by David W.
| published Monday, September 23, 2019
Put the phones down and pay attention, little ones. When I was a child, and a movie studio or network released a game to tie in with their newest blockbuster, you kinda knew it was going to suck. Like, the box would usually (but not always) have decent artwork and yet the game itself would be broken in some way: runaway leader problems, or it usually ended up in a pointless stalemate, or the rules had so many holes you had to houserule half the game. The designers, who probably had to churn those suckers out by the dozen, poor bastards, were never credited, as was usual in those days with major publishers like Parker Brothers and Hasbro.
For instance, there’s the original Battlestar Galactica game–I mean the one based on the 70’s TV starring the pride of Canada, Lorne Greene. The series was cheesy, a typical post-Star Wars cash-in by Universal Studios broadcast on ABC in the era when most people only got five or six channels. But the game was worse. It had nothing to do with the actual plot of the show, which was about a starship fleeing a marauding fleet of robot warriors. Instead, you and up to three buddies race (using a spinner to move) to capture a Cylon ship in the middle of the board and return it to your base. You also got to play cards to fire on your opponents (which makes no thematic sense, since you’re all remnants of humanity) and take extra turns and such.
And yet I played that piece of garbage for hours–solo. Remember, this was before YouTube and videogames and before I discovered wargames, so what else did I have to do in my spare time besides read and sort my hockey card collection?
With the advent of Eurogames in the 90s, some publishers and IP-holders took advantage of the new designing talent coming mainly out of Germany. I’m thinking of Reiner Knizia’s still-excellent Lord of the Rings and Rob Daviau’s Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit (the only good thing to come out of the first trilogy), both from 2000.
But as recently as 2008 we had the abomination known as The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle, which was just a reskinning of an Indiana-Jones-clone-themed game called Temple of the Monkey and which made no sense thematically whatsoever, let alone being a game full of randomness and take-that. Whoever was in charge of licensing the Princess Bride IP should have been fired after that, but it got worse. The Princess Bride: Prepare to Die was some kind of family-friendly Cards Against Humanity game that literally had only one fill-in sentence: “Hello, my name is ___________, you _____________, prepare to die.”
I’m thinking the IP guy did get fired after that, because starting in 2015 we finally saw a series of PB-themed games from Game Salute that were much better: the first, As You Wish was a decent table-drafting game with set collection. Then you had Miracle Pill, which had pass-drafting and more set collection. Finally there was Battle of Wits, a clever bluffing game. At least these three made more thematic sense, even if they stretched their premises a bit. And they were definitely better games.
In fact, 2015 seemed to me to be roughly the tipping-point year when decent movie- and tv-based games became more the rule than the exception. Maybe license-holders are getting pickier and are afraid that crap games soil their brand. (On the other hand…Legendary Encounters: Firefly…ugh.)
Here are four recent releases that embody the overall trend upwards. Two of them are by the same designer, two of them are one-vs-many, three of them are Ravensburger games. I don’t know if that’s significant but I thought you should know.
Jaws: Ravensburger hired Prospero Hall to design this, and they’ve got quite the successful track record of IP-based games. Last year alone saw their excellent Disney’s Villainous game launch, as well as an under-the-radar Home Alone game which, believe it or not, is a slimmed-down take on Android: Netrunner (I kid you not!). Anyway, Jaws plays out in two acts: the first is a Scotland Yard-type exercise on a map of Amity Island where the shark player is trying to eat as many hapless swimmers as possible before Hooper, Quint, and Sheriff Brody can track it down. The more Jaws feeds, the more powerful it’ll be in the second act, which takes place on The Orca (flipping the board over). This second act is more like whack-a-mole, with Jaws surfacing every turn to try and destroy the boat and/or the men before they can kill it. I never saw the original movie (!) so I can vouch for the fact that it’s tense and fun on its own merits.
Jurassic Park Danger!is the second Ravensburger game (this time designed by the cryptically-named Forrest-Pruzan Creative) and it, too, is one-vs-many, with one player as the dinos and the rest as your faves from the original movie, each with their own goal that they must satisfy and then get to the helicopter pad in time to escape. The board of hex-tiles fits a little awkwardly into the jigsaw frame, but it does mean a huge amount of replayability because it randomizes the geography of the electric fences and cliff faces as well as certain characters’ goals. Each round the dino player chooses a card but does not get to use it until after all the hyu-mans act first. The dino controls three beasties, though, and can use the card on any of them as well as choose one of three special actions to trigger every turn–although it must choose a different one each time. Interestingly, character death does not necessarily end in a loss for the human players: you can choose a new character to spawn and keep going, as long as you get the requisite number of survivors to the heli. But if the dinos kill three characters, it’s game over, man, game over. (Sorry, that’s just me pining for Gale Force Nine’s upcoming Aliens game).
Horrifiedis also a Ravensburg/Prospero Hall production and I must say I was at first surprised it has been such a hit for two reasons: (1) it’s a riff on movies from sixty-plus years ago, and it’s rare for IP that old to click so well with folks today (yes, yes, Lord of the Rings, Dune, blah blah blah, exception proves the rule); (2) in doesn’t really break new ground, gamewise, being mostly a standard co-op experience of the “players-act-then-baddies-randomly-activate” variety. Mechanically it reminds me in many ways of the solid 2016 Buffy the Vampire Slayer game, using item tiles instead of cards. But I think there are three things that make Horrified special: (1) the production design is amazing, with high-contrast colours that pop and artwork that screams old-timey movie posters; (2) you can choose the level of challenge by which and how many monsters you fight; and most importantly (3) the very VERY thematic ways each monster must be destroyed. Dracula is relatively easy: you smash all his coffins and then have a final boss fight. But for the Werewolf you have to chase down very specific ingredients to make the curing potion, and since items spawn randomly you can go down fast. Frankenstein’s Monster and his Wife are constantly moving toward each other but unless you’ve “educated” them sufficiently they return to their corners of the board and start all over again. Of the four games in this article Horrified is probably the easiest to teach and play.
Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heiston the other hand is probably the tricksiest of this quartet. The publisher on the box is listed as The Op, which turns out is just USAopoly in disguise. Yes, the folks behind umpteen Monopoly reskins and Bang! Halo but also the excellent Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle series. Neither of the designers (Sean Fletcher, Patrick Marino) has much of a pedigree, but they have crafted a loving homage to Die Hard that plays out in three acts which track the major events of the movie, from the explosion down the elevator shaft to taking out the tanks to ultimately pushing Hans Gruber out the window. (Of course that last one may not happen this time around.) Theme and mechanics are tightly interwoven, with John McClane trying to stay alive and foil the heist and the thieves trying to hold him off whilst hacking the six-level vault code. As you would expect, then, it has very asymmetric play. McClane’s deck is his life force: if he runs out of cards, he dead. Every turn he plays a card for its actions, and ensures that card returns in later Acts with even better powers. Any card discarded or not used by the end of the Act disappears forever. McClane also has to discard from his draw deck every time he takes damage, but he’s a lot more hardy than the thieves, who die after one hit. Meanwhile, the thieves have an ever-reshuffled deck to play from, but cannot communicate to plan their turn. Each of their numbered cards determine not only what actions they can take but also how far they get breaking through the vault locks. I think it’s an amazing game, but I loved the movie. The one guy I played with who never saw Die Hard didn’t care for it too much, so there’s a sample of one you can take into account or not.
So as we head into the final quarter of the year you can see there are many choices out there for high-quality games you can buy or play with your movie/tv-loving friends that (with luck) will draw them in. Which ones have you played lately?