playing. Battlestar Galactica is often placed on top 10 lists as a game worthy of regular play. It utilises the hidden role elements well to create suspenseful experiences that generates the same level of tense suspicion indicative of the show. Fantasy Flight has done an amazing job with the Star Wars franchise producing a string of hit games. They have developed the skill of targeting one part of a film, bottling the feeling that moment produces and selling it you in the form of a game. Love the fighter battles? Play X-Wing. Want to be a rebel infiltrating the Empire? Play Imperial Assault. Fantasy Flight has also brought the Lovecraft universe to life creating games that build the pressure of investigators taking on the terrors of the Elder Gods. WizKids has done well with Star Trek Fleet Captains, Frontiers, and more. The fact that there are games as good as these is no accident and they exist despite the overwhelmingly difficulties facing them. It is a credit to the design teams.

Next time you pull a game you love off the shelf that belongs to an established intellectual property, take a moment to appreciate the work the designers did to make that game awesome.